STEVE ANDREW discovers the extent of the terrible assault on Aboriginal lands, people and culture by settlers to Australia.
TERRA Nullius comes from the Latin for no-one's land and was the term often used by white European settlers for the large parts of the planet where they needed to justify occupation of territory and the extermination of indigenous peoples that they found there.
Sven Lindqvist's latest book concentrates on how this programme for nothing short of genocide affected the aboriginal people of Australia and, as you'd expect, it's a fairly traumatic read.
Earlier policies of outright slaughter were later supplemented by more "subtle" strategies involving forced resettlement and the destruction of families, but what never fails to shock is how much of this brutality took place within living memory.
The worst examples of land theft, for example, only occurred when areas once deemed as useless and thereby suitable for aboriginal habitation took on a new significance in the eyes of settler society because of the raw materials that they possessed.
Likewise, is it surprising that police racism is an enduring legacy when we find out that, up until the 1960s, the use of neck irons by officers was still being defended on the basis that this was what the Aborigines themselves preferred.
One of the strengths of the book is that Lindqvist is keen to explore how the settlers could carry on defending such behaviour. Enter a whole army of explorers, anthropologists and sociologists, all of whom were more than happy to create umpteen myths about aboriginal society lacking family structure, culture, art or religion. Aborigines were seen as barely human and possessing of a complete inability to adopt more civilised ways of living, meaning that it was better for everyone if they were to disappear.
It's an all too familiar story, but one which is worth remembering when revisionist "academics" start to challenge the realities of aboriginal suffering, something which, incidentally, they first started to do with some success in the 1970s.
It's not all doom and gloom, though, and Lindqvist points out that the continued survival of the aboriginal peoples has been nothing short of miraculous.
While even more sympathetic commentators such as Darwin and Engels had been inclined to view an end to aboriginal culture as an evolutionary inevitability, people's will to resist, as exemplified by the civil rights movement and the more recent artistic renaissance, have all given cause for hope.
Lindqvist also draws attention to changing attitudes among white Australians and takes heart from the fact that a willingness to apologise for past events and to start tackling the worst aspects of present day racism are by no means the minority interests that they once were.
How questions of responsibility and atonement are ever to be resolved is not something that Lindqvist pretends to know, but providing some sort of framework in which that debate can take place is one of the book's greatest achievements.
In fact, the only real fault with Terra Nullius is the distinct absence of voices drawn first hand from the aboriginal community.
Lindqvist is an engaging writer, he's done the necessary research and covered thousands of miles in pursuit of the truth, but, in a book which often documents the almost voyeuristic attitudes of earlier writers, why do we never hear about what today's Aborigines are really thinking?
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