Notes for a dictionary of dispossession

Language shapes our thought. Examined carefully, it reveals our attitudes. For both reasons, looking at the language around the arrival of Europeans in Australia is worthwhile.

wordle for a dictionary of dispossessionThese are notes for a dictionary, a collection of words and concepts arranged somewhat logically. English is a rich and flexible language. Where we have multiple choices for an idea, as we usually do, each of them has a slightly different meaning and cluster of connotations. Teasing them all out is slow, patient work.

These notes are a starting point and the rest is up to each of us. (FreeDictionary has a nice graphical thesaurus which may help anyone so inclined.)

The primary questions arising from each group of words are, “What are the hidden implications of each term?” and, “Why did, or should, we (or anyone else) use one word rather than another?”

Many words used constantly in the past were derogatory and some are now considered so offensive that I won’t list them (I will just add ‘and worse’ to a list). I will, however, include some words which I, and most people, would never use. That doesn’t mean I approve of them at all, but they need to appear just to remind us of words in everyday use 50, 100 or 150 years ago. Sadly, some of them, and some of the ‘worse’ terms, can still be heard today.

Who are we talking about?

The whole notion of ‘race’ is deeply flawed and highly contentious but it can’t be avoided here because it was fundamental to the world-view of the colonisers/invaders. They saw three broad groups with a few smaller groups on their margins:

white, English, British, European
None of the new arrivals thought of themselves as ‘Australian’ for decades. They identified as English or as residents of the separate colonies, ‘Victorian’, etc.

black, indigenous, native, aboriginal, heathen, full-blood, myall, blackfellow, savage, abo, (and worse)
Torres Strait Islanders are also indigenous but are ethnically and culturally distinct.

Chinese, Asiatics, Chow, (and worse)
A group of settlers/migrants whose numbers and importance are often forgotten. Most of them came for the gold rushes, 1850s onwards.

Kanakas, South Sea Islanders
Melanesian and Polynesian people brought in to Queensland as indentured labour, mostly 1860-1900.

Smaller groups of non-European newcomers included Malays, Afghans and the like.

gin, lubra, buck, piccaninny
The first two are originally aboriginal words and the others aren’t, but they are all now considered offensive. Boy, meaning an indigenous adult employed by Europeans, could be added to the list.

half-caste, coloured, quarter-caste, mixed blood, touch of the tar brush, (and worse)
Before long, there were children of ‘mixed race’, in or out of marriage or other permanent relationships. We have plenty of words for them but all of them are now considered derogatory, and perhaps they always were.

Our usual current practice is to allow people to “identify as” whichever ancestry (ethnicity) they feel closest to. That is in line with UN guidance and it tacitly acknowledges the complex mixed ancestries in the community. Almost by accident, it is a good step towards seeing ‘race’ as a social construct, which it always was, rather than a scientific fact.

Their roles in the colonisation and conflict

pioneer, invader, settler, colonist, migrant, squatter

inhabitant, tribesman, nomad, warrior, native police boy, tracker

soldier, police officer, shepherd, stockman

Whose land?

ownership, possession, custodianship, sovereignty, dominion

freehold, leasehold, ‘the commons’, crown land, public land

Perhaps ‘ownership’ is the closest we can come in English to indigenous Australians’ relationship between people and land, but it would be communal ownership, not private ownership. ‘Common land’ (Wikipedia, On the Commons) is a somewhat similar European model.

missions, stations, reserves

Naming the place and the people

Australia has existed as a geographical entity since sea levels rose ~8,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. (It was part of Sahul, a bigger land mass, before that.) It has existed as a geographical term since Flinders named it, about 1800. (Europeans used other names for the continent before then but indigenous people had no name for the whole of it.)

Australia has existed as a political entity since Federation in 1901 created the first national government. Strangely, Australians did not hold Australian citizenship until 1948. Bizarrely, English law made all of them (including indigenous people, many of whom were fighting the colonists) legally British subjects from the moment the land was claimed for England. The details are complicated. Wikipedia to the rescue: Australian nationality law.

What happened?

colonised, settled, invaded, conquered
Two of these recognise prior inhabitants, two don’t.

displaced, forced out, dispersed
All imply that the people were still alive and simply went somewhere else, but the latter was often not possible even if the former was true. In the NT, at least, dispersed was a standard euphemism for killed.

extermination, pacification, frontier wars, genocide
although genocide was not used in the colonial era because it was not coined until the 1940s.

skirmish, massacre, punitive party, ambush, frontier justice

killed, speared, shot, clubbed, bayoneted, executed, murdered, massacred

assimilation, marginalisation, segregation, discrimination, exploitation


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