Australia’s landscape has been significantly changed by the actions of the Aborigines and European settlers. To the Aborigines, the land was not only a physical provider of resources but also the foundation for their spiritual beliefs. The Dreaming, a dynamic belief system that describes the Aborigines’ creation story, rituals, and social codes, instilled a cultural dedication to maintaining the environment for future generations. Rock art provides a glimpse into Aborigine perceptions of the landscape and how those changed across space and time. Arid-climate ecosystems like those present across Australia are sensitive to disturbance; the Aborigines adapted to ecological limits by maintaining a semi-nomadic lifestyle centered on family groups and using a variety of techniques, from foraging and hunting to fire, to gather and maintain a variety of resources. Group stewardship of the environment produced a balance between extraction and conservation that allowed both Aborigines and ecosystems to survive.
Beginning in 1788, British colonization by convicts and free settlers resulted in the disenfranchisement of the Aborigines and extensive environmental degradation. Revealed through explorer records and missionary accounts, settlers did not understand the Aborigine lifestyle or their system of territorial control, and thus interpreted Australia as a “terra nullius” or empty continent ready for commercial exploitation. Using a variety of methods, such as treaties, charters, militia operations, and an emphasis on legally documented private ownership, the British barred the Aborigines from reclaiming their territory. Commercial export agriculture, including monocrop farms and extensive ranches, became a hallmark of the colonial Australian economy. Intensive agricultural production used irrigation to boost harvests, but at the expense of ecological vitality.
The focus on agricultural production in an arid country resulted in severe erosion, deforestation, soil salinization, and water pollution beginning in earnest in the 1840s. Settler photos reveal an awareness of the impact of early changes to the landscape, but the colonial focus on economic production meant environmental mitigation was not pursued until the accelerating effects of widespread ecological destruction became apparent. Australia in the twenty-first century is struggling to formulate a comprehensive response to deal with ongoing environmental degradation. It is possible to adapt some of the Aborigines’ resource management techniques to fit within contemporary systems, though the increasing pressures of climate change require that people be flexible and willing to sacrifice in order for conservation and restoration efforts to succeed.
Copyright © 2015 Emily Pettit
Pettit, Emily J. (2015) "Aborigines' Dreaming or Britain's Terra Nullius: Perceptions of Land Use in Colonial Australia," Iowa Historical Review: Vol. 5: Iss. 1: 23-60. https://doi.org/10.17077/2373-1842.1030