The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 34
The Battle for Australia:
Salvation and Conquest

Marion Maddox

In 1788, European invaders began settling the continent of Australia, which, for upward of 40,000 years, had been occupied by people whose descendants today represent the world’s oldest living cultures. Over the next 150 years, the Indigenous population shrank by somewhere between 80 and 96 percent, through the combined forces of murder, sexual violence, and disease. Entire nations, and their languages and cultures, were wiped out. Those that survived suffered dispossession and, with it, extreme dislocation, fragmentation and culture shock (see Reynolds 1987; 2006).

In 1930, anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown estimated the preconquest population as at least 300,000. Though once widely cited – often as a total rather than a minimum – this figure is now almost universally regarded as too low, with upper estimates reaching as high as 1 million. The population spread over nearly 7.7 million square kilometers, from Australia’s tropical north, across its central deserts and around the fertile coasts, to the cool maritime conditions of what is now Tasmania. Around 500 different language groups each had their own Law, the complex of religious traditions and binding custom which connects people to one another, to the land that sustains them, and to nonhuman species. Australia’s Indigenous languages do not distinguish religious from other spheres of life; many have adopted the English word Dreaming (always capitalized) to refer to the time, both distant past and living present, inhabited by the ancestral beings who established the Law and shaped the landscape.

The scale of the disruption which invasion brought to these communities makes it difficult to determine what roles religion played in their violent dispossession. One aspect of that dispossession, in fact, was the European reluctance to admit that Indigenous people had anything that could be called religion (see Maddox 2001: 247– 50); to this day, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people tend, when talking about Aboriginal people’s “religion,” to mean Christianity, and to refer to Indigenous traditions as “custom” or “culture.” Christian missionaries entered, and contributed to, a

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