“Right of Occupancy”?

Landor, Edward Wilson. 1847. The Bushman: Life in a New Colony. London: Richard Bentley.
Online edition here

This chapter reveals how early settlers and government officials were well aware that the land had been seized from the Noongar Nation without consent or treaty.

CHAPTER 15.

HOW THE LAWS OF ENGLAND AFFECT THE NATIVES.

The native population of our colony are said to be a much more peaceable and harmless race than those of any other part of Australia. In the early days of the settlement they caused a good deal of trouble, and were very destructive to the pigs and sheep of the colonists; but a little well-timed severity, and a steadily pursued system of government, soon reduced them into well-conducted subjects of the British Crown. There appears, however, to be little hope of civilizing them, and teaching them European arts and habits. Those of mature age, though indolent, and seldom inclined to be useful in the smallest degree, are peaceful in their habits; and when in want of a little flour will exert themselves to earn it, by carrying letters, shooting wild ducks with a gun lent to them, driving home cattle, or any other easy pursuit; but they appear to be incapable of elevation above their original condition. Considerable pains have been bestowed (especially by the Wesleyans) upon the native children, many of whom are educated in schools at Perth, Fremantle, and other places, in the hope of making them eventually useful servants to the settlers. Most of these, however, betake themselves to the bush, and resume their hereditary pursuits, just at the age when it is hoped they will become useful. Very frequently they die at that age of mesenteric disorders; and very few indeed become permanently civilized in their habits.

Nothing could be more anomalous and perplexing than the position of the Aborigines as British subjects. Our brave and conscientious Britons, whilst taking possession of their territory, have been most careful and anxious to make it universally known, that Australia is not a conquered country; and successive Secretaries of State, who write to their governors in a tone like that in which men of sour tempers address their maladroit domestics, have repeatedly commanded that it must never be forgotten “that our possession of this territory is based on a right of occupancy.”

A “right of occupancy!” Amiable sophistry! Why not say boldly at once, the right of power? We have seized upon the country, and shot down the inhabitants, until the survivors have found it expedient to submit to our rule. We have acted exactly as Julius Caesar did when he took possession of Britain. But Caesar was not so hypocritical as to pretend any moral right to possession. On what grounds can we possibly claim a right to the occupancy of the land? We are told, because civilized people are justified in extending themselves over uncivilized countries. According to this doctrine, were there a nation in the world superior to ourselves in the arts of life, and of a different religious faith, it would be equally entitled (had it the physical power) to the possession of Old England under the “right of occupancy;” for the sole purpose of our moral and social improvement, and to make us participants in the supposed truths of a new creed.

We have a right to our Australian possessions; but it is the right of Conquest, and we hold them with the grasp of Power. Unless we proceed on this foundation, our conduct towards the native population can be considered only as a monstrous absurdity. However Secretaries of State may choose to phrase the matter, we can have no other right of occupancy. We resolve to found a colony in a country, the inhabitants of which are not strong enough to prevent our so doing, though they evince their repugnance by a thousand acts of hostility.

We build houses and cultivate the soil, and for our own protection we find it necessary to declare the native population subject to our laws.

This would be an easy and simple matter were it the case of conquerors dictating to the conquered; but our Secretaries of State, exhibiting an interesting display of conscientiousness and timidity, shrink from the responsibility of having sanctioned a conquest over a nation of miserable savages, protected by the oracles at Exeter Hall, and reject with sharp cries of anger the scurrilous imputation. Instead, therefore, of being in possession by right of arms, we modestly appropriate the land to ourselves, whilst making the most civil assurances that we take not this liberty as conquerors, but merely in order to gratify a praiseworthy desire of occupying the country. We then declare ourselves seised in fee by right of occupancy. But now comes the difficulty. What right have we to impose laws upon people whom we profess not to have conquered, and who have never annexed themselves or their country to the British Empire by any written or even verbal treaty?

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