Series exposes colonialism’s brutal history, but paints it as all in the past

Review: The First Australians
Directed by Rachel Perkins
Available on DVD soon

The First Australians is a six part television documentary series which attempts to portray on a national scale the impacts of colonisation and dispossession on Australia’s Indigenous people. The ambitious undertaking by filmmaker Rachel Perkins, daughter of the late civil rights campaigner Charles Perkins, took six years.

The series begins with Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and pre-invasion life for Aboriginal nations, then documents the arrival of the First Fleet and early contact between Europeans and Indigenous nations. The first episodes deal with significant Aboriginal leaders like Bennelong and Pemulwuy attempting to negotiate life with the encroaching white settlements and British soldiers. They also document the impact of dislocation and diseases like smallpox. The series gives a powerful and detailed portrayal of organised Aboriginal resistance as the colonies expanded, accompanied by massacres and violent retribution against Aboriginal people who killed livestock to survive.

Perkins wants the stories to be part of a national school history curriculum, and has won broad support for its revealing narrative and a more honest look at the colonisation of Australia.

Later episodes deal with state governments’ attempts to assimilate or exterminate Aboriginal populations, and the series concludes with Rudd’s Apology and his promise to “never again” repeat past wrongs. Using many first-hand accounts from Aboriginal people, The First Australians is an impressive history of Australian colonisation from an Indigenous perspective.

While the racist history of State Protection Boards, the church missions, and the plight of the Stolen Generations may be more familiar, the stories of Aboriginal leaders, struggle and resistance are a particular highlight of the program.

A benevolent colonisation?

However, the fundamental flaw underpinning The First Australians is the idea that relations between Aboriginal people and white colonists could have proceeded harmoniously while the British invaded and occupied large swathes of Aboriginal land. The first episode focuses on the diplomatic overtures of Governor Arthur Phillip towards Bennelong.

However, when this relationship sours, The First Australians depicts the acts of retribution against Aboriginal people as arising from cultural misunderstanding, rather than the inevitable result of invasion. Yet, an episode describing the colonisation of Victoria tells the story of William Barak, a young Wurundjeri man who witnessed the first white settlers arrive in 1830. Within his lifetime his people were confined to Corranderk, struggling to retain just under one per cent of their original land.

Author Steve Kinnane discusses the period during the late 1800s-1910, known in the Kimberley area as the “Killing Times” for the brutal massacres and violence committed against Aboriginal people.

In 1894, the Western Australian government declared war against Jandamarra’s resistance to police attacks on Aboriginal people. The Derby Correspondent for the North West Times comments: “It would be a good time for the WA government to shut its eyes and open up to the settlers a little time to teach the niggers here the difference between mine and I.”

Following an ambush and the release of over 100 Aboriginal hostages, the police began wholesale attacks on the Aboriginal population killing men, women and children. Survivors were removed to jail in chains. Police used Aboriginal trackers to hunt him down. He was shot and decapitated and his head was sent to England. Jandamarra’s three year rebellion was the last armed resistance to invasion.

Commenting on the series, Rachel Perkins said, “There’s nothing like looking at history to see how far relationships have come in the last 200 years, from killing each other to negotiating and having more of a partnership.”

But rather than the series being solely of historical interest, it reveals the historical assimilationist policies that are currently manifested in the Northern Territory intervention.

However, The First Australians overwhelmingly presents the colonisation of Australia as a series of past atrocities, and of mismanaged circumstances by individual opportunistic colonists, leading to the unfortunate breakdown in relations. While the series calls for recognition of these atrocities, there is an implicit attempt by the producers, including co-author and historian Marcia Langton (an ardent supporter of the intervention), to counter any idea that an entrenched assimilationist agenda imbues today’s government policy formulations.

The series features Rudd’s historic apology to the Stolen Generations as a piece of finished business, and to its discredit has nothing to say about the racist policies that have followed in its wake.

By Lauren Mellor


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