The Aboriginal people were the indigenous inhabitants of the Australian Continent. Before contact with the Europeans in the 18th century, these people occupied various regions throughout Australia and they had diverse culture and languages. Contact with Europeans had a devastating effect on the lives of the aboriginal people. The British set out to establish colonial settlements in Australia and this created conflict as land that belonged to the natives was taken over. Broome (2010) reveals that the aboriginal population fell from 200,000 at first contact to a mere 20,000 by the 1920s (p.172).
Due to the great decline in Aboriginal population, the White Australian government recognized that there was a problem with how the natives were being treated. The government therefore set out to implement some policies that were meant to improve the lives of the aborigines. One of the policies that the government embarked on in the mid 20th century was the policy of assimilation (Haebich, 2002, p.62).
Ideally, this policy was meant to integrate the aboriginal population into the mainstream Australian community, thereby ensuring that they could enjoy the same rights and privileges. This paper will argue that the assimilation policy implemented in the mid 20th century was just another form of controlling Aboriginal Australians and making them like white Australians.
Assimilation Policy as a form of Control
The assimilation policy was adopted to deal with white Australia regarded as the “Aboriginal problem”. During the 19th century, little attention was paid to the Aborigines since the government believed that they were headed for inevitable extinction. Caruso (2012) notes that there was little effort to specifically include Aborigines in the formation of the Australian nation since the ingenious were doomed to extinction (p.280). However, this did not happen and the indigenous people were still largely visible in the cities in the 1920s and 1930s (Moran, 2005, p.172).
The government was therefore compelled to do something about the existence of this culturally different community in the country. At first the government considered biological absorption and in 1933, the Department of the interior issued a statement declaring that “every endeavour is being made to breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to the white standard” (Bartrop, 2001, p.75). However, such plans were neglected following the development of an international climate of anti-racism following the end of the Second World War. The government therefore embarked on a course of cultural assimilation.
While the assimilation policy purported to be for the benefit of the Aborigines, it also aimed to increase the country’s labour force and reduce aboriginal dependence on welfare services. From the early 20th century, Australia experienced a growing demand for labour in various sectors. There was a need to expand the labour force in the country and promote economic growth.
The aboriginal population presented a possible labour pool that the government could utilise. Palmiste (2008) declares that the assimilation policy targeted Aboriginal ‘half-caste’ children who were trained in order to join the workforce and therefore reduce government expenses (p.80). Providing these children with work skills also ensured that they could earn an independent living. Noran (2005) asserts that the government was concerned that half-caste children would grow to become a welfare burden to the society (p.173).
The government therefore aspired to assimilate the natives so that they could become economic assets for the country. The aborigines were able to provide cheap labour therefore promoting economic growth in the country. In addition to this, the assimilation policy forced the aboriginal population into becoming domestic workers for the white Australians. Martinez and Lowrie (2009) assert that by the year 1910, there was a great demand for domestic servants in many white households (p.308).
While the reliance on aboriginal labour was frowned upon following the establishment of the Australian nation in 1901, the government was forced to reconsider this outlook. The education provided to the aboriginal children was inferior quality. Most of the children were only provided with the skills needed to perform domestic chores.
The policy attempted to make the indigenous population like the white Australians by forcing them to abandon their native language. Kirsten (2014) documents that at first contact with Europeans the aboriginal population spoke over 250 languages (p.84). To create a truly homogenous Australia, the natives had to abandon their languages and adopt English. Europeans held the view that the civilization of the aborigines would proceed faster if their language was extinct (Zuckermann, Shakuto-Neoh & Quer, 2014, p.55).
To encourage this language loss, the government forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families. Some were adopted by white families while others were taken to boarding schools where they lost touch with their native language. Assimilation succeeded in destroying the Aboriginal languages and today only about 20 native languages are spoken comprehensively (Kirsten, 2014, p.84).
Assimilation forced the aboriginal to give up their cultural values and language in favour of the western ways. Murphy (2013) declares that the assimilation policy “ultimately required the end of indigenous identity” (p.208). The government provided incentives for the natives to embrace Western culture. As part of the assimilation policy, the government offered the aboriginal people citizenship certificates. Receiving this certificate gave the Aboriginal person citizenship privileges and access to social and economic opportunities in the country.
However, such certificates were only issued to the aborigines who were committed to adopting the mainstream culture. Broome (2010) asserts that obtaining the citizenship certificates required “the adoption of European cultural norms and the rejection of Aboriginal ways” (p.188). Chesterman (2001) reveals that under assimilation, the indigenous people regarded as nomadic or primitive were not provided with government benefits (p.30).
The assimilation policy increased government control of the Aboriginal Australians by causing divisions to occur among Aboriginal communities. In spite of the decline in their numbers, the Aboriginal people maintained community solidarity. This solidarity was rooted in their common cultural history and their joint suffering under the colonists.
The assimilation policy undermined this sense of solidarity among the aboriginal people. Assimilation led to the denial of aboriginality by some of the natives as they embraced Western culture. Broome (2010) documents that splits and class divisions occurred among many Aboriginal settlements during the assimilation years (p.188). The aborigines who accepted assimilation were shunned by those who rejected it.
They were regarded as “deniers of their true selves” and not accepted by the rest of the community, especially in rural areas (Broome, 2010, p. 188). In addition to this, class divisions occurred since the assimilated group could earn a higher income than the rest of the aborigines. The previously harmonious aboriginal society was therefore disrupted by assimilation. The government could exercise greater control over this disjointed community.
The policy of assimilation aimed to fulfil the goal of creating a homogenous Australian society where all citizens lived the same way. The culture and values of the aboriginal population were markedly different from those of White Australians. The white majority therefore hoped to eliminate these differences by destroying the aboriginal cultural identity.
Krieken (2012) observes that the Europeans believed that the Aboriginal cultural identity was doomed to extinction and it was only a matter of time before this inevitable disappearance of the Aboriginal race (p.502). Assimilation was therefore a tool used by the Europeans to force the aborigines into accepting the mainstream culture. Government administrators admitted that the assimilation model hoped to transform the Aborigines into “replicas of white Australians” (p.503).
The assimilation policy created a situation where large numbers of aboriginal people were motivated to migrate from the rural settlements to large towns and cities. Before the enactment of the policy, most indigenous people lived in the rural areas of Australia. They were able to earn a living and enjoy some sense of community among other aborigines.
However, the implementation of the assimilation policy changed the situation for the natives. To begin with, they were not under increased surveillance by the government authorities. Morgan (2006) documents that while some of the indigenous people were pulled to the cities by the opportunities for better-paid employment; others were pushed to urban centres to escape the persecution by welfare authorities (p.40).
This paper has shown that while the assimilation policy promised equality of opportunity for all and the eradication of all forms of discriminations, it served as a tool for controlling the Aboriginal population. The assimilation policy of the mid 20th century failed to achieve their goals of creating a culturally and racially harmonious Australia.
The policy was abandoned by the end of the 1960s and replaced by the integration policy. The policy of integration recognized and respected the different cultural identities of the various groups in Australia. Unlike the assimilation policy that sought to eradicate cultural diversity, integration promoted the right of the aboriginal people to maintain their cultural identity.
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