These Lands Were Never Empty: Indigenous revolt against the remnants of European colonialism

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Aa kateaki auti aika a nangi ni bubura, aika a nangi n raoiroi, Iao ngai, au auti, e a tewenakoaki – E a kaakaki, ao e a tiku – ti – ti te atibu. Ao antai ae nang – bwa te aomata are e anaa tanon abau, ni kamwengaraoia iai Ngai naba, I tangira naba te mwengaraoi arei. Ao aio ngkanne aron au taratara ibukin abau.

Magnificent mansions have been built but my house has been thrown away — it’s been cast aside. People have taken the phosphate off my land and made themselves comfortable. I, too, would love to have that comfort.

Exiled Banaban Elder, Makin Corrie

Five hundred years ago, more or less, capitalism was invented, and the European conquest and plunder of the Pacific began. As the Indigenous peoples of the region struggle to reassert their sovereignty and national identities, it seems astonishing that much of their culture and original economy has survived. Australian politicians and media commentators are in a panic over the sudden outbreak of political instability and civil war from Aceh to Fiji. The Australian’s resident regional “expert,” Greg Sheridan, wrote an article deploring what he called the “balkanisation” of the region.

Sheridan’s attitude typifies the stance of the white Australian establishment that John Howard represents so well. They are outraged that “these people” are rejecting the rule of “democracy,” and are therefore “dragging themselves back to the Stone Age.” As if the five centuries of plunder has been a paradise for the peoples of South East Asia and Oceania. As if there was nobody here before European capitalism imposed itself upon the oldest cultures on the planet and attempted to grind them into the earth.

This attitude, cleverly dubbed by Indigenous leaders as the “White Blindfold” view of history, is what underpins the brutal logic of the colonial system. A logic which deems sovereignty to be based on the private ownership of all the land by European kings and queens, which made white skin as the qualification for participation in “civil” society, and Western “democracy” as the pinnacle of social organisation.

The ongoing conquest of Australia. Here’s a scenario from the colonial era. The colonial judiciary — in the form of a white magistrate — descends upon a community to dispense colonial “justice,” just like the viceroys of old. He hears cases in a language not spoken by the accused and passes his sentence. The prisoner is then transported hundreds of kilometres to a prison in a country not his own. In despair at his mandatory imprisonment and exile, the 15 year old hangs himself. Sounds like the plot of one of those black and white movies about the British Raj in India. It’s not!

Early this year, a young man from Groote Eylandt died because the invasion of his country is ongoing. According to the United Nations, removal of children is genocide. Mandatory sentencing is a deliberate, organised attempt to destroy Indigenous communities by criminalising their youth. In response to almost universal outrage over the death, the Howard government refused to override the racist Northern Territory government, or the equally despicable sentencing statutes in Western Australia. In fact they are subsidising the “ethnic cleansing” to the tune of $5 million.

Then again, who’s surprised? In the 1992 Mabo judgment, the High Court tore down the legal fiction, called terra nullius “empty land,” that no one had claim over the continent before the 1788 Invasion. Robbed of legal cover for past and present acts of genocide, State, Territory, and Federal governments have been attempting to re-impose a form of terra nullius ever since. This core component of the Howard government’s Indigenous policy is strongly backed by mining and agribusiness, cheered on by the Hansonite lobby and, surreptiously, the Australian Labor Party.

The Mabo judgment did not merely grant tenure to Indigenous gardeners on a remote Torres Strait Island. It threw open the door on a debate that the Establishment desperately did not want to have. If Indigenous peoples had rights to land, air and water on this continent before James Cook “claimed” it — rights which still exist, and which have never been formally ceded — then what legitimacy has the Australian State, given that the Indigenous peoples were barred from voting on the Constitution which established the Federation?

The answer is the legitimacy of the settler’s gun, the judge’s gavel, the policeman’s truncheon and the missionary’s lies. This was true throughout the colonies.

Stolen Lands. Banaba is an isolated island in the central Pacific, part of the new nation of Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ri-bus). On current maps it is depicted as a narrow ring about 3 km across. Once there were four villages with their own plots of land. Imperialism tore the heart out of Banaba — literally. The centre of the island was gouged out to a depth of 50 metres and is now an eroded desert. Their land was used as cheap fertiliser for Australian and New Zealand agriculture. In 1942, the Banabans were evicted by Japanese invaders, who razed their villages. Now the Banabans have no homeland — they live in exile in a country not their own, the island of Rabi (pronounced Rambi) in Fiji.

Banaba’s plight has been repeated on almost every speck of land from Aceh to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It’s not only open-cut mines. It’s the seizure of traditional gardens and fishing grounds for tourist resorts and the burning of native forests to make way for agribusiness. Genocide does not have to be carried out with gas chambers. Removing people from their land, or the land from the people is just as effective, only slower and more agonising. Like the death of a thousand cuts.

Bougainville, geographically and culturally, is part of the Solomon Islands but was shoehorned into the trust Territory of New Guinea and Papua after World War I. Before that, it was at the mercy of German colonisers and Australian slave traders, who kidnapped Bougainvilleans and exiled them to sugar plantations in Queensland and coconut plantations in Fiji and Samoa. In 1975, despite years of protest, it was incorporated into the newly independent Papua New Guinea (PNG). In between, the Bougainvilleans learned what it meant to be a people of colour ruled by Australian imperialism.

“Plunder” is how the people of the island refer to the activities of mining companies since gold was first discovered there in 1929. But the “mother of all plundering” commenced in 1964 when Conzinc Rio Tinto (CRA) found copper at Panguna. It was given unlimited access to the land of virtually the entire island. People were forced off their ancestral country by club-wielding colonial police, and the almost pristine mountain environment was devastated. In 1989, after years of fruitless negotiations with the mining company, the people raised an army and shut down the mine.

Last year, after at least 10,000 deaths, a cease-fire agreement was signed, ending the decade-long war between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the PNG military, which had been fought to a standstill. PNG desperately needs the enormous revenues from a re-opened Panguna. The Bougainvilleans want their independence. They are determined that this is what they will have. Short of military intervention from Australia or elsewhere, the PNG military is in no position to stop them. The evidence for this lies further east in the Solomons. In that country’s current conflict over land ownership, the BRA has intervened to effectively take over the largest towns in the Western Solomons. No one has seriously suggested that the terminally weak PNG government of Sir Mekere Morauta could or should do anything about it.

Land rights and intrigue in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea. The conflict in the Solomon Islands is a good example of the legacy of terra nullius. During World War II, the patrilineal Malaitan Islanders were shipped in to build the airstrip on the lands of the matrilineal Guadalcanal peoples. Over the years, Malaitans have acquired land in breach of the customary communal ownership rules on Guadalcanal. Twelve months ago, the decades-long squeeze on the Indigenous islanders became too much to bear, and the Malaitans were driven off the land and into Honiara. In response, the Malaitans raised an army and in late May, apparently drawing inspiration from the coup in Fiji, took over the government with the assistance of many of the police.

The cause of the trouble is not historic ethnic rivalry between the two islands, but the colonial actions — of the U.S. 60 years ago and, more recently, of the British and Australian governments — in the way lines were drawn on the map. Neither the Malaitans nor the Guadalcanal peoples wish to share a country.

The Malaitans do not even want the confiscated land back. They want compensation, and part of their strategy seems to be a shrewd bet that if they create enough mayhem then the former colonial master, Australia, will cough up the money. It may well work — the Howard government is desperate to get the Panguna mine back in operation. So far, the government of the Solomon Islands has been assisting in corralling the BRA, ensuring that supplies can only get in through PNG. If that policy were to change, then with a guaranteed supply line, the BRA would have no incentive to keep talking.

A large proportion of PNG’s income was derived from Panguna royalties, and it has been existing on Australian handouts and the revenue from the giant OK Tedi gold mine since 1989. The peoples of the OK Tedi and Fly rivers are suing Broken Hill Proprietary Limited, a major shareholder in the mine, for the destruction of their crops and the failure of their fisheries due to silting of the streams.

Growing ever more weary of legal manoeuvering, landowners have renewed calls for the mine to close. It happens that the people of the OK Tedi region in particular have close ties with their relatives in Indonesian West Papua (Irian Jaya), and the area is a cross border refuge for guerrillas from the West Papua Freedom Movement (OPM). In other words, they have contact with a well organised force which could further the cause of West Papua by holding Australia’s largest company to ransom.

Without OK Tedi’s revenue, PNG would collapse into civil war. And the very last thing the Australian government wants is an uncontrollable conflict 160 km from the mainland and 5 km from its northern border. Particularly since the West Papuans have just declared that their annexation by Jakarta is invalid and set up a Provisional Government. I think the Malaitans will get their compensation from Canberra, which is alarmed at the prospect of a broadening of Indigenous “unrest”.

The dregs of empire. Europe and the United States have little interest in this region as they squabble over the carve-up of the fomer Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This leaves Canberra, and its junior partner, New Zealand, to hold the fort in the Pacific. The Indonesian Republic, so long a kind of Javanese colonial empire, is disintegrating, and Australian capitalism is likely to be the beneficiary. Already, East Timor looks like an Australian outpost.

Yet the nations of the region knew the British Empire as an arrogant, racist dictatorship which occupied their countries, stole their children and attempted to wreck their cultures. And for the last hundred years, the voice of British imperialism has spoken with an Australian accent, and killed with an Australian gun. The Australian government is built on brutal racism and the economic domination of its neighbours. Australia’s rulers have never understood the aspirations nor respected the wishes of Indigenous peoples, either here or elsewhere. It has simply taken the wealth from the land and exported it. The white man’s rule, known as “taim bilong masta” in Melanesian creole, is no longer acceptable anywhere.

The Australian Establishment believes in the alleged superiority of European culture. So did the Afrikaner dictatorship which tried to make South Africa safe for white supremacy. But from the moment the Indigenous peoples in that part of the world began to organise, apartheid was doomed. History shows that oppressors govern only as long as the oppressed will tolerate them, no matter what the balance of forces at the beginning.

It’s a further measure of its arrogance that the colonial bourgeoisie seems to think that Indigenous rebellion is an offshore problem. There is nothing which immunises Australia from armed revolt. Inevitably, one or more of the nations of Australia will decide that the latest death in custody or the latest hectare of stolen land is much more than enough. When that occurs, solidarity from the other victims of British/Australian colonialism will make life very difficult for the local ruling class. The perfect opportunity for non-Indigenous workers to settle their own scores.

Decolonisation, which began in the mid 1960s, has accelerated since the the Indonesian dictator Suharto was ousted following the Jakarta Spring riots of 1996. This led to the liberation of East Timor and the renewal of the Indigenous struggle in Aceh and West Papua. But Indigenous liberation will not be achieved until all the relics of colonialism are demolished. In most places imperialist hands still hold the purse strings. The scourge of private property and Western style top-down “democracy” still underlies most of the newly independent countries, as does the straitjacket of borders designed in Europe to divide and conquer.

Indigenous peoples of Australia speak of an ancestral journey from the north. This story accords well with Western scientific research. That voyage was made from Southeast Asia between 75,000 and 120,000 years ago in seaworthy boats. Terra nullius? Humans colonised Europe more than 35,000 years after people first began to build the cultures of the southeast quarter of the planet. It was not paradise, but neither was it “primitive.” A racist belief in European superiority cannot hide the fact that nations have occupied, fought over and managed these lands for millennia.

The oral histories of this region are the most ancient continuous account of any society. Capitalism is to human society what a mayfly is to summer. Here one day, dead the next!

And that’s an important lesson for the non-Indigenous workers of the Pacific. Far from being the enduring, immovable and rational way of managing the world that bosses make it out to be, capitalism is vulnerable, illogical and transient. We can beat it!

Colonialism, like capitalism generally, has created its own grave diggers. It is therefore essential that the multiracial Australian working class stands firmly on the side of the struggles for self-determination. After all, we all face the same enemy.

Australian/New Zealand hands off Indonesia, Melanesia and Polynesia! Bring all troops home! Stop the destabilisation of Fiji! Solidarity with Fijian unionists. Independence for all Indigenous nations that demand it! End mandatory sentencing and all other genocidal policies against Australian Nations! For a Treaty and reparations for 212 years of colonial conquest!

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