Darwin, Darwinism, naturalism – and ethnocide

For a brief account of a very well-developed understanding of the practices of ethnocide, see the section headed “Robert Jaulin and ethnocide” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnocide

There can be little argument that Charles Darwin, probably like all Englishmen of his time, had an ethnocidal attitude towards First Peoples when he visited Australia in 1836.

Naturalists of those times also had a sense of identity which promoted them as carriers of civilisation.

Darwin’s comments in relation to his place in the British empire and to First Peoples make his attitude explicitly clear.

Of more lasting concern must be:

1. “To what extent did his ethnocidal attitude inscribe itself – consciously and unconsciously – into his great master works?”

2. “What is the ethnocidal legacy of Darwinism (in its various guises)  and naturalism for First Peoples today?”

Anyone out there addressing these hard questions during the Darwin 200 celebrations?


Paradise Lost – white only.

Written after a talk by Professor F. Nicholas at NSW State Library.

On Tuesday 5 May i  attended the talk on “Darwin in Australia” by Professor Frank Nicholas, co-author with Jan Nicholas of “Darwin in Australia”. They now have an anniversary edition out which is really good value, and acknowledged as a really good reference source for anyone interested in this subject.

The event was put on by the State Library of NSW in association with the Charles Darwin Down Under 1836 exhibition they are hosting, and all part of the Darwin 200 celebrations.

It cost $20 so i was pleased to see, as we gathered in the Dixson Room, Mitchell library, at 5:30 for 6pm (dinner time!) that there was also a glass of wine and a club sandwich included. I noticed that the wine was called “Paradise Lost” and, as my glass was being filled, i was informed that it was “White only.” “Un oh,” went a voice in the back of my head. “I hope not.”

I was looking forward to this talk, having seen what a good job the authors had done in their revised volume. Putting aside concerns of Swine Flu i had come up by train from Wollongong for the experience.

It was really good to take in the Darwin Down Under 1836 exhibition at the Library as part of the trip. The original paintings and sketches are well worth running an eye over. The panoramas of Hobart and King George Sound and the paintings of early Sydney – always worth a more considered look.


And, by way of a bonus, I had spent the afternoon in the Mitchell Library checking out some hard to locate references. Wonderful resources and most helpful staff. For a moment i contemplated spending my life in the reading room, a al Marx, feasting on the information available. Another time, perhaps. (Note added – It was only later that i discovered that the 5 May was also the birthday of that other “Charles”  and author of the other 19 century master narrative – Karl Marx – born 1818.)

One of the refs i checked out was an article from the 1832 Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (Vol 1)  by Scott Nind, “Description of the Natives of King George Sound”. Nind was a Doctor who lived at King George Sound when the settlement was being established and lived there in 1827-1829.

I wondered if this Vol 1 Journal could ever have found it’s way into Charles Darwin’s hands by the time he also arrived in King George Sound in 1836. He did get mail on the Voyage. Such a useful article would have helped him to make a bit more sense out of his encounter with Australia’s First Peoples – but did he ever read about ‘native customs’? I don’t know. I was hoping to learn more. (Darwin accepted a seat on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society in 1840 – Desmond and Moore page 228).

One of the many interesting things Nind reports is that the local Meanager indigenous people at King George Sound (Nind’s identification) may take their name from the eating a red root, and that they had the practice (if my memory of his article is correct) of painting their bodies with a red substance which gave them a ruddy protective glow.

Australia’s First Peoples were sometimes referred to as “Indians” (of the North American variety) in early writings. So “White only/No reds”, took on an additional and unintended hue.


While we waited (the usual problems with sound system) i had time to take in the room. At 62 this week, i was at the younger end of the audience. My guess is that many were Friends of the Library. “Why is it,” i pondered, “that younger people – in their 30s and 40s – are not caught up in the conceptual excitement of our times?”

We sat looking to the screen for the computer projection with the well-known handsome portrait of Darwin c 1840. The cover of the Nicholas’s book, with two Rosellas. (These birds are said, by  some, to derive their name from  the early settlement at Rose Hill – ‘rose-hillers’ – but by what name where they known in the local indigenous languages? The Library has a collection of early word lists on display adjacent to the Darwin Down Under exhibition, but somehow the two don’t quite engage in dialogue. There was a long history of life on this continent before Banks arrived in Botany Bay).

Darwin’s image sat lightly in comparison with the very heavy oil portrait of that other famous wealthy naturalist , Sir Joseph Banks, which dominated the room from the rear.  They faced each other across a most interesting space. Thankfully we did not have to look at Banks.

Other paintings, also in their heavy gilt frames, included one of raising a British flag in a freshly cleared space and portraits of lesser worthies from respectable society. Another looked like a big party of well-dressed colonists picnicking at Lady Macquarie’s Chair on Sydney Harbour. How very jolly (not a Blackfellow in sight?).


The talk finally got underway by 6:15 (using up a good part of future question time for those of us who had to be out by 7:30).

Paul Brunton, senior Curator, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, kicked things off. There was no acknowledgement of country.

I think it was Paul Brunton who mentioned that you can retrace Darwin’s footsteps in the Blue Mountains – as he had recently done – and when they got back to the site of King’s Farm at Dunheved their GPS devise had told them “nothing of interest here.”! If there was ever a site in Australia which would provide a fascinating longitudinal cultural study it is the Dunheved site (note that Professor Nicholas informed us that the picture of Dunheved in their book is back to front and will need to be corrected.)

Professor Nicholas began with acknowledgements (but not of First Peoples or of Country). His focus was on recently deceased staff member who had provided much valuable assistance and had recently found a copy of a letter from Busby, the British colonial official resident in New Zealand/Aotearoa, introducing the young Charles Darwin to Alexander Berry in Sydney, complete with Darwin’s calling card.

Very good, and the hard workers at the library are a real asset and worthy of full acknowledgement, but – i pondered –  no coverage provided of whether or not this was the same Alexander Berry who was part of the expropriation of First Peoples living country on the South Coast of NSW. Just what kind of respectable colonial company are we dealing with here? Busby (who helped with the Treaty of Waitangi) also ‘acquired’ large parcels of Maori  land in New Zealand/Aotearoa making for a more complex comparison.

I gather Professor Nicholas’s expertise is not in history and that must temper any assessment of the work he and his partner produce. But there is a cult of some kind in which Charles Darwin plays a leading role … and we need to be mindful of the difference between uncritical amateur history and self-privileging Eurocentric forms of ‘secular’ hagiography.


Professor Nicholas then proceeded with a very well prepared power-point presentation of quotes and images of Darwin’s time in Australia (New Holland at that time?) The images, many by Conrad Martens, are a great help.

We followed Darwin in through the Sydney Heads and then out west from Sydney via Parramatta to Emu Plains, and then across the river on the ‘punt ferry’ – good illustrations and an estimate of the cost at two shillings and sixpence (or something like that) for two men and two horses – and then up the Blue Mountains on convict hewn roads.

But wait a minute! Darwin had had his first interactions with local indigenous people by this stage (before crossing the Nepean River) when he spoke with a group of men and paid them a shilling to demonstrate their spear throwing abilities.

What about some careful accounting of that kind?


The talk was being recorded so no need for a word by word account here. The State Library may podcast it.

We learnt about Darwin’s famous encounter with Australian fauna and pondering the existence of two creators (flora and fauna only) to account for the differences, his view of the great Gulf of the Blue Mountains – formed by erosion (compare Dreaming stories of the Three Sisters?), his regard for the Old Soldier (ex-convict?) running an Inn, how he crossed the mountains, sees a platypus, goes to Bathurst, returns to Captain King’s farm on 26 January. 

But no mention of the crucial and highly significant change in Darwin’s notes, as he learns more about life in local farms and stations, baldly stating how indigenous people are being robbed of their lands by the new comers. He probably reworded his insight to protect the good name of his English hosts.


P.P. King has been the former commander of the Beagle and Darwin had meet him before sailing from England. His son, P.G. King Jr, a young midshipman, was Darwin’s best friend on the Beagle.

P.P. King was the son of a former NSW Governor, (P G King Sn) and there was some controversy about land grants to members of his family.  No coverage of that here – and we can speculate that some of the indigenous men Darwin had already met may have had traditional rights in the living country out of which Dunheved was carved. He may have met his true hosts and not known it.

In the Mitchell Library earlier in the afternoon I had read about trouble with the Natives in the South Creek area. This creek runs close to or through Dunheved. (Historical Records of Australia Vol 1 1804-06 pp 306-307) Troops were dispatched to ensure the protection of the colonists. Dispatched by Governor’s like King – those respectable officials who dispassionately pondered the finer cross-cultural points of who they could reasonably kill to effectively achieve this end.

Captain King and Charles Darwin, in a European farm freshly and forcefully carved out of the living country of Australia’s First Peoples, discussed the finer points of flora and fauna – blind to their true surroundings in an indigenous cosmos.


We next followed Darwin from King’s farm to the ‘Vineyard’ the fine home of Hannibal Macarthur, the nephew of John Macarthur. Much homage to the once fine home. (I had just read about his Uncle John Macarthur as “the Scourge of the colony …. who had trampled on the most Sacred and Constitutional Rights of British subjects” in a statement to Major Johnson (Acting governor?) by Freeholders and Cultivators of land in the County of Cumberland. (Historical Records of Australia 1806 p 572 – Macarthur was challenging the Governor’s power in relation to private property – great reading this!)

But while Professor Nicholas, like all good story tellers responding to the vibe in the audience, made sure we had a clear idea of Darwin’s horror of emancipated convicts (especially those making money) in the midst of respectable society, we learnt nothing of the real context of Australia at that time – nor of the real roots of that respectability. Let’s keep the focus on the flora and fauna. Some new insects described and illustrated.

Darwin’s quotes regarding Sydney as the place for the worship of money did draw some whispered comments of “What’s changed” from the audience. But there was no coverage of Darwin’s own keen eye for investment opportunities. It seems his horror was that of the wrong class of people becoming wealthy. Just how did Darwin ‘see’ country when he was not looking through the newly fashioned eyes of geology? From Banks on, there were wonderful ‘Gentlemen’s parks’ to be seen everywhere, but no sign of First Peoples eternal living countries.


We sailed with Darwin to Hobart Town – fine homes and wonderful social time had by Darwin who really enjoyed a society where the convicts knew their place.

But, again, no coverage of what Darwin had to say about the polices of removing First Peoples from their living countries. Surely this is significant in any talk regarding the author of a book used by social Darwinists to justify genocidal ‘survival of the fittest’ type arguments.

Darwin had quite a lot to say about the treatment of indigenous peoples in Van Dieman’s Land – and we needed to hear about it. Given that Darwin later pondered escaping from European revolutionary risks to his privileged position to Tasmania this aspect of his personality is worth close examination. We had a glimmer with the quote the Professor provided from young Darwin about how only the direst risk would encourage him to immigrate – so he was alive to that issue from an early age.


So, we sailed again onwards to King George Sound. Still not a Blackfellow in sight apparently. Again, no context of the recent ‘settlement’ and renaming of country in the name of the British King.

No mention by the Professor of major dance corroboree which Darwin himself sponsored, and his encounter with the White Cockatoo Men, and what he made of it while his mind as busy with the origins of life at the inanimate-animate end of the scale. What a great pity – a real opportunity to explore a host of issues, and to show some great illustrations.

We bid the young Darwin adieu as he sailed away – not greatly taken or impressed with Australia – and the talk ended. Any questions?


We learnt how Darwin and FitzRoy differed on the question of slavery (but not of the divine right of kings and the role of ideology in contesting elites). Darwin’s master work, with its role on the place of competition between individuals, can be seen as an ideology for the newly emerging elites in England. And this had real consequences for the lives of First Peoples in Australia.

As I recall the talk it was Professor Nicholas, in response to a question, who provided a quote about Darwin being a revolutionary but not a reformer (or words to that effect). Quite so, as Marx and Engels had quickly established. The trick for Darwin in crafting his master narrative was to get the balance of change just right, without posing any threat to the privileges of his social group.

I was waiting to see if anyone would ask about Darwin and Aboriginal people. I should have asked myself, but suddenly it was over. Losing those 15 minutes was a pity in this regard. There is a lot to discuss. In a way, the failure to raise this aspect is mine as much as any one else.


But as it is, anyone relying on the talk by Professor Nicholas would be justified in drawing the conclusion that there were no indigenous peoples in Australia at the time of Darwin’s visit in 1836.

Which is a damn shame because the Nicholas’s do a reasonable job of covering some of these aspects in their book. We could at least have seen one graphic which showed us First Peoples at the time of Darwin’s visit.

The former Senator Aden Ridgeway spoke about ‘terra nullius of the mind’ and that was the space which was formed between Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin in the Dixson room on the evening of the 5 May.

No one from the audience asked a question about this aspect of the talk. First Peoples were well and truly out of sight and out of mind. And a jolly time was had, …

This presentation by Professor Nicholas was not done off the cuff. It was very carefully crafted – after years of research. In preparing any presentation decisions have to be made on what to leave out. Had he omitted to mention two out of three major instances where First Peoples featured in Darwin’s visit, that would have been understandable – but to totally fail to mention anything points to a pattern of systematic exclusion (mirroring the major flaw in Australian life).

It is my assessment that he, consciously or unconsciously, made the wrong decisions in deciding he could skip over the issues relating to First Peoples and their dispossession – both at the time of Darwin’s visit and in regard to the later role of Darwinism in justifying that dispossession.  Maybe he opted to stay in a comfort zone befitting the perceived interests of the audience? We really need to hear from him on this subject.

While fashioning incomplete forms of representation vis-à-vis the place of First Peoples in Australian life are understandably in past times, that practice can no longer be accepted as adequate. What was acceptable in 1836 is just not respectable in 2009.


In the interests of healing Australian life, the resources of the State Library and Mitchell Library (as a major cultural institution) are a true treasure and the use of these resources must be done in a way which encourages bi-cultural balanced forms of representation.

The “flora and fauna only” focus of naturalist representation of today suffers from the same form of professional deformation as Darwin and his social cohort had over a 150 years ago. But a lot has taken place since then, and today we know better.

The State Library of New South Wales, if it does not already have a Reconciliation Statement and an Reconciliation Action Plan in order to correct this type of malpractice, really needs to get cracking to bring itself into the 21st century. The Friends of the Library could play a really important role here.

Events should at least begin with an acknowledgement of country so we all start out in the right frame of mind.

Better still, when possible, a Welcome to Country from the relevant traditional owners, and an opportunity for them to tell us what they think of such things as the presence of Darwin – and Darwinism – in Australia.

Maybe, before the Darwin bi-centenary is over, we could run another event, and get the bi-cultural balance right this time. I am sure Charles Darwin, if he had the experience which is now available to us – and which his work helped make possible, would approve.  And my hunch is that Professor Nicholas, provided with such an opportunity, could give a good account of Darwin’s encounters with First Peoples, and what he thought of them.

After all, is there not a paradise (and a good red*) to be regained?

Bruce Reyburn

6-7 May 2009

* A Murrin Bridge Wines shiraz perhaps, made by First Nation peoples in NSW.