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Charles Darwin on Aboriginal Australians

Charles Darwin on Aboriginal Australians
Bust of Wouraddy produced in Hobart in 1835 by artist Benjamin Law (1807-1890) 
Copyright expired , , 31-Dec-40 
photographer: Christopher Snee
Darwin travelled in Australia and its coastal waters for about three months. He had marvelled at the beauty of the Blue Mountains, absorbed the subtle charm of the bush, glimpsed the harsh effect of drought and experienced a dust storm. Influenced by the social theories of the 18th century and some first-hand observations of indigenous people, especially in South America, he sought to understand human diversity and social dynamics in a broader evolutionary context. Observations of Aboriginal Australians prompted Darwin to speculate on these matters.

At that time it was apparent that the Aboriginal population was declining. Darwin correctly considered several reasons for such a decline, including the introduction of alcohol, and contagious, foreign diseases, which had a devastating impact on the native population. He also considered the demise of indigenous food resources, but appeared blind to the fact that forced displacement of Aborigines from their land was one of the major factors of destruction. Instead Darwin evoked some ‘mysterious agency’ that would account for the effect that ‘wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’. He attempts to draw an even wider conclusion that ‘the varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals - the stronger always extirpating the weaker’. Such an unfortunate analogy paved the way for some vicious social policies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet Darwin knew about the Black War in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), which brought almost complete destruction of Aboriginal Tasmanians in the first half of that decade. It was only a year earlier, in 1835, that 210 of surviving Aborigines were deported to and imprisoned on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. He considered it ‘cruel’ but essentially ‘unavoidable’. ‘All the aborigines have been removed to an island in Bass Strait, so that Van Diemen's Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.’

Darwin was familiar with the ‘benevolent’ work of Augustus Robinson, a man who, at the end of Black War, enticed nearly all surviving Tasmanian Aborigines to surrender and give up their independent life. On the face of mounting pressure from settlers and violent confrontations leading to population demise, the prospect of independence was rapidly vanishing. In January 1836 Robinson conducted a census of Aborigines imprisoned on Flinders Island. He listed 50 men, 9 boys, 50 women and 7 girls. Seven years later, as Darwin quotes in his book, only half of them were alive. Perhaps the ‘mysterious agency’ was not so mysterious after all.


Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle. Published: Penguin 1989
Norman J.P. Plomley: Weep in Silence: A History of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Settlement. Published: Blubber Head Press 1987