Old Sins Cast Long Shadows: (2) Facing Up to Our Criminal Past

This is part two of Peter Adam’s 4 part series on the wrongs perpetrated against the first Australians. (See part 1 here


Australia today is based on theft of land. Old sins cast long shadows.

How did people at that time view what had happened?

Watkin Tench, a marine who was on the First Fleet, lived in the colony at Sydney Cove from 1788-92. He wrote of the natives:

When they met with unarmed strangers they sometimes killed and sometimes wounded them. I confess that, in common with many others, I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a farther acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity…has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.[1]

Earth-Encompassing Evil

But the unprovoked outrages committed by unprincipled individuals only reflected, on a small scale, the great unprovoked outrage committed by an unprincipled Empire, the whole-scale theft of Australia.[2]

The unprovoked outrages committed by unprincipled individuals only reflected, on a small scale, the great unprovoked outrage committed by an unprincipled Empire, the whole-scale theft of Australia.

The English author, William Howitt, gave his enlightened view, so different from most of his contemporaries, in 1838:

We have now followed the Europeans to every region of the globe & seen them planting colonies and peopling new lands, and everywhere we have found them the same—a lawless and domineering race, seizing on the earth as if they were the first-born of creation, and having a presumptive right to murder and dispossess all other people …Many are the evils that are done under the sun; but there is and can be no evil like that monstrous and earth-encompassing evil which the Europeans have committed against the Aborigines of every country in which they settled.[3]

A Criminal Colony

But the actions of the British in the case of Australia were unusually bad, because whereas in other instances they respected the property rights of the people when they took over land, this did not happen in Australia. All land rights were abolished, ignored, trampled on, extinguished.

It was so bizarre, because many of the convicts were guilty of theft, but here was theft by the government which convicted them, but on a massive scale! Most of the convicts brought here by the British government were thieves.[4]

They may not have stolen very much, but the Government of the day decided that stealing was wrong, and such a serious offence, that it justified transporting men, women and children half way around the world to penal colonies here in Australia. This was extreme punishment for relatively minor crimes. But the government of the day regard property as sacred, and so imposed great penalties for theft. And the reality was that the British government not only stole the land, but also then allowed avaricious individuals to take and possess land, land stolen from the original inhabitants.  And what grotesque behaviour, what extraordinary moral blindness, to regard stealing a few handkerchiefs as such a serious crime that it justified sending the perpetrator half way around the world to a penal colony, and yet to steal a continent from its indigenous people in order to establish that penal colony!

God Orders The History of Nations

We read Paul’s words in Acts 17:26, “God, who made from one ancestor all nations of to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence, and boundaries of the places where they would live.” We have committed a great crime. We have failed to acknowledge that God allotted nations times and boundaries in this land. In order to commit these sins, we have committed the even greater sin of failing to acknowledge that we all come from one ancestor, that we are “one blood”, that we are brothers and sisters of the indigenous peoples of this land. The doctrine of terra nullius treated people as if their existence had no meaning. But we must not treat people that way. For, as Calvin preached, the duty to love our neighbour extends to all.

Since [God] has stamped his image upon us, and since we share a common nature, this ought to inspire us to provide for one another. The one who seeks to be exempt from the care of his neighbour is disfiguring himself and declaring that he now longer wishes to be a man. For whilst we are human beings, we must see our own faces reflected, as by a mirror, in the faces of the poor and despised, who can go no further and who are trembling under their burdens, even if they are people who are most alien to us. If a Moor or a barbarian comes to us, because he is a man, he is a mirror in which we see reflected the fact that he is our brother and our neighbour; for we cannot change the rule of nature that God has established as immutable.[5]

God’s Ten Commandments include the following: “you shall not covet”… “you shall not steal” …”you shall not murder” [Exod. 20:13-17].  But we Europeans coveted space for a penal colony, new land, new opportunities, and great wealth. We coveted, and so we stole, and we stole, and so we murdered. We read in the Law: “Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbour”s boundary marker” [Lev. 27:17]. We not only moved the boundary markers, we removed them, and stole the land. We coveted, stole, and murdered. As one white Christian commented in 1923, in language of the time:

The white men…took the best of the land for their sheep and cattle, killing the black men’s food… The blacks tried to drive these settlers out of their country…but the white men were not to be driven back. They armed themselves and made open war upon these poor blacks…As we look back over these years there is much that we have to be ashamed of.

Thank God that at that time there were at least some people objected to these old sins of our nation. But what should we do today?


[1] Tim Flannery, ed, Watkin Tench”s 1788, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2009, p. 91.

[2] In fact Great Britain was not formally an Empire until 1876, when Queen Victoria was made Empress of India. But through acquisition of other countries for trade and commercial gain, it had gained control of lands in many places. It was in fact an international commercial empire.

[3] William Howitt, Colonization and Christianity: a popular history of the treatment of the native by the Europeans in all their colonies, London, Longman, 1838, pp. 499–501.

[4] Geoffrey Blainey, A Land Half Won, Revised Edition, Sydney, Sun, 1992, pp. 30-48.

[5] John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, tr. Kathy Childress, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997, Sermon on Galatians 6:9-11, pp. 624,625.

[1] No author named, Neighbours of the Never-Never,  Sydney, Church Missionary Society, 1923, p. 16, as cited in John Harris, We wish we’d done more, Adelaide, Openbook, 1998, p. 449.

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