Sunday 28 June 2009

Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land by: Sven Lindqvist

Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land
Sven Lindqvist

Translated by Sarah Death

The New Press
ISBN 9781595580511

In the last few years Sven Lindqvist has become one of my favorite nonfiction authors. He probes some of the worst situations in human history, yet always ends up with giving us some hope for our future. In earlier books, such as Exterminate All The Brutes he chronicles the history of European genocides in Africa, and in The Skull Measurers Mistake he chronicles a history of men and women who spoke out against racism. In this volum
e, Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land, he chronicles the history of racism and systematic abuse against the Aboriginals from Australia, from the arrival of James Cook in 1770 to 1992 when the Mabo Decision in the Australian Supreme Court outlaws the concept of 'terra nullius'.

Like many of his earlier books it is written as part history and part journal. He chronicles events from the past, key places in this history story, and side by side with that is his journey to and fro across the Australian countryside to personally experience the places discussed in the history. He writes in a very fluid, lucid style. At times it appears to be stream of conscious writing, yet as the reader goes further and further into the book, you realize that it was nothing so random. Every history event portrayed has a specific purpose; each personal recollection brings to light either the preceding or following events; each portrait of either a victim or someone who attempted to help the victims has specific meaning and purpose to the whole.

What amazed me most about this book was that it was a story with which I was completely unfamiliar. I remember in school in the late 70's and early 80's that we often had lessons on apartheid and the situation in South Africa, and even Africa as a whole. Later in high school and into university I often encountered history around the Latin American situation and especially liberation theology, and again in film with such powerful movies as The Mission, Cry Freedom, Amistad and others. Yet never have I encountered these stories and events. Such as:

1911 In the Northern Territory, The Aboriginals Ordinance gives a protector appointed by the 'whites' authority to take any Aborigine of 'half-blood' into custody at any time. The ordinance remained in force until 1957.
1937 The Native Administration Act gives Chief Protector legal instruments with which to 'breed out' the Aborigines, the 'final solution' to the race problem in Western Australia.
1953 The Welfare Ordinance (NT) substitutes the racially neutral word 'ward' for 'Aborigine'. More than 99 percent of the Aboriginal population is declared 'wards' of the state.
1962 Aboriginal people acquire the right to vote in state and commonwealth elections, even though they are still wards of the state.
1964 Aboriginal people are no longer wards of the state, but in name only.
1967 Aboriginal people are included in the national census.
1983 Sixteen Year old John Pat dies in police custody; 5 officers are charged but acquitted.
1991 The Year of Indigenous People.

Lindqvist's book portrays brutal acts by individuals and by a people as a whole. It is not uplifting or enjoyable in the message it portrays. Yet it should be considered essential reading, for man's inhumanity to other humans must be remembered, and we need to remember those few who spoke out against it. Lindqvist's book is easy to read and flows well, but the subject matter and events depicted will be seared into your memory.

(First Published in Imprint 2009-06-26.)

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