Indigenous Australians’ Defence of the Ancestral Dead
This chapter focuses on the remarkable wealth of surviving evidence showing that from the foundation of the penal settlement of New South Wales in 1788, settlers and travellers in the Australian colonies knew that Indigenous Australians took great care to bury their dead in accordance with their ancestral traditions, and regarded burial places as sacred places, the desecration of which was unthinkable in pre-colonial times. Indeed, the customary rights of Australia’s first peoples to continuing ownership and use of land for burial were legally recognised by the British imperial government on the founding of South Australia in the late 1830s. Knowing how the care that the living gave the dead did not prevent the plundering of burial places for scientific ends; but as this chapter shows, many would-be collectors confessed to feeling uneasy about grave-robbing, or kept quiet about their involvement in the plundering of burial places for fear of more censure by their peers. As this chapter documents, there were also instances when settlers declined requests to help procure remains from burial places. What is more, by the end of the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for settlers to protect graves and even memorialise the Indigenous dead.