The Australian population is constituted by 2% of the indigenous population. This proportion has faced drastic changes in various aspects of their society stemming from their colonization by European settlers. This essay seeks to explore the effects of colonization on the health issues of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples today.
But first, we must ask ourselves what ‘colonization’ is. This is the imposition of sovereign power by a country over a foreign land with the purpose of exploiting such land as part of the sovereign territory of the colonialists. In order to achieve this, the indigenous society with its political system, religion and culture would have to be displaced, subjugated (to the colonial system), or completely destroyed.
Colonial sentiments usually stemmed from a belief that the invader (and colonizer) was superior in terms of culture and intelligence; and that they were mandated by nature to dominate over populations perceived to be primitive; no doubt, the ways of life of the colonized was bound to change drastically; and not necessarily for the better.
History of Colonization in Australia
The beginning of the colonization of Australia can be traced to Sydney in 1788 by the British. The Europeans brought many things and aspects of their lives with them; however, one of the most devastating impacts of the settlement was the introduction of exotic diseases to the indigenous population. Diseases such as chickenpox, measles and flu; that otherwise caused mild and rarely fatal ailment to their European hosts caused severe epidemics correlating to the frontier of European settlement.
These diseases greatly weakened the indigenous populace and significantly reduced their population; additionally, these epidemics tended to be more severe in large, densely populated communities.
The already weakened society was then driven off the land to facilitate farming; this act stemmed from the assumption that since the lifestyle of the people was nomadic, they could easily settle somewhere else and be comfortable just as well [Elder, 2003]. Venereal diseases were completely foreign to the indigenous immune defense system; therefore when they were introduced to the population, this had a severe impact on male and female fertility with a deep negative effect on the population growth of the indigenous population.
The relationship between the indigenous people and the Europeans was initially cordial; however, this changed when the former realized that the settlers were negatively impacting their lives; they were driving them away from their land, and restricting the areas they could migrate to when the resources of their current settlements run out, as was their way of life. The settlers were also restricting the natives from accessing natural food resources; this set the stage for a series of violent clashes between the settlers and the aborigines.
Governor Macquarie, who was appointed in 1810, believed that the solution to these clashes was the ‘civilization’ of the aboriginal people. This meant the abolishment of their traditional practices and culture in favor of western culture. The colonial government resulted in forcing the aborigines into adapting permanent settlement as their way of life; taking up farming as the way of subsistence; these attempts were rejected and opposed by the aborigines. The governor also sanctioned the forced schooling of the aboriginal children [Elder, 2003].
When all these attempts at ‘civilization’ failed, the governor resulted to placing, through legislation, all the aboriginal people under the rule of the British; the laws allowed the summary execution of any aborigine who resisted this control [Elder, 2003].
The spread of the settler and their engagement in farming and ranching activities generally affected the ability of the aboriginal people from engaging in the traditional form of subsistence, hunting; this can be attributed to the introduction of species that directly competed with the indigenous species for natural resources, such as cattle and rabbits. Additionally, the settlers took all the fertile lands that had offered abode to the hunter-gatherer societies of the aboriginal people.
Therefore the colonization of the aboriginal people had a three-pronged effect on their health; the introduction of diseases some with immediate and others long term effects, dispossession of ancestral lands causing psychological diseases and breaking the spirit, and the restriction of the people into the settlement; thus destroying the hunter-gatherer society and changing of their diet.
We are going to explore four aspects, in which colonization negatively influenced the health of the aboriginal Australians; the change from their traditional diets, the effects of disenfranchisement on their psychological status, the economic status during colonization and its effects on health; and the introduction of drug and substance abuse to the indigenous population.
The health of the aboriginal people was definitely better before colonization than it is today; the aboriginal way of life was structured in a way that ensured optimal health of the population.
The aboriginal diet derived from hunting and gathering was low in fat, sugars and salt [Gracey, 2000]. Additionally, the aboriginal person stayed physically fit as the activities of acquiring this food dictated such. The population was regulated by the seasonal low kilojoule intake as dictated by the scarcity of food during summer; however, laws governing the distribution of food among kinsmen ensured that everybody got fed at any one time.
With colonization, the diet of the people changed drastically; the forced settlements and mandatory labor in the settler farms gave the Europeans another means of exploiting the aborigines; the ‘payments’ were made in form of cheap and perishable goods rather than money. Therefore, rice, white flour, tobacco, tinned meat, sugar, tea and other commodities became the standard modes of payment to the aborigines [Gracey, 2000]. This had a profound effect on the diet and the welfare of the recipients that resonates even today.
The societies also had practices that enabled them to stay cohesive and support each other in times of crisis, thus alleviating stress and preventing psychological problems.
During the period of colonization and settlement, the Europeans brought with them tobacco, opium and alcohol; and introduced the use of these items to the population; the impact of substance abuse rising from this event are still being felt today as there is a disproportionate occurrence of abuse among the indigenous population as compared to Australians of European descent.
The delivery of health services to the indigenous Australians through western medicine is usually met with difficulty; this is due to the fact that the western and indigenous beliefs are fundamentally different. The traditional beliefs tend to associate the causation of disease with the malfunction of the social and the spiritual status of the person; consequently, the cure of the disease will arise not from the administration of prescribed medicine but from supernatural intervention [ATSIC, 1999].
There is a general consensus that the health status of the aboriginal people in Australia is below the expected standards of a developed country [Paradies, et al, 2008]. The epidemiological demographics of diseases in Australia show that the health status of this proportion of the population is 100 years behind that of the general (European decent) section. The poor health of this group has been attributed to their poor living conditions, low socioeconomic status and a health policy that does not recognize the cultural and social norms of the aboriginal community [Paradies, et al, 2008].
Some of the issues that put the aboriginal people at a health disadvantage include poor housing and sanitation, inadequate supply of clean water and sanitation facilities and malnutrition. Unemployment, the displacement of ancestral lands and poverty commonly led to a feeling of rejection causing alcohol and substance abuse [Mellor, 2003].
The Australian indigenous people suffer from a high incidence of disease that has ceased to be important in other developed parts of the world; and whose cure is widely known and available. Diseases such as leprosy, ‘old-world’ tuberculosis, which have been virtually eradicated in other parts of the world, retain a disproportionately high prevalence among this population [Eckermann, et al, 2005].
Alcoholism among the aborigines is eight and a half times more than that of the rest of the Australian population; remains a large cause of hospitalization.
The aborigines are also disproportionately prone to diabetes and hypertension.
With all these diseases affecting them, the provision of health services is paradoxically lower among this population; this has been blamed partly on the lack of economic power to solicit health services [Couzos, et al, 1998].
However, the poor attendance of hospitals by the aborigines has been largely blamed on institutionalized racism; the aborigines usually complain of subtle or overt racial discrimination in the country’s hospitals; many of these refuse to visit the hospitals again [Mellor, 2003]. Additionally, there have been complaints of insensitivity to the aboriginal culture and practices [Larson, 2007]. Some of the diseases predilections among the aborigines have been reclassified as ‘Lifestyle diseases’ whose only treatment changes in the way of life; this is obviously difficult considering their overt social and economic disadvantage.
There are obviously several factors that put the indigenous people of Australia at a bigger health risk than the general population. The significance of historical occurrences, such as the effects of colonialism, cannot be ignored and may arguably be one of the biggest factors causing the unsatisfactory health status of aboriginal Australians.
Many of the effects of colonialism on health (and many other sectors) cannot be reversed; however, recognizing them as being significant is a first step in creating systems that are sensitive to the unique needs of the indigenous people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. (1999). As a matter of fact: Answering the myths and misconceptions about Indigenous Australians (2nd ed.). Canberra: ATSIC
Couzos, S., Murray, R. B., & Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council (W.A.). (2008). Aboriginal primary health care: an evidence-based approach (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press.
Eckermann, A., Dowd, T., Chong, E., Nixon, L., Gray, R., & Johnson, S. (2005) Binan GoonJ; Bridging Cultures in Aboriginal Health (2nd ed.). Sydney: Churchill Livingstone.
Elder, B. (2003). Blood on the wattle: Massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788. (3rd ed.). Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: New Holland.
Gracey, M. (2000): Historical, cultural, political, and social influences on dietary patterns and nutrition in Australian Aboriginal children. American Journal of Clinician Nutrition, 2000 Nov;72 (5 Suppl):1361S-1367S.
Larson, Ann Marisa Gillies, Peter J. Howard, Juli Coffin. (2007): It’s enough to make you sick: the impact of racism on the health of Aboriginal Australians. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. Vol. 31.No: 4.Pg: 322-329.2007
Mellor, David (2003): Contemporary Racism in Australia: The Experiences of Aborigines; Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 29, No. 4, 474-486 (2003)
Paradies, Yin, Harris, Ricci & Anderson, Ian (2008): The impact of racism on Indigenous health in Australia and Aotearoa: towards a research agenda. Discussion Paper Series: No. 4. Casuarina, N. T.: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.