IN BLACK AND WHITE
Genocide, often considered a human hallmark confined to rare perverts, actually has many animal precedents and used to be considered socially acceptable or admirable. Whether we will succeed in curbing our modern power to commit it depends on our coming to recognize its frequency in human history, the potential for it in all of us, and the ways in which ordinary people try to rationalize becoming killers.
While the anniversary of any nation's founding is taken as cause for its inhabitants to celebrate, Australians had special cause in 1988, their bicentennial year. Few groups of colonists faced such obstacles as those who landed with the First Fleet at the future site of Sydney in 1788. Australia was still Terra Incognita: the colonists had no idea what to expect or how to survive. They were separated from their mother country by a sea voyage of 15,000 miles, lasting eight months. Two-and-a-half years of starvation would pass until a further supply fleet arrived from England. Many of the settlers were convicts who had already been traumatized by the most brutal aspects of brutal eighteenth-century life. Despite those beginnings, the settlers survived, prospered, filled a continent, built a democracy, and established a distinctive national character. It is no wonder that Australians felt pride as they celebrated their nation's founding.
Nevertheless, one set of protests marred the celebrations. The white settlers were not the first Australians. Instead, Australia had been settled around 50,000 years ago, by the ancestors of people now usually referred to as Australian Aborigines and also known in Australia as blacks. In the course of English settlement, most of those original inhabitants were killed by the settlers or died of other causes, leading some modern descendants of the survivors to stage bicentenary protests instead of celebrations. The celebrations focused implicitly on how Australia became white. I shall begin this chapter by focusing instead on how Australia ceased to be black, and how courageous English settlers came to commit genocide. Lest white Australians take offence, I should make clear that I am not accusing their forefathers of having done something uniquely horrendous. Instead, my reason for discussing the extermination of the Aborigines is precisely because it is not unique: it is a well documented example of a phenomenon whose frequency few people appreciate. While our first association with the word 'genocide' is likely to be the killings in Nazi concentration camps, they did not constitute the largest-scale genocide even of this century. The Tasmanians and hundreds of other peoples were modern targets of successful smaller extermination campaigns. Numerous peoples scattered throughout the world are potential targets in the near future. Yet genocide is such a painful subject that either we would rather not think about it at all, or else we would like to believe that nice people do not commit genocide, only Nazis do. But our refusal to think about it has consequences: we have done little to halt the numerous episodes of genocide since the Second World War, and we are not alert to where it may happen next. Together with our destruction of our own environmental resources, our genocidal tendencies coupled to nuclear weapons now constitute the two most likely means by which the human species may reverse all its progress virtually overnight.
Despite increasing interest in genocide on the part of psychologists and biologists as well as some lay people, basic questions about it remain disputed. Do any animals routinely kill members of their own species, or is that a human invention without animal precedents? Throughout human history, has genocide been a rare aberration, or has it been common enough to rank as a human hallmark along with art and language? Is its frequency now increasing, because modern weapons permit push-button genocide and thereby reduce our instinctive inhibitions about killing fellow humans? Why have so many cases attracted so little attention? Are genocidal killers abnormal individuals, or are they normal people placed in unusual situations? To understand genocide, we cannot proceed narrowly but must draw on biology, ethics, and psychology. Consequently our exploration of genocide will begin by tracing its biological history, from our animal ancestors to the Twentieth Century. After asking how killers have reconciled genocide with their ethical codes, we can examine its psychological effects on the perpetrators, surviving victims, and onlookers. But before we search for answers to these questions, it is useful to start with the extermination of the Tasmanians, as a case study typical of a broad class of genocide. Tasmania is a mountainous island similar in area to Ireland and lying 200 miles off Australia's southeast coast. When discovered by Europeans in 1642, it supported about 5,000 hunter-gatherers related to the Aborigines of the Australian mainland and with perhaps the simplest technology of any modern peoples. Tasmanians made only a few types of simple stone and wooden tools. Like the mainland Aborigines, they lacked metal tools, agriculture, livestock, pottery, and bows and arrows. Unlike the mainlanders, they also lacked boomerangs, dogs, nets, knowledge of sewing, and ability to start a fire.
Since the Tasmanians' sole boats were rafts capable of only short journeys, they had had no contact with any other humans since the rising sea level cut off Tasmania from Australia 10,000 years ago. Confined to their private universe for hundreds of generations, they had survived the longest isolation in modern human history—an isolation otherwise depicted only in science fiction. When the white colonists of Australia finally ended that isolation, no two peoples on Earth were less equipped to understand each other than were Tasmanians and whites. The tragic collision of these two peoples led to conflict almost as soon as British sealers and settlers arrived around 1800. Whites kidnapped Tasmanian children as labourers, kidnapped women as consorts, mutilated or killed men, trespassed on hunting grounds, and tried to clear Tasmanians off their land. Thus, the conflict quickly focused on lebensraum, which throughout human history has been among the commonest causes of genocide. As a result of the kidnappings, the native population of northeast Tasmania in November 1830 had been reduced to seventy-two adult men, three adult women, and no children. One shepherd shot nineteen Tasmanians with a swivel gun loaded with nails. Four other shepherds ambushed a group of natives, killed thirty, and threw their bodies over a cliff remembered today as Victory Hill.
Naturally, Tasmanians retaliated, and whites counter-retaliated in turn. To end the escalation, Governor Arthur in April 1828 ordered all Tasmanians to leave the part of their island already settled by Europeans. To enforce this order, government-sponsored groups called roving parties, and consisting of convicts led by police, hunted down and killed Tasmanians. With the declaration of martial law in November 1828, solidiers were authorized to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled areas. Next, a bounty was declared on the natives: five British pounds for each adult, two pounds for each child, caught alive. 'Black catching', as it was called because of the Tasmanians' dark skins, became big business pursued by private as well as official roving parties. At the same time a commission headed by William Broughton, the Anglican archdeacon of Australia, was set up to recommend an overall policy towards the natives. After considering proposals to capture them for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police. In 1830 a remarkable missionary, George Augustus Robinson, was hired to round up the remaining Tasmanians and take them to Flinders Island, thirty miles away. Robinson was convinced that he was acting for the good of the Tasmanians. He was paid 300 pounds in advance, 700 pounds on completing the job. Undergoing real dangers and hardship, and aided by a courageous native woman named Truganini, he succeeded in bringing in the remaining natives—initially, by persuading them that a worse fate awaited them if they did not surrender, but later at gunpoint. Many of Robinson's captives died en route to Flinders, but about 200 reached there, the last survivors of the former population of 5,000.
On Flinders Island Robinson was determined to civilize and christianize the survivors. His settlement was run like a jail, at a windy site with little fresh water. Children were separated from parents to facilitate the work of civilizing them. The regimented daily schedule included Bible reading, hymn singing, and inspection of beds and dishes for cleanliness and neatness. However, the jail diet caused malnutrition, which combined with illness to make the natives die. Few infants survived more than a few weeks. The government reduced expenditures in the hope that the natives would die out. By 1869 only Truganini, one other woman, and one man remained alive. These last three Tasmanians attracted the interest of scientists, who believed them to be a missing link between humans and apes. Hence when the last man, one William Lanner, died in 1869, competing teams of physicians, led by Dr George Stokell from the Royal Society of Tasmania and Dr W.L. Crowther from the Royal College of Surgeons, alternately dug up and reburied Lanner's body, cutting off parts of it and stealing them back and forth from each other. Dr Crowther cut off the head, Dr Stokell the hands and feet, and someone else the ears and nose, as souvenirs. Dr Stokell made a tobacco pouch out of Lanner's skin.
Before Truganini, the last woman, died in 1876, she was terrified of similar post-mortem mutilation and asked in vain to be buried at sea. As she had feared, the Royal Society dug up her skeleton and put it on public display in the Tasmanian Museum, where it remained until 1947. In that year the Museum finally yielded to complaints of poor taste and transferred Truganini's skeleton to a room where only scientists could view it. That too stimulated complaints of poor taste. Finally, in 1976—the centenary year of Truganini's death—her skeleton was cremated despite the Museum's objections, and her ashes were scattered at sea as she had requested.
While the Tasmanians were few in number, their extermination was disproportionately influential in Australian history, because Tasmania was the first Australian colony to solve its native problem and achieved the most nearly final solution. It had done so by apparently succeeding in getting rid of all its natives. (Actually, some children of Tasmanian women by white sealers survived, and their descendants today constitute an embarrassment to the Tasmanian government, which has not figured out what to do about them.) Many whites on the Australian mainland envied the thoroughness of the Tasmanian solution and wanted to imitate it, but they also learned a lesson from it. The extermination of the Tasmanians had been carried out in settled areas in full view of the urban press, and had attracted some negative comment. The extermination of the much more numerous mainland Aborigines was instead effected at or beyond the frontier, far from urban centres.
The mainland governments' instrument of this policy, modelled on the Tasmanian government's roving parties, was a branch of mounted police termed Native Police, who used search-and-destroy tactics to kill or drive out Aborigines. A typical strategy was to surround a camp at night, and to shoot the inhabitants in an attack at dawn. White settlers also made widespread use of poisoned food to kill Aborigines. Another common practice was round-ups in which captured Aborigines were kept chained together at the neck while being marched to jail and held there. The British novelist Anthony Trollope expressed the prevailing nineteenth-century British attitude towards Aborigines when he wrote, 'Of the Australian black man we may certainly say that he has to go. That he should perish without unnecessary suffering should be the aim of all who are concerned in the matter.
These tactics continued in Australia long into the Twentieth Century. In an incident at Alice Springs in 1928, police massacred thirty-one Aborigines. The Australian Parliament refused to accept a report on the massacre, and two Aboriginal survivors (rather than the police) were put on trial for murder. Neck chains were still in use and defended as humane in 1958, when the Commissioner of Police for the state of Western Australia explained to the Melbourne Herald that Aboriginal prisoners preferred being chained.
The mainland Aborigines were too numerous to exterminate completely in the manner of the Tasmanians. However, from the arrival of British colonists in 1788 until the 1921 census, the Aboriginal population declined from about 300,000 to 60,000.
Today, the attitudes of white Australians towards their murderous history vary widely. While government policy and many whites' private views have become increasingly sympathetic to the Aborigines, other whites deny responsibility for genocide. For instance, in 1982 one of Australia's leading news magazines, The Bulletin, published a letter by a lady named Patricia Cobern, who denied indignantly that white settlers had exterminated the Tasmanians. In fact, wrote Ms Cobern, the settlers were peace-loving and of high moral character, while Tasmanians were treacherous, murderous, war-like, filthy, gluttonous, vermin-infested, and disfigured by syphilis. Moreover, they took poor care of their infants, never bathed, and had repulsive marriage customs. They died out because of all those poor health practices, plus a death wish and lack of religious beliefs. It was just a coincidence that, after thousands of years of existence, they happened to die out during a conflict with the settlers. The only massacres were of settlers by Tasmanians, not vice versa. Besides, the settlers only armed themselves in self-defence, were unfamiliar with guns, and never shot more than forty-one Tasmanians at one time. To place these cases of the Tasmanians and the Australian Aborigines in perspective, consider the three maps on pages 256-8, depicting for three different time periods some mass killings that have been labelled as genocide. These maps beg a question for which there is no simple answer: how to define genocide. Etymologically, it means 'group killing': the Greek rootgenos, meaning race, and the Latin root -cide, meaning killing (as in suicide, infanticide). The victims must be selected because they belong to a group, whether or not each victim as an individual has done something to provoke killing. As for the defining group characteristic, it may be racial (white Australians killing black Tasmanians), national (Russians killing fellow white Slavs, the Polish officers at Katyn in 1940), ethnic (the Hutu and Tutsi, two black African groups, killing each other in Rwanda and Burundi in the 1960s and 1970s), religious (Moslems and Christians killing each other in Lebanon in recent decades), or political (the Khmer Rouge killing their fellow Cambodians from 1975 to 1979).
While collective killing is the essence of genocide, one can argue over how narrow a definition to adopt. The word 'genocide' is often used so broadly that it loses meaning and we become tired of hearing it. Even if it is to be restricted to large-scale cases of collective killing, ambiguities remain. A sample of the ambiguities could run as follows.
How many deaths are needed for a killing to count as genocide rather than were murder? This is a totally arbitrary question. Australians killed all 5,000 iasmanians, and American settlers killed the last twenty Susquehanna Indians in 1763. Does the small number of available victims disqualify these killings as genocidal, despite the completeness of extermination?