terra nullius project proposition n. 2
yuill/crowley (NSW), Australia
27 Aug – 24 Sept 2016

– Colonial Empire – the three orders – pencil annotations
– ‘act-no-charity’ / blanket & spray paint
Terra Nullius briefing – 52 pages, 52 steel trays
– Housing Models – transpect (NZ) et al.

Under contemporary international (i.e. European) law, Britain could take control of territory:

– by persuading the indigenous inhabitants to submit themselves to its overlordship;

– by purchasing from those inhabitants the right to settle part or parts of it;

– by unilateral possession on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation

The reports from Captain Cook, however, allowed London to turn a blind eye to the rights of the Aborigines. Cook mistakenly believed that the Aborigines as a whole “lived mainly on shellfish and did not cultivate the land or erect permanent habitations upon it” (Day 26). He described the land as being in “a pure state of nature,” and claimed that there was not “one inch of Cultivated Land in the Whole Country” (Cook qtd. in Day 26). Britain was fully aware of an indigenous population when it sent the first fleet of convicts to Botany Bay in 1787. In a typical display of European cultural and racial arrogance, however, the Aborigines were not seen as adequate proprietors of the land they had inhabited for at least forty thousand years: “The people could not be considered owners of their land. They were simply primitive and happy occupants” (Moore).

Excerpt Terra Nullius and Australian Colonialism, Eklund, 2001

… At the root of the issue was the belief that the indigenous peoples were somehow inferior to the white settlers. Thus the colonists were “unwilling to admit that Australian Aborigines should have equal civil status with white Europeans” (Crowley 112). It followed, then, that terra nullius was a reasonable policy, meant to foster the property rights of the ‘deserving’ while denying property in any form to those outside the dominant, white society. Support for the myth was widespread; in 1838, The Sydney Herald urged its readers to accept its tenets, asking “whether civilized man has not a right to occupy waste lands merely because they are roamed over by scattered trives of wild men” (qtd. in Reynolds 72). Their answer, of course, favored white settlement, concluding that “Such a country is, a desert for every purpose involved in the question, and my be justly occupied by civilized man” (qtd. in Reynolds 72). As widespread as it was, the myth became central to white Australian identity early on. It “dictated the basis of property ownership, and influenced the structures of fundamental Australian institutions, including its government” (McGrath 4). While some white settlers acknowledged the fallacy of the claim that Aboriginal Australians lacked a sense of property—one of the foundations of the terra nullius argument—they accepted the dispossession of indigenous landholders nonetheless. Francis Armstrong noted that Aboriginal land seemed to be “apportioned to different families,” and that it was “beyond doubt inheritable property among them” (Armstrong qtd. in McGrath 244). Still, the myth endured, and grew to serve the diverse needs of an expanding white population. Terra nullius certainly provided the rationalization for the initial British invasion of Australia. It also aided in bringing the land fully under their control by legitimizing their “claim of effective proprietorship that is made by the physical occupation of that land” (Day 3). Eventually, the invaders truly settled, completing the colonization process: white Australians began to view their continent (rather than Great Britain) as ‘home.’