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What does it mean to be a settler?



In July of last year, Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance writer Nayuka Gorrie asked on her Twitter account, ‘For my non-mob followers — do you identify as a settler? If not, why?’. 

A stylised Australia illustration by Chris Johnston

At the time, I read the thread was curiosity and interest. Was I a settler? What did it mean to be a settler? I began asking my non-Indigenous friends around me what their thoughts were on the matter: did they identify as settlers? Some reacted with intrigue and were open to discussing it with me, and others reacted with strong distaste. ‘No’, they would say, ‘I just don’t like the word — it doesn’t describe who I am’.

More and more, I begun to see the term appear within my bubble, and understand that I, of English and Scottish ancestry, was in fact a settler too. Within my sphere, I saw the term used by non-Indigenous Australians, especially around Invasion Day.

On Invasion Day this year, Zambian-Australian singer-songwriter and rapper Sampa The Great tweeted, ‘I stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples of Australia. As a settler on Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung Lands, I know the 26th of January marks the beginning of colonisation and genocide, not a day of celebration. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!’

On the same day, Australian author and journalist Benjamin Law tweeted an image of the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia with the caption, ‘On this day, non-Indigenous folks celebrate our multicultural. Too few know Australia’s always been this way. Fellow settlers: let’s stop being defensive and instead use today as an opportunity to learn about the survival humanity’s oldest civilisation. #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe’.

However, outside of the realms of Twitter, I didn’t really hear the label much, as it still only seemed to be used by those in the progressive fringes of the mainstream. So, why were others rejecting it so quickly out of hand? Well, in answer to this, I believe it’s due to the uncomfortable nature of the word, as it nods to the dark part of the British settlement that began in 1788, which saw genocide, massacres and the brutal treatment of Aboriginal peoples as a result. The term settler reminds us of this past, and many would prefer to ignore it than confront the shame and guilt associated with it.


'To me, the term settler acknowledges that we live in settler colonialism, which continues the systematic oppression of Indigenous and Aboriginal Australians. This is a system that because of my ethnicity — the same as the invaders who breached the Australian shores in 1788 — I benefit from.'


Furthermore, a lot of rejection around the term settler comes from the idea that what’s in the past is in the past, and all we can do is look to the future. I heard a lot of takes on the matter involving the notion that current Australians, and their parents and parents’ parents, did not invade or settle here — they themselves are not settlers, simply just Australian.

There is also an argument that a lot of non-Indigenous Australians today are descendants from those who came to Australia many years after the original European settlement. But as Indigenous Canadian member of the Gwawaenuk Nation and author Bob Joseph explains in VICE, when asked how he defines settles in regards to the Canadian experience, he explained, ‘When I think about settlers, there are those who came over here because their colonial governments back home said, ‘Hey, there’s all this free land over here if you wanna make a move, it’s a land of opportunity, you can take it up for free or buy it.’

Many Australians are citizens of this nation as they, their parents or ancestors, came to Australia with the notion that the country was one of opportunity for them. All the while, the original custodians of the land were being oppressed. On my paternal side, my ancestors came to Australia in the 1800s, a time when massacres of Indigenous Australians were still extremely rife.

In fact, researchers have said that as many as 500 massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occured well into the 20th century. Since the original settlement, the further colonisation spread, the further the massacres over the country did too. And it is colonisation that allowed my ancestors to be here whether they had a direct hand in the massacres or not.

Furthermore, the idea that the past is the past and we cannot change it continues the unrecognition in mainstream Australia of the brutality faced by Aboriginal people and the racism in which the nation is built. To me, the term settler acknowledges that we live in settler colonialism, which continues the systematic oppression of Indigenous and Aboriginal Australians. This is a system that because of my ethnicity — the same as the invaders who breached the Australian shores in 1788 — I benefit from.

Musical artist Lonelyspeck responded to Gorrie’s original tweet with, ‘!! i find it’s basically always so much more productive to treat ~identity labels~ as describing processes and interactions as opposed to fixed states. verbs do so much more than nouns & adjectives’.

This notion plays into how I view my own settler identity label; as not so much that I physically came onto Australian shores, invaded and settled, but rather that I am a product of the settler-colony of Australia. I live, work, form relationships, pay rent, and play on stolen land; land that always was, and always will, Aboriginal land.



Marnie VinallMarnie Vinall is a freelance writer and copywriter in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor of Beat Magazine and Concrete Playground, and has bylines in ABC News, Mumbrella, B&T and Globo Hobo. 

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Marnie Vinall, settler identity, colonialism



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Existing comments

It's funny, isn't it, this resistance to that word. I feel a refusal of it to, a "But!" Think that's partly the fragility that comes from living within a limited culture that's disconnected from the place my family's called home for five generations. I think many associate the term with "white supremacist" as if it presumes they themselves would invade another country for "free" land in a heartbeat. I think too there's a mix in most people of settlers and of those people who were transported here for often ridiculous crimes, which muddies the waters in people's minds. Those people, a world away from their homes, once they got their freedom from the state after their seven years hard labour for stealing some food because Mother England saw fit to allow many of her people to go hungry – are they in the same category as settlers even if they did become so? They are, of course. But with muddier waters. But my ancestors ARE all settlers. They DID come to this country which was genociding Aboriginal people. The general consensus was that Aboriginal people were not as human as the "civilised" ones who came. What evil. There's no need to run from that. Humans have this propensity to demonise and otherise other groups. The groups change with the ages, but we have this inbuilt reactivity and scapegoating tendency. Let's own that shit. If we don't acknowledge the history of that, the weight of it will hang from us in our interactions with Aboriginal people and with the land now. Maybe we won't be free to acknowledge and call it to account in ourselves when we do it today, whether it's to Aboriginal people, or refugees, or Julian Assange, or socialists, or the people in the global south making the products we buy cheaply in Bunnings.

Sue Stevenson | 01 March 2020  

Invasion is a word full of foreboding for the land and people who are subject to it. British 'settlers' justified this ill treatment because they believed themselves to be enlightened, civilised and sophisticated. And the ultimate insult of terra nullius was perpetrated. I feel a (still) significant connection to my English/Scottish roots and I am drawn to that connection. However, I also love this land and I can hope I have enough humility to acknowledge, and value, the land's connection to Indigenous peoples and their deep love of country. We can be one people, if non-Indigenous people can reach out and touch.

Pam | 01 March 2020  

But we are all settlers, indigenous and non-indigenous. The ancestors of those we now call indigenous all settled here over time, starting perhaps fifty thousand years ago and continuing up until some unknown time before Europeans arrived. And those settlements were hardly likely to have been peaceful. As new batches of aboriginals arrived they would have to have contended with those already here, with a great deal of pushing and shoving, injury and deaths, before some uneasy peace would have been established. Some research says there were over 200 different population groups in Australia when Europeans arrived. They surely didn't all arrive together and then calmly and peacefully spread out over this vast continental land mass. They settled just as the Europeans did. Only these later arrivals were far more efficient at gaining what they wanted. They had better weapons, better transport and there were far more of them. But apart from doing it on a much larger scale they behaved no differently than all but the first of those two hundred or so groups had done. And of course now we have a written record of what has happened, of what went on previously we know next to nothing.

John R. Sabine | 01 March 2020  

I feel very lost in this discussion. My forebears were Irish Famine refugees, so I have something of their actions to take responsibility for. I do not know what I meant to do to make my tiny contribution to 'reach out and touch' as Pam said. In my working life I tutored Indigenous students, until Kevin Rudd stopped the programme. I have taught them in many classes and did my best to learn from them what they wanted to know and where they wanted to go educationally. I am lost.

Gabrielle | 01 March 2020  

A thought-provoking article but it doesn't challenge me to question my identity; the premise of Gorrie's question pleading that there is a case to define a person in some obscure digital I/O, yes/no AND then some perceived need to qualify "why not". If you feel the need to sub-classify individuals on the basis of some characteristics that they can't control it equates to definining the various divisions that create the crisis for the middle East, Rohingya and LGBTQI+. I believe the nature of the question and premise is deliberately provocative; be a "settler" or justify why you are not. It's a passive/agressive approach which generates another unnecessary divide in society; why is it important to anybody else how anyone identifies themselves and where in what hierarchical structure does it fit? Society has matured such that if a person born XY male chooses to identify as female (or other) is now lawful and unquestionable for "why"; it's their choice, and similarly, if that is needful to their id and sense of being it is their business. We'd be outraged if people had to explain their sexual identity after they ticked the box. Are we so immature on the race debate that we need to fabricate another social divide?

Ray | 01 March 2020  

Thank you Marnie for your very thought-provoking article. I am one of those Australians from an English/Scots background who does not like to think of myself as a settler. However, I realise that my forebears were settlers of this country and I was born on the land of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. Knowing much of the shameful and brutal history of the invasion and occupation of this land, I believe that solidarity with Aboriginal people is very important for national unity and that we should all support the Reconciliation process.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 March 2020  

I feel quite uncomfortable to be called a "Settler". On my father's side, my great, great grandfather was transported from Ireland to Sydney Cove in the 1850's, apparently for "rebellion" against the English occupiers of his land. There was no trial, no justice for him. I can imagine the last thing he wanted was to be torn from family and kin and put on a rickety old ship for nine months at sea with no certainty he would reach "New South Wales" alive, let alone healthy. He did apparently. He was sent up to the Clarence River Valley to cut Ceder timber until it ran out! His family ( he was married by then), moved to western Victoria to grow , yes you guessed it, Potatoes! I have been back to Ireland ; twice. I went to where my ancestors lived. It was a very emotional journey, one I shall never forget. Am I a 'Settler'? I have felt the pain of "dispossession of my land" when in Ireland, the pain of great loss, as I sailed in the Ferry from Dublin across the Irish Sea to Holly head in Wales. I watched the Irish coastline disappearing into the mists with much nostalgia .Will I return? At 71 years ,I doubt it! If I am a 'settler,' then the English, who invaded my ancestral home land are 'Settlers" too. I did not ask to be here. What was done in the past belongs in the past.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 March 2020  

The philosophy of communalism, by which some generations are permanently children of the soil while other generations are permanently carpetbaggers, is why Malaysia has a new prime minister and a former ‘progressive’ government.

roy chen yee | 02 March 2020  

Most Non-Indigenous Australians would admit they are the descendants of migrants or are migrants themselves. Even the ancestors of Indigenous Australians, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, came here from somewhere else. This was well before recorded history. They have been here for thousands of years and had a complex society and a unique relationship with the land well before the First Fleet arrived to begin the gradual British occupation of the country. You would have to be insane to deny that horrible crimes were perpetrated on the Indigenous people, including massacres. These were not all unpunished. Colonial administrators, like Governor Gipps, did punish some of the perpetrators of the Myall Creek Massacre. I believe that, in a private ceremony each year, descendants of both the survivors and perpetrators of this Massacre meet to reconcile. There comes a stage where, after all the wrongs are admitted and appropriate reconciliation made, we need to move on. It is important that ATSI people take control of their own destiny. I see the real light there in people such as Linda Burney, who is probably one of the most effective Australian politicians bar none and whose story, which includes love and support from both her Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal relatives, is inspiring. This is the way of the future.

Edward Fido | 02 March 2020  

I find it interesting that so many who commented before me are uncomfortable with the identifier 'settler'. Apart from the Indigenous Australians, we are all settlers, whether from the colonial period or from the large scale migration period following the second world war. The term 'settler' does not identify us or our immigrant ancestors as perpetrators of massacre. It does identify us as people who do benefit from the 18th and 19th century early settlements, in which time most of the massacres of Indigenous Australians occurred. Being directly descended from five different nations of Europe, to which my children can add two different nations of Asia, where else can we call 'home' except Australia? Yes, we are Australians, and can be accurately referred to as non-Indigenous, or settler. That is no more nor less than historical accuracy. Meanwhile, common decency demands that we of the settler communities recognise the ongoing disadvantage of Indigenous Australians. At least we should support them in their present drive for recognition, including having a forum in which they can speak and be heard in the Federal Parliament on matters of law and social services which affect them.

Ian Fraser | 03 March 2020  

So welcome to country.

Peter Moller | 04 March 2020  

I am descended from convicts who arrived on the first fleet (Lucas and Gascoigne). They and their descendants became settlers. I read years ago that the slaughter of aboriginal people on the frontiers of settlement increased over the following decades and was worse in the 1800s than the 1700s. I take this to mean that each generation following the first convicts somehow felt justified in shedding more and more blood as they took more and more land. This was a terrible descent into evil. And it was perpetrated over five or more generations and into the 1900s. My father once told me proudly that a pose left my great grandparent’s homestead to shoot or capture Jimmy Governor. This in particular has always troubled me because it is so close to home. I am aware that I am presumably the first generation since my ancestors arrived in 1788 to oppose racism, although to be honest at no great cost to myself other than to stand up to my late father and lose that relationship.

Bernard Broughton | 04 March 2020  

Australia is aboriginal land forever? It is communalism to believe that some generations are permanently children of the soil while other generations are permanently carpetbaggers. Australia isn’t Malaysia.

roy chen yee | 04 March 2020  

Just reading Inga Simpson’s essay “Encounters with amnesia” and this quote from Judith Wright’ s Born of the Conquerors leaps out: “The love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of invasion - have become a part of me. It is a haunted country.” Knowing a place means taking on its history.

Pam | 04 March 2020  

I utterly reject being categorized. It's how cruel, heartless people shut you up, before they shut you out, then if they get the chance, round you up. People of all political positions are doing this because they recognize the power of it, without understanding what a fascist mechanism it is. I'm an Australian, if you want to shape a conversation based on what single-word category you fit me into, then you force me to do the same to you or I lose my voice. It's ugly, tendentious and nasty, we should all beware the people who push this at us.

sean | 05 March 2020  

In many rural regions and their towns people referred to respectfully as settlers are WW1 and WW2 soldier settlers who farmed and grazed usually on run-down former squatters runs and were the financial backbone of the towns. As the proud son of a 'settler' the word suggests far reaching consequences for the development of Australian agriculture and growth of dominant cities.

Peter M | 07 March 2020  

In 1970 my husband , recruited for a government job for a minimum of three years, and I with our two childen arrived in Australia from the UK . We saw it as an adventure and had no plans to stay forever. But, stay we did! Now I am first of all , Australian, and possibly "migrant"might describe me and my family. It is good that the role of Indigenous people is honoured now and their contribution to life here over thousands of years is acknowledged. However, clearly a great number of them are also descended from settlers, convicts and migrants.This heritage seems to be ignored or discounted .The terrible events of the past no doubt colour perceptions but not all non-Indigenous folk ill-treated the First Australians. People choose the identity with which they are comfortable but to deny all other forebears seems negative to me. My own family includes members and ancestors of many backgrounds....English , Sri Lankan , Indian, Irish, Dutch, Jewish (Poland), Maori, Vietnamese, Cambodian but we all agree we are "Australian". However and from where Australians of today came, let us acknowledge our ancestry but rejoice in what we share in this great country.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 11 March 2020  

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