The colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the British to Botany Bay in 1788. At the time of this first European contact, it is estimated that the aboriginal population was 314,000.
One immediate consequence of British settlement was a series of European epidemic diseases such as measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis. The appropriation of land and water resources as sheep and cattle were introduced further damaged aboriginal society. By 1900 the recorded indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000.
The treatment of Aboriginals wasn’t seen as being worthy of a great deal of concern by the British Empire. However, there were critics of colonial policy. One of those horrified with the fate of Australia’s original peoples was Torquay-resident Charles von Hügel (1795-1870).
Charles was an Austrian diplomat, army officer and courtier, whose great interest in life was botany.
He was born in Bavaria and became an officer in the Austrian Hussars and fought against Napoleon.
In 1824 he lived in Vienna where he established his botanical garden and set up a company to sell its flowers. His gardens still have a statue in his honour.
Charles’ travels began when his engagement to a young countess ended with her running off with Prince Metternich. For consolation, he set out in 1831 on a six-year world tour. He sent back botanical examples of what he found and was celebrated by the European ruling classes for his introduction of exotic plants and flowers to Europe’s public gardens. Later, the Royal Geographical Society awarded Charles its Patron’s Medal, “for his enterprising exploration of Cashmere.”
Charles arrived in Western Australia in 1833 to observe the flora and collect seeds for his garden. During this time he wrote a journal which included his botanical observations. The journal also holds a rare record of an aristocratic European’s attitudes toward colonial Australia.
He wrote of the administration, transportation, social life and missionary efforts of the colony. Though he held reactionary views, he was appalled at the way the Aborigines were treated.
In Tasmania – then known as Van Diemen’s Land – he wrote of the long years,
“during which every kind of atrocity that degenerate, transported scoundrels could invent to slake their blood lust or satisfy their fiendish desires was committed against (the Aborigines) with impunity. All this was tolerated by hypocritical England…whose liberal sensibilities will not allow that justice can be done without a jury… England sanctioned all this for no other reason than the hope of filthy lucre”.
Charles believed that the only real concern an Englishman had was to obtain money. He condemned “the scandalous… law”, accepted by the British Government, “that the whole of the earth is the inherited birthright of Europe”.
In 1867 Charles retired and took his family to live in Torquay where he lived in ‘Florian’ on Teignmouth Road. He died on a visit to Brussels on 2 June 1870.