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‘The War of the Worlds’: an allegory for the massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia

CREDIT: BBC 1

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 11th March 2024

The Genocide of the Australian Aboriginals

Remember that science fiction block buster Stephen Spielberg directed a few years back called, ‘War of the Worlds’? What if I told you that when Wells wrote the book, in the late 1800s, he was actually writing about the British invasion of Tasmania.

‘War of the Worlds’ is an iconic tale of the impact of an Imperial power invading another country. When Wells wrote it, he wanted to make the Brits squirm for their acts as an Imperialist power; when Spielberg wrote it, he wanted to make the Yanks do the same.  

When Wells wrote the book, the British Empire was still the dominant super power in the world. The Brits had been ruling the seas for hundreds of years. Why wouldn’t they? Brittain was an island, their neighbours invaded them using ships; it only made sense to defend themselves they had to become better than their neighbours at sailing and boat building.

Credit: By E. Le Bihan

After Europe realized that there was a whole world out there ripe for the picking, the Brits seized the opportunity to expand their lands. Having the best ships, they spread faster than their rivals, such as Holland, France and Spain, and claimed much of the new world as their own.

Australian Aborigines in Chains at Wyndham prison, 1902.

CREDIT: Rare Historical Photos

They used their advanced technology to subdue the ‘primitive’ Indigenous inhabitants and forced whole countries, like Australia, India and Africa, to denounce their sovereignty and assimilate into the British Empire.

When Wells came up with the idea, he wasn’t sure how to package it. The truth about the expansion of the British Empire was not something you could read about in history books. The British were the victors; they were the heroes in the story, right? They weren’t going to include stories that made them look like the villains in the story.

But even in Wells’ time, people started squirming a little at some of the reports being sent home from relatives in the colonies. Unsavory stories about rape, murder and massacres. Wells knew he just couldn’t sell that type of story.

So, he took another tack. He used the SF genre and created an allegory that mirrored the British invasion of Tasmania.

The premise of ‘War of the Worlds’ is simple enough: an alien species attacks the inhabitants of the modern world utilizing advanced technological weapons and craft, but it’s in this simplicity that it becomes incredibly sophisticated. Wells creates a direct parallel to the British’s use of advanced technology in their colonization of Australia. The ray gun and flying saucers are as devastating and indefensible as the guns and ships used by the British in their invasion. Wells creates a fictitious scenario that posits the question, ‘imagine if someone came and did this to us. How would we like it?’

Throughout the story Wells describes the futility of Earth weapons to combat the hostile invaders and the indiscriminate terror unleashed upon men, women and children alike, again a parallel to the massacres of whole clans and language groups on the Australian continent.

Featured Image: Portrait of Herbert George Wells (1920) by George Charles Beresford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before we judge the Martians too harshly, he wrote, “We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races.

The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” H.G. Wells

While the terms Wells uses like, ‘inferior races’ and ‘human likeness’ are now incredibly offensive, the sentiment is not.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know this deeper layer to the story of ‘War of the Worlds’. They only see the literal meaning of the story: imagine if aliens from outer space attacked us?

Wells creates a story that is so terrifying in its scope to the civilized world, that when, fifty years later, Orsen Welles transformed it into a radio drama, people were so frightened that some leapt off skyscrapers to avoid contact with the ‘hostile aliens’.

While Wells’ attempt to create an SF story that holds the British to account for their devastating treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal people may fall short of its purpose for much of his audience, its message does not go unnoticed nor unappreciated for readers who are willing to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.

The idea of a technologically hostile alien species invading Earth is a frightening prospect; but the knowledge that humans have committed genocide against other humans, out of greed, is a far more terrifying reality.

Image from Wellcome Library, London

If you would like to read a story about the invasion of Australia, check out ‘Savages’, a retelling of the devastating impact on the Nyangbal Aboriginal people. Available in the Store.

There’s a whole lot of stuff like this out there that we weren’t taught about in schools. It’s worth checking out.

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, the environment, and their culture. 

 

Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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