Aborigines And White Settlers
The Breaking Down of Aboriginal Society


When the first European settlers arrived in 1788 the Aborigines were the sole occupants of Australia. A hundred years later Aborigines no longer held much of the continent, and many Aboriginal groups were struggling for survival. Almost everywhere white settlement had proved overpowering. There had been no peaceful adjustment between whites and Aborigines, and the frontier between them had many times been marked in blood. Even where white settlement was sparse, traditional Aboriginal society was often strongly influenced by the presence of the new arrivals.

White people, claiming they had greater natural abilities and a higher standard of civilisation, soon justified what was happening. When they later looked backwards on their short time in Australia, they began to revere the achievements of pioneering whites. The achievements of the Aboriginal people, and the story of what had happened between whites and Aborigines, were ignored or quickly passed over.

The European Explorers

Before 1788 the Macassan seamen were not the only visitors to Australia's shores. European explorers, especially the Dutch, began to make contact with Australia's coasts in the seventeen century. The Dutch, making their way from their Indonesian trading posts, were probably the first white people Aborigines had seen. contacts between them were very limited, for the Dutch made only fleeting visits to the coastline and had been instructed to be careful in any contacts with people found there - possibilities of trade must not be spoiled. the Dutch went back, however, from their visits to report that there was no chance of trade, for the land seemed miserable and full of flies. the Aborigines, unimpressed with the trinkets shown to them, resented the visitors, who had attempted to kidnap some of them. Fear, hostility and occasional bloodshed marked contact between the two sides.

Wooden clubs once used in Victoria

In 1688 and 1699 the buccaneering Englishman William Dampier visited Australia's north-west coast. He gave Europeans a more detailed version of Aboriginal life. Without other versions to compare them with, Dampier's views became widely known and accepted. His lack of understanding led him to a disgust of Aboriginal life, influencing others to a similar conclusion. His description helped to establish the typical beliefs and attitudes - the stereotypes - that future white people were to hold about Aborigines. After Dampier it was some time before other navigators had much contact with Aborigines. The famous Englishman Lieutenant James Cook was the most important. After examining Australia's eastern coast in 1770, Cook wrote more favourably about the Aboriginal inhabitants:

... they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them ... the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life ...


The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have; and setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes. they are tall, straight-bodied and thin, with small, long limbs. they have great heads, round foreheads, and great brows. Their eye-lids are always half closed, to keep the flies out of their yes, they being so troublesome here that no fanning will keep them from coming to one's face... so that, from their infancy, being thus annoyed with these insects, they do never open their eyes as other people do; and therefore they cannot see far, unless they hold up their heads as if they were looking at somewhat over them.

They have great bottle-noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths, the two fore-teeth of their upper jaw are wanting in all of them, men and women, old and young: neither have they any beards. They are long-visaged, and of a very unpleasing aspect, having no one graceful feature in their faces. Their hair is black, short, and curled, like that of the negroes; and not long and lank ... the colour of their skins, both of their faces and the rest of their body, is coal black, like that of the negroes of guinea.

They have no sort of clothes, but the piece of the rind of a tree ty'd lyke a girdle about their waists, and a handful of long grass, or three or four small green boughs, full of leaves, thrust under their girdle to cover their nakedness.

They have no houses, but lye in the open air without any covering the earth being their bed and the heaven their canopy. Whether they cohabit one to one women, or promiscuously. I know not. but they do live in companies, twenty or thirty men, women and children together. their only food is a small sort of fish, which they get my making wares of stone across the coves or branches of the sea; every tide bringing in the little fish, and there leaving them a prey to these people, who constantly attend there to search at low water.

... I did not perceive that they did worship anything. these poor creatures have a sort of weapon to defend their ware or fight with their enemies, if they have any that will interfere with their poor fishery. They did endeavour with their weapons to frighten us who, lying ashore, deterr'd them from one of their fishing places. some of them had wooden swords, others had a sort of lances. the sword is a piece of wood shaped somewhat like a cutclass. the lance is a long strait pole, sharp at one end, and hardened afterwards by heat. I saw no iron, nor any other sort of metal; therefore it is probable they use stone hatchets...

How they get their fire I know not but probably, as Indians do, out of wood.  

Part of William Dampier's description of the Aborigines on the north-west coast of Australia. (After the account in his New Voyage round the World 1697)


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Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet reached Botany Bay in 1788. Their arrival began what is now often regarded as the European invasion of Australia. Phillip had been instructed to make friendly contact with the Aborigines. He was not only to ensure peaceful relations with them but see whether they could become useful in the first settlement. But Aboriginal land rights were completely ignored. Captain Cook had already laid claim to eastern Australia for Britain, and in 1788 Britain simply claimed sovereignty over the eastern part of the continent. Britain considered it now owned this huge part of Australia. the land was judged to be 'waste and unoccupied' and the British thus regarded the First Fleet as bringing the first colonists to Australia. This was the basis on which Britain established the first and the later settlements, openly denying any Aboriginal title to the land and claiming to be supplying the first settlers on the land. When it was found that Aborigines did not appear to fence and cultivate the land but seemed to simply wander over it, British possession was considered to be further justified.

Aboriginal boy

The Aborigines showed surprise and some resentment at their first sight of the new arrivals. Men brandished their spears and women and children often hid. the whites were feared as the returning spirits of the dead. But Aborigines did not mount a strong resistance to the founding of the convict colony. for his part, governor Phillip tried to secure friendly relations with the Aborigines near the first settlement. He had an unusual advantage in his task, since his missing front tooth was a sign of status to Aborigines. Troubles, however, soon began, as white settlement obviously became more permanent. Manners and customs were different. while some people in Europe at the time believed in a certain nobility about the quality of life in more 'primitive' societies, and thus spoke about the 'noble savage', convicts and others in the Sydney district began to treat Aborigines as less than noble savages. Aboriginal ways were thought to be uncivilised, and there was no understanding of the organised social system of the Aboriginal people, with its religious background. soon physical clashes occurred. Fearful whites wanted Aborigines to keep away from their settlements.

Phillip was anxious for Aborigines to tell him more about the inland districts. Even after he was wounded by a spear he kept his desire to befriend Aborigines. This gave way to exasperation when his personal huntsman was speared; he demanded blood and a revenge expedition. Phillip seemed puzzled by the Aborigines, and was disappointed that whites could not 'civilise' them. Aborigines were unattracted by European ways, although one man - Bennelong - accompanied Governor Phillip on his return to England and easily adopted European clothes, manners, speech - and liquor. Other Aborigines in the Sydney district, often led by the noted warrior Pewmulwuy and later his son Tedbury, began a fierce resistance to the white invasion. for years Pemulwuy's spirited opposition disturbed European settlements. The belief even grew - until he was shot in 1802 and his head sent to England - that he could not be harmed by bullets.

White officials and settlers became disillusioned as well as fearful. Although Governor Lachlan Macquarie later fried to help the 'civilising' process by establishing an Aboriginal school at Parramatta and a farm at Port Jackson, many whites began to believe that little could be done to 'civilise' Aborigines. They thought it did not matter if Aborigines began to die out as a race, and that tough methods had to be used to stop continued clashes between the two groups. these clashes became increasingly common along the margin of settlement where, if government protection was not available, white settlers took matters into their own hands.

Differences and Racial Clash

Aborigines in early Sydney and other districts could see little point in many European practices. They did not need to cultivate the soil or keep domesticated animals, since the natural environment provided for their wants. Similarly they saw little need for European learning and religion - they had their own skills and their own explanations of the world around them. In fact Aborigines often proved the better teachers. they show3ed white settlers the trees that provided the best timbers for various purposes and how to cut and treat bark for hut making; they showed how to obtain bark fibre, valuable for rope, and other skills. Above all Aborigines proved excellent guides, especially to white explorers, in strange country.

Aboriginal girl

The whites claimed that physical clashes occurred because Aborigines were naturally wicked and loved fighting. The claim was not accurate. Aborigines in their own society were a peaceful people. Fighting among them was usually on a limited scale, often stopping when the first blood was drawn. there was nothing like the wars known among European people for territory, nor did Aborigines form large-scale combinations for fighting. And Aborigines could scarcely have been impressed by what they saw among the new arrivals, for convict society offered daily examples of harshness and ill-treatment. White people also claimed that Aborigines had no idea of land ownership, therefore white settlers could not be dispossessing them. why, they asked, did Aborigines resent the new arrivals so much? Part of the answer was already apparent to Governor King, who became governor of New South Wales in 1800. He realized that loss of land was a major reason for trouble, although settlers continued to claim Aborigines had no land of their own. Whites would not learn from the example of Bennelong, the Aborigine they knew best, who repeatedly declared that the island of Me-mul (Goat Island), near Sydney Cove, was his own and his family's home. Like other Aborigines Bennelong was deeply attached to his land. to be forced from their group land meant that Aborigines lost their spiritual homes as well as their source of food. In occupying Aboriginal land, whites drove off game, destroyed vegetation, fouled waterholes and showed no respect for sacred places. A modern writer, Professor Colin Tatz, has shown the nature of what was happening:

For Aborigines ... land is a spiritual thing, a phenomenon from which culture and religion derive, it is not sellable or buyable. Land is not private property ... Land was and is endowed with a magical quality, involving a relationship to the sun and the water and the earth and the animals all put together - for the collective use of all. the notion of a fence to separate portions of the land was unknown to them for fences defaced the land. They could not, and some still cannot, understand the concept of making land into private property and giving its 'owners' the right to bar everyone else ... And so bloody conflict and massacre developed ... because whites 'took' what Aborigines did not comprehend could be 'taken'.

As white settlement spread after 1800, clashes continued. Officials in Britain and New South Wales thought the matter was simple. the British Crown was held to own the land. People of both races inhabiting the land were claimed to be British subjects. Aborigines were neither consulted nor given a choice. They were actually declared to be under the protection of the law, but this proved little. In fact whites were those who clamoured for protection and who received it most. With the wool trade becoming more prosperous, settlers then began settling on new grazing land after the Blue Mountains were crossed. In more distant areas official protection of either race was more difficult and often not attempted. violence - 'guerilla warfare' - extended again along the frontier of settlement. guns were at the ready, or were used, on many pastoral properties. Aborigines, too, took to arms, using spears against settlers and stock. Inevitably, clashes ended in the taking of Aboriginal land and the subjection of the people.

A bunyip, drawn by a River Murray Aboriginal in 1848.
The bunyip, much dreaded, was believed to live in deep waterholes or swamps.

The nature of relations between Aborigines and Europeans varied in different districts and was not always violent. European diseases were often the most destructive agent in the decline of Aboriginal groups. Surviving Aborigines began to live in towns as well as country areas. European missionaries sought to break down Aboriginal beliefs and convert Aborigines to Christianity, but they also tried to provide some relief to suffering Aborigines. Yet by the 1830s relationships between Europeans and Aborigines were at a critical stage. European settlers had seized great stretches of country in New South Wales. some pitched battles and other incidents were of major significance. In northern New South Wales in 1838 a group of station-hands killed twenty-eight bound Aborigines in what became known as the Myall Creek Massacre. In this case, unlike many others, the seven station-hands held to be responsible were convicted and hanged for their crime, despite white sympathy for them. Many whites seemed to share the view of a writer a little earlier "Speaking of them collectively, it must be confessed I entertain very little more respect for the aborigines of New Holland, than for the ourang-outang ... 'they would have shared his further opinion:" 'They would have shared his further opinion: 'We have taken possession of their country, and are determined to keep it ...'

The Other Colonies

In Van Diemen's Land the position was even worse. In 1804, soon after white settlement began, some 'innocent and well disposed' Aborigines were murdered at Risdon Cove, starting a chain reaction of unpleasant incidents. Lawless sealers and convicts, in murdering Aborigines and kidnapping Aboriginal women, provoked Aborigines to hatred and a desire for revenge. The settlers wanted to solve the Aboriginal question decisively; some simply wanted to exterminate all Aborigines on the island. they looked to the governor, Lieut.-Colonel Arthur, to take strong action. After several futile measures, Arthur tried to outlaw Aborigines from the settled districts. Soon he declared martial law and began in 1830 an amazing military operation, in which five thousand whites attempted to drive the remaining Aborigines into the Tasman Peninsula. This so-called 'Black War', said to be extremely costly, failed dismally - only two Aborigines were captured. It was left to George Robinson, a bricklayer of simple faith, to attempt a government policy of conciliation. Making contact with surviving groups, he persuaded Aborigines to make their home on flinders Island. though this provided some physical safety, Aborigines now lacked the spiritual comfort of their own lands. Urged to accept strange European customs and learning, Tasmania's Aborigines continued to decline in numbers. By 1850 few survived.

Pukamani (burial ceremony) poles of the Tiwi people, Northern Territory

In Western Australia, settled in the 1820s, the early aims of protecting, Aborigines and offering them the benefits of European learning and religion were, as elsewhere, soon outweighed by other concerns. governor Stirling allowed whites to take strong measures against Aborigines said to be causing trouble. Stirling personally took part in the 'Battle of Pinjarra' to punish Aborigines of the Murray River district south of Perth. Once again the Aborigines faced strong pressure from whites determined to occupy the land and use arms if they chose. At Port Phillip Bay in 1835 an initial attempt was made at land negotiations. John Batman, an ambitious pastoralist from Van Diemen's Land was anxious to secure good grazing land near the Yarra for himself and his partners. Unable to win official approval to settle there, Batman simply bargained with local Aborigines for a large tract of land. the New South Wales governor declared this private treaty illegal, and although settlement at Port Phillip expanded quickly and profitably for other whites, Batman obtained no benefit from his curious deal. Nor did Aborigines, who soon found their traditional life decaying and their numbers declining. This was despite the appointment of official protectors of Aborigines, the founding of mission stations and schools, and an attempt to form a 'Native Police' force which recruited Aborigines themselves for police work.

Great hopes were held that South Australia, settled in 1836, would be free of the racial troubles elsewhere. In Britain officials influenced by the humanitarian movement of the time were anxious to give South Australia's Aborigines much greater protection and the blessings of British ways and the Christian religion. they believed South Australia could be a model colony in this respect. Although a protector of Aborigines was appointed and although a good deal of humanitarian talk about kindly treatment took place, efforts and results were feeble. The Kaurna people around Adelaide was soon shattered as a unit. Aboriginal groups surviving longer felt limited benefit from occasional educational, missionary and welfare attempts. Far from being a model colony in its relations with Aborigines, South Australia resembled the other colonies in the rapid occupation of Aboriginal lands, the physical violence between the races, and the settlers' ignorance of the nature of Aboriginal society. And once again the original idea of giving protection to Aborigines soon gave way to settlers' demands for protection from Aborigines, especially after clashes involving overlanders bringing stock to South Australia.

An Aboriginal rock painting depicting the coming of Europeans

In northern Australia Aborigines and whites engaged in an often violent struggle in the Moreton Bay district (part of the future colony of Queensland). White settlers often resorted to poisoned food and guns along the very troubled frontier. As settlement advanced, the Native Police force - used before in Victoria and New South Wales - became prominent. These mounted Aboriginal troopers, enlisted from remote districts to use their skills of bushcraft against their own race, were trained to enforce peace, ruthlessly as pastoral holdings were developed. For whit3es, the possession of potentially valuable grazing land in the Darling Downs and other areas was at stake; for local Aborigines, this was traditional land and the lifeblood of their existence. Only on stations where their labour was valued were Aborigines welcome; elsewhere they were likely to be attacked indiscriminately. In the Northern Territory things were no better. From the time of John McDouall Stuart's explorations, the Northern Territory was a scene of racial conflict, a conflict marked by mistrust and violence in which guns, spears and staghounds often featured. Administrators made only feeble efforts to calm the situation. Matters were left to the settlers themselves or entrusted to police leading punitive expedition and forces of Native Police. Cattle spearing would often be the reason given for such an expedition, frequently leading to loss of Aboriginal lives. 

The Impact of Settlement

Such actions hastened the decline of Aboriginal groups during the nineteenth century, though the decline went on even where there was friendship and trust on both sides. The decline came despite the setting up of government ration-stations to distribute flour and blankets to needy aborigines, and despite the work of missionary establishments and official protectors of Aborigines. It came, too, despite the often spirited resistance of Aboriginal people to the seizure of their land and the attacks on their culture. the land question lay at the heart of the decline of traditional Aboriginal society. The declared attitude of the British and colonial governments remained clear: the land, 'waste and uncultivated', belonged to the whites, even if they had not yet occupied parts of it. Even where some land reserves were set aside for Aborigines, the colonial governments claimed actual ownership of the reserves and white pastoralists could often graze their stock there. Only a few whites admitted that Aborigines were being dispossessed of their land.

Tasmanian Aboriginal women in the 1860s,
showing the obvious influence of European contact.

The Aboriginal people regarded white settlement as an unjustified intrusion on their lands. Sheep and cattle began to eat out the native grasses and drive off the game which provided essential meat food. The situation was made worse by the white pastoralists' determination to control the existing waterholes, soon fouled by stock. There was an increasing upset in the balance between Aboriginal population numbers and the available food supply. the white intruders showed no desire to compensate, and did not acknowledge the food-sharing practices found among the Aboriginal people themselves. The situation, of course, was not simply an economic one, since whites and their stock were occupying sacred Aboriginal places, such as the totemic sites to which Aborigines were reverently attached. It was little wonder that Aborigines began their own campaign of spirited resistance on the frontier of settlement. They speared stock which were on their haunting-grounds and which they thus believed they were entitled to hunt. In many areas a bitter racial conflict began, in which Aborigines were at a disadvantage in arms, especially when whites could make greater use of rifles in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first interest of white governments came to be to provide protection from the Aborigines, rather than of them. Police action, punitive raids and began enforcement were some of the methods used. It is no exaggeration to conclude that actual warfare thus took place over a long period in Australia.

One Law for All

In legal proceedings Aborigines were at a considerable disadvantage. Because Aborigines were regarded as incapable of understanding the oath in European courts, their evidence was not accepted. When this situation was later corrected, Aborigines were still greatly disadvantaged. No Aborigine appeared as prosecutor, juror or judge. Court procedures and the legal code were European, and bewildering to Aborigines. Translation of Aboriginal languages caused problems in court, and Aboriginal customs and law were not taken into account. The position was made worse by the Aboriginal tendency to look for, and give, the answer required by the prosecution. Aborigines also became victims of bias and prejudice in courts, which were anxious to uphold white dominance and did not acknowledge Aboriginal title to the land. the punishment system made matters for worse - its basis w3as not understood and it left Aborigines confused and very fearful.

Camp of Australian Aborigines: taken in 1895 in the Grafton district, New south Wales, by G.W. Wilson

The Europeans' failure to consider Aboriginal law and customs was part of the pattern of white supremacy. this made no allowance for Aboriginal practices. In traditional society, of course, Aborigines were bound by strict obligations and codes of conduct, which whites simply refused to recognise. Aborigines settled disputes by different means, involving actual or ceremonial punishments and not detention. the idea was to restore normal group life as quickly as possible. Whites were unwilling or unable to understand the Aboriginal system. They failed to observe obligations which Aborigines thought should apply to whites as well as themselves. This caused much Aboriginal resentment - especially the practice of whites trespassing on Aboriginal land and the troubles arising from the whites' desire for relationships with Aboriginal women.

The Breakdown of Aboriginal Society

As white colonists seized Aboriginal land - land with its spiritual as well as economic importance - there began the assault on traditional Aboriginal society. Beliefs, social customs and morale were weakened as Aboriginal numbers declined. No longer did the social system firmly support Aboriginal groups, ritual duties were no longer performed with the old vigour. The spiritual basis of Aboriginal life was undermined. The whites' desire to educate and convert Aborigines hastened the breakdown of Aboriginal society. Whites usually described that society as primitive. Aboriginal beliefs and customs were ridiculed, as attempts were made to replace them with European culture. this culture puzzled rather than satisfied Aborigines, to whom it had little relevance. Aborigines found adjustment difficult. Their own world was one in which tradition was highly important - unlike whites, they placed no emphasis on change. In turn Aborigines were criticised for their apparent unwillingness to live according to 'civilised' ways. Meanwhile Aboriginal social life continued to decline. white missionaries, by discouraging initiation ceremonies, hindered younger Aborigines from being accepted as full participants in traditional life. whites encouraged Aboriginal marriages which cut across traditional kinship rules. Other patterns of behaviour, so important in regulating Aboriginal social life, decayed.

White settlers usually concentrated on the material problems of colonial life. In the clash for land, especially in remote parts, the settlers' fear of Aborigines was noticeable. The Aborigines seemed part of a strange land with distinctive fauna. (Aborigines were even described as 'wild' or 'time', while the term 'savages' survived from early days.) Then, after the stage of clash between the races, came the decline of Aboriginal traditional life. With their control of the land gone, Aborigines drifted to the edge of towns, pastoral stations and mission stations, attracted by European material items and by food, drink, and tobacco. Hand-outs of ration food and clothing were periodically made, emphasising the unfortunate and dependent state to which Aborigines had been reduced. The availability of alcohol and tobacco began to take a severe toll of Aboriginal health.  


Disease played a vital role in the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal societies. In fact introduced diseases have often been suggested as the major cause of the disappearance of many Aboriginal groups, with a much greater impact than physical violence or any other factor. Before the Macassan visits and the arrival of Europeans, Aborigines had been relatively free from diseases, their chief trouble coming from eye and skin complaints. The marsupials they hunted did not transmit their diseases to humans. but after the coming of other peoples and their stock, Aborigines began to suffer badly from the new diseases, to which they had no natural resistance. Smallpox, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and leprosy had disastrous effects, while milder diseases such as influenza, measles, whooping-cough and the common cold could be just as deadly to a people with no previous contact with them. Several descriptions stated that in some areas most, or all, of the children died from disease.

An Aboriginal chain gang, about 1900, going to work at Wyndham, Western Australia. The guard is on the extreme right.

Diseases in fact often drastically reduced a local Aboriginal population even before the full pressure of white settlement was felt there. Smallpox destroyed the majority of Aborigines close to Sydney within three years of white settlement in 1788. the disease spread down the Murray to south Australia, shattering she health and numbers of Aborigines as it went. the 'smallpox song' that Aborigines sang was powerless to stop the deadly disease. the death of the traditional Aboriginal 'doctors' and the destruction of medicinal herbs by introduced stock removed the traditional Aboriginal sources of relief from illnesses. by 1850 the results of disease were already being felt in the settled areas of southern Australia, where whites were noticing the decline in the Aboriginal population. Disease robbed Aboriginal people of their spirit and ability to survive. By reducing numbers it broke down the strength of the kinship system and the links between the generations. The birth rate was lowered. Surviving groups were left unable to carry on in the former manner as strong social units. The impact of disease on the social structure of Aboriginal groups and on total numbers was profound.

'Soothing the Dying Pillow'

As the rapid decline in Aboriginal population took place, few whites tried to suggest reasons. One who did so in 1886 described the grim process and some of its causes:

Experience shows that a populous town will kill out the tribes which live near enough to visit it daily in from two to ten years ... in more sparsely-settled country the process is somewhat different and more gradual, but it leads to the same end. In the bush many tribes have disappeared, and the rest are disappearing. Towns destroy by drunkenness and debauchery; in the country, from fifteen to five-and-twenty per cent fall by the rifle; the tribe then submits, and diseases of European origin complete the process of extermination.

This description showed a general pattern. the process varied in intensity according to districts, and was slowed by the efforts of a few determined showed a general pattern. the process varied in intensity according to districts, and was slowed by the efforts of a few determined whites to help Aborigines. Not all the Aboriginal groups died out. but long before 1900 most whites thought it was only a matter of time before the Aboriginal people ceased to exist. This apparent dying-out of the whole race helped to end earlier ideas - held mostly by whites in towns - about Aboriginal assimilation into the white community. Instead of different approach was suggested. Its goal was to make the passing of the Aborigines as peaceful as possible. the approach was termed 'soothing the dying pillow'. To those who cared, the policy seemed a worthy one, though it was also a policy of despair. As early as 1868, when more than three-quarters of Victoria's Aborigines had already died out, a Melbourne editor summed up the policy:

Let us make their passage to the grave as comfortable as possible - let us do our best to civilize them and convert them to Christianity; but let us not flatter ourselves that, up to the present at any rate, we have succeeded. something may be done with the half-castes, but the case of the full-blooded aboriginal is, we fear, hopeless.

Whites tended to make a fuss of the last Aboriginal members of a group, just as they did of those they described as 'king' or 'queen' of a particular group. In practice, however, few whites, or their governments, did much towards Aboriginal welfare. Mission stations and government reserves became the enforced homes of many surviving Aborigines, where they were supplied with medicine, shelter, a minimum of food, and the customary blankets. some schooling and elementary training in practical skills could also be provided. governments favoured this policy of segregation, declaring that it would enable Aborigines to avoid contact with the worst of the whites. Yet by encouraging the isolation of Aborigines this policy also enabled white society to avoid Aborigines and the 'problem' of Aboriginal welfare. the idea of 'soothing the dying pillow' was easy to accept, for it helped to satisfy the few whites who were concerned about the Aborigines' position. It also left other whites free to pursue their own tasks on the land taken from Aborigines.

The Protection Policies

By 18901 Aborigines had lost control over their land in all except the remote parts of the continent. They were not given the chance to determine their own future. their culture was not respected. Aboriginal languages were dying out with the people. Few whites took, the trouble to learn anything about Aboriginal life; many whites regarded Aborigines as oddities or nuisances. Along the frontier the view was still usually the same - 'Bullocks and blacks won't mix'. It was hoped that the establishment of the new federal government, in 1901, would lead to a better deal for Aborigines. There were even suggestions that the new government, and not the separate states, should have responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. But things changed little. It was decided, for example, that Aborigines should not be counted in the feral census. thus the original owners of the land were officially not counted or regarded as Australians. the federal government had no new views on Aboriginal affairs, which remained the responsibility of the individual states. State laws reflected the desire to restrict and segregate Aborigines. A Queensland Act in 1897 set the pattern. It gave the official protectors of Aborigines wide powers to control the lives of the Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal people. It provided for reserves on which Aborigines should live and supervised their movements and employment by whites. Western Australia and South Australia adopted similar legislation, so that Aborigines who no longer lived in their traditional societies often had to live on reserves under government administration. In effect they had to live as inmates of institutions.

A police party with prisoners wearing neck chains, Ellery Creek, MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory, about 1900.

The basis, then, of the protection policy was restriction of the Aboriginal people and their rights. As before, there was no attempt to consider what Aborigines themselves might want. Once again whites assumed that the best policy for Aborigines was to adopt white ways. If Aborigines did not follow that path, then it was said they were lacking in ability. there was always the feeling that the Aborigines, not the whites, were responsible for any failure.

Further Trouble in the North

Along the frontier of settlement in th early twentieth century, relations between whites and Aborigines continued to reveal conflict and inhumanity. In outlying areas of the Northern Territory and Western Australia some settlers and bushmen were accustomed to shoot Aborigines on sight or turn their dogs loose at sundown. Several of the worst incidents were described by Dr. W.E. Roth, who was asked to make a report to the Western Australian government in 1905. He revealed 'a most brutal and outrageous state of affairs' in the northern part of the state: there was police corruption in administering Aboriginal ration allowances; the chaining together (by the neck) of arrested Aborigines and Aboriginal witnesses and prisoners, forced labour for Aboriginal children, and heavy sentences for children and adults convicted of killing cattle; discrimination in court proceedings; and a shortage of food.

Whites in the north did not hide their fierce determination to seize and hold the land. this brought them into opposition with some city-dwellers, who questioned not the northerners' right to the land but the means used to obtain it. "Arguments over the issue sometimes flared in the press. the northerners' feelings were clear, as shown in a poem, written by one of their supporters:

The civic merchant, snugly housed and fed,
Who sleeps each night on soft and guarded bed,
Who never leaves the city's beaten tracks.
May well believe in kindness to the blacks.
But he can never know, nor hardly guess,
The dangers of the pathless wilderness;
The rage and frenzy in the squatter's brain
When the speared bullocks dot the spreading plain;
The lust for vengeance in the stockman's heart
Who sees his horse lie slain by savage dart;
The nervous thrill the lonely traveller feels feels
When round his camp the prowling savage steals;
Nor that fierce hate with which the soul is filled
When man must daughter or himself be killed.
Ah! who shall judge? Not you, my city friend,
Whose life is free from all that can offend;
Who pass your days in comfort, ease, and peace.
Guarded by metropolitan police.
Ah! who shall  judge the bushman's hasty crime
Both justified by circumstance and clime.
Could you, my friend, 'neath such assaults be still,
And never feel that wild desire to kill?
Steps in your own defence would you not take
When law is absent then your own laws make.

From 1911, when it took over the administration of the Northern Territory from South Australia, the Commonwealth became more involved in Aboriginal affairs. Its policy of protection resembled the policy found in several of the states. Every aspect of Aboriginal life was carefully regulated. The Aborigines' freedom of movement was greatly restricted. For many Aborigines, life became centred on institutions established under government control, where the opportunity to make personal decisions and live in simple dignity was slight. Special conditions governed their employment, while their personal property remained under the control of the government's chief protector of Aborigines. The protector, not the children's parents, was the legal guardian of the children.

Yet the Commonwealth was no more able than the states to improve Aboriginal affairs. The Northern Territory remained prone to racial disturbances, which police solved as they saw fit. In places such as Arnhem Land it was possible for Aborigines to lead a better life, in more traditional manner. but around white settlements and stations Aborigines camped in poverty, valued only when their labour was essential in the pastoral industry. the commonwealth seemed to forget they existed, until their condition came to public notice late in the 1920s. At that time drought threatened natural food supplies, bringing concern in southern cities about the Aborigines' plight. About another matter - the 'Coniston Massacre' - there were louder complaints. following the death in 1928 of a white prospector at Coniston Station in Central Australia, a police expedition set out to find the culprits. In a series of raids police took heavy toll of Aboriginal lives. The reaction from city people interested in Aboriginal welfare was hostile, and not softened by an official report justifying the raids and the police shooting of many Aborigines. Reports of killings elsewhere, such as in the Kimberleys, and of the miserable conditions which many Aborigines were forced to endure, aroused further concern.

Such troubles revived the arguments between whites in towns and those on the edge of settlement about policies towards Aborigines. Like others earlier, there were settlers who still thought and spoke of Aborigines as a kind of animal, describing them as 'wild' or 'tame'. Many whites still took refuge in the belief that the Aboriginal race was dying out, despite evidence to the contrary. 'even as late as 1938 Daisy Bates, the well-known worker for the Aborigines on the Nullarbor, published her book under the title of the Passing of the Aborigines.


Malnutrition and disease continued to play havoc with Aboriginal health as the twentieth century wore on. A white doctor, well informed about the Aboriginal situation, even claimed later that malnutrition was the greatest damage inflicted by the whites and the one least acknowledged with regret. Government and station rations were often inadequate. flour, sugar and tea were the basic rations, following the pattern laid down in the previous century, when governments saw feeding-stations as a means of preventing Aboriginal hunger and thus possibly of preventing the spearing of stock. The absence of protein foods affected Aboriginal health and contributed to high infant mortality. Damp clothing and poor housing brought further suffering. Disease, especially tuberculosis, remained widespread and often fatal.

Some Signs of Change

On the frontier of settlement the labour question, rather than malnutrition and disease, was much discussed. "but there were other problems in the 1930s. Reports came of incidents in the Northern "Territory in which Aborigines along the Arnhem Land and nearby coasts clashed with Japanese adventurers searching for pearls and trepang. Peaceful relations were often disrupted by arguments about Aboriginal women, and violence followed. In one incident at Caledon Bay in 1933 five Japanese were killed. In other incidents Aboriginal and white lives were lost. Uneasiness emerged over how white missionaries were affecting Aboriginal culture in various parts of Australia, and whether Aboriginal law should be taken into account in white law courts. Opposition also emerged to the expeditions of punishment, the ill-treatment of Aboriginal witnesses, and the bias of white courts.

Spirit figures painted on the Nourlangie rockface, Kakadu, Northern Territory

In southern Australia Aborigines suffered as well. conditions on reserves, mission stations and at the edge of towns were usually squalid. The lingering ideas of segregation emphasised separating Aborigines yet still imposed formed of supervision and restriction. Aborigines had little chance of achieving the same standards of education, health and employment as whites, and prejudice against them survived strongly. Yet the supposed dying-out of the Aboriginal race did not take place. the states began to make part-Aborigines, increasing in numbers, subject to strict laws, and often went to great lengths to define who was of Aboriginal origin and thus subject to these laws. there was no real enthusiasm for improving Aboriginal welfare - instead the emphasis remained on what Aborigines could not do, with scarcely any willingness to allow Aborigines themselves to determine their future.

By 1957 there were some signs of change. Several Aboriginal and white groups wanted to end the concentration on protection. They sought instead the introduction of more positive policies. One instance of a more enlightened view came in the founding of Ernabella Mission, on the traditional land of the Pitjantjatjara people in north-western South Australia. Sponsored by Dr Charles Duguid and the Presbyterian Church, and supported by the South Australian government, it was established with much greater respect for Aboriginal language and culture, and sought to advance the employment, health and integrity of the local groups. At the same time anthropological work in Australia was beginning to provide a different view of Aboriginal society from the usual white view. it suggested that tradition al society was much more complex than normally believed - and not to be dismissed as 'primitive'. Traditional society had been well ordered and stable, with strong bonds between its members and sturdy practices of sharing and religious observance. In its place a sorry picture had emerged - Aborigines had not been protected by policies of protection, and much of their traditional life had been broken down. the great majority of traditional groups had been effectively destroyed, especially in Victoria and Tasmania. they had had neither the time nor the opportunity to adjust meaningfully and with dignity to the European invasion. Members of Aboriginal groups that had managed to survive in some form were often forced to live in depressed phyusi8cal circumstances and without the psychological comfort found in traditional life. Above all, nothing had compensated Aborigines for the loss of the land. 

In the period just before the Second World War some effort was made to revise former policies. A conference of state and federal ministers in Canberra in 1937 agreed that 'the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full-blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the commonwealth'. Whites, again claiming to decide what was best for Aborigines, were trying to bring about the disappearance of people with Aboriginal blood. The method favoured was to assimilate them into white society. full-blood Aborigines were meanwhile to be supervised on pastoral stations and reserves, while those living in the large reserves such as Arnhem Land could preserve their traditional way of life, at least for the time being.

The Station in the late 1930s

By 1939 the idea of eventual assimilation of all Aboriginal people into the white population was gaining ground. In that year the federal government spoke of eventual citizenship. Yet officially protection remained in force, and the restrictive laws continued to produce injustice and resentment. Aborigines, for example, were usually not allowed to travel freely within the states, while on the reserves their private lives were subject to many restrictions: their personal letters couple be interfered with; they had to seek permission to marry; and children, especially part-Aboriginal children, could be removed d from their parents. White officials controlled their employment opportunities and their personal financial affairs. In addition, especially in the northern pastoral industry, Aborigines would often be paid very little money or only their rations. In matters such as the right to vote, Aborigines were again greatly disadvantaged.

As well as these humiliating condition s. the reduced numbers of the population indicated the Aborigines' misfortunes after the white invasion of the country. Although no accurate census figures for Aborigines were available, their population in 1938 was about 70,000. the great majority of them lived in northern Australia. Mission stations and government reserves were the homes of many: among these were Moore River in Western Australia, Lake Tyres in eastern Victoria, Point Pearce and Point Macleay in south Australia, Cherbourg and Palm Island in Queensland, and a large number of reserves in new south Wales such as at Cumeroogunga (in the Riverina) and Brewarrina. But none of the reserves or mission land was owned by the Aborigines themselves. The intention was to give some protection to Aborigines but at the same time keep them separate from white society.

Not surprisingly, many Aborigines were resentful at what had occurred under white settlement 'They resisted against white policies. Resentment became more obvious at the 150th anniversary of white settlement in Australia. Aborigines in New south Wales, after protesting for years about the restrictive policies, decided through their Aborigines' Progressive Association to commemorate Australia Day, 26 January 1938, as a day of mourning. the Association wanted to protest 'on the anniversary of the white man's seizure of our country against the callous treatment of our people during the past 150 years'. the Association appealed for new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and sought a policy which would raise Aborigines to full citizenship and civi8l equality with whites.

Mary Gilmore, the noted white writer and poet, supported the call. She declared that as a child she had seen Aborigines massacred in hundreds. they had been lying dead around poisoned waterholes, and she had seen hunting parties gather. Dogs had been imported from Europe because they were more savage. She had seen children dead in the grass, and scalps of Aborigines paid for as if they were dingoes. The Aborigines' Progressive Association put forward its own claims by speaking to whites:

You are the new Australians, but we are the old Australians. You came here only recently, and you took our land from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilized, progressive, kindly and humane nation ... We do not wish to be regarded with sentimental sympathy, or to be 'preserved,' like koala bears, as exhibits; but we do ask for your real sympathy, and understanding ...

We ask you to teach our people to live in the modern age as modern citizens. Our people are good and quick in assimilating knowledge. why do you deliberately keep us backward? is it merely to give yourselves the pleasure of feeling superior? Give our children the same chances as your own, and they will do as well as white children. We ask you, to be proud of the Australian Aborigines and not to be misled any longer by the superstition that we are a naturally backward and low race. this is a scientific lie, which has helped to push our people. Also, your slanders against our race are moral lies, told to throw all the blame for our troubles on to us. You, who originally conquered us by guns against our spears, now rely on superiority of numbers to support your false claims of moral and intellectual superiority.

In these words the Aboriginal view of white settlement and policies was put forward, forcily and with much feeling, just before the problems of the Second World War emerged.


By 1939, when the Second world War began, Aborigines had clearly suffered disastrously from white occupation of Australia. Cities, towns and fenced properties had been marked out on Aboriginal land, and much of Aboriginal traditional society had been destroyed. The destruction continued after 1939. New terms such as advancement, integration and land rights, however, at length began to be heard, as Aborigines increased their resistance to white domination. the pressure strengthened to confront whites with what had happened in the past and bring about change. 

Aborigines and Policies after 1945

The Second World War had a strong impact on Aborigines. while it delayed or cancelled new government policies towards them, it gave Aborigines greater contact with whites, especially at army depots and other places where jobs were available. As in the First World War, some Aborigines enlisted and played a direct part in the war effort. Aborigines also moved increasingly to towns and cities, where they found work and made others more conscious of Aboriginal affairs. The Aboriginal population was also increasing, and the older European idea that the race would die out was now clearly proved wrong. The Aboriginal migration to urban areas continud after war's end. Yet restrictive laws survived from pre-war days, and gaining exemption from them was difficult and undignified. On reserves, conditions remained depressed. Aborigines were forced to live in circumstances far worse than those of whites. In 1945 in north-western New South Wales, for example, where natural food and provisions were sometimes unobtainable, a typical day's diet on one government reserve was:

Breakfast: Tea and damper. Dinner: Bread and jam, sometimes soup. Supper: Meat and bread or damper, tea. On the river bank near the same station: Tea and damper for every meal; occasionally saveloys for supper.

The situation was described further:

The children ... suffer from impetigo (skin disease), running noses, susceptibility to colds, and general malnutrition ...

Governments, now turning to a policy of assimilation of Aborigines, had difficulty in introducing the policy. Restrictive laws had to be removed before Aborigines could be legally, socially and economically equal to whites. Much greater attention had to be paid to Aboriginal welfare. Above all, there had to be a change in white attitudes towards Aborigines. Attempts were made to establish closer federal and state cooperation in Aboriginal affairs. A conference in 1948 was a beginning, and policy discussions continued at other meetings. In 1951 agreement was reached on the general principle of assimilation of Aborigines and part-Aborigines. All were expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians, and to live as members of a single Australian community;. Welfare services and payments were also introduced or increased, and mission stations were given more assistance or were taken over by governments. In 1965 the assimilation policy was restated, so that it became one of integration. the emphasis moved from the suppression of Aboriginal culture and the disintegration of the race towards the Aborigines' right to retain their culture and identity within the Australian community.  

But the restrictive laws at the heart of the protection policy were difficult to remove. Until well into the 1960s in each Australian state, control over Aboriginal lives - over travel, employment, possessions, marriage and other personal matters - remained oppressive. Only after long campaigns was much progress achieved and legal discrimination against Aborigines lessened. Equal pay for Aborigines was one of the first achievements. Laws against Aboriginal drinking of alcoholic liquor were gradually relaxed. Aborigines were allowed to travel or marry without special government approval. Voting rights were given. In 1966 the south Australian government granted Aborigines the right to control Aboriginal reserves, and passed a law to prohibit acts of discrimination against any racial group. In 1967 an important Commonwealth referendum decision gave the federal government greater power to make laws relating to Aborigines and decided Aborigines should be counted in future censuses.

The federal government, however, proved reluctant to legislate about Aboriginal affairs. some states stubbornly retained restrictive laws. Queensland Acts in 1965 and 1971 ensured that Aborigines on reserves remained subject to regulations restricting freedom of expression and decision making. Aborigines could not have ownership of the reserves, and access to the reserves was restricted. One critic described these restrictions as 'an intolerable invasion of the rights of free movement and freedom of speech and opinion'. Aborigines expressed their opposition to such laws through the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines, a body which from 1964 also represented Torres Strait Islanders. Already - in 1965 - attention had been drawn to other injustices. Led by Charles p0erkin s (who was to become the first Aboriginal university graduate) and travelling by bus, university students went on a 'freedom ride' through towns in northern New South Wales, drawing attention to conditions which Aborigines had to endure there. Their ride succeeded in bringing national publicity to practices of discrimination against Aborigines. Charles Perkins later recalled what happened in one town:

It was sensational, the effect the demonstration had upon people ... All the hatred and confused thinking about race boiled to the surface and it was like a volcano exploding. For the first time in their lives people were running around and arguing these points with each other about a very tricky racial situation that was a complete embarrassment to them all. The Aborigines had been suppressed for so long.

Land Rights

In the 1960s, as progress came on other matters, there was a stronger focus on Aboriginal land rights. In traditional society land was central to people's lives, binding Aborigines in a special, spiritual relationship to certain areas. this relationship had been interrupted by European occupation, and no compensation had been made. to Aborigines the issue of land rights involved restoring what was rightfully theirs, though many whites saw it as an attempt to get something for nothing. The issue also challenged the assimilation ideal, for land rights would allow Aborigines to live separately.

The land rights question brought hard-fought campaigns. In one of the best-known, a large group of Aborigines, mostly of Gurindji ancestry, left their camp at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory in 1966. They had grievances - low pay, poor food and long hours of work - against the British company holding the pastoral lease. but the Curindjis were fired most of all by a desire to have their own land, and moved to a new camp at Daguradu (Wattie Creek), one of their sacred sites. Their leader Vincent Lingiari said they had decided to cease to live like dogs'. In 1967 they laid claim to an area of about 1,300 square kilometres for their own cattle station within the lease. They petitioned the Australian governor-general for a return of their land. The federal government, responsible for the Northern Territory, rejected the request, favoring a new Aboriginal town centre at Wave Hill. The issue smouldered. The Gurindjis, supported by southerners, including whites, kept up their demand for land. Some progress came in 1972, when the government agreed that Aborigines could hold leases and the pastoral company agreed to surrender part of their lease. yet no rights to own the land were granted.

The land rights struggle also involved mining companies. In 1963 Aborigines at Yirrkala, in north-eastern Arnhem Land, objected to a lease of part of their land to a Swiss company for bauxite mining. the Yirrkala sent a bark petition to the federal parliament, claiming the land to be part of their own country and not something they had agreed to grant away. Despite rejections of their claim, the struggle went on. In 1971 the Yirrkala appealed to the Northern Territory Supreme Court, which declared there had been no 'civilised' Aboriginal government owning the land when it was first explored and claimed by whites. To Aborigines and an increasing number of whites, this and other denials of Aboriginal land rights were wrong. The Yirrkala people protested against the court's decision, petitioning the prime minister. though the case aroused international discussion, mining went ahead and the town of Nhulunbuy grew, with Aborigines still claiming the land and mining royalties. Aborigines were succeeding in making land rights a major political issue. Their campaign soon took a novel form. Aboriginal encampments or 'embassies', appeared in cities. In Canberra, on Australia Day, 1972, Aborigines set up a tent embassy in front of Parliament House. Staffed of various times by Aborigines from across Australia, the embassy members demanded crown and reserve land, as well as significant monetary compensation for land taken in the past. Clearly not all Aborigines were content with the limited land rights already granted in some states. They felt the federal government must recognise the Aborigines' right to their traditional land - land which they had never granted away and in fact could not do so. the Aboriginal leader B Bobbi Sykes made the position clear:

The Embassy syumbolized that blacks had been pushed as far back as blacks are going to be pushed ... first and foremost it symbolized the land rights struggle. But beyond that, it said to white Australia, 'You've kicked us down for the last time.' In all areas. In education, in health, in police victimization, in locking people up en masse - in all these things. It said that blacks were now going to get up and fight back on any or all these issues.

The election of a federal Labor government in 1972 encouraged Aborigines, though there was caution about the new National Aboriginal Consultative committee and the setting up of a land rights commission, headed by Mr Justice Woodward, in 1973-74. Recommendations in the Woodward reports guided government actions, leading to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976. this Act at last entitled Aborigines to the Northern Territory to own traditional land and claim vacant Crown land under certain conditions. The Act became an example for governments elsewhere. Land wrights matters advanced enevenly. In 1974 there was finally some satisfaction over the Gurindji claims when land was divided and the Gurindjis received the documents for a new pastoral lease. In Victoria Aborigines had received title to the reserves at Framlingham and Lake Tyers in 1970. In South Australia, though the Aboriginal Lands Trust had been set up in 1966, it was difficult to reach agreement about land grants in the north-west of the state. some whites were anxious to preserve mineral rights there, whereas Aborigines wanted unrestricted title. In 1980 the Pitjantjatjara people brought the issue to a head by travelling to Adelaide in buses and camping on a city racecourse. their council and the South Australian government finally reached a compromise about how any mining could be carried out and how royalties should be shared. subject to the special conditions, the numerous Pitjantjatjara council to proceed with efforts to administer the area as an Aboriginal homeland. In 1984 the Maralinga lands to the south were also granted to Aboriginal owners by the South Australian government. Northwards, in the Northern Territory, difficulties occurred over land rights concerning Uluru (Ayers rock) and surrounding land. the matter was finally resolved in 1985: the national park land was granted to the Mutitjulu people, who in turn granted a lease to federal authorities to allow tourist access to continue.

Whites' anxiety to have access to land, especially for mining purposes, was a major hurdle to land rights arrangements. Federal and state disagreements made things worse. In Queensland in the 1970s the right to mine for bauxite roused arguments between governments about the Aurukun and Mornington Island Aboriginal settlements. The arguments continued in the 1980s, with the Queensland government keeping ultimate control, especially over mining, in the reserves. At Noonkanbah, in the Kimberley district of Western Australia, Aborigines objected again to a mining lease over Aboriginal station land. The Western Australian government determined that exploration should go ahead, even using police in 1980 to escort an oil rig into the Noonkanbah land. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal land councils became engaged in long negotiations about rights to extract uranium, oil and gas on traditional Aboriginal land. In some states slow progress marred land transfers to Aboriginal Land Trusts. Slow progress, too, marred government willingness to grant monetary compensation to Aborigines for past land losses. In Tasmania descendants of the original Aborigines - thought to have died out but who had left survivors from their intermarriage with Europeans - recognised themselves as Aboriginal people. the Tasmanian government, however, resisted their efforts in the early 1980s to gain land rights.

By the 1980s the Aboriginal campaign for land had achieved a measure of success. In many cases former mission land and reserves had passed to Aboriginal control and ownership, a process begun by the South Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust legislation in 1966. The Northern Territory Act of 1976, allowing land rights, was another milestone. The setting up of land councils in the Northern Territory and New South Wales enabled Aborigines to own land there. but much of the land granted to Aborigines in Australia was in remote central and northern areas. At the end of the 1980s Tasmanian Aborigines still held no land, and little land was held in Victoria and New South Wales. Strong opposition to Aboriginal land rights came from mining and rural interests, hindering the full exercise and extension of Aboriginal land ownership. Nor did whites easily accept that the descendants of Aborigines who had lost land in the past should receive land grants in modern times as compensation. Land rights remained a stubborn, but very live, issue.

The Homelands or Outstation Movement

In recent decades some Aborigines have come to prefer living in communities on traditional land away from towns and larger settlements. In the 1970s a steady flow of people moved from townships and reserves to outstations or homeland centres, especially in northern and central Australia. The pressures and stress in larger settlements encouraged this movement, which brought hundreds of outstations into existence. Aborigines thus gained greater control over their own affairs, though the homeland settlements have often maintained contact with larger centres such as Qenpelli, Auirukun and Ernabella. government health and educational services have been extend to these settlements. The essential feature has been the wish of small groups of Aborigines, usually with kinship ties between individual members, to live as independently as possible. As with land rights generally, the movement to new settlements came not from a demand to seize property but from a desire to restore a close relationship with the land. this desire had also been shown in the long, and finally successful, campaign to make the British government are to clear contaminated soil from the former atomic testing site on the Maralinga lands in south Australia. 

The Mabo Judgment and Native Title

The Mabo judgment, delivered by the High Court of Australia in 1992, turned the whole question of land rights in a new direction and became a landmark in Aboriginal affairs. The Mabo case began in 1982, when Eddie Mabo and other residents of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait, all members of the Meriam people, sought a court declaration of their land rights. They argued that because unbroken generations of their people had lived on Mer and the adjacent islands, they were the customary owners, and held a traditional 'native title' over the islands and nearby seas, a title existing before British settlement in Australia and not granted by any government. The Queensland government, opposing that claim, passed a law in 1985 which confirmed its opinion that the traditional title had been extinguished. The High Court, however, ruled that the Queensland law clashed with the federal Racial Discrimination Act of 1976. the High Court finally gave its Mabo decision on 3 June 1992 (some months after Eddie Mabo's death). It declared that no laws had deprived the Meriam people of their continuing native title under common law - 'the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and employment of the lands of the Murray Islands;. The judgment overturned the old idea that when the British occupied Australia the land was practically unoccupied and belonged to no-one, the idea expressed in the Latin phrase terra mullius, 'no-one's land'. the judgment stated that the  Aboriginal people had not been nomads, but a people with a strong traditional relation ship to their land and with ties of ownership to it.

The Mabo judgment suggested that the decision could apply elsewhere in Australia. Native title could survive where Aborigines had maintained their relationship to the land and where governments had not extinguished native title by special laws or grants of freehold titles and leases. Much land, however, in Australia's settled districts, including town, city and farming land, had already been secured under freehold (the title giving exclusive ownership) or lease (the title applying where government land was leased for a period). On this kind of property, the High Court said, native title had been extinguished and Aborigines could not claim it. The widespread fears of non-Aborigines that privately-owned land could be taken away were thus mistaken, and it was likely that successful Aboriginal claims would mostly succeed only for remote and undeveloped government land. The court also said that Aborigines would not receive direct compensation for land lost in the past, nor could they have sovereignty over any part of Australia.

The fears of non-Aboriginal groups, such as mining companies pastoralists and governments, led to confusion and resentment after the Mabo decision, even though it was clear that Aboriginal groups would find it difficult to prove that they had maintained their traditional connection to an area of land. questions arose - if a grant of pasturage rights had not extinguished native title, could Aborigines claim a pastoral lease over the land granted? Would native title harm the activities of mining companies? Several state governments were alarmed. to clarify the situation further and set down proper procedures, the federal government introduced native title legislation, resulting in the Native Title Act of December 1993. Tribunals and court hearings were provided for, to help decide native title questions, and a National Native Title Tribunal, to deal with applications and compensation matters, was established in Perth. The Native Title Act also provided for a national land fund - the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land fund - which began on 1 July 1994. the idea was that land could be bought for the large number of dispossessed Aborigines, often in towns and cities who no longer had direct links to their traditional land and thus did not benefit from the Mabo decision.

The Mabo judgment and the Native Title Act did not solve everyone's land questions. some state governments remained unhappy about the possible impact on mining and pastoralism. Another consequence of the Mabo judgment and the Native Title Act was a stream of native title claims. It was feared that those claims, covering large areas of land, might test the tolerance of non-Aborigines towards measures helping Aborigines. This fear came when the process of reconciliation between Aborigines and non-Aborigines was being given a fresh start.

Health and Population

The health of Aborigines declined quickly after white settlement began. Besides the impact of diseases caught from Europeans, the health of Aborigines was affected by the loss of land. This loss reduced their opportunities for normal hunting and gathering, in turn reducing their food supply and diet balance. The result was often malnutrition or even starvation. Rations supplied at white mission stations and reserves proved an inadequate substitute for the traditional foods. The loss of land also robed Aborigines of their self-confidence and spirit, again harming their personal health.

Aboriginal ill health has remained a serious problem. governments have been criticized for inadequate health programs because the diseases affecting Aborigines have usually been preventable and curable. Surveys have exposed the health problems. Infant mortality has always been, and is still, higher among Aborigines than among whites - in 1978, for example, deaths among Aboriginal infants in the Northern Territory were five times higher than among white children. Improving health services have caused this rate to decline, but infant mortality among Aborigines nationally is still three times the rate among non-Aborigines. Ear, nose, throat and respiratory infections have been common among Aboriginal children, who have also been more likely to suffer from gastroenteritis, skin complaints, tooth decay and ye infections. Trachoma, an eye infection that can lead to blindness, has been widespread, particularly among Aboriginal people in inland areas. Among older Aborigines leprosy and tuberculosis have also been serious diseases, for many years Australia had one of the highest rates of leprosy in the world. A potent cause of poor health has been poor living conditions, inadequate water supplies and sewerage, overcrowded housing and unhealthy diet have each contributed to this problem. In 1991 there were 251 Aboriginal communities without an electricity supply. 

While the federal government has aimed to raise the level of Aboriginal health to the national standard, in recent years more Aborigines have suffered illnesses familiar among whites, such as heart disease, blood pressure problems and diabetes. Excessive consumption of alcohol has also affected Aboriginal health and community stability. Aborigines have become concerned about improving health education and the facilities for treatment for the disruption to Aboriginal health since 1788 has left a bitter legacy. Despite increased government spending, Aboriginal mortality rates have remained significantly higher than among whites: the 1991 census show3d the life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males to be 57 years, compared to 74 years for all males generally' for women 65 years, compared with 80 years.

]Although life expectancy is slow3er, the census total of the Aboriginal population has been steadily increasing. One factor has been the higher Aboriginal birth rate since 1980; another has been the increasing readiness of people to class themselves as Aborigines and to be included in the census. The total population of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the 1971 census was 115,953; in 1986 it was 227,645; and in 1991 it was 265,458. (Of the 1991 total, 238,575 were Aborigines and 26,883 were Torres Strait Islanders.) In 1991 more than half of the Aboriginal and Islander people lived in New South Wales and Queensland. Two-thirds of the Aboriginal population lived in urban areas, while only in the Northern Territory was the population strongly rural. Sydney with 22,905 Aboriginal people, was the region with the highest population in 1991. the censuses of 1971 and 1991 showed the population growth of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in each state:







New South Wales



Western Australia



Northern Territory



South Australia









Australian Capital Territory






The Aboriginal and Islander population was also shown to be much more youthful (with a median age of 19 in 1991) than the total Australian population (median age 32).

Education and Languages

In the past, Aborigines have often had limited opportunities to attend schools and universities. Government education schemes have also usually assumed that only European culture and skills should be taught to Aborigines. From 1970, however, the Aboriginal Secondary Grants Scheme began to provide assistance for secondary education, and assistance also became available for higher training. The teaching of Aboriginal languages and culture was introduced more readily in Aboriginal communities. bilingual education  has thus become available in remote areas where Aboriginal schools have been established. In those schools pride in Aboriginal identity has been emphasised, instead of the older emphasis in schools on replacing Aboriginal culture with that of Europeans. But some statistics relating to Aborigines and schooling have caused concern. In1988 only 17% of Aboriginal students remained to the senior level of secondary school, compared with 57% of other students, and in 1991 5% of Aborigines aged over fourteen had never attended school.

In fostering Aboriginal languages schools have begun to play an important role, though many languages have already died out, along with the Aboriginal groups speaking them. About a hundred languages survive in some form, but few are widely used and more may disappear. In the past the teaching of English, is part of the assimilation policy, was another reason for the decline of the traditional languages. Modern methods of communication, however, have been helping to arrest the decline. Imparja, an Aboriginal-owned commercial satellite television service, began operating from Alice Springs in 1988. Though not planed as a solely Aboriginal service, Imparja included in its aims the development of Aboriginal secondary school programs and the promotion of Aboriginal languages.


In the matter of housing, conditions for Aborigines have been far below the general Australian standard for many decades. Aborigines have commonly been forced to live in makeshift accommodation on the fringe of towns or at station camps. Housing on Aboriginal reserves has often been poor. An observer described a typical example, near Wilcannia in New South Wales in 1965:

A dusty track leads you ... into a compound of 14 identical houses, built barracks-like, in two parallel rows ... this desert ghetto is the government Aboriginal reserve where 80 people endure a primitive existence without electricity, sinks or baths. Only three houses have stoves ... The Aboriginal Welfare board built this compound and owns the houses, which many of its tenants find most useful for the firewood they provide.

Beyond this reserve conditions were no better. In a shanty town nearby there were more than forty shacks made of bags and tin, with no water, electricity, stoves of baths. Elsewhere things were often as bad: in 1971 a professor of child health described settlement houses near Alice Springs as 'aluminum dog kennels with concrete floors ... up to 20 degrees (F) hotter in summer and 20 degrees (F) colder in winter than the rubbish-heap humpy. Most contain no furniture, fireplace or running water'. In 1976 survey in New South Wales showed that half of the state's Aboriginal people lived in inferior housing, which contributed to poor health. In 1977 the federal minister for Aboriginal affairs recognized that housing was frequently of poor quality and design, and spoke of 'the appalling housing situation of so many Aboriginal families'.

At the end of the 1980s Aboriginal housing remained at a lower standard than that enjoyed by whites. One problem was the shortage of houses, another was the fact that many Aborigines could not afford to buy them. the situation was one in which poor housing, poor health and a lack of educational opportunities were all intermingled. government schemes have concentrated on providing funds for house purchase, house rental and hostel accommodation. Much remains to be done - it was estimated in 1989 that one-third of all Aboriginal families had inadequate housing and lacked essential services such as suitable drinking water, electricity supply, waste and sewerage disposal, and sealed roads. Increasing amounts are now being allocated to housing loans, but Aborigines still face a serious shortage of housing, together with overcrowding in many existing houses.    

Legal Matters

The history of contact between Aborigines and Europeans in Australia has involved much legal questioning and procedure. Aboriginal law, a binding force in tradition al society, was not recognised by early European colonists, who declared that Aborigines must observe the Europeans' law and be responsible in the law courts for any violations of it. Aboriginal law, and the Aboriginal right to the land, was not taken into account in these courts. In modern times some court hearings have been concerned with Aboriginal land rights. But for more often they have involved actions against Aborigines for various offences. There has also been evidence of strained relations between Aborigines and the police. this had continued the pattern in colonial times, but it has become clear that the pattern in colonial times, but it has become clear that the pattern should be broken. Statistics have revealed that Aborigines in the modern period have been charged, convicted and imprisoned for offences (chiefly minor ones) at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. the matter has become complex and disturbing, raising many questions about the reasons for the high rate, about how justice is administered, about the appropriateness of punishments, and so on. A grim feature has been the number of deaths among Aborigines held in custody, which prompted the federal government in 1967 to order a special inquiry into the circumstances of these deaths. The result was the royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody. In investigating ninety-nine deaths, the commission examined a range of matters in detail. In its final report in 1991 it made 339 recommendations. The commission found that the disturbing rate of deaths in custody had deep--seated causes, linked to the disadvantaged and unequal position of Aborigines in Australian society. Better relations between white and black people could only come when the rights, culture and traditions of Aboriginal people were recognised, and when there was a complete rejection of concepts of superiority and inferiority'. Reconciliation and self-determination, the commission reported, were essential ingredients of any improvement in Aboriginal affairs.  

A Treaty and Reconciliation

The unhappy contact between Aborigines and whites in Australia since 1788 has left a sense of injustice among the Aboriginal people. In discussions about overcoming this problem, a remedy has been suggested: what is needed is not just another law but an end to arguing and an acceptance of normal relations. ('Makarrata' is an Aboriginal term for this idea.) To bring this about, a treaty between Aboriginal and white Australians has been proposed - a treaty within Australia between Australians. by itself a treaty may not solve problems, but it may express agreement about the rights and proper position of Aborigines in Australian society.

Progress towards such a treaty has been uncertain, and the idea itself has been opposed. An Aboriginal opinion in 1980 was that compensation for losses of land and culture would also be needed, and this should be paid in kind and in cash. An example has been set in other countries, which have agreed on terms for compensating their native peoples for land loss. the Australian prime minister in the late 1980s supported the treaty idea,. some Aboriginal leaders have stated that a treaty should be based on fixed principles, which were defined in a statement to the prime minister at Barunga in the Northern Territory in June 1988. the principles included Aboriginal control over ancestral lands, self-determination, compensation for lost land, protection for sacred sites and objects, and respect for and promotion of Aboriginal identity and language.

Political support after 1988 for such a treaty was hesitant. Instead of a treaty, the suggestion of a 'compact' or some form of 'reconciliation' became more attractive. The federal parliament took an important step in 1991 by agreeing to form the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The council, comprising twenty-five prominent Australians - Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal - and with Mr Pat Dodson as chairman, was given the task of working towards reconciliation between Aborigines and other Australians through various measures before the year 2001. the framework of reconciliation could be expressed in a 'document of reconciliation'. the council put forward a vision: 'A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice an equity for all'. In 1995 the council made further proposals for social justice for Aborigines, including recognition of the original flag and some political representation for Aborigines.  

Aboriginal Organisations and Responsibility - ATSIC

After the 1967 referendum gave it greater power in Aboriginal affairs, the federal government set up the Council for Aboriginal Affairs as an advisory body. From Council for Aboriginal Affairs as an advisory body from 1972 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs began to administer matters relating to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Other federal bodies, such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1964) and the Aboriginal Development Commission (1980), were established for special tasks. Aboriginal people themselves now play a much greater role in shaping policies. An emphasis on self-determination and autonomy for local communities has emerged. The founding of Aboriginal land councils has been one example. Another has been the formation of ATSIC - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commission, now the chief policy-maker and administrator in Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development commission. ATSIC is a unique body allowing Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to elect representatives to thirty-five regional councils. the regional councils, which play a key role in ATSIC's work, appoint seventeen commissioners to ATSIC's council; two more members are appointed by the federal minister. The federal government has delegated power to it, and ATSIC decides programs and controls spending, in keeping with the principle of self-determination. Increasingly, grants are made to local orgnisations for housing, employment, water and electricity supplies, land purchases, development of businesses and other services. but for a number of Aborigines, ATSIC is not the ideal; it represents another bureaucratic body involved in Aboriginal affairs. Some kind of regional author authority, they claim, would be a more efficient administrative body in many areas.

Employment and Achievement

Aboriginal people have often been handicapped by few available jobs, low wages and a lack of training. The system of Aborigines receiving lower than the award wages, which was frequently found in the pastoral industry, has been overturned. The lack of suitable training, and of jobs, however, has survived. Unemployment among Aborigines has remained much higher than the rate for non-Aborigines. To a large extent this has been due to a shortage of work in small towns and remote areas. to meet this problem, Aboriginal communities have started to define the kind of employment needed. ATSIC's biggest commitment now is to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme. This scheme, originating in 1976, enables Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to work on a part-time basis, instead of receiving unemployment benefits, on projects to improve their communities. by 1995 about 25,000 people were working under this scheme. Many projects, such as the development of cattle stations, have been successfully undertaken.

Fortunately the old white belief that Aborigines were incapable of reaching the same standards as whites has been largely broken down High-level Aboriginal graduates from universities, skilled Aboriginal administrators, artisans and others in a variety of trades and professions - all have revealed the ability of the Aboriginal people to succeed in a wide range of fields. Aborigines have distinguished themselves in many activities and positions formerly associated only with whites. They have made their mark in sport at both national and international levels. In the arts, such as literature, painting and the dramatic arts, they have achieved at a very high level. One Aborigine, Sir Douglas Nicholls, an outstanding Victorian sportsman and campaigner for Aboriginal advancement, rose to become governor of South Australia in 1976. Aboriginal people have proved that they are not inferior in ability or attainments.


Much of the history of contact between whites and Aborigines in Australia has been about identity. Whites have tried, in one way or another, to suppress Aboriginal identity; in resisting, Aborigines have not only defended their identity but have sought more recently to assert it. Their willingness to do so is reflected in the rising census total of those who identify themselves as Aborigines. Aborigines have come to show pride in their 'blackness'-pride in their race and its spirit. Tasmanian Aborigines in particular have had to assert their identity positively, as non-Aborigines believed that they had died out in the nineteenth century. The Tasmanians survived largely as Islander communities in Bass Strait, and numbered 8,884 in 1991.

This pride in identity has led to new ways of expressing it. some have wanted to do so by discarding the term Aborigines, first used by Europeans, and adopting another title. (Kooris has been used in Victoria and New South Wales, Nungas in South Australia, Murris in Queensland and Nyoongahs in Western Australia.) Positive steps have been taken in other ways to encourage the sense of Aboriginal identity. Many younger Aborigines, especially in the cities, where a majority now live, have been outspoken in demanding an improvement in the status of their people, and there is now much more emphasis on social justice for Aborigines. An awareness of previous injustice and loss of identity has made this demand keener. One of the worst injustices in the past was the policy of white authorities taking Aboriginal children from their parents and placing them under the care of whites, believing that this would be a means of advancing their assimilation. Evidence of this practice is now becoming more widely known and is being made the subject of a special inquiry.

For many Aborigines, identity is still about their relationship to the land. It is symbolised by the Aboriginal flag - the top half black, representing the people; the bottom half red, representing the land; and a central golden disc representing the sun, the renewer of life. The flag has been flown since the 1960s, especially in land rights struggles. The flag is a symbol that possession of land - at the heart of traditional society and Aboriginal identity - remains a crucial issue. If control of their land can be achieved, several Aboriginal groups then want regional authority to be placed in their own hands. This would allow them to do things themselves instead of having to deal through a government agency or ATSIC. For some groups this would be a valuable step towards their goal of self-rule, something which their ancestors once enjoyed but which had been torn away by European settlement.    

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