Colonisation 1788 - 1890

Initial invasion and colonisation (1788 to 1890)

The arrival of Lieutenant James Cook, and then Arthur Phillip in 1788, marked the beginning of ‘white settlement’.

From 1788, Australia was treated by the British as a colony of settlement, not of conquest. Aboriginal land was taken over by British colonists on the premise that the land belonged to no-one (‘terra nullius’).

The history of Aboriginal dispossession is central to understanding contemporary Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations. Colonial takeover was premised on the assumption that European culture was superior to all others, and that Europeans could define the world in their terms. A colony could be established by persuading the indigenous inhabitants to submit themselves to its overlordship; by purchasing from those inhabitants the right to settle part or parts of it; by unilateral possession, on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation.

Possession of Australia was declared on the basis of unilateral possession. The land was defined as terra nullius, or wasteland, because Cook and Banks considered there were few 'natives' along the coast. They apparently deduced that there would be fewer or none inland. Their observations were soon proven incorrect. The governors of the first settlements soon found that Aboriginal people lived inland, and had special territories and associations with land on a spiritual and inheritance basis. Nonetheless, they did not amend the terms of British sovereignty.

In the first hundred years there was no consensus about the basis of British sovereignty. “ Deaths in Custody Australia’s colonisation resulted in a drastic decline in the Aboriginal population.
Estimates of how many Indigenous people lived in Australia at the time of European settlement vary from 300,000 to 1 million. Estimates of the number of Indigenous people who died in frontier conflict also vary widely. While the exact number of Indigenous deaths is unknown, many Indigenous men, women and children died of introduced diseases to which they had no resistance such as smallpox, influenza and measles. Many also died in random killings, punitive expeditions and organised massacres.

Source: Face the facts p 45

U. Secret Country Extract 3: Empty land (2 min 36 sec)

The Frontier War

The pattern documented at and around Port Jackson - of initial friendly contact, followed by open conflict, reduction in the size of the Aboriginal population and then acceptance of and dependence on the whites by any survivors - was repeated time and time again as the frontier spread across the continent.

Many past histories made it appear as if the Aboriginals simply 'faded away' before white occupation. However, this was not the case. While some Aboriginal people accepted or adjusted to white occupation and some sought to survive as best they could by adapting to the new conditions, many others fought to retain their land and their culture.

Due to the nature of Aboriginal society, resistance took the form of guerrilla warfare - individuals or small groups of settlers were ambushed, isolated settlements attacked, crops, buildings and countryside burnt. In south-eastern New South Wales this type of resistance, organised by people such as Pemulwy around Sydney and Windradyne of the Wiradjuri around Bathurst, continued into the 1820s.

As white settlers moved further away from the centre of government, random shootings of Aboriginals and massacres of groups of men, women and children were common. The most infamous massacre in New South Wales occurred at Myall Creek station in 1838. Twenty-eight Aboriginals were murdered in cold blood by stockmen. The murderers were eventually tried and some were hanged - an unprecedented event which caused an outcry in the white community. Sometimes Aboriginal water- holes were poisoned, or Aboriginal people given flour, sugar or damper mixed with arsenic.

These practices, common in the 19th century, continued into the first half of the 20th century in some parts of Australia. Because of the 'moving frontier' and the different reactions of Aboriginal people to white settlement, the nature of the relationship that existed between black and white was not the same in all parts of the State at anyone time. The fight varied in intensity at different places and at different times.

Source: Aboriginal Australia Aboriginal People of NSW



Significant dates and events

1787 - Before departing England, Phillip’s instructions of 17 April 1787 included the following:
You are to endeavour by every possible means to open intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all out subjects to line in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their occupation, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence. (Historical Records of New South Wales, Sydney 1889)
These instructions were not followed.
The notion of Terra Nullius was created. The great southland was considered wasteland, unoccupied, and belonging to no one. Despite common belief, there was immediate resistance by Indigenous peoples.
Amongst its human cargo, the First Fleet brought with it many illnesses. Diseases indigenous to Aboriginal people appear to have been few. Dental disease was relatively rare; smallpox, influenza, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, leprosy and syphilis were unknown.

1789 - a disease akin to smallpox decimated the Eora people.
Governor Phillip wrote of this incident:
It is not possible to determine the number of natives who were carried off by this fatal order, it must be great; and judging from the information of the natives now living with us, and who had recovered from the disorder before he was taken, one-half of those who inhabit this part of the country died; and as the native always retired from where the disorder appeared, and which some must have carried with them, it must have been spread to a considerable distance, as well inland as along the coast. We have seen traces of it wherever we have been (13 February 1790)
The plague spread quickly throughout the inland Aboriginal population, leaving anywhere from 20% to 75% of those infected dead.
As well as small pox there was an epidemic of venereal disease.
None of the Eora people showed any sign of venereal disease when the British arrived in 1788, but by 1791 many were infected. It is most likely that the infection was spread by some of the sailors and convicts who had sexual relations with Aboriginal women. The disease then spread through the communities, causing painful sores, illness, sterility and even death.
Collins described the extent of the infection:
At one time, about the year 1791, there was not one of the natives, man, woman, or child, that came near us, but was covered with it. It raged violently among them…

1795 - an outbreak of measles spread amongst the Eora, particularly affecting the Kamergal (Cammeraigal) who lived on Sydney Harbour’s North Shore

1802 - Van Diemans Land (now known as Tasmania) was settled. In 1804 settlers were authorised to ‘shoot aborigines’ in response to their resistance.

1814 - Governor Macquarie established a native institution at Parramatta to’ civilise, educate
and foster habits of industry and decency in the natives’. This institution was closed in 1820 after Koori people withdrew their children.

1824 - Martial law is proclaimed in Bathurst to quell the Wiradjuri resistance to the white settlers.

1834 - Five thousand men lined up across the breadth of Van Diemans Land and walked the length of the island to force the Aborigines into the Tasman Peninsula. The Aborigines were forced to Flinders Island, where many died. The remainder were moved to Cape Barren Island.

1834 - The Pinjarra massacre in Western Australia is said to have wiped out an entire tribe. The official death count was only fourteen.

1835 - The Myall Creek Massacre in NSW the first of the massacres where (white) offenders were punished under law. 28 Aboriginal people were shot and burnt, mainly women and children.

1835 - A treaty was made between John Batman and the Aboriginal people in 1835. There was an exchange of goods and blankets for 250,000 Ha of land. This treaty was never recognised by the authorities. (Some say that this was because the Governor would not recognise a treaty made in the absence of a declared war, others say it was because you cannot make a treaty with natives who are lower on the evolutionary ladder than you).

1837 - the British select committee finds that the treatment of Australian Aboriginals is very poor. A ’Protector of Aborigines’ was recommended to be appointed.

1848 - NSW sent troopers to Queensland to ‘open the land for settlement and kill natives’.

1863 - Labourers from the Pacific Islands were brought to Queensland.

1863 - The first international sporting team from Australia goes to England to play Cricket. The team was Aboriginal, it is said that the Australian side won the tour.
In the same year 150 Aboriginal people were killed in the Kimberly Region for resisting arrest.

1876 - Tasmania’s Truganini dies.

Source: Australian Museum

More Dates

More dates:
Australian Human Rights Commission
The history of the separation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families



READING: 1. Aboriginal people in NSW

  • Reading 1B First contacts
  • Reading 1C The Frontier War
  • Reading 1D Under the Act

Aboriginal Australia Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Commonwealth of Australia 1997 ISBN 0 664 10152 0

"It is important that we understand the legacy of Australia' s history, as it helps to explain the deep sense of injustice felt by Aboriginal people, their disadvantaged status today and their current attitudes towards non-Aboriginal people and society...."

READING: 2 The Legacy of History: National Report Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

  • Reading 2B : The Dispossession of Aboriginal People
  • Reading 2C : Frontier Period: Diseases and Violence
  • Reading 2D : Police
  • Reading 2E : Aboriginal People and the Law

READING 3: Jack McPhee & Edward Eyre

The famous explorer Edward Eyre set out to explain why Aborigines attacked frontier settlers. He gave seven reasons. EJ. Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of discovery etc., 2 vol., London, 1845

  • Reading 3B : Edward Eyre

READING 102: Upper Hunter History of Aboriginal and European contact: Part A

READING 102B : First contact in the Upper Hunter Valley
READING 102C : The Trial of Lieutenant Nathaniel Lowe
READING 102D : The Impact of dispossession
READING 102E : Caroona and St Heliers
READING 102F : St Clair (Mount Olive), Caroona and the Aborigines Inland Mission



Video Clip D: First Australians Ep1 NSW Resistance 1790s (4 min 2 sec)















See: SBS On Demand for full video 1Hour 10 mins

They Have Come to Stay - This landmark series chronicles the birth of contemporary Australia as never told before, from the perspective of its first people. It explores what unfolds when the oldest living culture in the world is overrun by the world's greatest empire, and depicts the true stories of individuals - both black and white. The story begins in 1788 in Sydney with the friendship between an Englishmen, Governor Phillip, and a warrior, Bennelong.

Video Clip E: Bingara Massacre 1838 (7 min 42 sec)

Myall Creek Massacre involved the killing of up to 30 unarmed Indigenous Australians by ten white Europeans and one black African on 10 June 1838 at the Myall Creek near Bingara in northern New South Wales. After two trials, seven of the 11 colonists involved in the killings were found guilty of murder and hanged.


Video Clip F: First Australians Ep5 WA Jandamarra 1890s (4 min 28 sec)