Prior to British settlement, more than 500 First Nations groups inhabited the continent we now call Australia, approximately 750,000 people in total. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures developed over 60,000 years, making First Nations Peoples the custodians of the world’s oldest living culture. Each group lived in close relationship with the land and had custodianship of their Country.
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Captain Cook claims possession for England
In 1770, during his first Pacific voyage, Lieutenant James Cook claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for the British Crown. Upon his return to Britain, Cook’s reports inspired the authorities to establish a penal colony in the newly claimed territory. The new colony was intended to alleviate overcrowding in British prisons, expand the British Empire, assert Britain’s claim to the territory against other colonial powers, and establish a British base in the global South.
Disease, dispossession and direct conflict
In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip and 1,500 convicts, crew, marines and civilians arrived at what is now called Sydney Cove. In the 10 years that followed, it's estimated that the First Nations population was reduced by 90%. Three main reasons for this dramatic population decline were the:
- introduction of new diseases
- acquisition of First Nations lands by colonisers
- direct and violent conflict with colonisers.
The most immediate consequence of colonisation was a wave of epidemic diseases including smallpox, measles and influenza, which spread ahead of the frontier and annihilated many First Nations communities. Governor Phillip reported that smallpox had killed half of the First Nations people in the Sydney region within 14 months of the arrival of the First Fleet. The sexual abuse and exploitation of First Nations girls and women also introduced venereal disease to First Nations people in epidemic proportions.
“The Government is fast disposing of the land occupied by the natives from time immemorial. In addition to which settlers under the sanction of government may establish themselves in any part of this extensive territory and since the introduction of the numerous flocks and herds … a serious loss has been sustained by the natives without an equivalent being rendered. Their territory is not only invaded, but their game is driven back, their marnong and other valuable roots are eaten by the white man's sheep and their deprivation, abuse and miseries are daily increasing.”
Francis Tuckfield, Wesleyan Missionary, 1837
The expansion of British colonies, including the establishments in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Adelaide, Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Port Phillip (Melbourne), resulted in competition over land and resources, and quickly resulted in violence. Levels of frontier violence are hotly debated (see Reynolds and Windshuttle), but historical records document numerous occasions on which First Nations people were hunted and brutally murdered.
Massacres of First Nations people often took the form of mass shootings or driving groups of people off cliffs. There are also numerous accounts of colonists offering First Nations people food laced with arsenic and other poisons.
"In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs. In the guise of friendship we have issued corrosive sublimate in their damper and consigned whole tribes to the agonies of an excruciating death. We have made them drunkards, and infected them with diseases which have rotted the bones of their adults, and made such few children as are born amongst them a sorrow and a torture from the very instant of their birth. We have made them outcasts on their own land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation."
Edward Wilson (Editor), The Argus, 17 March 1856
It's important to recognise that from the beginning of colonisation, First Nations people continually resisted the violation of their right to land, and its impact on First Nations cultures and communities. It's estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people were killed as a direct result of colonial violence during this era of Australian history. Between 2,000 and 2,500 European deaths resulted from frontier conflict during the same period.
F-Y10 Curriculum resources to help unpack the complexities surrounding Australia Day
Stop and think: how important is your way of life?
Imagine how you’d feel if you welcomed strangers into your home and they never left. In fact, what would it be like if they took control of your house and made you relocate far away? What if they abused you physically, sexually and financially, and spread disease throughout your community? Can you imagine how this would affect your children and grandchildren’s views of these strangers for generations to come?
Consider what it would be like to see a previously unknown disease, with a 50% fatality rate, sweep through your community, affecting your family and friends. How would it make you feel to know that so much of your culture had been permanently devastated, with no way to fully rediscover it in all its richness?
The reality of the collision of cultures between First Nations Peoples and the British colonials has gone unacknowledged for most of our shared history. Many First Nations people have wrestled with defining their identity when so much of their pre-contact culture has been lost, and at the same time their relationship with mainstream Australian culture is complicated by its role in the deterioration of First Nations cultures.
- 1. Behrendt L (2012) Indigenous Australia for Dummies®, Wiley Publishing Australia Pty Ltd, Milton, Queensland, p. 94, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 2. Harris J (2003) ‘Hiding the bodies: the myth of the humane colonisation of Aboriginal Australia’, Aboriginal History Journal, vol. 27, pp. 79–104, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 3. Bladen FM, Britton A and Cook J (1892) Historical records of New South Wales, vol. 1, Part 2 (1783–1792), Government Printer, Sydney, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 4. Harris J (2013) One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, (Kindle edn) p. 27, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 5. Tuckfield F (1837) The Journal of Francis Tuckfield, missionary to Port Phillip, Southern Australia, 1837–ca. 1842, (manuscript), State Library of Victoria, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 6. Behrendt L (2012) Indigenous Australia for Dummies®, Wiley Publishing Australia Pty Ltd, Milton, Queensland, p. 274, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 7. Harris J (2013) One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, (Kindle edn) p. 209, accessed 8 November 2021.
- 8. Reynolds H (2006) The other side of the Frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, p. 126, University of New South Wales Press.