Aboriginal Australian History

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Aboriginal Australian History

Since the beginning of the Dreaming, for time immemorial, Indigenous Australian peoples have lived in conjunction with the land. Over 500 nations share the Australian continent, each with their own separate culture, histories and language. As such it is hard to describe Aboriginal Australian history as a whole, from the European perspective. Rather, we need to look through the lense of Country, and Indigenous peoples connection to Country, their stories, culture and language.

CULTURAL WARNING FOR ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER READERS: The links contained on this page may contain images, video and audio recordings of individuals who are deceased.


Specific aspects of Aboriginal Australian History

500+ Nations
Agriculture & Land
Aboriginal Tasmania
Invasion (to 1788)
Colonisation (1788-)
Post-colonisation

500+ Nations

Over 500 Indigenous nations have shared the Australian continent, from the start of the dreaming, each with their own separate culture, histories and language. These cover wide ranges of land, hundreds of kilometers in size, and have distinct borders.

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Collection highlights

AV resources

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Agriculture & Land

The Indigenous peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands have developed and employed sophisticated farming, agricultural and land management practices for thousands of years. Evidence over the last 50 years shows how different nations and people developed different practices depending on their environment, from fish traps to crop cultivation, and crop rotation on a massive scale. This challenges the European hunter-gatherer nomadic narrative. Historical and archaeological evidence also suggests that substantial dwellings, in groups, were also common.

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Collection highlights

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Aboriginal Tasmania

Tasmanian Aboriginal nations have a distinct history in addition to the rich history and culture of all Aboriginal Australians. Indigenous peoples arrived in Tasmania, or Trowunna as it was known to Aboriginal Tasmanians, from the mainland between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. Around 30,000 years ago there was a drastic drop in sea level due to the last ice age in Australia during the Last Glacial Period. Trowunna was connected to the mainland by a long, low and flat plain, which was inhabited for thousands of years by Aboriginal Australians. About 12,000 years ago the ice age ended, which caused sea levels to rise and created the Bass Strait, separating Trowunna from mainland Australia. This meant that the Tasmanian Aboriginal history and cultures diverged slightly from the rest of the Aboriginal Australian nations on the mainland.

Aboriginal Tasmanians were one of the groups most dramatically affected by the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans. A horrific mix of conflict, expansion and poor policy meant that the numbers of Tasmanian Aboriginals were greatly reduced. Those who survived were eventually relocated to other places, such as Flinders' Island, and dispossessed of all of their land, which helped contribute to the myth that Tasmanian Aboriginals were completely eradicated.

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eReserve

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Invasion (to 1788)

Doctrine of Discovery

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree titled the Doctrine of Discovery, or the Discovery Doctrine and later also known as The Law of Nations, which stated that any lands not discovered by Christians, or rather where no Christians lived, were considered as uninhabited and legally available to be claimed by Christians as their own. According to the Church, and European law, this gave Christians the right to control that land and any non-Christian people who lived there, and to exploit the land's resources as they saw fit, as long as they worked to spread Christianity... by any means necessary.

Collection highlights

  • Unsettling truths
  • The Land is not empty

Web resources

Early European Exploration

Europeans first encountered Australia in 1606, when Dutch navigators landed at Cape York. Spanish ships also sailed through the Torres Strait Islands later that same year. Numerous other Dutch, French and then British navigators ventured to Australia over the next 150 years.

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James Cook

Captain James Cook set sail on the Endeavour in 1768, and in 1770 claimed possession of the East coast of Australia in the name of the British Empire.

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Terra Nullius

Terra nullius, meaning land belonging to no-one, was the legal concept used by the British government to justify the settlement of Australia.

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First Fleet

In January 1788 the First Fleet landed near the border between the Eora and Dharawal lands at Botany Bay, before moving on to Port Jackson, now Sydney, at the centre of Eora country.

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Colonisation (1788-)

European Settlement

European settlement of Australia started with the arrival of the First Fleet in the British colony of New South Wales in 1788, followed in 1793 by the first free settlers. European settlement quickly expanded into Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

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Conflict

The Indigenous peoples of Australia suffered greatly during this time, with some estimates suggesting at least 20,000 Aboriginal deaths from violence during the expansion of the European frontier. In contrast, between 2,000-2,500 settler deaths were the result of frontier conflict during the same period. This eventually escalated into the Australian Frontier Wars in the period between 1800 and the 1930s, including the 1830s conflicts in Western Australia, the Black War in Tasmania, a number of massacres of Aboriginal Australians and more.

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Collection highlights

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Disease

European introduced diseases, such as smallpox, influenza, measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, ravaged the Indigenous population of the Australian continent. Aboriginal Australians had no immune resistance to these diseases.

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Post-colonisation

Federation and Citizenship

The federation of Australia in 1901 excluded Indigenous peoples from the Constitution. "White Australia" did not consider Aboriginal Australians as citizens and they were excluded from the census.

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Web resources

Stolen Generations

This timeline from SBS illustrates clearly the 100 years of legislation that enabled Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from their family during that time, as well as key points after 1969 when the laws were abolished. In 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read a National Apology to the victims of the Stolen Generations. While national and government recognition and use of the word "sorry" was an important step towards Reconciliation, the Apology was also supported by multiple reports ("Bringing Them Home", "Bridge the Gap") that included recommendations to the Australian Government. Some success has been had based on these recommendations, but doubt remains about the continued effectiveness of these efforts.

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World Wars

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and servicewomen have always played an important part in Australian military operations, doing their part as much as anyone else, although often they were not acknowledged for their efforts. In fact, at the start of the 20th Century Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not legally allowed to serve in the Australian military, so many hid their true identities.

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1967 Referendum

Over 90% of Australian voters decided to change the Australian Constitution to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted as part of the Australian population, which then allowed for the Commonwealth to make laws that governed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander at a Federal level, instead of the State level, where there were massive inconsistencies and inequalities. The 1967 Referendum came about due to a prolonged national and international scrutiny of civil and human rights throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

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Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a continuing process that has been happening over the last 50 years. The aim of Reconciliation is to create lasting and meaningful change in Australian society and culture where, in the words of Kirstie Parker of Reconciliation Australia, the rights of "First Australians are not just respected but championed in all the places that matter."

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AV resources

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