ActivitiesA   I   B   I  C  I  D

First Contact - The Aboriginal Inhabitants and British Settlers in Australia

First Contact:

It is interesting when you discover for yourself from the original surviving documents, the real story of what happened when the British decided to build a prison colony in Aboriginal Australia.

A) "...the most suitable place ... was Botany Bay. The natives would provide little opposition, and the convicts ... could succeed in defending themselves."

1779, a committee of the British House of Commons investigating Australia as a possible settlement.
They used Sir Joseph Banks' report .(Banks was the botanist on Captain Cook's ship during the voyage in 1770, when Cook discovered the fertile east coast of Australia.)

One result of the agricultural and industrial revolution in Britain was the movement of people from the countryside to the towns and cities. With social problems such as drunkenness, unemployment and the overcrowded conditions, there was an upsurge in the crime rates. The prisons in Britain were very overcrowded. There was also a large increase in the general population. Britain could no longer send their convicts to the British colonies in America, following the American was of Independence, so a new place had to be found to establish a penal colony. See this trail of events in this selection of old images.

B) Banks' report also allowed the British to consider Botany Bay (in present day Sydney) becoming "a base for whaling ships, ... and also British ships engaged in piracy against Spanish trade [enemies of Britain at the time]".

C) "International law recognised ... occupation of territory that was terra nullius [vacant land] as [one] of the effective ways of acquiring sovereignty [ownership of land]...The great voyages of European discovery [eg Capt Cook] opened to European nations the prospect of occupying new and valuable territories ... [other] various justifications were advanced - [to extend] the benefits of Christianity; and new territories could be claimed by occupation if the land were uncultivated, (for Europeans had a right to bring lands into production if they were left uncultivated by the indigenous inhabitants)." 
1993 High Court of Australia High Court Decision on Mabo 1992

Under International law at the time, the land was 'terra nullius' (vacant unoccupied land). This is because the local aboriginal indigenous inhabitants, did not grow crops or have permanent houses or settlements. They also did not appear to have any recognised system of authority or any written laws. The aboriginal tribes did though have an ordered system of authority with effective laws, and codes of conduct in their society. These were however not evident to the British, as they were based on customs and were passed on to their young by word of mouth, through song and dance and stories from their mythology (called the Dreamtime.)

The local aboriginal inhabitants also did not grow crops or domesticate animals because there were no seed or root crops on the Australian continent. Nor were there any animals that could be domesticated for food. There were Kangaroos, but trying to keep them behind fences.....! But the aboriginal people had been using the land for thousands of years and did have a healthy diet. They did not build permanent houses because they were nomadic and wandered over the land, over established seasonal patterns of migration. This provided them with naturally occurring 'bush tucker' foods and small game.

Because of the International laws at the time (using the idea of terra nullius) , the arrival of the Europeans in Australia was seen as legal, just and peaceful. This idea was promoted by white settlers. Documents however, reveal some clues as to the real details.

D) "... nor have I the least doubt of the convicts being the aggressor ... [referring to continuing violence between white and black societies]"

Governor Philip, 9th July, 1788 (Governor Philip was in charge of the early settlement, established after the First Fleet of British ships arrived on the east coast of Australia.)

E) "... the settlers were unable with safety to carry on their necessary avocations [jobs] without firearms under daily apprehension [fear] of ... being destroyed by the Natives."

Executive Council, Van Diemans Land, 1828 (Tasmania)

F) "Serious trouble arose over Aboriginal attacks on sheep. The white man, having driven off the native game, could not understand that the Aborigines thus deprived of food would then attack his sheep. To the white man, this meant that the Aborigine must be punished, taught a lesson, and deterred from similar actions in the future."

Mainstreams in Australian History, 1969

G) "A party of overlanders was killed ... in 1838, and the punishment was left in the hands of the settlers themselves. In the same year, a band of assigned station hands murdered 28 Aborigines camped near the Myall Creek station on the pretext of preventing further murders..."

Mainstreams in Australian History, 1969


A. From the documents, and information above, answer these three questions:

(Try and quote from the documents to support your answers. Just quote two or three words at a time, and blend these words into your own sentences.
For example:
...It was noted in the 1779 British Government Report, that if a colony was established in Australia, it could serve as a base for British ships "engaged in piracy against the Spanish trade." )
1 - Explain the reasons why the Europeans came to Australia?
2 -  Why should the idea of Terra Nullius not have been used in connection with Australia, when the First Fleet of British soldiers and settlers arrived?

3 - What evidence do we have that the Aborigines wanted to defend their land?

B. Read the documents found on this web page and then do the following:

 Make up an old fashioned newspaper front page, one that looks like it is from the late 1700s  or early 1800s. Write two or three newspaper stories for this edition that report clashes between the white settlers or soldiers and the local native inhabitants. (Aborigines)

Use a program like Microsoft Word, FrontPage, PowerPoint or Publisher to make the newspaper look authentic. When complete, paste the news sheet/paper in your book. Try typing 'historicpages' in Google to find some sites that display old newspapers, so you can see the appropriate layout, banners, historic graphics etc.

Remember, you will be writing from the point of view of a person with the attitudes common in the society at the time. Mention as well in your main article, (make it the newspaper's editorial,) the current English laws about land ownership in new colonies with regards to the indigenous inhabitants.

C. Extension Activities

"Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour sailed away, but the First Fleet landed and thus began two centuries of death, fighting, attempted genocide and a struggle for survival. The second and third fleets followed bringing more colonists, convicts and Governors with good intentions and devastating policies. Within only 20 years of Cook’s first sighting of Sydney, the peaceful way of life of the local Aboriginal people was to turn into a nightmare of war, dispossession, displacement  and disease."

Visit the following dictionary sites and find definitions for the words above in bold type. Write these words and definitions out in your book. First put in your book the same heading you can see at the top of this page.

Merriam-Webster Online
A free, searchable on-line dictionary and thesaurus,
Free online dictionary search,

2.  Besides fighting with white soldiers and settlers, and being pushed off their traditional hunting and food gathering lands, there are other reasons why the Aboriginal population in Australia declined. Using information from the following sources, explain what other reasons there are for why many Australian Aboriginal people died after white settlers from Europe came to Australia.

"MUMMY, what happened to all the Aborigines?" I asked, long, long ago. "They got sick and died," she replied. And, allowing for a seven-year-old's need for simplicity, she was right. There is not a lot of disagreement about this. An Aboriginal population that may have numbered nearly a million in 1780 declined to barely a tenth of that number a century later and kept on declining until it reached a low of about 74,000 around 1930, and then gradually recovered to the present figure, as officially counted, of around 400,000.

The frontier conflict historians reviewed in the July-August Quadrant do not dispute the big picture - that illness, not settlers' guns and poison, was the big killer. In general, they would not claim that much more than about 10 per cent, on average, of indigenous inhabitants died in each region in conflict with white newcomers in the short period of a few years when violent frontier conditions applied....

Campbell, a former ANU historian , makes a strong case that the great killer was smallpox, killing up to half and then half again of the Aboriginal population in two cataclysmic epidemics, in the 1780s and again during 1824 - 31, and then a third comparable epidemic through much of the tropics and remote outback in the 1860s....(Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia 1780 - 1880 )

Governor Phillip and several other officials have left abundant records of the smallpox epidemic that hit the colony in April 1789 - still the worst calamity in Australian history. They reported bodies everywhere, in the water and on the rocks, in caves and at abandoned campsites, the survivors disfigured by ugly pockmarks. Bennelong, the chief go-between for the Governor with the Aborigines, claimed that the epidemic killed about half the Sydney region Aborigines.

Robert Murray, Disease—the Real Invader , writing in Quadrant Magazine History October 2003 - Volume XLVII Number 10

"..European-introduced germs to which Aborigines had had no opportunity to acquire immunity or to evolve genetic resistance. Within a year of the first European settlers' arrival in Sydney in 1788, corpses of Aborigines who had died in epidemics became a common sight. The principal recorded killers were smallpox, influenza, measles, typhoid, typhus, chickenpox, whooping cough, tuberculosis..."
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1997)

3. Visit the following web sites, and scan through the information printed below about events in the different Australian States. Briefly record the details of one battle or conflict between the soldiers or settlers and the aboriginal Australians.

Read this web site page and study the picture of the Government poster shown on the right. 
For which people in and around the settlement, do you think the Government produced this poster?  II. What message is the poster trying to give to the people?  III. Why do you think the Government produced this poster?

Reports from the different Australian States:

The Blackline - Tasmania

Tasmania is Australia's second oldest colony, therefore its Aboriginal population experienced early effects of colonisation and were constantly on the 'front line' of violence and reprisal. Random killings and massacres of Aboriginal people were commonplace and Aboriginal people responded in kind. The colonial administrators saw the only answer to the problem of racial violence was removal of the Aboriginal people to reserves or islands out of the way of European settlement.

'The Blackline' is the name given to a systematic attempt by Tasmania's Governor Arthur in 1830 to capture large numbers of Aboriginal people. The strategy involved 2200 soldiers and settlers marching through the bush in a closely packed continuous line. They forced the Aboriginal people in front of them, towards the Tasman Peninsula, where they could be rounded up and captured. This massive effort captured two Aboriginal people - one elderly man and a crippled boy.

Despite the failure of 'the Blackline' the process of removing Aboriginal people to islands continued. On the islands Aboriginal people died in great numbers because of European diseases, poor food and accommodation, ill treatment and, sometimes murder.

Waterloo Creek - New South Wales

In late 1837 and early 1838, Major James Nunn of the New South Wales Mounted Police led an expedition into northern New South Wales to resolve complaints by settles about attacks by Aboriginal people.

Nunn was instructed by the Acting Governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Snodgrass, to:

act according to your judgement and use the utmost exertion to suppress these outrages. There are a thousand blacks there, and if they are not stopped, we may have them presently within the boundaries.

Nunn's expedition travelled widely looking for Aboriginal people believed responsible for the 'outrages'. They eventually cornered a group of Aboriginal people at Waterloo Creek and in a 'battle' lasting ten minutes, massacred 40-50 people. The exact number is not known. Nunn's party then continued its murderous path for the next three days, killing every Aboriginal person it encountered.

On their return journey to Sydney, Nunn and his party were welcomed like heroes by towns along the way


Kalkadoon - Queensland

The Kalkadoon people of the Mt Isa region of western Queensland first came into contact with the advancing European pastoralists and miners in the mid 1860s. At first the Kalkadoon people worked with the Europeans as guides and labourers. But as the number of settlers and their stock increased, the competition for the land's resources became more intense, leading to conflict.

The Kalkadoon people began a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the settlers and their stock from about 1871 to 1884. The Kalkadoon gained a reputation as ferocious warriors with an ability to vanish into the bush.

In 1884, the Kalkadoon people killed five Native Police and a prominent pastoralist. The Queensland Government responded by sending a large contingent of heavily armed police to confront the Kalkadoon. The Kalkadoon had retreated to a defensive position now known as 'Battle Mountain'. After fierce resistance the Kalkadoon succumbed to the greater firepower of the police.

It is estimated that 900 Kalkadoon people were killed during the six years that they fought to protect their land.

Jandamarra - Western Australia

One of the most complex figures of early Aboriginal resistance is Jandamarra. He was a Punuba man who lived in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia from 1870-1897. In his early years he lived and worked as a respected stockman.

In 1889 after his initiation Jandamarra met an older Punuba man called Ellemarra and became more aware of the problems being caused by the settlers and their sheep. In 1888 there was a serious drought and the Punuba people were suffering. This was because of the arrival of the Europeans and their sheep had destroyed much of the food and water supplies that the Punuba protected to help them in times of drought. As a result the Punuba needed to hunt sheep to live.

Ellamarra, still considered a young man by his people, knew a lot about the Punuba law and was greatly respected by the younger men. Ellemarra was a natural leader - a good warrior and he was not afraid to stand up to the invaders. He taught Jandamarra and the other young men much about their law.

Jandamarra and Ellemarra were captured in 1889 when Jandamarra walked up to a number of police troopers he knew, and they tricked him into guiding them to his campsite. Jandamarra didn't know that he was wanted by the police. His old employer had laid charges against him for killing a sheep in May 1889, annoyed that Jandamarra had not return to the station after his initiation. The police dropped the charges against him and he returned to stock work. He eventually became a police tracker. He later helped police capture Ellemarra and 16 other Punuba warriors.

Jandamarra was scorned by his people for helping the police capture Ellemarra, so he assisted Ellemarra and the other warriors to escape. During the escape, Jandamarra shot a policeman. He joined the band of escapees and began a campaign to rid the area of European settlers. Colonial authorities responded by sending 30 police to capture Jandamarra and the band. In the battle that followed at Windjana Gorge Jandamarra was injured but managed to escape. He continued to taunt police and was soon believed immortal by his people. His campaign came to an end in 1897 when, after another skirmish with police, he was tracked and shot dead by an Aboriginal trooper.

Jandamarra is still remembered by his people as a defender of Aboriginal rights.

D. Write an essay response to the following question:

How did the indigenous Aboriginal Australians, and the British soldiers and settlers respond to contact with each other? What reasons could be put forward for why they didn't live side by side in peaceful co-existence with one another?

(In your essay quote from the documents to support your argument. Just quote two or three words at a time, and blend these words into your own sentences.)

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