History and Heritage

With evidence of occupation over 60,000 years, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples of Australia may be the world’s oldest people in the world’s oldest land. But their place in Australia’s history is only now being properly acknowledged and recorded.

By 1788 around 500 Aboriginal tribes or nations occupied the Australian landmass, with efficient and sustainable systems for living off the land. They achieved a balanced diet by hunting and gathering, moving seasonally between camps as food supplies dictated. Fire was used methodically to burn old growth and encourage new. Being mobile, possessions were minimal. They had complex religious beliefs, sophisticated social relationships and trading links across the continent.

In 1788 the first European settlement – Britain’s latest penal colony – was established at what is now Sydney. The effects were catastrophic. With the convicts, soldiers and settlers came diseases to which Aboriginal people had no resistance – typhoid, flu, smallpox and venereal disease.

The next hundred years saw Aboriginal people forced out of their country, dispossessed of habitable land, shot, poisoned and massacred as successive waves of British settlers sought land for building, agriculture, grazing and mining. Rape and abduction of Aboriginal women and girls were common.

Some tribes at first welcomed or tolerated the newcomers, but as it became clear that the British intended to stay, conflict escalated. Aboriginal groups mounted effective guerrilla campaigns but were eventually overwhelmed by the new repeater rifle, horsepower and the armed might of colonial governments.

Removed from their land, deprived of their traditional bush food and devastated by disease, malnutrition, poverty, alcoholism, violence and despair, most Aboriginal people existed on town fringes and pastoral properties or were herded onto reserves and missions. When through hard work they made these reserves into productive agricultural holdings, that land too was seized.

Little changed with Britain’s transfer of power to a Federal Australia in 1900/1901 under the new Federal Constitution. Until the 1960s Aboriginal people did not have effective citizenship and could not vote. They were rigidly controlled by State laws. Many were confined to reserves which they could not leave without a permit. The State was guardian of all Aboriginal children and many were taken by force from their families to be raised (and abused) in institutions. Aboriginal people fought in 2 World Wars and were essential to the development of pastoral Australia, but were discriminated against in education, health, jobs, pay and in buses, cinemas and swimming pools.

But 200 years of attempts to obliterate Aboriginal identity and culture failed. Aboriginal people resisted through non co-operation, sabotage, protests, strikes, mutual help and increased political activism. Finally in the middle of this century Aboriginal and Islander people got the vote, citizenship, equal wages and inclusion in the national census.

Following a 1967 referendum, the Federal (Canberra) Government gained powers to legislate on Aboriginal matters. Legislation opposing racial discrimination was passed in 1975. In 1990 ATSIC was set up – elected Aboriginal and Islander Regional Councils and a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, with civil service staff and limited budgets for regional and national development programmes. Aboriginal-initiated health, housing and legal aid services were set up to supplement inadequate Government provision.

But at the beginning of the 21st century, the struggle against disadvantage and inequality continues – for recognition, land, self-determination, jobs, adequate health, education, water and power services, and an end to the incarceration and deaths of too many Aboriginal people.


“Their laws, especially with regard to marriage, are complex and wonderful. Their corroborees, or festival dances, are very wonderful. Their sagacity, especially on the tracking of men or cattle, is very wonderful. The skill with which they use the small appliances of life which they possess is very wonderful. But for years, probably for many centuries, they have made no progress, and the coming of the white man among them has had no tendency to civilise – only a tendency to exterminate them.”
Anthony TrollopeAustralia