Australia, Aborigines

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Australia, Aborigines

Aboriginal people understand their ancestors to have always been on the Australian continent, and archaeologists have dated their remains at over forty-thousand years old. Contact between Europeans and Aborigines was sporadic from the Dutch, Portuguese, and British expeditions across the Indian Ocean in the seventeenth century, to the British and French explorations of the Pacific Ocean in the eighteenth century. Explorer James Cook (1728–1779) navigated the eastern coast of Australia in 1770, claiming it for Britain, and in 1788 Cameragal, Gayimai, and Cadigal people around what is now Sydney, witnessed the arrival of hundreds of convicts and soldiers. Unlike previous Europeans who came and went, this group stayed to establish a new penal colony.

Wherever the British established pastoral, penal, and shipping communities—inland from Sydney, in Tasmania, around the bay of what is now Melbourne—Aboriginal people were displaced from traditional lands, were sometimes killed by settlers, became ill, and often died from exotic diseases, especially smallpox. Occasionally, in this early period, encounters across cultures resulted in ongoing familial, sexual, or companionate relationships: Tasmanian Aboriginal women lived and had families with British sealers and whalers; escaped British convicts sometimes incorporated into Aboriginal communities; and indigenous men known to the historical record, like Bennelong (1764–1813), or Baneelon, formed friendships with British officials, albeit initially unwillingly, and occasionally traveled to England.

From the 1830s, Aboriginal people in the British colonies in the south and east (New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria) were increasingly managed by governments through various 'protection' acts. Land was set aside for them, and 'reserves' and 'missions' were headed by British officials or religious bodies. The system of missions and reserves became more rigid in the early twentieth century, with the Aborigines Protection Acts strictly limiting movement beyond the reserves.

In the early twentieth century, Aboriginal families were increasingly subject to policies of child removal. This was driven by concern about interracial sex, and so-called 'mixed-race' children, whom the government sought to assimilate. Many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal historians consider that the state practice of child removal was genocide, as defined by the UN Convention. There is a long history of indigenous protest against this removal, the limitation of movement, exploitive working conditions, and the active exclusion of Aboriginal people from the civic body. Aboriginal people always link this protest to the original dispossession of land. Resistance has ranged from formal petitions (to King George V [1865–1936] in 1934, for example), to mothers hiding their children from welfare agents, to successful labor strikes on cattle stations, as well as longstanding campaigns for the restoration of land, and recognition of native title. A major campaign in 1967 successfully changed the Australian constitution by referendum, transferring power over Aboriginal affairs from state governments to the federal government. More civic rights gradually ensued. Currently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deal with many social, political, and health problems that are a direct legacy of the colonial past. The meaning of this history forms a major aspect of political and cultural debate in Australia.

see also Australia.


Australia. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commision, 1997.

Goodall, Heather. Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972. St. Edwards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1996.

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Australia, Aborigines