A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA

By Tim Lambert

The Aborigines are believed to have arrived in Australia about 40,000 BC during an ice age when Australia was connected to Asia by a land bridge.

Tasmania was cut off from Australia around 8,000 BC when the last ice age ended and sea level rose.

The Aborigines were a hunter-gatherer society. However dingoes were domesticated about 4000-3,000 BC. The Aborigines hunted with wooden spears and sometimes with stone or bone blades. They also used nets.

As well as hunting mammals they hunted reptiles such as snakes and lizards. Aborigines also ate insects and eggs. They also hunted birds such as ducks, parrots, cockatoos and emus. Aborigines dug up roots and collected fruits and nuts. Although European settlers regarded them as primitive in fact Aborigines survived in Australia for tens of thousands of years and they had a rich culture.

However in 1770 when Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay. He claimed the whole of Australia (or New South Wales) for Britain. To Cook and his contemporaries Australia was terra nullius or empty land (ignoring the Aborigines who lived there!).

The Tasmanian Aborigines

In 1803 there may have been about 8,000 Aborigines in Tasmania. Tasmanian people were hunter-gatherers. They hunted with spears and they also fished. They made simple huts of bark and they covered themselves with fat, ocher and charcoal to keep themselves warm.

Europeans killed many especially during the 'Black War' of the 1820s. Others died of diseases introduced by Europeans. The 'warfare' between Europeans and Tasmanian Aborigines began in 1804 with the 'battle' of Risdon Cove. About 300 Aborigines stumbled onto a European camp while hunting kangaroo and soldiers fired at them. Many more Tasmanian Aborigines were killed in the ensuing years.

The Governor of Tasmania from 1824 to 1837 was George Arthur. In the years 1828 to 1832 he declared martial law hoping to end the warfare between Europeans and Aborigines. In 1830 he ordered all able-bodied white men to form a line across Tasmania and sweep across it forcing all the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines onto the Tasman Peninsula. However this move, known as the Black Line, failed.

Eventually a preacher named George Robinson agreed to try and persuade the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines to go to a reservation on Flinders Island. The surviving people agreed to go there. However they continued to die of disease and in 1847 the few survivors were allowed back onto Tasmania.

War With the Australian Aborigines

When the first convicts and their guards were sent to Australia they were enjoined to 'live in amity and kindness' with the Aborigines. That of course did not happen. The Europeans came to drive the Aborigines off their land. Naturally the Aborigines resented this and fought back. However there were no pitched battles between Europeans and Aborigines. Instead Aborigines fought 'hit and run' raids and parties of Europeans went out to kill Aborigines.

One of the leaders of Aboriginal resistance was Pemulwuy who fought the British from 1790 to 1802. However he was eventually shot. European diseases such as smallpox, influenza and measles to which they had no resistance also devastated the Aborigines. Intermittent 'warfare' between Whites and Aborigines continued for decades. As the Whites took more and more of the Aborigine's hunting land for sheep tension grew and violence flared. Aborigines sometimes attacked settlers and took sheep. In retaliation Europeans sometimes massacred Aborigines.

One such massacre happened on 9 June 1838 when a group of 12 European men massacred a group of 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were peacefully camped near a hut belonging to 2 convicts. Of the 12 men 11 were brought to justice. At their first trial all 11 men were acquitted. However 7 were re-tried, found guilty and hung. It was rare for settlers to be prosecuted for killing Aborigines. Many (though not all) settlers regarded Aborigines as inferior and not fully human.

By the late 19th century people of European descent vastly outnumbered indigenous people. The number of Indigenous Australians had fallen drastically since the beginning of the century. From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s half caste children were taken away from their parents and in 1918 a law forbade a man of European descent to live with an Aboriginal woman.

However the treatment of Aborigines improved in the late 20th century. From 1959 Aborigines were allowed welfare benefits and after 1962 they were allowed to vote. In 1971 Aborigines were included in the census for the first time.

A turning point in Australian history came in 1992 with the Mabo Judgement. Aborigines claimed that the island of Mer belonged to them and not to the crown. A court finally overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that Australia was empty when the Europeans arrived. In 1993 the government passed the Native Title Bill to clarify rights to ownership of land. However in 1993 came the Wik judgement, which said that even in the Queensland government leased land to pastoralists the Aborigines still had some right to use the land as long as they did not interfere with the pastoralists activities. In 1998 the government was forced to amend the 1993 Native Title Act. As a symbol of reconciliation between the different peoples of Australia over 250,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000.

Today the population of Australia is 21 million. In 2006 it was estimated that the Aboriginal population was about 500,000 - about the same as it was when Europeans first arrived in Australia at the end of the 18th century.

A History of Australia

The Maoris

Native Americans

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