The Indigenous Australians

By Tim Lambert

The indigenous people 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 the sea level rose.

The Indigenous Australians were a hunter-gatherer society. However, dingoes were domesticated about 4000-3,000 BC. The indigenous people 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. And they ate insects and eggs. They also hunted birds such as ducks, parrots, cockatoos, and emus. Indigenous people dug up roots and collected fruits and nuts.

Although European settlers regarded them as primitive in fact the indigenous people 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 people who lived there!).

The Indigenous Tasmanians

In 1803 there may have been about 8,000 people in Tasmania. The 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 indigenous people began in 1804 with the ‘battle’ of Risdon Cove. About 300 indigenous people stumbled onto a European camp while hunting kangaroo and soldiers fired at them. Many more Tasmanians 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 the indigenous people. In 1830 he ordered all able-bodied white men to form a line across Tasmania and sweep across it forcing all the remaining indigenous Tasmanian 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 indigenous people 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 Indigenous Australians

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

One of the leaders of the indigenous 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 indigenous people. Intermittent ‘warfare’ between Whites and indigenous people continued for decades. As the Whites took more and more of the indigenous people’s hunting land for sheep tension grew and violence flared. Indigenous Australians sometimes attacked settlers and took sheep. In retaliation Europeans sometimes massacred indigenous people.

One such massacre happened on 9 June 1838 when a group of 12 European men massacred a group of 28 indigenous 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 indigenous people. Many (though not all) settlers regarded indigenous people 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 that century. From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s mixed-race children were taken away from their parents and in 1918 a law forbade a man of European descent to live with an indigenous woman.

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

A turning point in Australian history came in 1992 with the Mabo Judgement. Indigenous Australians 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 judgment, which said that even in the Queensland government leased land to pastoralists the indigenous people still had some right to use the land as long as they did not interfere with the pastoralist 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.

Ayers Rock