The European colonisation of Australia

This post continues a sequence that began on Green Path with Where did we come from? and People in Australia before Europeans arrived. Those two, covering the evolution of Homo sapiens from ape-like ancestors to the beginnings of modern history, fitted well enough in an environmental blog. This one, continuing the Australian story from 1788, is primarily social and political history. As such, it is a better fit here on Words & Images.

Much of the “new” history is disturbing but, as Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell tells us, we have to come to terms with it so that we can move out from beneath its shadow.    

Why Weren’t We Told?

It has gradually become clear that the Australian history we learned in school fifty years ago, and more recently, obscured, more or less deliberately, much of the truth about the colonisation of the country by Europeans. The indigenous inhabitants were more numerous and far more settled into permanent communities than we were told, while border wars and massacres were far bloodier and more frequent than we were told, and “terra nullius” was a self-serving fiction from the outset.

Historian Henry Reynolds wrote a very personal book, Why weren’t we told? (1999) reflecting on his own journey of discovery of the Aboriginal history of Australia. Its title is the key question which came to him as he began to discern its outlines.

The same question occurred to me a generation later. Like him, I grew up in southern Australia (Tasmania for him, country Victoria for me), ignorant of indigenous people and their history, only to be confronted by the very different realities of North Queensland on moving to Townsville as an adult. It was a culture shock to me in 1990, as I said in Singing the Coast; it was far worse when he arrived, twenty-five years earlier.

His answer, as a professional historian, was that the frontier wars had been systematically written out of our history texts. The subject couldn’t be taught in schools because the teachers couldn’t learn it in university because the historians had burked it. His response was to initiate the research and write the books himself.

My answer, as someone trying to make sense of a community which was only a couple of generations away from the pioneers (settlers, colonisers) was that the answers would have been too painful both to my generation, asking the questions, and to the older generation, answering them. It’s far easier now that the pioneers and nearly all of their children have passed away.

I believe both of our answers are correct.

Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014) is one of the key works in our rethinking of this history. I knew about it for some years before I finally found the time and courage to read it recently. I had avoided it because I really didn’t want to read yet another account of white injustice and brutality, but I needn’t have worried: the book is not confronting in that way but is primarily about pre-contact indigenous life.

Tom Griffiths writes about Pascoe and his books at and places Dark Emu in the context of the ongoing academic revision of our history by “scholars such as Norman Tindale, Harry Allen, John Blay, Beth Gott, Jeannette Hope, Tim Allen, Rupert Gerritsen, Bill Gammage, Rhys Jones, Jim Bowler, Tim Flannery, Ian McNiven, Dick Kimber, Peter Latz, Deborah Rose, Harry Lourandos, Lynette Russell, Paul Memmott and Eric Rolls.” I encourage everyone to read both the essay and the book.

Further reading

(1) Nonfiction

(2) Fiction

Border wars and massacres

An Australian-first project, led by University of Newcastle historian Lyndall Ryan, has been mapping massacre sites across the country for several years. …

During what has become known as the ‘Frontier Wars’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and tribes fought to defend themselves and their country, with many violently murdered in the clashes with white settlers. Now, ground-breaking research into the scale of the violence during that time suggests the massacres of Aboriginal people became “larger, more organised and ruthless” as the decades went on. …

Researchers now estimate more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in 403 massacres, higher than the team’s previous estimate of 8,400 in 302 massacres. By comparison, it’s estimated that 168 non-Aboriginal people were killed in 13 frontier massacres.

Introduced at

Website, map and full details at

During our visit to Bladensburg National Park we learned that ‘Skull Hole’ was so called because it was a massacre site. That’s all we learned from signage at the park, but according to the Colonial Frontier Massacres Project a settler party attacked local people in 1877, killing about 200 of them in response to the death of one of the settlers’ stockmen (more details).

The 1967 referendum

The reasons for the previous and explicit exclusion of Aboriginal people by sections 51  (xxvi) and 127 of the Constitution are not entirely clear. However, the effect of this exclusion was the implementation by the states of policies that could broadly be termed ‘assimilationist’, and laws that resulted in Aboriginal peoples’ dispossession, oppression and alienation.

Following longstanding calls for greater Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs, in the 1960s the pressure for change built rapidly. In the face of evidence that assimilationist policies had failed, and with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists drawing attention to the denial of civil rights and discrimination that these policies entailed, the plight of Aboriginal people became a significant political issue. … [This led to the] 1967 Referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.

That’s from the federal parliament. The human side of the story is told by here and AIATSIS here.

14 thoughts on “The European colonisation of Australia”

  1. I encourage you to read Farmers or Hunter Gatherers – the Dark Emu Debate by Peter Sutton and Kerry Walsh.
    An interesting balance. Their argument is essentially that all the evidence points to Aboriginal culture being a sophisticated and highly skilled hunter gatherer economy. And that Bruce Pascoe’s insistence that they were more agriculturalists actually undermines the value, importance and skill of HG economies.

    1. The more you know, the more complicated the picture looks.

      Farmers versus foragers is a huge oversimplification of what was a mosaic of food production. After all, Australian landscapes differ markedly, from tropical rainforest to snowy mountains to arid spinifex country. For many Aboriginal people, the terms “farming” and “hunter-gatherer” do not capture the realities of 60 millennia of food production.
      In our new research published in the Archaeology of Food and Foodways, we argue that to better understand millennia-old systems, archaeologists must engage deeply with fields such as plant genetics, ethnobotany, archaeobotany and bioarchaeology as well as listening more carefully to the views of Aboriginal people. Here’s how.

  2. A new book about Aboriginal tactics in the border wars, mainly in NSW and southern Qld –

    University of Southern Queensland associate adjunct professor Ray Kerkhove’s newly published book How They Fought details evidence about the way Aboriginal warriors resisted colonists.
    By analysing “hundreds and hundreds” of historical accounts of skirmishes, including from newspaper articles and diary entries, Dr Kerkhove is revealing what he says is an accurate picture of a conflict that “made Australia”.
    “I’ve been frustrated with the fact that that we tend to only hear the white side,” he said.
    “So I’ve tried to get the other side and get of a lot of First Nations voices in [the book].”

  3. Young Dark Emu – a truer history by Bruce Pascoe was published by Magabala Books in 2019. I have yet to see it but Sue Osborne says in Independent Education, a professional magazine for teachers, that it is “not a ‘dumbed down’ version of Dark Emu, it is a different book intentionally written for a younger audience but drawing on the same evidence.”

  4. Remarkably, one remote part of the Australian territories preserved the colonial-era plantation-style indentured labour system all the way into the 1970s. Here’s a short social history of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
    And here’s an eye-witness’ memory of it. It’s that recent.

  5. Black Duck – a year at Yumburra by Bruce Pascoe with Lyn Harwood (2024) is an anecdotal diary of a year on an East Gippsland farm set up by Pascoe and others to produce indigenous foods. Farming, fishing and family take up a lot of space; trips around Australia to speak at writer’s festivals, indigenous lore meetings and the like take up almost as much; and they are interspersed with wildlife observations. A gentle, hopeful book from a bloke in his 70s who would like to slow down a bit but is still deeply involved with indigenous issues, it’s a good introduction to the rest of the author’s work.

  6. Richard Flanagan’s Question 7 (2023) is a strange book, as the author warns us in its epigraph. It’s primarily a memoir but it it structured around a historical sequence which links the colonial genocide of Tasmanian aboriginals, HG Wells, the invention of the atom bomb, and slave labour camps in Japan. This sequence twines around his own family history like a complementary strand of DNA: his definite Tasmanian convict ancestry, his probable indigenous ancestry, his father’s wartime incarceration in Japan, and his own upbringing in a respectable, hardworking but desperately poor family.
    Books talk to each other, I’m sure, and Question 7, Black Duck (previous comment) and, bizarrely, Babel must have had a good conversation about British colonialism in the nineteenth century.

  7. The Scottish explorer who became the butcher of Gippsland
    One of Angus McMillan’s Scottish relations discovers her connection to the explorer and delves into his actions in this Guardian article
    Viki Sinclair had a similar story in the East Gippsland local newspaper in 2015 which reached me via facebook. She discovered that one of her ancestors was one of McMillan’s associates and probably took part in massacres he led.

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