NAIDOC Special on Australia’s History: Why White Australia Has A Black History and How It’s Impacted Australian People

Photo by Jacky Zeng on Unsplash

The phrase “White Australia has a black history” was used as the theme for NAIDOC week in 1987, causing controversy for its strong language and grim implications.

Its immediate meaning is clear, referencing Australia’s lack of meaningful acknowledgment of past atrocities committed against First Nations people.

But there’s another meaning, too – and that’s why it’s such a brilliant theme.

In this episode of our NAIDOC 2020 video series, Carla explains the two interpretations of this powerful phrase.

Poster, National Aborigine’s And Islander’s Day Observance Committee,

Australian History Facts

Australia today is home to diverse cultures, with countless fascinating historical facts and statistics! Did you know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are members of the oldest civilisation in the world, with more than one hundred actively-spoken languages and hundreds of distinct tribes? There were originally more than 250 unique languages in Australia, although only about 145 have survived, with spiritual beliefs and customs passed down through stories as an incredibly important part of Indigenous Australian traditions.

Read on to discover additional information in some frequently asked questions about Australia’s history, and answers about the nation’s history from an Indigenous perspective. This general information includes Australia facts, a history timeline, and other details regarding the truth about Australia history.

Indigenous Australian culture has a profoundly deep link with the land, with artefacts and artworks dating back at least 60,000 years. History did not begin 200 years ago with Australian colonisation, but was formed before sea levels rose or volcanoes erupted, and is one of the first pieces of the global human puzzle.

First Nations traditional stories indicate that tribes have always lived in Australia–this Australian historical population is the oldest known to man. The stark contrast between the 200 years of Australian colonisation and the more than 60,000 years of prior heritage in Australia magnifies the sense of loss and dispossession that began when the first Europeans landed in 1788 and changed Australian history. While often referred to as settlers, the first Europeans in truth were invaders of Australia’s already settled lands.

There is no doubt that First Nations communities lived in Australia many years before it was ever called ‘Australia’ and long before the European invasion. However, one of the ongoing challenges to Australia’s reconciliation is that this undisputed fact is still not recognised by the government within the national Australian Constitution. The Australian government still hasn’t acknowledged on a national level through the constitution that First Nation people were here long before any Europeans.

This ancient Australian culture predates every known civilisation in the world, with archaeological sites in Australia dating genetic information as long ago as 60,000 years, although scientists argue that this date could vary from 40,000 to 75,000 years ago. First Nations communities hold beliefs, customs, and traditions that existed long before Ancient Egypt. Australian culture has a long and rich history that we need to preserve on a personal and national level.

Interpretations vary, with some Australian historians assuming that migration from Asia and Africa led to the development of unique cultures and societies in Australia. Genetic studies indicate that Indigenous Australian communities share some genetic markers with other countries in Eastern Eurasia. However, Australian Aboriginal folklore and Dreamtime stories tell of a different origin. The worldview of First Nations tradition is that the first inhabitants of Australia were shaped by their spiritual ancestors.

Researchers do not always agree, but many believe that the world consisted of one singular population roughly 72,000 years ago, from which First Nations people were the first to become genetically isolated and form a unique culture and societal system in Australia. We should remember that this period of the Australian past was so long ago that the globe looked very different–countries such as New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania were connected into a large supercontinent before tectonic plates shifted.

Westerners referred to Australia as ‘Terra Australis Incognita,’ which derives from the Latin for ‘unknown southern land,’ using this interpretation to rename the country as Australia when Europeans invaded. Most people get the Terra Australis part right, but often leave out the “unknown” (Incognita). It’s important to refer to the whole phrase because of its implications for Australia being declared Terra Nullius – empty land or land belonging to no one – by European invaders. Of course, Australia was not unknown, unloved or unnamed by its Indigenous people. Dutch sailors also referred to the south, north, and west coast of Australia as New Holland in the 17th century. James Cook was the first British explorer to travel to Australia and he named the colony he founded New South Wales, which is near Van D

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and original inhabitants of Australia spoke a colourful, diverse range of languages and dialects, so there is no one original name for Australia. In the Kimberley, where Aunty Munya is from, this land is known as Bandaiyan. Bandaiyan incorporates the Gaia concept that the land is a living, breathing, sacred and sentient being. Bandaiyan is a bisexual being lying on their back in the Southern Indian and Pacific oceans. Its head is in the north, its lungs extend across the Pilbara, Northern Territory and Queensland. Uluru is not the heart of Australia as the tourist industry would have you believe but is instead the naval or sacred omphalos. The southern states of Australia represent the genital region and Tasmania is not forgotten as its legs extend out under the Southern Ocean where its left foot pops up. 

Australia has existed since the dawn of time and so was not a new world. When Australia was ‘discovered’ by European colonists, these people were, in fact, invading land that was already inhabited by Australia’s long-established communities, families, and tribes. The first European to land in the region was Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606, who charted some of the Australian coast. Captain Arthur Phillip used those maps during his 1788 voyage, which led to Australian colonisation with the arrival of a fleet transporting convicts to New South Wales.

While Australian colonisation did not begin until 1788, Australia was mapped by Lieutenant James Cook in 1770, who charted the east coast, claiming it as the property of Great Britain and calling it New South Wales. Cook returned to London and proposed a colony be built on Australia’s prime coast at Botany Bay–now within Sydney. 

Australia was here in the infancy of world civilisation. It was first called ‘Australia’ by Matthew Flinders, a British explorer, but Australia was previously known as ‘Terra Australis Incognita,’ ‘New South Wales,’ and ‘New Holland.’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years, trading with other islanders and establishing tribes, languages, and traditions that resonate today. Australia was first discovered by Europeans in 1606 when a Dutch explorer landed on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.

Australia’s British colonisation began in 1788 when fleets of ships invaded via the New South Wales coast and set up penal colonies, transporting thousands of convicts from around the world to Australia. Most convicts remained in Australia once their sentences had expired. Colonisation decimated preexisting Australian communities, bringing disease, war, conflict, and the gold rush, leading to hundreds of massacres, the appropriation of land and homes and the loss of freedoms for countless Australians.

Australia’s national British colonial period lasted from 1788 to 1850 when the transportation of convicts to Australian penal colonies began to be phased out. The first Australian colonists arrived on the coast near Sydney, with later colonies in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western and South Australia.

History of Australia Summary

The history of Australia is long, complex, and in many ways challenging to learn; however, the history covers a uniquely broad period and reflects how Australia has changed since the first invasion, extending from Sydney and eventually across the country. Australia is now home to millions of people and has thriving cities, precious land, rich culture, and a history of First Nation people that needs to be recognised and told. You can be an Ally and continue to learn the history of First Nation people, so you can tell Australia’s true history.