The history of Indigenous Australia stretches back tens of thousands of years before colonisation when European invaders arrived in 1788.

While a modern history of Australia summary might cover only the last two centuries, our land is inhabited by one of the oldest recorded civilisations on earth, with the heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people extending by around 60,000 years.

A History of Australia from 1788

Long before ancient people settled in the Middle East, America or Europe, the country we now call ‘Australia’ was home to the ancestors of today’s First Nations people. Their rich culture is grounded in respect and care for the land, with unique customs and traditions, which abruptly shifted in 1788 when the British fleets invaded, carrying convicts.

  • 1789: A mass epidemic of smallpox broke out in Sydney, one of many diseases brought into the country by the invading European ships.
  • 1792: Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal warrior, led a resistance against the colonists, but the invaders overwhelmed the fighters with more sophisticated weaponry. 
  • 1794: The Hawkesbury River massacre was the first mass killing of native people by the white colonists.
  • 1802: Pemulwuy was shot dead, having evaded capture despite a serious injury in 1797.
  • 1804: An uprising by convicts in New South Wales, called ‘The Castle Hill Rebellion,’ was led by Irish prisoners, ending in martial law and the death of around forty convicts.

Conflict and mass appropriations of land, water and natural resources continued and spread further into Australia. European invaders captured the first inland establishment in 1815, seizing Bathurst and decimating local Aboriginal communities.

Australia in the 1800s

In 1830, the Aboriginal people in Tasmania were subjected to aggression. Although a ‘contract’ had been agreed upon in 1772, by 1830, the region had become a virtual war zone. Invaders demanded action to intimidate, displace or eradicate the people living in Tasmania, and a Lieutenant ordered colonists to create a Black Line. This human chain moved south and captured or terrified any remaining Aboriginal people.

By 1833, importation of convicts peaked, with more than 162,000 prisoners taken to Australia, primarily from Britain and Ireland, as a punishment for law-breaking. Convicts were forced into hard labour and made to build colonies, although many remained in the country when they had completed their sentences.

In 1838, the Myall Creek massacre resulted in the public hangings of seven British men for the murder of Aboriginal people. Although this was far from the last killing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it was the first that resulted in direct punishment for the perpetrators.

  • 1851: The discovery of gold prompted the gold rush, with people pouring into the colonies from ships around the world in search of their fortunes, plundering New South Wales and Victoria.
  • 1854: Miners in Ballarat rebelled against the colonial government’s administration, building a stockade. Government troops attacked, killing twenty-two diggers and six soldiers.
  • 1863: Sixty-seven South Sea Islanders were transported to Queensland and forced to produce cotton and sugar, the first of more than 62,000 people–many were kidnapped. The federal government passed a law in 1901, deporting South Sea Islanders, some of whom had lived in Australia for nearly forty years.

The Coranderrk reserve was created as a controlled environment where Aboriginal people were subjected to restricted lives. A 1863 rebellion is recorded as one of the first sustained resistances, where residents fought for rights to land and self-determination.

Convict transportation to Australia ended in 1868, followed by the White Australia policy in 1901, when the Immigration Restriction Act was made law, limiting immigration and allowing for ‘undesirable’ people to be deported.

Australia in the 1900s

Times were changing rapidly, with the suffrage movement, bubonic plague, and the campaign at Gallipoli beginning in 1915, yet little had improved for Aboriginal and Torres Islander Strait people. The New South Wales government introduced laws encouraging the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families in a terrible historical moment that led to the tragedy of the Stolen Generation of Australia

It wasn’t until 1924 when the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) first came together to defend the rights of Indigenous Australian people and began campaigning for rights to land, citizenship, and an end to familial separations.

The White Australia policy remained in force until 1955, when it was abandoned, followed by the first referendum on recognising Indigenous Australian people in 1967. Almost 91% of voters approved of changes to the constitution, making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people equal citizens and protected by all Commonwealth laws.

However, Indigenous Australian people were not included in the national census until 1971 and were not granted the full right to vote until 1984.

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