Invasion won prime ministerial approval at the winter election and now seems set to win the decades-old battle with settlement as the key word in the larger argument about whether or not the origins of modern Australia were “shameful”.
Invasion is mainly applied to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788—one never hears it applied to settlement in comparable contexts, for example settlement in the north—and there are arguments for and against. It leads, though, to a general but erroneous public impression of the past. It gives the impression that European settlement in Australia was only achieved by armed force and widespread killing, which is far from the truth.
The invasion/massacre/dispossession “black armband” version of history now routinely appears in the media and fiction, is taught in schools and universities and is a staple of private conversation, often in a deeply moral way. But it is invariably just a “given”—a vague and generalised presumption without detail or context. It originates in history books, themselves sometimes only moderately biased, and then seeps into the system, becoming exaggerated over time. The available facts, however, do not support it.
There is not much direct evidence either way about what the Aborigines thought at any time about whites arriving. I have read everything I could find over many years, and the indirect evidence suggests that the Aborigines usually—though not always—accepted our forebears, shrewdly and warily. There is no evidence that, except in a few parts of the tropical north, the indigenous people “resisted invasion” or were in any modern sense “freedom fighters”.
The “evil ancestors” version, blaming supposedly ruthless and racist governors, police, soldiers and squatters, also barks up the wrong tree.
There is much more evidence about convict transportation and the record there is clear: for all its rough edges it was massively successful in improving the lives of scores of thousands of people.
To be quite clear, the colonial period was a disaster for Aborigines. But they have genuine grievances enough without the need of exaggeration or invention. The disaster that befell them was essentially a consequence of the outside world colliding with a continent and its people after they had lived in isolation for 50,000 years. Even if it had been foreseen, it would not have been avoided for long had Britain decided to ship its convicts elsewhere. Regrettably, it was an inevitable part of the opening up of the Pacific.
The extreme “black armband” version of Australia’s pioneer days is a fantasy, a 1970s radical confection from assorted anti-colonial theory, American history, anti-Vietnam War ideology and a dash of South Africa grafted on to cherry-picked bits of Australian history.
It is simply not true that the 1970s brought, Watergate-style, a sudden rush of enlightenment, until then suppressed, especially from school books, about the “shame” of Australia’s past and the “need to come to terms” with it. As with all history, there have been a lot of new books about the white–black encounter since the 1960s, varying from good to patchy to bad, but they add detail, opinions and interpretation; they do not change the main story.
Many of these books display an anti-white bias, mainly through being selective, and have sought to enlarge the Aboriginal presence in mainstream history and build up Aboriginal pride and confidence. The ensuing publicity established fashionable views which have been repeated uncritically and built on by guesswork.
It is hard to see how in the 1780s “permission” from the Sydney Aborigines, or a “treaty”, could have been practical, given the immense gulf of culture, language and distance. North American treaties between Europeans and natives, which are often held up as examples of what should have been done here in 1788, usually broke under the pressure of white expansion; they were rarely worth the paper they were written on.
The British executive governors in Australia instead used diplomacy and conciliation with the Aborigines, as London instructed them to do, and it worked reasonably well over the seven decades of governor rule that followed 1788.
There is no evidence that the Sydney Aborigines opposed the First Fleeters or had a big problem with their presence. Black-armband writers point to the clearing of land as an example of probably unwelcome invasion of space, or to known and recorded conflict with the Botany Bay dissident Pemulwuy.
While there is no record of what the Aborigines thought, a vast amount has been recorded and written about early Sydney. On balance the impression is of a fairly successful, well governed and harmonious society, especially given the human raw material.
It is unlikely that any of the London officials who authorised and organised the early fleets had ever heard of the words “Terra Nullius”, which was then a legal technicality but is now widely supposed to be the doctrine that allowed the British and other European powers to “invade” countries such as Australia.
From the remote past until about a century ago, powerful countries considered it normal to plant small colonies in less developed lands. This was particularly so when the colonies were in territory with small populations, “wilderness” without towns and farming or visibly built dwellings or identifiably effective government. Group movement of people from one country to another was seen as normal.
A lot of the world was still like this in 1788, though it had declined greatly over the centuries. Immigration and port restrictions were also in a fledgling state worldwide. It was a quieter, less busy world. World population in 1788 was about one billion, compared with 7.5 billion today.
The original European colonies were usually intended for trade, such as those planted in seventeenth-century India, but it was common enough also to plant them for domestic purposes, such as exiling convicts or for major power strategy considerations—all factors present in early Australian colonies, though convict transportation was the main purpose here. Over time and for various reasons, such as wool growing in Australia, early niche colonies often grew far beyond their original purposes and were then incorporated into empires.
What happened in Australia also happened in comparable ways in India and the Americas. It had been the way of the world back at least as far as ancient Rome and could be viewed as a natural way of bringing stronger, more developed society to the weaker ones. One could endlessly ponder the strengths or weaknesses of particular cultures but it is evident that some survived and developed better than others under the pressures of the outside world.
The idea that 1788 was an invasion became popular in the lead-up to the 1988 Bicentennial. The main impetus was a perceived need to be more inclusive and build up Aboriginal pride, which seemed then to be sadly lacking. But “invasion” gives a wrong impression. People tend to imagine a process more like the D-Day invasion of occupied France in 1944 than the bland events at Port Jackson in 1788. There was a popular view around in 1988, which never even made it to print or screen, that the First Fleet came sailing in with war guns blazing at hapless indigenous defenders.
What did the Aborigines do? As far as we know, nothing much, except look on from the bush. One said later they thought the newcomers might be possums, climbing the ships’ masts as they did.
The main impression that emerges from fairly abundant records, and has been told in print over and again, is of the two Sydney-side races mingling fairly well, mutually curious and learning from each other. But there are serious qualifications to that happy picture that the black-armbanders seize on.
There were probably about a thousand Aborigines living around Sydney Harbour in 1788 in about a dozen loosely related communities, and 5000 of them in the wider Sydney region. The Australia-wide indigenous population was perhaps 750,000. The white population reached about 5000 in 1800 and only 190,000 even by 1840, when the Aboriginal population was about the same—extremely light use of the land by any standard. There were probably no more than 50,000 of each in the southern grazing lands.
White occupation of the land was slow—smidgins before 1800, and long after that only tiny coastal enclaves plus vast uncleared grazing runs. Only rarely did indigenous people directly oppose the process.
Nor was much land “grabbed”. An orderly system of government land grants prevailed in the Sydney basin and tiny areas around Hobart and Launceston in the early years. After about 1820 the grants went to wider areas within “limits of location”—about 350 kilometres round Sydney, and in the area between Hobart and Launceston. The grants were intended to grow food for the colony and help to pay its costs, to employ the convicts, teach them rural skills and encourage them to stay in Australia when their sentences expired. Immense expanses of unexploited bushland filled even these relatively “settled” districts.
Occupation by whites beyond the limits was illegal until 1836, when the wool boom had reached such a pitch that it was too big to stop. From 1836 these early “squatters” on the vast expanses beyond the “limits of location”—most of south-eastern Australia—had to pay for licences to graze their stock. Only after 1848 were the licences for fixed areas and periods, allowing more settled “stations” to develop.
Governments seemed at first to view the land as like common land in England, for informal sharing. Aboriginal rights were uncertain until 1848 but when some graziers drove local Aborigines from traditional lands, London ordered the grazing leases to be legally shared with the Aboriginal customary owners. Local colonial governments sometimes fudged the application, but the principle is the basis of Mabo.
As a rule, and with much qualification, the Aborigines accepted this rather light sharing of their lands with newcomers, who brought advantages such as more secure and diverse food and drink, metal goods, often a degree of security from hostile neighbouring tribes, and also the eye-opening wonders of the previously unknown outside world. It is, after all, normal for people to accept modernity.
Far more distressing for the indigenous people than the arrival in 1788 of a thousand interesting whites, surely, must have been the calamitous death rate at the same time. The greatest blow was the smallpox epidemic of 1789; First Fleet records estimate it to have killed about half the Aboriginal people of Sydney in a short time. The epidemic most likely originated in the Sulawesi area of Indonesia and came to the north coast of Australia with Sulawesi fishermen, who were frequent visitors at the time. Smallpox then spread throughout the continent by contact among the tribes, probably halving the total population.
A second smallpox calamity hit in the 1820s and also possibly again killed half the indigenous population of Australia, as well devastating many of the Pacific islands. Again Indonesian outlying islands are suspected to be the source. Black-armbanders ignore the epidemics or make little of them, and the less responsible ones guess that the First Fleet brought smallpox.
The origins of the epidemics have been debated, inconclusively, for two centuries but the weight of evidence is with the northern source. A First Fleet source cannot be ruled out but is the least likely of various suggestions. There is no record of smallpox on the First Fleet ships, and the time and distance of the voyage would not have allowed the germs to survive.
Once smallpox has entered an area the population gradually becomes immune, as in Britain or Java, but it devastates unexposed populations with no long-term history of it, such as the outer Indonesians, Australian Aborigines and Pacific islanders.
Another population calamity was venereal disease. Convicts and visiting seamen from 1788 onwards undoubtedly brought it but it might also have been spread by the Indonesian fishermen. Once into Australia, it spread through the unsuspecting indigenous people, devastating women’s ability to have children.
The age-old custom of lending wives—it was a polygamous society with child betrothal and two or often several wives—in exchange for presents had been a social bond over isolated aeons when visitors were rare, but it was calamitous when the outside world crashed in.
Aboriginal liking for alcohol, especially when visiting towns like Sydney, multiplied the disaster, since the Aboriginal people often traded encounters with their women for grog. White observers from time to time reported rates of 30 per cent and even up to 90 per cent of indigenous women suffering from venereal disease. Official reports on populations of various tribes show very small numbers of children, especially compared to the big-breeding colonial whites. Aboriginal infanticide—the killing of unwanted babies, including part-white ones—also reduced the population, although reliable information about its extent, which seemed to vary, is scarce. This again was age-old practice geared to life in the wild, especially in difficult times.
Other European diseases like influenza and measles do not seem to have been big killers in the early decades but they added to the tsunami of fatal disease, especially in Tasmania and other colder climates, as the white population increased, voyages became faster and more frequent, and colonisation spread. Tuberculosis was another major cause of death, among whites then too, but thought to have been devastating among blacks.
Aborigines, especially mixed-race people, gradually learned precautions against the new diseases, and immunity may also have improved. By the 1880s the plummeting population numbers of the mid-nineteenth century began to steady, but recorded indigenous numbers continued to fall; they reached a low of about 80,000 in 1930, but this figure excluded many part-European people.
Australian health control was fairly good, though, and the worst international killer diseases, such as cholera, were kept out. Little is known about Aboriginal health in the long aeons of isolation from the world.
Massacres of Aborigines by whites and vice versa have long haunted the Australian imagination. Old bush tales about them abound. People as various as South Africans and the far Left seize on them as the main reason for the decline in the Aboriginal population. Massacres had an especial lease of life in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War protests, when the spin was added that knowledge of them had been suppressed until that time.
Nobody denies that massacres happened. The challenge is sorting out the facts from substantial but inadequate evidence and an overdose of rumour. “Freedom fighting” and “defending country” rarely fit the evidence, except occasionally in the far north. I have seen very few references to verified poisoning and even fewer of poisoned waterholes.
As an extremely inadequate summary, from inadequate evidence, there may have been forty or so massacres around the country between 1800 and 1920. They were more often extended, lethal skirmishes in the bush than set-piece massacres.
Only about half a dozen that we know of were in the first fifty years of white settlement on the mainland. This period saw the great wool boom, when graziers spread over much of southern Australia, and Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane were founded. Most incidents could be attributed to white mistakes rather than outright resistance. Otherwise, as far as records show, relative racial harmony prevailed throughout Australia until 1838—a considerable achievement, as officialdom liked to point out.
It would not have been difficult for the Aborigines to have fought off the whites then, had they seriously wanted to. The graziers advanced with slow-moving mobs of sheep accompanied by bullock drays on barely existent bush tracks. Most of the accompanying workers, typically serving or former convicts, were on foot, usually unarmed. Such guns as there were were muskets or long-barrelled rifles, of limited use against nimble Aborigines armed with spears and knowing every inch of their country.
A period of serious conflict began in 1838 and lasted in southern Australia until the mid-1840s. The reasons are not known with certainty—the Aborigines kept no records—but they can be estimated. One would have been drought—1838 was a bad drought year. The Aborigines might also have become wary of the overbearing and permanent nature of the white advance, or perhaps they wanted rent. But this is speculation. It is important to remember that “the Aborigines” were not a single entity but a collection of loosely governed tribes (more accurately described as clans and language groups), historically antagonistic and sometimes at war.
By the late 1830s the squatters were moving into more remote country where the Aborigines may have seen them as allies of neighbouring tribes where squatters had already settled. Such indigenous “politics” seem to have been a frequent flashpoint on the frontier, but it is hard for historians to assess other than circumstantially.
Much of the lethal racial violence of 1838 to 1845 was in these new squatting districts, such as far south-western Victoria, home of the independent, technically somewhat advanced Gunditjmara people; Gippsland (south-eastern Victoria), home of the warlike Kurnai who were already bitterly at war with the Kulin of central Victoria; and in far north-western New South Wales around the Queensland border, home of the big, strong Kamilaroi.
The biggest single cause of fighting, though, was large-scale sheep stealing (at least that’s how debt-plagued squatters perceived it). To again summarise a poorly understood subject, I think the main cause was the many light-fingered former or escaped convicts then roaming the frontier and attempting to set up little pastoral operations of their own and asserting themselves over the local Aborigines.
But it was a real tangle. Various motives have been attributed to explain Aboriginal sheep stealing, from all-out resistance, to punishing particular squatters, to simply being naughty. But the main reason was that they loved barbecued mutton. It seemed more about property and women, including raids on huts and drays, than about land.
The north of Australia saw much more frontier violence, especially in Queensland, where deaths of whites at black hands numbered in the hundreds and Aborigines possibly in the thousands. By then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, guns were much more advanced, horses much more numerous and distances even more immense. Northern Aborigines had the reputation of being more aggressive and there were more of them. The convict era had long gone, so convicts cannot be blamed.
The biggest and most distinctive human killers of Aborigines there were the native police forces, comprising mounted, armed Aborigines under white officers. Especially in Queensland, they developed a dreadful reputation for killing and mistreating Aborigines from outside their own tribal group—who were the great majority of those they dealt with.
Records are poor. How much of the lethal turmoil, especially between 1860 and 1890 when graziers flooded over northern Australia, was due to defending squatters from attacks on their livestock and on themselves and their workers, and how much to friction among Aborigines, remains unknown. But it was a wild time.
The number of Aborigines killed in conflict with whites and native police forces is not known. Published estimates are extremely rough guesstimates, but probably several thousand lost their lives—a sad, if relatively small, contribution to Aboriginal depopulation.
Note: This article has been summarised from many books and records. Two good books are Jan Critchett’s A Distant Field of Murder: Western District Frontiers, 1834–1848 (1990) and Judy Campbell’s Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1788–1880 (2002).
Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg).