There was almost certainly a significant decrease in the total size of Australia’s Aboriginal population between 1788 and the late nineteenth century, but was this an example of genocide? Certainly some historians and Aboriginal spokesmen claim that it was. For instance, Nathan Mudyi Senance, described as “a Wiradjuri librarian and essayist”, and the author of the Australian Museum’s online posting “Genocide in Australia”, argues that it was indeed a case of genocide. “If you examine Australian history, you can see that the brutality of the ongoing invasion and colonisation fit” the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1951
in several different ways … Because of colonial genocidal actions like state-sanctioned massacres, the First Nations’ population went from an estimated 1–1.5 million before invasion [that is, in 1788] to less than 100,000 by the early 1900s.
This claim, and many others similar to it, strike me as palpable nonsense, and it is useful to examine objectively the actual facts of the matter.
First, what is “genocide”? The UN definition adopted in 1951 includes five components, any of which “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national ethnical [sic], racial, or religious group” constitutes genocide: “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”. But this definition and criteria seem to me, and would surely seem to most people, to be very wide of the mark if not wholly misleading. (Causing “serious mental harm to members of a group” would mean that the supporters of a losing side in the Grand Final are victims of genocide.)
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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“Genocide” plainly consists of killing, or attempting to kill, all members of a defined group. The Nazi attempt to kill all Jews during the Second World War and the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in 1915 were paradigmatic examples of genocide. In every or virtually every case, a valid example of genocide must be carried out by the troops or other armed officials of a government or government instrumentality, which alone has the capacity and authority to attempt to kill all members of a group, the Nazi SS, the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, the Stalinist NKVD (the “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia being clear-cut examples of state-sponsored instruments of mass murder and genocide. Along with this, there must be a central director or directors of any authentic case of genocide: Hitler, Himmler and the other SS leaders; Stalin, Yezhov, Beria and others in the Soviet Union; Pol Pot in Cambodia.
Other purported criteria beyond these two, such as those others set out above, strike me, and would surely strike many others, as not fitting any accurate definition of genocide. Moreover, “genocide” cannot reasonably be said to include deaths from epidemics and pandemics, regardless of how deadly—such as the Black Death of 1348 or the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, nor deaths from limited but deadly instances of terrorism, such as 9/11, or even large-scale killings in wartime whose intent was not to wipe out an entire people but to wreak havoc and interfere with military production, such as the Luftwaffe’s Blitz on British cities during the Second World War—only deliberate attempts to wipe out an entire people.
Before coming to whether it is appropriate to apply the term “genocide” to the situation of the Aborigines after European settlement, it is necessary to look carefully at the best estimates of the population of Australia’s Aborigines in 1788 and subsequently. Here we immediately encounter what might be termed the Incredible Ever-Increasing Estimate of the Pre-Contact Aboriginal Population. The first careful and detailed discussion of this question was made in the Commonwealth Year Book for 1924, which concluded that the total number of Aborigines in Australia when Europeans arrived in 1788 was only 150,000. This figure was accepted until 1930, when the distinguished anthropologist Professor A.R. Radcliffe-Brown put forward an increased estimate (without any supporting reasons) of 250,000 to 300,000. Another estimate, in the Commonwealth Year Book for 1931, broadly concurred, giving the figure of 250,000 “as a minimum” and “over 300,000” as a possibility. By the late 1970s, experts such as Professor Frank Lancaster Jones gave 350,000 as the most likely figure. But from the 1980s onwards, the skies became the limit, with astronomically higher figures of pre-contact Aboriginal numbers being touted, from 750,000 to, as noted, the figure of “1–1.5 million”.
It is very difficult to see how these higher figures can be even remotely plausible. If an average tribe consisted of 200 individuals—probably an overestimate—there would have had to be 5000 separate tribes for the Aboriginal population to have been as high as one million, let alone higher, a population density, if true, which would have been widely noted by explorers and settlers.
As I have repeatedly stressed in this series of articles in Quadrant, Aborigines were invariably nomadic hunter-gatherers who scratched out a barren living as best they could, and apparently murdered 30 per cent of their new-born babies because they were unable to feed them. They built no permanent structures of any kind, let alone cities, and to repeat a point made in my previous articles, did not domesticate livestock or grow crops for food. Attempts to show that they did engage in more sophisticated forms of agriculture and food production, for instance by Bruce Pascoe, have been clearly shown by Peter O’Brien in Bitter Harvest (2020) and by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021) to be highly inaccurate if not actually mendacious.
Some objective recent anthropologists have accepted “half or, at most, three-quarters of a million” as the best estimate of the Aboriginal population in 1788, to quote Josephine Flood in her excellent The Original Australians: The Story of the Aboriginal People (2006, page 35), but even this seems far too high, simply because babies were killed on a vast scale owing to the reality that there was no food to give them. The 1970s estimate of 350,000 still seems to me to be the most plausible figure.
Obtaining an accurate figure is important to this discussion, since by the late nineteenth century the total population of Australia’s Aborigines had apparently declined, perhaps very sharply, and the higher the pre-contact figure the more likely the white man could be blamed for “genocide”. It is certainly true that there was apparently a very considerable decrease in the Aboriginal population in the 100 to 130 years or so after 1788. Aborigines were counted fitfully, if at all, in Australia’s censuses down to the First World War, or even afterwards. The 1911 Census found the total population of Australia to be 4,474,944, of whom 19,939 were “full-blooded” and 10,113 “half-blooded” Aborigines, a total of 30,052. Taking even a low estimate of 350,000 Aborigines in 1788, this suggests a decrease of 91 per cent in the Aboriginal population since 1788, and even an extremely low estimate of 150,000 Aborigines in 1788 indicates a decline of 80 per cent. However, even if the figure of 30,052 Aborigines in 1911 is seen as an undercounting of their actual number, omitting remote tribes, the data indicates a very considerable population decline. That there was such a decline was agreed by almost all nineteenth-century observers of the Australian scene, who often wrote of the Aborigines as a “disappearing race” which could well become extinct within a few generations.
There is still the central question of how this population decline came about. It was not the product of deliberate slaughter and mass murder, that is, of genocide according to our definition. Henry Reynolds, one of the best-known proponents of the so-called “black armband” view of the dire effects of European settlement on the Aboriginal population, estimated that 20,000 Aborigines were killed by white settlers in frontier conflicts, clearly only a fraction of the total decline in Aboriginal numbers, however measured. It is, nevertheless, worth looking more closely at how the Aboriginal deaths in “frontier conflicts” came about.
Perhaps the most accessible presentation of these deaths can be found on the “List of Massacres of Indigenous Australians” on Wikipedia, which is taken from a research project headed by Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle, also a well-known “black armband” historian. She estimated that 12,000 Aborigines, “a minimal number”, were killed by Europeans. Broadly speaking, the alleged perpetrators of these killings fell into three categories: British troops; white pastoralists and agriculturalists acting by themselves; and the various mounted police forces of the Australian colonies. It appears that most of these killings were in revenge for Aboriginal attacks on European men, women and children, or for the theft of settlers’ livestock.
After the late 1830s, probably the largest number of alleged massacres, with arguably the majority of Aboriginal victims, were carried out by the Native Mounted Police. These had first been established between 1837 and 1839, and consisted of groups of Aboriginal men, each headed by a white officer. It is said that most of these Aborigines were recruited from places remote from where their detachment of Mounted Police operated, so that their families would be protected from revenge attacks. The Aborigines of the Mounted Police were responsible for killing or wounding many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Aborigines who were seen as threats by the authorities. They apparently felt no ethnic loyalty to their fellow Aborigines, and were often more lethal than the whites alone might have been. Possibly they saw these police activities as a continuation of the endemic tribal wars before white settlement. One particularly clear-cut example of this apparently occurred at Goulbolba Hill in central Queensland in late 1866 or early 1867, in retaliation for the hunting for food of settlers’ livestock. According to an account in the Maryborough Chronicle of July 17, 1867 (“Shooting of Blacks on Morinish Diggings”), an unnamed police inspector told the anonymous author of this report:
…just before daybreak he started for the black camp, ordering his troopers to load their carbines, which were double-barrelled, one barrel with a blank cartridge to disperse the mob, and the other with [a] ball cartridge to use in case they met with resistance. According to that gentleman’s statement … it appears that on reaching the camp a blank volley was fired as he supposed, on which Tommy [an Aboriginal known to the Inspector but who had joined the “mob”] who was killed, sprang up and showed flight, throwing a nullah nullah [a hunting stick] at one of the troopers, nearly hitting him. This, he said, so enraged the troopers that they, without his orders, delivered their second volley, shooting six of the natives.
According to a report of this event made in 1899, 300 Aborigines were then killed.
It would appear that by the 1860s, or even earlier, the Native Mounted Police carried out most of these massacres. The office of Protector of Aborigines, first established in South Australia and in the Port Phillip District in the late 1830s, was supposed to protect the Aborigines from hostile illegal acts aimed at them, as well as advancing their interests through education and in other ways. However ineffective they might have been, the very fact that their positions existed sets the Australian situation apart from actual examples of genocide: Hitler did not establish a post of “Protector of Jews and Slavs”, nor did Stalin appoint a “Protector of Kulaks and Enemies of the People”.
The British authorities were always generally sympathetic to the Aborigines. Throughout the British Empire, the British ruled, and ruled successfully, by co-opting and working through the local elite structure of native princes, local rulers and high priests, and merchants, especially in India, but also in Africa and elsewhere. This British pattern of rule was so successful that in 1947 it was the Princely States of British India—where the local maharajahs had been left in place—which wanted the British to stay, knowing that the socialist government of Nehru in independent India would sweep them away.
In Australia, there was no established princely authority through whom the British could work, only an enormous patchwork of pre-literate, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, while, unlike India and in many other parts of the British Empire, the lands of Australia were, where possible, to be occupied and put to productive use by permanent pastoral settlers from Britain, and by miners. The Native Mounted Police might perhaps be seen as an attempt to co-opt the Aborigines, a parallel to what occurred elsewhere, under very different conditions.
It was apparently the case that Aboriginal tribes exterminated each other, the winners literally wiping out every member, or nearly every member, of the defeated tribe. There are at least two reports of tribal genocide, from opposite parts of Australia. A Robert Brothers, in an article entitled “Travelling Teeth: An Aboriginal Custom”, published in the Australasian Anthropological Journal, Volume 3 (1) (1897) stated:
About eighty years ago [c. 1817] or more, a certain tribe near Manero [Monaro, New South Wales], numbering about two thousand people, were exterminated, man, woman, and child, for having killed a Myell-wallin who was travelling. They called this tribe mountaineers for they lived in the mountains, [and] were said to be cannibals. Warriors came from all parts, even from Bathurst side and from the Tweed, and they mustered around the cannibals in five armies, each numbering three or four thousand men, and they slaughtered the whole of them. The white people at the station nearby were uninjured, but the warriors flocked through the house searching for their victims. An old man who died at Ulladulla a few years ago is said to be the only one who was not killed, and was a child at the time, and escaped notice by being hidden in a tea chest.
Writing in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Western Australia, Volume 1 (1915), W.D. Campbell, a civil engineer, and W.H. Byrd noted in their article “The Natives of Sunday Island, King Sound” (pages 55–56):
The Sunday Islanders [off the coast of the Kimberley region of Western Australia] are the furthest branch of the “Barda” tribe that live on the western side of King Sound, while further south-westerly are the “Nyool Nyool” of Bingle Bay. The Islanders are known as “Ewenu”; they are smaller in stature than the inhabitants of the coast … they also differ somewhat in language. The latter [former is apparently meant] race, being the most powerful, have practically exterminated the smaller race on all the islands which they could reach by means of their rafts, and only a few individuals now remain, and they live mostly at Sunday Island, which became a place of refuge through it being more remote from the eastern shore.
Apart from actual killings, the other main source often seen as the cause of major population decline among the Aborigines was the introduction of virulent infectious diseases, to which the indigenous population had no immunity. Epidemics of smallpox (in 1789, 1828–32, and the 1850s–1860s) have been documented, as have epidemics of measles, tuberculosis, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases. (See Peter Dowling, Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples, 2021.) It is clearly reasonable to see these as the major cause of Aboriginal population decline, although such statistics as exist can only be approximate at best. However, as Josephine Flood (on page 150) has argued, the suggestion that Aborigines were deliberately killed through “biological warfare” via bottled smallpox scabs is “not merely implausible but impossible”. Other frequently cited alleged causes of Aboriginal population decline include the loss of traditional hunting fields, taken over by the colonists for cultivation, and the subsequent loss of small animals and plants traditionally eaten by indigenous tribes.
The best-known and most widely discussed alleged instance of genocide against the Aborigines is said to have taken place in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania, where (it has long been widely suggested) the entire Aboriginal population was wiped out from the time of the first European settlers in 1803 and especially in the “Black Wars” between 1823 and 1834, so that no full-blooded Aborigine was supposedly alive after the death of Truganini in 1876. Proponents of this view claim that at least 878 Aborigines were killed by colonists (and 201 colonists by Aborigines) during this period. The accuracy of this view of Tasmanian history was famously questioned by Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Australian History, Volume One: Van Diemen’s Land, 1803–1847 (2002), which led to the subsequent “history wars”. The Aboriginal population of Tasmania was probably in the range of 3000 to 4000 when Europeans arrived in 1803—possibly even less—and such a small population might easily experience a severe decline in numbers. Flood (on page 89) sensibly claims that Tasmania’s “catastrophic death rate was due to new diseases, particularly pulmonary and sexually transmitted ones”. Bizarrely for a people allegedly extinct since 1876, the 2011 Census found that 19,627 Aborigines lived in Tasmania, a figure that rose to 23,592 in the 2016 Census. In that year, Aborigines constituted 4.6 per cent of Tasmania’s overall population, actually a higher figure than for the percentage of Aborigines (2.6 per cent) in Australia as a whole. This would seem to be prima facie evidence that Tasmania’s Aborigines were never exterminated.
One of the most striking facts about the Aboriginal population during the past century, and especially since the 1960s, has been its remarkable growth. The 1933 Census estimated there were a total of about 81,000 Aborigines in Australia, of whom 60,101 were “full-blooded”. Of these, 36,300 were stated to be “nomadic”. Subsequent censuses showed fairly similar figures for the total size of the Aboriginal population until 1966, when it rose to 102,000. It then increased to 115,953 (1971 Census), 160,915 (1976), 227,645 (1986), 265,492 (1991), and then to 548,400 in 2011, and to no less than 786,689, including a Census Bureau addition for supposed undercounting, in 2016. Such a rate of population growth, in the absence (obviously) of immigration, is demographically impossible, and must reflect previous large-scale undercounting of Aboriginal numbers. The Census Bureau openly admits that this extraordinary apparent rate of growth reflects “a growing willingness of people to identify themselves as Aboriginal”.
If the estimate of at least 350,000 Aborigines living in Australia in 1788 is actually an overstatement, and the actual number was only about 150,000—as was suggested before about 1930—it may well have been the case that there was only a surprisingly small decline in Aboriginal numbers, even during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Given the absence of hard evidence, however, it seems improbable that the actual figure will ever be known. What does seem clear is that there was no Aboriginal “genocide” in the sense that this term is accurately used.
Recently there have also been widespread allegations that Europeans committed “cultural genocide” against the Aborigines. This term is virtually meaningless, and would appear to apply equally to any non-English-speaking group which settled in Australia, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, and which adopted the language and mores of their new host population.
As my recent articles in Quadrant have documented, Aborigines engaged in infanticide and cannibalism on a large scale, and Aboriginal women were treated appallingly. In 1788, no Aborigine could read or write, while their treatment of illness was conducted by tribal witch doctors. Had the Europeans left the Aborigines entirely alone, they would doubtless today be severely criticised by the same sources for failing to bring the Aborigines literacy, education or Western medicine, or a stable food supply which made the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle unnecessary, or which put in place the rule of law and Western democracy. More generally, the notion that an entire continent, the size of Canada or the continental United States and twice as large as Europe, would, after the late eighteenth century, not be colonised by a European power is absurd: it is a certainty that Australia would have been colonised by one of the European states, or perhaps later by Japan. Its annexation was inevitable. Of these possible annexers, rule by Britain was unquestionably the best, most humane, and democratic.
William D. Rubinstein held chairs of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales. He wrote on cannibalism in traditional Aboriginal society in the September issue, on the mistreatment of women in Aboriginal society in November, and on infanticide in traditional Aboriginal society in December