The true story behind Aboriginal Australians

In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed the high seas with his crew and made the long and exhausting journey to Australia. When Captain Cook landed on the shores of Australia he declared it to be a colony of Great Britain and named it New South Wales. However, the land wasn’t exactly devoid of inhabitants when he arrived. Historians estimate that there were over a million Aboriginal Australians living in Australia, working the land and living harmoniously with each other – until Captain Cook arrived.

What happened afterward was not exactly what anyone would call smooth sailing. The Aboriginals were not too happy with the new settlers. And the settlers didn’t love the Aboriginals either. There was not an only tension between the two groups of people but outright attacks broke out multiple times. Aboriginal Australians were not treated well at all, and you may be surprised to see the extent of their mistreatment.

Aboriginal Australian history still a sensitive topic today. And even though their treatment has drastically improved, there is still much to be done to allay the issues that have taken root since the British sailors’ arrival.

After they sailors landed in Australia, Aborigines were thrown out of their homes, and their land was taken from them. Their land was also their livelihood. They were forced to move into new lands, which were much harder to farm and could not sustain them.

The Aboriginal Australians were cast aside by the settlers. But the Aboriginals did not accept their new situation lying down. Rather, they fought back for what they believed was rightfully theirs, pushing back against the invaders, many of whom were convicted criminals from the U.K.

It is imperative to understand the past and history of the Aboriginal Australians in order to understand the news today. Just recently the United Nations released a report regarding Australia’s treatment of present-day Aboriginals. We delved into the Aboriginal Australian history to better understand the situation today. Where did these Aboriginals come from? How did they get to Australia? How did they feel when the settlers arrived and more importantly how did both sides respond to each other? These questions and more will all be answered, including why the U.K. thought it was a good idea to release thousands of convicts from their jails and send them to Australia to settle the land.

Did you know?

Aboriginal Australians, who are also known as indigenous Australians, arrived in Australia at least 40,000 years ago. The aboriginal Australians were separated into groups where they would develop survival skills based on where they were situated in Australia. For example, those who lived near the ocean learned to fish. These Aboriginals were very spiritual and they held a very strong and close connection with the earth, nature and their surroundings. The biggest settlement of Aboriginal s was along Murray River valley.

Where did they come from?

When did the Aboriginals arrive in Australia and how did they get there? The truth is that there are no concrete facts, but rather theories. The most widely accepted theory is that the Aboriginals came from Southeast Asia. The estimated time that the Aboriginals arrived in Australia is between 40,000–80,000 years ago. There was a genotyping test done in 2012 to figure out where Australian Aboriginals really came from using their DNA and the result attested to the theory that they mostly came from present-day New Guinea and the Philippines.

Mungo Man

The supposedly oldest human remains in Australia’s history were discovered in 1974 near Lake Mungo in New South Wales. “Mungo Man” as he is called is believed to have lived between 40,000 and 68,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch. However, archeologists claim that humans arrived in north-west Australia a couple thousand years before Mungo Man was born. The remains of a second person, nicknamed “Mungo Woman,” were discovered at the same lake in 1969, though they are believed to be of a woman who lived at a later period.

The outbreak

In the 1900s it was widely believed that the Aboriginals would eventually become extinct. This is because there was an outbreak of diseases amongst them including the fatal disease like smallpox. In 1788, when the Aboriginals were at their strongest it was believed that they had approximately 1.2 million people but by 1930 that number dropped drastically to only 50,000.

Captain James Cook

In 1770 Captain James Cook landed on the shores of Australia and claimed it as part of the United Kingdom. It was soon after named New South Wales. It has been estimated that over 70,000 years before Captain James Cook colonized Australia approximately 1.25 million people were already living in Australia. The colonization began with a rough start when the colonists retracted diseases from the Aboriginals such as chickenpox, smallpox, measles, and influenza.


The colonizers of Australia made a brutal mistake that cost many Aboriginals their lives. The colonizers mistakenly believed the Aboriginals were nomads and that they could upheave them from their homes and place them somewhere else and the settlers could use their land for farming or grazing. However, this upheaval did not go smoothly. The Aboriginals were removed from their food and water sources and many died. The settlers also brought alcohol, opium and tobacco and sold it to the Australian Aboriginals who weren’t used to these substances and became addicted. This problem still exists today.

No treaty, no problem

When the settlers arrived in Australia from the UK they did not make any efforts to sign a treaty with the Aboriginals as Great Britain did in New Zealand in order to legitimize their presence. While it is still highly controversial to say so, many claimed that the “colonization” was actually an invasion. Without seeking the Australian Aboriginals’ acceptance of Britian’s presence in Australia, many of the Aboriginals fought back against the settlers when they felt their safety was at risk.

Living in fear

The settlers lived in fear of the Australian Aboriginals’ resistance, which continued beyond the mid-19th century. The Australian Aboriginals would burn settler homes, kill the settlers, and their cattle. One settlor attested to this in 1831, writing, ” We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies – as invaders – as oppressors and persecutors – they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force.”

Convicts taking over

It is no secret that the colonization of Australia was done to relieve overcrowded U.K. prisons. However, many negate this theory since it doesn’t make sense economically to ship and transport prisoners halfway around the world. Rather, these prisoners were apparently given pardons for their minor crimes and a chance to start over in Australia, as many were tradesmen and farmers, beneficial to the colonization process. As such, in May 1787, the first fleet containing 736 convicts, their wives, and children sailed from England to Australia.

Convicts vs. Aboriginals

It is easy to imagine how the convicts that arrived in Australia to settle the land would act towards the Aboriginal Australians. The Myall Creek massacre is a prime example of the convicts’ behavior. John Henry Fleming led a group of 11 stockmen who tied up the Aboriginal people who were peacefully living there and killed 28 Aboriginals. They saved one Aboriginal woman for themselves for the next few days. The convicts returned to find more Aboriginals and they killed another 30-40 additional Aboriginals. The colonists involved were tried and hanged for their crimes.

Continued restistance

There were many resistances led by the Aboriginals against the settlers. Namely the Kalkadoon of Queensland, their resistance resulted in 200 deaths in 1884 on the Battle Mountain. The Aboriginals were forced to give up their fertile land to the settlers and were pushed out into the fringes of the communities and given lands that were not suitable for settlement. Thus their revolt began. Historians added up the casualties of the rebellions and estimated a total of approximately 10,000 – 20,000 settlers died in these conflicts over land.

Establishing harmony

Governor Philip was on a mission to create harmony between the Australian Aboriginals and the settlers. He intended to discipline the convicts however it did not prove to be easy. By 1792 there were 3546 male convicts and 766 woman convicts in Australia who were not tradesmen and had little to no skill in settling new lands. Many new settlers were sick and by 1790 the settlers were in crisis mode. The second fleet from the UK lost a quarter of its passengers due to sickness while the third fleet outright appalled Phillip.

Common ground

It was not only a story of massacres and rebellions. Some of the indigenous Australians adapted to the European culture. They learned how to be laborers and stock hands. Some Aboriginal people even helped the settlers such as John King who lived with the Aboriginal tribe members for almost three months. The first ever Australian cricket team that toured England in 1868 was actually made up of mostly Aboriginal Australians. By 1850 the Aboriginals began to become reliant on the settlers for their livelihood.

Work for no pay

Aboriginals who worked for the settlers as laborers did not receive payment for their work. Instead, they received food, clothing, and other basic necessities. When the Austrailian goldrushes began in 1851, the Aboriginal men, women, and children lined up to receive work. The Aboriginals received much-needed assistance from Christian missions who provided essential food, orphanages, clothing, and schools. In some areas, the U.K colonial government provided assistance as well to the Aboriginals in need.


In 1914 when World War One broke out many Australian Aboriginals responded to the call to arms despite the many restrictions regarding Aboriginals and Indigenous Australians serving in the army. Approximately 800 Aboriginals pretended to be Indian or Maori in order to gain entrance into the army. By 1920 there were only 50,000 to 90,000 Aboriginals left in Australia. Australians became more and more sympathetic to the Aboriginal peoples’ cause, believing that the aboriginal people would soon die out, due to the health risks they faced…

The invention of penicillin

The imported diseases that were killing the Aboriginal people came to halt when penicillin was invented and made available in Australia in the 1940s. This marked the reverse of the population decline of the Aboriginal people. Even more Aboriginals were able to join the military in World War II and they were paid for their service. Penicillin gave Aboriginal Australians a fighting chance to survive, grow, and earn a livelihood for themselves. However, there were still many more obstacles for the Aboriginals in the road ahead.

Minimum wage for all

While the military did pay Aboriginal Australians for their service, the rest of the Aboriginal Australians went without pay for their labor. Their movements were restricted by the police and they received minimal food rations for their work. In 1946 the first strike began. The Aboriginal station workers of the Pilbara region refused to work until they received proper wages for their labor. This spread to the rest of the Aboriginal people. However many Aboriginals subsequently became Fringe dwellers, they were alienated and through the law, they were pushed to the outskirts of the towns.

Rights granted

By 1941 those Aboriginals that served in the military in World War Two were granted the right to vote in the federal elections. However, the rest of the Aboriginals did not receive the same rights. Only in 1962, over twenty years later, the Aboriginals as a whole were finally given the right to vote by the Menzies government. By 1967 the Aboriginals were included in the Commonwealth’s right to make specific laws for particular races and were finally included in the electoral representation.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy may not have been considered to be a legitimate or official embassy by the Australian government but they sure did make a statement. It all started in 1972 when 4 Aboriginal men planted themselves down with a beach umbrella opposite the Old Parliament House in Canberra. Soon the beach umbrella was replaced with dozens of tents and supporters. They were in protest of the lack of land rights but their voices fell on deaf governmental ears and the police were sent to remove the tents in 1972, they even arrested some.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act

In 1973, the Aboriginals staged a sit-in on the steps of the Australian parliaments. By 1975 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act came to fruition. The Whitlam government actualized the act giving rights to the Aboriginals that they never had before. In 1992 the Supreme court of Australia recognized that the Aboriginal people had claims and rights to the Australian land before the British settlers arrived. Subsequently, the legislators got to work to amend their rights to the Australian land.

Bringing Them Home

In 1997, Australia was rocked with an epic scandal, when a national historian stated that “Aboriginal children separated, often forcibly, from their families in the interest of turning them into white Australians.” Bring Them Home was a 680-page report on the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The report explained that “indigenous communities have endured gross violations of their human rights. These violations continue to affect indigenous people’s daily lives. They were an act of genocide, aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities, and cultures.”

National Sorry Day

By 1998 the attitude towards Aboriginal Australians did a complete 180. National Sorry Day was enacted on the 26th of May, 1998. And every year on that very same day Australia as a whole remembers and commemorates the mistreatment that occurred against the Aboriginal Australians. However, one person did not participate in the apology: in 2008, former Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologize during an official ceremony, claiming that “did not subscribe to the black armband view of history.”

A formal Apology

Prime Minister Kevin Ruff finally officially apologized in 2008 to the Stolen Generations in light of the report, and attended an official ceremony on the matter, as the first sitting prime minister to do so. Previous leaders would not make an apology while representing the government because that would be a public admission of wrongdoing. Rudd’s apology asked to look towards the “future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history.”

Present day Aboriginal Australians

Today there are a total of 649,200 Aboriginal Australians living in Australia. That makes up 2.8% of Australia’s population. The majority of Aboriginal Australians live in New South Wales and Queensland. Their median household weekly income is $1,203, which rose since 2011 by $200. Ever since the public apology, the treatment of Aboriginal Australians has been improving. However, recently the United Nations made a report that Australia still has a long way to go, as Aboriginal Australians still need improved health care, education and their incarceration rates are still too high.