Australian Aboriginal history

Aboriginal history is not just the Dreaming - current events leave their mark in Indigenous history and are equally important.

Selected statistics

2,000 to 3,000
Number of settlers, police and soldiers who died in colonial conflict. [1]
Number of Aboriginal people who died in colonial conflict. [1]

List of articles

Where is Aboriginal history?

"Australian history started with Captain Cook," is what a lot of people, even today, tell me when asked what they learned at school. Secondary history books, published just a few years back, sometimes brush over Indigenous history in twelve pages only.

Until we get it right with the teaching of Aboriginal history, then I don't think that we can pretend to be Australians together. — Dr Jackie Huggins, Indigenous educator, author and activist [2]

In the 1950s Aboriginal history was virtually absent from school curricula. Historian Henry Reynolds remembers well how he learned about the frontier violence from students—not books.

“The extraordinary thing was that as I became every day aware of the whole question of Indigenous Australians... there was nothing in the book. I mean, the Aborigine didn’t even make the index. They weren’t in the history.” [1]

When I studied history at the ANU in the 1970s there was still a widely held view, and I think it was the conventional view, that there was no Aboriginal history. — Marcia Langton, Aboriginal author [3]

According to Reynolds, the Australian public only became aware of frontier violence and the censorship of Australian history in the late 1960s with the Boyer lectures of anthropologist Bill Stanner, titled After the Dreaming.[1]

There is the truism, ‘Australia’s history is never read, the black man keeps it in his head.’ White Australians ensured it remained there. — John Pilger, journalist and author [4]

What does "black-armband" mean?

“Black armband” is a term coined by the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and later used by the former prime minister John Howard.

Critics use it to refer to a desire to place undue emphasis on unsavoury and violent aspects of Australian history at the expense of the positives of European settlement. [1]

How many Aboriginal nations existed prior to invasion?

We probably will never know for sure. Some estimate that between 500 and 600 nations existed prior to invasion. [5]

The last mission in New South Wales

In July 2010 Warangesda Mission and Station received heritage listing. The station, just outside Darlington Point in the Riverina District of New South Wales, is located about 630 kms south-west of Sydney.

Warangesda Mission is the only mission left in NSW that still has a suite of original buildings. The heritage area includes the mission block and cemetery. [6]

Warangesda is the last known location of an initiation ceremony for the local Aboriginal population and the site of a strike in 1883. At its peak it was home to more than 200 Aboriginal people.


The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) highlights almost 60 years of life on missions and reserves in their online exhibition Remembering the Mission Days. Digitised copies of two magazines published by the Aborigines Inland Missions of Australia reveal the hidden histories of the lives of thousands of Aboriginal people.

Was Australia invaded or colonised?

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have different views whether Australia was 'invaded', 'settled', 'occupied', 'discovered' or 'colonised'.

While most Australians are proud of the history of the Anzacs, i.e. the invasion of Turkey at the behest of the British, they are very reluctant to acknowledge the British invasion of Australia. [7]

But this view is slowly changing.

In 2011 the City of Sydney officially declared the settlement of Australia an invasion. The word was to be included in the Aboriginal statement for the council's 10 year corporate plan. But a poll of more than 2,000 readers of the Daily Telegraph found that less than 15% agreed with the council's decision. More than 85% rejected it. [8]

In March 2016 the University of New South Wales rewrote the guidelines in their Diversity Toolkit. The new guidelines liberally use the term 'invasion' and recommend using "Indigenous (Australian) history, Pre-invasion history, Invasion history" or "Post-invasion history" when referring to Australian history. It goes on to say that "Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a 'settlement' attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia." [9]

The changes led to some passionate debate, especially after the Daily Telegraph ran an outraged front page slamming the guide as a 'whitewashing' and rewriting of Australia's history. Conservative commentators, such as radio host Alan Jones, slammed the guidelines. "I think this is exactly what John Howard was talking about when he talked about the black armband view of history," Mr Jones said. [10]

But there was also powerful support. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that "for many years, Australian schools and Australian institutions have not told the truth about the way in which Australia was settled. A lot of Indigenous people lost their lives—there were massacres and the truth always must be told." [14]

To be continued...

We must now assert in the strongest possible way the message that Australia was indeed invaded by a military force under the control of the British Admiralty. — Michael Ghillar Anderson, Aboriginal elder [11]

Australia was not settled by the common law but by the rules and disciplines of war. — Wadjularbinna Nullyarimma, Gungalidda Elder [12]

The settlement of the British was not peaceful, and is increasingly accepted as being a countrywide invasion. — Information leaflet, NSW Department of Indigenous Affairs [13]

We were invaded. It is the truth and shouldn't be watered down. — Paul Morris, head of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sydney [8]

In respect to the Aboriginal community, ["invasion"] is something that is very important and needs to be used. — Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Sydney [8]

While we restore old monuments and construct new ones to commemorate military conflict overseas, there are still no official memorials to those who died on the frontier [of Australia's Aboriginal wars]. — Henry Reynolds, Marilyn Lake [7]

Aboriginal history resources

Browse Aboriginal history books or check out my large collection of Aboriginal movies.

Or explore the online collection of the State Library of NSW which has a separate section on Aboriginal history.

A very good resource is the Aboriginal-owned website The Koori History Project which has articles, cartoons and videos about significant historic events.

Native American history mirrors Australia's

It is fascinating how similar history is in these two different countries.

Australia and the United States share a history of white supremacy. Both were founded as invading settler colonies whose existence depended on driving indigenous peoples from their lands. Both denied political and economic rights to indigenous people, whose labour was exploited. And both countries adopted restrictive immigration laws to keep their national complexions white. And in both countries non-indigenous people continue to offend by using blackface to make themselves look indigenous.

Shared history
IssueAustraliaNorth America
European explorer claiming the land.James Cook (UK)Christopher Columbus (Spain)
Public holiday commemorating explorer.Australia DayColumbus Day
Main direction of invasion across the continent.East to westEast to west
Indigenous peoples resist invasion.Black WarsTrail of Tears
Children are taken away and abused.Stolen GenerationsResidential Schools
An illness devastates the indigenous peoples.SmallpoxMeasles (said to have killed more Native Americans than the army)
Attempt to assimilate indigenous people.In missionsIn reservations
Indigenous people become citizens of their own land.19671924
The first census that counts indigenous people.19711870
Slavery and exploitation.In denialUncomfortably aware of its slavery history
Document giving indigenous people more freedomExemption Certificate, "dog tags", "dog licenses"Identity card, Dompas (literally meaning the "dumb pass")

If you know another similarity, please let me know!


View article sources (14)

[1] [1a] 'Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood', The Guardian 10/3/2014

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2019, Australian Aboriginal history, <>, retrieved 16 October 2019

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