Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Myths in History
Fabrications for politics

Should they be defined as part of a war?

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Contemporary racism against Indigenous People

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity




White Australia had a Black History

Fabricated Myths in Aboriginal History

" During the intervals of duty, our greatest source of entertainment now lay in cultivating the acquaintance of our new friends, the natives." Military officer Watkin Tench

There are a number of myths of Aboriginal history that have seeped into popular Australian culture simply because contemporary Australians have wanted to believe them to be true. Among others, these myths include that Aborigines were not able to vote until 1967, were managed under a Flora and Fauna Act and were exterminated in Tasmania as a line of colonists walked through the state shooting them on sight.

The popularity of the myths can perhaps be attributed to the manner that Aborigines have been framed as pawns in the culture wars. Specifically, the myths allow one group of (mostly) white Australians to feel indignant towards others. Furthermore, they also allows the white to feel a sense of paternalistic superiority over Aborigines. As told by Aboriginal man Dallas Scott:

“ you get people who want to use you to demonstrate just how much their first year Indigenous Studies Professor has taught them about “my struggles”. They tell me “you’re a true Australian” or loudly exclaim that they “support the First People like me in their just plight against the white man” or simply must tell me about some rally they attended to “make a difference…(they) never seem to stop being able to view me as a victim or as anything other than an Aborigine. They speak to me like I’m an idiot, that because of the colour of my skin, I was discriminated against in education and therefore lacking against their University educated prowess so they must make concessions for me and expect a lower standard of me at every opportunity. They seem to believe that I am unaware of how the modern world works, or worse, believe I need some of their do-gooderness to overcome a disadvantage that I clearly don’t have. I’m a cause, not a person to them.”

Although some of the other myths are not as easy to verify as wrong, their popularity likewise boils down to one group of Australians trying to get status over another rather than an objective analysis of the past.  

Fabrication 1 -Aborigines were not allowed to vote and were not citizens until 1967

In 1967, 90% of Australians voted in favour of a constitutional change that was sold as providing Aborigines with equality; however, the exact detail of the change was not explained to the public. This has led to a number of myths that distorted or fabricated its true purpose. The most common myths were that, until the referendum, Aborigines were not allowed to vote in Australia and were not legally Australian citizens. These myths have been promoted by many white Australians, including Phillip Noyce, the director of the Aboriginal rights movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. In 2002, Noyce wrote:

“Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens.” (8)

Ironically, Noyce said his movie was about giving a history lesson:

"For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim."

Something similar was said by historan Itiel Bereson. In 2000 textbook for High School students, Bereson wrote:

" the refendum...gave Aboriginals the right to vote in Federal elections. But Aboriginal people still had a long struggle ahead of them." (10)

In 2007, Mark Colvin, a senior broadcaster for the ABC, introduced a commemoration of the 1967 referendum by stating:

“ If you weren't around for the 1967 referendum on Aborigines, or you can't remember why it mattered, think about this.

Before that vote, Aboriginal people weren't counted as people, they came under the Flora and Fauna Act.” (23)

Despite their interest in making historical movies, writing history books and raising awareness of historical injustice, it seems neither Noyce, Bereson or Colvin were interested in the basic facts of history. In reality, when the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW framed their constitutions in the 1850s, they gave the vote to all male subjects over the age of 21, Aborigines included. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn’t know about their voting rights and perhaps didn’t care. It wasn’t until the 1890s that any Aborigines actually commenced voting.

When the various colonies federated into one nation in 1901, Aborigines were not given the federal vote; however, they did retain their state voting rights and these state voting rights gave them federal voting rights. Under section 41 of the federal constitution, any person who held a state vote also held a federal vote. Legally, Aborigines in NSW, Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia have been allowed to vote in all federal elections.

The Menzies Liberal and Country Party government officially gave the Commonwealth vote to all Aborigines in 1962. The states of Queensland and WA gave Aborigines the state vote around the same time.

In regards to citizenship, Aborigines attained British citizenship in 1770 when Captain Cook claimed eastern Australia for Britain. Australian citizenship did not exist until 1948 and Aborigines attained it at the same time as every other Australian if they chose to apply for it.

In regards to a Flora and Fauna Act, no act by that name has ever existed at a federal level and Aborigines were never managed under any act with a similar name at state level.

Contrary to what Noyce, Colvin and Bereson told people, the 1967 referendum had nothing to do with voting rights, citizenship or making changes to a non-existent Flora and Fauna Act. The referendum asked whether the numbers of Aborigines should be included in the federal census and whether the federal government should be given the power to make race-specific laws for Aborigines. Previously all Aboriginal issues had been left to the states because they were deemed to have more specialised knowledge regarding the needs of the individual tribes of their respective states.

Since politicians are not always honest about their motivations, there has been some debate about why Aborigines were not included in the federal census. Labor minister Kim Beazley Sr argued that it had been too difficult to count Aboriginal people in remote areas. (Aborigines in urban areas participated in the census and had their questions recorded but they were not used in counting the population of the state.)  Pat Stretton, a former researcher for the State History Centre in South Australia, believed Aborigines were not included as counting them would increase the contributions that states with a high Indigenous population would have to make to the new Australian federation. According to Stretton,

"Each colony had a capitation fee -- I think it was a pound a head, but it was a certain sum for every person -- to get the Commonwealth going, because they didn't have any money until they could start raising taxes. And, at Federation, South Australia included the Northern Territory. So, if you said, 'We will add the Aboriginal population to the white population,' that was going to hit South Australia in the hip pocket** big-time, and, I'm sorry to say, that was the end of that conversation."

Historian Keith Windschuttle took a different view and argued that it was intended to pressure Queensland and Western Australia into giving Aborigines the vote. Windschuttle explained that Section 25 of the Constitution stated:

"For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State, all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that state shall not be counted."

According to Windschuttle, because NSW, Vic, SA and Tas gave people of Aboriginal descent the state vote, the states gained greater representation in parliament. These states wanted to use this power to pressure Queensland and WA to give Aborigines the vote in the hope that there would be universal franchise laws.

As for the merits of the referendum itself, in accordance with the doctrine of egalitarianism, 90% of Australians voted in favour of it. Even some dissenters had pro-Aboriginal ideas for voting no. Some argued that a yes vote would be a form of forced assimilation of Aborigines and destroy their free lifestyle.

Ironically, the referedum basically extended a law that had originally been created to give the federal government the power to discriminate against Chinese and Pacific Islanders during the era of the White Australia Policy. The main difference, however, was the federal government wanted to use the race power laws to advance Aborigines rather than discriminate against them (as states believed they had been doing with their own Aboriginal policies.)

Not all Aborigines were happy with the result of the referendum either. The chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu said:

  • The historic 1967 referendum - where Australians voted overwhelmingly to make Aborigines citizens and for federal government powers to legislate on their behalf - had been forced upon the Aboriginal nation.
  • Aboriginal people have never wanted to be equal with the white people of Australia.
  • The referendum had been inspired by guilt and had never considered the rights we Aboriginal people really had, or who we really were.

Aboriginal Vote

The 1967 was more about symbolism than substance. It was sold as a gesture of goodwill towards Aborigines. In hindsight, it seems symbolism and gestures of goodwill were not sufficient to stop Aborigines being defined by statistics of disadvantage. The goodwill existed. The logical plan did not.

1967 Referendum Concerning Aborigines

Most Australians believed the 1967 referendum was about equality of rights, not extending the Federal government’s power to make race-specific laws.


Fabrication 2 - In Tasmania, the Aborigines were exterminated due to a “black line” of genocide

Many white historians like the idea that genocide occurred in Australia’s past as they proudly seek to raise awareness of it. As a consequence, they shape the facts of the past to fit their desire for the story of genocide. A great example of the distortion is the "black line" of 1830, which was an 'Aboriginal hunt' that cost £30,000, involved 5,000 men, and lasted for seven weeks. White historians have seized upon the figures to portray Tasmania's colonisation as a holocaust of European savagery. One of these white historians is Jennifer Isaacs, a self-defined expert on Aboriginal culture who has set herself up as a consultant to government. In an emotional account, Isaacs wrote in 1987:

"In Tasmania the white invasion and occupation was complete and the whole Aboriginal population was systematically annihilated. A few children survived to be secretly reared as stockmen on the mainland, but the survivors of the ‘Black Line’ led an isolated and heart-rending existence in forced exile in a small white supervised community on Flinders Island where they died one by one. Today a small stone church marks the spot on a cliff where the last of the Tasmanians sat in their Victorian costumes looking over the sea towards Tasmania." (6)

In reality, the black line was a complete failure and it did not result in the "systematic annihilation" of Aborigines, as Isaacs declared. Despite the cost, the time, and the manpower invested in it, the line only netted one man and one boy. In that regard, it was a bit like America spending billions of dollars on the invasion of Afghanistan, yet failing to eliminate Al Qaeda or catch Osama Bin Laden. In the context of war propaganda, America's failure was demoralising for themselves, but inspiring for their enemies. Likewise, the ability of the two tribes to outwit their adversary was potentially far more inspiring history than that of a weak race passively going into oblivion. The fact that Isaacs choose to portray Aborigines as victims of the black line, instead of victors over it, revealed a great deal about her ideology and moral character. Perhaps it also indicated her desire to tell a story in an emotional way for racist or commercial reasons, instead of an honest way for educational reasons.

In addition to omitting the fact that the line failed, the historians have omitted its real purpose. In truth, the black line was not designed to exterminate Aborigines, rather, it was designed to relocate two of the nine tribes on the island to uninhabited country from where they would no longer be in conflict with the whites, or be "corrupted" by whites. According to Governor Arthur (the man who devised the line), if Aborigines were not relocated, they would become extinct. In his own words:

"It was evident that nothing but capturing and forcibly detaining these unfortunate savages ... could now arrest a long term of rapine and bloodshed, already commenced, a great decline in the prosperity of the colony, and the extirpation of the Aboriginal race itself."

Because it was a policy of relocation, rather than eradication, it had more in common with the partition of Palestine that led to the creation of Israel than it did with the Nazis' final solution for the Jews. Maybe the people in the United Nations who divided Palestine were selfish and facilitated the cultural loss of the Palestinians by depriving them of access to sacred sights but that didn't change the fact that they believed division was the best way to achieve peace.

Today, around 16,000 Tasmanians define themselves as Aborigines, which is significantly more than the estimated 2,000 to 5,000 that existed at the time of colonisation. Admittedly, none of the present-day Aborigines are full-bloods and none live a lifestyle that even remotely resembles the Aborigines at the time of colonisation. In that regard, Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes are extinct, as Isaacs declared in 1987.

European diseases and interbreeding explain the reasons for the full-blood Aborigines' extinction. Because the Aborigines had been cut off from the mainland for 10,000 years, they had little genetic diversity. This lack of diversity was disastrous when exposed to new diseases. Tribes also suffered breakdowns due to women being traded to white men in exchange for sugar, flour and axes, or choosing to live with white men. In a very short period of time, the loss of members to disease and loss of women to whites resulted in the tribes losing the ability to reproduce themselves in both the cultural and physical sense.

In 1833, George Augustus Robinson (a Christian missionary) persuaded around 300 Aborigines to move to Flinders Island with the promise of food, housing, and clothing. Over the following 14 years, 250 died of the flu or other diseases. The last one, Truganini, died in 1876.

Outside of Robinson's mission, a few full blood Aborigines continued to live in other parts of the state. The last full-blood, Fanny Cochrane-Smith, married an ex-Convict, produced 11 children with him and lived until 1905. Smith recorded songs in her native language, which are the only audio recordings that exist of an indigenous Tasmanian language.


Davey's proclaimation

Posters erected in Tasmania in the early 19th century. The posters aimed to communicate that blacks and whites would be treated equally by the British justice system.

Tasmanian Aborigine Tasmanian Aborigine

Tasmanian Aborigines - The Tasmanian Aborigines looked like Africans. The African appearance is an interesting fact that provides food for thought on the history of human migration as well as the unique characteristics of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes. Unfortunately, most Australians today are not aware of this uniqueness because contemporary historians have focussed more on alleged crimes against the Tasmanians rather than studied the type of people they actually were. Victimising a people is a very easy way to avoid learning anything about them.

Fabrication 3 - The 1992 Mabo judgement was a great victory for Aborigines

The 1992 Mabo versus Queensland judgement has been declared a great victory for Aborigines because it recognised their ownership of the land prior to the British. What supporters of the judgement don't mention; however, is that it also asserted that Britain was in its legal right to dispossess Aborigines without paying compensation. According to the court, each time a land grant was given to a colonist, the Crown was exercising its legal right as sovereign of the land to dispossess Aborigines. The High Court clarified this in Walker versus New South Wales (1995) when it said,

"Mabo is entirely at odds with the notion that sovereignty adverse to the Crown resides in the Aboriginal people of Australia."

The misdirection over what the Mabo judgement actually said could be seen in the words of News Ltd journalist Simone Ziaziaris. When celebrating the 25-year anniversary of the decision, Ziaziaris wrote:

"On June 3, 1992, the High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo case, overturning 200 years of the common law assumption of terra nullius — the idea that Australia belonged to no-one when European settlers arrived."

The misunderstanding of the judgement can be partly attributed to the emotive words of Justice William Deane that seemed pro-Aboriginal. Specifically, Deane said that Aborigines had been treated as a,

"different and lower form of life whose very existence could be ignored for the purpose of determining the legal right to occupy and use their traditional lands."

Although the Mabo judgement asserted Crown sovereignty and the legal right of the Crown to dispossess Aborigines for almost 200 years without compensation, the emotive words used by Deane helped the judgement gain popular acclaim amongst whites acting as activists for Aborigines. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating subsequently appointed Deane to the position of Australian Governor General. In his position as Governor General, Deane gave speeches that promoted his judgement while Keating said anyone who questioned it was racist.

Keating probably promoted Deane because the Mabo judgement helped solve a land rights dilemma. Before the judgment was delivered, Keating was being pressured to implement the Labor Party’s five principles approach to land rights that proposed: 1) Aboriginal land be held under freehold title 2) full legal protection of Aboriginal sites 3) Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land 4) access to mining royalty payments and 5) negotiated compensation for lost land.

Implementing the principles was politically difficult. Some groups (farmers and miners) didn't want Aborigines to claim land they were working on and some environmental groups didn’t want Aborigines to sell or economically develop wilderness if their title was recognised over it.

Deane’s proselytising and his judgement provided an easy way out for Keating. Firstly, to claim land, the High Court used the Crown's sovereignty to make laws that stipulated that Aborigines had to demonstrate continous association since 1788 and this could only be on land that they had not been removed from. The association with land would be assessed by tribunals. Secondly, if ownership were recognised, Aborigines would be bound by laws that stipulated that the land could not be sold or subdivided into individual parcels. The consequence was that it became very difficult to economically develop the land.

Warren Mundine, head of NSW Native Title Services, later expressed frustrations with the restrictions when he stated:

"We own a couple of billion dollars' worth of land and it means sweet bugger-all for the Aboriginal community."

Richie Ahmat, chairman of the Cape York Land Council, went further and explained in more detail how  it reflected a vision of how Aborigines were expected to live in the landscape:

"Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS (The Wilderness Society) has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.
If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support."

In short, Keating's party platform had called for compensation for lost land, freehold title and economic empowerment. Keating used Deane's judgement as an excuse to water down the platform so that Aborigines would get tribunals that would assess claims if Aborigines had a continous association since 1788. If there was, there would be restrictions over land use to ensure it would be used in the manner non-Aboriginal groups wanted it to be used. Specifically, non-commericial.

An exchange between Paul Keating and a talkback caller on John Laws' 2UE morning program in 1993 provided a good illustration of the way that words were used to bluff people. The caller had perhaps taken some of the press at the time too literally and may have believed that Mabo judgement had decided that Australia was stolen property and some kind of restitution was needed. Keating could have allayed his fears by clarifying that the judgement declared that the British had acquired Australia legally and the Crown was the sovereign power. Instead, Keating just called him a racist:

Caller: Yes, good morning. Just a very broad question, Mr Keating, is: why does your government see the Aboriginal people as a much more equal people than the average white Australian?
Paul Keating: We don't. We see them as equal.
Caller: Well, you might say that, but all the indications are that you don't.
Paul Keating: But what's implied in your question is that you don't; you think that non-Aboriginal Australians, there ought to be discrimination in their favour against blacks.
Caller: Not... whatsoever. I... I don't say that at all. But my... myself and every person I talk to - and I'm not racist - but every person I talk to...
Paul Keating: But that's what they all say, don't they? They put these questions - they always say, "I'm not racist, but, you know, I don't believe that Aboriginal Australians ought to have a basis in equality with non-Aboriginal Australians. Well, of course, that's part of the problem.

If Keating had been honest about the true detail in what he was proposing, he would have responded with something like:

Mate, think of them as unpaid groundskeepers in your golf club. We have offered the weakest form of recognition to the tiny percentage of Aboriginal people who can prove an unbroken connection with a particular piece of land. To assess their associations, a white tribunal will pass judgment on the evidence presented by white people claiming to be Aboriginal advocats. That is a far more onerous requirement than you have. Think of it this way, if you squatted it a house for 10 years you could claim ownership over it. You wouldn’t have to show your ancestors had been there for 200 years as well.

Finally, if we decide their associations indeed date back to 1788, they will have to use the land in accordance with the laws of Native Title, which we created. These laws are far more restrictive than any laws you are subjected to regarding your house. We call them custodians but we make the rules. Don't worry about them being more equal to us, I have made sure we are more equal than them.

Map of native title in Australia in 2010. Virtually none of NSW, the first colonised state, is in Native Title. In short, the judgement was big on pro-Indigenous words as it stripped Indigenous people of land rights.


John Batman

Justice William Deane said Aborigines had been ignored to take their land but history shows a different picture. In 1835, John Batman made a contract with the Kulin people to buy land. There were numerous justifications for colonial authorities not to recognise the contract. One justification could have been to define the contract as unconscionable because Batman’s offerings of axes and food did not reflect the true value of the land. A second justification could have been that the Aborigines were not able to fully comprehend what they were doing. They were being asked to sign a British contract relating to land ownership when they had little familiarity with British contracts or European conceptions of land ownership. Instead of nulling the contract on such grounds, Governor Bourke just stated the crown owned all the land. The Mabo versus Queensland judgement stated that Governor Bourke was legally entitled to do what he did.

Fabrication 4 - Competition for resources forced Aborigines and colonists into conflict

In the early 1980s, white academics like Henry Reynolds started proposing that the colonisation of Australia was one of violent conquest. Reynolds’ viewpoint was a popular one and citations to his work helped build a whole culture of historical inquiry based on the premise that Australian colonisation was one of war and genocide.

Aside from citations to the works of other white historians proposing violent conquest, there was very little evidence to back up the claims. Certainly, written records of soldiers and explorers generally talk of making friends with Aborigines.

William Buckley

Cultural reflections: cowboy battles indian for America. Convict joins Aboriginal tribe in Australia.

Due to the lack of written records of "frontier wars" in Australia, many historians have written about competition for resources as the evidence that frontier wars must have occurred. For example, Benjamin Madley from Yale University argued:

“Conflict between indigenous people and settlers often revolves around two interlocking economic issues: access to natural resources and control of territory. Both groups need natural resources and land to achieve their definition of economic success. The loss of their food supply and land threatened both Aboriginal society and their physical survival.” (5)

Similar myths are common in popular culture. For example, the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia (which relies on academic consultants such as Dr Michael Cathcart from the University of Melbourne) said,

“Aborigines were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining.” (1)

Finally, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities proposed (20):

"conflict was the result of competition for land which settlers required for crops and the grazing of sheep and cattle; Aboriginal people relied upon the same land for food and water (Kidd 1997:14). The initial response by the Administration was to dispatch troops to police the frontier, but the expanding area of land to be covered made this an increasingly difficult task. A lawless frontier environment soon existed where it was impossible to control the conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. In response to this challenge the Administration ordered settlers to defend themselves and ordered Aboriginal people to stay away from European habitation. There is no evidence that Aboriginal people understood and agreed with these orders to stay away from European settlement as the conflict on the frontier continued."

Such explanations for conflict were perhaps naively applied to Australia because they were the foundation of conflict in other colonial countries such as the USA. To be more precise, because Americans slaughtered bufalloe in the thousands and deprived the Indians of food in the process, it is presumed the same thing must have happened in Australia. In reality, over 90% of Australia is dry, flat and arid and almost three-quarters of the land cannot support agriculture in any form. In these areas, it was only possible to live off the land as a hunter gatherer. In short, 3/4s of Australia has never had farmers wanting the land thus the Aborigines on the land never had colonists competing with them for resources. Furthermore, animals like kangaroos could not be slaughtered in the thousands because they run in different directions when scared.

The land's lack of suitability for agriculture is the chief reason why Australia has almost no significant inland cities aside from its capital and why Australia never developed American-style pioneering stories of colonists heading west and founding new towns. It is also why Australia's farming regions have very low density populations.

In areas where agriculture did develop, colonists and Aborigines ate different things so there was little competition for food. Among other things, the Aborigines ate kangaroos, ants, roots, moths, grubs and lizards. The early colonists were starving and would have eaten the Aboriginal food if they knew how to find it and were prepared to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Because most were not prepared, or able, to live a nomadic life, they farmed imported crops and animals such as cows, chickens, goats, sheeps, and pigs. (Many went feral where they perhaps became an extra food source for Aborigines.)

As well as not being conducive to high-density farming communities, the Australian environment also contained a host of native animals that increased as a result of farming. The kangaroo was one such animal. The farmers' dams gave kangaroos permanent water supplies that helped them survive drought. Even though farmers wanted to kill the kangaroos as pests, or build fences to keep them out, the kangaroos simply jumped the fences, drank the water, ate the grass, and then hopped back into the bush where they remained a valuable food source for Aborigines. Consequently, the colonists and natives didn't have to fight over food as they did in other colonial countries.

Finally, once Convict transportation came to an end, farmers looked to Aborigines as their best chance of getting workers. Few free settlers wanted to live in the harsh outback to do low paid work associated with Convicts (who had previously been used as a kind of slave labour on farms); however, the Aborigines already living there were prepared to work in exchange for some European items like blankets, axes and flour (which they desired.) Reflecting these exchanges, tens of thousands of Aborigines were born on cattle stations. Furthermore, 70 per cent of contemporary Aborigines live in urban areas because their ancestors graviated to urban areas to find the things they desired.

In regards to Aborigines being pushed off land due to mining, contrary to Lonely Planet Guide book stereotypes, most of Australia isn’t a mine site. Less than 0.02 percent of the Australian land mass is mined. So little of the Australian land mass is mined, or has been mined, that most Australians have never even seen a mine. In the colonial era, mining was even less advanced.


Kangaroo and buffalo - One species likes to congregate in small groups near woodland and flees in different directions when scared. One species herds in the thousands on the plains. One increased in numbers after colonisation. One was decimated.

Fabrication 5 –Racism against Aborigines started with Convicts wanting to feel superior

Historians like the idea of denouncing Convicts (and Australians by extension) as racist because it allows them to feel non-racist by comparison and thus demonstrate that they are of a superior class. The evidence in support of Convict racism perhaps stems from a naïve understanding of psychology that proposes that membership of a low status group will breed prejudice against another social group. For example, historian and art critic Robert Hughes proposed,

‘galled by exile and humiliated by poor status and, therefore, hated and ill-treated Aboriginal people because they desperately needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves’ (19)

If Hughes' assumptions of human psychology were true, then it would be expected that black American slaves would have been prejudiced towards Indigenous Americans as they too would have needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves. In fact, it would be expected that any victimised minority group would become the most prejudiced groups in society.

In reality, the pattern of prejudice predicted by Hughes does not occur. This is because the victim-becomes-a-bully psychology occurs when people are individualistic in their thinking and are trying to find a place in an individualistic hierarchy. Theories such as Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) propose that adopting a social identity actually counters much of the individualistic thinking so that instead of prejudice being displaced onto a weaker group, values are defined in a way that allow prejudice to be reflected back at the oppressor.

 In Australia, the Convict class was multi-racial and all Convicts (irrespective of their colour, religion or national origin) shared the Convict stain together. Skin colour was irrelevant in comparison to the stain. Newspaper reports of the time talked of divisions between emancipists (freed convicts) and exclusives (free settlers). This would suggest that prejudices were directed against each other, not Aborigines. For example, one report stated:

"Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights. " (20)

There is also some evidence to suggest that some Convicts would have looked upon Aborigines as potential allies in their causes. Firstly, after the American war of independence, the British discontinued Convict transportation to Canada as it was felt that the Convict class was subversive, rebellious and would side with anti-British interests in Canada. Perhaps this fear was based on observations of Convicts in the US or just the logical expectation that treating people inhumanely would not breed loyalty. It would therefore be reasonable to assume that Convicts would have been sympathetic to Aborigines and/or wanted to join them. Some Convicts, such as John Casor, William Buckley and John Wilson, escaped to live with Aboriginal tribes. Mixed-race sealing communities were also often described as being composed of ex-Convicts and these communities were often broken up by the military.

There is also some evidence that there was a Convict identity which aligned itself with Aborigines. Such evidence can be found in  the words of one literate Convict, JF Mortlock,:

"I sympathized with a few unfortunate aborigines, transported hither from New South Wales, for resenting the intrusion and aggression of the English, by some of whom they have been known to be shot as food for the dogs. Nothing but a mixture of prudence and quiet energy could enable me to steer a course offensive neither to the authorities nor to a class of persons among whom fate had cast me on terms of equality - or rather inferiority- for these desperadoes looked with much contempt upon new-comers, who did indeed live far more wretchedly (unless mechanics or officers,) than men accustomed to existence in the bush."


Fabrication 6 – Because colonists had guns, they were able to defeat Aborigines in battle

There is a presumption that white Convicts were able to brutalise Aborigines. The presumption is perhaps based on a racist belief that whites are naturally stronger or a naive belief that Convicts had guns at their disposal that gave them a technological edge. For example, Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, authors of High School textbooks, wrote:

"Gangs of escaped convicts raided Indigenous camps, killing men and kidnapping women." (13)

The stereotype of the Convict’s strength over Aborigines is probably derived from American movies showing muscular men who have grown up fighting in gangs. In truth, most Convicts were malnourished and had skills in things like picking pockets - not deflecting Aboriginal spears using their leg irons as weapons. Furthermore, most didn't have guns because if they had been supplied with them, they could have shot their masters.

An account by Watkin Tench illustrated how unarmed and malnourished Convicts accustomed to petty theft fared against people who had been engaging in hand-to-hand combat for 60,000 years:

"March, 1789. Sixteen convicts left their work at the brick-kilns without leave, and marched to Botany Bay, with a design to attack the natives, and to plunder them of their fishing-tackle and spears: they had armed themselves with their working tools and large clubs. When they arrived near the bay, a body of Indians, who had probably seen them set out, and had penetrated their intention from experience, suddenly fell upon them. Our heroes were immediately routed, and separately endeavoured to effect their escape by any means which were left. In their flight one was killed, and seven were wounded, for the most part very severely: those who had the good fortune to outstrip their comrades and arrive in camp, first gave the alarm; and a detachment of marines, under an officer, was ordered to march to their relief. The officer arrived too late to repel the Indians; but he brought in the body of the man that was killed, and put an end to the pursuit. The governor was justly incensed at what had happened, and instituted the most rigorous scrutiny into the cause which had produced it. At first the convicts were unanimous in affirming, that they were quietly picking sweet-tea (2), when they were without provocation assaulted by the natives, with whom they had no wish to quarrel. Some of them, however, more irresolute than the rest, at last disclosed the purpose for which the expedition had been undertaken; and the whole were ordered to be severely flogged: Arabanoo was present at the infliction of the punishment; and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on the occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only." (4)



Castle Hill Rebellion

Contemporary stories of Convicts raiding Aboriginal camps to kill the men and carry off the women are based on an assumption that Convicts were stronger fighters than Aborigines. In truth, most accounts of Convicts  indicate that they were bloody awful in battle, which was understandable considering most were malnourished thieves. In 1804, about 330 of the Irish Convicts launched a full scale insurrection. Some were armed with guns after breaking into farm houses but most just had pikes (spears) or farming tools. After being engaged by 57 British soldiers, the stunned mob was fired upon. After 15 minutes of confusion, the mob fled to the bush. The dispirited Convicts surrendered over the next few days.


Fabrication 7 – There is a lack of awareness of frontier wars because Australians are too embarrassed by them

There is no doubt that there was conflict amongst individual members of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society but until recently, no one had believed that there had been conflict between groups necessary to categorise a conflict as a war. In fact, one early account of settlement had military officer Watkin Tench writing,

" During the intervals of duty, our greatest source of entertainment now lay in cultivating the acquaintance of our new friends, the natives."

Henry Reynolds, a research professor at the University of Tasmania, was the chief historian responsible for proliferating incorrect myths of a frontier war. In 1999 Reynolds said,

"We all played cowboys and Indians and we all knew names of chiefs and tribes and yet we knew very little about what had happened in Australia, because we -- never in the 20th century were we comfortable with the idea that war was going on" (3)

Even if what Reynolds said were true, he didn't explain why Americans, Argentinians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and South Africans had been comfortable with the idea of war between colonists and natives but "we" Australians were not. Likewise, Reynolds didn’t explain why other colonial countries were so proud of their victories over the natives that they created national holidays and movie genres to commemorate them, while "we" Australians were so ashamed that "we" had to pretend to be friends.

Battle of Blood River

In other colonial countries, battles between colonists and natives were celebrated in art, songs, poetry and national holidays. For example, in South Africa The Battle of Blood River was said to be a battle between 500 Afrikaneers and 20,000 Zulus in 1838. Legends developed that only 3 Afrikaneer fell for the 3,000 Zulus that were killed. The Afrikaneers celebrated their victory as an example of divine intervention. For most of the 20th century, the date of the battle had been observed as a public and religious holiday by the white South African government. If colonials in Australia had been killing Aborigines, at the very least, they had a very different public morality towards it.

Ironically, Reynolds seemed unable to grasp the significance of Australians playing cowboy and Indians instead of stockmen and Aborigines. Nor did he grasp the significance of Australians singing patriotic songs like Waltzing Matilda that used aboriginal words like jumbuck, coolabah and billabong to build its patriotic credentials and most of rural Australia adopting Aboriginal place names like Wagga Wagga and Mullumbimby instead of the names of European dignataries. Nor did Reynolds grasp the significance of old colonial farmhouses being located in isolated areas without any evidence of precautions being made to protect the inhabitants against attack by Aboriginal people (e.g, cross shaped slits in walls to fire a gun.) Finally, Reynolds never grasped the significance of Australian colonial paintings rarely depicting battles against Aborigines and if conflict was depicted, it tended to be sympathetic to Aborigines. It seemed as though the only evidence of war was in Reynold’s writings. The wider cultural fingerprints of the frontiers painted a very different picture.

Admittedly, there has been the occasional example of a region being named to glorify a white massacre of Aborigines. For example, in the Myall Creek region of NSW, colonists named Vinegar Hill, Slaughterhouse Creek, and Gravesend in tribute to themselves for killing Aborigines in those locations. Although these namings do reflect the fact that certain areas celebrated the killing of Aborigines, it needs to be acknowledged that such namings were rare and attitudes seemed to change once the murderers were prosecuted. On the whole, Australia was named in a way that seemed to indicate that colonists wanted to respect the fact that the areas they were moving into already had names and people living there.

The Australian authors of Lonely Planet Guide books have also been fond of promoting the war narrative as they try to sell Australian holidays to the world. According to the 2009 edition, which consulted Dr Michael Cathcart from the University of Melbourne:

"When Captain Phillip's penal settlement came to town, kidnappings and punishment became the norm, with the explicit aim of terrifying Aborigines into submission...but there was resistance in other forms: Aboriginal freedom-fighting groups began to spring up, led by storied indigenous leaders including Bennelong, Pelmuwuy and Mosquito, a warrior from the Broken Bay people. The freedom fighters were eventually crushed as the settlers resorted to more barbaric methods to achieve total domination."

Indeed there were three kidnappings (Bennelong, Colbee and Arabanoo) under Phillip's rein, but the intention of these was for Governor Phillip to open a dialogue with the locals. Once a dialogue was opened, each of the Aborigines was free to leave. There were also punishments but these were mostly inflicted on Convicts who wronged Aborigines, not the other way around. These barbaric punishments did terrify Aborigines, not because they feared meeting the same fate, but because they were savage. As told by military officer Watkin Tench:

“At first the convicts were unanimous in affirming, that they were quietly picking sweet-tea (2), when they were without provocation assaulted by the natives, with whom they had no wish to quarrel. Some of them, however, more irresolute than the rest, at last disclosed the purpose for which the expedition had been undertaken; and the whole were ordered to be severely flogged: Arabanoo was present at the infliction of the punishment; and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on the occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only." (4)

As for Bennelong (who the Lonely Planet Guide defined as a freedom fighter) he took a fondness to European clothes and started lecturing other Aborigines on the need to dress in a dignified way. In response, they mocked his pompous manners. He eventually died from alcohol abuse. Pelmuwuy was shot and beheaded but it is debateable as to whether he fought a war or just tried to uphold tribal law. In 1897, Governor Hunter met several parties of Aborigines near Botany Bay. Pemulwuy was among them. According to one report, Pemulwuy,

‘spoke with one of the gentlemen of the party; enquiring of him whether the governor was angry, and seemed pleased at being told that he was not.’

Musquito made enemies amongst both Aboriginal and colonial communities. After killing and mutiliating Aboriginal women, other Aborigines captured him and passed him over to colonial authorities, who wanted him for raiding settlers' farms. Rather than execute him as they would a European Convict, the authorities transported him to Norfolk Island and then Tasmania. He then went bush and joined a gang of outlaws.


William Buckley

Convict William Buckley escaped from the Sorrento penal settlement in 1803. The settlement was then disbanded and with nothing heard of Buckley, it was presumed that he had died. 33 year later, a farmer came upon a strange white man speaking an aboriginal language. He had a extremely long beard and wore possum skins. Once the man learnt to speak English again, he informed the authorities that he was William Buckley and had spent 33 years living with the Aborigines. His story amazed the colonial population. He was pardoned and became a respected civil servant. Buckley’s story had some parallels with the American movies Dances with Wolves and Avatar, except Buckely was pardoned, rather than ostracised, for his relationship with Aborigines.


Drysdale Ruins

Drysdale The Ruins (1965): An Aborigine stands over the failed attempts of colonists to expand inland.


Fabrication 8 - Disadvantage in Aboriginal communities today stems from British invasion

In 2018, Australian tennis legend Pat Cash asserted that the date of Australia Day needed to be changed because it was causing disadvantage in Northern Territory Indigenous communities. In his own words,

"That is not going to be a celebration for me, it’s like an Invasion Day, celebrating white England — English landing...As you can see it has changed my life. Seeing what has gone on up there…I was out of the country for years — I had no idea how bad it was up there… I’ve got to say I was embarrassed to be Australian, I was shocked. It was mindblowing. I was in tears half the time seeing the poverty and the situation these people are in".

The great irony of Cash’s comments was that many groups in the Northern Territory live on their ancestral land. In other words, their social situation could not be attributed to invasion and dispossession.

Admittedly, non-Indigenous people have contributed to the social situation in the Northern Territory despite not removing Aborigines from the land. Cash himself worked for the charity Children’s Ground and it is through welfare strategies such as those implemented by Children's Ground that Northern Territory Aborigines have been most impacted by colonialism. In the past, "welfare" policies have included banning sex across the colour line, banning the sale of alcohol to Aborigines, wage control and making Aborigines wards of the state.

Whether the Aborigines have been negatively affected by the policies and whether their lives are worse than the lives of their pre-colonial ancestors is open to debate. Specifically, what is advantaged in the eyes of one person is disadvantaged in the eyes of someone else. The value-laden nature of the word “disadvantage” has been recognised by Posselt (2000 p 6), who wrote:

“Measuring socio-economic disadvantage is not a straightforward exercise because disadvantage is a relative concept which involves value.”

Nevertheless, statistics used to define disadvantage indicate that most disadvantage occurs in the northern part of Australia where Aborigines have had land title recognised and where they still maintain traditional ways. Disadvantage is lowest in the heavily populated south-east regions where the cultural loss and land dispossession has been the most severe. In other words, in areas where their lifestyle is most like non-indigenous Australians, their socioeconomic statistics are most like non-indigenous Australians. It should be noted; however, that despite rural Aborigines being more prone to be defined as 'disadvantaged,' research by the ABS (quoted by Robinson 2010) (11) has found that Aborigines in rural areas are more happy with their own lives than are Aborigines in the cities. In other words, the very Aborigines who Pat Cash looked at and was brought to tears because their lives were so terrible were also likely to have been more happy with their lives than Aborigines who Cash might define as the model he is working towards. In the same way, when the first colonists arrived in the northern territory and saw Aborigines unable to boil water, lacking clothes, not making permanent shelters and being unable to store food for significant periods of time, they looked at them as deprived and tried to do something to help. Just like Cash, their judgements on Aboriginal quality of life were made by how closely the Aboriginal life mirrored themselves.


Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

How others see Aboriginal groups is often different to how Aboriginal groups see themselves. As said by George Campbell, Yarralin elder:

"FED up with accusations that they are dysfunctional places riddled with child sex abuse and domestic violence, some remote indigenous communities are fighting back. ‘I'm proud of what we are doing here. Look around — my people are happy and they are doing things that give them pride as well’




3)Race wars written out of Australian history: historian -

4)A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson by Watkin Tench

5)BENJAMIN MADLEY Journal of Genocide Research (2004), 6(2), June, 167–192 - Patterns of frontier genocide 1803–1910: the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia

6)ISAACS, Jennifer, Australian Dreaming. 40000 years of Aboriginal history. Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1987

7)Keith Windschuttle, The fabrication of Aboriginal history

8)Rabbit-Proof Fence: Phillip Noyce's Diary


10) Bereson, Itiel, (2000) Australia in the 1960s, Echidna Books

11) Robinson, N (2010, September 30). Indigenous urban dwellers better off but not happier The Australian Accessed 2010

12) Posselt, H (2000) Socio-economic disadvantage across urban, rural and remote areas. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

13) Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, Humanities Alive Second Edition (2010)

14)Martelle, Scott (June 28, 2006). "A Different Read on 'Mockingbird'; Long a classroom starting point for lessons about intolerance, the Harper Lee classic is being reexamined by some who find its perspective limited", The Los Angeles Times, p. 6.

15) - January 2009

16) - January 2009


18)War brewing over indigenous alcohol bans February 06, 2013

19) Hughes, R. The Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, London, 1987

20) 1) Australian Heritage Database;place_id=105869 Accessed March 2013

21) From Chronicle Of Australia 2000
Penguin Aus.

22 Myths persist about the 1967 referedum




John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)