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Captain James Cook claimed possession of Australia for the British under the European legal term of 'terra nullius'. This meant 'land belonging to no one' and it denied the Indigenous peoples the right to negotiate treaties and to claim ownership of the land. The Indigenous peoples did not farm or fence the land like the Europeans, and many of their dwellings and shelters were not permanent like the ones built by the Europeans. When the British arrived, they decided that Australian land was not being used and did not belong to the Indigenous peoples. The arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove was the start of the battle for the land of Australia.

Owning the land - the Indigenous perspective

Indigenous peoples did not own the land like Europeans did; the land owned them. The British became familiar with an Aboriginal man, called Bennelong, in the early years of the colony. Bennelong declared that Goat Island was his family's home. This surprised the British settlers; they thought that the Indigenous peoples were nomadic and had no fixed home. Refer Image 1

As discussed in Chapter 2, Topic 2, Indigenous peoples have a very close relationship with the land; it is their spiritual home. Indigenous culture and spirituality was inseparable from the land; every part of their lives had a connection to it.

Land to Indigenous groups is not private land; it cannot be bought or sold. It is not owned by any one person but rather the land, and all the things living on it, needs to be looked after and cared for by the clan.

The survival of the Indigenous people depended on knowing the land, and knowing which resources were available at certain times and in certain locations. If necessary, the Indigenous peoples moved between camps to gather and collect food.


Indigenous groups lived in territories and there were boundaries between the lands of different groups. These boundaries were not recorded on paper but were clearly understood by all groups, and were held in the memories of the elders. Rivers, mountain ranges and other landforms provided borders that were understood by everyone in the clan. Refer Image 2

Some territories could be shared between different clans, but to enter the homeland of another group required negotiation and ceremony. It also meant that the visiting group had to return the deed and allow access to their land. Indigenous peoples also knew what was happening in distant lands through trade relations, and through Dreaming stories and songs that were learnt from other groups.

Owning the land - the European perspective

The European perspective of land owning was entirely different to the Aboriginal perspective. European culture was competitive and individualistic. Part of the reason why Australia was colonised was because Britain wanted to prevent France, or any other European country, from colonising it first. Owning land meant power and more resources. The land could be bought or taken by force, and then farmed or mined and sold. Europeans simply saw the land as something that could be exploited and used.

Like the Indigenous peoples, the Europeans needed land to survive. The Europeans, however, wanted to claim as much land as possible, without sharing it with the Indigenous peoples. The colonists cleared and then fenced the land so that it could be used to grow crops or farm cattle or sheep. The rivers and creeks were fenced off and the Aboriginal peoples were not permitted to enter the land or to visit their sacred sites. Very quickly, the Aboriginal peoples were not allowed to access the land that provided their food and water. Refer Image 3

The British saw the Australian continent as a series of frontiers that were there to be conquered. The land needed to be 'discovered' and 'civilised'. Many lives were lost as the British settled the land across Australia.

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1. European culture was

Negotiation and ceremony

Sharing and caring

Competitive and individualistic

Terra and nullius


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