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The European settlement of Australia was not a peaceful process. In fact, it is now often described as an invasion of Indigenous land. As the Europeans spread out from Sydney and into the frontier, many battles were fought with Aboriginal groups who were defending their territory. There were massacres that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous and European men, women and children. The exact death toll of Indigenous peoples in the frontier wars will never be known, but an estimate has been put at over 20 000 people.

Expanding European settlement in Australia

The crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 pushed the frontier of British colonisation into the lands of many more Aboriginal groups, including the Wiradjuri, and Kamilaroi, or, Gamilaraay groups. The British government was granting Indigenous land to pastoral companies and British settlers. It soon became clear to the Indigenous peoples that the European intruders were going to take their land, put up fences, destroy hunting and ceremonial grounds, stop access to waterholes and destroy sacred sites. Refer Image 1

The Europeans gradually settled the whole of Australia, from Tasmania to Western Australia. This created frontier conflict in almost all areas of Australia, but the length and force of the conflict varied between areas. The intensity and duration of the conflict depended on the landscape (mountainous or flat), the speed of settlement, the number of Indigenous peoples already there, the number of settlers, the type of settlement and when the first contact occurred. The period of conflict was shorter when there were several settlers, when access to the country was easy, and when the Indigenous peoples had no mountains to retreat to.

Frontier wars - resistance and revenge

The Indigenous peoples did not sit back and watch the British settlers take their land and destroy their way of life. They resisted, and engaged in long and bitter wars, often called the frontier wars, with the Europeans. The 'frontier' is a term that applies to the land that was gradually being taken over.

Indigenous warriors used 'guerrilla warfare' against the British settlers. This meant that small groups of warriors assaulted the settlers with surprise raids and killed stock, attacked camps and murdered people. Although the number of Indigenous people killed was far greater than the death toll of the Europeans, Indigenous clans still injured many people, destroyed a lot of property and produced much anxiety among the settlers. The cost of colonisation was much higher than many people thought. Refer Image 2


Revenge also was a major factor in prompting attacks. An example of a series of revenge attacks was in the Bathurst region of New South Wales in 1824. After years of guerrilla warfare, Governor Brisbane declared martial law on the Bathurst Plains. Soldiers travelled through the land and killed all the Wiradjuri people they saw. 30 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed at one camp and another 20 or 30 were made to jump over the cliff at Bell's Falls. A Wiradjuri raiding party then attacked several European properties. Military patrols responded by hunting down the raiding party and killing more Aboriginal people. The intense violence ended when the main leader of the Wiradjuri surrendered to the Governor.

There are many examples of resistance and revenge in all States of Australia, but eventually the Aboriginal people lost most of their land to the settlers.


The frontier wars produced massacres on both sides. Three recorded Aboriginal attacks on Europeans were: the Maria massacre where a number of European survivors from a shipwreck were killed by Aboriginal peoples; Cullin La Ringoe Station in Queensland where 19 Europeans were killed; and Hornet Bank Station in Queensland where 11 settlers were killed. The reasons for the massacres are different in each case, but they either resulted from a misunderstanding or were revenge attacks. The reasons for resistance and revenge will be explored further in Chapter 1 of Topic 5. Refer Image 3

There are records of numerous Indigenous massacres throughout Australia, but undoubtedly there were countless more massacres that occurred and were not recorded. In Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania in 1856) there were scores of massacres during what was known as the 'Black War'. At Risdon Cove in 1804 a great many Indigenous peoples were killed as they hunted kangaroos, while at Cape Grim in1828 over 60 Peerapper people were killed as they gathered around the campfire in the evening.

Of all the massacres, the Myall Creek Massacre is probably the most well-known. This massacre is discussed in Chapter 3 of Topic 5.

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Question 1/5

1. What is a rough estimate for the number of Aboriginal people killed in the frontier wars?

20 000 people

2000 people

200 000 people

200 people


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