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The British colonisation of Australia was a long and violent process whereby the Indigenous peoples were forcibly dispossessed of their land and territory by the European soldiers, settlers, pastoralists, police, miners and seafarers. Many battles and disputes between the Indigenous peoples and the British invaders occurred between 1788 and the 1920s, as the British moved to settle the land across Australia. This chapter will take a closer look at the effects of dispossession on the Aboriginal people.


Dispossession means to deprive people of the possession or occupancy of land and property. As the British settled the land across Australia, they deprived the Indigenous peoples of their land, their hunting grounds and water resources, and they destroyed sacred sites and other spiritually significant places. The British felt they had the right to do this as they had claimed ownership of the land under 'terra nullius'. They felt it was necessary for them to forcibly remove the Indigenous peoples from the land and prevent them from returning. Refer Image 1

Initial Indigenous reaction to the British invasion

While there was conflict within traditional Indigenous society, it was virtually unknown for there to be a dispute over territorial lands. Indigenous groups were spiritually linked to the land and there was never any possibility of invading another group's territory. When the British settled on the land, many Indigenous groups were not aware that the land was no longer theirs. Indigenous peoples may have been pushed out of their territory, but they still believed that it was their land and that they could live on it and use it as they had always done.

During the early days of the colonisation, many Aboriginal people and settlers often lived quite closely together without too much conflict. The conflicts began when it became clear that the British were staying and would prevent the Indigenous peoples from using their land as they had always done. The tension built up gradually, as neither the Indigenous peoples nor the British properly understood the ways of life, the law and traditions of the other.

Reasons for conflict

The source of much of the conflict and confrontation between the Europeans and the Indigenous groups was that the Europeans did not share the land and its resources. Sharing was of high importance in traditional Indigenous society, and each individual was expected to share food and other resources with others. Conflict arose when the British arrived and prohibited the Aboriginal peoples from using the land.

The British settlers prevented the Indigenous peoples from living the way they were accustomed to. The British occupied the fertile, flat, open land and pushed the Indigenous peoples into the mountains, swamps or deserts. Some groups of Indigenous peoples that had been dispossessed of their land were pushed onto land that was not their territory. This created much tension between different Indigenous groups.

The cattle and sheep that had been introduced by the British ate many of the native plants, drank a lot of the water and chased away the native animals. Food became scarce for Indigenous peoples and access to water was difficult. In such cases, the Indigenous peoples resorted to killing sheep and cattle. The British retaliated by shooting at them, and so the cycle of revenge attacks started. Refer Image 2

Ceremonial and spiritual life was also disrupted by the settlers. The British settlers either prevented access to sacred sites or destroyed them, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. Cave paintings were destroyed and other ceremonial objects were taken for scientific purposes, or just out of curiosity. Large ceremonial gatherings appeared too dangerous so they were often dispersed by soldiers, settlers or police.

Results of dispossession

In the years following colonisation, the Indigenous population declined dramatically under the impact of new diseases, open warfare, dispossession, the lack of food and water and the almost complete breakdown of the traditional way of life and culture.

The Indigenous peoples continued to resist the occupation of their lands by the British, but by 1860, the British settlement covered over 400 million hectares of Indigenous land. Many Indigenous peoples could only stay on their land if they were employed by the settlers as stockmen or domestic servants. Today, the battle for land is fought out in the law courts under the term 'land rights'. Refer Image 3

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Question 1/5

1. What dispute was virtually unknown in traditional Aboriginal society?

Disputes over theft

Disputes over territorial land

Disputes over food

Disputes over women


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