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The first missionaries arrived in the British colony of New South Wales in 1789, but it was not until about 1820 that they started arriving in numbers to protect the Indigenous peoples and convert them to Christianity. Many missionaries were shocked by the bloodshed and the racial violence that was occurring. They wrote about the devastation, robberies, cruelties and murder that was being seen in many parts of Australia and worked towards protecting the Aboriginal people and educating them to become Christians.


A missionary is a person who works to spread their religious beliefs. In Australia, the missionaries were looking to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity. There were Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran missionaries, but all worked to convince the Indigenous peoples to give up their traditional beliefs and start to believe in Jesus and the traditional Christian view of creation.

The missionaries fought for the protection of Aboriginal peoples from racial violence, particularly on the frontier. As the 19th century advanced, the missionaries were generally unpopular and were viewed as troublemakers by the rest of the British population. Many settlers believed that missionary activity was useless and a waste of colonial money. Despite this view, missionaries continued to protest against the treatment of the Indigenous peoples by the settlers, and worked to protect them by setting up missions.


A mission is a term that refers to the Christian institutions where Aboriginal peoples were placed to be looked after. The term was also used to refer to the reserves and government properties that many Aboriginal people were relocated to. The missions were established and run by missionaries and were used to protect, feed, clothe, educate and restrict the movements of Aboriginal peoples. Refer Image 1

The missionaries thought the creation of reserves would be a solution to the threat to the lives of the Aboriginal peoples and called on the government to establish them. In most States, missions were regulated by the governments after the Aborigines Protection Boards were set up.


A reserve was an area of land that was set aside by the government for the Aboriginal peoples. There were two types of reserves. There were 'managed reserves' that were also called stations, and there were 'unmanaged reserves'. The managed reserves were usually run by a manager and provided education, rations and housing. Unmanaged reserves were under police control and only provided rations.

Most of the reserves were quite small, with scattered housing. As the British settlement grew, reserves were created across New South Wales and Aboriginal people were relocated to them. Some reserves were set up on land that the group had traditionally belonged to, but most were put in remote areas away from European settlements.


The policy and practice of separating the Aboriginal peoples from the European settlers was known as segregation. Segregation started in the late 19th century and was used to separate the Aboriginal peoples that had survived the European invasion. There were arguments that segregation would protect the Indigenous peoples from European influences, such as alcohol, but it was also a means of keeping the Aboriginal peoples away from the Europeans.

Segregation laws were also used to separate Indigenous peoples with some European ancestry from those with non-European Ancestry. The Indigenous peoples with some European ancestry could only stay on reserves for a certain time before being integrated into the general European population.

The policy of segregation continued until 1967 when Indigenous peoples were finally recognised as full citizens of Australia and were ensured the right to vote. Refer Image 2

Effects of missions

Most Aboriginal peoples voluntarily moved to the missions and reserves, as they had already lost their land, hunting grounds and water sources. By moving to a mission, they were protected by the missionaries and received food and clothing. Some Aboriginal people left their family and clan to live on a mission, leaving the elderly people and children to look after themselves. This created a further breakdown of traditional Indigenous society.

Missions did save many groups of Aboriginal peoples who may otherwise have died from racial abuse, conflict, and starvation; but there was a price to pay. The Aboriginal peoples living on missions were forbidden to speak traditional languages or take part in traditional ceremonies and other cultural practices. Men, women and children were also often segregated on the missions so that the children could be taught the Christian way of life without the interference of the elders and other adults. This meant that traditional knowledge and beliefs were lost, as they were not being communicated to the young generation. Refer Image 3

The British settlers and the missionaries had no respect for Indigenous laws, life and spiritual beliefs. The Aboriginal peoples that survived the impact of European diseases, frontier wars, racial abuse and dispossession were often put on reserves or missions where they lost the freedom to practice their traditional way of life and culture. The Aboriginal peoples were trapped between European society and their traditional way of life. They were meant to assimilate into the European Australian culture and society, but were not given any rights or respect. Even today, the Indigenous peoples are still fighting for rights and respect from the government and from many Australian people.

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1. What were the Christian institutions called where Aboriginal people were placed to be looked after?

Unmanaged reserves





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