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The early history of interaction between the European settlers and the Indigenous peoples of Australia has been hotly debated over the last 30 years. There are two distinct ways of looking at the last two centuries of Australian history. For many years historians presented Australian history as beginning when Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770. That version of history can be seen in many of the history books from the 1950s and 1960s that would teach students about the White settlers and how they heroically battled the elements and the Indigenous people to establish a 'civilised' society in Australia. Those books present Australia in the late 18th century as an empty country that was ripe for colonisation. See animation

That type of history does not  mention of the fact that the Aboriginal peoples had been in Australia for over 50 000 years. The land that Captain James Cook described as 'terra nullius' (belonging to no one) had belonged to the Aboriginal peoples for a very long time. The 'White' view of Australian history is one of settlement, expansion, exploration, growth and Federation. The 'Black' view of history is one of invasion, disease, resistance, death and destruction of a way of life.

Before 1788 and the arrival of the First Fleet, Indigenous people lived all over Australia and the islands around it. Those who live on the Islands to the north of Australia are known as Torres Strait Islanders. Those known as Aboriginal peoples, who lived in mainland Australia and Tasmania, were not one large, united group, but rather, over 500 separate groups, with their own languages and subcultures. The word 'Aboriginal' is not even an Indigenous word. It was used by the Europeans to describe the original inhabitants of Australia. Each group had their own name for their people - some of the Indigenous peoples from around Sydney call themselves Kooris, not Aboriginal. See image 1

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip was under instruction to treat the 'native peoples' well and not to harm them in any way. The Aboriginal people had never seen white men before and initially believed them to be ghosts or demons, but they eventually became less afraid of them and began to make cautious contact. At the start, relations between the two groups were good - there was still fear on both sides and misunderstandings did happen, but some close relationships were formed. See image 2

In an attempt to increase interaction between the new colony and the Aboriginal people, Governor Phillip ordered that some of them be taken hostage and brought to live in the Port Jackson settlement. Phillip also believed that in bringing Aboriginal people into closer contact with white culture, they could be made to accept European ways. The settlers believed that the Indigenous people were little more than savages, who had to be educated in the 'proper' ways of living. Two of the most famous Indigenous hostages were Bennelong and Colebee. They were encouraged to wear clothes, learn table manners and attend Christian church services. The hope was that they would bring these ideas back into their own community - the reality was when they went back to their own community, they would leave the white man's trappings behind them. See image 3

It was the issue of the land and how it was used by both groups that led to the good relationships breaking down into violence. As the colony in Port Jackson began to increase in size, it encroached more and more on to Indigenous land. Many of the ex-convicts and ex-soldiers were given land grants as a way of keeping people in the new colony. The land was given to them irrespective of the Indigenous use of it. Not only were the white settlers fencing off land, chopping down trees and grazing sheep, they were also destroying sacred sites and traditional hunting grounds.

A huge component of the Aboriginal people's culture involves living in harmony with the land. Their spiritual beliefs and customs are based on the concept of the 'Dreamtime' of creation and how the land was formed. The Indigenous population of Australia knew the land. They lived with it, not on top of it. The Europeans saw the land in the context of money and who it belonged to - Aboriginal people saw it in a much more spiritual way. They had a relationship with the land that the white men could not and did not want to understand. As the white settlers pushed out further from Port Jackson they were further invading the land and sacred spaces of the local Indigenous tribes.

Apart from bringing new ideas on how the Aboriginal people should live, the Europeans also brought something much more deadly with them - disease. Many of the diseases that the settlers brought with them were unknown in Australia before the arrival of the First Fleet. This meant the Indigenous people had no natural immunity to them, especially to smallpox. A smallpox epidemic broke out among the Eora people who lived around the white settlement at Port Jackson. The epidemic killed half of the Eora and then spread to other Indigenous groups in the area. In many cases the diseases spread further and faster than the white settlers. 45 years later when Europeans arrived on what is now the south coast of Victoria, they found Aboriginal people with smallpox scars. Influenza, measles and even the common cold also helped to kill a large part of the Indigenous population of Australia.

It is impossible to know how many Indigenous people were in Australia before the arrival of the first white settlers, but it has been estimated to be anywhere between 300 000 and one million. By Federation in 1901 that number had dropped to as few as 20 000. Since then the number of people who identify themselves as Indigenous has began to grow, and the Indigenous community now has the highest birth rate out of any group in Australia.


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1. In what year did the First Fleet arrive in Australia?






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