An artist's depiction showing Aboriginal and European settlers in a sight in Tasmania, Australia.

How European Colonization Affected the Aboriginal Australians

The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were Australia’s first people, the original Australians or First Nations, and British colonization led to their near extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is still being reported that the present-day generation of Aboriginals faces discrimination.

The First Nations arrived in Northern Australia about 75,000 years ago. The common theory is that they arrived on the island from Southeast Asia in primitive boats. This makes them the oldest population of humans living outside of Africa.

In 2017, a study of 111 Aboriginal Australians showed they all shared a common ancestor from a distinct population of first inhabitants.

Additionally, their culture is the oldest surviving culture in the world. They continued a stone tool technology that dates to the earliest inhabitants.

Throughout their evolution, the people did not experience an Iron Age or Bronze Age or use the terms “Palaeolithic” or “Neolithic”. As a result, their stone technology progressed differently than the rest of the world, thus highlighting the distinctiveness of their culture.

Like many other religions, the Aboriginals believe that a god or gods brought forth the creation of both humans and the environment during the time known as the “Creation Period” at the dawn of time.

The Creation Period is when the deities created landforms, plants and animals. Aboriginals interpret their dreams as memories of what happened during the Creation Period, where ‘Dreamtime’ describes events of the Creation Period. The Aboriginal culture is full of legends about the Creation Period, often with lessons or a moral tale.

The British Empire in Australia

An artist's depiction of when European settlers arrived in Autralia, with James Cook and his men putting a flag in the land to claim it for Great Brittain.
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During the Age of Exploration, Europeans discovered and mapped Australia’s land. The explorers came from Spain, the Netherlands and England.

However, it wasn’t until Captain James Cook’s first Pacific voyage in 1770 was the land thoroughly explored. He claimed the land for Great Britain and named it New South Wales. When he returned, he reported that the land was suitable for growing various crops.

His reports also made the land suitable as a penal colony to settle and reform convicts. After losing their North American colonies, Australia acted as their replacement.

On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established the first colony with 11 ships carrying convicts. Based on their skills, the convicts’ assigned work planted the seed of the first European settlement to colonise the Australian continent.

There were times when Great Britain sent criminals who committed minor crimes and unwanted citizens to the penal colony.

In the next five years, more settlers arrived that weren’t convicts.

As the British Empire expanded on the Australian continent, they formed six colonies in 70 years. In 1784, they formed New South Wales; in 1828, Tasmania; in 1829, Western Australia; in 1836, South Australia; in 1851, Victoria; and in 1859, Queensland.

These later became states of the Australian Commonwealth.

The First Nations Reactions

The First Nations reacted just as any civilization would when unknown people from a different land claimed theirs: with aggression. They wanted to make the Europeans leave to protect their land.

Over time, the Aboriginals realised the superiority of the settlers’ weapons. They fled the settlers’ areas, now known as Sydney. Many Aboriginals tried to include European settlers in their way of life. Still, the settlers had their own way and negated the Aboriginal’s traditional way, unless it related to the escaped convicts.

It’s evident that the Aboriginals highly respected the land. How early settlers treated the land made the Aboriginals believe they were greedy, selfish and lacked respect for the land. Certain tribes couldn’t understand the need to destroy the land to live. This angered them and led to many conflicts.

European settlers attacked the First Nations. Reports state that they killed the elderly, women and children while the men hunted.

To retaliate, the First Nations’ warriors used fire to destroy the settlers’ infrastructure, such as their farms. Many were caught, imprisoned and chained with metal collars and shackles.

As the settlers expanded, they destroyed more land and sacred sites, resulting in more conflicts, destruction and deaths.


Captain Phillip and the First Fleet arrived with not only people, innovations and lifestyles but with diseases. The diseases included smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza, measles and the common cold.

The sexual exploitation and abuse of First Nations women and girls led to the spread of venereal diseases.

In 1789, the First Nations experienced a smallpox outbreak that took many lives.

The First Nations population decreased by 90% within the next ten years.

As the settlements grew, so did the First Nations’ exposure to new diseases. They tried traditional medicines to fight the diseases, but those proved unsuccessful because they weren’t strong enough. Additionally, the settlers destroyed many resources usually found on the land to relieve illnesses.


First Nations fell into two categories: those who worked for settlers and those who maintained their traditional way of life. Both suffered.

The new industries brought to Australia, such as businesses and livestock farms, needed workers. The First Nations that worked for settlers received a daily payment of flour, sugar, tea and occasional meat bits. These were basic rations that needed to be improved compared to traditional diets. For some, rations were added to other food found on the land. For others, it was all they had.

Those that tried to maintain the traditional way of life suffered because of the settlers’ developments, which soon destroyed their land and food supply. They couldn’t hunt or gather food. The construction destroyed or removed trees and plants, dirtied waterways and forced large animals to flee at the sight of a growing settler population.

These factors led to the deaths of families and friends and aided in the loss of links of past generations and the spirit for life.

Cultural Misunderstandings

The First Nations continuously resisted the European settlers. These disputes often led to more deaths by the tens of thousands of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders by mass shootings or driving groups of cliffs. Settlers’ deaths were only by the thousands. There are even accounts of settlers giving First Nations foods laced with arsenic and other poisons.

Cultural misunderstandings were one of the reasons for mass killings.

For example, the Coniston Massacre, the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal Australians.

In 1928, the dismembered body of Fred Brooks, a white dingo trapper, lay in a shallow grave surrounded by traditional Aboriginal weapons. A reprisal party of white civilians and police formed and was led on horseback by Constable George Murray.

For several months, the reprisal party killed 60 Aboriginal men, women and children at different sites in the Central Desert region. They arrested two men for the murder who were later acquitted of the crime. Eyewitnesses pointed to Kamalyarrpa Japanangka, also known as Bullfrog, as the killer.

Bullfrog killed Brooks because he broke the Warlpiri marriage laws. Although Brooks didn’t have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander wife, first-person accounts said he placed demands on Bullfrog’s wife. Secondary reports suggest that he sexually assaulted one of Bullfrog’s wives.

Breaking Aboriginal laws is a punishable offence. Therefore, Bullfrog saw that he acted lawfully, which led to the deaths of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kayletye people.

The Stolen Generations

A black and white photograph of the half-white, half-Aboriginal children in their makeshift living conditions in the institutions in Australia.
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Between the 1910s and 1970s, because of the new government policies, officials forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families as part of their plan and attempted to assimilate them into white society.

In the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, each scene shows what the stolen children faced while they were kept in the institutions, from being taken from their families to the outcome of their fight for survival.

Based on a true story, the film tells of two sisters and their cousin who lived and learnt in an institution and their plan and will to escape. It depicts their journey after escaping from the institution, the people that helped them and what happened to all three by the 1970s.

A.O. Neville is a particular figure in the Aboriginal children’s assimilation, portrayed in the film by Sir Kenneth Branagh.

A.O. Neville

Auber O. Neville (1875 – 1954) was the Chief Protector of Aborigines who helped shape Aboriginal policies in Western Australia. He supported the ‘absorption’ policy of those that were half-Aboriginal, or ‘half-castes’.

During his term, he tried to control the population of half-castes. Many claimed that the assimilation of mixed children, half-white and half-Aboriginal, was a favourable method into white society. Their lighter skin led to the belief that they had a more substantial chance to adapt and, as a result, were forcibly taken from their families.

Additionally, the children dubbed Neville the ‘Devil’. Instead of protecting them, he hurt them by separating families.

Many of the children didn’t realize they were taken. They were told their birth parents were abusive, had died, or abandoned them. Even outside the institution, they never knew or found their birth families.

The common assumption is that their lives would be better if they were part of white society. The First Nations would ‘die out’ through natural elimination by assimilation.

The Stolen Children

After being taken from their homes, the children were put in institutions where they faced abuse and neglect.

Nuns taught them to reject their heritage and forced them to adopt white culture. The nuns changed the children’s names and forbade them from speaking their native languages. The children resided in highly-controlled living conditions, cold and hungry; faced harsh and frequent punishments; and received little to no affection.

During their baths, the nuns scrubbed the children’s bodies hard to scrub away the darker pigment of their skin. Pastors would check if their skin lightened every week. If it did, Neville placed them as second-class citizens in white society or adopted them by white families.

The children developed high rates of depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress, suicide, poor health, and socio-economic outcomes. The adopted families psychologically, physically and sexually abused them, giving them lifelong trauma.

After learning to reject their culture, many felt ashamed of their First Nations roots, stories and legends. They disconnected from their culture and didn’t pass it on to their children.

They received low-level education and became manual labourers and domestic servants, which led to their lifelong economic issues. The Stolen Generations couldn’t even assist their own children with schoolwork and a decent education.

The future generations of the Stolen Generations survivors are at risk of Intergenerational Trauma. The disconnection from their extended family and culture results in stress that can pass down from generation to generation.

Aboriginals Today

A photograph of Aboroginal chhildren in Australia, taken in modern days, of them sitting on a fence while the sun sets.
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There are approximately 40,000 Aboriginals in Australia and, according to reports, they continue to face oppression.

The United Nations drafted reports on Australia’s lack of effort to improve the current Aboriginal rates of suicide, incarceration, health and education.

Aboriginal Australians live in rural and remote areas, primarily in run-down city districts. One or more families commonly live in one household, mainly due to the high birth rate. It can also be seen as part of their tradition of hospitality. Their homes are open to families and friends.

Unemployment is a significant problem due to racism and poor education. Many work for accommodation, reasonable and low income. The majority depend on unemployment benefits and welfare. This leads to prejudice among non-Aboriginal Australians that Aboriginals live off the government and don’t attempt to look for a job.

It is an unfortunate and sobering truth that many Indigenous children residing in Australia have been unable to attend school regularly, or in some cases, at all, due to various financial constraints or a flawed education system. This widespread issue has had a detrimental impact on Aboriginal Australians, with persistently high levels of unemployment being a direct result of the limited access to education for this marginalized community.

Numerous government programs have aided tens of thousands of Aboriginal students in their educational endeavors.

There have been wrongful deaths and unlawful arrests and detention of Aboriginals. Reports state that questions go unanswered, leaving families and friends heartbroken by not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Some believe that colonialism played a role in advancing the lives of Indigenous people, providing them with innovations, education, medical care, and improved clothing to help them combat the elements.

Others argue that colonialism caused significant harm to the land and indigenous culture, and many believe that past wrongs have not been fully addressed. This is exemplified by how some people view Australia Day on January 26th, which they call ‘Invasion Day‘.

The changes made accommodate different races, cultures and faiths. However, it’s near impossible when one feels the past never ended.

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.

-Aboroginal Australian proverb.

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