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Expanding Colonization, Colonial-Aboriginal Conflict

Flinders Island, colonial arms, Governor Macquarie, Stolen Generation, sheep stations

Phillip’s initial settlement at Sydney brought him into contact with Aboriginal people, many of whom used the surrounding lands as their campsites and hunting domains. The governor had sought “to conciliate their affections,” and relatively few major confrontations took place between colonists and indigenous people in the first decade. As more settlers arrived, however, conflict intensified. On the mainland, the Aboriginal communities were forced to retreat into the drier interior as graziers sought lands for their sheep runs. In the early 1820s troops were deployed near Bathurst, northwest of Sydney, in response to reports of an “exterminating war” between graziers and Aboriginal people. Conflicts were deadliest in Van Diemen’s Land, where in 1828 Lieutenant Governor Arthur proclaimed martial law in an attempt to drive Aboriginal people from the settled districts. Unable to overcome colonial arms and fears, and despite the official British policy of protection, the 5,000 Aboriginal people of the island were quickly reduced to a tiny remnant confined to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

In principle, the official colonial policy throughout the 19th century was to treat the Aboriginal people as equals, with the intention of eventually converting them to Christianity and European civilization. Governor Macquarie even established a school for Aboriginal children. Although official policy stressed good intentions, such acts were frequently not supported and were sometimes even actively resisted.

In the 1830s and 1840s Christian missions and protectorates were established throughout Australia, and many Aboriginal people were sent to them. The protectorates were created under British legislation requiring the protection of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire. They were often formed under religious auspices, although most later came under state control. Mission life had a profound and lasting impact on the lives of Aboriginal families. Many, if not most, Aboriginal people lived under the influence of the missions, which in the early 20th century became the main conduit for Aboriginal children being fostered or adopted into white families. (In recent years many of these adoptees, known as the Stolen Generation, have sought redress for the loss of parental contact and Aboriginal identity.)

The clash between whites and Aboriginal people was especially severe on the frontier. In the 1830s and 1840s, as settlers pushed inland, some Aboriginal people were employed on sheep stations, and others were used for police patrols, but even some active church efforts to serve and educate the Aboriginal people did not stabilize race relations. White settlers sometimes poisoned and hunted Aboriginal people and abused and exploited Aboriginal women and children. The primary causes of the catastrophic decline in Aboriginal population, however, were probably European-introduced diseases such as smallpox and measles, malnutrition, and alcoholism and its associated violence. Between 1788 and 1930 the Aboriginal population fell from as many as 500,000 to less than 100,000. By the 20th century Aboriginal people living in their traditional way were largely confined to remote areas of the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia. Not until the 1950s did the Aboriginal population begin to inch back to its level prior to European contact, and not until the 1970s did the federal government begin to review and correct past policies.

Article key phrases:

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