Australia History: Devastation of the Aborigines

When Sydney Cove was first settled by the British, it is believed there were about 300,000 Aboriginal people in Australia and around 250 different languages, many as distinct from each other as English is from Chinese. Tasmania alone had eight languages, and tribes living on opposite sides of present-day Sydney Harbour spoke mutually unintelligible languages.

In such a society, based on family groups with an egalitarian political structure, a coordinated response to the European colonizers was not possible. Despite the presence of the Aboriginal people, the newly arrived Europeans considered the new continent to be terra nullius - a land belonging to no-one.

Conveniently, they saw no recognizable system of government, no commerce or permanent settlements and no evidence of landownership. (Had there been such systems, and if the Aboriginal people had offered coordinated resistance, the English might have been forced to legitimize their colonization by entering into a treaty with the Aboriginal landowners, as happened in New Zealand with the Treaty of Waitangi.)

Many Aboriginal people were driven from their land by force, and many more succumbed to exotic diseases such as smallpox, measles, venereal disease, influenza, whooping cough, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Others voluntarily left their lands to travel to the fringes of settled areas to obtain new commodities such as steel and cloth, and experience hitherto unknown drugs such as tea, tobacco and alcohol.

The delicate balance between Aboriginal people and nature was broken, as the European invaders cut down forests and introduced numerous feral and domestic animals - by 1860 there were 20 million sheep in Australia. Sheep and cattle destroyed water holes and ruined the habitats which had for tens of thousands of years sustained mammals, reptiles and vegetable foods. Many species of plants and animals disappeared altogether.

There was still considerable conflict between Aboriginal people and White settlers. Starving Aboriginal people speared sheep and cattle and then suffered fierce reprisal raids which often left many dead. For the first 100 years of 'settlement' very few Europeans were prosecuted for killing Aboriginal people, although the practice was widespread.

In many parts of Australia, Aboriginal people defended their lands with desperate guerrilla tactics. Warriors including Pemulwy, Yagan, Dundalli, Jandamarra (known to the Whites as 'Pigeon') and Nemarluk were feared by the colonists for a time, and some settlements had to be abandoned. Until the 1850s, when Europeans had to rely on inaccurate and unreliable flintlock rifles, Aboriginal people sometimes had the benefit of superior numbers, weapons and tactics.

However, with the introduction of breach-loading repeater rifles in the 1870s, armed resistance was quickly crushed (although on isolated occasions into the 1920s, Whites were still speared in central and northern Australia). Full-blood Aboriginal people in Tasmania were wiped out almost to the last individual, and Aboriginal society in southern Australia suffered terribly. Within 100 years of European settlement all that was left of traditional Aboriginal society consisted of relatively small groups in central and northern Australia.