Australian Aboriginal history

Aboriginal history is not just the Dreaming - current events leave their mark in Indigenous history and are equally important.

Selected statistics

2,000 to 3,000
Number of settlers, police and soldiers who died in colonial conflict.
Number of Aboriginal people who died in colonial conflict.

List of articles

Aboriginal history: Omitted, brushed over, changed

"Australian history started with Captain Cook," is what a lot of people, even today, tell me when asked what they learned at school. Secondary history books, published just a few years back, sometimes brush over Indigenous history in twelve pages only.

Until we get it right with the teaching of Aboriginal history, then I don't think that we can pretend to be Australians together.

— Dr Jackie Huggins, Indigenous educator, author and activist

In the 1950s Aboriginal history was virtually absent from school curricula. Historian Henry Reynolds remembers well how he learned about the frontier violence from students—not books.

“The extraordinary thing was that as I became every day aware of the whole question of Indigenous Australians... there was nothing in the book. I mean, the Aborigine [sic] didn’t even make the index. They weren’t in the history.”

It's a view that author Marcia Langton can relate to. "When I studied history at the ANU [Australian National University] in the 1970s there was still a widely held view, and I think it was the conventional view, that there was no Aboriginal history," she remembers.

Things changed in the 1980s, but not by much. At least Aboriginal history was not denied entirely. "When I went to high school in Tasmania in the late 1980s, we skipped across the state’s original inhabitants in one lesson. The teacher said Tasmanian Aborigines were no more," remembers Melissa Fyfe, a senior writer for Good Weekend magazine in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Former Liberal Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman agrees. "It was almost like a silent part of our lives. We didn’t really get anything near an accurate picture of our state’s history."

Some governments attempt to keep that accurate picture away from us. When historian Anna Clark researched curriculum documents issued in the 1990s by successive Labor and conservative governments, she discovered that Labor's documents described colonisation as a "European invasion" while, less than two years later, the conservative documents labelled it a "British settlement". History, she concluded, is "something we do".

There is the truism, ‘Australia’s history is never read, the black man keeps it in his head.’ White Australians ensured it remained there.

— John Pilger, journalist and author

Today more and more Aboriginal people are telling Aboriginal history. And when they do, Captain Cook doesn't matter much. What they want you to know it what happened to them: the frontier wars, the massacres, the taking of their children, the loss of their lands. They want you to understand, and be able to empathise with, their history of destruction, pain and suffering. They want truth-telling.

Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments ... they embrace them.

— Joe Biden, US President

Until we are mature enough to embrace First Nations people and their knowledge, we won’t be able to really shine as a nation.

— Kim McKay, CEO, Australian Museum, Sydney

Definition: Black-armband history

“Black armband” is a term coined by the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and later used by the former prime minister John Howard.

Critics use it to refer to a desire to place undue emphasis on unsavoury and violent aspects of Australian history at the expense of the positives of European settlement.

How many Aboriginal nations existed prior to invasion?

We probably will never know for sure. Some estimate that between 500 and 600 nations existed prior to invasion.

Have we learned nothing from history?

In 2020, after four years of investigation, Major General Paul Brereton AM, a judge of the NSW Court of Appeal and a senior officer in the Australian Army Reserve, published a report that detailed the actions of some of Australia’s most elite soldiers in Afghanistan.

What members of Australia's Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) had done in Afghanistan is strikingly similar to what settlers and colonisers did to Aboriginal people. The following table offers a comparison.

The question is: Have we not learned from our more recent history? Would this not happen if we acknowledged our dark past, told the truth and compensated the victims?

Violence then and now
Violence and murderKillings for no reason, mutilations expecting death, cover-up of incidents and details"Unlawful killings, blood lust, a broken culture and cover-up."

Records were modified to cover violence, or destroyed to prevent Aboriginal people from claiming their rightful wages

"Operational reports were allegedly sanitised to make it appear as though special forces were complying with the laws of engagement."
AccountabilityPolice and law enforcement often did not respond to reports of killings, or worse, were complicit in committing crimes."Special forces saw themselves as above reproach, ... had a sense they were elite, entitled and beyond the scrutiny of those outside the fence."
JusticeJudges and courts, but also police, did not give weight to, or considered, the Aboriginal side and in most cases decided for the settler side."Early assessors of complaints generally approached their task as being to collect evidence to refute a complaint, rather than examine the incident fairly and dispassionately."

The last mission in New South Wales

In July 2010 Warangesda Mission and Station received heritage listing. The station, just outside Darlington Point in the Riverina District of New South Wales, is located about 630 kms south-west of Sydney.

Warangesda Mission is the only mission left in NSW that still has a suite of original buildings. The heritage area includes the mission block and cemetery.

Warangesda is the last known location of an initiation ceremony for the local Aboriginal population and the site of a strike in 1883. At its peak it was home to more than 200 Aboriginal people.


The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) highlights almost 60 years of life on missions and reserves with their collection of digitised copies of two magazines (Our AIM and Australian Evangel). Published by the Aborigines Inland Missions of Australia, they reveal the hidden histories of the lives of thousands of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal history resources

Browse Aboriginal history books or check out my large collection of Aboriginal movies.

Or explore the online collection of the State Library of NSW which has a separate section on Aboriginal history.

A very good resource is the Aboriginal-owned website The Koori History Project which has articles, cartoons and videos about significant historic events.

Native American history mirrors Australia's

It is fascinating how similar history is in these two different countries.

Australia and the United States share a history of white supremacy. Both were founded as invading settler colonies whose existence depended on driving indigenous peoples from their lands. Both denied political and economic rights to indigenous people, whose labour was exploited. And both countries adopted restrictive immigration laws to keep their national complexions white. And in both countries non-indigenous people continue to offend by using blackface to make themselves look indigenous.

Shared history
IssueAustraliaNorth America
European explorer claiming the land.James Cook (UK)Christopher Columbus (Spain)
Public holiday commemorating explorer.Australia DayColumbus Day
Main direction of invasion across the continent.East to westEast to west
Indigenous peoples resist invasion.Black WarsTrail of Tears
Children are taken away and abused.Stolen GenerationsResidential Schools
An illness devastates the indigenous peoples.SmallpoxSmallpox, Measles (said to have killed more Native Americans than the army)
Attempt to assimilate indigenous people.In missionsIn reservations
Indigenous people become citizens of their own land.19671924
The first census that counts indigenous people.19711870
Slavery and exploitation.In denialUncomfortably aware of its slavery history
Document giving indigenous people more freedomExemption Certificate, "dog tags", "dog licenses"Identity card, Dompas (literally meaning the "dumb pass")
Government prefers to addresspoverty over self-determinationpoverty over self-determination

If you know another similarity, please let me know!


View article sources (1)

[1] [1a] 'Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood', The Guardian 10/3/2014

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Australian Aboriginal history, <>, retrieved 20 July 2024

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