The British Empire

1815-1914

Aborinine resistance in Australia




In 1768 Captain Cook left Britain in the first of his three voyages to the Pacific area. These voyages between 1768 and 1779 were to lead to the development of geographical, scientific and sociological knowledge and to the enlightenment of the European races but his orders in going to the Pacific region were to seek out new territories which might be of some use to Britain. He had orders to declare British sovereignty over any territory that he found empty of people or not being used beneficially by native people. Cook was above all an agent of the Empire in an age when Britain was competing with France for European domination. New territories could bring useful strategic naval  ports or new crops and should be annexed to prevent the French from extending their own empire.


When Cook landed on the eastern coast of Australia he declared it terra nullus - land of no-one- and proceeded to annex it. Cook's colleague on the Endeavour, Joseph Banks,  was convinced that what he saw could be useful for future settlement by the British. He believed the soil and climate were ideal. The local people were not considered in this judgement as Cook described them as 'the most wretched people' in the world. Ten years later, after Cook had been killed in Tahiti, Banks urged the government to use Botany Bay as a penal colony. The American War had brought an end to the transportation of convicts to America and in the early 1780s there was a crime wave in Britain. Eventually the government were persuaded to accept Bank's suggestion of a penal colony in Australia and in January 1788 the first fleet with their cargo of prisoners, both male and female arrived, under the command of Captain Phillip who became the first Governor of Australia.


In the following years more and more convicts arrived but so also did settlers. Australian society was a very divided one with officials, guards and settlers being free and convicts definitely not free. As more and more settlers arrived, the demand for land grew and so settlers came into conflict with the local aboriginal people who in the early years of the colony tended to keep away from contact with the settlers, but as the frontier moved westwards, competition for land grew. Conflict with the aborigines grew but given the situation of the convicts there was also a constant threat of violence from the convicts many of whom were Irish Fenians and antagonistic to the British state.


In 1801 Governor Phillip described the 135 convicts who arrived as 'the most desperate and diabolical characters that could be selected'. He believed they were just waiting for a chance to escape. The following year fifteen did escape of who two  were recaptured and hanged on Norfolk Island. Two years later several hundred prisoners escaped from a farm north of Sydney, overpowered their officers hoping to capture Parramatta and then  move on to Sydney. They had no real plan as to what they might do then and that was always the dilemma for convicts. They were so far away from any other European community that it was unlikely they could escape to any where they could remain undiscovered. On this occasion martial law was declared and a force from the New South Wales corps was sent to intercept the escapees resulting in ten of the convicts being killed in a skirmish, some were recaptured and the remainder escaped. The new Governor, Governor King then decided to remove all potential Irish agitators to Norfolk Island.


In 1808 resistance to the authorities came not from convicts or local aboriginals but from within the forces of law and order. The New South Wales corps had been formed in 1791 as a police force  and a garrison force. It was manned by all sorts of rogues including army deserters. The officers had various privileges including land grants and liquor licences. When the Governor, Captain Bligh of Bounty fame, tried to act to curb the privileges of the corps and to restrict corruption within the corps, Bligh was taken prisoner and for two years the new colony was run by a rebel government. It was only with the arrival of a new Governor, Governor Lachlan MacQuarrie, that the rebellion came to an end.


In 1816 the first real resistance by local aboriginals took place along the Hawksbury River north of Sydney. With new settlements being established on their land, the local Dharuk people rose up and began attacking local settler farms. The colony's government had never attempted to negotiate land exchanges with the local people. Instead the policy was to drive the aboriginal people out of their land. Had the local people farmed and traded along European lines and with Europeans there might have been land sales as happened in New Zealand but the aboriginal were considered too savage and not making good use of their land.


In response to the attacks by the Dharuk people on new settlements, Governor MacQuarrie sent in three military units with orders to take few prisoners. It was not long before natives wee being hung from trees and the sight of aboriginals hanging from tress became a common sight in frontier lands. The three units spent three weeks hunting down Dharuk people. Where natives wre found they were usually killed straight away as when Captain Wallis found a group of natives and killed fourteen forcing others over a precipice. In one incident a woman had the top of her head sliced off and her child thrown into a fire.


In the 1820s native resistance grew as settlement spread especially in the Bathurst and  Hunter Valley areas. In 1824 martial law was declared in the area west of Mt York. This meant that farmers could shoot natives on sight with no questions asked. A death squad was even formed by the military governor of New South Wales to round up natives and summarily kill them.


Not all white settlers went along with the slaughter of aborigines in the 1820s. Two men who opposed the killings were the Reverend Threlkeld, head of a LMS mission, and Saxe Bannister, the colony's attorney general. Threlkeld described the attitude of many settlers as wanting to 'annihilate the race' of natives. He was up against the likes of farmers like William Cox who at a meeting sais that 'the best thing to do 'would be to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcases, which was all the good they were fit for.'


As more and more settlers arrived in the period after the Napoleonic Wars and as convicts served their time and stayed to become farmers themselves, the government just allocated land with little thought to the aborigines who regarded the land as theirs. When the government in 1826 allocated vast swathes of land west of the Hunter Valley as sheep farms and sent  in death squads to deal with any resistance, the aboriginal people who lived there, the Wonnarua and the  Wiradjuri rose up in rebellion. The commander of one such death squad, Lieutenant Lowe was brought to trial but found not guilty to the cheers of his friends in court. He was eventually sent to Tasmania to rejoin his regiment put down another aborigine rebellion - in Tasmania.


Tasmania was used as a penal colony just as New South Wales. When the first British group of 400 first arrived in 1803 there were about 7,000 aborigines and conflict between the two groups began almost as soon as the British arrived, the result of  convicts stealing food from local people. The following year 300 aborigines were fired upon by British soldiers with 50 aborigines killed. These early incidents resulted in a climate of fear and mistrust which led to intermittent violence. This violence was to escalate in the 1820s following an incident when six Europeans were speared to death and in retaliation 60 natives were killed by the military. The Governor, Colonel Arthur, declared martial law, giving settlers the right to kill natives without any fear of retribution. In an incident in 1828 thirty aborigines were massacred by convicts who then threw the survivors of a community over a cliff.


In 1830 Governor Arthur devised what to him seemed the perfect solution to the ongoing violence. He would capture the remaining aborigine population of 1,000 and send them into exile. Arthur asked the Colonial Office for more soldiers to effect his plan. The Colonial Secretary, SIr George Murray refused the request claiming that Arthur's plan would leave the aborigine people of Tasmania extinct and spoke of the need for humanity and the principles of justice. George believed that Arthur's policy would leave a stain on the British character, but did send more convicts who could be used in Arthur's plan.


Arthur's plan was to form a line of settlers and convicts that would stretch across Tasmania from one coast to another. This 'black' line would have someone every forty five yards and as the advanced southwards would, it was hope, trap the remaining aborigines, who could then be transported. For two months the line moved slowly until they reached the destination. At the end they caught just five men and a boy. Two of the party were shot. The remainder of the aborigines who might have been trapped were able to quietly move between the line and escape northwards.


With the failure of this scheme, Arthur asked Robinson, a Methodist Minister, to persuade the remaining aborigines to give themselves up peacefully.  By the end of 1834 most of the aborigine population had been rounded up and a hundred were persuaded to go to Flinders Island although many had already died in transit camps. Conditions on the island were so bad that in 1838 the survivors were transferred to Australia.


Perhaps the worst incident affecting native people in Australia happened in June 1838 when a group of aborigine women and children with a few men were attacked by a dozen labourers. They were tied up and then slaughtered with muskets and cutlasses before their bodies were thrown into a fire. The men involved were to be  tried and after a second trial were found guilty and seven men were hanged. This incident forced the authorities to reconsider he policy of turning a blind eye to the continual violence on the frontier. A Border Police Force was set up, although its aim was to protect the white settlers and not local people.


HMS Endeavour

Aborigines  have lived in Australia for over 40,000 years

Governor Philip raises the Union Flag in Sydney Harbour

The Governor’s House

The Hawksbury River

The Reverend Thelkeld

Governor Arthur of Tasmania

Tasmania after the forced removal of her native people

Captain Cook