Early Resistance

We were not passive actors in the colonisation of Australia. Resistance to the invasion began almost immediately, using small-scale guerrilla tactics against the heavily armed British. Early colonial newspapers labelled such hit-and-run strategies as ‘treacherous’ and colonial authorities declared martial law.

Early attacks were against single transgressors and individuals on a local level. This was a reflection of our various systems of governance and control over land, established over thousands of years, where small groups were responsible for specific regions and tracts of land. It was not until the early 1810s in Tasmania (1830s in New South Wales and 1840s in Victoria) that we became more unified and pan-Aboriginal resistance across local groups was organised.

Accounts of large-scale frontier conflict have been documented by nineteenth-century historians and commentators. In 1852 John West provided extended and detailed accounts of white brutality in History of Tasmania. G. W. Rusden’s History of Australia (1897) and Ernest Scott’s popular A Short History of Australia (1916) noted the ‘sheer brutality and treacherous murder by white settlers and their convict servants’. Despite this recognition, settlers were rarely brought to account for their actions.

Eventually our forces were weakened by a combination of factors. In the late 1800s, we faced increasing numbers of British military forces with their better guns and the raids of the Native Police, while also suffering increased losses of life from disease brought by the colonists and reduced access to shelter and food.

Invasion of the Torres Strait took three forms: pearl shell fishermen, missionaries and colonists. In the 1870s European vessel masters came to the islands seeking the pearl shell that had been discovered in the 1860s. Their crews were often armed and islanders were overwhelmed with women being abducted, gardens raided and men co-opted for work. Additionally, the islands were infiltrated by Christian missionaries in the 1870s and were legally annexed to the colony of Queensland in the 1870s.

Protection Acts

Aware of the effects of violence, diseases and removal from their land, the colonial government believed that Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction.

Under the guise of 'protection' for their ‘remaining years’, the lives of Aboriginal people were controlled and constrained by laws called Aboriginal Protection Acts. Protection Acts were passed in every state following Victoria’s Aboriginal Protection Act in 1869. By 1881, New South Wales had an Aboriginal Protector and later a Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Protection Acts reduced the legal status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to wards of the state with members of the Protection Boards as their legal guardians. They operated until the second half of the twentieth century, controlling the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

a one hundred dollar note

One Hundred Dollar Note Dundalli Commemorative from the 2010 series Blood Money by Aboriginal artist, Ryan Presley Courtesy Jan Manton Art. Photo © Ryan Presley.

Dundalli (1820–1855), referred to by David Lowe as a ‘forgotten rebel’, was an important Aboriginal leader born in the Blackall Range in Queensland. In the time of settlement of Brisbane Dundalli emerged as a guerilla leader, bringing together the people of Wide Bay and Moreton Bay in an alliance to fight the spreading settlement. He is said to have been responsible for attacking a station near Brisbane, and then leading an action that temporarily cut the main dray road connecting the town with the outside world, causing a military post to be established on the road at Helidon (near modern Toowoomba).

Source: Forgotten Rebels: Black Australians who fought back by David Lowe.


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Native Police

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Preview of 'Pemulwuy: A war of two laws'. Produced by Grant Saunders, a Biripi man.

'Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws 'is a two-part documentary series that explores the story of Pemulwuy — a traditional Bidgigal warrior who led a twelve-year guerrilla war of payback against the soldiers and settlers of the British colony at Sydney Cove who stole land, food resources, and kidnapped and killed Bidgigal women.

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Aboriginal police and police trackers played important roles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in colonial Australia. Seen by some today as traitors, our people’s involvement with policing was an adaptation to changing circumstances on the frontier.

The native police forces were all male, but both men and women worked as trackers, and used their bush expertise when the need arose. They were usually given a token payment, plus rations for their families.

The first ‘native police’ began work in 1837 in Victoria. Paramilitary in nature, they were provided with uniforms and horses and cooperated with the colonisers, deterring attacks on pastoral properties. They also captured non-Indigenous offenders and later provided service on the gold diggings and the transport of gold back to Melbourne.

The native police were selective about whom they chose to track, pursuing people from other Aboriginal groups but claiming not to be able to follow the tracks of their own people.

The New South Wales and Queensland native police had a reputation for violence. They were ordered to ‘disperse’ any large groups of Aboriginal people, which was understood and acknowledged by senior police as shooting them, and preventing them from meeting and engaging in ceremonies.

In the Northern Territory, some Aboriginal people who were imprisoned were offered shorter sentences in return for their agreeing to work. Aboriginal people were forbidden to have guns, but some took up weapons and carried out attacks against their enemies. On occasions, they were blamed for attacks on Aboriginal people by non-Indigenous police.

Source: Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991, National Report, Vol. 2, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), ACT.