Dispossession and Impact
Massacre Map, Victoria 1836-1850 Depicting the number of aboriginal people killed by white settlers.
For Aboriginal people the place now known as 'Victoria' has been home since the beginning of time. Archaeological evidence reveals a connection extending beyond 40,000 years. Ancestors of today’s communities witnessed volcanic eruptions of Tapook (Mt. Napier) in the west. They also hunted giant kangaroos and worried over the rising seas, which marked the end of the last Ice Age.
Today, Aboriginal concerns are about self-determination, restoring their lands and living their culture.
It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages, lived throughout 'Victoria' when Europeans arrived in 1835. The rapid colonisation resulted in a devastating loss of languages, traditions and lives. During this violent period of Victorian history, families were forced off their lands and on to missions. These were bitter-sweet places. They were a home and haven from the violence but also a place where there was little choice except conformity with Christianity and Western ways. Ironically, it was from these missions that well-known activists rose to fight for better conditions for their people.
Today well over 25,000 Aboriginal people live throughout Victoria, and this number is growing. (Parks Victoria 2009).
Indigenous people, the original custodians of Victoria, have lived on and looked after the land for at least 50,000 years, or a few thousand generations. Through this period, Victoria’s Indigenous people developed complex traditional cultures. Over thirty different dialect or sub-language groups (formerly called tribes) spoke about ten separate languages. Each dialect group contained half a dozen or more clans. They developed a rapport with their lands and water that goes to the core of their existence and identity. Laws and customs reflect this holistic relationship between the people and their environment. Language, family and trade determined traditional territories.
When first contact with Europeans occurred, a large number of tribal groups lived and cared for the country we now know as Victoria. Each territory was occupied by several inter-related family groups who shared a common language. Complex rituals and protocols governed the relationships between groups living in adjacent tribal territories. Except in times of environmental stress (such as drought) or when groups were invited into other tribal territories, the occupants of each territory were expected to live, hunt and forage within their own tribal boundaries.
The precise boundaries of tribal group territories are not known. Many maps have been produced by historians but none of them are correct, for many reasons that history can explain. Native title determination is seeking to record agreed-upon boundaries.
Since 1788, thousands of Aboriginal people have been killed, died from introduced diseases, or have been dispossessed of and removed from their traditional lands.
Colonisation by European settlers and pastoralists of Aboriginal lands in Victoria during the 19th century resulted in numerous conflicts, reduction in the availability of food and other resources, and the introduction of new diseases which killed hundreds of people. Conflict over land resulted in deaths of both Aboriginal people and European settlers, and in some cases led to the massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children. Gippsland Massacres: The Destruction of the Kurnai tribes 1800-1860 by P.D. Gardiner, 2001, Ngarak Press
Within a period of 42 years from the date of the British settlers’ arrivals in Gippsland in 1839, the Aboriginal people of Gippsland had all but been wiped out. In 1877, a Royal Commission indicated there were only 140 still alive out of the original 1,500 or so. The total population figure for Victoria also fell from an estimated 11,500 to 806 during the period 1834-1886.
Consequently, Aboriginal people found it difficult to maintain their way of life, and in many places were forcibly evicted from their lands. Aboriginal people were forced to become part of the new colonial economy finding work as stock-hands and domestic servants, however, they were excluded from the wealth of Victoria’s growing economy and suffered for decades under policies that resulted in cultural, economic and social isolation. Many Aboriginal people were forced onto missions, government stations and reserves where they were forbidden to practice their language and culture.
In the 20th century, government policies further displaced Aboriginal people from their land and culture. Children were forcibly separated from their families and Aboriginal people were required to assimilate into wider Australian society.
Colonisation, dispossession and removal has had well-documented profound social, economic and cultural impacts on Aboriginal people. European settlement across Australia had different impacts in different places. In Victoria, and other parts of south-eastern Australia where climate and topography was much more suited to British adaptation and in particular the introduction of agriculture, the dispossession of land from Aboriginal people was comprehensive. Not only were Aboriginal people forcibly moved off their lands but they were deprived of their food and clothing sources, stopped from practising traditional hunting and burning. Colonists introduced animal and plant species which directly competed with native flora and fauna, and farming practices that involved massive land clearing and destruction of native animals and vegetation often used by Aboriginal people for food, clothing, artefacts and other materials. This also interfered with traditional Aboriginal trade networks.
Christie, M.F. Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835-1886, Uni Press, Sydney, 1979
Royal Commission on Aborigines, 1877