Australia in the 1820s

Black Wars

Between 1828 and 1832 conflicts between Indigenous peoples in Van Diemen's Land and the settlers were so frequent that the press referred to the conflict as the 'Black Wars'. It was a war over Aboriginal land that the colonisers had claimed under the British law of terra nullius, meaning 'land belonging to no-one'.

Another example of resistance was the Wiradjuri people of the Bathurst region, who were led by resistance leader Windradyne, a young Wiradjuri man who was renowned for his cunning strategies and strength. In 1824, Governor Brisbane declared martial law on the Bathurst Plains. Soldiers moved through the country and Indigenous people were indiscriminately shot in an attempt to remove them from the area. On 28 December, after two months of massacres, Windradyne led his family and a number of survivors into Parramatta, where he was apprehended.

There were many massacres of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the majority of which were never recorded in writing, although oral histories were passed down. One massacre reported by George Robinson (1791–1866), the future Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, is known as the Cape Grim massacre. In February 1828, four shepherds killed 30 Pennemukeer people. In response, Governor Arthur banned Aboriginal people from entering the settled districts of Van Diemen's Land. He claimed that this would prevent conflict between the two groups. The following November, Governor Arthur declared martial law against Aboriginal people, authorising the killing of Aboriginal people on sight. Although Tasmanian Aboriginal groups fought back it is believed that more than 60 per cent of the total Aboriginal population of Tasmania was killed in the 12 months after martial law was declared. Of the remaining Aboriginal population, many were moved into camps that have been compared to concentration camps, where conditions were so horrific that many did not survive.

The term 'Black Wars' has sometimes been used to refer to other conflicts between colonists and Indigenous groups in Australia. There has also been some controversy over the use of the term 'war' as no official war declaration was made and only the colonists were fully equipped for war. It has also been referred to as civil war, occupation, murder or genocide.

George Frankland (1800–1838), the Surveyor-General of Van Diemen's Land, suggested presenting Aboriginal peoples with official orders in pictures to communicate their laws to Indigenous groups. The orders supposedly promoted equal justice and equality before the law for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Sets of oil-painted wooden boards illustrating what would happen to both an Aboriginal person and a colonist if they attacked one another were nailed to trees. It indicated that if either one killed the other they would be hanged. At the time, many Aboriginal people had been hanged for killing an English colonist, but no English colonist had been hanged for killing an Indigenous person.

A snapshot of 1828

  • February
    • The Cape Grim massacre took place in Van Diemen's Land.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became Surveyor-General following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • Australia's first bank robbery took place. The robbers broke into the vault of the Bank of Australia in Sydney.
    • The holey dollar currency was withdrawn from circulation.

  • November
    • Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur declared martial law against Aboriginal peoples in the settled districts of Van Diemen's Land.
    • The first census was held in New South Wales, showing that 24 per cent of the total population was born in the colony. Children under 12 years comprised only 16 per cent of the total European population. The Indigenous population was not included.


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