Australia in the 1840s

The Frontier Wars

European settlement of Australia was not a peaceful process. For most Indigenous people it is described as an invasion of their land. As the British started to claim more and more land for farming, many battles were fought between the British colonisers and Aboriginal groups who were defending their country, their families and their livelihoods. Without the use of guns and horses, Indigenous warriors used guerrilla warfare to fight back.

In January 1840 a dispute broke out on the outskirts of Melbourne between the Wurundjeri people and a settler named James Anderson over a potato crop he had planted on Wurundjeri land. As the story goes, after a standoff between the two sides, the Wurundjeri were moved to Yering Station and an Elder, Jaga Jaga, was captured by troopers. In an effort to free Jaga Jaga, Wurundjeri warriors lured the troopers away so that another group of Wurundjeri led Jaga Jaga to safety. The Wurundjeri's actions caused no harm to the police, a fact commented on by Captain Henry Gisborne in dispatches to Governor Charles La Trobe (1801–1875).

During the decade, the Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, George Augustus Robinson (1791–1866), established 'Reserves' for Aboriginal people still living on their traditional lands. William Thomas (1793–1867), an assistant protector, established the first Government Protectorate Station at Narre Warren, 32 kilometres from Melbourne along Dandenong Creek. Aboriginal people were encouraged to 'settle' there and in return received blankets and food rations. The station was closed in 1843 and was then occupied by the Native Police Corps.

Traditionally, Aboriginal groups lived in separate defined areas and never needed to unite and fight as one group against a common enemy. But in 1841, Aboriginal people near the Murray River on the way to Adelaide combined to resist the taking of their land. In May, a party of 68 troopers and volunteers were sent to recover the sheep and drays that were believed to have been stolen by Aboriginal people in the area. The police expedition ended in the deaths of at least 35 Aboriginal people and is known as the Rufus River Massacre.

On 20 January 1842, two Tasmanian Aboriginal men, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, became the first people to be executed as the result of a judicial finding in Melbourne. They had been found guilty of murdering two whalers, regardless of scant evidence and their inability to provide statements to the court or to defend themselves. This prosecution was a result of their resistance to the establishment of new settlements from Dandenong to Western Port and South Gippsland districts. They launched an eight-week campaign that took three military expeditions to successfully subdue. They were finally tracked and captured with the help of Native Police. Approximately 5,000 people watched their hangings. An annual commemoration at the site of the executions takes place on 20 January in Melbourne.

The occupation of the northern pastoral frontier of New South Wales and Queensland from 1840 onwards again caused bitter racial violence as pastoralists moved deeper into Aboriginal lands. In 1847, the 40 remaining inhabitants of the Aboriginal settlement at Flinders Island, off the coast of Tasmania, were shifted to Oyster Cove south of Hobart Town and the Flinders Island settlement was closed down.

Indigenous Australians_1840

A snapshot of 1848

  • March
    • The Melbourne Hospital, the first public hospital, opened. It was renamed a century later as The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

  • April
    • An expedition headed by Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–48) set out from the Darling Downs to cross the continent of Australia travelling through its centre, but he and his expedition died en route, never to be found.
    • The first detachment of Native Police was transferred from New South Wales to Queensland under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Walker.

  • June
    • 120 Chinese migrants arrived from Amoy under an indenture system to work as shepherds in New South Wales.

  • August
    • The Cape Otway Lighthouse in Victoria was lit for the first time.
    • The Native Police Force in Queensland (sometimes called the Native Mounted Police) was formed.

  • December
    • John Roe (1797–1878) and Augustus Charles Gregory (1819–1905) explored the north-eastern areas of Western Australia.
    • German and Hungarian refugees arrived in the colony having fled political upheaval in Europe. They were known as the 'forty-eighters' as they supported the 1848 revolutions.


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