What Happened to the Victorian Aboriginals? Part 1: 1788-1850

Economic historian Noel Butlin has estimated that at least 100,000 Aboriginals lived in Victoria when the first British settlement was established at Port Jackson (now Sydney) in 1788.  Yet, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Victoria’s Aboriginal population had decreased to less than 10,000 individuals.  Why did their numbers decline so dramatically in just over sixty years?


Introduced disease took a very heavy toll.  In 1789, prior to British settlement of Victoria in the early 1830s, a smallpox epidemic spread throughout most of the state.  Historians disagree about the source of the outbreak.  One theory is that it resulted from accidental or deliberate release of smallpox “scabs” brought to Sydney in glass bottles on the First Fleet for inoculation purposes.  Historian Norbert Finzsch believes that the virus might have been intentionally spread amongst the local Aboriginal population of Sydney by the British army.  If so, the motive may have been concern about the army’s ability to resist an Aboriginal attack, given that the fledgling settlement was on the brink of starvation in early 1789.  Between this epidemic and a second one in 1830, smallpox is thought to have wiped out around half the Aboriginal population of Victoria.

Sexually transmitted disease originated with British settlement and spread widely amongst the Aboriginal population.  Syphilis could be fatal and also increased the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.   Gonorrhoea, whilst not life-threatening, could result in female infertility and sometimes male sterility.  Consequently these diseases reduced the birth rate, making it difficult for the Aboriginal population to recover from the impact of smallpox.  In 1844, the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, George Augustus Robinson travelled through Victoria and reported in his journal that “syphilis was … general throughout the land” and had “extended (its) baneful influences to the remotest parts of the interior”.

For more information on Aboriginal disease in colonial Australia see https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/7529

Resource Depletion

As hunter-gatherers Aboriginals were self-sufficient and mobile, enabling them to take advantage of food seasonality.  Sources of protein included small marsupials, reptiles, possums, birds and insects.  Fish and shellfish were important in coastal regions and inland, where trap systems were constructed to catch fish and eels.  Niel Black, an early settler, admitted that he deliberately destroyed these traps as a sign to Aboriginals “that we did not want them near us”.  The indigenous animals, on which Aboriginals relied for food and fur cloaks, could not compete with cattle and sheep and their numbers declined as their habitat was destroyed and they were driven away.

Plants which provided dietary carbohydrate, including seeds, bush tomatoes, yams, bulbs and tubers, and mushrooms, were destroyed or eaten by introduced animals.  By the 1840s, for example, the yam daisy had become scarce in the Western District because sheep ate the top off it.  British settlers controlled the best sources of water and use by Aboriginals was discouraged, which presented a problem especially in times of drought.  The winter huts so important for Aboriginal survival were destroyed, either by cattle or deliberately in an attempt to drive Aboriginals away.  The destruction of shelter and the scarcity of food and warm clothing led to malnutrition, starvation and an increased susceptibility to disease, especially influenza.

But the impact of resource depletion did not end there.  Aboriginal infanticide increased significantly after British settlement.  In 1842, the Assistant Protector for the Westernport District wrote that “one chief has acknowledged to me that he has no power to stop it (infanticide)” because “no country, no good have it pickanineys”.  Anthropologist Ronald Berndt contended that the altered state of their society disrupted the emotional bond Aboriginals had with their environment and culture, leading to apathy and depression and indirectly to depopulation.  Aboriginals had been deprived of the resource which mattered most to them:  their land.

Frontier Conflict

Historian Henry Reynolds has estimated that conflict between Aboriginals and British settlers led to about 20,000 Aboriginal deaths nationally.  Conflict occurred for many reasons, including the rape or abduction of Aboriginal women, Aboriginal theft of sheep (which was often due to hunger), desecration of, or lack of access to, Aboriginal sacred sites and cultural differences in beliefs about ownership and reciprocity.  Relocation was not an option.  Aboriginals had a deep spiritual connection with their land, and adjoining land belonged to other Aboriginal tribes who would not tolerate their presence.  In Victoria, frontier conflict is likely to have accounted for at least several thousand Aboriginal deaths.

By 1850, the Aboriginal population of Victoria had dwindled to fewer than 10,000 individuals.  The three factors which contributed to this decline were introduced disease, resource depletion and frontier conflict.  Next week, in the second article in this series, we look at what happened to Victorian Aboriginals in the second half of the 19th century, from 1850 to 1900.


4 comments on “What Happened to the Victorian Aboriginals? Part 1: 1788-1850

  1. amandalee3 says:

    I wish I’d thought of writing the blog like it was a series. The way you’ve set out this article is really great, the sectioning and explanation of each contributing factor to the decline of the aboriginal population in Victoria is very accessible and easy to understand. I’ve looked into this topic too, although I focused mostly on Queensland which had more violent means of eradicating the indigenous. Did you happen to read Genocide and Settler Society edited by Dirk Moses? It’s very confronting to read about the extent of indigenous death and the means/methods behind it. Your article does it very well.

    • christinecramer says:

      Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for your feedback. I did dip into ‘Genocide and Settler Society’, but the focus of my essay was the impact of resource depletion on depopulation, so I looked at frontier violence to the extent that it was often precipitated by Aboriginal hunger (sheep stealing, raiding crops etc) rather than discussing the genocide aspect. The fact that I did not engage with genocide was one of the criticisms of my essay, but it is a very profound topic and, as I didn’t feel I could do justice to it in the word limit, I thought it was better to avoid it. The series thing was unavoidable as my essay only covered 1788-1850 and, given the title, I had to think of a way to make it work!


  2. Connell Nisbet says:

    This is a really clear, concise analysis and very engaging. I was impressed with the detail but also the depth – it’s the first time I’ve heard about, or even considered, the extent of resource depletion and its impact on the indigenous population. Going beyond the obvious competition for access to water to the impact on native species and its place in indigenous lifestyle was intriguing. I was most impressed with the fact that you wrote about a subject that has been mired in controversy with an authorative, objective voice, presenting the facts but also providing sensible analysis.

  3. christinecramer says:

    Hi Connell,

    Thanks for your feedback. The subject of resource depletion was quite a challenge as, although it has been mentioned by historians, the material tends to be fragmented rather than addressed as a subject in itself. Hence I had to do an awful lot of reading to pull it all together. I think what amazed me most was the inter-relationships between disease, frontier conflict and resource depletion in that each one was both caused and caused by the others, exacerbating a tragic situation and making Aboriginal depopulation inevitable. I bring these inter-relationships out much more in my essay but, in 800 words, it was hard to do justice to that complexity.


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