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Age level:        11-13

British law and guerilla war

On 18 January 1788 the Cadigal people of Botany Bay had seen the arrival of the British First Fleet. Six days later they had also witnessed the arrival of the French commander La Pérouse with two ships. The French fired upon an Aboriginal band early in February but departed on 10 March. The British left on 25 January but travelled only as far as Port Jackson. Little could the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area have then known that this arrival would cause many deaths and the destruction of societies that had survived for tens of thousands of years.

Early contacts

In the different opportunities I have had of getting a little acquainted with the natives, who reside in and about this port, I … think that it will be no very difficult matter … to conciliate their friendship and confidence … whenever we have laid aside our arms, and have made signs of friendship, they have always advanced unarmed … I am inclined to think, that by residing some time amongst them, or near them, they will soon discover that we are not their enemies; a light they no doubt considered us in on our first arrival …

From Captain John Hunter’s Journal in which he describes contacts in the new settlement’s first week.

Several convicts came in from the woods; one in particular dangerously wounded with a spear … these people denied giving any provocation to the natives; it was, however, difficult to believe them; they well know the consequences that would attend any acts of violence on their part … any act of cruelty to the natives being contrary to his Majesty’s …intentions.

From David Collins, An Account of the English Colony of New South Wales. The event described was in March 1788.

The official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with Aboriginal people and to offer them the protection of British law. However, the British had no understanding of Aboriginal society and its relationship with the land. Also they did not recognise Aboriginal ownership of the land. In British legal language, Australia was called terra nullius.

In his book Aboriginal Australians R. Broome explains that this term was to be used of land seem as ‘wasteland’ because it was not used ‘in the European sense’, that is, that it had not been tilled or settled with villages. Broome contrasts the treatment of Australian Aborigines with that of North American Indians and New Zealand Maori, who had villages and whose land showed signs of agriculture, so that they were given at least some recognition of their rights, and were offered treaties.

Governor Arthur Phillip was an educated man who thought of Aboriginal people as ‘noble savages’ who were worthy of respect. In May 1788 two convicts were killed by Aboriginal men at Rushcutters Bay and there were several other clashes. However, Phillip at first was willing to blame the convicts rather than the indigenous people for such clashes. Nevertheless, as Aboriginal people avoided the settlement, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to forcibly bring about contact between the two cultures. Arabanoo was the first to be captured. Within six months he died of smallpox. In November 1789 Bennelong and Colebee were captured. Phillip’s hope was that they would encourage their people to accept the ways of the British. Colebee escaped but Bennelong was sent to England. Tragically, on his return to the colony, he was unable to fit into Aboriginal or European society. He drank heavily and died in 1813.

The worst effect of the settlement in its first two years was a smallpox epidemic. Unlike Europeans, Aboriginal people had no resistance to this disease which arrived with the colonists. Probably half the indigenous population of the Sydney area was wiped out by this epidemic between 1788 and 1790.


At first the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area were not hostile to the settlement, but as the colony expanded, conflict increased. The British Government encouraged the expansion of farming to make the colony more self-supporting. Aboriginal land was given by the white authorities as free grants to officers, ex-soldiers and ex-convicts. The traditional owners retaliated to defend their land. In May 1790 Phillip was speared in the shoulder at Manly. In September his gamekeeper, John McIntyre, was fatally speared by Pemulwuy, a man of the Bediagal clan of the Darug language group. McIntyre’s death was in retaliation for the deaths of Aboriginal people he had shot, yet Phillip’s response was to order a punitive expedition to bring back six Aboriginal heads. Fortunately the expedition did not succeed.

Pemulwuy led a guerrilla campaign (using ambushes and hit-and-run tactics) from 1790 to 1802. In 1797 he was chased with about a hundred of his people to Parramatta. There he was wounded and captured. However, he soon escaped and continued the campaign. He was outlawed in 1801 and shot dead in 1802.

The Darug resistance

The resistance of the Darug people of the Hawkesbury–Nepean district did not end with the death of Pemulwuy. His son, Tedbury, continued the struggle until he was wounded in 1810 and never heard of again. The Darug were fighting for survival. Many settlers shot at any Aboriginal people who entered the land that had been taken from them. The Darug resisted by burning huts, taking food supplies and, where possible, killing settlers. Troops sent against the guerrillas killed any Aboriginal people they found.

British law was supposed to treat both races equally. However, when five Hawkesbury settlers were tried and convicted of torturing and murdering two Aboriginal boys near Windsor in 1799, the British Government instructed Acting-Governor King to pardon them. In 1805 Governor Bligh was ordered to send soldiers against the ‘uncivilised Insurgents’. When Lachlan Macquarie was appointed Governor in 1809, he hoped to improve relations between the races. But, like the governors before him, he sent soldiers against the Darug. Macquarie was determined to protect the farms along the river as they were the colony’s main source of food. However, the land they occupied was also the main food source for the Darug.

Resistance crushed

In 1816 Macquarie sent military expeditions to areas along the Nepean, Hawkesbury and Grose rivers to crush resistance. Those who did not surrender were to be killed. Troops caught a group of the Gundungara people near Appin while they were sleeping. Fourteen Aboriginal men, women and children were killed. On Macquarie’s orders, the bodies of two of the men were hung in trees as a warning to others. There was little local resistance after this event. The campaigns in defence of the Sydney area had been defeated by the greater numbers and guns of the Europeans.

Aboriginal hunters spearing fish in New South Wales.

A view of Sydney Cove, New South Wales, 1804.