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.
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
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
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.
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.