Whose land down under?

Words: Isabella Henricks


The author would like to preface the article by stating that they are not of Indigenous heritage, and do not wish to speak on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article may contain names of deceased persons.


In December 2019, bushfires burned in the Australian state of Victoria. The fire moved through thousands of hectares in the Budj Bim National Park, revealing new additions to a UNESCO recognised Aboriginal waterway system that pre-dates the Giza pyramids by some 1500 years. The traditional owners of the site have identified the newly discovered channels as extra sections of an eel-trapping and harvesting system built by the Gunditjmara people over 6000 years ago. 

This exciting addition to a significant archaeological wonder failed to garner reaction. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an ordinary Australian who knows about the existence of these waterways, let alone their significance. Nobody really seemed to care. But why? Why does Australia ignore its Aboriginal archaeology, rather than taking pride in its ancient history? 

Captain Cook claimed Australia in 1770. In 1788, the First Fleet arrived, bringing almost 1500 British people, the majority of whom were convicts, to settle the colony. In 2007, it was estimated that up to 1 in 5 Australians were descended from convicts who were transported to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. The British claimed the right to possess the land through the notion of terra nullius – a Latin term, translating to ‘land belonging to no one’ – despite the fact there were, of course, already people there.

Terra nullius is a concept that is now widely taught in Australian schools. The principle stems originally from Roman Law, but there are still ongoing claims of terra nullius, such as the territory of Bir Tawil in North Africa, and Antarctica. Neither area is considered to have a settled population and neither have been officially nor entirely claimed by a sovereign nation.

When Britain claimed terra nullius, it was arguing that the native people were not engaged in agriculture, that they did not have permanent housing, that they did not irrigate the land, that they did not store food, that they had no clear divisions of territory – that there were no signs of land ownership at all. This image of pre-colonial Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter-gatherers, as ‘noble savages’, remains pervasive in Australian history and education in the present day. 

Reviewing my own high school history textbook, which is only six years old, I felt reassured by the emphasis placed on the struggle for Indigenous civil rights in Australia. The curriculum emphasised the horrors of the Stolen Generation, a government policy that removed Indigenous children from their families and assimilated them into white society. It also encouraged us to learn about the 1992 Mabo Case. 

The Mabo case ended terra nullius in Australia by successfully arguing that Eddie Mabo and the Indigenous people of Mer in the Torres Strait Islands had continuously and permanently inhabited and settled the land with their own social and political structures. It was ruled that the doctrine of terra nullius violated standards of international human rights and rejected the ‘historical reality’ of the dispossession of Indigenous people. 

The ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius was replaced by Native Title in 1993. It recognised the original claim to the land of the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. The Native Title Act was monumental, but its legacy in history education has obscured the original problems with the application of terra nullius. 

Today, we’re taught that the British thought that they were better than Indigenous people because they were more ‘developed’ – and that the spiritual connection between Indigenous people and the land was in lieu of tangible advancement. This is a fallacy that has dominated the way Australian history has been taught and recorded. Today’s textbooks focus on the modern-day Indigenous struggles for equality because the bulk of Aboriginal history writing has served to reinforce beliefs in the underdevelopment and inferiority of Indigenous people. 

In his incredibly influential book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari tells us that Australians were among the only remaining ‘foragers’ in the first century AD, because most of the world had transitioned to Agriculture. The patronising implication is that although Aboriginal Australians were mere foragers who were not as developed as others, they deserve to be regarded with equal respect, because they are still people, after all. But Aboriginal societies were more advanced than almost anyone has given them credit for. The record has simply omitted the reality. 

In contrast to Harari’s book, we have Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Pascoe argues Aboriginal societies were far more developed and advanced than has ever been recognised. He uses evidence from existing historical sources that have not been incorporated into the dominant narrative of pre-colonial Indigenous people. The evidence reveals that Aboriginal people actively engaged in agriculture, aquaculture, constructing permanent housing, food storage, complex law, diverse language and culture, and what has come to be known as ‘fire-stick farming’, which facilitated plant growth and maintained biodiversity. Ironically, the evidence for the advanced nature of Indigenous land management and social structure has been provided by the first colonists of Australia. Records of extensive yam harvests, grain cultivation, advanced tools, and permanent towns, to name a few examples, would completely redefine the common understanding of pre-colonial Australia if they entered the mainstream of Australian history. Thousands of years of highly skilled land and resource management is hardly deserving of the ‘forager, hunter-gatherer’ label. 

The Australian education system skips over Australia’s ancient history, because it is too controversial to discuss. Instead, it is reduced to broad and inaccurate generalisations about a multitude of Aboriginal nations and their cultures. 

2020’s Black Lives Matter movement in Australia has brought attention to the systemic racism that endures in our justice system. Indigenous adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than the rest of the population. Indigenous juveniles are 26 times more likely to be incarcerated. Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, more than 400 Indigenous people have died behind bars. Racism in Australia is perpetuated by systems of education that seek to fix the present without properly recognising the harm that obscuring the past has had. If all Australians had an understanding of the complexity of pre-colonial Aboriginal life, we may be able to properly register the tragedy that has been inflicted on Australia’s history and people. 

Maybe we would stop celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the British arrival on Indigenous land. Maybe we would be less likely to welcome British migrants to Australia with open arms. Maybe we would take less pride in our European heritage. Finally, if we were to re-evaluate Australian history and change how it is taught in schools, we would embrace over 60,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia, enlightening the knowledge we have of the land we live on, and giving that land’s original inhabitants the recognition they deserve. 

learn more

  • BOOK: Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe
  • DOCUMENTARY: In My Blood It Runs (2019)
  • PODCAST: Always Was, Always Will Be Our Stories – Marlee Silva

Isabella Henricks is an Australian history student, currently studying at the University of Edinburgh.