Was Australia settled or invaded? Both.

That's is what I argued in a letter published in The Age newspaper today.

The letter was in response to an article by Henrietta Cook: ‘Calls for curriculum to say Australia was invaded not settled’.

It was a good article that began by stating: ‘Education Minister James Merlino has reignited debate about whether the curriculum should refer to Australia being invaded rather than settled.Here's what I wrote in response:

The Letter:

"Accept Both Terms

The debate on how to teach Australia’s colonial history should not be a question of choosing between the terms settlement and invasion, but by accepting both. (‘Calls for curriculum to say Australia was invaded not settled’ 5/5/1). Settlement was a form of invasion. It was a major cause of conflict with, and arguably the genocide of, many Indigenous Australians. Free settlers took up land grants legally, but also swiftly and expansively, denying Aboriginal people access to land, resources, and culture. Tasmania offers a key example. As a small penal settlement (from 1803), relations with Aboriginal people were relatively peaceful. By the time pastoral settlers had taken over one third of the island in 1830, relations with Aborigines had reduced into a violent conflict funded and partly condoned by the colonial government. By 1834 the remaining Aborigines were forcibly incarcerated and declined rapidly. Tasmania has been recognised as a case of historical genocide since the definition of the term in 1944. But it was a genocide defined not by mass killings or extinction. The Tasmanian Aboriginal people remain a living community. It was genocide defined by denying Aboriginal peoples access to adequate food, culture and social stability; a genocide caused by settlement.” - Rebe Taylor,  Yarraville

Putting credit where credit is due

I was very conscious that my letter was filled with, and fuelled by, the ideas of other historians.  The point of this blog is to unpack ‘my’ ideas and give them proper credit.


1. ‘Settlement was a form of invasion’.

It was Australian historian Patrick Wolfe who wrote in 1992 that settler ‘invasion is a structure not an event’ (Wolfe, 1992, p 3) Unlike colonies where Europeans sought indigenous labour, Australian colonists sought foremost Aboriginal land, and thus for the Wolfe the ‘primary logic of settler colonialism can be characterized as one of elimination’ (quoted in Moses, 2004, pp. 31-31). In the framework of settler colonialism genocide becomes, as A. Dirk Moses puts it, ‘implicitly intended in the sense of the silent condoning, in … a chain of events for which [the colonists] were … not prepared to rupture’ (Moses, 2004, pp. 31-31)


2. ‘As a small penal settlement (from 1803), relations with Aboriginal people were relatively peaceful’.

In his history, Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce explores how Tasmania’s first generation of convict- culturally ‘changed’ by their island’s unique environment, and through the settlers was peaceful exchanges with Aboriginal people (Boyce, 2010, pp. 10-11, 101).

It is an idea at the heart of Aboriginal Elder Patsy Cameron’s 2011 book, Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier which explores the emergence of a new Aboriginal community on the islands of the Bass Strait that grew out of reciprocal relationships with Aboriginal women and white ‘Straitsmen’ from the early 1800s. The ‘mix of cultural groups from which I was born’, explains Cameron, instigated ‘the coming into being of a new lifeworld and a new people of the islands’ (Cameron, 2011, pp. , ix, xiv).

3. 'By the time pastoral settlers had taken over one third of the island in 1830, relations with Aborigines had reduced into a violent conflict …'

Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 offers, without doubt, the best account of Tasmania’s Black War. Ryan explains so clearly how its chief cause was the speed of pastoralism and how settlers transformed the character of the Tasmanian colony. In 1817 the population free colonists numbered around 2000 people: agriculturalists, sealers and whalers who lived in sparse populations and largely in peaceable accord with the Aborigines. By 1830, however, the population of Van Diemen’s Land had grown more than ten-fold. Pastoral land had been granted at an alarming pace, spreading in a corridor from Hobart, through Tasmania’s midlands, along the east coast, and west of Launceston until a third of the Island was invaded. These were the ‘Settled Districts’. But there was little settled about them. From 1826 the Aboriginal clanspeople began to demand the return of their Country. The government responded with the declaration martial law, the deployment of several hundred armed soldiers and civilian ‘roving parties’. In 1830, the Black Line mobilized when over 2,000 military and settlers who moved, pincer-like across the island’s southern settled districts the goal to capture Aborigines in its sweep. Finally, government appointed Conciliator George Augustus Robinson removed the remaining Aboriginal peoples from their Country and enforcedly incarcerated them on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait (Ryan, 2012, Part II, pp. 87-142),

4. 'Tasmania has been recognised as a case of historical genocide since … 1944. But it was a genocide defined not by mass killings or extinction.'

The term genocide, meaning the killing of a people, was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin to define the crimes of the Holocaust.If the word genocide was new, however, Lemkin understood that ‘the phenomenon was as old as history itself’ . Lemkin considered the policies and actions in the 1820s and 1830s of the British in the colony of Tasmania as one of the clearest cases of historical genocide (quoted by Reynolds, 2001, p. 3, 50-52).

But not all have agreed. Henry Reynolds, an esteemed and pioneering historian of Aboriginal Australia, has argued that Tasmania witnessed colonial warfare, but not genocide. He considers that George Arthur, Governor of Tasmania, was responding a ‘fierce guerrilla warfare’ waged by the Aborigines, and which ended only because Robinson was able to induce the Aborigines to follow him was the promise of eventual return to their homelands.What occurred in the 1820s and 1830s in Tasmania was a war, Reynolds argues, that was ended by negotiation (what might be argued was a type of treaty), and it that ought formerly to be memorialized (Reynolds, 1995, pp. 119, 122-123, 191-213).

Australian historian Ann Curthoys’ does not agree. In her 2008 essay on the question, she wonders why internationally, scholars have agreed that colonial Tasmania offers a ‘clear-cut’ instance where genocide occurred, but ‘such a characterization is rarely adopted within Australia’ (Curthoys, 2008, p. 229).  Curthoys’ understanding of genocide in the Australian context draws on the work of Wolfe, and also that of Tony Barta, and A. Dirk Moses among others. They agree that as a settler colony Australia had less a ‘genocidal policy’, than a ‘genocidal relationship’ in which Aboriginal people were denied access to their lands and thus a sustainable social and economic existence. Curthoys concludes that the colonial history of Tasmania does present a case of genocide, but without reference to ‘state planning, mass killing, or extinction' (Curthoys, 2008, p. 230, 244).

PictureBark canoe, Tasmanian Museum, ABC TV
5. 'The Tasmanian Aboriginal people remain a living community'

Lyndall Ryan’s was the first Australian historian to acknowledge that ‘the Tasmanian Aborigines have survived’ (Ryan, 1981, p. 257).[i]The idea contradicted widely the wide-spread and longstanding idea when Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, Truganini, died in 1876 her race became extinct.  

By then the Commonwealth Government of Australia had already recognised the Tasmanian Aboriginal people as a living community. They included, amongst other Indigenous peoples across Tasmania, the descendants of the nineteenth century Bass Strait Island pioneers.

But just as this recognition came Australian popular media reiterated the idea of extinction loudly and widely in film, books, songs and art. It was part of a broader revision in Australian historiography that aimed to invoke a sense of national Australian historical shame over the colonial past. Truganini became the face of Australia’s shame. In this context, the idea of genocide came not merely to replace that of extinction in such contexts, but to promulgate it. Such representations directly undermined an emergent movement for Tasmanian Aboriginal self-determination.

Further reading:

I have written these ideas in two articles:

Works cited:

J. Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land, (Melbourne, Black Inc., 2010).

P. Cameron, Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier, (Hobart, Fullers Bookshop, 2011).

A. Dirk Moses, ‘Preface’ and ‘Genocide and Settler Society in Australian History’, in A. Dirk Moses (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society, (New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2004): 1-3, 4-48.

H. Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, (Melbourne, Penguin, 1995).

H. Reynolds, An Indelible Stain?: The Question of Genocide in Australia, (Melbourne, Viking, 2001).

L. Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1996, 2nd ed.).

L. Ryan, Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803, (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2012).

P. Wolfe, ‘Settler colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, Journal of Genocide Research, 8/4 (2006): 387-409.