Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788

Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788

4.0 2
by Richard Broome

View All Available Formats & Editions

A powerful history of black and white encounters in Australia since colonization, this fully updated edition remains the only concise survey of Aboriginal history since 1788 In the creation of any new society, there are winners and losers. So it was with Australia as it grew from a colonial outpost to an affluent society. Richard Broome tells the history of…  See more details below


A powerful history of black and white encounters in Australia since colonization, this fully updated edition remains the only concise survey of Aboriginal history since 1788 In the creation of any new society, there are winners and losers. So it was with Australia as it grew from a colonial outpost to an affluent society. Richard Broome tells the history of Australia from the standpoint of the original Australians: those who lost most in the early colonial struggle for power. Surveying two centuries of Aboriginal-European encounters, he shows how white settlers steadily supplanted the original inhabitants, from the shining coasts to inland deserts, by sheer force of numbers, disease, technology, and violence. He also tells the story of Aboriginal survival through resistance and accommodation, and traces the continuing Aboriginal struggle to move from the margins of a settler society to a more central place in modern. Since its first edition in 1982, Broome's Aboriginal Australians has won acclaim as a classic account of race relations in Australia. This fully rewritten fourth edition continues the story, covering the uneven implementation of native title, the plight of remote Aboriginal communities, the "Intervention," and the landmark apology to the "stolen generations" by Federal Parliament.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Richard Broome has managed an enviable achievement. The vast sweeping story of Aboriginal Australia from 1788 is told in his typical lucid and imaginative style . . . an important work of great scholarship, passion and imagination."  —Professor Lynette Russell, Center for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University

Product Details

Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
6 MB

Read an Excerpt

Aboriginal Australians

A History Since 1788

By Richard Broome

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2010 Richard Broome
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74237-051-4



Indigenous groups across Australia have many oral stories about their past, which form part of a Great Tradition of knowledge. These stories explain the Aboriginal genesis in different parts of the country and reveal the shaping of a formless land by great ancestors. In some traditions, these ancestral beings broke through the crust of the earth to begin the processes of life as the sun burst forth and the wind and rains came. Other great ancestors formed the landscape by rushing or writhing through it, by shaping beings from bark and breathing life into them, as did Bunjil, or bearing a sacred dillybag from which life was brought forth, as did the Djanggawul sisters. The stories are as numerous as the 500 or more Aboriginal languages and groups across ancient Australia, but the significance is the same. Great ancestors shaped and breathed life into the land and made it rich for the people. The stories stretch way back, for the people believe they have always been in this land.

Those from another great tradition — that of Science — listen not to the ancient stories of the great ancestors, but to what the human remains and rocks say. The remains have been telling a shifting story for the past hundred years, as more and more discoveries are made, and new techniques of interpretation are invented. They are fitted into a worldwide story by scientists who estimated from the evidence that early forms of hominids evolved in Africa about four million years ago. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged some 150,000 years ago, and with great ingenuity and fortitude migrated across the face of the earth in the last 100,000 years or so. Those who reached Australia between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago did so before humans colonised much of the European landmass. To reach Australia, they traversed islands and straits when sea levels were low. Even at the lowest levels, they voyaged courageously at times in raft, canoe or on flotsam, beyond the sight of land. It is likely that a number of migrations occurred as people sought new lands, for the remains reveal that humans of both a robust and a gracile frame lived here. At some stage in the last 10,000 years the dingo reached Australia as well, as a semi-domesticated companion animal.

The remains and techniques of dating rock, soil strata and campfire charcoal tell us there were people living on the shores of an ancient and rich Lake Mungo almost 40,000 years ago. They lived a prosperous but simple life in the dunes by this inland beach. Skeletal remains mark their presence. Recently, footprints have been discovered in petrified mud, which reveal a wondrous glimpse of an extended family's leisurely stroll by this fertile shore. The Mungo people lived off marine life and foraged for fauna and flora in the dunes. At night by the campfire, under a glorious star-filled canopy, they were inspired to create and embroider their own Great Tradition. Skeletal remains reveal this, indicating cremations of their dead, and burial practices enriched by ochre and ritual positioning, to signify the importance, love and respect they attached to their kinsfolk.

After a generation of tussle, the keepers of the stories and the keepers of the human remains are reconciled to the value of each others' knowledge.

Archaeologists in the 1990s agreed to return the remains for reburial in keeping places, and Aboriginal elders in the region have used scientific study to prove in a different way what they knew: that their ancestors possessed among the earliest of human cultures.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people managed massive environmental changes over at least 40 millennia in this land, greater than those facing Australians today. Sea levels oscillated by scores of metres, and the continent experienced periods which were significantly colder and wetter than today, culminating 20,000 ago. A period of warming and rising sea levels followed, and ancient coastlines shrank. The giant megafauna which roamed the land when they arrived became extinct; debate still rages about the human involvement in that demise. While parts of the ancient rainforests of the continent survived, and coastal and riverine environments such as the Murray Valley remained hospitable in the face of global warming, other groups were forced to adapt to drier and arid conditions in the vast central regions of Australia. Mungo, among many other fertile lake regions, dried, and desert areas expanded. Drought became a feature of much of the landscape under the influence of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which affected surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, bringing periodic droughts to vast regions of central and southern Australia. Australia, baked by the sun, and less frequently drenched by rains, developed the lowest water run-off rate of any continent. Only the tropical north was well watered, and periodically relieved by flooding rains.

The Australian continent, which separated from the great super-continent Gondwana over twenty million years ago, slowly drifted north since that time and became an arid, fire-prone and low-energy ecology. This reflected the longstanding absence of tectonic and glacial activity on this ancient flat continent, activity that usually refurbishes soils. The ancient land was leached by wind and rain over millions of years to the point of low fertility, with poor soil quality and subsequent modest fishing grounds due to poor rainfall and a low nutritional runoff. This ecological poverty led to greater biodiversity of plant and insect life, but poorer resources of larger faunal mammals, compared to, say, North America, which is a more fertile, higher-energy continent. (However, some species were in greater abundance, such as small reptiles.) Thus the drying, arid and fiery continent presented significant challenges for human survival — and yet Aboriginal people survived.

Aboriginal people managed this difficult environment, which still confounds most current-day Australians, through adapting their economies and technology. They learned to live with fire and to use it to shape the land to their needs. Indeed, scientists, some of whom have called this 'fire-stick farming', have argued Aboriginal people shaped the land by fire to aid the production of grasslands for kangaroo grazing and to more easily trek through their country. By doing so they expanded the natural fire processes of this parched continent, which favoured a biota ruled by eucalypts, wattles and banksias and other sclerophyll species. They learned to consume a large variety of bush foods, and so rarely went without. They emerged from the so-called 'stone age' long ago, as their tool kits became smaller, more refined and specialised, and were increasingly made of bone and wood. Weaving string and ropes for bags and netting was developed. Food-gathering strategies evolved using new technology such as netting to trap birds, baskets to catch fish or eels, and bark or wooden canoes and bone hooks for fishing. Those groups who needed covering to ward off the cold sewed cloaks of animal skins. They experienced few diseases which racked their bodies, except for an annoying and at times debilitating skin disease, yaws. Life was not always easy when drought arrived, but they adapted.

It is often wondered why Aboriginal people did not develop agriculture. But the question should be inverted to become: why should they have? What makes agriculture particularly a superior economy? It might feed many, but only if many need feeding. Agriculture, which developed in the Fertile Crescent of modern-day Iran and Iraq, has lasted so far less than 10,000 years, whereas the Aboriginal foraging economy was at least four times as old. Indeed, hunting and gathering is in world terms several million years old. Aboriginal people survived for over 40 millennia with a non-agricultural economy, which suited the land, and was sustainable with the land. Farming in Australia after just 200 years is in significant trouble, causing such degradation as to demand a massive rethink of agricultural and pastoral techniques.

Nor were conditions in Australia generally conducive to the development of farming. Research has revealed that, while parts of Australia, North America and South Africa have a temperate climate like that of the Fertile Crescent, these ecologies lacked the building blocks of agriculture, which the Fertile Crescent had in abundance. In Australia (and North America and other temperate zones, for that matter), there were few of the favoured seeds for plant domestication, and none of the animals that have been domesticated by humans to eat and to help power farms: pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses. The largest animals in Australia were the megafauna — large versions of kangaroos, wombats and the like, which proved resistant to domestication. Thus Aboriginal people in general continued to forage for food when they needed it and from where it grew — and successfully so. They developed an economy that provided all they desired, and which some economists and anthropologists have since termed 'affluence'.

However, about 5000 years ago, some Aboriginal groups experimented successfully with creating food surpluses. On the fire-cleared western plains of New South Wales, the colony's Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, in the mid 1830s saw vast fields of 'hay ricks', formed of millet grass, cut and drying so that the grain fell into the middle of the stack. It would be collected, ground and baked into bread by the ancestors of the Wiradjuri. This was clearly a clever agriculture, a seed economy for part of the year at least, which was done with minimal effort, without fertiliser, cultivation, threshing and with little further impact on the land. At Brewarrina, extensive fish traps were formed in the Barwon River by channels made of rocks carried and placed by the ancestors of the Wiradjuri. Fish aplenty were farmed by the people. Similarly, Gunditjmara in the Western District of Victoria made eel farms through extensive labour with digging sticks, their shallow wooden dishes, muscle and sinew. They shaped extensive channels and waterways over some hectares, even linking river systems. These channels directed migrating eels into fenced barriers complete with woven baskets to trap more eels than could be eaten. So plentiful was this food that the people formed stoned-walled houses with wicker and tuft roofs, held big gatherings and ceremonies, and lived off eels for months. Further north, some of the Torres Strait Islanders became gardeners under the influence of Melanesians, but remained fishers and foragers as well.

Scientists have called these new food strategies of rudimentary and intelligent farming 'intensification'. Such changes must have accompanied changes in leadership to mobilise this activity for future gain. The farming was rudimentary, in that its technology was simple, but it was efficient. It was intelligent, as it emerged out of the local ecology and remained only a part of the food supply, never exposing the people to famine. They escaped the experience of the Irish when their agri-monoculture potato-cropping failed repeatedly and disastrously before and during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

The general economic affluence that allowed most Aboriginal people to gather food in three to five hours per day thus left time for rest, sociality and to develop their Great Tradition. It was natural that this tradition revolved around the land. Local country provided food and water, formed the wondrous space through which they moved each day, and the place they slept at night under a starlit canopy. They invested the land with stories and formed a holistic relationship with it. The great ancestors who shaped the land were also embedded in it, and were still powerful. The people shared some of that power too. They were connected to the land through totemic animals determined by their birthplace and clan, and for which they were responsible. Through ritual and ceremony the people played a role in revitalising the land and its abundance.

The great ancestors gave meaning to life and the rules by which life should be lived. These rules were learned by each young male and female in initiations that grew them into knowledge of the Great Tradition. This tradition — this Dreaming or Tjurrkupa as it is called in Central Australia — was all-encompassing and never doubted. It was also a sustainable tradition, for people were in a custodial, not exploitative, relationship to land.

Each family was attached to a landowning clan, which owned an 'estate' of land that was theirs to manage and nurture. It had recognised boundaries, denoted by hills, a river or some other recognisable landform. Through kinship relations, marriage and other agreements, people moved beyond their owned estates to forage across a wider range of land according to the season. Groups used each other's estates through reciprocal rights or ceremonies of permission to form these foraging ranges. Thus land was owned and mutually recognised as owned, the title deeds being the stories told and the paintings emanating from those stories. The land of others was not coveted, for without ownership of the story, ownership of land was meaningless.

The important rules of this Great Tradition revolved around land and people, enmeshed into one. Thus all people were interrelated. The great Aboriginal questions upon meeting were: what is your country and who are your kinfolk? Kinship was the social cement of Aboriginal society. People lived in small groups foraging across the land. They were part of a clan held together by either patrilineal or matrilineal descent. These clans or landowning groups were also part of larger cultural–linguistic groups we have called 'tribes'. Marriage rules sensibly required out-marriage into another clan, and sometimes even another language group; for language groups were sometimes part of a larger cultural confederation. Thus individuals had multiple identities, names and social connections. This social system held people together through codes of kin relations, which were invisible to the eye, but if mapped would form complex grids on a page, far denser than maps of great city underground rail systems. Aboriginal people knew these complex networks from a lifetime of practice.

These grids of relationship came with rights and obligations which kept the people secure and insured against scarcity. Internal conflicts were managed by these kinship systems, and while kin violence was part of their world, as with any society, kinship acted to contain it. Kinship also protected the people from outside dangers. Aboriginal society was one of friends and enemies. Kinsfolk were friends, and all others beyond a language group or confederation of language groups were enemies. Loyalties to one's kin group meant enemies had to be killed if they ventured close, as they might wield sorcery, the cause of all mature deaths. Enemies might steal hair or faeces and work malevolent magic through these things or 'sing' someone to death in other ways. Vigilance was necessary. Clever men in each group were revered as they knew cures against sorcery. For minor illnesses other elders knew countless bush medicine prescriptions.

For millennia the Great Tradition was renewed, refined and reinvented. Ritual paintings on bodies, on rock shelters and bark were continually refreshed and retouched. But then change — the possibility of which always existed with the Great Tradition — quickened. Outsiders arrived on the shores of the great southern continent. At first there were brief, almost dreamlike, contacts with European navigators. The Dutch came, and then some English and French visited, who were all borne like large ungainly birds across the water, only to vanish the same way after brief landings.

On the northern coast from about 1720 men also came from the island of Macassar in the Celebes to gather marine life: trepang or sea slug from the shallow coastal waters. They came annually for a short season and stayed for only a few weeks in any one place. The Macassans formed camps on the land, cured the trepang in kilns, and interacted with the people. They exchanged items such as food, pipes and tobacco, glass and pottery for labour and sex. Then they disappeared until the following year. The people interacted with the Macassans and some journeyed to Macassar with them as wives or workers. A genetic link exists today between these two peoples, which has been recognised in visits and festivals. The touch of these contacts was light, however, for the Macassans offered few threats to Aboriginal culture and none to their land. Some things were learned — how to make dugout canoes — but the Great Tradition was unaltered by almost 200 years of this contact.


Excerpted from Aboriginal Australians by Richard Broome. Copyright © 2010 Richard Broome. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Richard Broome is Associate Professor of History at La Trobe University. One of Australia's most respected scholars of Aboriginal history, he is also author of the prize-winning Aboriginal Victorians.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
laurenk_17 More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I read this book for a research project. This book was an interesting read but in my opinion, I would choose another book. Broome provided all the information about the Aboriginals after the British invasion. He didn't provide much background about the group but Broome was very knowledgeable and informative about the subject. One part that I like was the information. Every single detail was in the book. The author didn’t talk much about the traditions or culture. Broome is very informative about how and when the British invaded Australia. When the British came, they destroyed their culture. The struggles the Aboriginals had was terrible. They were taken from their home lands and treated terribly.Another part I did not like was when the author talked about the history after the British settlement. He tended to focus on the after math of the situation. Maybe I should’ve selected a better book but Broome still should’ve provided a background of their storyOverall, I did enjoy he book. Richard Broome’s work was amazing. Honestly, I would recommend reading this book but after learning the Aboriginal’s history and the history of Australia. .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I read this book for a research project. The book was very interesting but in my opinion, I would choose a different book. The book had plenty of information but it occurred after the British took over. The author was very knowledgeable about the topic. The author discussed the equality of the Aboriginals and it was the main part of the book. One part that I like was the information. Every single detail was in the book. The author didn’t talk much about the traditions or culture. Broome is very informative about how and when the British invaded Australia. When the British came, they destroyed their culture. The struggles the Aboriginals had was terrible. They were taken from their home lands and treated terribly.Overall, I did enjoy he book. Richard Broome’s work was amazing. Honestly, I would recommend reading this book but after learning the Aboriginal’s history and the history of Australia. The Aboriginals were very intelligent people and the culture is astonishing.