Indigenous Australians have a history that spans 40 000 to 50 000 years, making the Aboriginal culture one of the oldest in the world. Before European settlement of Australia, it was estimated nearly 250 000 Aboriginal people lived in the area that would become known as New South Wales forming nearly 70 different language groups and tribes. Semi-nomadic in practice, Aboriginal communities lived in harmony with the land consuming the naturally occurring flora and fauna to survive, with the highest population density concentrated on the east coast and along river ways. Clans lived by specific rules and rites which dictated all aspects of everyday life from marriage to what foods they could eat. Tribal warfare was common and before white settlement this accounted for the biggest non-natural cause of death amongst Aboriginal men.
Following Captain Cook's discovery of the Australian East Coast in 1770, the life of Indigenous Australians would be altered forever. Because the Aboriginal people did not farm the land or have town and city structures as the English understood them, the land was assumed unoccupied, and Cook promptly declared the land the property of Britain's King George III. Cook's glowing account of the fertile empty land he had discovered had the remote island considered a suitable place for a British penal colony. In 1788 the First Fleet would arrive in Australia, setting up a fledgling colony that would be called New South Wales.
The effects of the British occupation of this land would be devastating to the Indigenous Australians. Most significantly without having been subjected to the English diseases, a smallpox epidemic would wipe out approximately 70% of the Aboriginal population of Sydney and as it spread beyond the colony, continued to have devastating effects on the native population. Diseases along with significant dispossession from the land and massacres would be responsible for reducing the population of indigenous people in New South Wales by an estimated 90% by the 1900s.
Today Aboriginal Australians account for 2.2% of the New South Wales population and almost 30% of the total indigenous population of Australia. Whilst the greatest number of Aboriginal people live in west and south western suburbs of Sydney, the largest concentration of Indigenous communities are found in regional western New South Wales, accounting for just under 20% of the total population in the area.
In 1975 the Whitlam government drafted an Aboriginal Land Rights Act which was eventually introduced by the following government led by Malcolm Fraser with significant amendments limiting claims to the Northern Territory. It would not be until 1992 following the landmark case of Eddy Mabo that Native Title claims would be formally recognised. Whilst significant roads have been forged in the reconciliation process between Indigenous Australians and those settlers who came following 1788, it is a process that will continue in modern day Australia.
Objects from the Powerhouse Museum collection