3. Our shared history

Australia’s history extends beyond 1788, when the first fleet of new arrivals from England set foot on the sands of Botany Bay.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have inhabited Australia since millennia, and their cultures, laws, ceremonies and connection to the land is strong and enduring.

This chapter will investigate our shared history since European settlement. Discussing the events that unfolded at the time of European settlement, it will consider the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma on Australia’s First People.


Many Australians seem to think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples surrendered their country without a fight.

In fact there were significant wars and battles between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people. At least 10,000, and probably more than 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait people died at the hands of colonisers, and around 2,000 colonisers died at the hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As in all wars, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the deaths, countless others suffered injury and trauma, and the fear that comes from hearing of the killings of other people.

These include ‘massacres’ that were in retaliation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance (such as the Pinjarra Massacre), successful raids by Aboriginal and Torres Strait people on white settlers (such as the Faithfull Massacre) and ongoing local wars, such as the Yolngu wars and the Bunuba resistance.

The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who died in these conflicts are often disputed, but the fact that the conflicts took place is not disputed. Although there wasn’t a declared, large scale ‘war’, there was significant resistance.

Often, organising this resistance was hard. Massacres like Bathurst, Pinjarra and Flying Foam were designed to decimate resistance by killing men, women and children in dramatic and over-whelming reprisal for signs of resistance. In the Kimberley, some pastoralists created a workforce for themselves by killing men of the land, and capturing their women and children who were forced into compliance. (Other pastoralists negotiated respectfully with land owners to engage them as a workforce on their own land).

The Indigenous resistance is often forgotten. It seems that, today, we don’t know what to call this part of our history. Thousands died. How did they die? Murder? Massacres? Guerilla warfare? It is a gap in our history. We don’t read of its heroes or its victims in our history books, or see memorials to them on our streets.

Read more info

Dr Tom Calma responds to The Apology to The Stolen Generations

Dr Tom Calma addresses Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Minister Jenny Macklin and crowds gathered at Parliament House for the 2008 apology to The Stolen Generations.

Impacts of history

The events of the past are very important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These events weren’t that long ago. There are many people alive today who:

  • Were forcibly removed from their parents under government policy.
  • Had their children taken away.
  • Were not allowed in towns after 6:00 at night.
  • Were not allowed to be in certain areas without permission.
  • Were barred from schools and hospitals.
  • Returned from wars only to find they did not have the same rights as white people.
  • Have not enjoyed the same rights as others, simply because they were Indigenous.

There are even a few very old people today who witnessed killings and poisonings as young children. This affected those people deeply.

Intergenerational trauma

When people experience trauma, the wounds can also affect their children, and their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren.  When someone is traumatised by a difficult event, their life is often turned upside down by emotional ‘wounds’. And if they are unable to heal those wounds themselves, they can pass them on to their children.

Many generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around the nation have been affected by traumatic events in the last 100 – 200 years. These experiences have included war in the earlier years as they tried to defend their country, or continue to live on it; widespread death from disease; slavery; forced removal from land; imprisonment (often for offences they didn’t know they’d committed); being taken from their parents and families at a young age and held in institutions (where abuse of children was often rife); having their children taken from them and many other traumatic experiences.

Corroboree 2000 video prepared by the former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation

The following video provides a short insight into the ongoing impacts that colonisation has had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Bob Randall: "Brown Skin Baby (They Took Me Away)"

Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara Elder and a traditional owner of Uluru (Ayers Rock), wrote “Brown Skin Baby (They Took Me Away)” in the early 70s and it became an anthem for Aboriginal people. He sings about the intergenerational impacts of the forced removal of Aboriginal children.

A non-Indigenous example of inter-generational trauma

Many Vietnam Veterans were traumatised by their experiences in the Vietnam War and found it difficult to heal from those wounds because their experience was not widely honoured until years later. For some of these men these wounds played out in the form of addiction, alcoholism, violence, suicide, or simply an inability to truly connect with others. Some of their children then, were raised in a traumatic environment – deeply affected by their father’s or mother’s wounds. Those children, then, developed their own wounds which also get played out in addiction, suicide, etc, and so it gets passed down the generations.

One of the big differences between Vietnam Veterans and those from previous wars was that, on their return, their nation as a whole did not acknowledge what they had been through. Because of this, individuals, families and governments have had to explore how to ensure that these wounds are healed, so that the inter-generational impacts of that war of 40 years ago are minimised.

History records that even where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples shared traumatic experiences with other Australians, they often didn’t have the same support extended to them. For example Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans from the first and second world wars were not provided the same entitlements as their fellow diggers such as war pensions and cheap housing loans.

And, like Vietnam Veterans, the fact that the wider community did not know or acknowledge what they had been through has made the healing process very difficult. In many families, inter-generational trauma has been the result.

Further reading
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