Aboriginal peoples of South Australia

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The Aboriginal People of South Australia are the aboriginal people who lived in South Australia prior to European colonization of Australia: their descendants and their ancestors. There is much debate and controversy in identifying the names, territorial boundaries, and language groups of the Aboriginal peoples of South Australia.[1] Post-colonial history is also dogged by poor record keeping and deliberate obfuscation. This article should be taken as a rough guide only about the Aboriginal People.

Its People[edit]

The following groups' lands include at least partly South Australian territory which includes: Adnyamathanha, Akenta, Amarak, Bungandidj, Diyari, Erawirung, Kaurna, Kokatha Mula, Maralinga Tjarutja, Mirning, Mulbarapa, Narungga, Ngaanyatjarra, Ngadjuri, Ngarrindjeri, Nukunu, Parnkalla, Peramangk, Pitjantjatjara, Ramindjeri, Spinifex people, Warki.

Colonial Intent[edit]

The South Australia Act 1834 described the land as "waste" and "uninhabited",[2] but unlike other colonies in Australia, the British settlement of South Australia did not assume the principle of terra nullius (Latin for nobody's land) when the colonists originally arrived. The Letters Patent establishing the Province of South Australia issued in February 1836 "Provided always that nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the persons of their descendants of any lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives"[3] The Proclamation of South Australia read out on Proclamation Day, the 28th of December 1836, at the founding of the permanent settlement that became Adelaide, granted Aboriginal people and British settlers equal protection and rights as British Subjects under the law.[4]

First contact and exposure[edit]

By the time British explorer James Cook’s expedition reached Australia in 1770, around 300,000 Australian Aborigines lived in almost complete isolation, just as their ancestors had for the previous 50,000 years. The breaking of the airlock and isolation had a devastating impact, one that directly helped the Europeans to solidify their position in Australia.[5]

In 1789, an outbreak of smallpox nearly wiped out the indigenous people living in what is now Sydney. The contagion spread outward from there and destroyed whole bands of Aborigines, many of whom had never seen a European. Other diseases followed; in turn, the native population was decimated by measles, typhus, cholera, and even the common cold, which had never existed in Australia before the first Europeans came along and started sneezing on things. Without an ancestral history of coping with these pathogens, and with only traditional medicine to treat the sick, the indigenous Australians could only stand by and watch as plagues consumed their people.[5]

As such, countless Aborigines fled land that their ancestors may have inhabited for thousands of years, and colonists simply shot numberless tens of thousands others to keep them from hunting sheep or stealing crops. No one knows how many Australian natives died in this way. While the Aborigines had no way to keep records of the killing, the Europeans seem not to have bothered: Shooting an “abo” became so routine that accurate records are impossible to come by, but the death toll must have been immense as vast new tracts of land opened up to replace exhausted soil every few harvest cycles.[6]

Despite the goals that the government provided for the Aboriginal inhabitants, the first century of the white settlement did not always conform to this ideal. Initially, large tracts of land, waste or not was taken from the aboriginal people.[5]

Frontier Wars[edit]

There have been a number of documented conflicts that resulted in mass deaths of Aboriginal people, now sometimes referred to as "frontier wars". In South Australia, the government tried to strengthen laws in an attempt to avoid the violence that befell earlier Australian settlements. Aboriginal people were declared British subjects and afforded the same privileges. These good intentions, however, did not last long. The laws were rarely, if ever, enforced. As the frontiers of settlement spread, dispossessed Aborigines responded with aggression.[7]

The largest massacre of Europeans by Aborigines in Australia was in July 1840, when 16 passengers and 10 crew members of the ship, Maria were murdered. The ship had run aground somewhere in the southern Coorong and all aboard made it safely to shore. They were initially assisted by the Ngarrindjeri people until a disagreement sparked the massacre. A punitive expedition was mounted by Governor Gawler, who gave permission to execute up to three suspects without formal trial.[8]

The Rufus River Massacre occurred in 1841, when at least 30 Aborigines were killed by overlanders bringing in cattle from the eastern colonies. Other notable incidents include the Avenue Range Station massacre in 1848 in the southeast and Waterloo Bay massacre in 1849 on the western Eyre Peninsula. Incidents in the Northern Territory must be included from 1863, when it was also part of South Australia.

Protector of Aborigines[edit]

Matthew Moorhouse was appointed as Protector of Aborigines in 1839. His role included protecting the interests of Aborigines, identifying the tribes, learning their language, and teaching them "the arts of civilization" - including reading, writing, and cultivation. He was also to give them a knowledge of Christian religion.[9]


As Europeans spread across South Australia, a number of Christian missionaries set up mission stations to reach out to Aborigines. Many of these became Aboriginal towns and settlements in later years.

Stolen generations[edit]

Native title[edit]

Despite the inequalities that transpired during the early years of European settlement, some areas of the state are now subject to Native title of varying kinds and degrees. This ranges from freehold ownership to the right to access Crown Land in their former range. The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 grants rights over about 10% of South Australia in the northwest of the state, including a former Aboriginal reserve and three cattle stations.[10]

Prominent individuals[edit]

Modern aboriginal life[edit]

21st century Aborigines live in South Australia in a number of settings ranging from complete integration to English-speaking culture to near-traditional life in traditional homelands speaking predominantly the pre-European languages. Some live in or loosely associate with Aboriginal communities based on former mission stations such as Pukatja (formerly Ernabella). Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands are now freehold Aboriginal land in the northwest of the state, with limited access to tourists and visitors, created by Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981.

The Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains had become virtually extinct but is now being revived and taught to children in Kaurna Aboriginal schools.


  1. ^ "Kaurna People". Adelaidia. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  2. ^ "Transcript of the South Australia Act, 1834" (PDF). Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. 4 & 5 Will. IV c. 95. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
  3. ^ William the Fourth (19 February 1836), Letters patent establishing the Province of South Australia (PDF), retrieved 3 January 2016
  4. ^ "Proclamation of South Australia". Documenting a Democracy. Museum of Australian Democracy. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "Centuries Of Slaughter: Genocide In The Australian Outback". All That's Interesting. 2016-11-16. Retrieved 2018-07-04.
  6. ^ International, Survival. "Australia's treatment of Aborigines 'appalling'". Retrieved 2018-07-04.
  7. ^ "Out of the Silence The History and Memory of South Australia's Frontier Wars". Flinders Ranges Research. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  8. ^ "The Maria Massacre". Graham Journay. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  9. ^ 'Moorhouse, Matthew (1813–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moorhouse-matthew-4239/text6843, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 4 January 2016.
  10. ^ "Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (SA)". Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  11. ^ "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". MessageStick. ABC. 19 September 2010. Archived from the original on 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2016-01-05.