First encounters and frontier conflict

Story of Mayawagu by senior Borroloola artist Nancy McDinny, the image courtesy of Waralungku Arts, Borroloola, NT

First contact between Aboriginal Australians with British colonisers in 1788 quickly escalated into frontier conflict that lasted for over 140 years and cultural divides that continue to split Australia to this day.

These splits began as soon as Governor Arthur Phillip claimed sovereignty on 26 January 1788. The British Admiralty gave 'Secret Instructions' to Lieutenant James Cook on each of his three voyages to the South Pacific between 1768 and 1779. The Secret Instructions contained in the Letterbook carried on the Endeavour instruct Cook 'with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain'.

Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, and here he noted as he returned to the ship the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, 'a certain sign they are Inhabited'.

Despite Cook’s observations, and the British Admiralty’s instructions, Governor Arthur Phillip claimed sovereignty and ownership of the land through the legal concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no-one) over the area that Captain James Cook had named New South Wales. 

First encounters

Early interactions between the colonisers and people of the Darug and Eora nations in today’s Sydney were based on understanding the terms of trading and encouragement of friendliness by Governor Phillip. The people of the First Fleet did not understand the ways of the local Indigenous peoples they encountered however, and their diaries and journals record the lack of respect that many members of the First Fleet had for local Indigenous people.


One of the most devastating impacts of British colonisation was the introduction of diseases such as influenza, venereal disease, typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles and whooping cough. Many of the Eora people who lived on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour died from smallpox in the first years of colonisation, although the origin of the infection remains a source of disagreement amongst historians. 


Governor Phillip’s tolerance of the local inhabitants did not last long. The warrior Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal nation, located in today’s western Sydney, speared a frontier man in 1790 as punishment for killing Bidjigal people. This behavior would have been punished in pre-contact tribal society. Phillip retaliated by ordering his staff to kill ten ‘natives’ and capture two in order to stop further reprisals.

Fifty soldiers and two surgeons were sent into the bush however not a single Aboriginal person was captured. The Eora and Bidjigal people, led by Pemulwuy, then undertook a campaign of resistance against the British colonisers in a series of attacks from 1790 and 1810. 


Frontier conflict varied widely in duration and intensity but was a recurring feature of the history of Australia from the 1790s to the 1930s. In some places it lasted a month or two; elsewhere it occurred for a decade or more.

Aboriginal Australian attacks initially focused on individual Europeans, either for taboo behavior or the killing of kin, both of which would have been punishable in pre-contact tribal society. Longer conflicts involved more systematic attacks combined with sophisticated forms of economic warfare involving mass killing of sheep, cattle and horses and burning of crops, grassland and buildings.

Massacres of Aboriginal Australians occurred across Australia, the most widely documented occurring at Forrest River NT and Myall Creek NSW. The 1838 Myall Creek massacre is remembered not because it occurred, and not because people were tried and acquitted for it (trials were rare, acquittals of the few brought to trial were common). It is remembered because people were retried, found guilty and, uniquely, hung for the crime. Other purported massacres, such as that at Bell’s Falls in the central west of NSW, were not documented at the time, but accounts of them have survived in the memories of small local communities.

Where the struggle was most intense, Aboriginal resistance delayed the expansion of settlement while imposing a considerable economic and psychological cost on the colonisers. This is evident in historic accounts of settlement of the Hawkesbury in the 1790s, in the Tasmanian midlands in the 1820s, in northern NSW in the 1840s, in central and north Qld in the 1860s and 70s, and in the Kimberleys in the 1890s.

In the course of frontier conflict, it is estimated that about 2000 British colonisers and over 20,000 Indigenous Australians died violently.

Related content

Last reviewed: 11 Sep 2015