Aboriginal reserves

From the last decades of the nineteenth century to the 1960s, a system of reserves, missions and other institutions isolated, confined and controlled Aboriginal people. While the aims of these institutions and the purposes of confinement changed over time, incarceration was always the solution to perceived social problems. Of particular concern to administrators was the perceived need to keep Aboriginal people separate from the white population.

By the late nineteenth century, disease and violence had devastated the Aboriginal population throughout Australia. It is estimated that in Queensland, for example, the Aboriginal population decreased from 100,000 in 1788 to 26,670 in 1901.[24] Precise figures of the drop in population after 1788 are difficult to establish as original numbers can only be estimated, and the numbers of deaths by disease and massacre were obscured. Social Darwinist notions of racial hierarchy and of the survival of the fittest helped rationalise the decline in the Aboriginal population. It was widely believed that Aboriginal people were a primitive race doomed to extinction.

To quell the violence on the frontiers, to reduce devastation by disease and to provide Aborigines with a ‘humane’ environment while their race died out, colonial governments introduced systems of ‘protective’ legislation. The first was in 1860 in South Australia, where a Chief Protector was appointed to watch over the interests of Aboriginal people and to ‘smooth the dying pillow’.[25] Similar legislation was passed in Victoria (1869), Queensland (1897), Western Australia (1905) and New South Wales (1909). These laws were a way of ‘protecting’ Aborigines from violence on the frontier. By designating territory for Aborigines, it was hoped that the conflict between settlers and Aborigines over land would stop and that Aborigines would use the settlement land to farm and become self-sufficient, thus improving their ‘destitute’ state and reducing their reliance on the government for rations.

The reserve laws gave governments a great degree of regulatory powers over all aspects of Aborigines’ lives. They lost basic human rights such as freedom of movement and labour, custody of children and control over personal property.[26] In some states and the Northern Territory, the Chief Protector had legal guardianship over all Aboriginal children, usurping the power of the parents.[27] These restrictive policies reached their peak in the 1930s.[28] ‘In the name of protection,’ suggest the authors of Bringing Them Home, ‘Indigenous people were subject to near-total control.’[29]

The reserve system was designed primarily to separate Aborigines from white society. This was complicated, however, by the growing population of people of mixed descent. By the 1920s, it became clear that while the ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal population was still declining in number, the population of people of mixed descent was increasing. A problem of classification therefore emerged: were ‘half-castes’, ‘quadroons’ (people with one-quarter Aboriginal blood) and ‘octoroons’ (people with one-eighth Aboriginal blood) white or were they Aboriginal? Should people containing some ‘European blood’ be allowed to continue to live with Aborigines or should they be integrated into settler society? Should they be encouraged to marry whites, further ‘diluting’ the degree of Aboriginal blood, or should their choices be restricted to Aborigines or others of mixed descent? Where could the boundary between white and Aboriginal society be positioned?

The policy of assimilation provided one solution to this problem. Conveniently, this required the continued incarceration of Aborigines of all degrees of descent. Reserves were intended to be sites for training Aborigines, particularly those of mixed descent, in the ways of white society. Children were removed from their parents and taught the values and behaviours that would make them acceptable to white society. With the reserve system, governments created and maintained social and territorial boundaries between Aboriginal people and the white community. At a time when Australia, as a young nation, was defining itself, the reserve system helped to delineate who was included in the nation and who was not.




[24] Chesterman, John and Galligan, Brian 1997, Citizens Without Rights: Aborigines and Australian citizenship, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p. 31.

[25] Bolton, G. C. 1982, ‘Aborigines in social history: an overview’, in Ronald M. Berndt (ed.), Aboriginal Sites, Rights and Resource Development, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, p. 59.

[26] Attwood, Bain and Markus, Andrew 1999, The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A documentary history, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

[27] National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney.

[28] Attwood and Markus, The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights, p. 8.

[29] National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Bringing Them Home, p. 22.