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Era 2: Protection

By the mid 1800's, the violence, disease and dispossession resulting from colonisation had caused a dramatic drop in the Indigenous population. For many Indigenous people, the cost of survival was very high, as they lost their culture, family, land, language and independence in the name of 'protection'.

“The question to ask did not seem to be whether Aboriginal people were a dying race or not, but what should be the response to this situation. The convenient and widespread assumption was that their death was inevitable. Appeal could be made to biology ('We cannot fail to recognise in their extinction a decided widening of the chasm by which mankind is now cut off from its animal progenitors' (1)): to history (‘This is the history of all new countries.. . The Australian blacks are moving rapidly on into the eternal darkness…’ (2)); to theology ('One of those necessary processes in the course of Providence…’(3)). To some, like the Melbourne columnist, 'Vagabond', the Aborigines were about to die out and 'the sooner the better.' (4)

~John Harris (5)

Aboriginal Farmers at Parker's Protectorate, Mt. Franklin. Victoria.

There were a rare few who saw the situation more clearly. Bishop Matthew Gibney, for instance, regarded the phrase “doomed to disappear” as a convenient euphemism for genocide:


'The Aboriginal races of Australia are doomed to disappear before the advances of the white man’… 'Doomed to disappear!' Blessed phrase! Over how many bloody outrages, over what an amount of greed on the part of some, weakness on the part of the government and apathy on the part of the public does this convenient euphemism throw a thin but decent disguise.’ (6)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonial authorities felt it necessary to protect the Indigenous population, in order to ease the process of extinction. This was the beginning of the Protection Era. 

In the name of ‘protection’, Indigenous Australians were made wards of the state and subjected to policies that gave government the power to determine where Indigenous people could live, who they could marry, and where they could work. Despite the benevolent intentions behind these policies, in practice, they denied Indigenous people control over almost every aspect of their lives. 

The Stopford Home for Aboriginal Girls or the Girls Dormitory at Barambah Aboriginal Settlement 1925, Queensland Museum.

One of the main features of protection legislation was the establishment of government reserves, tracts of land designated for Indigenous people to live on. Originally intended to shelter Indigenous people from colonial violence, reserves ultimately facilitated government control over the lives of Indigenous people. 

Colonial authorities also regarded Christian missions as agencies to which government responsibilities for Indigenous people could be delegated. These responsibilities included the distribution of government rations and the provision of medical aid and education. Consequently, Christian missionaries were in a position to assume extensive control over Indigenous people’s lives. 

John Harris regrets that often “(the missionaries) failed to distinguish properly between the gospel and what they called ‘civilisation’… Thus they assumed roles which were dominant rather than equal, powerful rather than serving, even arrogant rather than humble.” (7)

'Native Congregation' - Oenpelli Mission, Northern Territory. (Rev E. Dyer)

Indigenous people were often forcibly removed from their lands and made to live on the reserves and missions. These were mostly highly institutionalised environments, aimed at civilising the Indigenous population and suppressing their Indigenous culture and heritage. As a result of forcible removal, many Indigenous people were robbed of the culture and language specific to their country and consequently have no legal claim to their traditional lands. (8)


“Although there was a large variety of different institutions and reserves, the majority of them shared a common regime of restricted movement, regimentation and loss of freedom. Some were more oppressive than others, but almost all denied Aboriginal people any freedom of choice and therefore any real dignity.

Most of the surviving Christian missions, like Maloga (Cumeroogunga) and Warangesda in NSW, were taken over by the government and given secular administration late in the nineteenth or early in the twentieth century… All of them functioned to a greater or lesser degree as de facto detention centres.” 

~John Harris (9)


By 1911, every mainland State and Territory had introduced protection policies that subjected Indigenous people to near-total control, and denied them basic human rights such as freedom of movement and labour, custody of their children, and control over their personal property. (10)

Stop & Think... Who Decides?

  • How would you feel about someone else being in charge of where you lived, when and where you could move around, who you married and whether your children stayed with you?
  • How would it make you feel if those people believed that you and your community had no future, but were ‘doomed to disappear?’
  • How might it change the way you think about yourself and your life if you were in this kind of situation? How would it affect your relationships, your motivation and your self-image?

The policies put in place by past governments to deny Indigenous Australians control over their lives have had ongoing impact on families and wellbeing. The realities of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with regard to many important life indicators are evidence of the continuing impact of the damage done by these disempowering approaches. 

Want to know more?

Watch Sharing Our Story Episode 2 to find out more about the Protection Era.

To watch the full Sharing Our Story series, click here.



1. McAllister, D. 1878, 'The Australian Aborigines', Melbourne Review, pg. 157

2. Meston, A. 1889, 'Report on the Scientific Expedition to Bellenden Ker Range', Queensland Parliamentary Votes and Proceedings, pg. 1213

3. Bull, J. W. 1884, Early Experiences of Life in South Australia, E.S. Wigg, Adelaide, pg. 72

4. Vagabond Papers, (4th Series, 1877), Melbourne

5. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square, pg. 658 

6. Gibney, M. 1893, West Australian Record

7. Harris, J. 1988, Reconciliation with God and with each other: the Church's ministry with Indigenous Australians, Mission Australia Address

8. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families 1997

9. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square, pg. 685

10.  Attwood, B. and Markus, A. 1999, The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A documentary history, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards


  1. Men standing in rows: "Morning Parade at Cherbourg Settlement C1930", EH455, Queensland Museum
  2. Aboriginal farmers: "Aboriginal farmers at Parker's Protectorate", Mt. Franklin
    [ca. 1858], Daintree, Richard, 1832-1878 & Fauchery, Antoine 1823-1861, photographers, State Library of Victoria
  3. Group of young girls in front of building: "The Stopford Home for Aboriginal Girls or the Girls Dormitory at Barambah Aboriginal Settlement", 1925, Queensland Museum
  4. Segregated groups of girls and boys in front of church: "Native congregation at Oenpelli mission in Arnhem Land", 1928, National Archives of Australia: A263
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