Indigenous Australia Timeline - 1901 to 1969

A timeline of events relating to Indigenous Australians from the time of Federation in 1901 until 1969.

Aboriginal shell forehead band, Queensland

Aboriginal shell forehead band, Queensland
Photographer: Australian Museum Photography Unit © Australian Museum

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1 January - Federation. The six self-governing colonies collectively become the states of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Commonwealth Constitution states "in reckoning the numbers of people... Aboriginal natives shall not be counted". It also states that the Commonwealth would legislate for any race except Aboriginal people. The states therefore retain their power over Aboriginal Affairs.


The Queensland Government establishes Cherbourg, an Aboriginal community, about 100 km from Gympie.


The Western Australia Aborigines Act is passed. Reserves are established, a local protector is appointed and rules governing Aboriginal employment are laid down.


The Invalid and Old Age Pension Act provides social security for all Australians except Aboriginal people.

1909 -10

NSW introduces The NSW Aborigines Act following crises in public schools. Aboriginal schools are established in NSW during the early part of the 20th century. Exclusion of Aboriginal children from public schools followed requests by the European community. In NSW, there are 22 Aboriginal schools in 1910, 35 in 1920 and 40 in 1940. The syllabus stresses manual activities and the teacher is usually the reserve manager's untrained wife.

The Act also made it illegal for 'half castes' to live on reserves. In 1915 and 1918 amendments to the Act give the NSW Aborigines Protection Board greater powers to remove children for training as domestic servants.


The Victorian Aborigines Act permitted the Board for Protection of Aboriginal people to help 'half castes' by licensing needy persons to live on stations.

An inquiry is held into the Forest River Massacre in the Kimberley.

The Aborigines Protection Board Act is passed which gives the Protection Board 'legal' control over Aboriginal people on stations and reserves but not missions, in the Northern Territory.


The South Australian Aboriginal Act is this state's first legislation relating directly to Aboriginal people.


Maternity Allowance is introduced but does not include Aboriginal people.


The United Church in North Australia opens an Aboriginal mission on South Goulburn Island.


The Queensland Government establishes an Aboriginal station - Palm Island - in the Palm Isles.

The Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act "ensured that Aboriginal people could not drink or possess or supply alcohol or methylated spirits, could not come within 2 chains of licensed premises, have firearms, marry non-Aborigines without permission or have sex across the colour line".

The Ordinance also forbids mining on Aboriginal Reserve Land.


Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, is named an Aboriginal Reserve. A number of missions have been established here.

Aboriginal population of Australia is estimated to be 60 000. It is widely believed to be a 'dying race'.


The Church Missionary Society of the Church of England set up a mission at Oenpelli, Central Australia. The Aboriginal community later run a water buffalo farm and sell X-ray style bark paintings.


Conniston Massacre in the Northern Territory. Europeans shoot 32 Aboriginal people after a European Dingo trapper, and a station holder are attacked by Aboriginal people.

A court of inquiry says the Europeans' action was 'justified'. Aboriginal people are refused legal aid by the Federal Government.

Some reserves are leased to non-Aboriginal settlers in Victoria.


Queensland Protector of Aborigines recommends to the Federal Government that Aboriginal people be assimilated where they are in contact with European society and that inviolable reserves be established for tribal people.


Victorian William Cooper, petitions the King to have an Aboriginal representative in the Lower House of Federal Parliament. A similar attempt is made in NSW. They are unsuccessful.

In the 1930s clashes occur between Aboriginal and Japanese fishermen on the coast of Arnhem Land. Several Japanese are fatally speared.

Gradual change occurs in attitudes of non-indigenous people. Passive policies become more positive. Welfare organisations and anthropologists become more active.


At Caledon Bay, Northern Territory, a Japanese and three Europeans are killed by the local landowners.


The Arnhem Land Reserve is declared.


The Methodist Overseas Mission establishes Yirrkala, an Aboriginal community on the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory. It was later taken over by the United Church in North Australia.

A Roman Catholic Mission is established at Port Keats, Northern Territory.


At a conference of state and federal officials called by the Federal Government, assimilation for some Aboriginal people is adopted as official policy. Part Aboriginal people are to be assimilated into white society whether they want to be or not. Aboriginal people not living a tribal life are to be educated and all others are to stay on reserves.

June, William Ferguson, launches in Dubbo, NSW, the Aborigines Progressive Association, in opposition to the Aborigines Protection Board, after officials of the Board had arbitrarily used their powers to harass Aboriginal people.

The Presbyterian Church establishes a mission - Ernabella - in the Musgrave Ranges, South Australia.


On 26 January, 150 years after European occupation, the Aboriginal Progressive Association declares a Day of Mourning. An Aboriginal Conference is held in Sydney. These are the first of many Aboriginal protests against inequality, injustice, dispossession of land and protectionist policies.

For the Europeans 'celebration' of 150 years of "settlement" in NSW, Aborigines are trucked to Sydney to take part in the re-enactment of the British landing on 26 January 1788. Aboriginal people are threatened with starvation if they do not play their role.

NSW Government changes Aboriginal policy from protection to assimilation following the 1937 conference.

December, Albert Namatjira holds his first exhibition in Melbourne, of 41 works. All works are sold in three days.


Protest at Cumeroogunga, NSW, over malnutrition and ill treatment.

The Aborigines Protection Board in South Australia is established.

As a result of the 1937 conference Queensland passes legislation allowing Aboriginal people to receive workers' compensation. Also as a result of this conference a Native Affairs Branch is set up in the Northern Territory.


Amendments to the NSW protection legislation results in the replacement of the Aborigines Protection Board with the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board. Responsibility for the education of Aboriginal people is transferred to the Department for Education, which takes control of reserve buildings and starts to provide trained teachers.

The Aborigines Progressive Association campaigns to bring about reforms to the NSW Protection Board.

In the 1940s most Federal social security benefits are extended to Aboriginal people.

Increased mining developments in the 1940s in Western Australia brings protest from Aboriginal people concerned about their land. This lays the basis for the Pindan movement which was to grow from the 1946-49 strike by Aboriginal pastoral workers.


The Child Endowment Act is passed but no endowment is paid to nomadic or dependent Aboriginal people.


The numbers of power of district protectors in Western Australia is increased.


Darwin is bombed by the Japanese. Many Aboriginal people are relocated to 'control camps' and restrictions are places on Aboriginal movement, especially women. In Arnhem Land Aboriginal people make up special reconnaissance unit in defence against the Japanese.

The United Church in North Australia set up an Aboriginal mission on Elcho Island, Northern Territory.


A further amendment to the Aboriginal protection legislation in NSW, gives two Aboriginal people, one 'full-blood' and one 'half caste', representation on the Aboriginal Welfare Board. Walter Page and William Ferguson, both Aboriginal Progressive Association members, take up the positions.


2 October, Education Gazette, NSW, states "children of any Aborigine securing an Exemption Certificate are to be admitted to the ordinary public school".


Aboriginal cattle station workers in the Port Hedland district, Western Australia, strike for a pay increase. They are getting 10 shillings a week and are supplied with blankets. The Aboriginal people then formed a co-operative to mine alluvial wolfram which was successful.

An investigation shows Aboriginal people on Lord Vestey's Northern Territory cattle station are getting poor rations, inadequate housing, water and sanitation facilities, and are paid less than the 5/- a day minimum wage, which was set for Aboriginal people in a 1918 Ordinance. European males are receiving 2pounds/8/- a week in 1945.


Aboriginal children need a medical certificate to attend public schools.

Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Pilbara, Western Australia, strike over pay, conditions and ill treatment.


The Commonwealth Citizenship and Nationality Act for the first time gives a category of "Australian Citizenship" to all Australians, including all Aboriginal people. However, at state level Aboriginal people still suffer legal discrimination.

The Coranderrk Lands Act alienates Victoria's only 'permanent reservation'. In 1951 the remainder of Lake Condah reserve is revoked despite Aboriginal resistance.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act extends the franchise to Aboriginal ex-service men only.

Douglas Nicholls, an Aboriginal pastor is unsuccessful in petitioning the King to have an Aboriginal representative in the Victorian Parliament.


The first formal schooling for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory is provided. Lack of facilities is rationalised by the claim that children "beyond the age of 10 couldn't keep up with white children anyway".

Aboriginal children assimilate into NSW local schools, if all other parents agree. This right of veto is removed in 1960.


The Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance makes Aboriginal people wards of the government, basically making Aboriginal adults and children, minors.

Atom tests are conducted on Maralinga lands at Emu, South Australia. They are code named Operation Totem. A black cloud passes and many Aboriginal people suffer radiation sickness.


The Australian Capital Territory Aboriginal Welfare Ordinance is passed. Before this, Aboriginal people in the ACT come under NSW law. Most Aboriginal people in the ACT are living at Jervis Bay. The ordinance is repealed in 1965.


Further atom tests at Maralinga, South Australia - Operation Buffalo.


Operation Antler atom tests at Maralinga, South Australia. The presence of Aboriginal people on the test site is documented

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders is set up. This group combines a number of civil rights and Aboriginal welfare organisations. The work of this group plays a large part in bring about the 1967 Referendum.

Formation of the NADOC - National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee.


Aboriginal men Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coffin receive 50 pounds in damages for slander against an ABC reporter in Western Australian.


The Victorian (Houses) Act encourages a rehousing policy.

The Victorian Aborigines Advancement League begins assisting residents of the Cumeroogunga reserve, NSW, in their fight to regain land leased since the 1920s. When the lease ended in 1960 the co-operative, Cumeroogunga Pty Ltd, began farming the land.


December, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies is formed in Canberra.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act is amended to give the vote to all Aboriginal people.

The Aboriginal Affairs Act in South Australia reconstituted the Aborigines Protection Board and South Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The Act also limited mining on reserves by people other than Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal people in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are given the right to vote in Federal elections. Aboriginal people are not made to register but once they have voting is compulsory.

In NSW the prohibition on Aboriginal access to alcohol is removed.


in July a bark petition against mining on the Gove Peninsula is drawn up by the senior men of the affected clans. On 28 August the petition is presented to the Governor General. Although it is signed by more senior clan members, the Federal Government fails to recognise Aboriginal political structure and rejects the petition because of insufficient signatures. Also in August, a select committee on the grievances of Aboriginal people at Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula is appointed. From the 1 - 3 September the committee visits Yirrkala. Their report is tabled in Parliament in October.

Police evict residents at Mapoon, Queensland. The people are taken to other reserves and their settlement is burned down, to allow mining by Comalco.

BHP and the Church Missionary Society at Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory sign an agreement which provides a lump sum payments and royalties for use of land by BHP.

The Western Australian Native Welfare Act repeals the 1905 Act and alters the definition of an Aboriginal person and eligibility for aid.


The Northern Territory Social Welfare Ordinance replaces the Welfare Ordinance supposedly putting Aboriginal people on the same level as other Australians. But the Ward's Employment Ordinance remains in force leaving Aboriginal people on Christian missions and government settlements, about two-thirds of the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, unequal in employment, wages, vocational training and housing.


Integration Policy is introduced, meaning Aboriginal people are supposed to have more control over their life and society.

Northern Territory patrol officers 'bring in' the last group of Aboriginal people - the Pintubi people - living an independent life in the desert. The Pintubi people are relocated to Papunya and Yuendumu.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Affairs Act, passed in Queensland, gives the Director of Aboriginal Affairs considerable power over 'assisted' Aboriginal people. For example, an assisted Aboriginal person could be detained for up to a year for behaving in an 'offensive, threatening, insolent, insulting, disorderly, obscene or indecent manner', or 'leaving, escaping or attempting to leave or escape for the reserve'.

In the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Frank Ganngu and Elsie Darbuma's application for the return of their three children, who were taken from the leprosarium at the Oenpelli mission and fostered out, is rejected.


Stockmen and women at Wave Hill walk-off in protest against intolerable working conditions and inadequate wages. They establish a camp at Watti Creek and demand the return of some of their traditional lands. This began a seven year fight by the Gurindji people to obtain title to their land.

Cumeroogunga Pty Ltd become 'tenants at will' of the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board under an agreement to farm the remainder of the Cumeroogunga reserve.

The South Australian Prohibition of Discrimination Act is the first of its kind in Australia and bans all types of race and colour discrimination in employment, accommodation, legal contracts and public facilities.

The South Australian Lands Trust Act is the first legislation providing land ownership and compensation to dispossessed Aboriginal people. The Act set up a trust composed of Aboriginal people. It enabled Aboriginal people to obtain specific title to reserves, where reserves existed.

Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian are the first Aboriginal university graduates.


The Commonwealth Referendum passes. This ends constitutional discrimination and all Aboriginal people are now counted in the national census. It also means that the Federal Government can now legislate for Aboriginal people in the states and share the responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs with state governments. All states except Queensland, abandon laws and policies that discriminate against Aboriginal people. The first census fully including Aboriginal people is in 1971.

The Gurindji people petition the Governor General for 1 295 square kilometres of their land to be excised from Wave Hill pastoral lease.


Aboriginal workers are included in the Northern Territory Cattle Industries Award.

Nabalco and the Federal Government sign an agreement giving Nabalco a 42 year special lease to mine bauxite near Yirrkala in the Arnhem Land reserve.

Desecration of the Weebo Site in Western Australia eventually led to the Western Australian Heritage Act being proclaimed in 1972.

The Commonwealth Office of Aboriginal Affairs is established and in 1972 becomes the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.


Aborigines Welfare Board in NSW is abolished.

The Federal Government establishes the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation to help finance sports activities.

An Aboriginal delegation goes to New York and presents a statement on Australian Aborigines to the Office of the UN Secretary-General.

The NSW Aborigines Act transfers control to the directorate within the NSW Department of Youth and Community Services. An Aboriginal Advisory Council is set up. The directorate is abolished in 1975 and the staff transferred to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

The following references were used in compiling this timeline:

  • Bostock, Lester, 1990, The Greater Perspective, Special Broadcasting Service
  • Fraser, Bryce, (ed) 1983, The Macquarie Book of Events, Weldon,
  • Directorate of Special Programs, NSW Department of Education, 1982, Aboriginal Australia, a Preliminary Chronology
  • Jonas, Bill and Langton, Marcia, 1994, The Little Red, Yellow and Black (and Green and Blue and White) Book, AIATSIS
  • Horton, D (ed) 1994, Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press
  • Butler, Kevin, Cameron, K & Percival, B., 1995, The Myth of Terra Nullius, Invasion and Resistance -the early years, Board of Studies


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