Terra Nullius


First People Then And Now And

Terra Nullius


Terra Nullius


Prior to 1788 when the British occupied the east coast of Australia there were a number of visitors to what was regarded as the strange and unknown continent.

When the first visitors came is not known. But there has long been contact with the people of Papua New Guinea for many thousands of years. When the sea levels  were low the two countries – Papua New guinea and Australia – were connected by land.


First people then and now



This was during the Ice Ages. The people of Papua New Guinea, those of the Torres Strait and Cape York intermarried and exchanged cultural values and technology.

The Chinese admiral Cheng Ho sailed into the waters bordering the Indian Ocean, including East Africa, India, Java and Sumatra. Who knows he may even have travelled into Australian waters between 1405 and 1432 on his great voyages of discovery.


For several centuries to just after the conclusion of the nineteenth century at least a thousand Macassans from the Indonesian island of Sulewesi visited northern Australia. They were fishermen and they fished for the sea slug called trepang. This was a prized delicacy in Chinese cuisine.

Each year the Macassans would come. They would stay in northern Australia for approximately five months before heading back in April of each year when the winds changed to the southeast.


MacassansThe Macassans set up settlements on sheltered beaches along the coast of Arnhem Land not far from the shallow waters where the trepang was collected. They set up processing plants for the trepang – rows of stone fireplaces which supported the cauldrons in which it was boiled.

The second stage of the processing involved burying the trepang in the sand. It was smoked and then packed ready to be taken back to Macassar and the markets in Asia.

Some Aboriginal families today have Macassan ancestors and relations. Some even travelled back to Macassar.

In 1907 the Australian government put an end to these visits by the Macassans because they became a threat to the pearling industry.

The Portuguese and Spanish

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Portuguese and Spanish navigators explored the waters near Australia. In 1605 the Spanish navigator, Pedro Fernandes de Queirós claimed Vanuatu thinking it was the great southern land, and Luis Vaez de Torres in 1606 sailed through the waters that now bear his name – the Torres Strait.

The Dutch

In that same year 1606 the Dutch explored the waters around the northern, western and southern coasts. There were some unfriendly encounters with the Aborigines which dissuaded them from exploring inland. In 1697 Willem de Vlamingh made an attempt at exploration but he also withdrew.

The French

Between 1771 and 1828 the French sent eight expeditions to Australia to extend their knowledge of the little known world of Australia and the Pacific. Many places in Australia are named after the French explorers: La Perouse, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Freycinet, to name just a few.

The English

On 19 April 1770 Captain James Cook reached the east coast of Australia. Cook was instructed to take possession of the eastern half of the continent for the British crown.

At Possession Island, off Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland, he took possession of the whole of the eastern coast in the name of King George III. Cook declared that Australia was terra nullius meaning that Australia was land without people and that it was unoccupied and unowned.Therefore, the belief of the time was that the British could justify claiming the country as theirs.

Captain Cook took the east coast of Australia and he named it “New Whales “ then “New Wales and finally settled on New South Wales. From this time on Aboriginal Australians became a shadow people with no rights of any kind.

This taking of so called unoccupied land was an application of the dictum of terra nullius (land without people). Terra nullius comes from the Latin meaning “nobody’s land”. It was the justification the British Government used to claim the eastern side of the continent as theirs.


Rock artWhat the British did not know or acknowledge was that Australia with its first people was one of the earliest centres of civilisation in the world with its beginnings at least 60,000 years ago.

The arrival of the First Fleet from England in 1788 changed the course of history for Australia’s first people then and now forever. For the next two hundred years a tragic and catastrophic history unfolded which for Aboriginal people was marked by constant warfare with their British invaders.


c.Text  Marji Hill  2017

c. Macassans – Art work;    Gun on rock shelter  Marji Hill  2017