When Cook charted Australia’s east coast in 1770, he was unaware of the stories and cultural significance of the places he visited and the thousands of years of tradition, custom and law that existed.
When he landed on Possession Island in August 1770, Cook claimed possession of the east coast of Australia in the name of King George III, effectively making British colonisation of the continent inevitable. European settlement began 18 years later with the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788, beginning the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
For a long time, Indigenous people had little or no say. They lost their rights and privileges over their own land. While we cannot change this history, we can try to better understand it.
In this century, we have an opportunity to reflect on what happened 250 years ago. We are able now to honour community and culture. We also need to ensure we do not repeat old injustices.
The meaning of land
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have a spiritual relationship with their land. Song, dance and ceremonies preserve a balance with land and nature, and enhance their connection with the land.
It is important for current and future generations to understand the truth about what happened after the Europeans came. Things might have turned out very differently if Britain had better understood Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander world views.
Since time immemorial, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians’ have maintained their connection to Country. Significantly, the Mabo decision affirmed, at law, rights to land and dismissed the notion that the Australian continent belonged to no one (terra nullius).
Throughout Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to practice, preserve and maintain language and culture, ensuring future generations can be proud of their identity. This pride can be shared by all Australians.
Yuin Land claim
At the time of Cook’s journey up the east coast, the Yuin people lived all along the south coast of what is now New South Wales. But as European settlement spread, the Yuin people were increasingly pushed off their lands. The New South Wales government responded by setting up Aboriginal reserves, with the first of these reserves being established at Wallaga Lake in 1891. Many Yuin people were moved there, in the shadow of Gulaga (Mount Dromedary).
Over the years, Gulaga has been mined for gold and its dense forests felled for timber. More recently, Yuin people have fought for control of their mountain and for more of their land. In 1978, Yuin people from Wallaga Lake presented their land claim to the then-Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran.
In 1984, after years of struggle, Wallaga Lake became the first Aboriginal community in New South Wales to receive title deeds to its remaining traditional lands.