Terra Nullius

The map below shows Australia divided into indigenous language groups. As you can see, Australia was not unpopulated in 1788. Nobody knows the exact population, but it is estimated that over 750 000 people lived there when the British arrived.


To have a closer look at the map, you can use the magnifying glass function here: http://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia (NB: This map has been found to contain some inaccuracies in border lines, and has missed or incorrectly placed some groups. AIATSIS has published a disclaimer that you can read in the link above).


Terra nullius

In 1770, when Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay, he claimed possession of the East Coast of Australia for Britain under the doctrine of terra nullius (“nobody’s land”).

According to the international law of Europe in the late 18th century, there were only three ways that Britain could take possession of another country:

  • If the country was uninhabited, Britain could claim and settle that country. In this case, it could claim ownership of the land.
  • If the country was already inhabited, Britain could ask for permission from the indigenous people to use some of their land. In this case, Britain could purchase land for its own use but it could not steal the land of the indigenous people.
  • If the country was inhabited, Britain could take over the country by invasion and conquest- in other words, defeat that country in war. However, even after winning a war, Britain would have to respect the rights of indigenous people.

(From sources at: http://www.racismnoway.com.au/teaching-resources/anti-racism-activities/lesson-ideas/what-about-a-treaty/)



  1. Why do you think Cook declared the land “terra nullius” even though he had seen Aboriginal people there?
  2. Which attitudes towards indigenous peoples are shown by his declaration of terra nullius? Have similar situations happened with indigenous peoples in other countries? What do you know about them?
  3. Do you think similar things could happen now? Why/why not?

Terra Nullius was overturned on 3 June 1992. A small group led by Eddie Mabo fought a legal battle against the state for over ten years over land rights. The High Court decreed that indigenous people had ownership of the land long before European settlement and that therefore Terra Nullius was void. After the court’s decision, in 1993, the federal parliament passed the Native Title Act.


For more about Mabo and the law case: https://www.reconciliation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/mabo-decision_2017.pdf?fbclid=IwAR25Hy_FCPupiNpkaNpVxOveZfNh2xvHsnAI8uTFt91zEmeiz4FL-ZXFbns


Further work:

As the Europeans arrived, Aboriginal people were moved away from their ancestral land. They were mixed with people from different areas and language groups. Many were sent to live in reservations (called “missions”), such as the Yarrabah mission just south of Cairns in northern Queensland. You can read more about the history of this mission here: