Posts Tagged ‘terra nullius’

It is a matter of historical fact that on April 29, 1770, Captain James Cook (captain of his ship although only then actually holding the naval rank of Lieutenant) first landed on the shores of Australia at what he named Botany Bay. After charting much of the coastline northward, Cook recorded in his journal “I now once more hoisted English Coulers [sic] and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third, took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude 38°S down to this place by the name of New South Wales.”

The above was claiming the land under the terra nullius doctrine which loosely means it does not already belong to anyone else. Under the earlier papal doctrine, the New World had been divided between Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land on the Australian continent in what is now Western Australia. The Portuguese were quite secretive about their explorations and the records of that era were largely lost in a fire following an earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 thus the full documented extent of their exploration of the Australia coast was lost. Spain made a claim in the wake of England’s claim, based on the earlier papal declaration but nothing came of it. So by current practice at the time, the English stuck by this idea that the Great Southern Land did not belong to anyone. And this was hardly the first time the English used that as a justification for taking lands as their own.

The declaration of terra nullius was made in full knowledge that indigenous peoples already dwelt on the continent. For example Cook wrote in his journal on 23 August 1770: “these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans”. Clearly there was no question that people already dwelt there. But those people’s great sin was they were not a European nation and by the practices of the time were discounted.

There were a number of challenges to the terra nullius doctrine over the following two centuries but it was only formally dismissed as a fiction in the 1992 landmark case of Mabo before the High Court of Australia which found that there was a concept of native title in common law, that the source of native title was the traditional connection to or occupation of the land, that the nature and content of native title was determined by the character of the connection or occupation under traditional laws or customs. In short, the terra nullius concept was a crock of crap as at the time of European arrivals as the continent was already in the ownership of its indigenous peoples ie it already belonged to someone else.

The key point of that finding is that the continent was already settled when Europeans arrived.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Jump forward to the evening of Thursday, July 3, 2014, the Australia Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was the key note speaker at the Australian-Melbourne Institute conference. At that time Abbott declared, still as the key speaker and as Prime Minister of the Australian nation and all its peoples, indigenous and otherwise, “…our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.”

It beggars belief that our Prime Minister, a Rhodes Scholar (although by his inability to express himself terribly well and by the sheer shambles of his conduct, it makes one wonder just what is required to become a Rhodes Scholar!), retreats to this ridiculous proposition that Australia was not really settled prior to British arrival (actually it was an English claim, Tony, but don’t let facts get in the way of your nonsense stories).

It is also well documented fact that on May 17, 2010, Abbott publicly declared that we should not believe everything he says in the heat of the moment but instead said we should believe what he and other politicians say only if “…it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark.” However at the above conference, Abbott was the key note speaker. This was part of his pre-prepared address. Consequently by his earlier statements, we can safely assume that this is precisely what Abbott believes – that Australia was not really settled before Europeans arrived.

This is an absolute disgrace!

According to the Australian government website,, at the time of European arrival there “were over 500 different clan groups or ‘nations’ around the continent, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages.” Estimates of the approximate number of Indigenous Australians present at the time vary from as low as 318,000 to 1,000,000. However there is absolutely no question that the continent was inhabited.

Despite the above, Tony Abbott has had the sheer affrontry to all but return to the fiction of terra nullius! This man is an absolute idiot. He is an insult not just to Indigenous Australians but to all Australians. His degree of ignorance is truly staggering. Or was it a form of Freudian slip revealing a desire to push Australian back to an Antipodean form of the glory days of the British Raj in India. “By Jove – we’ll put those dashed darkies back in their place!”

Ross sig

Update – I have already been criticised because the quote was in relation to foreign investment and no, there was no foreign investment in Australia prior to European arrival. But I stand by my criticisms – the calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark [and therefore by his earlier advice it is a statement to be believed] was so for out of line that is was practically out of sight!