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Terra Nullius

In 1770 Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay, home of the Eora people, and claimed possession of the East Coast of Australia for Britain under the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’

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:

  1. If the country was uninhabited, Britain could claim and settle that country. In this case, it could claim ownership of the land.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Strangely Britain did not follow any of these rules in Australia. Since there were already people living in Australia, Britain could not take possession by “settling” this country. However from the time of Captain Cook’s arrival the British Government acted as if Australia were uninhabited. So, instead of admitting that it was invading land that belonged to Aboriginal people, Britain acted as it were settling an empty land. This is what is meant by the myth of terra nullius.

Source:
The myth of terra nullius NSW Board of Studies, 1995
Reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1996
Racism. no way. CESCEO

Theme: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – Australian history and race relations