Brisbane's Indigenous History

An understanding of history is important to an understanding of our society. How the story is told depends on the teller and the times in which they lived. The history of Aboriginal occupation in Brisbane has largely been recorded by white tellers rather than by a combination of both white and black observers. Learning about our society through a study of the past requires that we remember who documented the history and what motivated them.

Land, language, and people are linked together in three important elements of Aboriginal culture: family, clan, and language. In the Brisbane area the Yaggera language group was used and the clans associated with this group of languages were the Jagera and the Turrbal. The Turrbal, also called 'the Duke of York's clan' by the whites, mainly lived north of the Brisbane River, and the Jagera were mostly located south of the river. Today the exact territorial boundary of these two groups is in question.

Brisbane was known as 'Mian-jin', which means 'place shaped like a spike'. The Turrbal and the Jagera had numerous campsites, including those at Woolloongabba, Toowong, Bowen Hills, Newstead, Nundah, and Nudgee, and many pathways that allowed them access to different parts of Brisbane. During certain seasons and for some ceremonies the area could become the gathering place for hundreds of people. Everyday life for the clan consisted of hunting and gathering food, with time for games, and other social and spiritual activities. Both clans roamed over a large area that encompassed forest, scrub, and the coastal lowlands, which featured swamps, lagoons, and pockets of rainforest. The coastal areas were rich in food and the Aborigines here were said to number 5,000 prior to white occupation.

In 1829 the colonial botanist, Charles Frazer, described the area to the north-west of Brisbane as a thinly wooded undulating plain with open grassland. This grassland developed through the Aboriginal practice of 'fire-stick' management, which involved periodic burnings to encourage fresh shoots that would attract game such as wallaby.

As the changes brought about by white settlement impacted on all aspects of traditional Aboriginal life some indigenous people began performing a wide range of jobs around the town for white masters. These ranged from domestic work to drawing water and running errands. In 1857 white settlers became concerned at the growing Aboriginal presence in the township and responded by banning them from entering the town boundary any day after 4.30 p.m. and on Sundays. In 1858 two Aborigines, Dalinkua and Dalpie, from the Breakfast Creek area wrote letters to the Moreton Bay Courier protesting about the treatment their people received at the hands of the white settlers.

In 1897 the government passed an act called the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. Queensland was divided into districts and missions and reserves were set up within the districts. Aborigines were removed to these areas and although some were able to stay and work for white bosses, the city lost most of its indigenous population. In 1934 the act was amended and new policies introduced giving the white 'protector' more control over the lives of Aboriginal people. In 1939 the act was repealed and the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act introduced. The most repressive policies remained in force.

Protection was replaced by surveillance in the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Affairs Act passed in 1965. In the 1970s and the 1980s many indigenous people moved from the missions and reserves to Brisbane to meet up with relatives and friends and to seek work.


Ford, Roger & Blake, Thom 1978, Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Queensland – an annotated guide to ethno-historical sources, FAIRA Publications, Brisbane.

Evans, Raymond 1992, in The Mogwi take mi-an-jin, Brisbane – The Aboriginal Presence 1824–1860, Brisbane History Group, Brisbane.

Hall, J. Sitting on the Crop of the Bay, in Bowdler (ed.) Coastal Archaeology in Eastern Australia.
Rumsey, Alan , Language and Territoriality in Aboriginal Australia, in Walsh and Yallop (eds) Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia.

Steele, J. G 1978, Foundations of Brisbane, in Brisbane Retrospect.