This timeline traces how prejudice has affected who we are, how we govern and what we believe.

Coloured illustration
Captain James Cook landing at Botany Bay, 1770. Created 1872.

For centuries science and politics have influenced how we think and feel about those who have been considered different, inferior, or threatening. Consider whether you think these attitudes continue to resonate today. 




Naturalists and scientists develop theories about human 'races' and racial hierarchies in order to justify the enslaving of millions of African people and the seizing of Indigenous territories worldwide. By the 18th century these ideas about human difference have become a cornerstone of European thinking, shaping attitudes towards 'non-white' cultures.

About 1502

Atlantic slave trade begins, peaking in the 18th century. Britain outlaws slavery in 1807. The last recorded slave ship arrives in the USA in 1859. ‘The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.’Reverend Richard Furman, Baptist Minister, USA, 1838.


One of the first attempts by Europeans to document human variation is published by French physician Francois Bernier. He relies on categories based on physical characteristics such as skin colour.


Swedish botanist Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus divides humans racially by continent (Americanus; Asiaticus; Africanus; and Europeanus). Linnaeus' classifications included ‘Homo ferus' (wild men) and 'Homo monstrosus'(semi-mythical monsters).


Captain James Cook claims Australia for Britain under the doctrine of terra nullius, a Latin term meaning land belonging to no one.

Coloured illustration
Captain James Cook landing at Botany Bay, 1770. Created 1872.


Anti-racist ideas are promoted by continental European writers such as French philosopher Denis Diderot.


Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divides the human species into five races in On the Natural Variety of Mankind. Europeans use information from missionaries and slave traders to 'understand' African and American Indigenous communities.


The largest massacre in Victoria (then Port Phillip District) of Aboriginal people is inflicted upon the Gunditjmara people at Convincing Ground near Portland.


The theory that human races have separate origins is popularised by physician and surgeon Josiah Clark Nott and Egyptologist George Robins Gliddon in Types of Mankind. The argument was refuted by Charles Darwin in 1871 in Descent of Man.

Illustration depicting heads and skulls
Illustration from The Mismeasure of Man by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, using a descending hierarchy from white ‘civilised’ man to chimpanzee to prove a polygenist race theory, 1854.


Scientists continue to debate racial hierarchies, always with white men at the top. The theory of eugenics develops, emphasising racial purity and controlled breeding. In Australia this theory underpins the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Segregation, restrictive immigration policies and massacres of Indigenous peoples contribute to the maintaining of a white racial and economic pecking order.


Californian gold rush attracts tens of thousands of people from Europe, Latin America, Australia and China. In 1850 California introduces a new tax on alien gold miners, targeting the Chinese.


Gold is discovered in New South Wales and Victoria, followed by other colonies until 1890s. The gold rushes result in mass migration from the British Isles, Europe, America and China.

Coloured illustration
Satirical depiction of female immigrants arriving in England from Pacific, Caribbean and African countries, highlighting common racial caricaturing in the popular media of the time, 1851.


Victoria introduces the first Immigration Restriction Act in Australia aimed at limiting Chinese immigration. Other Australian colonies soon follow.


Chinese miners outnumber European miners by at least three to one at the Buckland River goldfields in Victoria. This sparks racial tensions culminating in a violent anti-Chinese riot in which at least three Chinese miners are killed.

Black and white illustration
Anti Chinese protests, 1861


Local Indigenous populations continue to resist settlers and immigrants. Killings of local Aboriginal populations continue across Australia until the early 1900s.

Black and white illustration
'Conflict on the Rufus', South Australia, 1866

Queensland sugar plantation owners commence forcible labour recruitment of Pacific Islanders. About 62,000 'kanakas' are 'blackbirded' (kidnapped) before the practice ceases in 1901.

Photograph of a group of people on a ship
Kidnapped Pacific Islanders en route to Australian sugar plantations, about 1890.


A close relationship between the 'worst' of the human races and the 'best' of the apes is claimed by German scientist Ernst Haeckel in Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte.

Illustration from Ernst Haeckel’s 1868 Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte demonstrating links between 'inferior' races and apes.


Charles Darwin's Descent of Man is published which would fundamentally influence political and social theories about the origins, evolution and hierarchies of human races. 'Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc, yet if their whole organisation be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other in a multitude of points.'


Melbourne entrepreneur Edward Cole begins producing pamphlets, essays and medals promoting world peace and arguing against racially-based immigration policies. His medal offers a positive interpretation of Darwin's theory of the origins of the human species.

Diagram demonstrating the relationship between skin colour and environment, E.W. Cole, The White Australia Question, 1903


The term 'eugenics' is coined by British anthropologist Francis Galton, a belief in human improvement through selective breeding: 'What is termed in Greek, 'eugenes' namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities.'


Aboriginal people are believed to be a dying race, requiring children of mixed descent to be absorbed into the 'white' community. The Aborigines Actofficially commences the removal of Aboriginal children in Victoria.

William Barak, head man for the Woirurrung at Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve near Healesville petitions the Victorian Government for better rights and land on behalf of the residents. 'We Blacks of Aboriginal Blood, wish to have now freedom for all our life time.'

Coloured illustration depicting two women
'The Old Race and the New', 1875


The phrase 'White Australia policy' first appears in William Lane's publication The Boomerang in Brisbane.

Cover of the The Bulletin
'The Yellow Trash Question', The Bulletin, 1895


Charles Pearson, Australian historian, educationist, politician and journalist,
publishes National Life and Character. A Forecast, in which he predicts that the 'higher races of men' would within a few decades find themselves 'elbowed and hustled and perhaps even thrust aside' by people whom they had assumed to be innately servile. The ideas would be taken up by future prime ministers Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin to defend the White Australia policy.


Ideas about whiteness and the value of racial purity inform restrictive immigration policies in the USA, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Thousands of British children are sent to Australia, Rhodesia, Canada and the USA, whom Australia gladly accepts because of this desire for a 'white' population. These ideas are also used to justify the continued removal of Aboriginal children from their families. In Germany, extreme manifestations of policies of racial purity lead to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.


The newly federated Australia passes the Immigration Restriction and Pacific Island Labourers acts, based on the 1896 Immigration Restriction Act (USA) and the 1897 Natal Immigration Restriction Bill (South Africa). Referred to as the ‘White Australia’ policy it includes a dictation test for the sole purpose of excluding immigrants deemed undesirable. 'There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races... unequal and inferior.' Sir Edmund Barton, Prime Minister of Australia, 1901

Crowd of people in front of a Chinese arch
Chinese Federation arch, Melbourne, 1901. The Chinese community participated in the celebrations of Australian nationhood, but would soon be excluded by the new Federal Government.


The first modern intelligence test is created. Credited to French psychologist Alfred Binet, it is known as the Binet-Simon intelligence scale. Intelligence testing would be used to justify racial discrimination. It is later accepted that education and economic status are also factors that affect test results.

Illustration of people of different ethnic backgrounds sitting around a table
'Piebald Possibilities. A Little Australian Christmas Party of the Future', 1909.


Campaigns aimed at increasing and improving the local white population are run by Australian women's organisations. They support eugenic measures which exclude 'unfit' white migrants and produce 'well born' white children.

'In Australia there was power to make the race we wished. It should not only be a white race, but a race of the best whites.' Mrs Priestly, Mothers' Clubs of Victoria, 1935.


Britain begins sending child migrants to Australia, resulting in about 6,500 children often being subjected to enforced labour and appalling treatment in the interests of building a 'white' Australia. The practice continues until 1970.

'At a time when empty cradles are contributing woefully to empty spaces, it is necessary to look for external sources of supply. And if we do not supply from our own stock we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races.' His Grace the Archbishop of Perth, 1938.

Group of children with 3 woman. Two are dressed a Nun's
Child migrants, St Vincent’s Founding Home, Leederville, Western Australia 1948.


Adolf Hitler reveals his obsession with racial purity in his 1925-26 publication, Mein Kampf. These ideas are based on the principles of eugenics and draw on interpretations of Darwinian ideas of fitness and progress. The subsequent Holocaust claims the lives of 6 million Jews. Also targeted, amongst others, are 'gypsies', homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

Nazi soldiers rounding up Jewish men during Kristellnacht, Germany, 1938
Nazi soldiers rounding up Jewish men during Kristellnacht, Germany, 1938.


At a national Native Welfare Conference on assimilation policy, Augustus Neville, West Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines (1922-40) asked: 'Are we going to have a population of one million blacks...or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any?'

Black and white photograph of a group of Aboriginal children with 2 white men in suits
'Stolen' children at Kahlin Compound, Northern Territory, 1921. Source:


Evian conference of allied nations reveals an international unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees. Australia reluctantly agrees to accept 15,000 but only 7,500 arrive by 1939 before the doors are closed.


DNA as human genetic material is isolated by Oswald Theodore Avery, Colin McLeod and Maclyn McCarty. From the 1940s, evolutionary scientists reject the idea that race is based on physical characteristics.


Scientific thought shifts away from using ‘race’ to define human variation. After World War II, international declarations are made relating to discrimination and human rights. While the doors to European migrants widen, Australian Government preferences for a dominant British-based population see migrant selection and assimilation policies continue well into the 1960s. Assimilation policies relating to Aboriginal people also persevere but the fight to recognise Indigenous rights in Australia gains momentum, partly influenced by international civil rights movements. Government policies embracing a culturally diverse population are evident in the 1970s through increased Indo-Chinese refugee intakes and multicultural programs.


Efforts to perpetuate a white Australia see the start of a massive assisted British immigration scheme, as well as the acceptance of refugees from Baltic countries. 'It is my hope that for every foreign migrant there will be ten people from the United Kingdom.' Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 1946.

Newspaper clipping
Displaced persons from Baltic countries were initially favoured for entry in the belief that they would easily ‘blend in,’ 1947.


A policy of legal racial segregation, known as apartheid, is enforced by the National Party government of South Africa until 1994. In Australia, segregation is imposed unofficially in public places such as theatres and swimming pools.

Newspaper clipping
Aboriginal children 'painted white' to enter a swimming pool, 1965.

Australia signs the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, nations begin to dismantle discriminatory immigration policies and introduce bills of rights.


 UNESCO releases its statement on race:  'At the moment, it is impossible to demonstrate that there exist between 'races' differences of intelligence and temperament other than those produced by cultural environment.'


Citizenship ceremonies are embraced by local residents across Australia, who organise events for recently arrived migrants in council and community halls.

Black and white photograph of a large group of people
Migrants from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, former Yugoslavia, Germany and Poland naturalised at Mornington Council hall, Victoria, 1958.


Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention on Genocide, despite the continuing removal of Aboriginal children from their parents which under Article 2 (e) is considered to be a form of genocide.


The double helix structure of DNA is identified by James D. Watson and Frances Crick. From the 1970s, genetic research begins to map the history of human populations.


Civil Rights movements in the UK and USA influence Aboriginal political activism in Australia. In 1963 Martin Luther King advocates for racial harmony in his famous 'I have a dream' speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


Australia is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. The 1960s see several UN conventions ratified by Australia in relation to discrimination and civil and political rights.

Charles Perkins leads a 'freedom ride' by Aboriginal people and non- Aboriginal students through New South Wales in support of Aboriginal rights.

Group of people sitting beside a bus
Student Aboriginal rights demonstrators, Walgett, New South Wales, 1967.


 National referendum gives the Commonwealth power to make and override state laws for Aboriginal people, and to count Aboriginal people in the national census.


Commonwealth government establishes a policy of 'self-determination' to restore to Aboriginal people a voice in their economic, social, political and land ownership affairs.


The 'White Australia' policy officially ends and Al Grassby, Minister for Immigration, launches the policy of multiculturalism.


The Racial Discrimination Act is passed in the Federal Parliament. The Australian Senate unanimously endorses a resolution tabled by Aboriginal Senator Neville Bonner acknowledging prior ownership of this country by Aboriginal peoples and seeking compensation for their dispossession.

Saigon falls and a draconian communist government in Vietnam takes power. People flee and begin to arrive in Australia by boat and through refugee camps. Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government adopts a generous refugee intake policy, broadly accepted by the Australian community.


Multiculturalism is embraced and then challenged. Global rights of Indigenous peoples extend to land rights and national apologies. The Cold War ends but Western nations identify new adversaries in Muslim and Middle Eastern nations through two Gulf Wars and war in Afghanistan. Politicians, public figures and the media participate in debates about migration, asylum seekers and population. Anxiety about threats to traditional notions of Australian identity focuses on migrants from Asia, Africa and Muslim nations. Australians continue to grapple with complex issues of living in a culturally diverse society.


Noted Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey makes a speech criticising Asian migration: 'Rarely in the history of the modern world has a nation given such preference to a tiny ethnic minority of its population as the Australian Government has done in the past few years, making that minority the favoured majority in its immigration policy.'

'Racism' featuring Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock, 1984.


Series of landmark decisions officially recognise the land rights of Indigenous peoples in Australia. These include the Commonwealth Mabo High Court decision, 1992; Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 and the Federal High Court Wik decision, 1996.


Independent member for Oxley Pauline Hanson gives her maiden speech to Parliament. She expresses fears of an Aboriginal 'land grab' and 'being swamped by Asians'. Her sentiments appeal to parts of the community resulting in the establishment of the One Nation Party. Many others are deeply offended and protests ensue.


Commonwealth Native Title Act Amendment reduces Indigenous Australians’ access to and control over lands.


Terrorist attacks in the USA on 11 September, 2001 and the Bali bombing on 12 October, 2002 inflame global anxiety about Muslims. In Australia, anti-terrorism laws are passed and the issue of asylum seekers escalates.


US Government-backed Human Genome Project completes the mapping of the human genome, identifying all human genes.


The Genographic Project seeks to map the migratory history of the human species by analysing the DNA from hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

October–November 2005

Race riots break out in Paris and Birmingham due to discrimination against Muslims and people of African origin, and tensions between the African and South Asian communities.

December 2005

A rally in support of local life savers escalates into a riot at Cronulla, New South Wales due to tensions between local Anglo-Australian residents and Lebanese Australians from south of Sydney. Prior to the rally, radio broadcaster Alan Jones announces: 'My suggestion is to invite one of the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive. It would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs... Australians old and new shouldn’t have to put up with this scum.'

An angry mob bash and smash beer bottles on head of an innocent man at North Cronulla beach on Sunday 11 December 2005.
Cronulla riots, New South Wales, 2005.


Over 1000 people protest against the building of a private Islamic school in Camden, New South Wales. Sudanese migration is reduced because, according to Kevin Andrews, Minister for Immigration, they 'don't seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life.'

Australian Government introduces the Northern Territory National Emergency Response ('intervention') to protect Aboriginal children from sexual abuse and family violence. It is a controversial policy, requiring the suspension of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.


Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologises to the Stolen Generations: 'We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.'

Screen showing Kevin Rudd in a public space
National Apology telecast at Federation Square, Melbourne, 13 February, 2008


Indian students protest against violent attacks in Melbourne and Sydney. 'People are scared. Everyone has roommates and classmates who have been attacked.' Srikanth Guttapalia, 2009

'There is no place in our society for any crime which is racially based.' John Brumby, Premier of Victoria, 2009


Australia and Britain apologise to child migrants who were brought to Australia in order to increase Australia’s white population during the 20th century.


A law is passed in Arizona USA enabling police to stop and detain people they suspect are illegal immigrants, provoking racial profiling concerns. France deports Roma gypsies to Romania, destroying three hundred camps. In Australia, the issue of asylum seekers resurfaces in the lead up to the Federal election.


Political leaders in Europe and the UK describe multiculturalism as divisive and a failure, as thousands seek asylum from political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The Australian Government reaffirms multiculturalism as a key social policy despite some negative reports in the Australian media.


Today Australia still has no Bill of Rights.

Under the Migration Act, disability is still taken into consideration in assessing migrants for entry into Australia. Consequently, the Migration Act is exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act (section 52).

Governments, community organisations and individuals throughout Australia continue to advocate effectively for social justice, equality and diversity.

Large group of people working down the middle of the street
Walk for Harmony rally, 2009
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