Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Colonisation and emotion in Australia

Colonisation and emotion in Australia:
What are the emotional responses to colonisation in Australia?


Acknowledgement to Country

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land in which I work and live, the Ngunnawal People, I wish to pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to Traditional Owners of land in which my readers are on. I celebrate the stories, culture and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders of all communities who also work and live on this land or who are reading.

First and foremost, this is very sensitive topic. There is discussion of mistreatment to Australia's First Nations People and the stolen generation, involving abuse both physical and sexual, trauma, drug, and alcohol abuse. These topics are very evoking of emotions and I would like to put in a trigger warning for those affected or those who may have difficulty reading of these events.

Colonisation in Australia has caused many emotional effects on indigenous peoples due to having their land stolen, 90% of their population killed, and their culture suppressed. The colonisation of Australia is not something of the past. There are still lasting effects and discriminations towards Aboriginal Peoples and the government still enforcing laws that breach the Native Land and Discrimination Act. This brutality and continuous mistreatment towards Aboriginal People have led to intergenerational trauma, compounding emotions such as grief and anger, but also post-colonial guilt for white Australian citizens.

Focus questions:

  • What is colonisation in Australia?
  • What emotional responses are involved in Australian colonisation?
  • What is intergenerational trauma?

What is colonisation?Edit

Colonisation is the process or action of settling among and establishing control over the Indigenous people of a country or land.

History of colonisation in AustraliaEdit

Colonisation in Australia dispossessed first nations people of their traditional lands and suppressed their culture. In Australia, colonisation began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and this was the beginning of the Aboriginal genocide (Tatz, 1999).

Colonisation occurred in Australia in 1788 when Lieutenant James Cook came and declared the Australian continent Terra Nullius. This allowed the British to treat Australia as a colony of settlement, not of conquest, as the premise was that Australia belonged to no-one. This early colonisation led to the demise of 90% of the Aboriginal population[factual?]. The genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Australian continent was due to the introduction of new diseases, settler acquisition of lands, and direct and violent conflict with the colonisers (Finnane, 2003). Continued discrimination towards the indigenous population continues to this day. It wasn't until 1962 that Indigenous people could vote, and in 1967 a national referendum finally classified them as people of their own country. It wasn't until 1997 that Australia was no longer considered Terra Nullius, and a Native Land Act was put in place, allowing Aboriginal peoples and communities rights over their stolen land.

Figure 1. HMS Endeavour

An additional example of continued colonisation in Australia is that of the stolen generation, which loosely took place from 1910 to the 1970s. This was an attempt to "breed out" the First Nations people. Finally, in 2007 Howard's Government put in place the "Northern Territory National Emergency Response" Bill, which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, created in 1975 to protect all Australians from Racism. This bill involved sending excessive force into Aboriginal communities, putting in place harsh alcohol bans, and porn bans and claiming Aboriginal Land that was rightly returned via the Native Titles Act 1993.

Effects of colonisation on First Nation's PeoplesEdit

The effects of colonisation on first nation people are devastating and ongoing, with generational trauma (Raphael, B., Swan, P., & Martinek, N., 1998)

Figure 2. Australian First Nation's People by river

Due to the layered and multiple disadvantages in social, cultural and economic forms there is a direct link to increased incarceration rates. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders adults make up to 2% of the Australian population but a shocking 27% of the national prison population[factual?]. There are direct links that this is a reflection of intergenerational sexual and domestic abuse. For example, a devastating 70% of aboriginal women in prisons have disclosed that they are survivors of sexual abuse (Drivers of Incarceration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women, n.d.).

Indigenous Australians experience many health impacts, starkly illustrated by having a relatively low life expectancy of 69 years in contrast to the 83-year life expectancy of non-Indigenous Australian citizens and a high mortality rate of Aboriginal children (Zhao et al., 2022). Indigenous people also experience higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse (Gracey, 2014; Sherwood, 2013) and related health conditions. An underlying contributing factor are effects of Terra Nullius and the dispossession of land which had had lasting effects due to loss of connection to the country (Behrendt, L.,1998).

What is emotion?Edit

Figure 3. Emotions (more than basic)

Emotion is the reaction to a significant life event, it is a combination of experimental, behaviour and physiological elements. Basic emotions are: Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness are responses to threat and harm (see Figure 3). Additionally, Interest and Joy are responses to involvement and satisfaction (Frijda & FRIDJA, 1986; Dalgleish & Power, 2000).

Relevant theoriesEdit

Buck's Two-Systems view: This theory suggests there are two parallel processes to a significant stimulus event:

  • cognitive process which entails:
    • Sociocultural learning history of individual
    • Cortical structures & pathways
    • Evaluative, interpretive, & conscious meaning & personal significance of the event
  • Biological process includes:
    • Evolutionary, Phylogenetic response of the species
    • Sub - Cortical structures & pathways
    • Instantaneous, automatic, and unconscious reaction to sensory characteristics of the event.

This connection between cognitive and biological emotional processes is relevant to the responses of Australia's First Nations Peoples to colonisation as there is a direct link between mental well-being and physical well-being. These effects are seen through the gap in health and life expectancy between the First Nations People and other Australian citizens (Larson et al., 2007). Additionally, there is a link between alcohol and drug abuse occurring as a behavioural response to the emotional traumas experienced (Moustafa et al., 2021).

What emotional responses are involved in Australian colonisation?Edit

[Provide more detail]


Figure 4. Stolen kids at institution

Trauma is an emotional response to a significant life event, usually terrible things such as sexual assault, or natural disasters. There were many traumatic events inflicted on first nations people, including the ever-lasting trauma from the killing of their people, ongoing discrimination, having their children ripped away, or being the child ripped away from their family and being told they were dead. And, especially, having their traditions, culture, and land whisked away from them.

Trauma can manifest in numerous ways but research suggests that fear, shame, guilt, anger, and sadness are common post-traumatic responses (Amstadter & Vernon, 2008). This can be seen in a study conducted by Petchkovsky et al. (2004) looking at links between forced separation and its psychological effects. The study consisted of 9 survivors, chosen from a group engaged in legal action against the Commonwealth by the Stolen Generations Unit of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. Each of the participants partook in a psychiatric examination via interviews using culturally sensitive reflective listening mode using the present mental state examination standard. Interviewees completed the Goldberg Shorter (18-item) Anxiety and Depression Questionnaire (GSADQ). The results showed a similar clinical picture for all 9 survivors, consistent with a contemporary understanding of the harmful impact of chronic trauma on the developing self. These results would've allowed a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a depressive type.

The participants had ongoing trauma symptoms such as recollections, dreaming, and flashbacks; they had cues and triggers with emotional or physiological responses. The initial removal of these children was not the only trauma they endured. There was also ongoing trauma due to the abuse of these children in the institutions, which contributes to the complexity of their emotional responses. All 9 participants experienced re-experiencing, avoidance or numbing defence mechanisms and hyper-vigilance.[factual?]

Figure 5. Australian landscape

The emotional responses to these traumata experienced by the participants were significant, 5 out 9 attempted suicide whilst altogether they experienced suicidal thoughts and urges. All participants reported a chronic and debilitating sense of shame, linked to repeated humiliation and a perceived link to cultural rootlessness and rejection. This is considered to be linked with ongoing issues with sense of identity and self-esteem, making them more susceptible to depression and development of other mental illnesses.

This study [factual?] really highlights the extent of trauma and all the emotional responses associated with it. It can be concluded that many, if not all, of Australia's indigenous population have trauma from the colonisation, oppression of their culture and the bewildering racism. Therefore, the emotional responses to colonisation are that of trauma responses.

An additional response is that of alcohol and drug abuse, although it is not an emotional response it is important to add that it is a behavioural response to emotional trauma or turmoil; this abuse is important to note as rates are very high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia[factual?]. Studies suggest that drinking and drug use can be directly linked to participants' experiences of racism, stress, and depression (Ziersch et al., 2011).

Case Study

Mary Terszak (Woods), a Nyoongar woman living in South Western Australia, experienced ongoing depression from the forced removal from her family at the age of two. Mary was put into the institution of Sister Kate's Children's Home. Mary felt shame and ongoing depression for the majority of her life, experiencing intense panic attacks when there was no threat. This is an example of ongoing trauma responses. (Grieves, n.d.)


What is not an emotional trauma response?


Intergenerational traumaEdit

Intergenerational trauma is trauma which occurs when traumatic effects are passed along down generations without the younger generations having direct exposure to the original event. Intergenerational trauma effects can be identified as neurobiological changes in the brain, vulnerabilities to further harm, interpersonal and intrapersonal difficulties, internalised formulation of self and others (Isobel et al., 2021). For example, parenting is also known to be affected; intergenerational trauma acts as a contribution to care-givers being inconsistent in their affective responses to children. This is seen to cause dissociative, mood and behaviour symptoms in the next generation (Babcock Fenerci et al., 2016; Chu & DePrince, 2006; Schore, 2002).

The most overwhelming example of intergenerational trauma is that of the Stolen Generation. The Stolen Generation involved the forced removal of aboriginal children from their families; under the pretence of assimilation policies. The government claimed that the lives of the first nations peoples would be tremendously improved if they were to become a part of white society. The South Australian Northern Territory Aborigines Act was passed in 1910; it was claimed to be good intentions and to help protect exploitation of Aboriginal peoples through unfair work practices, alcohol and opium. This act appointed a Chief Protector of Aboriginals who became 'the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and 'half-caste child'. Half-caste children started being forcibly removed from their families as early as 1914 although the practice took place before and after this period. Children taken in this period were only "half cast children", furthering the pretence that this act was racist and an act of "breeding out" Aboriginal Peoples, forcing the removed children to reject their culture (Katona, J., & MacKinolty, C.,1994). It has been found that children taken into missions and institutions were exposed to physical and sexual abusers, creating the cycle of this intergenerational abuse also (Menzies, 2019). There have been connections to these extreme events and the lasting effects of depression in Aboriginal populations, suggesting this is a result of intergenerational trauma (Bellany, S., & Hardy, C., 2015). Additionally, intergenerational trauma has been found as far as three generations down and potentially later. This means that generations still today are affected by the stolen generation and more generations to come (Kellermann, 2001).

Case study

Kevin was forcibly removed from his family and put into an institution at a young age. Whilst in their care he experienced extreme abuse. When Kevin got out of this home and began his own life he had children of his own. Being a parent caused him a lot of distress as he never had parents of his own. His only experience of discipline was quite harsh and so he disciplined his children similarly despite feeling ashamed and knowing how he disliked it as a child. This is an example of intergenerational trauma and abuse.

Postcolonial guiltEdit

Postcolonial guilt can be defined as a belief that non-Indigenous Australian's endure a collective responsibility for the harm that resulted from historical events such as the stolen generation, violence during colonisation and the current racism (Maddison, 2012). It is suggested this collaborative guilt stems from empathy for the victims, although some studies suggest it hinders reconciliation rather than helping it. This hindrance is due to the threat acknowledging this wrong-doings is to the social and national identity of said group (Roccas, S., Klan, Y., & Liviatan, I. 2004; Curthoys, A. 2000).


In this book chapter we briefly learned about history of colonisation in Australia and how horrific some acts of the government were towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. How these acts led to long psychological effects and emotional responses[grammar?]. The emotional responses to colonisation in Australia for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the same responses to trauma due to the mistreatment and horrific events experienced. Trauma elicits many different responses but most commonly seen sadness, anger, shame and fear. From shocking research, we see how the participants struggled with ongoing experiences of depression, as all participants experienced suicidal thoughts and urges and 5 out of 9 attempted suicide. It was also shown how trauma can be passed down through generations as seen through the stolen generation mnd how it disrupted and affected so many families, including generations after. Even today, families still suffer from generational trauma of the stolen generation. Post-colonial guilt was brought up as the contrast in emotional responses to colonisation in Australia but only briefly spoken about as the emotional responses from the victims of colonisation seem more relevant.

To summarise this chapter, the treatment of Australia's First Nation's People was horrendous and continues to still be appalling, thus causing great detriment to its population. This can be seen in the high Indigenous incarnation rates, health issues including child mortality and low life expectancy, high drug and alcohol abuse and trauma with all the emotional responses it entails which is also passed through generations. The take-home message of this chapter is that Australia's First Nation's People are survivors and they still face racism to this day as seen with Australia's lack of treaty. There are many damaging stereotypes surrounding these peoples with no thought of what they've endured. Perhaps consider your emotional responses to having your land and children stolen and your culture suppressed until much of it was lost.

See alsoEdit


Amstadter, A. B., & Vernon, L. L. (2008). Emotional Reactions During and After Trauma: A Comparison of Trauma Types. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 16(4), 391–408.

Babcock Fenerci, R. L., Chu, A. T., & DePrince, A. P. (2016). Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma-Related Distress: Maternal Betrayal Trauma, Parenting Attitudes, and Behaviors. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 25(4), 382–399.

Behrendt, L. (1998). White picket fences: Recognizing aboriginal property rights in Australia's psychological terra nullius. Const. F., 10, 50.

Bellany, S., & Hardy, C. (2015). Understanding depression in Aboriginal communities and families.

Chu, A., & DePrince, A. P. (2006). Development of Dissociation: Examining the Relationship Between Parenting, Maternal Trauma and Child Dissociation. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 7(4), 75–89. Dalgleish, T., & Power, M. (2000). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. John Wiley & Sons.

Curthoys, A. (2000). An uneasy conversation: The multicultural and the indigenous. In J. Docker & G. Fischer (Eds), Race, colour and identity in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 21 36). Sydney: UNSW Press.

Drivers of incarceration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. (n.d.). ALRC. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from

Finnane, M. (2003). Just like a ‘nun’s picnic’? Violence and colonisation in Australia. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 14(3), 299–305.

Frijda, N. H., & FRIDJA, N. H. A. (1986). The Emotions. Cambridge University Press.

Gracey, M. (2014). Why closing the Aboriginal health gap is so elusive. Internal Medicine Journal, 44(11), 1141–1143.

Grieves, V. (n.d.). Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin: A Stolen Generation Story [Book Review]. Australian Aboriginal Studies (Canberra), 1, 106.

Holland, L., Smirnov, A., Hickman, A., Toombs, M., & Reid, N. (2022). Examining incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 6(9), 599–600.

Isobel, S., McCloughen, A., Goodyear, M., & Foster, K. (2021). Intergenerational Trauma and Its Relationship to Mental Health Care: A Qualitative Inquiry. Community Mental Health Journal, 57(4), 631–643.

Katona, J., & MacKinolty, C. (1994). The Long Road Home: The Going Home Conference. Darwin: Karu Aboriginal Child Care Agency.

Kellermann, N. P. F. (2001). Transmission of Holocaust Trauma—An Integrative View. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 64(3), 256–267.

Larson, A., Gillies, M., Howard, P. J., & Coffin, J. (2007). It’s enough to make you sick: The impact of racism on the health of Aboriginal Australians. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 31(4), 322–329.

Maddison, S. (2012). Postcolonial guilt and national identity: Historical injustice and the Australian settler state. Social Identities, 18(6), 695–709.

Menzies, K. (2019). Understanding the Australian Aboriginal experience of collective, historical and intergenerational trauma. International Social Work, 62(6), 1522–1534.

Moustafa, A. A., Parkes, D., Fitzgerald, L., Underhill, D., Garami, J., Levy-Gigi, E., Stramecki, F., Valikhani, A., Frydecka, D., & Misiak, B. (2021). The relationship between childhood trauma, early-life stress, and alcohol and drug use, abuse, and addiction: An integrative review. Current Psychology, 40(2), 579–584.

Petchkovsky, L., San Roque, C., Napaljarri Jurra, R., & Butler, S. (2004). Indigenous maps of subjectivity and attacks on linking: Forced separation and its psychiatric sequelae in Australia’s Stolen Generation. Australian E-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 3(3), 113–128.

Raphael, B., Swan, P., & Martinek, N. (1998). Intergenerational aspects of trauma for Australian Aboriginal people. In International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma (pp. 327-339). Springer, Boston, MA.

Roccas, S., Klan, Y., & Liviatan, I. (2004). Exonerating cognitions, group identification and personal predictors of collective guilt among Jewish-Israelis. In N. Branscombe & B. Doosje (Eds), Collective guilt: International perspectives (pp. 130 147). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schore, A. N. (2002). Dysregulation of the Right Brain: A Fundamental Mechanism of Traumatic Attachment and the Psychopathogenesis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36(1), 9–30.

Sherwood, J. (2013). Colonisation – It’s bad for your health: The context of Aboriginal health. Contemporary Nurse, 46(1), 28–40.

Tatz, C. (1999). Genocide in Australia. Journal of Genocide Research, 1(3), 315–352.

van Krieken, R. (1999). The barbarism of civilization: Cultural genocide and the ‘stolen generations’1. The British Journal of Sociology, 50(2), 297–315.

Zhao, Y., Li, S. Q., Wilson, T., & Burgess, C. P. (2022). Improved life expectancy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, 1999–2018: Overall and by underlying cause of death. Medical Journal of Australia, 217(1), 30–35.

Ziersch, A. M., Gallaher, G., Baum, F., & Bentley, M. (2011). Responding to racism: Insights on how racism can damage health from an urban study of Australian Aboriginal people. Social Science & Medicine, 73(7), 1045–1053.

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