Long run differences in mortality rates between Indigenous and white Australians 1788-2000

Martin Shanahan. Show Author details

Clash Europeans Indigenous - Long run differences in mortality rates between Indigenous and white Australians 1788-2000
Clash between Europeans and Indigenous populationsext

The expansion of colonial powers, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, was destructive of many Indigenous societies in the New World (see here a post on the Latin American case). In recent years, the impact of this on Indigenous people has become more widely recognised. In 2007 the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stated that: 

Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, of a just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.

United Nations, 2007

Researchers and policy makers in several countries have started to grapple with how to quantify the cost of colonial and subsequent policies on the traditional owners and their heirs. While recognising that economic compensation is not, and never can be sufficient to offset the damage done by earlier destructive policies, it can none-the-less signal a willingness to recognise past injustices and provide some form of reparation, especially if accompanied by apologies and other forms of practical and ongoing assistance. The ultimate aim, of course, is to ‘close the gap’, in living standards, income, wealth, occupational attainment, health outcome etc between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations that continues in many former colonial states.

Quantifying the impact of negative policy impacts

Calculating the economic cost of negative policy impacts on generations of Indigenous people is problematic. Work by Darity, Mullen, and Slaughter (2022) suggests two main approaches. The first is based upon itemization of the costs to the victims or gains to the perpetrators from specific atrocities. The second is based on estimates of the combined global effects of the atrocities on living descendants of those offended against. Of the two, the second is the most feasible. None-the-less identifying, quantifying and then monetising such impacts remains difficult and highly contested. 

A third approach, one that focuses on assessing the gap in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, is widely accepted as summarising the aggregate effects of the economic, social, and cultural impacts of colonial and post-colonial governance. While this approach does not place a direct monetary value on the cumulative impact of discriminatory policies, it provides an immediate, continuous, and human measure of the separate social environments within which Indigenous and non-Indigenous have lived over generations and in many cases continue to live.  

In the first Innocenti Lecture to UNICEF in 1995, Amartya Sen proposed that a group’s mortality rate was not only associated with their economic position, but with other factors including gender and racial inequality (1998). The link between living standards and health outcomes has been well established for the history of the industrialising world (Floud et al, 2014) and under different colonial regimes (Booth 2012). It has also been used as a measure of the damage done to Indigenous inhabitants where earlier hurt continues to create ongoing disadvantage (Axelsson et al. 2016).

Demographic collapse in Australia after European contact

In the case of Australia, the history of European contact and subsequent destruction of the country’s original inhabitants repeats a story told in many parts of the world. (Moorhead, 1966; Adhikari 2015). While some historians, epidemiologists, and sociologists have revealed aspects of this confrontation the wider Australian community is only slowly coming to recognise this history and its continuing cumulative impact on the Indigenous population (Reconciliation Australia 2021; Moses 2004). 

Long run data on the size of the Indigenous population in Australians are sparce. Figures on morbidity and mortality are even less common. Part of the reason relates to the relative status of Aboriginal people. Early colonial census efforts were patchy, and often excluded Indigenous people who were not inside a settled ‘frontier’. Later efforts relied on reports from Aboriginal protectors and officials. Questions of definition changed over time. It was not until the mid-1960s that consistent records were established (Smith 1980; Phillips et al 2014). The lack of consistent, long-run data means that long run studies of Indigenous populations and mortality rates are at best, rough estimates.

The impact of the European colonisation of Australia on the Indigenous population is depicted in the figure below. While precise figures for most of the period are uncertain, what is universally accepted is that the Indigenous population crashed after Aboriginal people encountered Europeans, and this decline continued for many decades. 

The wide range (from 0.3 to 1 million) in the size of the precontact Indigenous population reflects both the lack of knowledge of Aboriginal society and how well they adapted, over 60,000 years, to different environmental conditions.

Estimated Australian Indigenous population 1700-2000

The rapid decline in numbers post first contact have been attributed to the combined impacts of disease, frontier violence and loss of access to resources and later to involuntary resettlement, destruction of culture, forced removal of children and poverty. These factors, together with European’s theories of their own race’s superiority, meant that from the late 19th century, and well into mid 20th century, government policy was designed to ‘smooth the pillow’ of a dying race (McGregor 1993).  

Such a decline must also imply a dramatic increase in mortality rates, and a decline in fertility rates, or both. In the case of Indigenous Australians, the increase in mortality was not only significant, but the gap between white Australian’s mortality rates, and those of Indigenous people has been long lasting and sustained. Again, a lack of data hampers the construction of a detailed long-run picture, but it is possible to depict both the impact of the decline and the continuing ‘mortality gap’, as done below. 

Life expectancy of white and Indigenous Australians 1788-2010

This figure depicts the currently available information about expected age at death of white and Indigenous people over 250 years. What is immediately apparent is (i) the increase in life expectancy for both groups over time (ii) the lack of Indigenous data (iii) the persistent gap between whites and Indigenous since the 1960s (iv) the estimate (from one study) of the greater life expectancy of Indigenous people over Europeans before 1788. 

As a summary measure, the large and persistent gap in life expectancy between white and Indigenous populations in Australia reflects not only Aboriginal people’s contemporary health, economic and social position, it also reflects the cumulative effect of generations of relative deprivation. The impact of European colonisation is revealed all the more starkly when the existing research suggests that Aboriginal life expectancy was likely to be longer than that of Europeans, before 1788.

Closing the gap

Indigenous disadvantage in life expectancy began late in the 18th century and it has persisted well into the 21st century. This disparity together with other persistent gaps between the health and life-course outcomes of white Australians and the Indigenous population triggered government efforts in 2007 to ‘close the gap’; the target being to do this ‘within a generation’. Since 2009, comparative data on aspects of Indigenous and white Australian’s life courses have been reported annually. Table 1 contains data from the 2022 report together with data from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

‘The gap’ between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians

Table notes: A wider range of indicators is available from the Productivity Commission website. Measures are updated on that site as new information becomes available. Reference year in brackets. Income data are selected to reflect pre-COVID rates. 

After more than a decade of tracking specific indicators and seeing only marginal improvement in some areas, it is clear that the fundamental causes of Indigenous disadvantage are complex and deeply rooted in history. The factors underlying Australia’s racial inequality, and the damage these cause, remain to be addressed.

The official Australian Aboriginal Flag

Further information:

  • The associated image of this post was taken from Wikimedia Commons (link).


  • Adhikari, M., (ed)  2015, Genocide on Settler Frontiers: When Hunter-Gatherers and Commercial Stock Farmers Clash, Berghahn Books, New York
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: 2021 ‘Indigenous Income and Finance’, 
  •   www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-income-and-finance [ accessed Oct 2022]
  • Axelsson, P., T. Kukutai and R. Kippen (2016) The field of Indigenous health and the role of colonisation and history, Journal of Population Research, 33: 1-7.
  • Booth A., 2012, Measuring Living Standards in Different Colonial Systems: Some Evidence from South East Asia, 1900-1942  Modern Asian Studies . 46,  5. 1145-1181 
  • Darity W. Jr., A. K. Mullen, and M. Slaughter, 2022, The Cumulative Costs of Racism and the Bill for Black Reparations, Journal of Economic Perspectives  36,:  2, 99–122.
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  • Productivity Commission, 2022, Closing the Gap Annual Data Compilation Report July 2022.
  • www.pc.gov.au/closing-the-gap-data/annual-data-report/report [accessed Oct 2022]
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  •  https://www.reconciliation.org.au/about-us/ [accessed 17.08.2022]
  • Sen A., 1998, Mortality as an Indicator of Economic Success and Failure, The Economic Journal, 108:446, 1-25  
  • Shanahan, M.P. 2015, Wealth and Welfare. In S. Ville and G. Withers (eds), Cambridge Economic History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne: 489-510
  • Shanahan, M.P. 2022, “Long run differences in mortality rates between Indigenous and white Australians 1788-2000” paper given at the 
  • Institutions, colonialism and the distribution of wealth and resources, XIX World History Congress, Paris 25-29 July  
  • Smith L.R., 1980, The Aboriginal Population of Australia, Australian National University. Canberra
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

Author details

Professor (University of South Australia / VPP Gothenburg University)
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