Early Australian census records

Illuminate Australian society and your family history using census records from 1788 to 1901

Censuses of Aboriginal Australians

Information about Aboriginal Australians has not been collected consistently in censuses.

Aboriginal Australians have been counted in some censuses of the Australian population, but have been deliberately excluded from other censuses.

'Prior to the establishment of Aboriginal reserves in the 1860s, Victorian censuses counted only some Aboriginal people, usually excluding those who were not permanently settled. After the 1860s [up until 1901], most Aboriginal people were living on reserves and were included in census counts' (source). Section 127 of the Constitution Act 1900 stated that 'Aboriginal natives shall not be counted' (source), but Aboriginal people with some European ancestry were counted.

A complicating factor is that government definitions of Aboriginal have varied over time, meaning an Aboriginal person of mixed ancestry may have been counted in one census and excluded from another census.

In summary, many statistics relating to Aboriginal Australians are flawed and inaccurate.

There have been some censuses made specifically of the Aboriginal population. 

The Aboriginal Protectorate was established in 1838, with George Augustus Robinson as Chief Protector. Four assistant protectors were appointed to oversee and assist the Aboriginal population in the Western (Mount Rouse), North-Western (Loddon), North-Eastern (Goulbourn) and Westernport (Narre Warren) regions of the Port Phillip District.

For example, the Protectorate of Aborigines undertook regular censuses from 1839 of Aboriginal peoples under their so-called 'protection'. These reports did not include all Aboriginal peoples in Victoria. Some of these early reports are reproduced in the books The Aborigines of Port Phillip, 1835-1839 and Aborigines and Protectors, 1838-1839.

You can find a complete list of the annual reports of all state and territory ‘protection boards' and the subsequent government agencies on the AIATSIS website. The reports have been digitised and can be keyword searched individually. 

You can also read the reports by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines in Victoria (which existed from 1860 but was given statutory authority in 1869) from 1871 to 1925 on the Victorian Parliament's Parliamentary Papers database.

 Please be aware that these reports include the names of deceased people, as well as words and descriptive terms that may be offensive.

The number of Aboriginal Australians recorded by the Board often varied from the number recorded by the state or territory census (see for example, a discussion of this issue on page 8 of the 1871 Victorian census report).

More census sources for each state are listed in this guide - click the tabs above to access these lists.

For further details of census statistics relating to Aboriginal Australians, including:

- when and how statistics were compiled
- issues with the statistics that were collected
- issues with other estimates of Aboriginal population numbers

use the following resources: