Illuminate Australian society and your family history using census records from 1788 to 1901
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 Aboriginality 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. For example, the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (in Port Phillip District/Victoria) undertook regular censuses from 1839, of Aboriginal people under their so-called 'protection'. These reports did not include all Aboriginal people in Victoria. The results of these censuses were published in the Board's reports. Some of the Board's early reports are reproduced in the books The Aborigines of Port Phillip, 1835-1839 and Aborigines and Protectors, 1838-1839. You can also read the Board's reports from 1861 to 1925 online at the University of Melbourne's Digital Library. Please be aware that the 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.
Further sources can be found in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Library's select bibliographies for different language groups. These can be found on their website. Search the PDF bibliographies for the word 'census'.
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: