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Why Terra Nullius? Anthropology and Property Law in Early Australia


The British treated Australia as terra nullius—as unowned land. Under British colonial law, aboriginal Australians had no property rights in the land, and colonization accordingly vested ownership of the entire continent in the British government. The doctrine of terra nullius remained the law in Australia throughout the colonial period, and indeed right up to 1992.

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Stuart Banner , “Conquest by Contract: Wealth Transfer and Land Market Structure in Colonial New Zealand,” Law and Society Review 34 (2000): 4796

Stuart Banner , “Two Properties, One Land: Law and Space in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand,” Law and Social Inquiry 24 (1999): 807–52

Historical Studies 19 (1981): 513–23

Cunningham , Two Years in New South Wales (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), 2:46

Journal of Legal History 10 (1989): 365–79.

Australian Historical Studies 25 (1992): 265–85

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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