Analysing primary sources - First contacts

Learning intention

Students explore what life was like before and after first contact between Aboriginal people and European settlers. They view primary source material from Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae and use visual thinking tools to question how life changed for Aboriginal people after Europeans arrived in Victoria.

Students will:

  • Pose a range of questions about the past 
  • Locate relevant information from sources provided 
  • Explore the nature of contact between Aboriginal people and/or Torres Strait Islanders and others and the effects of these interactions 



Ask students to imagine what Melbourne or Victoria looked like before European settlement. Give them a few minutes to draw or discuss their ideas.

Use Hofmann's painting 'Melbourne 1836' to introduce a sense of place and time. Prompt students with questions:

  • What can you see?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What do you think is happening here?

Introduce Aboriginal artist, Tommy McRae, using the background information on his life and work in the Explore history section of this site. Show students a selection of his drawings that show daily life of Aboriginal people such as those from his notebook and individual sketches. Search Tommy McRae in the State Library Victoria catalogue to find more of McRae's artwork.

Introduce students to the Reading and Analysing Non-fiction (RAN) chart. This is a useful thinking tool to help us understand what we know (or what we think we know) and to generate new questions (wonderings) for research. Use the heading: Life of Aboriginal people in Victoria: before and after first contact

Students use post-it notes to add to the first column (What I think I know) on the chart. They use ideas from the primary source viewing as well as their prior knowledge.

Now show some of McRae's drawings that include Europeans, such as one from his Book of sketches of Aboriginal life or his inclusion of a European house and couple in another sketch. What do the sketches show? How do they illustrate the relationship between Aboriginal and European people?

McRae's drawings show contact between Aboriginal and European people in a positive or neutral way. Ask students to consider the negative consequences of European settlement. Explore the range of resources listed below to help students understand the nature of contact between Aboriginal and European people and the impacts of this.

As students explore this topic, they use post-it notes to move ideas on their RAN chart from one column to another or add new ideas/questions for further research.

Ask students to document their understanding of life for indigenous people before and after first contact by sketching their own drawings, under the headings 'Before it was...' and 'After it was ....'

More to explore

State Library Victoria resources

Other resources

Drawing of an Aboriginal ceremony by Tommy McRae.