The University of Newcastle’s colonial frontier massacres map project is finally finished, detailing hundreds of mass killings of First Nations people including attempted massacres as recent as 1981. No, that’s not a typo. 1-9-8-1.

The final findings of the eight-year long project were released on Wednesday to complete the first national record of killings on the Australian frontier.

The Frontier Wars refers to a 140-year period beginning in the late 1700s of disproportionate conflicts as British colonisers attempted to systematically wipe out First Nations people in order to occupy their land.

The project collated data of massacres (killings of six or more) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples between 1794 and 1928 and plotted them on an interactive map.

Historians mapped at least 415 sites where massacres occurred during the Frontier Wars which claimed the lives of an estimated 11,000 to 14,700 First Nations people. In comparison about 399 to 440 colonisers were killed.

But a historian who worked on the project found a number of attempted mass killings of First Nations people throughout the last century that did not end up on the map.

Dr Robyn Smith, who spent the past four years researching colonial violence, told Guardian Australia although fewer than six people died in each of these attempts, they showed this type of violence and aggression towards First Nations people did not go away.

The most recent massacre attempt in 1981 killed two Aboriginal people and hospitalised 14 others when the group shared a bottle of sherry poisoned with strychnine in Alice Springs. Police determined the bottle had been deliberately placed on the grounds of a church but the case was never solved.

“I think people were under a bit more police scrutiny, so arbitrary shooting expeditions would have been easier to detect, whereas poisoning is far more underhanded,” Smith said.

Smith also identified massacre attempts in the 1930s and 40s. She said one attempt was “an act of spite” carried out by the coloniser manager of a station 250km north-east of Katherine after he was sacked.

“He poisoned rations and gave them to the Aboriginal [stockmen] and their families. Essentially, he was trying to kill the workforce,” she said.

The map project also found that half of all massacres of First Nations people were carried out by police and government, and the other half by settlers acting under the tacit (implied but never written into law) approval of the colony.

The most common recorded reason for massacring First Nations people was when one had been accused of killing a coloniser.

But going back to those numbers for a minute, 11,000 vs 399 deaths does not add up. First Nations deaths were estimated to be 27 to 33 times higher.

Researchers found the death of one coloniser sometimes resulted in police-led revenge expeditions that lasted weeks or months.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels to ongoing police violence against First Nations people, disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in custody in 2022.

First Nations-owned media organisation IndigenousX said violence against First Nations people today was not new.

“It’s wrong that ppl treat each contemporary incident of police violence against Aboriginal people as just an individual incident not as a continuum of this history. You cannot seperate the past from the present because our past built our present,” the organisation tweeted on Wednesday.

Researchers told the Guardian although the project was complete, they hoped the resource would inform public debate into the future.

Image: Getty Images / David Gray