Taking a look at the war waged against First Nations Peoples

Recommended listening: Dr Ray Kerkhove a researcher of the Frontier Wars right across the continent but has concentrated his research on the history of the conflicts in South Eastern Queensland and the Murray Darling region. Here he talks with Phillip Adams on ABC Late Night Live. (16 minutes)

Dean Ashenden The Age 23 April 2013 / Edited 14 September 2016

Best we forget? - Dean Ashenden's article argues Australia must take a long, hard look at the war waged against its first people.

Colonial Slaughters, Lies & Denial

A debate on ABC TV's Lateline program featuring colonial denier Keith Windschuttle and researcher Henry Reynolds discussing frontier violence between Aboriginal and white Australians.

Massacres & Wars in North Qld

Dr Timothy Bottoms identifies the massacres, poisonings and other incidents in the colonial 'Killing Fields of North Queensland

It is now 36 years since the Australian War Memorial (AWM) was first asked to consider recognising the "frontier wars". The suggestion came from an historian and consultant to the memorial, none other than Geoffrey Blainey*.

Blainey's view was unusual at the time, but support for it grew to include historians ranging from the usual left-liberal suspects such as Ken Inglis and Henry Reynolds to the memorial's then-principal historian Peter Stanley and military historians including former army chief of staff John Coates.

The historians' case is straightforward. It has now been established beyond doubt that armed conflict between black and white occurred across the continent over a long period of time, and was routinely referred to by participants and observers as a "war"; those conflicts were similar to other irregular warfare already commemorated by the memorial; so, the "frontier wars" should be commemorated also.

The point has been pursued in many forums, including the launch, at the memorial, of Inglis's classic history of Australia's war memorials; in acrimonious public exchanges between the organisation's then-director and its principal historian; in a showdown between the historians and the memorial on national television; and in these pages. The memorial's position remained unchanged throughout. It insisted, first, that "[only] police forces or British military units were involved in the 'wars', whereas the memorial's charter calls upon it to commemorate Australia's military forces."

Second, as the quotation marks around "wars" suggest, the memorial does not believe that conflict between black and white amounted to warfare. As then-AWM Council member and RSL president Bill Crews put it, the so-called wars were really just "skirmishes at the time of early colonial development".

The conflict was more confused and confusing than perhaps the historians have allowed. There was no declaration of war by states or other political authorities.

Bulla Queensland 1861 conflict Settlers under attack from Aboriginal tribe. watercolour by W.O Hodgkinson

(National Library of Australia)

The Myall Creek Massacre, as portrayed by an English illustrator forty years after the event.

Indeed, on one side the state often tried to prevent or stop the fighting while on the other there was no state or other co-ordination. There was no surrender, no peace, and no treaty, and certainly no triumphal march down George Street. The usual formalities of warfare were simply not there.

Moreover, the hostilities often took unusual forms, and perhaps comprise a unique mixture. "Sides" were often unclear, even to each other. For much of the period of fighting, there was no such thing as "an Australian" or "an Aboriginal"; both categories were constituted by the conflict, the former in small part, the latter, fundamentally.

Few of those involved wore uniforms, and those who did were (as the memorial points out) British, not Australian troops, or Australian police, not soldiers. Some Europeans took the part of the Aborigines, while some Aborigines (notably trackers and native police) crossed "enemy" lines. In a sense, there was no "front" and there were no "combatants"; violent conflict kept close company with "accommodation" and could often be found in the same place and in the same individuals.

While some episodes of conflict were recognisably martial, as the historians point out, others were not, particularly those in which violence was exercised largely by one side - whipping and bashing, chaining and jailing, the taking of children, malnutrition and starvation, rape and abduction, the poisoning of flour and water, and "dispersals".

But thousands of small and often inchoate incidents form a large pattern, what Lieutenant General Coates has called "a brutal, bloody and sustained confrontation", a violent conflict between peoples that began as early as December 10, 1790, when Governor Phillip's gamekeeper, John McIntyre, was speared and Phillip responded by ordering the first reprisal raid, spread across the entire continent, and continued for nearly 140 years to the Coniston massacres in 1928. That these many encounters were spasmodic and of various and sometimes unusual forms may be used to deny use of the term "war" - or to suggest that this was a uniquely Australian kind of war.

Encounter with the Natives at 'the Officer', Musgrave Range [SA and NT border]. 'The Romance of Exploration' A Narrative Compiled from the Journals of Five Exploring Expeditions into and through Central South Australia, and Western Australia, From 1872 to 1876. by Ernest Giles

The case for the latter strengthens if we consider consequences as well as forms of conflict. Lives, land, and livelihoods were won and lost on a very large scale. An unknown number of First Nations people died on the frontier. One civilisation, of 300-odd language groups and three quarters of a million or more people, were displaced, and another took its place. An entire continent changed hands. Violent conflict was by no means the only source of subjugation and dominance, but it was crucial to them.

The memorial's problem is, of course, less in the facts than in feelings about them.

This is the only one of our wars that the losers want to remember and the winners want to forget. The unpalatable reality is that the forebears of many non-Aboriginal Australians were aggressors. While some were exemplary in their resistance to that aggression, most conducted themselves in ways inconsistent with the imagined Australian-ness enshrined by the memorial.

The memorial has primary responsibility for the care and maintenance of a central component of the national identity and, with that, of many individual identities. It is a sacred place. Many would see inclusion of the frontier wars as devaluing or even defiling the memory of those already commemorated there.

Some the memorial's difficulties are specific to its unique role, but others belong to a wider Australian problem. Matters Aboriginal, their troubles, achievements, and "culture" get attention out of all proportion to actual numbers of Aboriginal people, but the story of our relations with them does not. The historians have done a very good job of recovering that story, but the rest of us have done a poor job of learning and remembering it.

That achievement and that failure can be illustrated by a single incident that would strike anyone but an Australian as extraordinary, particularly since its central players were an Australian prime minister and Australia's most famous author.

An illustration of the explorer Charles Sturt's party being "threatened by blacks (sic) at the junction of the Murray and Darling, 1830", near Wentworth, New South Wales. National Library of Australia picture nla.pic-an9025855-1. 'Sturt's party threatened by blacks at the junction of the Murray and Darling, 1830'.

In August 2009, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd launched Thomas Keneally's Australians: Origins to Eureka. Rudd began by acknowledging "the First Australians on whose land we meet", and soon alluded to his celebrated Apology speech. He then embarked on an extensive tour of history-making and its social purposes, an account of the History Wars, and paeans of praise for Keneally as the kind of bloke who can show that our national story makes a terrific read even if it doesn't include "wars, revolution, or bloodshed".

Keneally must have done a double-take. His evocative account of our first six or seven decades draws on dozens of scholarly works to convey many of the bloody realities of relations between black and white. Keneally must have been more puzzled still as the prime minister proceeded to criticise those who "refuse to confront hard truths about our past".

Perhaps the prime minister's formulation about wars and bloodshed was a mere slip, an ambiguity? No, it was not. Towards the end of his speech, Rudd returned to the point and made it all over again: do not doubt what a great story is ours even if it does lack "rivers of blood shed in pursuit of contested wars for our nation's future".

Therein lies the first argument for acting on Blainey's suggestion, however belatedly.

A national war memorial giving a substantial place to our national war would make it easier to remember "hard truths about our past", and much harder to forget them. It would also make it hard to forget that this is no mere "Aboriginal issue". This is our history.

There is a second, and more compelling, argument. Most of those who died in that "brutal, bloody and sustained confrontation" were Aboriginal people, forebears of today's Aboriginal Australians. However un-martial their means, and however different their comprehension of events from ours, they died in defence of country, life, and way of life. Until they are commemorated in our national place of commemoration, the rest of us will earn the bitter Aboriginal sarcasm: Best We Forget.

Nor should others involved in the frontier war be forgotten. We are their beneficiaries.

In their situation, most of us would have done what they did. Some should be remembered as representing the best in the Christian-humanist tradition.

The war memorial has a new director, Dr Brendan Nelson. Nelson's long-serving predecessor was vehement in refusing any consideration of what he called "all this frontier wars stuff". Nelson comes to the job with a clean slate, but also with the problem of being a non-military man in an institution saturated in military lore and culture, and dominated by past and serving officers.

Here, as elsewhere in his career, the son of a Seamen's Union official has to find a way in. He got the memorial job because, as ambassador to the European Union and NATO (a Rudd appointment, by the way), he ran a crusade to enlarge commemoration of Australians who died on the Western Front. Perhaps in this Nelson was following an impulse first revealed when, as defence minister, he offered Simpson of the donkey legend as a role model for Australian youth? In any event, he will be desperately keen as director of the Australian War Memorial to earn his stripes. Confronting the frontier wars issue would not look like a good way to go about it.

But there are other Nelsons. One of them is the man who persuaded a very reluctant memorial council to give full recognition to fallen peacekeepers. Another is the fiery young president of the Australian Medical Association who in 1993 declared himself "ashamed" of his profession's record on indigenous health. "Doctors need to ask themselves", the young Nelson thundered, "how a person can be well when they've been denied their land, their hunting grounds, their citizenship and freedoms and even their own children."

Perhaps, just perhaps, this younger man might have something to say to the older?

He could point out that denying entry to that war while fuelling the Anzac cult is not a good national look (particularly to the Japanese). He could note that prime minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott recently praised both Paul Keating's historic Redfern speech and Nelson's own Apology. The times, the young man could point out, are a'changing.

Or perhaps the younger man could appeal to the older's well-known armour-propre: this is not a small or easy thing (he could say). If it were, it would have been done long ago. But it's your last big chance. Never mind guarding our history. Make it!

Sketch entitled 'A deadly encounter' by H. Calvert, 1870
Dean Ashenden has written on relations between black and white in Australia in History Australia, Meanjin, The Weekend Australian and Inside Story.
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SU comment: 'Wars and colonial vigilante group massacres' is perhaps more accurate than 'A War'

* Geoffrey Blainey does admit there were wars but holds some very neo-Colonial and misconceived views on Aboriginal Resistance, as historian specialising in South East Queensland Frontier Warfare, Dr Ray Kerkove said, 'I don't know what he (Blainey) was reading - there is plenty of evidence of strong resistance and organised battles by Aboriginal Tribes available'.