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Opinion And World View: Commemorating The Frontier Wars On Anzac Day

"As Anzac Day draws near, we prepare to celebrate the 102,000 Australian men and women who lost their lives in defence of this country, Australia. However, our commemorations neglect the story of the many Indigenous Australians who also died in defence of this land in the Frontier Wars that lasted from 1790 to 1928.'' writes Paul W Newbury.

Until the 1970s, a myth dominated Australian history that the continent was settled peacefully. However, research of the historical record by historian Henry Reynolds and others inspired by Australian anthropologist W E H Stanner brought that fiction to an end.

The Australian historian Richard Broome says Australia's frontier history was a bloody one. He estimates that frontier violence was responsible for around 1700 European deaths while Indigenous deaths were at least ten times that number.

The Frontier Wars began in 1790 when Bidgigal resistance hero Pemulwuy killed Governor Phillip's convict gamekeeper near Sydney for his many depredations against the Eora including his wanton slaughter of animals.

In response, Phillip ordered a punitive expedition to bring back any six Bidgigal or their heads. Though the expedition failed, Phillip's order foreshadowed countless such wanton reprisals against Indigenous people for the next 140 years.

Historians generally regard the wars to have ended in 1928 with the killing of 31 Warlpiri people by a police punitive party at Coniston in the Northern Territory.

In 1979, distinguished Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey proposed that the Australia War Museum (AWM) commemorate the Frontier Wars. The idea has been raised a number of times since by historians including Henry Reynolds, but the AWM steadfastly refuses to consider the matter.

This is a moral issue it is incumbent on non-Indigenous Australians to own our past and accept that our forebears perpetrated wrongs against Australia's Indigenous peoples.

War memorials honour the fallen in battle and celebrate sacrifice and valour in war. They are intrinsic to our national identity. We should also commemorate Indigenous heroes who fell fighting the British invaders of their lands.

A number of Australian historians have joined Blayney in proposing that the AWM erect a memorial to Indigenous Frontier War dead alongside existing sculptures commemorating Australian war dead that line Anzac Avenue in Canberra leading to the War Memorial.

The War Memorial Council says frontier conflict falls outside its charter, a claim that is disputed by historians and military academics. The Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) also rejects the proposal.

Aboriginal warriors fought an economic and physical war against the settler invaders raiding farms and pastoral runs. They killed settlers and their servants, destroyed cabins and farm buildings, and razed crops in incendiary raids.

Fighting between Indigenous Australians and Europeans was localised because Indigenous groups rarely formed confederations capable of widespread and sustained resistance. Rather, the Frontier Wars were a series of violent confrontations and massacres across the continent.

Aboriginal people fought the invaders on a tribe by tribe basis because each of them were a sovereign people defending their land. They used the element of surprise, emerging suddenly from the bush in swift and effective guerrilla raids. They took thousands of cattle and sheep annually. They were known to erect yards to enclose sheep and consume them at their leisure.

In 1795 in the Hawkesbury-Nepean area, Dharug people began to raid farms and there were a number of deaths on both sides. In response, Governor Macquarie sent the British 46th Army Regiment to quell the conflict. The conflict known as the Hawkesbury Wars lasted till 1816.

In the early years, many settlers abandoned their runs for economic reasons as well as the terror and panic Aboriginal attacks generated. In a battle between the Duangwurrung people and George Faithful's party near Benalla in 1838, natives killed eight of his men. Faithful wrote of Aboriginal women and children running between his horse's legs to retrieve spears for their warriors to reuse.

The Indigenous peoples of Australia resisted fiercely but military police and settlers equipped with horses and rifles eventually overwhelmed them. They died defending their homelands, sacred sites and their way of life. The trauma profoundly affected the lives of the survivors.

For the AWM to say that the Frontier Wars do not fit its charter is to exclude a whole people from commemoration based on a trifle. By way of comparison, our partners in the Anzac legend New Zealand have no problem commemorating the Maori Wars (1845-1872).

If Indigenous peoples could go to the War Memorial with their families to see a portrayal of their resistance heroes and testimony to their ancestors' tenacious struggle for their land, what a boost to their morale it would be. It would be an acknowledgement of a long repressed aspect of our past and an abiding act of reconciliation.


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