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Opinion And World View: A Forgotten War

Paul W Newbury turns the spotlight on the "forgotten'' wars between the British and indigenous Australians, fought from 1788 to 1928,

In Forgotten War (2013), Australian historian Henry Reynolds writes that Australian military historians have begun to incorporate the revised story of what happened to Indigenous Australians during the British invasion of Australia into their accounts of Australian military history.

Before this time, military historians told the story that the British came to an almost ‘empty’ continent where their principal adversaries were climate, terrain and distance. In these accounts, the Frontier Wars 1788-1928 fought between the British and Indigenous Australians were ignored.

The revision of Australian frontier history among conventional Australian historians began in the 1970s when historian Henry Reynolds accepted a position as lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville where he began to research the tenacious resistance of Indigenous people against the British invasion. Reynolds says evidence of frontier violence ‘spilled unbidden from the written record like blood from an open wound’.

The revision of Australian history has had an important influence on Australian society—enough to inspire the legal profession and make the Mabo decision possible. The revised history represents colonisation as invasion, frontier conflict as war, the Indigenous response as resistance, dispossession as theft, the taking of the Stolen Generations as attempted genocide and the lack of moral restraint as racism.

The Frontier Wars began in 1790 when Bidgigal resistance hero Pemulwuy (c1750 -1802) 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. Phillip's order foreshadowed countless such wanton reprisals against Australia’s Indigenous people for the next 140 years.

Historians generally regard the Frontier Wars to have ended in 1928 with the killing of a large number of Warlpiri people by a police punitive party at Coniston in the Northern Territory in response to the death of a white man. An inquiry exonerated the perpetrators to widespread disapproval.

In 1990, Jeffrey Gray published A Military History of Australia in which he observed that the conflict between the Australian tribes and settler invaders has been persistently downplayed with the result that Aborigines are not conceded the dignity due to a ‘worthy’ opponent.

Gray defines war ‘as an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will’ and he comes down decisively in favour of viewing the conflict between Indigenous Australians and the British as warfare.

He contends that to deny the status of combatant to Aboriginal people is to deny their bravery and their will to resist the British invasion with every ounce of their being. Denial of these truths has psychological ramifications for the morale of a people who lost a war in defence of their land, their sacred places and their lifestyle.

Dr John Connor is an historian from the Australian Defence Force Academy who wrote The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838 in 2002. He says the aim of his book is to ‘to bring the Australian frontier wars into the mainstream of military history’.

Connor says the British Army found it difficult to operate on the Australian frontier because Aboriginal guerilla tactics minimised the effect of muskets and Aboriginal warriors generally were able to evade pursuit.

The situation began to change from 1825 when the administration provided soldiers with horses giving them the mobility to counter Aboriginal guerilla tactics over a wide frontier.

On Anzac Day, Australians commemorate 102,000 Australian men and women who lost their lives in defence of Australia in overseas wars. Historians estimate the Frontier Wars caused around 2000 European deaths while Indigenous deaths were at least ten times that number.

Conditions on the frontier were unpredictable - there were no frontlines, no clear demarcation between territories held by opposing forces and no distinction between civilians and combatants.

It is generally acknowledged that the rate of the demise of Indigenous Australians was proportionate to the speed of the land grab. This depended on whether the terrain was plain or mountain range.

Indigenous Australians on the frontier threatened the livelihoods of Europeans as well as their lives and many Europeans were ruined through despair and/or bankruptcy.

Fighting was localised because Indigenous groups rarely formed confederations capable of widespread resistance. Native peoples fought on a tribe by tribe basis because each of them was a sovereign people defending their land.

Indigenous Australians used the element of surprise, emerging suddenly from the bush in swift and effective guerrilla raids. Shepherds never knew when a spear might come whistling from a patch of shade. Some shepherds and stockmen refused to venture far from their huts and others responded to their fear by deserting.

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 re-use.

The Indigenous peoples of Australia resisted fiercely but military police and settlers equipped with horses and rifles eventually overwhelmed them. The trauma of defeat and loss of their land profoundly affected the lives of the survivors over many generations.

Recently, a number of historians proposed that the Australian War Memorial (AWM) erect a memorial to Indigenous Frontier War dead alongside existing sculptures commemorating war dead that line Anzac Avenue in Canberra leading to the War Memorial.

The AWM responded by saying the Frontier Wars do not fit its charter, a claim disputed by military academic John Connor. This excludes a whole people from commemoration based on a trifle. In comparison, our partners in the Anzac legend, New Zealand, have no problem commemorating the Maori Wars (1845-1872).

If Australian Indigenous peoples could go to the War Memorial in Canberra with their families to see a portrayal of their resistance heroes and testimony to their ancestors' determined 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.

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.

I believe we cannot be a ‘reconciled’ nation until a shrine commemorating fallen Aboriginal warriors in the Frontier Wars is placed side by side with the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra.

We must accord as much respect to the victims of the Frontier Wars as we do to those who died in Australia’s overseas engagements since 1788. As the Frontier Wars were fought regionally, we should erect monuments around the country to tribal groups who fought and died as patriots to the Indigenous cause. The AWM can be contacted at GPO Box 345, Canberra ACT 2601.

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