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Itís time to commemorate the Frontier Wars

By Paul Newbury - posted Thursday, 30 January 2014

In The Sydney Morning Herald of 18 January 2014, Fairfax Media reported that in an address to the National Australia Day Council, noted scientist Tim Flannery, expressed his 'sense of outrage' that the Australian War Memorial (AWM) refuses to honour Aboriginal warriors who fought and died defending their lands and their people against white invader settlers in the Frontier Wars of 1788-1928.

He said that in any other war, Australia's Aborigines "would have been awarded the Victoria Cross" but the AWM in Canberra does not even acknowledge them. The Frontier Wars began when Bidgigal resistance hero Pemulwuy (c1750 -1802) killed Governor Arthur Phillip's convict gamekeeper near Sydney in 1790.

Pemulwuy's audacity outraged Governor Phillip and his native policy changed immediately. He ordered his aide Watkin Tench to lead a punitive expedition to bring back any six Bidgigal or their heads. The expedition was a failure though Phillip's order presaged countless such wanton reprisals against Australia's Indigenous people for the next 140 years.


In his recent book, Forgotten War (Newsouth 2013), Australian historian Henry Reynolds says in recent times, Australian military historians have followed the lead of conventional historians in acknowledging the Frontier Wars of 1788-1928.

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


Gray defines war 'as an act of force to compel an enemy to do your will' and he comes down decisively in favour of viewing the conflict between Aborigines and the British as warfare. He contends that to deny the status of combatant to Aboriginal peoples is to deny their bravery and their will to resist the British invasion with every ounce of their being.


Dr John Connor is an historian from the Australian Defence Force Academy and in his book The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838 (UNSW 2002), he brings the first fifty years of the Australian frontier into the mainstream of the military history in Australia.


He says the British Army found it difficult at first to operate on the Australian frontier because Aboriginal guerrilla tacts minimised the effect of muskets and Aboriginal warriors generally were able to evade pursuit. The situation began to change from 1825 when the army issued soldiers with horses giving them the mobility to counter Aboriginal tactics over a wide frontier.

On Anzac Day, Australians commemorate102,000 Australian men and women who lost their lives in defence of this country in overseas wars. In considering Indigenous deaths in the Frontier Wars, Reynolds estimates conservatively that frontier violence caused around 2000 European deaths while Indigenous deaths numbered at least 20,000.

Historians generally regard the Frontier Wars to have ended in 1928 with the killing of a large number of Warlpiri people (officially thirty-one) by a police punitive party at Coniston in the Northern Territory in response to the death of a European.

In Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land (Allen & Unwin 1987), Henry Reynolds reviews correspondence in which British settler invaders drew parallels in their letters home with other conflicts the British Empire fought in the world. There were comparisons with Indian rebellions; Jamaican riots; fierce hordes in the Sudan; savage Abyssinians, Apaches, Iroquois,Maoris, Zulus and many others.

Frontier conflict was the most persistent feature of Australian life for 140 years. This was an inescapable consequence of the invasion and colonisation of the continent. The invaders saw no need to negotiate purchase of land or make treaties as they had done in North America and New Zealand.


The Frontier Wars were a series of violent confrontations and massacres across the continent and many Europeans were ruined through despair and bankruptcy following Aboriginal incendiary raids on crops, huts and livestock. Native peoples fought the invaders on a tribe by tribe basis because each of them was a sovereign people defending their land.


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.

Conditions on the frontier were unpredictable and revenge was often the principal motive for an attack on both sides. There were no frontlines, no clear demarcation between territories held by opposing forces, and no distinction between civilians and combatants.

The Aborigines sought to remain on their traditional lands rather than fall back before the invasion and they continued to defend their land and sacred places for as long as they were able. Eventually, the British gathered the disoriented leftovers of colonial conquest on reserves and they entered the twentieth century out of sight and out of mind.

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 have no problem commemorating the Maori Wars (1845-1872).


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. If our Indigenous peoples could go to the War Memorial and 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.

If we are to be members of one nation, we cannot continue to have conflicting stories about our past. We will know we belong to one nation when a shrine honouring fallen Indigenous warriors is placed alongside the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldierin the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

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A shorter version of this article appeared in Eureka Street on 20 January 2014 under the title Time to honour Aboriginal frontier warriors

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About the Author

Paul W Newbury writes on Indigenous issues. In 2008, his short story Encounters with Strangers was published in the Royal Australian History Journal; in 2011, his Reconciliation Trilogy: Why Wattle Day should be our National Day, Forgotten Aboriginal War Heroes and Why Mabo deserves a Holiday was published in Eureka Street and in 2012, his Perspectives of identity was published in the Griffith Review Ebook Provocations.

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