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The Australian wars that Anzac Day neglects


'Aboriginal Commemoration' by Chris Johnston. A ghostly Aboriginal memorial stands alongside a vivid 3-D Anzac soldier memorialFor more than 30 years the Australian War Memorial in the nation's capital has refused to consider any recognition of the long and often violent conflict between black and white.

The proposal that the memorial might commemorate the 'frontier wars' first came in 1979 from Geoffrey Blainey. It has since been repeated by commentators and scholars including the then-principal historian at the memorial, Dr Peter Stanley, and a former army chief of staff, Lieut-General John Coates. To no avail.

The memorial is not alone in its silence. Sydney's Hyde Park, just a few hundred metres from where it all began, has almost as many monuments, memorial gardens and commemorative fountains as trees, most to do with our loss, sacrifice and valour in war, the struggles of our explorers and pioneers, or the sagacity of our civic leaders.

But on the 97.8 per cent of human affairs conducted in this place before colonisation, on the 2000 generations who made their lives where Hyde Park now stands, on what happened in our obtaining of it, and on what became of the 'dispossessed', not a word or stone is spent.

And in 2006 the Sydney Morning Herald published a 20-page 175th anniversary edition comprising dozens of stories, illustrations and photographs from the paper's countless thousands of pages. It remembered to include just three short pieces about us and the Aborigines. All showed our good selves in a favourable light.

There have been moments of acknowledgment. In 1967, 90 per cent of Australians voted, as they believed, to end racism; in 1992 the High Court declared that Aboriginal people did have a claim on the land; in 2000 the march for reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge took nearly six hours to pass; and in 2008 a prime minister said that hardest word: sorry.

But compare these spasms of lumpy throats and teary eyes with our annual observation of Anzac Day.

On best estimate around 20,000 people died in a series of violent conflicts between peoples extending across the entire continent and more than half of our history. But we have yet to find a way to remember the loss of those people with anything like the scale and intensity of our other commemorations.

The commemoration gap dwarfs the life-expectancy gap, the educational outcomes gap, even the incarceration gap, but there's no policy on closing it. It is rarely noticed.

The commemoration gap may prove to be even more recalcitrant than the other gaps. For several decades from the 1960s it was closing fast, under the pressure of an Aboriginal rebellion, in result of the recovery by scholars and others of a story long smothered in the 'great Australian silence', and through responses to these in just about every department of public life up to and including the national Parliament and the High Court.

Then it was all stopped, before we had absorbed the story into our reflex sense of ourselves. But not before we became aware of it. None of the ways catalogued above of getting our history wrong arises from ignorance.

On the contrary, all are reactions to knowing of the story, as opposed to knowing the story. We know what we would know if we did know, and it doesn't feel good. It stirs not so much guilt, as is so often alleged, but a sense of impotence and frustration, an inability to either make it right or make it go away.

What then is the way forward? I would make three suggestions.

First, there is little to be gained from yet more movies, docos and school texts on 'Aboriginal themes'. They too easily make victims of people who were not only victims, and victimisers of people who were almost always other things besides. That provides an excuse for anger or nitpicking or turning off.

Second, public and popular history should record the things that do us credit as well as the things that don't, not to pander to prejudice but because that's the reality. This society, unlike many others, has recovered the story and has tried, however imperfectly, to take it into our sense of ourselves. The impulse to expose the truth and redress wrongs is as intrinsic to our history and culture as the wrongs themselves.

Third, the 'story of relations between two races in a single field of life' (in the words of the great W. E. H. Stanner) is sometimes front and centre in our history, often in the wings, always present, never separate, and that's the way it should be represented. It needs to become normal. The scholars have done what they can. Now it's up to popular and public history.

The best single example of what popular history can do is Baz Luhrmann's 2008 blockbuster Australia. In Australia the movie, as in Australia the fact, relations between black and white are complex in thought and feeling, and are woven in and around other stories, of romance, of war, of nation and of the land.

'I could have made a small film about this issue,' Luhrmann said, 'but instead I have put a contentious historic issue at the heart of this big entertainment because I wanted to get to as many people as possible.'

And therein lies a lesson for public history, the War Memorial, the trustees of Hyde Park, the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald — and the custodians of our annual commemorations. It's time we started talking about how Anzac Day can embrace difficult realities of war and nation, and still do the other things it needs to do.

Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden has written on relations between black and white in Australia in History Australia, Menajin, The Weekend Australian and Inside Story.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Anzac Day, Indigenous Australians



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On the same night of April 24, 1915, the government in Constantinople imprisoned an estimated 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders. This was the prelude to the genocide in Armenia, which took place in the same weeks and months as the Allies campaign at Gallipoli. Constantinople was fighting on at least two fronts. With war comes government justification for massacre on a large scale, including massacre away from the battlefield. Even Turkey’s allies condemned the actions of the Turkish government. The widespread atrocities, including concentration camps, in Armenia were the influential starting point for other genocides in the 20th century. April 24 is Genocide Remembrance Day, a national holiday in Armenia.

PHILIP HARVEY | 20 April 2013  

How about commemorating a First Peoples Day instead of the queens birthday?

Vacy Vlazna | 22 April 2013  

Thank you, Mr Ashenden. Perhaps a major reason for the lack of recognition of Aboriginal deaths during the European settlement, is that it was mostly the police who dealt with Aborigines, not the army. As a consequence, those who died defending their land were regarded as criminals, not as “worthy enemies” that can be respected in the same way as Turkish defenders were. The remnants of this mindset remain in the generally poor relationship between many Indigenous communities and the police. The bravery of those who fought and died at Gallipoli is undoubted, but it is a supreme irony that the ANZACs actually *invaded* Turkey in the name of Empire, not Australia’s defence. The nomination of Australia Day as “Invasion Day” by many Indigenous Australians is understandable given the lamentable consequences that have still not been remedied. Inclusion of our Indigenous brothers and sister in our Constitution will be one small step towards true recognition of our First Peoples.

Patricia R | 22 April 2013  

Sorry Dean, I think you are way off the mark with these thoughts. To be immersed in your line of thinking for a few moments, if we have the indigenous-colonials conflicts memorialised and included in the ANZAC tradition and at our ANZAC memorials in our country, then we would need to include the Irish Catholics-English Protestants conflicts, the Croatians-Jugoslavs conflicts etc etc because they are part of the history of the people who now make up our nation. The ANZAC tradition, as I understand and believe, is about how we became a united people to stand in the world in the great conflict of World War I and then subsequently, World war II and the wars our nation has been involved in since. I have no problem with having to accept and memorialise the 'frontier wars' (I have a problem with that phrase) and the hardships imposed, even the crimes committed against the indigenous original owners of our lands, but it is stretching the logic to include all of that in ANZAC.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 22 April 2013  

Sometimes the dominant culture of a nation will cleave to an idealised version of an historical event and claim it as the definition of that nation. Sometimes the dominant culture of a nation will disregard another version of an historical event because it does not conform to the perceptions the nation has of itself. When white colonists invaded Australia their worldview was that their society was inherently superior to that of the 'uncivilised' Indigenous peoples. The ANZAC legend feeds into the perception of an Australia with an unformed history - our preferred version of history was based on the fiction of terra nullius. Remembering, and honouring, bravery in defence of a homeland must include the Indigenous peoples of this land. The Australian War Memorial, to be truly representative, should include the story of dispossession and marginalisation of First Peoples.

Pam | 22 April 2013  

A fourth suggestion to add to your three, Mr Ashendon - build a National Aboriginal Memorial in Canberra, a museum similar in its content and purpose to the War Memorial. That might just be much more significant in the journey towards reconciliation than words such as 'sorry'. Perhaps the National Museum sitting on Lake Burley Griffin might be renamed and converted to serve the purpose?

john frawley | 22 April 2013  

Can any kind reader recommend a popular history book on these early day conflicts (not a heavy tome). As a school student in the fifties Australian history was ignored.

George Miller | 22 April 2013  

Some regions 'celebrate' the significant recorded individual battles such as the Appin and Myall Creek Massacres in NSW on the day or days they occurred. All such 'commemorations' become a tricky subject though - particularly if one countenances the possibility that people like First Fleeter Major Robert Ross were using small-pox infected handkerchiefs as 'gifts' to indigenous people as occurred during his previous service in North America. For that sort of stuff we'd need a war memorial on every corner - something we seem to have almost got with ANZAC anyway. My late father served 1939-1945 and his two uncles died on the Western Front in WW! but he refused to join the RSL and worked illegally to assist local Vietnam Draft resisters as he felt they were doing their best to try to keep names off war memorials in the first place. Some claim that the purpose of ANZAC DAY is to also help to achieve that but I'm not so sure. Growing up in the 9170s I thought (along with Eric Bogle) that soon "no-one would march anymore"but am very interested in how it seems to be becoming a bigger event each year. The Australian poet John Forbes seems to have expressed it best: "the Australians, unamused, unimpressed they went over the top like men clocking on, in this first full-scale industrial war. Which is why Anzac Day continues to move us, & grow, despite attempts to make it a media event (left to them we’d attend ‘The Foxtel Dawn Service’). But The March is proof we got at least one thing right, informal, straggling & more cheerful than not, it’s like a huge works or 8 Hour Day picnic— if we still had works, or unions, that is."

Joseph | 22 April 2013  

George Miller: For one, Henry Reynolds has a number of well-researched (i.e. evidence-based on original documents) books on the impact of European settlement on Indigenous peoples. I emphasise the importance of the use of original documents because there has been a concerted effort by some to deny what really happened. What excellent ideas, John Frawley and Vacy Vlazna, thank you.

Patricia R | 22 April 2013  

George Miller, you should check out Bruce Elder's book Blood on the Wattle http://books.google.com.au/books/about/Blood_on_the_Wattle.html?id=lKkENQAACAAJ

Charles Boy | 22 April 2013  

For John Frawley,Vacy Vlazna and Patricia R: thank you for pitching in. The limitation of single-purpose memorials and commemorations is that they can be so easily seen as 'Aboriginal' rather than Australian, about 'them' and their experience rather than us and the history that made us. Hence my vote for Luhrmann's approach over single-focus TV series and so on - and for asking whether and how places and days of commemoration of the national experience of violent conflict between peoples can take in what's so often left out.

Dean Ashenden | 22 April 2013  

Reading your article Dean, I cringe with shame. "...all are reactions to knowing of the story, as opposed to knowing the story" so much spin,nationally funded. Some wonderful comments above, make me wonder if many of the memorials are to distract from the stupidity of Aussies going to "unnecessary" wars.At least the blackfeller wars were not just going to someone else's barney. And how do we fix the anti-intellectual national narnarrative without enraging the myths the RSL hold dear. But you say it is beyond matter for discussion. I'll drop a letter to my local paper and had I the guts I would plant something like the tent embassy in Hyde Park.

Michael D. Breen | 22 April 2013  

When I was travelling through Germany I was impressed at the many memorials, great and small, honouring those who died under the Nazis. Their national act of penance is perhaps a model we should take to heart when working out ways of commemorating those generations of Aboriginal dead.

Joanna Mendelssohn | 22 April 2013  

When is a war not a war? Or from an Aboriginal perspective, when is resisting invasion, aggression, uninvited possession of one's land, not war? I don't know the Australian War Memorial authorities' reasons for not commemorating the conflicts of the colonial period. New Zealand seems to have no problem commemorating the Maori Wars. "Lest we forget" should apply just as strongly to what happened in the 19th century to the Australian Aborigines who lost their lives and their land at the hands of British colonial forces as it does to the ANZACS who lost their lives under the command of a British Imperial commmander in 1915.

Uncle Pat | 22 April 2013  

For Uncle Pat: the question of "When is a war ...?" is discussed in http://inside.org.au/battle-over-a-war/ and in the links therein. On an important detail: if war is 'violent conflict between peoples' then it survived the colonial period and the nineteenth century. Several commentators (including me) have suggested the Coniston massacres of 1928 as last episode of such conflict.

Dean Ashenden | 22 April 2013  

Richard Broome's book, simply entitled "Aboriginal Australians-A History since 1788" is thorougly well worth readinng, and covers quite a lot in this regard.

Phillip | 22 April 2013  

From Today's Southern Highland News in a 7 page section "ANZAC Day" containing all the usual stuff,this: "Memorial for indigineous Diggers The first war memorial dedicated to indigineous soldiers will be built in the centre of Sydney. The City of Sydney council has asked Aroriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to submit designs for the monument, which will be in place in Hyde Park for ANZAC Day 2015, the centenary of Australia's involvement in World War 1. The Coloured Diggers Group co-founder Ray Minniecon said Australia needed to honour the memory of brave indigeneous men and women and the sacrifices they made." A start, but no mention of the other indigineous casualties closer to home.

Michael D. Breen | 22 April 2013  

For Dean Ashenden: Thank you for the reference(s). Good stuff. However I must confess my question was rhetorical. I was speculating that maybe the War Memorial authorities, when they asked themselves that question, didn't consider the colonial power's conflict with the Aborigines fitted their definition of war.

Uncle Pat | 22 April 2013  

The works of Henry Reynolds should be required reading for all Australian school children. His frontier history thesis is an unfinished consideration of what really happened across Terra Australis after the mid-18th century. He uses the word 'war' itself to describe what happened in Tasmania. The books are presented in a civilised, steady voice, ever sensitive to the way these events inflame ignorant prejudice amongst many in our society today.

FOR GEORGE MILLER | 22 April 2013  

This is a timely piece of writing. Last year, I wrote Forgotten War Heroes in this publication for Anzac Day. It is a moral issue — it is incumbent on non-Indigenous Australians to own our past and accept that our British forebears perpetrated wrongs against Australia's Indigenous peoples. To say that The Frontier Wars do not fit the AWM mould is to exclude a whole people from commemoration based on a trifle. If Indigenous peoples could go to the War Memorial with their families to see a portrayal of their resistance heroes alongside the nation’s dead in battle in the World Wars 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.

Paul W Newbury | 23 April 2013  

A few years ago I visited an Aboriginal 'attraction' just north of Cairns. Although owned by white people all those who work there in all sorts of capacities from entertainers and retail sales people to lecturers on 'bush tucker are members of the local tribe. A documentary on the life of the tribe before and after the arrival of the Europeans was very confronting showing the brutality of the new arrivals. I commented to an elder I had befriended that I was shocked.We were walking out of the complex down a passage. He said "John, turn around. See that line we crossed as we walked out here. The documentary you saw is on the other side of that line. What happened to my people happened hundreds of years ago and the ones who committed those atrocities are dead and gone. Turn around -- I'm going that way to the future what ever it will be. I'm not staying back there in the past."

John Morris | 23 April 2013  

Uncle Pat doesn’t know why the Australian War Memorial authorities do not commemorate the conflicts of the colonial period. Absolutely central to an understanding of Australian history since 1788 is the British Empire and its post-war Commonwealth. The purposes of the British Empire necessarily asserted the pre-eminence of Britishness, which meant that all subjugated lands could not be as eminent as the conqueror. The Australian War Memorial is many things to many people, but it is manifestly an outcome of British Imperialism, as here described. It is a commemoration of British wars in which Australians participated. They were real wars, according to British dictates. Any other takeover of overseas lands was simply the rightful accession of lands of lesser peoples, it wasn’t war, it was a British right. Naturally the British should take over Africa, of course we are superior to India. The next generation of Australians will read British Empire and Commonwealth history more objectively than previous ones. This will mean seeing places like the War Memorial in a new and more realistic way. Australians have great trouble acknowledging that they have spent their time fighting other people’s wars, but of course in the Great War Australians were ancestral British. As if they would do anything else?

FOR UNCLE PAT | 25 April 2013  

One of the reasons we can make Anzac memorials a spiritual and reflective time, is that our civil "wars" are not included in the consideration. This avoids what could become a triumphalist annoyance to those whose progenitors suffered violence within the national framework of our history. Such 'celebration'has occurred with the Irish marching season. Anzac Day remebrances are proving different and in someway positive. Do we go back to commiserate also the endemic inter group and inter-tribal violence which marked pre British settlement or the establishment's persecution of the Irish? No doubt there were moral prevarications about those....even spiritual lore backed justifications. As it stands, I am beginning to see what was the old "One Day of the Year" swim through, as a much more thought provoking agreement to pause to contemplate the horror, valour and idealism that prompted many to take arms and offer their lives for others'. This occurred in notably 'overseas' conflicts,which were perceived at the time as honourable defence. It is a bit easy to 'celebrate'such idealism when our shores have not seen the divisiveness of such combat,but it is nonetheless proving especially and surprisingly , for the young, an opportunity for a meaningful contemplation of the importance of enduring for an ideal,and of a gratitude for those who gave service in the interests of peace. To indulge this moment of willing empathy and connectedness is a better use of commemoration of violent outbursts than irritating old antipathies, misjudgements and injustices.

sue | 30 April 2013  

Thank-you - maybe one day common sense will prevail although as they say "common sense ain't that common"...

John M Wenitong | 02 May 2018  

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