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Forgotten Aboriginal war heroes


'Easter Anzacs' by Chris JohnstonAs Anzac Day draws near, we prepare to celebrate the 102,000 Australian men and women who lost their lives in defence of their country. Anzac Day commemorations tend to neglect the history of the many Indigenous Australians who also died in defence of their land.

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

The Frontier Wars raged across the continent for 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 British antecedents perpetrated wrongs against Australia's Indigenous peoples.

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

A number of Australian historians have proposed 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.

The Frontier Wars began in 1790 when Bidgigal resistance hero Pemulwuy killed Governor Phillip's convict gamekeeper for his abuse of Aboriginal women. 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.

Pemulwuy was said to be at the head of every raid on settler farms. In October 1802, two settlers shot and killed him. Pemulwuy had led his peoples' struggle against the invaders for 12 years.

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.

Aboriginal warriors fought an economic and physical war against settlers, raiding farms and pastoral runs. They killed settlers and their servants, destroyed cabins and farm buildings, and razed crops in incendiary raids. Aboriginal people fought the invaders on a tribe by tribe basis — they were sovereign peoples defending their lands.

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 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.

Indigenous people resisted fiercely but military police and settlers equipped with horses and rifles eventually overwhelmed them. They died defending their homelands, sacred sites and lifestyle.

The 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.

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 and a testimony to their ancestors' tenacious struggle for their land, what a boost to their morale it would be.

Such a memorial would be an acknowledgement of a long repressed aspect of our past, and an abiding act of reconciliation.


Paul W. NewburyPaul W. Newbury is a writer from the Southern Highlands of NSW. In 1999, he was editor and principal author of Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance: from Pemulwuy to Mabo

Topic tags: Anzac Day, W. E. H. Stanner, colonisation, Aboriginal, Indigenous, Australia, Pemulwuy, Bidgigal, Dharug



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Existing comments

The war is far from over the only thing that has changed is the enviroment

trawalla winter yellanach | 18 April 2011  

What a disgraceful event!

Thousands of refugees, mostly Irish Catholics, fleeing from a murderous regime were then constantly harressed and persecuted by the Indigenous people. They were worse than Tony Abbott (It was not only their views on multiculturalism that were a disgrace, their patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes with the way that they enforced gender roles on women makes Tony Abbott seeem like Germaine Greer). It makes me ashamed to call myself Australian.

While the reprisals were horrible and regretable, if the Indigenous people had more humane and welcoming immigration policies, much of the violence could surely have been avoided in the same way that the recent violence on Christmas Island could have been avoided.

Francis | 18 April 2011  

Aboriginal people were regarded as murderous and lacking in their immigration policies because they tried to fight off the intruders and protect their land. Similarly, the Irish fought the English with the IRA, the East Timorese fought the Indonesians through Fretilin and the Maubere Resistance, just as the Indonesians fought the Dutch. When is an invasion just another form of immigration, and when are people really allowed to protect their homelands?

Eveline Goy | 19 April 2011  

While the subtlety of the comments by Francis is not lost on me, we have to admit one basic difference: today's refugees are not trying to invade and occupy anyone else's country.

Peter Downie | 19 April 2011  

Yes, it is odd that the only war fought on our soil in which an estimated 22000 (2000 white) people died is not recognised by the AWM. It seems as though some just cannot face the fact that such an inglorious one-sided war occurred on the very soil that we now live on. In the meantime, there is an unpopular push to build 2 new memorials in Canberra to WW1 and WW11 at a cost of $20m; wars that are already commemorated at the AWM - further salt for the persistent wound to Aboriginal dignity.

Digby Habel | 19 April 2011  

Great idea. My father was in Changi and, after 3 days of captivity, all the men spoke of was food for the next 3.5 years. One of the aboriginal soldiers from near Taree fascinated them all with tales of "a locomotive that carried plates we all helped ourselves from". What a magnificent imagination. He pre-dated the "sushi train" by 50 years.

Dianne Mullin | 19 April 2011  

Please could we celebrate peace, rather than war?

Perhaps on the date a peace treaty was signed. And when Sorry was said. When food and shelter for all becomes a reality. Rather than erecting more monuments, why not build shelters for the homeless -
since 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'.

Joyce | 19 April 2011  

Did not Watkin Tench, First Fleet officer in the Royal Marines, clearly document that it was 'invasion,' not settlement in the eyes of the Indigenous? Did he and David Collins not also insist strongly that the Aboriginal peoples around Sydney and later Tasmanian did not go quietly into the night but, rather, fought back. It was a war. It should be recognised and marked as such in our Federal Capital.

David Timbs | 19 April 2011  

I am very sad to see such insensitive comments made by Francis.... As a proud Aboriginal woman it also makes me sad that so many people still don't appreciate the losses my people have endured through the wars created by the invasion as described in this great article .... as well as the facts that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought in subsequent wars FOR the invaders of this country were not allowed in RSLs upon their return .... were not allowed to march on ANZAC Day...were not given parcels of land as white soldiers were .... no widows pensions etc.... if we are not to be a hypocritical country .... why is ‘ LEST WE FORGET’ a white privilege???... as Paul Newbury (author of the above article)says 'Such a memorial would be an acknowledgement of a long repressed aspect of our past, and an abiding act of reconciliation' It would give my family representation in what is seen as such an important event for the rest of the population on our land

Yorta Yorta Woman | 19 April 2011  


Charles Bean | 19 April 2011  

@ Charles Bean .... I'm not sure I understand you point with this article .....

Yorta Yorta Woman | 20 April 2011  

I agree. If Australia was to be invaded by a foreign power, I'm sure there would be strong resistance from we white Australians and of course we would expect our black countrymen to fight alongside us as they have done before.

stinger | 20 April 2011  

I agree 100% with Mr Newbury, that the War Memorial should acknowledge the struggle First Australians made in defence of their homes & land. It is a critical part of our history which has not yet acknowledged properly.

Richard Byrne | 20 April 2011  

Dear Yorta Yorta woman,
I am honoured to receive your comment. I have visited your lands on the River Murray and I know of your relationship with the River.

Paul W Newbury | 20 April 2011  

Within the first eight years of white settlement in New South Wales the Aboriginal population dropped from around forty thousand to less than six thousand people. Does anyone else find 'LEST WE FORGET' very ironic... Lest we forget the greatest war for Australian land, the Frontier Wars! Legends such as the Anzac tradition of great battles fought by white Australians in the name of their country allow for white belonging to be legitimised, and this ownership would be threatened if it were officially considered that Indigenous people fought and died for their country against the very people who would be the forefathers of those sent to fight at Gallipoli! The relative lack of credit of Indigenous histories of war demonstrate the fact that such histories are not accorded the same importance nor legitimised to the same extent as white Australian participation in wars such as Gallipoli. “history may be understood not as ‘objective truth’… but rather as a meaning making practice that privileges certain groups over others and which thus legitimates the world view of particular groups to the exclusion and oppression of others.”

UNDA Student | 21 April 2011  

In September 1884 200 Kalkadoon warriors formed up in ranks and charged into the rifles of a white group at Battle Mountain near Kajabbi in north Queensland. Their ranks were shattered by the withering rifle fire and they were forced to withdraw. They reformed and again threw themselves into the deadly fire across the ground littered with their brothers already dead or dying.

Vince Kean | 21 April 2011  

I agree, this one simple memorial could help Australia move towards real progress. Everyone's supposed to know you can't go far with a guilty conscience. Go on, 'fess up ADF & AWM. Be big.

Scott Collingwood | 17 May 2011  

Maybe this excellent proposal would have a better chance of success if it included a memorial to the white casualties of the frontier wars. Would we want one memorial for both sides or a white memorial and a black memorial? Anyone for apartheid?

geoff fox | 03 June 2011  

Do you have any documents to back up your undocumented assertion that Governor Phillip's convict gamekeeper "abuse" of Aboriginal women?

mark matheson | 25 September 2011  

message for Paul W. Newbury Trying to find a copy of Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance: from Pemulwuy to Mabo but seems to be out of print. Would he know where one could get a copy. Thanks

neville | 26 October 2011  

interesting article and so logical. Of course the Frontier Wars should be part of the AWM. It is time all Australians acknowledged the truth of the settlement of Aust. It was resisted at great cost by the First Nation peoples.

Angela Fyfe | 27 September 2015  

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