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Time to honour Aboriginal frontier warriors

  • 21 January 2014

Professor Tim Flannery of Macquarie University has 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.

As reported by Catherine Armitage in the Sydney Morning Herald, Flannery told a forum of the National Australia Day Council that in any other war, Australia's Aborigines 'would have been awarded the Victoria Cross' but at the AWM in Canberra, they are not even acknowledged. Readers of Eureka Street may remember that I raised this issue in April 2011 in my article 'Forgotten Aboriginal war heroes'.

The Frontier Wars began in 1790 when Bidgigal resistance hero Pemulwuy (c1750–1802) killed Governor Phillip's convict gamekeeper near Sydney. In response, Phillip ordered 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.

During this period there were violent confrontations and massacres across the continent. Many Europeans were ruined through despair and bankruptcy following Aboriginal 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.

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.

Historians generally regard the Frontier Wars to have ended in 1928 with the killing of a large number of Warlpiri people (officially 30) by a police punitive party at Coniston, NT, in response to the death of a white man.

Australian historian Henry Reynolds estimates conservatively that frontier violence caused around 2000 European deaths while Indigenous deaths were at least ten times that number. In his recent book, Forgotten War (Newsouth 2013), he says that in recent times, Australian military historians have followed the lead of conventional historians in acknowledging the Frontier Wars.

In 1990, Jeffrey Gray published A Military History of Australia in which he observed that the conflict between