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Time to honour Aboriginal frontier warriors


'Forgotten War' by Henry ReynoldsProfessor 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 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 views the conflict between Aborigines 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.

In his 2002 book The Australian Frontier Wars 1788–1838, Dr John Connor, an historian from the Australian Defence Force Academy, brings the Australian frontier into the mainstream of military history. 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 were able to evade pursuit. The situation changed from 1825 when the army issued soldiers with horses, giving them the mobility to counter Aboriginal tactics over a wide frontier.

In his 1987 book Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land, 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 mutinies, Jamaican riots, fierce hordes in the Sudan, savage Abyssinians, Apaches, Maoris, Zulus and many others.

For the AWM to say the Frontier Wars do not fit its charter is to exclude a whole people from commemoration based on a trifle. New Zealand, our partner in the Anzac legend, has no problem commemorating the Maori Wars of 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.

Paul Newbury headshotPaul Newbury writes on Indigenous, environmental and sustainability issues. In 1999, he was editor and principal author of Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance from Pemulwuy to Mabo published by the social justice organisation Action for World Development.

Topic tags: Paul Newbury, frontier wars, Australian War Memorial, Tim Flannery, Australia Day, Anzac Day, Pemulwuy



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Existing comments

‘War’ is a risky and dangerous word to use alone when trying to describe the full scale of the encounter between the Europeans and the Indigenous nations of Australia. Our conventional understanding of ‘war’ includes such defining factors as declarations of war and the easily recognisable boundaries of the states involved, neither of which apply in this case. Opponents of this view of the history of Australia will exploit the term ‘war’ as extreme and sensationalist. That said, the history of Western society in Australia has, at its very centre, the undeniable fact of the dispossession of the Indigenous nations of their lands, their powers, and their natural rights by those Westerners. The current Minister for Education, who criticises the lack of emphasis on Western civilisation in our history teaching, would want to consider the kind of history that fully entails in regard to Australia. New description of what really happened at the frontier continues to be published and is to be read closely. A range of words, including the word ‘war’, come into play. The next generation of Australians will have a better vocabulary for what happened, a better picture of the disastrous historical misunderstandings that underlie our current arrogant attitudes about sovereignty of the land.

CLOSE READING | 21 January 2014  

Pau Newbury, you have raised a most vital subject and its time the establishment, most assuredly the military people, recognised the aborigines' bravery in the face of the wrongs perpetrated: as you say, recognition in the most noble way by the Australian War Memorial.

Lynne Z | 21 January 2014  

I fully support Paul's article, calling for recognition of the bravery and persistence of Aboriginal warriors defending their land against British settlers. During my school years I lived in Western Victoria, which Major Mitchell called 'Australia Felix', because of the lush fertile land. Large numbers of Aboriginal people - Gunditjmara, in the south and Djabwurung, to the north of Hamilton - lived a settled life. They built stone shelters against the south-westerly winds, as well as stone channels to trap fish in Lake Condah and associated creeks. The Aboriginal population was decimated by the early settlers, killed in reprisal for killing sheep and cattle, and pushed off the land into small reserves under the control of the Protector for Aborigines. Of an initially large population, only a few Aboriginal descent families remain in the southern Western District. The brutal history of settlement was repeated throughout Australia, initially in the lush temperate areas of the south, extending into the tropical north and the drier inland areas as settlement expanded. In all areas, the Aborigines fought back in what was recognised at the time as guerrilla warfare. We can't undo our brutal history - we should at least remember the Aboriginal defenders with respect.

Ian Fraser | 21 January 2014  

Do you think the war is over? That the remnant peoples of the Aboriginal Nations remain beset, besieged, excluded and vanquished with few exceptions?

patricia bouma | 21 January 2014  

Another important book which should be mandatory for school students is Robert Hughes' "The Fatal Shore" which is a true history of Australia and Britain in the Georgian era.

Lynne Z | 21 January 2014  

The term "war" is too emotional and, dare I say it "political" for describing this period of Australian history. However, there was a lot of conflict in the "building" of this Commonwealth which needs to be acknowledged and the tragic parts grieved over, and as appropriate repented and penanced for. The end-product is overwhelmingly positive, but the casualties are significant and need to be cared for, compensated and brought into the prosperous mainstream. I would support a memorial to the whole of this birth trauma and conflict and to all those who suffered in the process of making a prosperous and sophisticated and free western country in of this continent. Our aboriginal country- men and -women are obviously central and uppermost to this memorial process, but the soldiers who died and the white prisoners and pioneers who suffered need to be remembered (and honoured where possible) too. Crimes where they occurred need to be named for what they were, with true remorse. But beating ourselves up too much about what happened 1-2 hundred years ago is just self-indulgent.

Eugene | 21 January 2014  

Thank you Paul, it;s well past time we became educated about the long history of "real aussies" as well as immigrants ,new Australians.We could begin to feel real pride again, not just for those who lost their lives fighting for the British Empire.The queen would be pleased I am certain, and the Minister for Education has a duty to engage all Australian children;is there any wonder they feel disenfranchised??The truth would give them a chance to be proud of their achievements, and give men their story of bravery and honour. What are we afraid of?

Catherine | 21 January 2014  

Paul, our country was colonised and settled - not invaded.

Brian Goodall | 21 January 2014  

The term 'war' seems accurate and appropriate to me, and also clearly necessary to force recognition of indigenous peoples resisting invasion with great courage as we should expect of any people in such circumstances. Proper recognition and honour in the Australian War Memorial is merely recording the facts of our history. Failure to recognise can only be seen as a continuing demeaning of our indigenous peoples.

Peter Johnstone | 21 January 2014  

The silence over the treatment of aboriginals is congruent with our debunked doctrine of "Terra Nullius". My forebears arrived in Sydney as free settlers in 1833. They lived through a period when the punitive actions against indigenous "natives" described by Paul Newbury were the unpleasant by product of British settlement in the various colonies making up what is now Australia. The "silence" was alluded to in the stories recounted by older Australians during my youth, and, like the whisperings of sexual misbehaviour of the Catholic Clergy, were not really believed to be true. Perhaps our silence over the shameful treatment of the aboriginal population as an unwillingness to admit our forebears were as complicit in the destruction of natives peoples as were the Germans,Japanese during WWII, the British, Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas. It is shameful to think that our efforts to conceal the truth of our past wrongs deserve the same reproach given the Japanese in their concerted efforts to disown a culpability for their troops behaviour during WWII. As a returned soldier, I would welcome the official recognition of the Aboriginal people's struggle against colonial settlement causing destruction of their culture and way of life.

Terry Cobby | 21 January 2014  

I embrace the idea of erecting some monuments to aboriginal heroes, and let them not be impeded by the semantics of the word 'war'. In fact, just this week The Age carried a story of a plan to erect a monument to the first two people executed in Victoria, two aboriginal men who were fighting for their right to retain their land and killed whites in the process. Lately I had cause to read much of the original documentation and historical analysis of the Burke & Wills expedition, including a pair of books published recently by the Royal Society of Victoria, original sponsors of the expedition. The saga is replete with episodes of foolishness and callousness, but the heroes who stand out are aboriginal people, notably "Mr Shirt", "Dick" and the woman Carrawaw who was Australia's own Good Samaritan if ever we had one. Yet there are no monuments to any of this trio while B&W are rembered in sculpture a hundred times over. It's time to get the balance right.

Richard Olive | 21 January 2014  

Great post! Absolutely right!

Katina Vaselopulos | 22 January 2014  

The Director of the Australian War Memorial has said that the Memorial is not the place to commemorate internal colonial conflict because it is concerned with the "story of Australians deployed in war overseas on behalf of Australia". This is indeed curious as Memorial's official purpose is to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war. There is no mention of colonial conflict nor overseas service in the AWM Act. According to the historian Henry Reynolds, some 22,000 Australian Aboriginal people and 2000 whites are recorded to have died in war on Australian soil. The actual numbers of people who died is of course much higher as not all battle deaths would have been recorded. By any measure, this is war. If the AWM persists is refusing to "commemorate the sacrifice" of these Australians then one can only assume that they are not considered to be Australian. Any argument that the Australian Aboriginals who fought in this war were not members of the Defence Force and therefore their sacrifice should not be recognised is truly offensive. We after all, we commemorate the heroism of the Turks in the defence of their country in the Turkish campaign memorial at the top of Anzac Parade. Until the AWM decides to recognise that Aboriginals killed in all wars are indeed Australians and worthy of commemoration, Canberrans can visit the small unofficial memorial to Aboriginal Defence Force soldiers. It is in the bush, half hidden, "out the back" of the AWM, some 300 metres up Mt Ainslie. This is indeed a sacred place and it is a place where one can contemplate the thousands who died in the only land war fought on Australian soil.

Digby Habel | 22 January 2014  

It doesn't seem a big ask to me for the Australian War Memorial to stretch its charter just a little to include these frontier wars. By doing so it would firstly acknowledge that there were no deals to purchase land and no treaties to share it; secondly that in consequence tribes organised themselves to defend their land and thirdly it would honour those warriors who tried to protect their people against the invader.

Jill Finnane | 23 January 2014  

Thx Paul. keep writing and publishing this information widely please.

patricia bouma | 24 January 2014  

Agreed. The War Memorial's excuse is that their charter only concerns overseas service. yet they still acknowledge those forces involved in defending Australia against Japanese attacks. This includes the Torres Strait Regiment. The frontier conflict cannot be ignored although I suggest the use of "massacre" does not help the debate.

John Thompson | 24 January 2014  

I have bought your book "Aboriginal Heroes of the resistance from Pemulwuy to Mabo and I hope that this book and you other writings are studied in Australian schools as the sad and tragic truth must be known by the new generations. We have to be sure that "never again" applies in the treatment of indigenous people..
How greedy western people have been all over the world, the story of colonization is a great shame..
Now injustice continues towards asylum seekers
Amina Daligand

Amina Daligand | 22 February 2014  

Indeed a moral issue. "Black Diggers" and many other recent initiatives are at last recognizing Indigenous Servicemen who fought for Australia. These warriors must be recognized for their equal love of country, passion and loyalty and need to protect family and freedom.

Judy Panucci | 10 March 2014  

For those of you inclined, people are organising around this issue... Indigenous and non Indigenous together. Friday 25 April from about 11 am "Lest We Forget the Frontier Wars" Anzac Day March assembling outside West Block, cnr Amaroo and Anzac Parade, Reid. Contact: Michael Anderson 0427 292 492 ghillar29@gmail.com Led by Nyoongar Ghurradjong Murri Ghillar (Michael Anderson), an original founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and now a leading voice on Aboriginal Sovereignty issues, participants will be invited to carry flags, banners and massacre naming placards and join the March and its call for recognition by the Australian War Memorial of the dead of Australia's Frontier Wars. The March will tack onto end of the Anzac Day March and follow it to the Australian War Memorial, where it will be turned away in an act of powerful symbolism and creative non violence. An idea whose time has come. Make and bring a placard which records the colonial massacres in your district. If you can't come in person, email Graeme Dunstan graemed01@gmail.com the details and he will get the placard made up and carried.

Margaret PESTORIUS | 23 March 2014  

Dr Nelson has stated that "The [Australian War] Memorial exists to honour the service and sacrifice of all Australians deployed on military and peacekeeping operations on behalf of the nation" (letter to me, 5 May 2014). The caveat that is omitted is: "except for indigenous Australians deployed on operations to defend their homeland against a colonial invader". As a serviceman who been deployed overseas to defend his country, I tremble at the thought of defending my shore against an enemy with total superiority in firepower. The indigenous Australians who did this in defence of their families, have my unreserved respect. My most compelling wish is that I could stand next to their descendants on 25 April 2015 and share our mutual commitment, to the death, for our country. Bruce Cameron MC"

Bruce Cameron | 05 May 2014  

thankyou Paul and our Brave Warriors ...it's interesting how powerful words can be...the use of "settled" and "colonised" soften what really happened and make it palatable ...... Invasion, War, Murder, Massacres, Eugenics, Rape, Theft, Genocide...

Gomeroi | 05 June 2014  

We would like to share with you that the Marist Family Peace and Justice Group’s conference for this year is: "Both Ends of the Gun" which will focus on Australian Aboriginals at War - the Frontier Wars and Overseas Wars. Venue: Santa Sabina College, Strathfield 90 The Boulevard, Strathfield NSW 2135 (300m south of Strathfield Train Station) Date: Saturday 29th August 2015 Note, registration is required by the 7th August 2015 Bookings: www.maristfamily.com.au

Marist Family Peace and Justice Group | 28 July 2015  

I am a mature age University student and my research on Aboriginal leadership at Newcastle University I like you information on this subject and I will be using some of it in my research paper

Patrick Lock | 25 June 2017  

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