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Why Australia needs a national Frontier Wars museum



The movement for genuine and long overdue truth telling about Australian history has gained considerable momentum in recent years. The Frontier Wars in particular has emerged as one of, if not the most significant untold stories which it is now broadly agreed must be included in any such process.

The Australian Frontier Wars were fought from 1788 to the 1930s between the First Nations people of this land and an invading coalition of white settlers, militia, police, and colonial soldiers. Respected Australian historian Professor Henry Reynolds has estimated that in total the conflict claimed between 20,000 to 30,000 Aboriginal lives and the lives of between 2,000 and 2,500 Europeans. Recent research suggests this number could be even higher with Raymond Evans and Robert Ørsted–Jensen from the University of Queensland suggesting that the number of casualties could be at least 60,000 in Queensland alone. This was undoubtedly a defining conflict in the history of this country.

However, despite the undeniable significance of the Frontier wars to our shared history, there has been little to no official recognition of these conflicts.

In the absence of such leadership, a growing number of communities are now taking it upon themselves to commemorate their own local histories. Notable examples include Myall Creek, Appin, Coniston, One Tree Hill and Elliston where annual ceremonies are held and monuments now stand to somberly and respectfully remember the blood spilt in the Frontier wars.

Although these local commemorations are undoubtably promising and encouraging, the truth telling process remains limited due to the lack of political will at Federal, State and Local levels of government to remember our first war in any meaningful way. The ongoing refusal of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to acknowledge the Frontier Wars is emblematic of this.

Despite a general consensus amongst military historians that the Frontier Wars indeed demonstrated all the characteristics of a war and should be categorized as such, there remains a distinct lack of political leadership on this issue.


'These institutions are all examples of how nations can confront often brutal and shameful histories courageously and once established often become a source of pride and strength as a demonstration of a more mature and honest society.'


This is in contrast to an increasing and long overdue recognition of the contributions made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women to the war efforts of the Commonwealth. My own grandfather who served in World War 2 with the Australian Imperial Force was last year finally added to the War Memorial roll as part of a welcome effort to properly document Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served.

It is unfortunate this respect has not yet been extended to mine and other First Nations people’s ancestors who fought for their traditional lands against the British invaders. As plans for a major expansion of the AWM are now underway, including an Indigenous advisory group, it remains to be seen if the long silence will finally be addressed.

Dr John Connor, former Senior Historian of the Australian War Memorial and senior lecturer at the Australian Defence Force Academy highlights the cruel hypocrisy of this denial. ‘The ANZACs were beaten by the Turks at Gallipoli but they are properly praised for their valour and resourcefulness. The 8th division was defeated by the Japanese at Singapore but these men are rightly renowned for their mateship and endurance in captivity. It is only fitting then that the defeat of the Indigenous Australian warriors should not prevent us recognising their ingenuity and courage.’

While recognition by our national War Memorial is undoubtably necessary, it is my opinion that would only be part of the solution. Australia needs a dedicated institution which will have the Frontier Wars is its central focus. Australia needs a National Frontier War museum.

Such a facility would serve a number of functions. It would serve as a public space for all Australians to learn the true history of this country. It would promote and support local communities to establish their own Frontier war monuments in cities and towns around the nation. It would act as a hub for further research.

Such a museum would provide a useful educational resource to schools and universities which wish to provide their students with a greater understanding of the Frontier War history. Teachers who may currently feel a lack of confidence or comfort teaching this history because of their own lack of understanding could arrange excursions to the Museum. Similar to the way in which Jewish museums employ Holocaust survivors as tour guides, the Museum could employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders to lead story telling which would support their healing while also passing down important knowledge to the next generation.

We are fortunate to have a number of museums around the world which we may draw on as examples. The National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama provides one such model. Founded in 2018 by Bryan Stevenson, the African-American lawyer made famous as the inspiration for the recent film Just Mercy, the Museum and attached Memorial commemorates the 4400 African-American men, women and children who lost their lives as a result of racially motivated violence following the American Civil War.

Similarly, the Apartheid Museum founded in 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa boldly tells that nation’s history of racial segregation.

Cities around the world including Sydney and Melbourne have major museums to the history of the Holocaust as well as the history of anti-Semitism more broadly. These institutions are all examples of how nations can confront often brutal and shameful histories courageously and once established often become a source of pride and strength as a demonstration of a more mature and honest society.

In every corner of this land, you will find First Nations people who can tell stories passed down from the old people about the Frontier Wars. Collecting this information will require sensitive and respectful engagement which will be vital to the success of the Museum. Giving communities the opportunity to tell their stories, if done appropriately, could also give them the chance to heal and be heard. This oral testimony would also be supported by a wealth of academic research thanks to experienced historians such as Professor Henry Reynolds, Professor Lyndall Ryan and Bruce Pascoe who have devoted their careers to this field. 

There are signs that the status quo is finally shifting and that the cult of forgetfulness which for too long has defined mainstream non Indigenous Australia’s attitude to the Frontier wars is beginning to weaken its hold over our collective national consciousness and an increasing number of Australians are not only ready for the truth about our history, they are actively seeking it.

Speaking at the Australian War Memorial, Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese provided some hope that the taboo around acknowledging the Frontier Wars might finally be breaking in the political sphere. In mentioning Indigenous Australian veterans from twentieth century conflicts he said, ‘they fought for a continent for which their own people had fought during the frontier wars, wars we have not yet learned to speak of so loudly. They, too, died for their loved ones. They, too, died for their country. We must remember them just as we remember those who fought more recent conflicts.’

Telling the truth both to ourselves and to the world is vital to the reconciliation process. It is vital to the creation of a more honest and inclusive Australian national identity. We must be honest about our past if we are to create a better future.



Zachary Wone is a proud Kabi Kabi and Australian South Sea Islander man currently based on Bidjigal land in Sydney. He is a final year Law student. Zachary is also a consultant at Wone Consulting and works as a wharfie at Port Botany.

Main image: Lidia Thorpe looks on during a smoking ceremony at a dawn service to commemorate all Sovereign First Peoples who defended and died in the Frontier Wars and massacres across Australia. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Zachary Wone, Australia, Frontier wars, museum, history, truth telling, Aboriginal, Indigenous



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Existing comments

One of the fallouts from the Fall must be the human characteristic never to apply a stitch in time when there’s still time to save 9, as witness numerous boondoggles such as bishops sitting on clerical sex abuse, etc. Call it lancing a boil or bursting a pimple, we should just go where the evidence leads. If it leads to a black armband museum, so be it, otherwise this Hatfield-McCoy stuff will just keep getting old without ever getting old. Anyway, truth always returns a dividend. We can tell China in front of the world that while we’ve owned up to our frontier killings, when are they going to own up to their Uyghur ones? We can even ask the hypocritical Sunni Taliban if they’re ever going to do something for their Sunni Uyghur brothers and sisters.

roy chen yee | 16 September 2021  

Seems like a great idea. How do we make it happen?

Michael Fehon | 16 September 2021  

Hi Zachary. Actually, the War Memorial has and does recognise that the Frontier Wars happened but it does so in such an ambivalent way as to almost make the situation worse. For example, the For Country, For Nation exhibition at the Memorial some years ago, and now travelling, only makes sense if you admit that First Nations people defended Country way before 1901. And it says so in a cautious way. Then and on its website the Memorial admits 20,000 deaths in the Frontier Wars. It paid huge prices for First Nations painters' depictions of massacres (Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwarreye). Then, through Brendan Nelson, it ran this narrative of how magnanimous First Nations soldiers were to fight for the King/Queen despite all the terrible things whitefellers had done for them. Which might make some whitefellers today think, 'well, if blackfellers don't care, why should we?' The big question is whether the AWM will in the future cut through the double talk and set up a Frontier Wars Gallery in its future larger space. Or would it make more sense to have a separate institution? Lots more on this at honesthistory.net.au; search 'Frontier Wars' and other relevant terms. Including reviews of For Country, For Nation.

David Stephens | 16 September 2021  

I agree that Australia must have a National Frontiers War Museum. A wonderful location exists in the lower Hawkesbury River north of Sydney on Guringai land. Peat Island and adjacent shore land are superfluous to the needs of the NSW State Government. Close to Sydney and served by excellent road access this property is on a magnificent river surround by National Parks.

John Andrews | 16 September 2021  

I agree wholeheartedly with where you are coming from with a few minor provisos, Zac. Michael Mansell, someone, like yourself with impeccable First Nations credentials, is very, very wary of Bruce Pascoe in every way. The more we learn about ATSI history, the more we should respect it. Hopefully that Neo-Darwinian bulldust from the 19th Century, which coloured the colonisers' views of ATSI history, has been confined to the dustbin but Pascoe is not a corrective. I believe every year descendants on both sides of the Myall Creek Massacre get together for a private reconciliation ceremony. You cannot 'just attend'. I think that good. People should remember that Governor Gipps, a thoroughly decent man and son of an English clergyman, prosecuted some of the perpetrators of Myall Creek. Some of these were hanged. I do not regret that. 'Frontier Wars', like the NZ term 'Land Wars' (as against 'Maori Wars') is good. I think it would be good, certainly as a start, to have this in the Australian War Memorial Museum, along with a display of the deeds of people like your grandfather. ATSI history and people are part of the mainstream, they are in no way 'marginal'.

Edward Fido | 17 September 2021  

Hi Zachary, nice work. I don't think we will ever get such a memorial under a conservative government. I recently contacted Linda Burney and suggested that a suitable plot in Canberra be selected and announced as the 'future site' of such a memorial; it would at least sow the seed and plant the idea whilst costing nothing. The holocaust memorials in Jerusalem are well worth a visit when studying designs. Good luck with your studies and future career. Cheers, Adrian.

adrian redfern | 17 September 2021  

The Myall Creek Massacre reminds me that it was NSW’s first Catholic Attorney-General, John Hubert Plunkett, who pursued the perpetrators and saw them hanged in 1838.
Plunkett was a friend of Terence Murray, member of the NSW Legislative Council. The Murrays were members of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. One of Murray’s sons, Hubert, was named after his father’s friend, J.H. Plunkett.
Hubert became a Catholic, was expelled from Brighton College in England for punching a master who called him a “wild Irishman”, became a judge, and ended up as Lieutenant-Governor of Papua from 1908 until his death in 1940.
Hubert’s motto was “Papua for the Papuans” and his policies ensured that 97% of PNG lands were still in traditional hands at Independence in 1975.
PNG’s first Governor-General, Sir John Guise, wrote of Hubert:
“He never lost the common touch. He could move with the princes of the world, but every afternoon, he would get on his horse, ride down to Hanuabada Village, tie up his horse, sit down in the village in his flannel shirt and talk with the elders…when he died, he was the only white man that was given a ceremonial Motuan burial. He was the only one.”

Ross Howard | 17 September 2021  
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Thank you, Ross Howard, for a recognizing of Hubert Murray that can contribute to progress beyond dialectical stereotyping, pointing the way to reconciliation.

John RD | 18 September 2021  

Fully in support with you Zachary.
Here is a piece I wrote last year:

Young Peevay (song title).

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly!

Peevay resistance fighter!
Blackboy from down Cape Grim,
Detested the new white whalers-
Shot two hundred of his kin.

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird.
Boy spread your wings and fly.

Taken by George Robinson,
In eighteen forty two..
There on Port Phillip Bay,
Angered at his folk’s massacre-
Fought for his people that day!

Cops tied my hands behind me,
Said I killed two white men…
Told me to pray to Jesus,
Not to worry bout those kin…
Cool down boy!

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly.

V 3
Dragged to a shady big tree,
Hood pulled o’er my face,
Given a new rope necktie-
Hauled up a Coolabah tree.
How’s that boy?

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly.

No witness at my trial then,
Cops watched me jerk n’ dance.
Smiled and lit their pipes there-
Knew that I had no chance..
Poor black boy!

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird
Boy spread your wings and fly!

Then when I stopped breathin’,
Cut me down from that Coolabah!
Cut my sac for their kid’s marble bag,
Hacked my ears for their pickle jar.
How’s that boy?

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird.
Boy spread your wings and fly

Francis Armstrong © 28/06/2020.

Francis Armstrong | 19 September 2021  

Natural Museums to be established on Countrii in agreement with Descendants. Truthful & Accurate Timelines from Gondwana to present.

Sonya Coghill | 20 September 2021  

What we really need is a formal treaty, a national flag which superimposes the Aboriginal flag on the Union Jack leaving only the edge of the Jack visible, get rid of "the girt by sea" bit in the national anthem and add a repeat verse in an agreed Aboriginal dialect. Then there is no question that the Aboriginal people have promacy of place not requring any special concessions to their full, inarguable inclusion in this society. The fact is that it is impossible for any of us to return to the world of two hundred years ago - thank God! Mind you, however, the present world is no great place either - the human being possesses the great capacity to bugger everything up!

john frawley | 20 September 2021  

My God! We've had everything on this thread, including probably the first publication in any media of a Francis Armstrong mid-length poem. I think the history of the Indigenous peoples of Australia's interaction with the overwhelmingly white settlers since 1788 has been, at times, extremely bloody as all colonial settlement sagas have been. The genocide in Tasmania - yes, it was real genocide of a people just like the Plantation of East Ulster, where almost the entire Gaelic Irish population was wiped out and replaced with Protestant Lowland Scots - is a very dreadful and inexcusable part of our collective history. My ancestors were not here then, but, as an Australian, I am ashamed. Ditto the murder of that great West Australian hero Yagan and the utter disrespect for his corpse. I think this museum should be a part of the Australian War Memorial, because its story is as much part of Australia's as Gallipoli or the Kokoda Trail. It is central: it's not a sideshow. We must not let it become a 'them and us' situation. National Parks are different. This is about a war museum.

Edward Fido | 22 September 2021  

Edward F. The genocide was surely a shameful part of the history of this country. However, Iyou shouldn't feel personally ashamed - ishame belongs entirely to the British Crown and its agents.

john frawley | 22 September 2021  
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‘you shouldn't feel personally ashamed - shame belongs entirely to the British Crown and its agents’ Let’s unpack this a bit. Why should Edward not feel personally ashamed but QE2 and Boris should? But if QE2 and Boris shouldn’t, then who’s to blame? Nobody, because the ‘Crowns’ and their agents are all dead, and possibly enjoying eternal bliss even as we speak? Or… everybody in the country, if there is such a thing as trans-generational epigenetic trauma? Well, that’s for science to establish. But even if the phenomenon is real (just as there is doubt about how valid is a claim to be ‘triggered’), what is the responsibility on the person inheriting the physical or mental frailties or dysfunctionalities caused by the epigenesis to sort themselves out first, before sending an invoice to the surrounding community? And what is the obligation of the surrounding community not to rub salt into subjective wounds? And what should be covered by ‘to rub salt’?

roy chen yee | 24 September 2021  

Thank you, John Frawley. When I said I felt 'ashamed' I meant I felt that certain events in our collective Australian History are things which I am not proud of and which I think stain the pages of the story of what I consider one of the best
countries in the world, with an otherwise excellent history of inclusion and social progress, such as the then revolutionary step of votes for women, where South Australia was a pioneer. ATSI people were not given a seat at the table till the mid 1960s. Thank God they are coming back! I find things such as the permanent addition of Indigenous numbers to the Wallabies' guernseys one of those little acts of reconciliation and acceptance which really make a difference. Alan Jones, eat your heart out, the ARU got it right on this!

Edward Fido | 24 September 2021  

Thanks ??, Opinion and endeavour supported.

Colette Maraczy-Lawley | 21 September 2023  

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