Although not evident at the Australia War Memorial in Canberra, war was waged in these shores, on this soil. War began in the South East of the country, and spread slowly but surely across the rest of the continent.
The Frontier Wars were ultimately fought for the possession of land and the exercise of sovereignty. One reason Australians find it difficult to acknowledge the war is because it goes to the very heart of the foundations of Australian sovereignty and ownership of this great land.
Conveniently, in an effort to avoid those fundamental questions, the traditional historical narrative has played down the scale and extent of frontier warfare, at times denying that it took place altogether. Australia’s culture of forgetfulness has its roots in about the 1920’s or 1930’s, when writers on Australian history began arguing that this country was peacefully settled without the experience of war within its own borders.
However, overwhelming evidence shows that the conditions under which this country was 'settled' were far from peaceful. Frontier conflict was widespread and severe, being one of the most prominent and persistent features of life in Australia during the 19th century. And the colonists truly believed they were at war with our people. One mere example comes from a man calling himself the ‘Correspondent’ whose letters were published in the Launceston Advertiser in 1831:
We are at war with them: they look upon as enemies – as invaders – as their oppressors and persecutors – they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued; therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force.
How the wars played out
As colonists encroached on our country, they disobeyed local laws, treating the land as their own. The colonial aggressors often fought unfairly and brutally. A policy of extermination was carried out by settlers. Talk of ‘extermination’ was widespread and often spoken about publicly. Even early Governors believed it necessary to ‘infuse a universal terror’ amongst our people.
As the borders of the frontier gradually spread across the country, it was not an uncommon tactic to indiscriminately shoot our people on sight. A more uglier and unnerving feature of the war was that colonial governments funded and administered wholesale murder through the Native Police. The Native Police were Aboriginal troopers 'recruited' by colonial authorities to hunt down, murder and massacre other Aboriginal people.
But we may be reassured by the fact that our fighters created severe fear and anxiety amongst settlers. One example, of which there are many more, comes from settlers on the McIntyre River who lived anxiously for years during which time:
Putting aside the loss of lives on both sides (numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands), the destruction of the invaders’ property was significant. However, what was at stake for our people was infinitely greater. It was the control of our ancient homelands. What the invaders sought out to achieve was one of the greatest appropriations of land in world history.
Eventually, our resistance fighters were subdued. Afterwards, our people were often treated worse than captured combatants, being subject to routine brutality with bashings, floggings, rape and indentured labour. Then the reserve system was implemented, becoming an institution akin to open air prisons for a defeated enemy.
Nevertheless, a powerful theme is that our people did not acquiesce to the invasion, and never accepted the idea that the land ceased to be ours. Our fighters mounted attacks on homesteads, dispersed and killed stock, used fire to push back intruders, and forced many pastoralists off their stations. Deep knowledge of the terrain was often utilised to our advantage in defending territory. Our warriors often addressed the invaders, stating that the land belonged to us, accompanied with demands that they leave our country. These types of complaints and demands continued through the reserve days, and, in various forms, continue through to this very day.
Time to remember
The tendency to forget the Frontier War stands in direct contradiction with the culture of remembrance for Australia’s military history. Our warriors do not receive the same respect accorded to service people who die in overseas wars.
We are all, to some extent, aware of how the Frontier Wars affected our various communities, but I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage readers to uncover further and pay respect their respective histories. The local stories of every community are worthy of recognition. Our people fought with valor and bravery in the face of an insurmountable enemy. The way we recognize and remember our heroes, and those lost in battle, deserves reconsideration. Our resistance fighters were the first Australian patriots, willing to die for our country. How will you remember them?
Jidah Clark (Djabwurrung) comes from Framlingham, an Aboriginal community in the West of so-called Victoria. He is a lawyer and activist. This piece was originally published in Black Nations Rising.