What are the Frontier Wars?

The Frontier Wars refer to conflicts between Europeans and Aboriginal people including battles, acts of resistance and open massacres from 1788 to the 1930s.

Frontier Wars

What are Australia's Frontier Wars? Source: Joseph Lycett

The Frontier Wars: an overview

Australian Frontier Wars are said to have lasted from the arrival of the British in 1788 to as late as 1934.

Historians have argued for years over how many Indigenous people have been killed in colonial violence.

Some say approximately 20,000 Indigenous people were killed and between 2,000-2,500 Europeans were killed.

Historian Henry Reynolds estimated about 30,000 Indigenous people and approximately 5,000 Europeans died in his 2013 book Forgotten War.

In 2014, two Queensland University researchers suggest the death toll may have reached 60,000 Indigenous people in Queensland alone.

Attacks on Aboriginal people rose from 20 in 1824 to 259 in 1830, according to historian Nicholas Clements.

It is estimated that over 750,000 Aboriginal people inhabited the island continent in 1788. Between 1788 and 1900, the Indigenous population of Australia was reduced by around 90 per cent.

Here we detail some key massacres, but many more occurred across the continent during this period of 'settlement'.


Death toll from introduced diseases

Many Aboriginal people were killed by introduced diseases during this time. There is still much contention over whether any of these diseases, particularly smallpox, were intentionally introduced.

Small pox was a wide ranging epidemic which killed many throughout NSW, VIC and QLD, significantly reducing the Aboriginal population.

Flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis also ravaged communities.


The Black War of Tasmania

Tasmania's Black War (1824-31) is argued as the biggest frontier conflicts in Australia's history. 

According to historian, Nicholas Clements, approximately 1,000 lives were lost, along with the loss of culture and history. He adds the toll resulting from the clash "between the most culturally and technologically dissimilar humans to have ever come into contact" may be higher.


Pinjarra Massacre of Western Australia

Between 15 to 30 Indigenous people were killed by a detachment led by Governor James Stirling in 1834 in what is known as the Pinjarra Massacre, which occurred at Pinjarra, in the southern Peel region of Western Australia. 

The massacre apparently happened after Edward Barron and soldier Hugh Nesbitt along with Binjareb tribesmen went to find a horse that Barron wanted to buy from another settler, Thomas Peel.

On their venture they were attacked by local people. Barron survived but Nesbitt did not.

When a detachment led by Governor Stirling came across people they believed were responsible for Nebitt's death, they launched an offensive.

Governor Stirling has reported 15 Binjareb people were killed. Others have reported 20-30.


Appin Massacre of NSW

Fourteen Dharawal people were reported as killed in the massacre that occurred on 17 April 1816 in Appin, although the toll is said to have been higher, according to the Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society Inc.

Governor Macquarie deployed soldiers to an area now known as Campbelltown in Sydney in 1814. Two years later, a drought is said to have facilitated tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area.

The nearby Gandangara people came again from the nearby mountains in search of food and Europeans were killed.

Governor Macquarie retaliated, issuing a list of supposed “hostile natives” who were to be imprisoned. If they refused they were ordered to be hanged.

A detachment deployed to the area is said to have slaughtered and beheaded Aboriginal men and trampled women and children with horses and carts. It is unclear which victims were from Dharawal or Gandangara tribes.


Coniston Massacre

The Coniston Massacre in Northern Territory in 1928 was one of the last mass killings by Europeans during the Frontier War period.

The murder of European dingo trapper, Fred Brooks, has been noted as the catalyst for the massacre.

Aboriginal men Padygar and Arkikra were arrested and stood trial in Darwin, Northern Territory, over his murder, but were acquitted after Kamalyarrpa Japanangka was reported as responsible for Brooks' death.

Mounted Constable George Murray led a revenge party comprising police and civilians, shooting more than 60 Anmatyerre, Kaytetye and Warlpiri men, women and children over several months.


Queensland: hardest hit

Kilcoy and Whiteside poisonings 

Indigenous people were given gifts of flour laced with strychnine in what is known as the Kilcoy and Whiteside poisonings.

The poisonings claimed nearly 150 Indigenous lives. Around 70 were killed in Kilcoy on the South Burnett in 1842 and around another 70 were killed at Whiteside near Brisbane in 1847.

Hornet Bank 

In 1857, Indigenous people retaliated to the family of settler William Fraser killing 12 of their people by killing eight of his family and three others at Hawkwood Station on the upper Dawson  River, central Queensland. 

William Fraser is said to have wanted revenge and pastoralist Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior supposedly planned and carried out a massacre of about 300 Aboriginal people by police and European squatters.

Indigenous academic Eva Fesl says the number killed is much higher, citing 500 in her book Conned.

Skull Hole Massacre

The "Skull Hole" or Mistake Creek massacre at Bladensburg Station near Winton in the late 1800s is reported to have claimed the lives of around 200 Aboriginal people.

According to reports, the massacre occurred after Winton Police Station's Sergeant Moran set out to find those responsible for murdering a European.

After he was attacked, black troopers undertook mass killings of the Koa people of the area.


Acts of resistance

Pemulwuy, Musquito, Jandamarra, Yagan, and Windradyne are Aboriginal people who have all been recognised as warriors for resisting the arrival of Europeans.

Since then, many other Indigenous people have resisted violence against them and being oppressed in other ways.

They include Maria Locke, David Unaipon, Jack Patten, Jimmy Little, Gary Foley, Margaret Valadian, Vincent Lingiari, Eddie Mabo, and countless others who have protested for the rights of Indigenous people.

The Frontier Wars are yet to be acknowledged as official wars and Australia has not yet entered into a treaty, a legal agreement between two or more parties, or a similar negotiation, with Indigenous Australia. As such, many Indigenous people consider themselves to be continuing the 'spirit of the resistance' today.


Published 10 May 2021 at 5:53pm
By Andrea Booth