HENRY REYNOLDS. Memories and Massacres

The release by Newcastle University’s Centre for 21st Century Humanities of a map of colonial frontier massacres has attracted a burst of media attention. It draws national interest back to those questions that were highlighted during the history wars of a decade and more ago.

The ongoing Newcastle research project is one of many similar ventures that have returned to the fraught question of Australia’s frontier wars. New, relevant research has been pursued all over the country in Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia although not all of it is readily available to the interested reader.

Broadly speaking the new scholarship, in most cases pursued independently, draws us towards a new consensus. The Australian frontier was a violent place. Conflict erupted around the fringes of settlement from the last years of the C18th until second and even the third decade of the C20th. The pioneer ethnographers Fison and Howitt observed in 1880 that the advance of settlement had been marked by ‘ a line of blood.’ It was a reality that was hidden away and then forgotten during the first half of the C20th. Generations of Australians brought up with a sunny, anodyne version of the national story were shocked when historians returned to truths that had been self- evident to their ancestors. Their hostility to the revisionist history was fully predictable.

The Newcastle map summarises work in progress, concentrating on South-eastern Australia up until 1872 and dealing with incidents resulting in the death of six or more individuals while coping with all the problems of fossicking out credible evidence. But it is a valuable addition to the new historiography and two of the abiding questions: how many people died? Was it warfare and if so how do we deal with it given the deep sanctity which surrounds the phrase’ Lest We Forget’ and the present day apotheosis of the warrior?

Previous estimates of the death toll in frontier war of about 20,000 appear to be for too conservative. Detailed work on the Queensland frontier strongly suggests we need to lift the figure to at least 30,000 and even that may prove to be short of the mark. These are figures which confront our view of the past. The death toll is up there in the same league as the two world wars although accumulating over a much longer period of time. But where is the public recognition? Where are the monuments? When will the war memorial face up to its manifest national responsibility?  It simply won’t do any longer to say to indigenous Australia: ‘get over it’, ‘leave the past behind,’ ‘ move on and eschew the cult of victimhood.’

At the centre of these intense controversies is the question of warfare. Are we dealing with war or something else? And if it was war how does this sit with our endless commemoration of overseas conflicts?

There were always people who thought the settlers were engaged in a war although they usually qualified their observations with recognition that it was war of a distinctive kind. But there have equally been observers and historians who dismissed the idea out of hand. Fighting, while common, was too scattered and sporadic. It accorded more with such essentially a-political forms of conflict as banditry, crime or even piracy. It was about theft of property, trespass, disputes over women and personal revenge. But while such assessments are understandable they are no longer tenable and have not been so after the High Court’s Mabo judgement in 1992.

With the overthrow of Terra-Nullius everything changed. Once there was such a powerful, authoritative recognition of indigenous property rights and by implication Aboriginal and Islander sovereignty, frontier conflict took on a totally different aspect. It was inescapably about the ownership and control of property on a continental scale. It was also about whose law and whose sovereignty would prevail. The battles may have been more like skirmishes but they were essentially political and they were cumulatively about the ownership and control of one of the world’s great land masses. It was therefore a war of global importance. It was war about Australia fought in Australia. It was arguably the most important war in our history.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people  and European settlers. His latest book ‘Unnecessary Wars’ was published by New South Publishing

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4 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Memories and Massacres

  1. Bruce Cameron says:

    Dear Henry,

    I ask the same questions. The Australian War Memorial (AWM) has argued that its Charter is confined to commemorating the sacrifices suffered by ‘formed units’ of Australian defence forces. This meant that even military actions fought by Colonial forces were sidelined. Times change, however, as seen by the fact that the sacrifices of those serving in peacekeeping roles have finally been acknowledged as worthy of commemoration by the AWM (and, as a consequence, by the Nation). I have called on responsible Ministers to change the Charter, but have yet to be successful.

    I personally see the sacrifices made by Indigenous Australians in the defence of their country, as being no different to the sacrifices made by later day Australians in conflicts overseas while upholding treaty obligations to secure the security of their Nation. Having been a soldier who has seen operational service, I can’t help but put myself in the soles of our Indigenous brothers endeavouring to protect their families and their land.

    I say to all those who have been or are in our military forces …. imagine that you were in the same position in 1788 and later; given the differences of firepower, tactics, logistics etc, how would you have responded? Do we not share a bond with Indigenous Australians who displayed bravery and sacrifice of the highest order in defending their people, land and possessions, during the Frontier Wars? Are those who by the hand of God happened to be the ones present at the time, not worthy of our heartfelt acknowledgement?

    I, for one, hope for the day when I can stand at the AWM on 25 April and be involved in a commemoration which ‘officially’ pays respect to the Indigenous Australians who gave their lives defending their shores and country during the Frontier Wars (in a way that we all hope generations of modern day Australians will never have to do). I believe that it is only a road which includes this which will eventually lead to shared harmony among all Australians.

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    I remember in the late 1980s being shown a site of a massacre of Worimi people near Soldiers Point – by a descendant of the survivors. By that time I’d been studying aspects of Australia’s social and cultural history for almost a decade – my desire to learn spurred/sharpened by time living abroad – becoming aware of the limitations of my knowledge of the land in which I had been born and in which I had grown up. Of the frontier wars – I had known nothing – until books began to appear from you, Henry! Thank-you. I edited a couple of Aussie anthologies for OUP in 1990 – one a guided text – within which were suggestions for ways of interacting with local Indigenous communities – finding out the local stories – agitating even – one might suggest – for memorials to those massacres and other sites. It’s a pity we don’t have a decent Director of the War Memorial in Canberra – and that work isn’t already underway on a memorial gallery encircling the current one which deals with our Frontier Wars. And in the way of many Anglo-Australians whose families have been to the full-extent in Australia from the first invasion fleet – I have uncovered family and kinship connections with Indigenous Australia. So again – thank-you!

  3. The article implies the War has ended. Of course it has not. There is a continuing war of attrition focussed on destroying what is left of Indigenous culture, community and identity. The continuing deaths of Indigenous warriors through self harm, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, and violence from the state demonstrates that we continue to wish away the reality. The continuing deaths from intra-communal violence, with the aggression of the marginalsied, traumatised and wounded but undefeated turned inwards, through domestic violence, chemical poisoning, and “medical” maltreatment mimics other wars of attrition in South West Africa, Nazi occupied Poland against the Jewish population, and elsewhere. For even if the frontier wars were wars, and they are over, then the war has been won and the invasion successful; the victors will and do decide the fate of those defeated if not yet vanquished. If the war is not over then it is possible to seak peace through Treaty, through negotiation between parties of equal status albeit unequal power. Jim Kable’s proposition of lcoal memorials is such a good move, a living statement that the war continues until we, the ostensible victors, seek to end it through a negotiated peace thatr ecognsies hisotry and plans for a peaceful and propitious future.

  4. david gray says:

    You are correct, Henry Reynolds: It was the most important war in our history.

    Desmond Tutu and his daughter have written a recent book about forgiving. Their fourfold process of forgiveness contains as the first step for both sides, the victim and the perpetrator: tell the truth about the wound and hear the truth about it.

    I yearn for a place where we non-indigenous can seek and receive forgiveness from our indigenous brothers and sisters about the frontier wars. Our health as a nation depends upon this occurring, eventually. Our dignity as non-indigenous depends upon us conferring and enabling the dignity of our indigenous fellow Australians. Our dignity as a nation demands it.

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