Anzac Day and the frontier wars

Apr 25, 2021

Anzac Day in Hobart in 2019 did not turn out in the way that participants expected. The Hobart Mercury explained why the following morning. The front page was dominated by a large and arresting headline. ‘Battle Cry’ it declared and went on to explain that ‘Anzac Day Marchers Highlight Black War.’ Underneath the headline was a picture of a large black, red and yellow banner which read: ‘Lest We Forget The Frontier Wars.’

A report on page two explained what had happened. A Frontier Action Group made up of members of the local Aboriginal community had joined the official parade as it progressed along Macquarie Street towards the city’s cenotaph. They had not been invited to take part in the march but approval was given at the last minute given that the procession was well underway.

The significance of the event was much debated. Aboriginal elder Auntie Wendal Pitchford said that it felt wonderful to take part in the parade for the first time explaining that ‘ Anzac Day is enabling us to represent our people who passed away in the Frontier Wars here in Tasmania. We’re going to be bigger and better next year, and we’ll get more people along because we are invited now.’ The Acting President of the RSL said that there had been no opposition to the banner and ‘ not a bad word had been said by anyone.’ But twenty four hours later the mood had changed. A spokesman for the RSL said that Anzac Day was held to remember those who had served in Australia’s armed forces and paid the ultimate price with their lives. It was not to remember the conflicts of white settlement. Pitchford responded by saying her group would have a presence in next year’s procession’ whether they were invited or not because it was the perfect setting to get our message out.’ The 2020 Anzac Parade was cancelled due to the Covid-19 virus. But intense discussions held during 2020 have resulted in truly surprising results.

Reconciliation Tasmania brought together the core group of Aboriginal ‘aunties’ and the leadership of the State RSL. Consultation drew in historians, representatives of local government, State politicians and the Tasmanian Governor. During this year’s Anzac Parade it has been agreed that Aboriginal ex-servicemen will march together and the RSL will allow Pitchford to lay a wreath dedicated to all those who died in Tasmania’s Frontier War of the 1820 and 1830’s. But the negotiations resulted in a much more significant development which will have national significance. The RSL and the Aboriginal elders have agreed to create a memorial to the hundreds killed in frontier fighting, both black and white, and to establish an annual day of remembrance. The Hobart City Council has agreed to set aside a site in proximity to the cenotaph for the new monument. RSL State President Robert Dick declared that the organisation had given in principle support to the frontier conflict memorial and commemoration day ‘as a means of addressing the bloody conflagration separately from Anzac Day.’ Reconciliation executive Mark Redmond remarked that it was time now for Aboriginal frontier warriors’ to be shown respect for the defence of their country.’ Reconciliation has applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant under their Saluting Their Service programme to build the monument and received an encouraging response.

The speed with which the project has been developed and the widespread enthusiasm it had attracted is truly surprising. But it may be a precursor for similar developments all over the country. Several rural municipalities in Tasmania have already indicated their willingness to set aside land for projected monuments. But the Hobart development will likely attract the most attention. In close proximity to the monuments and plaques commemorating the sacrifice of Tasmanians who died fighting for the Empire will one that marks the heroic struggle of the Aboriginal warriors who were shot down while they resisted Britain’s rapacious expansion.

Clearly, it is an important milestone in the slow evolution of Australian historical consciousness, a retreat from our presumed Britishness and one small step in our long meandering pathway towards a much delayed decolonisation. Many erstwhile colonies have preceded us on this journey. In many countries in the Americas statues of Columbus have been removed and often replaced with ones which commemorate the heroes of resistance to the European overlords whether creole or indigenous. In the United States many cities are recasting the official national holiday which has hitherto commemorated Columbus and choosing instead to celebrate the past struggles and present day reassertion of indigenous pride.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that eventually Anzac Day will be overshadowed by an assortment of commemorative events which will recall the suffering and the survival of the First Nations. The fighting which was experienced all over the continent and continued for well over a century will be seen of far greater consequence than the Australian assault on the Ottoman Empire.  It was war fought here on our own soil about the ownership and control over vast areas of the continent. The death toll, it now seems certain, equalled that of our terrible losses on the Western Front. How can campaigns fought for Imperial strategic objectives about which Australians were not consulted match the long and bitter struggle of all those First Nations to preserve their ancestral territory, their way of life and even their survival as a people.

And what of the War Memorial? For the last twenty years it has resisted frequent demands to deal in an appropriate way with the frontier war. It has been fortified in its recalcitrance by the acquiescence of the Federal parliament. It appears to be above criticism. But the opportunity to respond in an appropriate way has now passed. What is now urgently required is a new museum dedicated to the history of frontier conflict and the heroic and desperate struggle of the First Nations to hold back the overpowering wave of settlement. Properly funded it will eventually rival the War Memorial as an institution at the centre of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life.

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