How (hard) They Fought: sophistication of First Nations’ resistance

May 1, 2023
Warriors with woomeras and spears lining up against the Northern Expedition (Thomas Baines, unfinished sketch. A C Gregory Expedition 1855, Royal Geographical Society, London).

The push to recognise the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial, the teaching of this history in many high schools, and growing commemoration of Frontier War incidents is seeing parallels being drawn between the heroism of First Nations’ warriors and that of the ANZACs.

A proud warrior tradition

Australia is experiencing a quantum shift in how it views its past. The push to recognise the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial, the teaching of this history in many high schools, and growing commemoration of Frontier War incidents is seeing parallels being drawn between the heroism of First Nations’ warriors and that of the ANZACs.

However, the dominant narrative of the Frontier Wars is that First Australians offered a token, disorganised protest before being mowed down in genocidal massacres. Is this the whole story? What do we really know about how First Nations defended their lands? What did an average skirmish on the frontier look like? How were warriors organised? What were they their usual strategies? How effective were there attacks and what were they trying to achieve?

A new book: How They Fought (Boolarong Press) by Associate Professor Ray Kerkhove – offers some answers. Kerkhove is a historian from a military family. He has worked for decades with First Nations’ groups. When they told him of their proud and sophisticated warrior traditions and their victories during the Frontier Wars, he was intrigued, as it was an entirely different story from the usual ‘massacre narrative’. Consequently, he spent over a decade analysing hundreds of individual skirmishes and battles recorded in news reports and early reminiscences and started to notice that a lot had been omitted from our usual interpretations of the Frontier Wars. Kerkhove also probed the anthropological and archaeological record on traditional warfare in Australia, to better understand what modes of fighting existed before First Contact. He started to discern adaptations of these styles within the Frontier Wars.

Forgotten victories

In 2017, Kerkhove mapped some of his findings as a Griffith University website: Mapping Frontier Conflict in South-East Queensland | Harry Gentle Resource Centre ( By 2019, working closely with Quandamooka, Jagera and Jarowair (Western Wakka Wakka) informants, he had combined oral and written sources to reconstruct two rather pivotal Indigenous victories: the Battle of ‘Narawai (which featured as an article in Queensland Review), and The Battle of One Tree Hill (a book co-authored with Frank Uhr). The premise here was that if there were First Nations victories against settlement, then surely their mode of warfare must have been more efficient than currently presumed.

An example of smoke-signalling capacities in southern Queensland (Linda Thomson, Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, University of Queensland & Ray Kerkhove). Image: Supplied

Kerkhove’s recent offering is a comprehensive guidebook to the main features of First Nations’ armed resistance. It draws on examples from all over Australia. He breaks the book into military components such as organisational structure, command and control, training, strategies, defences and weaponry. The work uses military terminology to analyse First Nations’ responses and is heavily referenced throughout (a quarter of the book is footnotes and sources).

‘Stockyarding’ tactic (Ray Kerkhove, graphics Cheryl Hart). Image: Supplied

Sophisticated and effective tactics 

The emerging picture, which Kerkhove admits builds on work by many other experts in the field, is a much more efficient and organised resistance than currently appreciated. The author sketches a ‘slow drip’ of constant harassment that often succeeded in halting or driving back the tide of settlement. He details numerous sophisticated tactics for siege, economic sabotage and pitched battles. He finds evidence for training, ranking and chains of command, ‘policing’ patrols and long-distance intelligence networks that relied on runners and smoke signals. First Nations’ weaponry – far from being inadequate – is shown to have caused many injuries and fatalities amongst settlers. Kerkhove finds the First Australians adopted steel, glass, guns and even horses for warfare far more frequently than is currently accepted. The most interesting discovery is the widespread use of inter-tribal confederacies. Some of these entities covered many hundreds of kilometres and endured for decades, offering a potent challenge to the settlers.

The approximate area covered by some historic alliances and resistance movements (Ray Kerkhove, graphics Cheryl Hart). Image: Supplied

Future needs

A new generation of Australians is growing up, immersed through their schooling in the realities of the Frontier Wars. Although it is admirable that the genocidal cost of the Frontier Wars on First Nations has been documented, it is equally appropriate that its massacres are placed in context, and that First Nations’ ingenuity and valour in meeting these challenges is more fully appreciated. To truly offer a perspective ‘from the other side’ of the frontier, many more reconstruction of the guerrilla campaigns of First Nations’ resistance need to be undertaken. As Nicholas Clements wrote on the back of How They Fought, this is ‘much needed’ and ‘hopefully not the last’.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!