Yesterday, in a moving ceremony, the remains of 33 Australians who were buried in military cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore were returned to Australia. Our Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, and Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, were at Richmond airbase to witness the repatriation of 33 Australians who had died in foreign lands.
What a contrast this is to our refusal to acknowledge the 30,000 aborigines who died, not in wars in foreign lands but in defending their homelands where they had lived for hundreds of generations.
We talk and hope for reconciliation, but we will not succeed unless we acknowledge the great gap in our history, the frontier wars that ranged right across Australia for over 100 years. In those 100 years, the traditional owners of this country were killed, raped, starved, poisoned and flogged so that the white settlers could occupy their land. Their sacred places were desecrated. Their children were stolen. It was a century of war against Australians for a clear political purpose – the occupation of their land and their dispossession.
We go to great lengths to commemorate our war dead, or at least some of them. We have built and repaired war cemeteries across the country and across the world. We have planted memorial avenues of trees. We bring our war dead home from foreign lands. We have pilgrimages to foreign battle fields. Our school children are indoctrinated about our military prowess. Our defence forces are made to seem more important than parliament or our courts.
There is scarcely a war memorial for any of the 30,000 who died in the frontier wars. Yet the Australian War Memorial honours the dead from the Sudan and Boer Wars to those who died most recently in Afghanistan.
But how do we honour the 30,000 who died in our own land defending their own country-those that died in the frontier wars, the 30,000, who fought bravely against a powerful enemy.
We honour some aborigines who fought for Australia. But they are aborigines who fought on ‘our side’ in foreign lands. The 30,000 who died defending their own lands are scarcely acknowledged at all.
Was the death of 30,000 aborigines murder or war? The first possibility is too awful for us to contemplate. But if it is less confronting to concede that it was war, why don’t we record and honour those who died in that war. Will we admit to our history and story those who died in the frontier wars.
If we are to be ‘one people’ we cannot have two histories. Conveniently we block out the ‘black’ history.
Are the 30,000 who died in the frontier wars of less value than those who died in foreign lands from the Sudan to Afghanistan? There is an ominous and yawning gap in our history. We try to block out an important part of it.
Best we forget! But we can’t. The ‘whispering in our hearts’ continues.