Lest We Forget the 'Forgotten war'

The centenary of the landing at Gallipoli is a reminder of unfinished business between settler and Indigenous Australia after a decade of incomplete reconciliation, writes Henry Reynolds in this extract from his new book

This is the war that made the nation:

historian Henry Reynolds.
(Photo: Andrew Taylor/ SMH)

25 July 2013

It was a distressing moment in the short history of Van Diemen's Land. In the middle of September 1831 the newspapers in Hobart and Launceston reported the details of what they called a "most appalling affair." The first news was that a prominent settler, Captain Bartholomew Boyle Thomas, and his manager, James Parker, were missing from their property Northdown on the north-west fringe of the settled districts. After several days of painful suspense the dreadful news broke. They had been killed by the Aborigines. "All doubts are now removed…" declared the Launceston Advertiser." They have been murdered, barbarously murdered by the inhuman savages." The paper drew a harsh lesson:

Thus two more respectable and highly-respected individuals have been added to the list of those who have fallen victims to the barbarity of a race which no kindness can soften, and which nothing short of utter annihilation can subdue.

The deaths deeply affected the settler community. It was a year since many of the men had participated in the Black Line, which had attempted to clear the hostile Aboriginal bands from the settled districts. The approach of spring held promise of renewed conflict, which it seemed nothing could subdue. Thomas was well known and admired. He had served in the British Army for ten years during the Napoleonic wars and had fought with Bolivar in South America. He was known as one of the settlers who sought to develop friendly relations with the local Aboriginal bands. The Launceston Independent declared that the whole colony called aloud for retribution "deep and lasting not only upon the perpetrators of the deeds should they come within our power, but upon the whole race ... "

There were two distinctive features of the affair. The first was that the settlers did not appreciate at the time that Aboriginal resistance was at an end. Thomas and Parker were the last two victims of almost 250 killed. The other unusual feature of the situation was that the three Aborigines responsible for the killing were captured and taken to Launceston. A hurriedly assembled coroner's jury was able to clearly establish their guilt. The question then was what would be done with them. Intense debate within the Launceston community led a settler to write one of the most important public documents about the relations between Aborigines and settlers to have appeared in the Australian colonies during the whole of the nineteenth century. The "Correspondent" who signed himself "J.E." began by declaring that his feelings prompted him to wish the "extermination of the Blacks' but after more mature reflection on the subject some "solemn questions" presented themselves. "Are these unhappy creatures," he wondered:

the subjects of our king, in a state of rebellion? or are they an injured people, whom we have invaded and with whom we are at war? Are they within the reach of our laws; or are they to be judged by the law of nations? Are they to be viewed in the light of murderers, or as prisoners of war? Have they been guilty of any crime under the laws of nations which is punishable by death, or have they only been carrying on a war in their way? Are they British subjects at all, or a foreign enemy who has never yet been subdued, and which resists our usurped authority and dominion? [original emphases]

Many profound questions were thrown open by the Correspondent's speculation, and there were no easy or comforting answers. Before all else was the question of warfare. How that was answered shaped everything else. He had no doubt about it and simply declared:

We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies - as invaders - as their oppressors and persecutors - they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore are they not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force.

The Correspondent reminded his readers of contemporary attitudes to prisoners of war, who were not normally put to death for acts committed "in the field of battle." But he demanded even more, calling for understanding and compassion:

What we call their crime is what in a white man we should call patriotism. Where is the man amongst ourselves who would not resist an invading enemy; who would not avenge the murder of his parents, the ill-usage of his wife and daughters, and the spoliation of all his earthly goods by a foreign enemy, if he had an opportunity? He who would not do so would be scouted, execrated, nay executed as a coward and a traitor; while he who did would be immortalized as a patriot. Why then shall we deny the same feelings to the Blacks? How can we condemn as a crime in these savages what we would esteem as a virtue in ourselves? Why punish a black man with death for doing that which a white man would be executed for not doing?

Given the situation at the time they were highly provocative thoughts. We have little knowledge of how they were received in the community. A correspondent calling himself "Tom Tough" wrote a short critical response but that seemed to be the end of the public controversy. The three imprisoned Aborigines were not brought to trial but sent into exile like all their surviving contemporaries to the islands in Bass Strait. That is, they were treated as prisoners of war and not as common criminals, as the Correspondent had advocated.

So the immediate matter of how to treat the killers of Thomas and Parker was answered decisively and expeditiously. But the more general questions did not go away. They remained highly relevant during the rest of the century as the conflict seen in Tasmania was recapitulated right across the continent. And the key issue at the centre of the Correspondent's letter remains as potent now as it was 180 years ago. Was there a war between invading settlers and Aborigines that lasted from the beginning of settlement to the early twentieth century? If so, what does it mean for the way we interpret the whole national experience? Is there, even now, a general acceptance of Aboriginal resistance as a legitimate defence of their property and sovereignty? Can we see the warriors as patriots? Are we able to treat them with the same respect we accord the servicemen and -women who died in overseas wars? Will we ever seek to immortalise them as we do the war dead? Or do we fall short of the understanding and compassion embodied in that still challenging letter of September 1831?

While many of the Correspondent's contemporaries may have disagreed with his views, few were unaware of the violence that had raged through Tasmania's rugged hills and narrow valleys for the previous five years. And as settlers moved relentlessly into Aboriginal territory district by district until the end of the nineteenth century, there was a recurrent awareness of attendant conflict.

The documentary evidence left behind all over Australia is various and voluminous. Colonial politicians delivered speeches about frontier conflict. They took sides either supporting or condemning the ever-present violence and the massive retaliation by frontiersmen and police. But on neither side of the argument was there any doubt about the violence itself. The only vital question was whether it was necessary and justified. The colonial newspapers carried extensive reports of speared settlers and retaliatory punishment. Correspondents contributed letters calling for sympathy either for the beleaguered pioneers or the dispossessed blacks and sometimes for both. The famous inland explorers - Mitchell, Sturt, Eyre, Leichhardt and Grey - referred to frontier conflict in their letters and published journals, and visitors to the colonies remarked on the prevalence of violence, the harsh racial attitudes and the ubiquitous guns. They were characteristics that distinguished life at the Antipodes, adding to its exotic nature.

By the end of the century many of the original pioneers had published memoirs in books and newspaper articles. Conflict with the Aborigines was a common theme, and enhanced stories of heroic endeavour and triumph over varied adversity. The colonial historians placed frontier conflict in the mainstream of their narratives. Pioneer ethnographers who talked to the Aboriginal survivors of the killing times found that memories of loss and destruction lived vividly on and were widely shared with surviving kin. Many observers thought what was unfolding on the vast frontiers was a form of warfare. They said so many times over. Other commentators did not talk of war. It was a matter of personal choice. But there seems not to have been any public debate about how appropriate the term was when applied to Australian history. It was a less controversial matter at the end of the nineteenth century than it became a hundred years later.


My Interest in frontier conflict goes back a long way. It featured in my first two publications, a book of documents called Aborigines and Settlers published in 1972, and The Other Side of the Frontier, which came out ten years later. But my long engagement began by chance.

While living in London I quite unexpectedly received the offer of a lectureship at the Townsville University College. I had never heard of the institution and knew nothing about the town. But it was a ticket back to Australia and within a few months I was teaching Australian history to two small classes from a prescribed textbook that, typical of the time, didn't mention the Aborigines. It was an absence I did not immediately notice.

I initially became interested in the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and only later began exploring the past. What was immediately apparent was the amount of everyday public violence. Racial abuse was commonplace. So were fights, sometimes involving brawling groups of men spilling out of the pubs onto the nearby footpaths and roads. There was an unmistakable undercurrent of anger and animosity.

It was shocking and unanticipated. I had not experienced anything like it while growing up in Tasmania and nothing I had learnt about Australian history might have prepared me for it. But it pushed me into a crusade to learn more about the past, both to help with contemporary understanding and to make my teaching more relevant to my local students, most of whom had grown up in the north and in many cases had not travelled further south than Brisbane. I became convinced that everyday violence, and the casual acceptance of it, must have deep historical roots. And I knew nothing about them.

But the planned exploration was a more difficult task than I had at first realised. There was little enough in the library about Indigenous history in Australia as a whole and even less about Queensland. The only way forward was to plunge straight into the historical documents. My first ever postgraduate student, Noel Loos, was able to use the files of the Port Denison Times, dating from the 1860s, which were still held in the newspaper office in Bowen. What both of us found almost immediately was abundant evidence of frontier violence. It was not a case of seeking it out - the evidence spilled unbidden from the contemporary record like blood from an open wound. It was unavoidable, incontrovertible. To ignore it was out of the question.

By the time I had pursued my project in libraries and archives all over the country, many other researchers, too numerous to mention, had begun to map out the broader history of European-Aboriginal relations. The field became one of the busiest and most creative areas of a rapidly maturing Australian historiography. Scholars moved in many directions but few called into question the original perception we had developed in Townsville about the central importance of frontier conflict to an understanding of both the past and the present. There was also broad consensus that it was a major, albeit long-overlooked, theme of the national story. At the same time prehistorians were revolutionising our understanding of the great antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of the continent. Linguists and anthropologists were recording the precious memories of old tribal men and women who had experienced the dramatic impact of the first white men entering their traditional homelands when they were children.

But why return now to an old project and retrace already well-trodden paths? There seem to be several good reasons for so doing. The long and often bitter controversies about Aboriginal history were central to the history wars that raged during the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. There were many combatants, including the three prime ministers - Keating, Howard and Rudd. At the same time the decade-long process of reconciliation attracted widespread curiosity and debate about the past, greatly stimulated by the High Court's historic Mabo judgment of 1992 and the report of the Human Rights Commission of 1997 about the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. And running parallel with these developments, while quite independent of them, was the extraordinary revival of interest in the history of war and what has been persuasively described as the militarisation of Australian history, driven by government funding and directed by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Australian War Memorial.

Since 1994 there has been a continuous program to commemorate the men and women who have served in Australia's overseas wars from 1885 to the present. It will certainly continue and then be swept up into what will be an even more overwhelming carnival of commemoration to mark in 2015 the centenary of the landing on Gallipoli. This extraordinary flowering of military history has taken many older Australians by surprise because it is unprecedented. The generation that grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s has no experience to compare with the relentless, lavishly funded public campaign to make war the central, defining experience of national life. Whether by design or chance, the campaigns inevitably elbow aside all other competing interpretations of our history.

Bravery on the battlefield outshines all the achievements of civil society. The soldier, not the statesman, has become the paragon of national achievement.

All this has a direct impact on the way the nation deals with frontier conflict. This has had its own distinctive history. During the nineteenth century there was recurrent debate about violence on the ever-moving frontiers of settlement. The questions that mattered at the time were not ones about the existence of conflict but whether it was morally justified and to what extent it was an inevitable and unavoidable concomitant of successful pioneering. During the first half of the twentieth century the Aborigines were written out of Australian history. This had the convenient effect of hiding much of the domestic bloodshed, allowing the celebration of what came to be viewed as a uniquely peaceful history of settlement. It was frequently applauded as an inimitable virtue of the nation's story. For generations weaned on this soothing syrup the new history of the frontier came as an unwelcome revelation and one often stoutly resisted.

For those promoting the ongoing carnival of military commemoration, the option of talking of the settlement of Australia as uniquely peaceful is no longer available. Too many people know about frontier violence. Conflict accompanied the pioneer settlers into almost every district on the continent. It persisted for well over a hundred years. But today's military parade can simply pass it by with eyes straight ahead while the band plays patriotic airs. The tribal warrior with spears and clubs is not welcome. Frontier conflict is not included in the swelling project of military history, which is diminished by the single-minded focus on wars fought far away.

On the other hand, the contribution of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to the armed forces in the many wars since Federation has been increasingly recognised and commemorated. Between now and the centenary of Gallipoli, large well-funded research projects will exhaustively document the distinctive Indigenous contribution to official military history. While this is to be welcomed, it draws attention away from the armed conflict that was the central feature of the relationship between settlers and the Indigenous nations. Aborigines who fought for the white man are remembered with reverence. The many more who fought against him are forgotten.

This is the forgotten war of conquest that saw the expropriation of the most productive land over vast continental distances, and the transfer of sovereignty from the Aborigines to the British government and its successor colonial administrations. This is the war that made the nation, not the fateful invasion of Turkey at the direction of the imperial government. If we assess tangible, measurable developments of lasting significance, how can the two be compared?

There is much unfinished business between settler and Indigenous Australia left over from the decade of incomplete reconciliation. There is currently a renewed push for constitutional recognition of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. If that is achieved, it must be accompanied by a public acceptance of the importance of frontier conflict and the devastation it left in its wake.

As we advance further into the twenty-first century, the relative importance of our involvement in the two world wars and the following cold war will diminish as they lose their pre-eminent place in global history. The central story in the new century will increasingly be seen to have been the linked histories of imperialism and decolonisation, which were preparing the way for the great shifts in power and wealth currently underway. And in that story the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous Australians will become increasingly important. This is the subject that will be of most interest to the many people in the world who have no reason to be particularly impressed by all those ventures where we marched in step to the tunes played in London and Washington.

Henry Reynolds is a professorial fellow at the University of Tasmania. This is an edited extract from Forgotten Wars, published this month by NewSouth Publishing.

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