Review note: Battle of Indigenous warriors

‘Review note: the Battle of the Indigenous warriors’, Honest History, 24 May 2014 and updated

A notable element of the Anzac centenary is the attention being paid to the stories of Indigenous soldiers wearing the King’s uniform in the two world wars. At the same time, there is continuing unwillingness to recognise officially the Frontier Wars – the cause of the greatest number of civilian war deaths in Australian history.

Speaking on Anzac Day at Thursday Island, Chief of Army, LT GEN David Morrison, paid due regard to both sides of the story. He mentioned a number of Indigenous members of the defence forces, going back to the Boer War and including more than 500 in World War I, but he put their service in context.

Every Australian soldier loves this Nation. But the original custodians of this land love it in a way, and with a depth, that “White Fella” language probably cannot express. Sadly, for too long, many Australians were blind to the reality of our history. The celebrations of our victories in war were blind to the mixed emotions that they may have engendered in those who called this land home long before it was called Australia.

On a day when we pay tribute to our soldiers who stormed ashore on a foreign beach, we must also remember that some Australians remember men from across the world coming here to take their land.

The Army website includes stories about the Army’s Indigenous members while Serving our Country, based at ANU and led by Professor Mick Dodson, is researching the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence forces. There is an Indigenous Australians at war section on the AIATSIS website which does not seem to include reference to Indigenous warriors involved in the Frontier Wars.

The Anzac Voices exhibition at the Australian War Memorial highlights Indigenous servicemen but the Memorial resists recognising the Frontier Wars, a stance which continues to attract criticism. An article and broadcast from Tasmania contrasts the recognition shown to the death of an Indigenous soldier – his family received the ‘King’s Penny’ medallion bearing the words ‘He died for freedom and honour’ – with the treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians after the war.

While federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, has been critical of those whom he sees as placing Anzac Day on the same level as NAIDOC Week, NAIDOC Week 2014‘s theme straddles the two forms of Indigenous service. It

honours all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have fought in defence of country. From our warriors in the Frontier Wars to our warriors who have served with honour and pride in Australia’s military conflicts and engagements across the globe. We proudly highlight and recognise the role they have played in shaping our identity and pause to reflect on their sacrifice. We celebrate and honour their priceless contribution to our nation.

This compilation provides more on NAIDOC Week and the Frontier Wars, with copious links. Earlier this year, the play Black Diggers helped to highlight the contrast between the service of Indigenous soldiers and the way Indigenous Australians were treated at home. Nicholas Clements‘s new book on the Frontier Wars in Tasmania (reviewed) will reopen debates on what happened in that colony. Another review of Clements.

Meanwhile, we could consider this irony:

  • we have come to honour the Turkish soldiers we fought against in 1915;
  • Australia and Turkey have reciprocally renamed parts of their countries to honour their former enemy (Anzac Cove, Gallipoli Reach);
  • Australia honours Turks who fought against us when we invaded their country;
  • Yet we refuse to honour Australians who fought against us – the British – when we invaded their country.
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