Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.
‘Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 2 in a series’, Honest History, 13 August 2023
The Australian War Memorial must properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars as an essential part of Truth-telling and as a first step to reframing Australian national commemoration.
This Honest History series argues for a reframing of Australian commemoration. Reframing is appropriate in the year of the Voice referendum when other fundamental matters are also being examined.
This post is No. 2 in a series and it completes the list of FAQs and answers found in No.1. No. 3 and No. 4 in the series discuss Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important. No. 5: What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?
7. Why should the Frontier Wars be properly recognised and commemorated at the Memorial rather than in some other institution?
The Australian War Memorial should be the place to recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars, our first and most important war.
Some people have suggested the Memorial is not the place to cover the Frontier Wars and that the National Museum or a separate institution, perhaps a ‘Keeping Place’ for the remains of First Nations people returned from overseas museums, would be a better site.
But it is not a matter of ‘either/or’. There is nothing to stop the Frontier Wars being depicted elsewhere, too, just as our overseas wars are recorded and remembered in the National Archives, the National Library, the National Museum, war cemeteries, and local memorials, as well as at the War Memorial.
The Frontier Wars included First Nations resistance, as well as the massacre of First Nations people. The military aspects of the Frontier Wars should be dealt with at the Memorial.
The Frontier Wars killed settler-invaders as well as First Nations people, and these deaths should also be commemorated at the Memorial.
8. What do First Nations people think about having the Frontier Wars properly recognised and commemorated at the Memorial?
Some First Nations people are opposed to this because the Memorial traditionally has told stories of wars for Empire. But covering the Frontier Wars here, based on the theme of Defending Country, will broaden the focus of the Memorial.
9. What do non-Indigenous Australians think about having the Frontier Wars properly recognised and commemorated at the Memorial?
Some non-Indigenous Australians are opposed to this because the Memorial traditionally has only recognised and commemorated uniformed service people, especially those who have gone overseas to fight. But covering the Frontier Wars here, based on the theme of Defending Country, will broaden the focus of the Memorial.
10. How will proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars at the Memorial affect Anzac Day and other commemorative days?
How Anzac Day is commemorated at the War Memorial will, as in the past, be a matter for the Memorial and associated bodies, such as the RSL.
Anzac Day could remain as it has been traditionally, marking uniformed service in our overseas wars, with the Frontier Wars commemorated on other days.
Alternatively, Anzac Day could be broadened out to commemorate those killed in and affected by all our wars, including the Frontier Wars. That is the implication of the term ‘Defending Country’, which is applicable equally to the Frontier Wars and to our overseas wars in uniform.
How Anzac Day is treated at the War Memorial, our premier commemorative institution, obviously affects how Anzac Day is treated at other shrines and throughout the country. The Defending Country theme implies a new approach to commemoration everywhere in Australia.
This is not about doing away with Anzac Day but about broadening its focus to recognise the complete spread of our history as we have come to know it.
Similar considerations apply to other commemorative days, particularly Remembrance Day.
11. How is this not just trying to rewrite history?
Our understanding of history changes all the time as new evidence comes to hand. Over the past 40 years research by historians, and listening to Indigenous memories, has built up evidence which should persuade us that conflict occurred across the frontier all over Australia, for over a century, and that it should justifiably be called a war.
12. How is it possible to change what the War Memorial stands for?
The War Memorial has changed a great deal over its existence. It began as a memorial to the dead of the Great War, gradually expanding its remit, first to a second world war, then to other conflicts. The Australian War Memorial Act 1980 extended the Memorial’s reach back to 1788, and in the 1980s it began to include ‘colonial’ conflicts. In the 1990s, it took in peacekeeping, even though that is nowhere mentioned in the Act, and it now embraces civilian and police experience (such as the Bali bombing). Extending its scope to include Australia’s first and longest war does not seem such a big step.
13. How can you call frontier violence ‘war’ when it wasn’t declared and wasn’t fought by armies wearing uniforms?
Wars come in all kinds, from large, formal conflicts to small scale guerilla struggles. There were no declarations of war on the frontier because, having claimed the land, British authorities could not wage war against their Indigenous subjects; not formally. But they acted against the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants in exactly the same way as if they had declared war.
Australia saw dozens of small-scale wars as settlement extended across the continent. These were undeclared legally, but to Indigenous peoples each was a war for survival, and each was lost. Before 1850 British soldiers operated under orders, mounting punitive expeditions, and after 1850 colonial forces (ironically and tragically mostly the Native Mounted Police) conducted even more murderous patrols to ‘disperse’ Indigenous resistance to settlement – that is, exterminate those who resisted.
Throughout, civilians including convicts, settlers, squatters, shepherds, and stockmen also fought and generally succeeded in suppressing resistance. Military historians now have no hesitation in describing such wars as ‘asymmetric conflict’ or ‘guerilla war’ and have abandoned any idea that wars have to be ‘declared’. Australia’s entry to the Vietnam war, for example, was never ‘declared’. Why should wars for survival fought on the Australian frontier continue to be ignored?
No. 1 in the series, also on FAQs. No. 3 and No. 4 in the series discuss Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important. No. 5 of this series: What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?
 Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. is a limited liability association incorporated in Victoria. Its members are Noel Turnbull (Secretary), Professor Peter Stanley, Dr David Stephens, Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Pamela Burton.