Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.
‘Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 3 in a series’, Honest History, 16 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. 3 in a series and it follows the list of FAQs and answers found in No.1 and No.2. This post spells out why the Australian Frontier Wars are important with more on this topic to follow in No. 4 in the series. No. 5 of this series: What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?
Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important
Australia is built on the Frontier Wars
The 2022 SBS/NITV documentary, The Australian Wars, showed the importance of the Frontier Wars in building modern Australia. Historian Henry Reynolds, author of many books on Australia’s black history, summarised what the Frontier Wars meant for Indigenous people and for Australia:
[It] was about unbelievably important things for them. It was whether or not they could control the way the land was managed, and It was ultimately about their very survival and the very survival of their cultures and traditions. It was war because of what it was about, not the way it was fought. And my view is, not only was it war but it was our most important war. One, it was fought in Australia, two, it was fought about Australia and, three, it determined the ownership and the control, the sovereignty of a whole continent. Now, what can be more important than that – to us? (The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
Rachel Perkins, Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and Director of The Australian Wars, spoke in similar but more personal terms, as she stood on land that had seen a massacre of her ancestors:
My evidence for war is that my people’s land is owned by others in vast cattle stations … Until it is recognised as a war and memorialised as a war, it will never be entirely over … And this is the glorious history of Australia. It’s not all of the story of Australia but it’s a foundational part of it and it sits alongside the story of the First Fleet, which was another glorious moment in Australia that directly led to this.
And it’s also a story about war and the people who lost their lives in war, the same number of people who lost their lives in all of the wars Australia’s ever been involved in. And surely this story deserves to be remembered. Lest We Forget. (The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
‘These were the wars that were fought in Australia’, said Perkins, ‘and they were the wars that really made the modern Australian state’.
The best way [to procure a station] is to go outside and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left. (Niel Black, Western District grazier, 1839, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
The Frontier Wars killed tens of thousands of Australians
The Frontier Wars killed somewhere between 20 000 and 100 000 Indigenous Australians, men, women, and children, as well as perhaps 2500 settler-invaders, police (including native police), and soldiers.
If the number killed was indeed as high as 100 000, that is around the same number as died in all the wars now commemorated on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. We have firmed up that Roll of Honour number down to the last dead Anzac, yet we have had to punt for a rough approximation of the Indigenous figure.
Much of that uncertainty is because we just do not know the Frontier Wars numbers, because exact numbers were not recorded, because deaths were hushed up, because bodies were burned or buried.
It is also because Australians largely have been raised on war stories of ‘our boys’ fighting gamely in trenches and jungles, coming through against great odds or taking part in massed invasions or bombing raids. Many Australians do not recognise the Frontier Wars as ‘real war’, and so do not care about counting those dead.
Our heroes are invisible, like our history. (Rodney Dillon, Palawa, The Australian Wars, episode 2, 2022)
I think that people want to believe that this didn’t happen. There’s too much evidence now. (Dr Valerie Cooms, Quandamooka, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)
Intergenerational trauma cannot be left in the silence
The work of historians like Marina Larsson and Laura James, Bruce Scates and Rebecca Wheatley has reminded us that, in our overseas wars, as well as those 100 000 or so deaths, there were many times that number left mentally and physically damaged, to be cared for by their families and society. That legacy could be given the term ‘intergenerational trauma’.
That term applies just as much to today’s First Australians, whose ancestors were scarred by the massacres and resistance of the Frontier Wars. For Indigenous Australians, however, stories of the Frontier Wars passed down through families have accompanied stories of stolen generations, stolen wages, forced adoptions, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people and the other ‘Gaps’ today’s bureaucrats plot assiduously.
So, intergenerational trauma is another reason why the Frontier Wars are important. There is just as much reason to make reparations for the Frontier Wars at our national war memorial and in our national commemorations as there has been for apologising for stolen generations and forced adoptions. In all of these cases, the effects are felt long after the original actions.
Some non-Indigenous Australians, like John Howard when prime minister, claim that Australians today cannot be held responsible for what happened to Indigenous Australians decades ago. That is not the point. The point is that Australians today, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, confront the trauma that has flowed from those past events and, together, Australians today need to deal with that trauma as it exists today.
Guilt for those past events may not be inherited; responsibility for dealing with their effects is. We can, on Anzac Day and other days, feel pride for what our forebears have done in wars. Why then can we not feel embarrassment or shame for the other deeds of our forebears?
Surely it is not legitimate to only have positive feelings about our past. It is often said that we enjoy freedom purchased with the lives of those who defended us and that we owe those men and women respect for the (willing) sacrifice they made. As we enjoy the prosperity built on the dispossession of First Nations peoples, do we not also owe them respect for the (unwilling) sacrifice they made?
 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.