Kathy Marks The Independent 19 April 2009
The Australian War Memorial, an imposing building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, honours the dead of two world wars as well as other conflicts, including Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam. But the bloody and prolonged battles that accompanied white settlement of Australia, and claimed at least 20,000 Aboriginal lives, rate barely a mention.
More than 200 years after the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove, white Australians are still struggling to come to terms with their colonial past. Long erased from official accounts, the clashes and massacres that took place on the frontier remain a contested area of history, often replaced by more palatable stories of rugged pioneers conquering an inhospitable land.
The descendants of the early white settlers served the British Empire, and later Australia, overseas; their deeds are celebrated in the War Memorial, and are recalled on 25 April, the anniversary of the First World War campaign at Gallipoli. This year, though, as Anzac Day approaches, there are demands for the memorial to commemorate a less heroic aspect of military history: the dirty wars fought on Australian soil.
A lithograph of British troops killing black warriors in 1838 at the aptly named Slaughterhouse Creek is the only reference to those wars in the monument's displays. Yet they raged across the continent for nearly 150 years, the last recorded incident being at Coniston, in the Northern Territory, where 70 Aborigines were shot dead in 1928 by an official force, which was subsequently exonerated.
Calls for proper recognition are supported by leading historians, who note that the US and New Zealand, among others, have faced up to their colonial-era atrocities. The Canadian War Memorial includes displays on the violence committed by European settlers against native peoples.
However, the Canberra monument's governing council insists that the frontier conflicts do not belong within its walls. Bill Crews, a council member, and president of the Returned and Services League (RSL), says: "These events are principally a matter of social history, and as such are more appropriately reflected in other institutions, such as the National Museum."
Military historians disagree. John Connor, from the Australian Defence Force Academy, has no doubt that war was waged in early colonial times – even if it was undeclared and did not resemble a traditional war, consisting of small-scale skirmishes between Aborigines and soldiers or police.
British soldiers were despatched to the Hunter Valley and Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, while Australian paramilitary police were sent into action elsewhere. In Queensland, Aborigines were "dispersed" and "pacified" by Native Mounted Police. In total, an estimated 3,000 whites were killed.
Dr Connor says: "Military officers on the ground talked about war, and if they're calling it a war, what else can you call it? On the Aboriginal side, they remember it as a war, to defend their land."
That definition, though, casts doubt on the legal and moral basis of colonisation, he says. "If the British occupation of Australia was fought over, it means the wealth of white Australians comes from taking the land from indigenous Australians, and their social problems, including low life expectancy, are because of the dislocation of losing their land and lifestyle."
At least the subject is being discussed now. For nearly 100 years, the frontier conflicts were ignored, forgotten or denied. During the 19th century, urban Australians knew and cared little about what was happening on the edges of civilisation. For much of the 20th century, the clashes over land were written out of the history books and were not taught in schools.
Instead, the myth was forged, particularly after the Australian colonies federated as an independent nation in 1901, of a bloodless occupation, and a country that knew neither war nor revolution. The late anthropologist William Stanner called it the "great Australian silence". Henry Reynolds, an eminent historian, says: "The foundation story was a heroic one, and the story was fatally compromised if you put the Aborigines into it."
Rather than resisting the foreign invaders, Aborigines – with the exception of a few "treacherous blacks" – meekly abandoned their land, it was believed. Indeed, until the mid 20th century, they were assumed to be a dying race, partly because of introduced diseases.
A series of lectures by Stanner in 1968, entitled "After the Dreaming", pierced the bubble of silence. But not until 1981, when Professor Reynolds published The Other Side of the Frontier, did the colonial-era wars begin to be widely discussed and accepted as historical orthodoxy. His writings were cited by the High Court judges who, in 1992, finally overthrew the legal fiction of terra nullius – the idea that Australia was uninhabited when the British arrived.
Even now, though, the subject remains controversial. One well-known historian, Geoffrey Blainey, has criticised the "black armband view of history". Another, Keith Windschuttle, has challenged Professor Reynolds's estimate of the number of Aboriginal deaths and his claims of a policy of deliberate genocide.
The history wars are still being fought; meanwhile, the Anzac legend – based on the bravery of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli – is stronger than ever. Increasing numbers of young people visit the Turkish peninsula where the Anzacs landed in 1915, and where, despite heavy casualties and an eventual retreat, Australia became a nation, it is said.
There are war memorials in almost every Australian town, but only a handful of reminders of the brutal events close to home. A monument to 28 Aborigines, mainly women and children, who were massacred in 1838 at Myall Creek, in New South Wales, was put up only in 2003.
In New Zealand, the wars that accompanied colonisation are widely recognised. However, the Maoris were far more numerous than the Aborigines; they spoke the same language and came together to fight formal battles. Aborigines were widely scattered, spoke nearly 300 languages and moved around in small family groups.
The Australian frontier wars sit uneasily with the Anzac legend, with its emphasis on service and sacrifice. Peter Stanley, who was the War Memorial's chief historian for 27 years, describes them as "guerrilla wars ... sordid and secret". "Those who say they don't belong there are disregarding and diminishing the Aboriginal understanding of history," says Dr Stanley, now director of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia. "The conflicts begin in 1790 and continue until the 1920s. In between, if you look at a map of Australia, you can plot literally dozens of fights, with the largest taking place in New South Wales and Western Australia in the 1830s and Queensland in the 1860s and 1870s.
"As the frontier moves, the settlers encounter each Aboriginal people's territory. The Aborigines kill some of their cattle, and retribution occurs. At the same time, there's cultural degradation. The conflicts precede the destruction of Aboriginal society, and you can trace it across the continent."
A War Memorial spokesman says the frontier wars fall outside its charter, which requires it to honour Australian troops killed overseas. Others dispute that legal interpretation, and point out that the charter had been changed to include the Boer Wars.
Professor Reynolds believes racism lies behind the governing council's stance. "It's the idea that the Aborigines were not worthy opponents, and therefore it wasn't really a war," he says. "But it was a war of Aboriginal resistance, and it was amazingly effective in some places: in Tasmania, 200 Europeans were killed."
Bill Crews, the RSL president, denies the racism charge, noting that the memorial honours Aboriginal servicemen who have fought for Australia. Dr Stanley sees things differently. Recalling the official apology by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, last year to the "Stolen Generations", he says: "I don't think it's feasible, in a post-apology Australia, to ignore that important part of our history any longer."
By Kathy Marks
Sunday, 19 April 2009