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The Australian Frontier Wars (or the Australian Wars or simply the Frontier Wars) were violent conflicts between First Nations Australians and settler-invaders, military detachments, and para-military forces (including Native Police with white officers). These conflicts began soon after the landing of the First Fleet in January 1788 and continued until at least 1928 and possibly later. They took place in every Australian colony (now States and Territories).
The Frontier Wars led to the deaths of perhaps 100 000 First Australians and perhaps 2500 settler-invaders. We do not know the exact numbers of First Australians killed, because bodies were burned and buried and, in Queensland, government records destroyed.
Some of the First Nations deaths occurred in massacres inflicted on men, women and children, others involved vigorous resistance by First Nations warriors. Some people have argued that these were not wars because there were no massed armies, charging soldiers and booming artillery, but the premier historian of the Frontier Wars, Henry Reynolds, has said they were wars because of what they were about not because of the way they were fought:
It was whether or not they [First Nations people] 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)
Because the Frontier Wars were a crucial foundation of today’s Australia. First Australians resisted British and other non-Indigenous settler-invaders, including military and police contingents, but lost their land to them and were exploited, raped and massacred.
Because proper recognition and commemoration will help close the gaps in our history and dispel the Great Australian Silence.
Because confronting the history of the Frontier Wars is part of truth-telling under the Uluru Statement.
Because there is a continuous connection between First Australians defending their Country on their Country and, on the other hand, military forces wearing the King’s or Queen’s uniform and sent overseas to defend Australia. They were all Defending Country.
Not honestly recognising all of Australia's war dead diminishes us as a nation. Recognising and commemorating Australians fighting overseas to defend Australia while not recognising and commemorating Australians fighting at home to defend Australia is illogical and insulting.
The War Memorial is a memorial, a museum, and an archive.
Proper recognition must include designating a separate Australian Frontier Wars Gallery to display artefacts and artworks. This gallery must not be shared with ‘pre-1914’ conflicts and must be considerably larger than the negligible space allocated to the Frontier Wars in the pre-redevelopment Memorial – space which, if current plans persist, is unlikely to grow significantly in future.
Beyond an Australian Frontier Wars Gallery, commemoration options could include adding the words ‘Australian Frontier Wars’ to the names of war theatres on the walls above the Pool of Reflection, adding panels to the Roll of Honour to commemorate First Nations warriors and their families, and perhaps having a Tomb of the Unknown First Nations Warrior.
The Memorial’s research facilities should be augmented to ensure appropriate on-site access to resources on the Frontier Wars.
To avoid doubt and to give clear guidance to the Memorial Council, management and staff, the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 must be amended to require the Memorial to recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars just as it does Australian military service overseas.
The Memorial’s internally appointed Indigenous Advisory Group must be augmented by Expert Groups of historians and First Nations people, appointed by the Memorial Council but backed by a charter letter from the Minister to the Council, setting out the Minister’s expectations.
While the Memorial will not put its Frontier Wars curatorial team together until 2024 or 2025, it is important to put these mechanisms in place soon to set parameters for the curatorial work.
These are important changes in the Memorial’s direction, too important to be left to its curators, its hand-picked Indigenous advisers, or even its Council. The Memorial belongs to all Australians, and its future should be a matter of concern to all of us.
No. There needs also to be commemoration, as described above. There is a risk that the Memorial will gather a selection of its artefacts and artworks depicting and presenting frontier conflict, deposit this material in a space designated ‘Frontier Wars Gallery’, or even in a corner of a ‘Pre-1914 Gallery’, and do nothing more.
Properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars grounds Australian sovereignty in the land we live in and in an honest understanding of our more than 60 000 years of history. It overcomes the ‘Great Australian Silence’; filling that silence is a gift to future generations.
The Memorial’s development project will add considerably to its display space, more than adequate for a substantial Frontier Wars Gallery, provided decisions are made soon to ensure sufficient space is available for that specific purpose.
Having a Frontier Wars Gallery would reduce the space devoted to the weapons and machinery of war, which have figured large in the Memorial’s case for expansion.
Because, while the former Chair of the War Memorial Council committed in 2022 to a ‘much broader’, ‘much deeper’ treatment of the Frontier Wars and the current Chair of the Council has supported ‘substantial’ recognition, there is evidence of resistance within the Memorial Council, from the RSL and conservative forces.
It is also unclear exactly what is meant by words like ‘substantial’.
The Memorial’s current plans are a long way short of what is required, in terms of space and emphasis.
The Memorial redevelopment as currently proceeding places the allocation of space ahead of decisions about content. That needs to change.
Because properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars at the Memorial objective is intricately connected with the Voice to Parliament and is a key part of Truth-telling under the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
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 are appropriately 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.
Some First Nations people are opposed 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.
Some non-Indigenous Australians are opposed 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.
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.
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.
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 its 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.
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 Queensland 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?