The Frontier Wars were fought in every part of the vast Australian continent from the 1790’s to the 1920’s. How could they be overlooked in local or even in global history? The ownership and control of a continental landmass was at stake. First Nations’ warriors bled and died on, and for, their own country. Why would we want to overlook them?

Minister for Veterans Affairs, Matt Keogh, issued a press release last Friday announcing that three new members had been appointed to the Australian War Memorial Council who would take up their positions on July 1st. He declared that the new members would bring a fresh perspective to the Council and ‘ensure the Memorial continues to adapt and reach contemporary audiences’.

With leadership provided by the recently appointed Chair of the Board, Kim Beazley, it is clearly a case that it is now or never if the Memorial is to catch up with all those prominent Australians who have, for the last thirty years, demanded that due recognition be given to the frontier wars. Developments both here and overseas are adding unprecedented momentum to the cause.

The defeat of the Voice referendum and the decisive rejection of a constitutionally enshrined advisory committee has given increased emphasis to the other demands made in the Uluru Statement From The Heart and above all the need for truth telling. This has already been catered for in Victoria by the Yoorook Commission, which has been collecting evidence from a wide range of witnesses.

It is a process whose time has come and will be eventually be pursued in one way or another in the other states as well. It is hard to see how the Memorial can avoid what is becoming a major mission both for governments and civil society. It will emerge as a matter of serious public concern if the new Board fails to rally to the cause.

It is a very different world today to what it was when, in the 1980s, there were sporadic calls for a recognition of the frontier conflict. The High Court’s Mabo Judgement was a landmark case which reverberated as widely in the interpretation of national history as it did in our jurisprudence. While terra nullius prevailed, the twin questions of property and sovereignty had been resolved at the foundation of settlement when Britain formally annexed the three tranches of the continent in 1788, 1824 and 1829.

With the two great questions missing that have universally been at stake in warfare, Aboriginal resistance could be seen as being akin to banditry or common criminality and therefore lacking the gravity let alone the grandeur of warfare.

But in the years since Mabo there has been a revolution in Australian historiography which has, in turn, had a dramatic influence on many other genres including fiction, drama, poetry, and film. Old secure assumptions have been upended. Many observers – government officials, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, overseas visitors – having witnessed frontier conflict, declared that it was in fact a form of warfare.

And quite regardless of views to the contrary among the colonists there could be no avoiding the indisputable fact that the First Nations were overwhelmed by a series of small wars in which lives, homelands, traditions, ways of life, and their very existence as a people, were at stake.

And the wars were fought in every part of the vast continent from the 1790s to the 1920s. How could they be overlooked in local or even in global history? The ownership and control of a continental landmass was at stake. Why would we want to overlook them if the descendants of the First Nations’ victims are indeed our country men and women?

Which brings us to the question of the alarming death toll. The most recent scholarship, and particularly meticulous work in Queensland, suggests that the overall death rate in the 140 years of conflict may have approached the numbers killed in all of our overseas wars.

Can the nation simply ignore this? Above all else can the Memorial not see this? Just look the other way when so much effort goes into recording every individual who died as a consequence of our overseas wars, whenever and wherever they were?

Most of them, in fact, died in wars fought for either the British or American overlords far away from Australia. They died not exactly for our country which, in most cases was not threatened, but in the interests of the Australian State.

For their part, First Nations’ warriors bled and died on, and for, their own country. Why has it been so hard to value their heroic resistance, to recognise them as patriots? Will the Memorial itself ever bury the body of an unknown warrior adjacent to the tomb of the unknown soldier in an ultimate ceremony of reconciliation?

This would likely be a bridge too far for many Australians and presumably for the Council of the War Memorial. But it would bring the country into line with what is being thought and said by an increasing majority of the world’s population whose histories were shaped by the hundreds of small wars fought by the West’s Imperial powers all over the world in the C19th. They varied widely in duration, intensity and in tactics as the Imperial powers sought to annex, extend and then repress the resistance of indigenous and tribal people. They were often categorised by the great powers as police actions rather than wars but collectively they had a greater global impact than the larger more formal wars between the European powers themselves. It is here that Australia’s long history of frontier conflict belongs.

In a recent book, They Called It Peace, the prominent American historian Lauren Benton explains how she places 'imperial small wars at the centre of a new history of global order’. She argues that the 'smallness' of many imperial wars was deceptive since they ‘often repeated across long phases and extended over vast areas’. Never insignificant for their victims, small wars profoundly affected the lived experience of people in a world of empires. In fact, Imperial small wars were ‘and perhaps still are, the beating heart of global order’.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian and a Patron of Defending Country. This article originally appeared on Pearls and Irritations on 3 July 2024 under the title 'Last Chance for the War Memorial' and is republished here by permission. For similar arguments, see other articles on Defending Country, particularly 'Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important'.

Jul 3, 2024

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