What were the Australian Frontier Wars?

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)

Why should they be at the Australian War Memorial?

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.

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Jan 23, 2024

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