In 2000, historian Henry Reynolds published a book, Why Weren't We Told? a Personal Search for the Truth about Our History. It was one of a number of books by Emeritus Professor Reynolds about Australia's First Nations history, including the Australian Frontier Wars.

The blurb for Why Weren't We Told? says it is 'a frank account of [Reynolds'] personal journey towards the realisation that he, like generations of Australians, grew up with a distorted and idealised version of the past'.

In 2023, journalist and author David Marr published Killing for Country: a Family Story. The blurb for that book commences:

David Marr was shocked to discover forebears who served with the brutal Native Police in the bloodiest years on the frontier. Killing for Country is the result – a soul-searching Australian history.
This is a richly detailed saga of politics and power in the colonial world – of land seized, fortunes made and lost, and the violence let loose as squatters and their allies fought for possession of the country – a war still unresolved in today's Australia.

That's getting closer to the full, complex story - there are family aspects but there is much wider importance. Yiman/Bidjara historian Professor Marcia Langton gets closer still: '[Marr's] book is more than a personal reckoning with Marr's forebears and their crimes. It is an account of an Australian war fought here in our own country, with names, dates, crimes, body counts and the ghastly, remorseless views of the "settlers".'

Yet, audiences at David Marr's book launches and writer's festival appearances are still saying, as Henry Reynolds' title had it, a quarter-century ago: 'Why weren't we told?' How come?

Part of the answer to that last question lies in the destruction of records or the lack of them in the first place, part in the burning or burial of bodies, part in the shame felt by the descendants of some of the perpetrators, part in non-Indigenous Australians' prioritising of other matters. Making a living from an often inhospitable country, caring for families, fighting wars and economic slumps, coping with the challenges of a 'multicultural' society, 'the cost of living', and other worries all have diverted focus from the past and future of First Australians.

Distancing is easy, too. 'We weren't there when these things happened to the Aboriginals', many non-Indigenous people have said, 'we didn't do it. The Aboriginals should get over it, like we have!'

As well, there has been sheer bloody laziness. The evidence has been there for those who could be bothered to look for it: the Defending Country reading list on 'Frontier Wars' contains more than 70 entries, some from decades ago, and it is by no means comprehensive.

Henry Reynolds' title, 'Why weren't we told?' is really the wrong question (as he himself knew). The question should be 'Why didn't we find out?' We have encouraged successive generations, child and adult, through Anzac Prizes and Gallipoli Study Tours and Darwin re-enactments and Kokoda Track hikes and the returning home of the Long Tan Cross to know the minutest detail about our Australia's Overseas Wars but we have shown nowhere near the same diligence with the Australian Frontier Wars, the wars that created the foundation of modern Australia. (See also: 'Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important'; 'What you need to know about the Defending Country campaign'.)

Marr focusses on Queensland. Frontier conflict is not just a Queensland story, though the conflict was probably at its bloodiest there. It is not just a story about the Queensland Native Police, whipped along by cruel and psychopathic and often alcoholic white officers. There were military perpetrators and settler perpetrators, too. It is an Australian story; indeed, it is the Australian story. One that the majority of non-Indigenous Australians have until now turned away from or tried to shove down the memory hole.

David Marr spoke recently at the Melbourne Writers' Festival as part of extensive - and welcome - promotion of his book. The ABC's Big Ideas has already posted a Sorrento Writers' Festival session featuring Marr, Defending Country Patron Thomas Mayo, and Indigenous museum curator, Professor Margo Neale.

Henry Reynolds is also a Patron of the Defending Country campaign. His books are readily available; at the age of 86 he continues to write articles, particularly for Pearls and Irritations.

Professor Peter Stanley is a member of the Defending Country campaign committee. He reviewed Marr's Killing for Country for the Honest History website. 'Marr rightly feels no personal guilt for the misdeeds of his forebears', Professor Stanley wrote, 'but he does accept a responsibility, the responsibility to honestly acknowledge their actions, and their part in creating our nation, in which we live with the consequences of the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal Australia'. (Other reviews and commentary on Marr's book.)

As one of Marr's 1890s sources put it, ‘We have seized their country by the right of might’. That is worth quoting in Australia 2024; up there with Lest We Forget.

May 19, 2024

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