The announcement of a grant of half a billion dollars to the Australian War Memorial for a massive programme of extensions has re-ignited the long smouldering controversy about frontier conflict.
Despite criticism reaching back many years the Memorial has steadfastly refused to admit Aboriginal warriors into the shrine which current director Brendan Nelson calls the soul of the nation. His excuse is that the relevant legislation prohibits such an innovation. This has always been a debatable assertion and rather misses the point. If Dr Nelson wanted to embrace frontier conflict he could ask for a minor amendment to the legislation which could be passed in a matter of months very likely with bi-partisan support and public acclaim.
It is a pertinent fact that the controversy has progressed in parallel with the emergence of a whole new generation of scholarship relating to frontier conflict, which was stimulated by the history wars of the early years of the century and has reached into many parts of the continent. As a result the verdict is now beyond doubt. Frontier conflict was violent and universal, accompanying national life for 140 years. The death toll was almost certainly much higher than the 20,000 I suggested in the early 1980’s. It seems entirely plausible that many more Aborigines were shot down in Queensland alone. Definitive accounting may always be out of our reach, but frontier deaths may rival those of the First World War.
So while one of the major questions of the history wars has been convincingly answered there remains the ancillary one of whether or not the conflict amounted to warfare. In response we can look both to colonial history and to comparable white settler societies. In the United States even the briefest and inconsequential conflicts between the republic and Indian nations are mentioned in their official list of wars. New Zealand defines the major conflicts with the Maori Tribes as war, as do Argentina and Chile when accounting for fighting with the Mapuche Indians on the Pampas in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Australian colonists wrote and spoke about warfare in all decades and in each of the colonies despite the legal fiction that the Aborigines were British subjects.
But equally there have always been settler Australians who, while conceding the reality of frontier fighting, have defined it as falling below the threshold of actual warfare. The argument has been that the conflict was small scale and scattered, resulting from disputes about trespass and theft and access to women. It lacked the gravity and dignity of Australia’s overseas wars and equated more with what was once called private warfare and phenomena like banditry, piracy and vendetta. The continuing cogency of this assessment is not surprising, but it became instantly unsustainable with the handing down of the High Court’s Mabo judgement in 1992. The reason for this may require some explanation.
British legal doctrine relating to Australia determined that Australia’s First Nations had neither sovereignty nor property rights. The great strategic questions which have always been contested in war had been decided in advance leaving nothing of consequence to fight about. But the High Court determined in its six to one judgement that both Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines were the rightful owners of their traditional territories and by implication exercised a form of sovereignty over them. So frontier fighting, no matter what form it took, had to be about the ownership and control of territory. It therefore had to be war and because it was fought in Australia and about control of the continent. It was Australia’s most important war. For us it was, on any measure, far more consequential than the balance of power in Europe in the early twentieth century or the contemporaneous scramble to carve up the Ottoman Empire.
So while we can understand the means by which settler Australians were able to duck questions of warfare, it was never a possibility for their Indigenous contemporaries. No matter how the fighting unfolded or how long it lasted there could be no avoidance of the true magnitude of the conflict. It was not just the forced concession of control over homelands, but the continuity of an entire way of life and even the physical survival of a people. It was an unparalleled catastrophe far beyond what Australian personnel have ever suffered in war no matter how severe. After all, they fought far from home all the while knowing their own families were safe, their property inviolate and that their way of life would persist. How can the two experiences of war be commensurate?
And how can the War Memorial show so little respect or even understanding of the devastating impact of the frontier wars? How can they not care? Perhaps even more pointedly how can they get away with such heartless insouciance? Do the Director and his Board think of First Nations people as fellow countrymen and women or not? Are they unable to see that across a century of time and vast stretches of this continent, Aboriginal people fought heroically for their country, their kin and their customs?
A u-turn at the War Memorial would take a radical change of heart and sensibility, but expense would clearly not be a problem. And the most significant symbolic development could happen easily and quickly. What is immediately required is that next to the tomb of the fallen soldier there should be interpolated, with due reverence and ceremony, the tomb of the unknown warrior.
Henry Reynolds is the author of fourteen books, including An Indelible Stain?, The Other Side of the Frontier, Black Pioneers, Fate of a Free People, This Whispering in Our Hearts and the award-winning Why Weren’t We Told?