Originally published in Meanjin in December 1972.
Many things divide white and black Australians. Some are manifest and widely recognized; others like their conflicting interpretations of the past are less often appreciated. Yet when white Australians celebrated the bi-centenary of Cook’s discovery of the east coast many Aboriginals mourned, and during the re-enactment of the Botany Bay landing they threw wreaths into the sea. While Brisbane commemorated the great navigator, local Aboriginals wore red head-bands and laid red flowers before a church altar to symbolize the fate of tribes which have become extinct since the beginning of European settlement. Past violence haunts the folk memory of many Aboriginal communities and influences contemporary behaviour. In Arnhem Land R.M. and C.H. Bemdt found that racial conflict was still ‘vividly remembered’, while M. Reay discovered in rural New South Wales that ‘punitive expeditions and other massacres of Aborigines occupy an important place in the history of the mixed blood groups as it is interpreted by themselves…The site of the nearest massacre is always known … to the mixed bloods these sites are land-marks.’ Other groups may view the past differently but in many parts of Australia where ‘aboriginal life now touches that of Europeans…old injuries still rankle’.
White memories of racial violence have more often been expunged than preserved, while the decimating impact of disease and deprivation has often been accepted as a comprehensive explanation of a rapidly declining Indigenous population. There is a very old belief that settlement was uniquely peaceful which can be traced back to the earliest writing on Australian colonization. A history of New South Wales published in 1816 made the claim that the early settlers had ‘not established themselves by the sword, nor willingly done injury to the naked miserable stragglers, who were found on these barren shores’. Sixty years later D. Blair repeated the claim that Australia was ‘not founded in bloodshed’. The records, he remarked, showed nothing more than ‘progressive sheep farming, never armed conflict with the inhabitants’. Australia then presented a ‘happy contrast’ to the colonization of the Americas and Africa; indeed ‘no grander victory of Peace has this world ever witnessed than the acquisition of Australasia by the British nation’. In 1881 J.F.U. Fitzgerald suggested that history ‘presented no example in which a native race was dispossessed by a superior race, with less hardship and suffering” while in 1924 L.St.Clare-Grondona wrote, that Australia was the only country which had ‘been acquired by peaceful occupation’.
Writers with experience of frontier life found it more difficult to ignore the harsh realities of racial contact and yet many found violence an embarrassing topic. In 1872 Charles Eden referred briefly to bloodshed in contemporary Queensland but concluded that it was ‘well to draw a veil over the dark side of the picture’. Ernest Thorn made similar references to the suffering of that colony’s Aboriginals, remarking that ‘there one would willingly draw a veil over the sad picture’.” Reminiscing on his life in early Victoria J.C. Hamilton referred to the actions of a punitive expedition and commented that ‘what happened that day is a scene of the past, and the curtain is drawn over it all’. Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen wrote in similar terms. There were parts of Australia, they noted, ‘where it is well to draw the veil over the past history of the relationship between the blackfellow and the white man’. The recurrence of almost identical phraseology is striking and suggests that the image of drawing a curtain over the past not only served a descriptive purpose but reflected deep psychological needs in the Australian community.
Some writers restrained their pens to protect the honour of country or of race. J.L. Stokes regretted that the ‘page of history’ recording the colonization of Australia ‘must reach the eyes of posterity’, and J.J. Knight referred to the notorious Kilcoy poisoning in early Queensland but refused to elaborate because it was ‘one of those matters which, for the honour of the white race, is best left in obscurity’.’ A Western Australian writer referred to violence in the North-Western District but decided not to enter into details because it would not ‘tend to enhance Western Australia’s reputation abroad’.
There were other reasons for ignoring the blood spilled in racial conflict. Many writers showed an understandable concern for public opinion. Commenting on the ill-fated Tasmanians, John West referred to the brutality of the settlers and remarked that ‘a detail of such facts, is in the hands of the writer, the recital of which would disgrace, without improving mankind; and it is rather in deference to a general principle than personal considerations, that the crimes of amateur assassins are left to oblivion’.’ Stokes was moved by the fate of the Indigenes but did not wish ‘to press too hard’ on anybody of his countrymen. E.S. Parker referred to interracial violence in Victoria as a subject ‘he would handle with tenderness’, not wanting to ‘revive bygone exasperations’. Writing of West Australian experience C.G. Nicolay concluded that ‘to particularize crimes and their perpetrators is both invidious and painful’. In the 1930s A.O. Neville referred to similar events but felt it ‘needless to criticize the actions’ of the pioneers.^^ We find a similar self-imposed censorship in P. Hasluck’s Black Australians. ‘In the scant references to violence’, he wrote, ‘no more will be quoted than seems necessary to show the measures taken or the attitude of the colonists.’ More recently M. Barnard has argued that ‘little is to be gained by recounting all the recorded black and white incidents’. J.B. Cleland felt it was a ‘matter of deep regret that atrocities committed by unscrupulous white people on our natives years ago are raked up and recounted for propaganda purposes’.
Most modern historians however have probably not deliberately avoided the question of racial violence. Historiographical neglect of the Aboriginals has been of a general rather than a specific nature; a fact which can be illustrated by reference to the six most influential histories of Australia to appear during the past twenty years. All books make at least passing references to the Indigenes in the period prior to 1850, mentioning such well known events as Tasmania’s Black War, the Battle of Pinjarra, the Myall Creek Massacre and conflict with explorers and early squatters. But Shaw is the only writer to deal with race relations in the second half of the nineteenth century and he restricts his attention to Western Australia. None of the books refers to the racial situation arising from the settlement of Central and Northern Queensland or the Northern Territory—those areas with large Indigenous populations which saw what was undoubtedly the worst racial violence in our history. On reading these works one might well assume that conflict with the Aboriginals was an aspect of the earliest period of Australian history which had virtually concluded by the time of the gold-rushes. The situation is still as it was in 1938 when W.E.H. Stanner observed that the disappearance of the tribes was ‘not commonly regarded as a present and continuing tragedy, but (for some curious reason) rather as something which took place a long time ago, in the early days, and so is no longer a real complication’.
Historians have rarely dealt adequately with Aboriginal resistance to settlement and some have overlooked it entirely. Jenks, for instance, wrote that the Aboriginals were ‘absolutely barbarous and unskilled in the arts of life’ and while ‘dragging out…a precarious and wretched existence…they could offer no resistance to the invaders…The Historians History of the World (1908) made the claim that the Aboriginals ‘never contested the ground with the white settlers as the Maoris did in New Zealand’.’ More recently McCulloch suggests that ‘it did not occur’ to the Aboriginals ‘that they should fight for their lands like the Maori, the Bantu, or the American Indian.’ Many writers overlooked the scattered and sporadic resistance of the Aboriginals because it differed so greatly from European warfare or even from that waged by native peoples in Africa and New Zealand. Yet, as Melville realized long ago, the Aboriginals were fighting a guerilla war against the settler, usually avoiding direct confrontation, exploiting their knowledge of the terrain and attempting to strike at the economic power of the newcomer. They fought as their social and economic conditions dictated. It was impossible for them to wage the same sort of war as the village-dwelling Maoris. Aboriginal tactics were determined by the restrictions of tribal organization and above all the logistic problems of feeding large numbers with the resources available to a hunting and food-gathering economy. Where white settlement was scattered and where the terrain continued to provide the Aboriginals with food and protection the struggle lasted for as long as ten years. In such favoured areas as the Dawson and the Palmer River Valleys and the Atherton Tableland in Queensland, the Kimberleys in Western Australia, and the mountain ranges of Central Australia and Northern New South Wales Aboriginal resistance did significantly increase the economic and human cost of settlement.
It is clearly wrong to argue that the Aboriginals’ reaction to settlement was ‘so sporadic and ineffectual that men seldom had to go armed on the Australian frontier’. This is untrue even of Victoria where Aboriginal numbers were small and where the terrain frequently favoured the squatter. James Kirby, for instance, always carried a short rifle and two horse pistols during the early years of settlement. Edward Curr kept several pistols which he had ‘constantly at hand for several years’. E.S. Pariier found that in the interior of the Colony the men were ‘completely armed’. In remoter parts of the continent insecurity was even greater. In the Northern Territory in the 1880s ‘every man was armed and habitually wore a revolver in his belt’. Even in the early twentieth century it was ‘essential to carry firearms’ in certain parts of northern Australia and it ‘was the practice of men…to always go armed’. In Queensland the use of guns was even more common. In the Herbert River District it was ‘never safe to go unarmed, and a revolver with well stocked cartridge belt was one’s indispensable companion’. On the Mulgrave goldfields ‘a revolver and a rifle’ were ‘as necessary adjuncts to the miner as a pick and shovel’,” while the selectors on the Atherton Tableland found that ‘carrying a Colt’s revolver while at work, with a feverish expectancy, (was) a heavy handicap’. Not only were Queensland settlers armed but the frontier was patrolled for fifty years by the Native Mounted Police, a para-military force over two hundred strong for part of that period.
The gun was an essential adjunct to the settlement of Australia. Where the Aboriginals resisted they were shot until the survivors submitted. Such realism was commonplace in the Queensland Parliament. In 1880 Morehead, the member for Mitchell, remarked:
The country had been taken up, and the colony had been made by men who had gone out, and in their pioneering had, of necessity, to use extreme measures to the inhabitants of the soil. The Aboriginal, no doubt, had been shot down; no-one denied it, and had they not been shot down the white men would never have been there. Atrocities, probably, had been committed; he believed, himself, that powder and bullet had been used more freely than need be; but these cases had led to the present holding of the country.
However, in much historical writing the true nature of frontier warfare has been overlooked. One reason for this was that, in the eyes of imperial and colonial governments, the Aboriginals were subject to British law making it possible to dismiss their resistance as mere criminality. Sadlier noted in the 1880s how contemporaries spoke of the Aboriginals ‘as if they had no right to defend their country’. What was ‘a virtue with all other people’ was ‘a crime with them’.’ Modern historians have shown similar tendencies. Hasluck, for instance, argued that West Australian settlers did not think of conflict with the Aboriginals as warfare. While noting occasional references to war in the Colony’s formative years he concluded that ‘this idea…was one that belonged to the early phases of settlement when soldiers were charged with the protection of settlers and was incompatible with the police duty in later years. There was no idea of warfare in the northern settlements…’ Yet references to warfare were common in Western Australia in the late nineteenth century. In 1902 Hopkins remarked in Parliament that the whites in the north would have to use firearms against the Aboriginals because ‘it was only a matter of warfare’. The Premier, the Hon. G. Leake, similarly remarked that if the Aboriginals ‘attack the whites and their property, that is tantamount to a declaration of war…If, however, an outlying settler in this State be attacked by a tribe of blacks, his stock killed or driven off, there would be a howl of indignation…if the neighbouring settlers were, after the manner of people, practically to declare war and administer retributive justice.’
Deaths resulting from single encounters between settlers and Aboriginals never perhaps equaled those in the pitched battles of New Zealand history. But conflict lasted much longer in Australia—from the earliest settlements until the first decades of this century. We have no estimate of the number of violent deaths in this period and enormous difficulties confront the historian wishing to arrive at one. We are uncertain of the Indigenous population before contact. We don’t know how many died of disease and deprivation although the toll must have been immense. Many frontier skirmishes were kept secret or simply passed unrecorded while others became the source of countless rumours. Detailed regional studies of contact may eventually dispel some of the existing uncertainty but at the moment’ all we can do is speculate. It is important, however, to suggest a figure for Aboriginal mortality even if later research proves it wide of the mark. I believe that many more Aboriginals died in clashes with the settlers than the 1,000 to 2,000 who fell in the Maori Wars. Queensland alone, with its large Indigenous population and turbulent frontier, would probably have had a greater cumulative experience of racial violence than New Zealand. We will never know how many Aboriginals died violently in the wake of white settlement in Queensland but I would think that 5,000 would be a conservative estimate. Frontier contact in the other colonies may, on the whole, have been less violent than in Queensland. Yet there were areas like Tasmania, the Kimberleys, Central Australia and northern New South Wales where there was considerable bloodshed. Ten to twelve thousand deaths in frontier conflict throughout Australia might be as reasonable a guess as any other, given the present state of our knowledge.
Despite the enormous difficulty of quantifying the results of border warfare it is obvious that by Australian standards the number of violent deaths was substantial. Frequent individual encounters left as many Aboriginal dead as the twenty-odd diggers who fell behind the Eureka Stockade. Those periods of heightened frontier conflict like 1838-42 in the outer pastoral settlements of New South Wales, 1858-61 in Central Queensland and 1865-70 in Northern Queensland, would all have resulted in a death-rate comparable with the 280 Australians killed in the Korean War or the 300 or so who fell in combat during the Boer War or even the 400 or so killed in Vietnam to the middle of 1971.
These facts must surely be related to the overall question of violence in Australian history. Traditionally our historians have stressed the peacefulness of our past and a prominent scholar has recently remarked that as a people we have been ‘remarkably slow to kill each other’. But how realistic is it to exclude frontier deaths from the national balance-sheet? One is reminded of G.W. Rusden’s remark about the Queensland statistics of the late 1870s. The Registrar-General, he observed, ‘found no place for the Aborigines in his account of the population. In his table of ’causes of death in Queensland…arranged in the order of degree of fatality’, Mr Jordan omitted the rifle’.
It is a significant fact that few white people died from public violence in Australia’s past but it is equally significant that the same society found it remarkably easy to condone the killing of black people until well into the present century. Thus in writing the Aboriginals out of our history we have not only committed a grave injustice but we have also written out much of the violence, thereby seriously distorting our view of the past. We need now what W.E.H. Stanner has called ‘another kind of history’, which will incorporate those things which the Aboriginals already understand and can teach us about, those ‘white’ problems of racism and violence which we have so often expurgated from our historiography.
This essay was originally published in Meanjin Vol. 31, No. 4, Dec 1972.