Daily Archives: April 1, 2016
Tasmania’s Black War (1824-31) was the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history. It was a clash between the most culturally and technologically dissimilar humans to have ever come into contact. At stake was nothing less than control of the country, and the survival of a people.
Around 1000 lives were lost, but the loss of cultures and histories was far costlier. Had it happened elsewhere, the Black War would be common knowledge. Yet nearly two centuries on, most Australians know almost nothing about it. This Anzac Day it is worth reflecting on the price we pay for such ignorance.
For the first decade or more after Britain settled Tasmania in 1803, its tiny outposts on the Derwent and Tamar rivers never comprised more than a few thousand poorly equipped colonists. The vast majority of the island remained under Aboriginal control and conflict was infrequent. This soon changed following the defeat of Napoleon and settlement of the island’s interior was proceeding apace by the mid-1820s.
This invasion of tribal lands was the ultimate cause of the Black War, but it was not just the white man’s presence to which Aborigines objected. There were six times as many white men in the colony as there were women, and almost none of the latter were available to frontiersmen.
Predictably, some of these men employed violence to procure sex with Aboriginal women and children, and this appears to have been the war’s main proximate trigger.
Among our deadliest wars
As more and more colonists flooded in, Aboriginal attacks soared from 20 in 1824 to 259 in 1830. War parties torched dozens of properties, plundered hundreds of homes and speared thousands of sheep and cattle. Even more devastating was the human toll: 223 colonists killed and 226 wounded.
This represents an annual per capita death rate two-and-a-half times higher than that of Australians in World War Two. Almost every colonist lost somebody they knew. The war’s 200 or so Aboriginal survivors, exiled to Flinders Island in the early 1830s, lost nearly everyone they knew, together with their country and their way of life.
At first glance this suggests a very uneven conflict. Yet there is evidence for only 306 specific killings of Aborigines between 1824-31 and the true figure might not have been much higher than double that.
The apparent asymmetry stems from the fact that most of the island’s several thousand original inhabitants were probably not killed by white men directly, but rather by the disease, internecine conflict and general bedlam they introduced.
What’s more, Aborigines could not replenish their numbers, while every colonist they killed was replaced by a hundred more.
Although they lost the Black War, the efforts of Tasmania’s Aborigines deserve to be commemorated. Armed with just spears and clubs, they put up the stiffest resistance of any indigenous people anywhere in Australia. They pressed the fight until scarcely two dozen of them remained.
We know the names of many. We even have portraits of some, such as Thomas Bock’s haunting sketch of Tongerlongerter, the celebrated resistance leader who severed and cauterised his own arm after it was shattered by a white man’s bullet. Such characters are worthy of our intrigue, and our admiration.
We should also remember the British dead, most of whom were transported for trivial offences, only to meet their deaths in a strange land at the hands of an even stranger enemy. Some had never held a gun, much less fired it into an Aboriginal camp; others had killed their black enemies at every opportunity, but all were victims of circumstance.
Regardless of their guilt or innocence, these luckless men and women are pivotal to Tasmania’s history, and it is essential that we learn their stories too.
An excuse to forget
Growing calls for the Australian War Memorial to commemorate the nation’s frontier wars have been steadfastly rejected. They did not involve the Australian military, runs the objection.
This is technically correct; Tasmania was a British colony until 1901. Nevertheless, colonial forces played a significant role in the island’s frontier conflict, which culminated in 1830 with the Black Line – the largest domestic offensive in Australia’s history. This ambitious seven-week operation involved 550 soldiers and 1,650 settlers and convicts – fully 10% of the colony’s population.
But military or no military, the Black War was just that – a war – and everyone from the governor to the field-hand acknowledged it as such.
The War Memorial’s obstinacy reflects a more general ambivalence among Australians towards the skeletons in their national closet. The cultural brokers of the last century have taught us to graze contentedly on a lean historical diet of sporting heroes, rural battlers and of course Anzac legends. Underlying this stultifying trend is the assumption that acknowledging our ancestors’ mistakes will undermine our national pride and identity.
This is misguided, to say nothing of condescending. As many other countries have shown, a nation that confronts its past, owning its mistakes and learning from them, can only inspire pride.
My grandfather is a decorated World War Two veteran. We meet every Anzac Day and pay our respects to his fallen mates. The speeches are always moving; though the only mention of the colonial frontier I can recall was a dignitary noting how “peaceful” it had been.
Anzac Day commemorates numerous conflicts, from the Boer War to the Boxer Rebellion, but the Black War is not among them. This perplexes my grandfather, as it does a growing number of Australians. It was not just a war fought in Tasmania, it was a war fought for Tasmania.
Much has been made in the last few days of the University of New South Wales’ “diversity toolkit” offering teachers guidelines on Indigenous terminology.
The most controversial directive was a line about using the term “invasion” to describe Captain Cook’s arrival here:
Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a “settlement” attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.
This story made the front page of the Daily Telegraph. Radio personality Kyle Sandilands quickly condemned it as an attempt to “rewrite history”.
But detailed historical research on the colonial frontier unequivocally supports the idea that Aboriginal people were subject to attack, assault, incursion, conquest and subjugation: all synonyms for the term “invasion”.
This was particularly the case in Queensland, where the actions of the Native Mounted Police were designed to subjugate Aboriginal resistance to European “settlers” on their traditional lands, and to protect pastoralists, miners and others from Aboriginal aggression.
The UNSW guidelines are not “rewriting” history – they are simply highlighting a history that has never been adequately told in the first place. This history is one that certain sections of Australian society are determined to deny, led by conservative media commentators who recently whipped up an indignant storm about how a university chooses to educate their students.
It is telling that Sandilands suggested people “get over it – it’s 200 years ago” when we so revere the notion of Lest We Forget when remembering our role in a foreign war (WW1) 100 years ago.
It is also worth remembering in this context that large scale massacres of Aboriginal people were still being carried out through the 1920s and early 1930s in some parts of Australia.
A newly begun project focusing on the archaeology of the Queensland Native Mounted Police and Indigenous oral histories will look at the physical evidence of frontier conflict, including the range of activities undertaken by the Queensland Mounted Police, and the effects of their presence on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
The first step will be to listen. As Jangga Elder Colin McLennan, from Central Queensland, said in a recent project meeting:
this subject has been left idling too long. Aboriginal people are very sensitive about what happened. We need to investigate these places and we need to talk about them openly and honestly … I’ve kept a lot of this knowledge in my head about Aboriginal people being slaughtered and the locations of the killing fields in my country. It’s like an open wound that needs to be healed and it needs to be dealt with. This history belongs to all of us. We need to share it with each other.
In a way, Sandilands isn’t trying to deny the scale of frontier conflict (although many do) – he just wants us to forget about it. But who we, as Australians, choose to remember and what events we commemorate are inherently entwined with how we view ourselves and how we want the world to see us as a nation.
Official records of the Coniston massacre, which took place in the Northern Territory in 1928, admit to 31 Walpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children being killed by Constable William Murray and his men. Is not an event on this scale – which happened just 88 years ago – worth remembering? Is not a Walpiri man’s death defending his way of life just as worthy of remembrance as a World War I digger’s ten years earlier?
Why are we as a nation so reluctant to face up to this part of our past? Inconvenient truths that risk tainting the white “pioneer/settler” narrative are, it seems, not to be commemorated but forgotten.
Although the historical record documenting frontier conflict is a powerful and unequivocal record of our colonial past, it is mostly limited to written records that largely exclude Indigenous voices.
Yet the magnitude, persistence and near-universality of Aboriginal oral narratives of frontier violence are surely telling.
Combining the material evidence for frontier conflict through archaeology with written records and Aboriginal oral tradition and memory, might be the one way to track events and their repercussions more clearly.
Along with oral tradition, monuments and sites are powerful tools in remembering. They are physical markers on the landscape of events that happened.
For many Indigenous communities, the physical evidence of frontier conflict in Queensland in the form of Native Mounted Police camps and locations where people were killed are — just like Gallipoli — important places of remembrance that should never be forgotten.
Hopefully one day non-Indigenous people will be able to visit these sites and reflect on our collective history, rather than being threatened by it.
Professor Bryce Barker is part of an ARC-funded archaeological study into the activities and legacies of the Queensland Native Mounted Police, along with Assoc. Professor Heather Burke, Professor Iain Davidson, Dr Lynley Wallis, Dr Noelene Cole, Elizabeth Hatte and Professor Larry Zimmerman.