The NSW Fabians held a public forum on the Frontier Wars on Friday June 26 in Sydney. The key speaker was the historian Prof Henry Reynolds, author of Frontier War (NewSouth Publishing, 2013) and A History of Tasmania (CUP, 2012).
In promoting the event, the NSW Fabians noted that the Australian Frontier Wars were fought from 1788 to the 1920s between Indigenous Australians and an invading coalition of white settlers, militia, police, and colonial soldiers and that the conflict claimed an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Aboriginal lives and the lives of between 2,000 and 2,500 Europeans.
Despite the significance of the Frontier Wars to our shared history, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra continues to reject calls for these wars to be granted the recognition that other wars involving Australians have been officially given.
To quote Alan Stephens (‘Reconciliation means recognising the Frontier Wars’, The Drum, 7 Jul 2014) on this issue:
According to the Australian War Memorial Act (1980), the AWM’s purpose is to recognise “active service in war or warlike operations by members of the Defence Force”. The act then defines “Defence Force” as “any naval or military force raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth”.
That definition allows the AWM to commemorate the wars of choice fought by white “Australians” in the Sudan, South Africa, and China before Federation, but excludes the war of necessity fought by Indigenous “Australians” for Australia itself between 1788 and the 1920s.
In other words, pre-Federation white volunteers who chose to fight overseas for the British crown and its commercial and colonial interests have been legally defined as “Australians”, while pre-Federation Indigenous warriors who fought invaders for their homeland, their families, and their way of life, have been officially defined out of our war commemoration history.
Alan Stephens argues that the “implications of this wilful distortion of our history are profoundly disturbing, both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and should be addressed by the government and the AWM’s council as a matter of national importance.”
Apart from hearing Henry Reynolds speak about the Frontier Wars, the forum also discussed how we might move forward to ensure a proper acknowledgement of these wars.
At the national level, deciding how this is to be done will require genuine consultation with Indigenous peoples.