The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness


It was recently announced that Phillip Noyce, Director of the award winning Rabbit-Proof Fence, is to bring to our screens the story of Bidjigal warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy who lived near present day Botany Bay and who united local tribes in a twelve year guerrilla war against the British invaders of what we now call New South Wales.

As is always often the case with such fearless but forlorn intifadat, Pemuluy came to a sad, bad end. Shot down in a a totally one-sided firefight, his pickled head was sent by Governor Philip King to renowned botanist Joseph Banks in England, a grisly souvenir of Britain’s self-ordained, and, to many in power, god-given, mission civilatrice. 

And thus began Australia’s frontier wars. 

White historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.  

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’ 

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

No ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties

At Bellingen’s recent Readers and Writers Festival, it was our pleasure and privilege to attend a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton (and, by fortunate serendipity, to share a meal with them at the Federal Hotel afterwards). One of many discussion points was that old conundrum: are those who rebel against authority and resist oppression and dispossession terrorists or freedom fighters? The festival event’s tight schedule precluded what was shaping up to be a very lively question time. 

Australia’s frontier wars, Reynolds reminded us, raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals. 

Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. 

The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. 

There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference. 

Reynolds observed how we as a nation celebrate war and warriors, but do not recognize, and indeed, forget our foundational wars of martial conquest. We commenced our national journey with a declaration that our land  was terra nullius, an empty land that was “ceded and  conquered”. There is still no proper explanation at law of how sovereignty passed from the indigenous people to Britain and thence the Australian State. 

Waterloo Creek Massacre, January 1838

Until the momentous Mabo decision of 1992 when the High Court held that the doctrine of terra nullius, which imported all laws of England to a new land, did not apply in circumstances where there were already inhabitants present – even if those inhabitants had been regarded at the time as “uncivilized”, and that as such, any indigenous land rights which had not been extinguished by subsequent grants by the Crown continued to exist in Australia. The concept of indigenous land title was thus born.

And today, at public gatherings and meetings, at carnivals and ceremonials, at conferences and conventions, many of us now recognize and acknowledge our first peoples as the traditional owners of this land and acknowledge elders past, present and future. 

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet.

There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t  take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story. 

© Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

Read also:

                            Solid Rock
They were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
’cause somewhere, someone lied
And now you’re standing on olid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

Living in Interesting Times

“These are the days of miracle and wonder, but don’t cry baby, don’t cry…”  Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble

With an election looming in Australia, touted as the most important election since the last election, a critical referendum next week in the UK that could precipitate a frightening leap in the dark, and possibly the most divisive presidential contest in the USA in living memory, I scale the News Corp pay-wall to share Paul Kelly’s thoughts on the “interesting times” that we are living in.

Disruption of Brexit, Trump Loom in Anti-elitist Age

Paul Kelly, The Australian, 15th June, 2016

Our age is defined by hostility towards elites and establishment power — caused by financial abuses, frustration at pressures over incomes, immigration and living standards, polarisation at changing cultural norms and Islamist terror — with the US and Britain now in domestic political turmoil from this phenomenon.

The sense of elite failure is taking hold. It mirrors the belief that established policy is rotten or ineffective. Witness the incessant talk of weak leadership and the demise of political trust. People feel they are losing control — of their suburbs, country and security.

The culture of complaint, partly justified, lurches out of control, fed by public anger, acrimonious social media and a coarsening in public life. In this cauldron, ideas that have governed prosperity and success are now under assault from extremes of Left and Right. This roughly describes the forces at work in the US and Britain today. The once unthinkable — just nine months ago — is now a real prospect.

Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president with a reasonable chance in a two-horse race, constitutes a danger to the US and the world. Britain, according to polls, is 50-50 on whether to vote for Brexit and leave the EU in a delusional national revolt. And Australia, devoid of such epic events, is not devoid of their causes, with an anti-establishment, anti-major party hostility possibly defining the 2016 election.

There are two dominant characteristics of this revolt against the elites — it proves the failure of established political leaders and every sign is that such angry, disillusioned populism is just making matters worse and leaving people worse off.

The Western democracies are sinking into a political and intellectual crisis.

The Trump and Brexit movements are different in form but close in motivation — they are driven by multiple grievance. They feed off the notion of a polity gone wrong and a public scorned for too long. They represent a community alienated by and from the centres of power, from the Republican establishment to an arrogant EU.

In extreme form, people feel the system is rigged against them. They are retaliating: part calculated, part irrational. In an age of economic and technological disruption, large segments of the community have said “you want disruption? OK, we’ll give you disruption”.

Tory PM David Cameron now finds his survival in peril. Barack Obama, the most progressive US president, bequeaths a legacy of public rancour, polarisation and low self-esteem. Is it possible for any leader to succeed in societies that have lost their traditional virtue and much of the civic glue that held them together?

It is a time of false prophets. A generation of different and dangerous populists now moves to centre stage. Some like Trump, are undisguised in their racial, sexist and selfish pitches. Trump knows the key to being a successful fraud is to be a grand fraud. He pledges “to make America great again” with an agenda that will damage America and endanger the world.

Yet he wins wide applause. This is because he is an anti-politician, shaking the system, abusing the established politicians, trashing their ideas. He thrives on shock and extravagance in a culture drunk with mindless celebrity. He stands for economic nationalism, trade protectionism, xenophobic hostility towards Muslims and a US strategic withdrawal from the world and much of its alliance system.

Many of the sentiments Trump champions are embraced, one way or another, by the collection of minor parties and independents running at this election — and receiving little scrutiny — from Nick Xenophon’s extreme protectionism to Pauline Hanson’s extreme attitudes towards Muslims and immigration to the strategic withdrawal advocated by the Greens in their hostility towards the US alliance and delusion of a neutralist and more “independent” Australia.

Because he is an inflated ogre, Trump invites resistance. He lacks the judgment for the US presidency and should be fiercely opposed every step of the way. His policies cannot be excused simply because of establishment blunders.

The situation in Australia is different because our revolt against the elites is conducted in the name of the underdog, the little Aussie battler, the moral crusader or, as the Greens say, against the political equivalent of the Coles/Woolworths duopoly.

It is a climate where Jacqui Lambie, a purveyor of cliches with the common touch, can become a Tassie heroine and Xenophon can exploit rent-seeking provincialism to become SA’s finest son. Australians with their anti-authoritarian instincts are notoriously susceptible to appeals to cut down the tall poppies. It is a national pastime and good fun. The public can elect protest candidates in haste and regret over time. Witness Clive Palmer. Who pray, will Queensland give us this poll?

The educated class is adroit at the game. Clever men, Oxford educated, who write books about Winston Churchill can become slick populists as they seek to repudiate Churchill’s legacy of Britain’s commitment to Europe. Boris Johnson spearheads the Brexit campaign and, if successful, he will be well ­positioned to become PM.

Exploiting the multitude of EU flaws, Johnson makes a big call in Churchill’s style — time to quit Europe altogether — mobilising the sentiments that blame Europe for Britain’s problems, channelling Euroscepticism, overlooking the evidence that exit will hurt Britain economically, hurt the living standards of its people, diminish Britain’s influence and create a series of policy challenges that ­nobody remotely knows how to solve.

Johnson’s is a sophisticated populism. He cannot explain how Brexit will leave Britain more prosperous or safer. But he has invoked Hitler, Napoleon and the glories of the Empire along the road to what he calls a new freedom. He has panache and, exploiting the immigration card, he may win. Malcolm Turnbull, naturally, backs Cameron’s efforts to keep Britain in the EU.

False ideas are powerful in this new populism. People these days are disgusted with transactional politics — deals, trade-offs, compromises. Yet this is how nations are run in the age of fragmentation and diversity. It is what delivers stability, progress and social unity.

The anti-elites have a different view. They are obsessed by the notion of authenticity because they see most politicians as phony. They want politicians to take a purist stand in honouring their obsessions, single issues and self-interest — against the coal industry, for same-sex marriage, free Medicare forever, banning coal-seam gas, escaping the EU, building a wall to keep out Mexicans. It is a long list.

The anti-elites embody a rising intolerance — self-righteous refusal to accept the validity of the opposing argument is pivotal to this mood. These upheavals in the two great democracies, the US and Britain, are moments of great import. To list the sources of this malaise is to recognise its existence in Australia, albeit in different and less intense form. But for how long?

The mood in the Australian election is disengagement and disillusion with the main parties. The principal contest is Coalition versus Labor.

Yet there is another issue at stake: whether this poll sees an unprecedented number of minor party and independent candidates in evidence of a growing revolt against the Australian system.