When will we recognise Australia’s frontier wars as part of our war history?

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 23 April 2019 58

Will the Australian War Memorial ever acknowledge the frontier wars? File photo.

ANZAC Day is a solemn day for Australians. As the Nation’s capital, Canberra is an important stage to reflect on the impact of war on our country and commemorate the sacrifices of the Australian men and women who served in Wars across two centuries.

We gather in our thousands before dawn on the lawns of the Australian War Memorial. We come together at the morning march and reflect on what war has meant for this country, from the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam war, recent peacekeeping activities, and our engagement in Iraq and Syria. These are important to remember and commemorate. For many of us, it is also personal, with the impacts of war resonating across generations given our grandparents, parents, siblings and other family members have served in the Australian military.

On ANZAC Day, key battles such as Gallipoli loom large. So do other theatres of war, often far from our shores as we have joined our allies to battle wars far from Australia. While this is entirely appropriate, we must also confront the reality that we are failing to acknowledge, learn from and heal from other armed conflicts that have fundamentally shaped our country and our community. These are conflicts that occurred in our own country.

The frontier wars that accompanied the European occupation of Australia saw the deaths of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people and at least 2000 settlers. These are conflicts that I learned nothing of in my studies of Australian history at school or even at university. These are conflicts that I won’t find any mention of in the War Memorial when I visit. These are conflicts that get no mention of when the Memorial talks of its plan for a massive expansion of its exhibition spaces.

It is argued that these conflicts don’t meet the definition of war as they were not conducted by the state. It is also argued that the domain of the War Memorial is for Australians who have served overseas. However, on a day where we reflect on the cost of war and conflict on individuals, families and communities, surely there is a place to acknowledge the truth of the bloodshed that is part of our country’s history? Here we stand 30 years after our then Governor General William Dean called for a memorial to commemorate the frontier wars. Here we stand, at a point of history where many Australians are unaware that these conflicts are a dark part of our national story.

While we may be a long way from commemorating the frontier wars, this is a history we must confront and resolve. It is time for truth-telling as the beginning of a process towards true reconciliation. The call for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission as part of the 2017 Uluru Statement From the Heart is one way this might happen. The term Makarrata comes from the Aboriginal Yolngu language and, as Noel Pearson has explained, expresses an idea of two parties coming together after struggle in order to restore peace. It aims to acknowledge something has been done wrong and seeks to make things right. It is intended to be an agreement within Australia, between Australians.

I think that it is important to reflect on the totality of our participation in war – both in this country and overseas as part of our acknowledgement of ANZAC Day. How will you mark ANZAC Day in Canberra?

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58 Responses to When will we recognise Australia’s frontier wars as part of our war history?
wottaway wottaway 9:27 pm 28 Apr 19

That about sums it up. In fact, ‘welcome to country’ is heavily overdone and becoming irritating.

Lucy Baker Lucy Baker 12:53 pm 26 Apr 19

Is the author unaware of Reconciliation Place in the Parliamentary Triangle? The Australian War Memorial isn’t the appropriate site to commemorate the Frontier Wars. The siting of the Aboriginal Memorial on Mt Ainslie behind the AWM and still on the powerful Axis is appropriate. The National Museum of Australia largely fulfils the role of memorialising already; perhaps it needs to be spelt out better (beyond the covert messaging in braille on the outside of the NMA building). In terms of practical reconciliation, very much needed besides acknowledgement in the form of the beautiful and moving Reconciliation Place we have AIATSIS, keeping places, Sorry Day, Naidoc Week, “welcome to country” being a part of every public service meeting held in the country, the Tent Embassy, dedicated Indigenous housing, Indigenous places of learning in our tertiary institutions, dedicated Indigenous health, and affirmative action throughout our governments and universities. Add to that a huge division of the Prime Minister & Cabinet department is 100% concerned with Indigenous Australia. All of this costs the taxpayer a massive amount.

Maelinar Maelinar 8:32 am 26 Apr 19

Might I suggest that we look across the ditch to where everything is done better (please come and be Australia’s PM Jacinda), where the colonial wars and the resultant Treaty are commemorated on Waitangi day.

Oh yeah NAIDOC week. Sorry my bad.

BTW where are they holding all of the relics that would be on this theoretical display ? Is this something we could just put on a poster or something ? What size display are they thinking ? Would the government be willing to shovel $500m at it so that the AWM can adjust its size to accommodate the scope ?

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 3:26 pm 26 Apr 19

    With respect, the current PM of New Zealand had nothing to do with Waitangi Day.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:47 pm 25 Apr 19

Thank you Peter Grace for reminding me why I decided not to join people like you by signing up with Facebook.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:11 pm 25 Apr 19

If these alleged events took place before federation then they would be matters between the colonies of the NSW, Queensland, Victoria etc. who had direct accountability to the British Crown.

Therefore the matter is between the aboriginal defenders and the British “invaders” so really nothing to do with “our” (Australia’s) history at all.

    astro2 astro2 6:49 pm 27 Apr 19

    Read up on the Boer War which took place before Federation and included soldiers from this country before Federation. Their veterans marched on earlier Anzac Days. The defining factor isn’t, therefore, when Federation occurred.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 2:12 pm 28 Apr 19

    The participants in the Boer War were from the colonies, not Australia per se.

    Great own goal there astro.

    astro2 astro2 3:46 pm 28 Apr 19

    Actually no Retro, they were from this country, now called Australia and they marched in earlier Anzac Days. You seemed to think that Anzac Day only applies to conflicts after Federation.
    This is not correct as people from this country who went to fight in the Boer War marched on Anzac Day. You need to do a little more research on this subject.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 2:40 pm 02 May 19

    The Boer war started before Australia was declared. Members of the British Empire were involved. Don’t need to research anything more than that..

M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 4:15 pm 25 Apr 19

Does this include the many internecine wars that took place between indigenous tribes pre-European settlement, or does that violate the narrative?

astro2 astro2 3:30 pm 25 Apr 19

Megz Frohling – when you state that even the Boer Wars weren’t commemorated that is factually incorrect as there used to be a handful of Boer War vets that marched many years ago so, yes, it was all wars that Australians fought in. It’s probably natural that you are not aware of this as the Boer War is a long time ago now.

Lucy Baker Lucy Baker 1:52 pm 25 Apr 19

It was Britain, not Australia, that engaged in the frontier wars.

    astro2 astro2 6:31 pm 27 Apr 19

    It was Britain that was invading the land we now call Australia. The inhabitants put up what resistance they could in defence of that land.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:43 am 28 Apr 19

    Yet we now generally refer to aboriginals as “the First Australians” so does this mean there was a war between Australia and Britain?

    astro2 astro2 1:23 pm 28 Apr 19

    The British sailed in and declared (at the point of a gun) that they owned the place. There was some resistance (naturally) by the people who lived here at the time. This is what is referred to as frontier wars. Ironically, only this and the second World War were times when people were actually defending the country (rather than supporting a strategic alliance).

Monica Lindemann Monica Lindemann 12:53 pm 25 Apr 19

Time for truth telling and healing

Kate Smith Kate Smith 12:26 pm 25 Apr 19

I was pleased to see they marched today. Albeit right at the end.

    Simon Mitchell Simon Mitchell 7:30 pm 25 Apr 19

    Kate Finch I think they were stopped as usual at the roundabout, before entering the parade ground. I’d be delighted if this was not the case.

    Elaine Margaret Johnson Elaine Margaret Johnson 7:40 pm 25 Apr 19

    Kate Finch they were stopped. It was a pretty good demonstration.

    Seán Burke Seán Burke 9:59 am 27 Apr 19

    It’s a great honour for me to march with those commemorating the Frontier Wars on ANZAC Day and yes, the gates and police line came across as we reached the roundabout. However, we are allowed to go through each year after the ceremonies have finished to lay wreaths at the Stone of Remembrance, though delayed a little this year waiting for police clearance from above.

Mark Kulasingham Mark Kulasingham 12:22 pm 25 Apr 19

Wow. Criticising someone writing a pertinent column exercising one of the very freedoms these veterans fought for.

John Thistleton John Thistleton 12:20 pm 25 Apr 19

We cannot ignore our history, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Bronwyn Pech Bronwyn Pech 12:05 pm 25 Apr 19

To borrow a well-used phrase: "It's time".

Gerard Dwyer Gerard Dwyer 11:40 am 25 Apr 19

Thankyou for sharing this important part of our history that seems to be ignored.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:51 am 25 Apr 19

I always understood that the aboriginal population of Australia before colonisation by the British was nomadic and tribal. There were vague territorial boundaries but by definition, nomads do not have “frontiers” so to suggest that there were wars fought along defined frontiers between the colonists and the aborigines really is, with respect, a fallacy.

I accept that there have been a few references to “frontiers” discovered by historians but to elevate these in status to conflicts such as occurred in the two world wars is fanciful and all it does is divide Australia and ensure that reconciliation (whatever that means now) never happens.

I acknowledge that there were skirmishes between aboriginals and settlers and sadly, in some instances, there were massacres. There were also genuine efforts made by the British governors to create harmony between the occupiers and the newcomers unlike some European powers whose forays into the new worlds bordered on genocide.

On a personal note, I am trying to forget the futility and horror of wars and we certainly don’t need another one to commemorate. Perhaps the supporters of the “frontier wars” claims could rise above the “us too” component and adopt the “forget wars” concept.

    astro2 astro2 5:40 pm 25 Apr 19

    Hi Capital, in the first paragraph of your post you refer to “vague territorial boundaries”, indicating that you are not aware of a complex territorial system which lasted for thousands of years. Just because you are not aware of something, doesn’t mean it is “vague”. In the second para you appear to be suggesting that whether or not a conflict is commemorated should depend on the number and extent of casualties. This would also exclude Vietnam, which had relatively few casualties compared with WW1. It isn’t a great metric to measure whether a conflict is worth commemorating is it? In the third para you refer to the conflict between the existing population and the invading forces as a “skirmish”. If you think about this, if your family was murdered in this conflict would you think about it as a “skirmish”? So perhaps a bit more examination of your preconceptions and thinking of the situation from a different perspective would be enlightening.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:38 am 27 Apr 19

    I was aware of the claims of a few about a “territorial system” – to suggest it was “complex” is simply ridiculous; vague fits much better.

    The reference I made to status was that the so-called frontier wars do not fit with conflicts Australians have taken part in as they occurred prior to Federation and there were no “Australians” before that date.

    I did mention massacres and families were indeed murdered in these.

    My perspectives are always based on common sense and fact and I respect your right to consider them alien to yours.

    astro2 astro2 6:37 pm 27 Apr 19

    The Boer War occurred before Federation as well and it has been commemorated on Anzac Day. A small contingent of Boer War veterans used to march. I think you’ll also find reference to the Crimean War which was way before Federation so Federation itself is not the defining factor in this matter, it is defending one’s land which places the Frontier Wars well within the scope of the remembrance. You will find also that people qualified in Aboriginal history and sociology acknowledge the complexity of their territorial system, languages, customs and totems. ‘Vague” it certainly isn’t if you have this knowledge.

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 10:06 am 25 Apr 19

We certainly must recognise the frontier wars. As they happened before Gallipoli people may struggle to place it into our narrative but it is there and we must recognise it.

David Jackson David Jackson 10:06 am 25 Apr 19

When did the riotact become political

Sorry but very bad taste

Our aboriginal communities get nearly 2 weeks of acknowledgement

    Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 10:08 am 25 Apr 19

    Seriously? You have no respect or understanding of the struggles Indigenous Australians have gone through since colonisation

    David Edwards David Edwards 6:12 pm 25 Apr 19

    Today is not the day for that discussion.

    Anissa Jones Anissa Jones 9:16 pm 25 Apr 19

    David Jackson every day is a day for that discussion. The Frontier Wars DID happen. Aboriginal soldiers returned home to be treated as second class in WW1 and WW2 when they weren’t “citizens”.

    Seán Burke Seán Burke 10:04 am 27 Apr 19

    David Jackson I’m afraid it’s your comments that have left a bad taste in my mouth.

Gogo Yubari Gogo Yubari 9:24 am 25 Apr 19

Thank you for sharing this, letting ANZAC day become a day of blind nationalism and celebration of colonial culture is a disservice to the young people sent to die for old men's agendas and is also incredibly insulting to the first inhabitants who fought just as bravely to save their land and their people from an invading force. It is supposed to be a day of solemn reflection and a reminder of the horror of war, not glorification and pageantry.

    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 12:14 pm 25 Apr 19

    It is NOT a celebration for God's sake! It's a commemoration for those who died in those world wars. Why is it people can't tell the difference between commemoration and celebration and it's NOT about old men's agenda's. You can blame Germany for starting both World War I and WW2. In both cases, tyranny and brutal destruction of one particular race would have been the outcome if countries had not banded together to stop it. Why don't you people do some proper reading on the subject of these wars before making politically influenced comments.

    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 12:16 pm 25 Apr 19


    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 12:17 pm 25 Apr 19

    Highly recommended reading above.

    Gogo Yubari Gogo Yubari 1:56 pm 25 Apr 19

    Julie Coker-Godson i suppose the fighter jet fly over is also just sombre reflection then? ANZAC day is currently a big military song and dance. You also didn't read my comment - it SHOULD be commemorating those lost and reflecting on WHY they were put in that situation in the first place. It should be a reminder to seek peace yet how many pointless wars are we currently involved in? We've learnt nothing and keep condemning young people to traumatic wars, and civilians of those countries to terror, because of old men's agendas.

Red Man Red Man 9:17 am 25 Apr 19

Crickey! Watch the racists come out now!

Megz Frohling Megz Frohling 9:11 am 25 Apr 19

Not the day for this discussion.

    Red Man Red Man 9:14 am 25 Apr 19

    Megz Frohling yes it is.

    Jan Skorich Jan Skorich 9:35 am 25 Apr 19

    Megz Frohling it is exactly the day for this discussion

    Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 10:04 am 25 Apr 19

    A day of remembrance about Australians in conflict. I think it is.

    Megz Frohling Megz Frohling 10:17 am 25 Apr 19

    Jan Skorich no it’s not - not even the Boer War is commemorated today as it’s a day for remembering those who served and died in war after the nation of Australia was created.

    Lauren Andrea Lauren Andrea 10:52 am 25 Apr 19

    The meaning of historical events can and does change. Anzac day expands to include every new conflict Australia is involved in for instance. There's no reason it couldn't extend back to other kinds of conflict.

    Tony Cook Tony Cook 11:13 am 25 Apr 19

    There's not a single day of the year you can bring this up without some white nationalist backlash.

    Peter McDonald Peter McDonald 11:38 am 25 Apr 19

    Megz Frohling the boer war not commemorated, because it’s too complicated and not glamorous enough for the media. But those who lost Great grandparents and uncles do remember and shame on you.

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