140 Years of Warfare
In his essay 'The struggle for Australia' Richard Broome describes the decades of warfare in which Aborigines - region by region - strove to maintain their authority over their land.
'On the early frontiers the Europeans often tried peaceful approaches, which was only wise as they were initially outnumbered, but on later frontiers many settlers resorted more readily to violence. The Aborigines responded variously to invasion: avoidance and distant observation; fear and flight; defence of their land and families; a bewildered greeting of the Europeans as relatives returned from the dead; or attempts to establish reciprocal relations in the traditional manner. Groups often displayed several of these reactions in sequence. Others benefited from advance wisdom about the Europeans received through the intertribal network. The uneasy peace generally collapsed as bargains were broken and misunderstandings proliferated because of the immense racial, cultural and linguistic gulf between the two peoples. Moreover, once the Aborigines discovered that the intruders were not sojourners but invaders bent on conquest, they generally attempted to drive them away. 'Thus the violence on both sides, which was often a first revenge for specific wrongs, developed into a more generalised fighting for the land.'
The cycle of invasion, resistance and physical surrender was first acted out in the Sydney region. 'By 1820 most tribes around Sydney were in tatters from disease, malnutrition and warfare. They had no option but to come in to the settlements and try new ways of confronting the invaders.' Tasmania was next. Though the colonists declared limited martial law in 1828, they continued to suffer casualties (50 dead from 1828 to 1830). Total martial law was declared in 1830 and over 200 men formed an armed cordon across the island, finally rounding up the few remaining Aborigines and exiling them to Bass Strait. In Western Australia, colonisation from 1829 met resistance and a price was put on the head of one warrior, Yagan. 'By 1850 twenty-five Europeans and over one hundred Aborigines had died in clashes' in the Swan River region. Meanwhile, land-seekers were pushing out from Sydney into the hinterlands of New South Wales and what was to become Queensland (after 1859), occasioning many clashes over grazing land as far north as the Darling Downs and Maryborough by the 1850s. In Victoria as well, there was struggle, though in that region the Aborigines seem to have targeted the settlers' property more than the settlers themselves. The effect of such tactics could be devastating. One Victorian settler found one hundred of his ewes with their legs dislocated in 1844. Another lamented in 1853: 'I have lost my capital. I have lost my health. I have lost fifteen years of the best period of my life.' Colonial society was embittered, fearful and dismayed by Indigenous militancy. When the Ngarrindjerri massacred and mutilated 25 shipwrecked Europeans, they were described by one official as 'a nation at enmity with her Majesty's subjects.'
From the middle of the nineteenth century, improvements in gun design increased the colonists' military advantage over Aborigines (few of whom ever used guns in combat). When the slain Europeans included women and children - as in the incidents at Hornet Bank (1857) and Cullinlaringoe (1861), both in Queensland - the desire for revenge against 'savages' ran hot. By the time the frontier had reached North Queensland and the Kimberley, in the 1880s, fearful and righteous whites saw massacres as a prudent necessity. The last known Australian massacre was in the country of the Warlpiri and Anmatyerre in 1929. On that occasion, police and settlers conducted a punitive raid (a white settler had been slain) whose true toll was likely to have been far above the admitted 31. Though an inquiry found the action justified, this verdict was intensely controversial'.
Broome estimates - he warns us not to take his figures as more than educated guesses - that the death toll from the 140 years Australian war (1788-1928) was about 2,000 colonists and 20,000 Indigenous Australians. Remarkably, this horrendous conflict did not form part of the published narrative of Australian history for about a century - roughly the 1870s to the 1980s. Yet its impact on nineteenth century government thinking is an important part of the story of land rights. One important concession to Indigenous interests - the pastoral lease allowing Aborigines rights of continued hunting and gathering - was arguably prompted by officials' wishes to regulate land-takers who had shown their propensity to violent acts.
Keywords: colonial warfare, war, warriors, 1770-1930
Broome, R 1988, 'The struggle for Australia: Aboriginal-European warfare, 1770-1930' in M McKernan and M Browne (eds) 'Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace', Canberra: Australian War Memorial/Allen and Unwin, pp 92-120, quotes from pp 93,95,97, 119,104.
Source: Broome, R