Not mentioned in despatches

David Hansen

Henry Reynolds Forgotten War, Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2013 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78174223-392-5 (paperback) RRP $29.99.

‘Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight’.

(Paul Keating)

In December 1992, the year following the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, at an event inaugurating the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech in Redfern Park, Sydney, in that suburb so long and well established as the city’s Aboriginal ghetto. Now generally known simply as ‘The Redfern Speech’, it was one of speechwriter Don Watson’s finest pieces of rhetorical craftsmanship, and its delivery one of the luminous moments of Keating’s Prime Ministership (Keating 1992). Twenty years on, many Australians would still be familiar (if only from regular television replays) with the speech’s central confession, made on behalf of ‘we non-Aboriginal Australians’:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases and the alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.

Supporting and stiffening its muscular polemic of recognition, regret and hope for reconciliation was the speech’s straight political spine, expressed in the simple but powerful line: ‘There is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth’. However, there is one historical truth that has been a long time in the recognition: the dreadful truth about 150 years of more or less continuous if asymmetric warfare between black and white on the Australian frontier.

It was a war that began with the 1788 kidnapping of the Wangal men Bennelong and Colebee, and the retaliatory spearing of Arthur Phillip by the Gadigal elder Willemering. It became official in 1816, when another colonial governor, Lachlan Macquarie, sent three detachments of soldiers to the interior to punish the Aborigines for their ‘sanguinary Outrages and Barbarities’, and later in Van Diemen’s Land when George Arthur declared martial law in the settled districts in 1828. It raged across New South Wales, Victoria and what was soon to become Queensland in the 1830s and 1840s, as unregulated, unconstrained squatters and their hard-footed herds usurped the natives’ rich, firestick-farmed grasslands.

In the second half of the 19th century, remnant resisting Aborigines suffered a quadruple whammy. The gold rushes of the early 1850s led to a tripling of the European population, and consequent further rapid expansion of the limits of settlement. British devolution of political authority to colonial governments in the second half of that decade meant an end to official humanitarianism, to the moral and legal restraints previously imposed by Westminster. The publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 appeared to give scientific sanction to an already widespread belief in the inherent superiority of the white man and in the degradation and inevitable extinction of the world’s ‘primitive races’. And in the late 1860s the introduction of breech loading Snider-Enfield and Martini-Henry rifles gave the invaders a technological advantage that finally superseded the Aborigines’ guerrilla strengths of stealth, speed of attack and intimate knowledge of country.

In the second half of the 19th century, Aborigines suffered a quadruple whammy.

But still the skirmishing along the frontier’s ‘line of blood’ (Fison & Howitt 1880, p. 182) stuttered on in the more remote areas of North Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, continuing well into the 20th century, the war’s last gasp being the killing of dozens of Warlpiri, Anmatyere and Kaytetye Aboriginals in 1928, in that series of punitive raids collectively known as The Coniston Massacre.

Throughout the 19th century this conflict had common discursive currency, in official documents, in the colonial press and in varieties of private correspondence. But from the time of Federation in 1901, Aborigines in general and the war in particular began to be excluded from public consciousness, and the history of the frontier retold as a struggle with the land itself and with the natural elements, with Dorothea McKellar’s ‘sunburnt country’ and its ‘droughts and flooding rains’. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, academic, general and school classroom histories barely mentioned Indigenous Australians, let alone the well-established mechanisms of their displacement and destruction.

It was not until the 1970s—in the era of decolonisation and self-determination around the globe and of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and locally in the wake of the 1967 referendum on the constitutional status of Indigenous Australians—that Aboriginal studies broke out of its ethnographic ghetto and began to receive broader and more extensive attention both within the universities and in public. Notable among the early revisionists were anthropologist Bill Stanner, whose ABC Boyer Lectures for 1968 condemned what he called ‘the Great Australian Silence … a culture of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’, and political scientist Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Outcasts in White Australia and The Remote Aborigines (1970, 1971a, 1971b) in many ways inaugurated modern Aboriginal history. Rowley’s pioneering work inspired a generation of younger scholars to interrogate the colonial archive for its various and voluminous evidence of the nature of Indigenous-settler relations.

One of the first of these specialist (non-Aboriginal) Aboriginal historians was Henry Reynolds, whose personal origins in the reputedly ‘genocidal’ island state of Tasmania and whose later professional employment in redneck tropical North Queensland allowed him to understand both the contemporary and longer-term impacts of early colonial warfare. Professor Reynolds again demonstrates the extent and the subtlety of his understanding in his latest publication, Forgotten War. In many ways the book is not new. In its attention to the hidden, forgotten or mislaid stories of Aboriginal-settler conflict it reprises much of Reynolds’ earlier work—The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), The Law of the Land (1987), This Whispering in Our Hearts (1998) and Why Weren’t We Told? (1999)—while incorporating the recent research of other scholars such as Bain Attwood (2005), Tony Roberts (2005) and Robert Foster and Amanda Nettelbeck (2012). In its address to the ‘Anzac Legend’, and more generally to the creeping militarisation of Australian history, Forgotten War also builds on Reynolds’ recent collaboration with Marilyn Lake, What’s Wrong With Anzac? (2010).

One of Reynolds’ gifts as an historian is his evident humanity.

What is new is the contiguity, the conjunction of these two key themes in Australian history and historiography. The grim narrative of frontier killing in Forgotten War is in some ways just another piece of the so-called ‘black armband’ scholarship that was so derided by Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007) and the ‘history warriors’ of the Australian political right, most notably Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002). But Reynolds here compounds his previous heresy. Not only does he question the meaning and value of the young Commonwealth’s ‘blooding’ in World War I—the sacrifice of 60,000 young Australians to British, Russian and French imperial interests, subsequently dressed up as some kind of national initiation rite—but he dares the equation of Anzac Cove with Waterloo Creek, of the Somme with Goulbolba Hill.

One of Reynolds’ gifts as an historian is his evident humanity, expressed both through his selected themes and assembled arguments and in the very personal tone and texture of his prose. The new book is no exception. It evinces genuine bafflement and anxiety. As the Australian nation begins to crank up a vast machine of official Great War and particularly Anzac centenary commemoration, Reynolds here issues a quiet challenge to the military-ideological construction of nationhood. Specifically, he points to the creation of the national ideal almost entirely offshore, in various corners of foreign fields, in what have been largely optional imperial and alliance engagements. With his characteristic mix of politeness and passion, Reynolds asks how it can be appropriate to define national identity through military action while at the same time ignoring the Black War, the Frontier Wars, the War of Settlement. (Tellingly, the conflict is so commonly disregarded that there is not even a single name for it in common usage.) This was a war which was actually fought on local soil, in all parts of the continent and across an extended period, a war fought over the fundamental issues of land and sovereignty, a war in which some 30,000 or more were killed (most of them on the Aboriginal side), a war which did have lasting impact on national identity and social attitudes.

Reynolds illustrates the logical inconsistency by a neat reference to the chauvinistic brouhaha surrounding the 1885 New South Wales volunteer expedition to the Sudan, a spectacular waste of time and money which resulted only in some execrable patriotic verse, in three men receiving minor wounds, and half a dozen dying of dysentery in Africa and on the way home. However, in contemporary opinion, that of the Premier of Victoria no less, the adventure ‘precipitated Australia … from a geographical expression into a nation’. This Ruritanian hyperbolic absurdity persists in the Australian War Memorial’s commemoration of the campaign. Reynolds notes (p. 224):

In the Hall of Memory the word ‘Sudan’ appears high on the wall, the first name in a large-lettered frieze of Australia’s significant locations of contest and sacrifice. Of even greater import is that the names of the men who succumbed to disease in Sudan, Sri Lanka and Sydney appear as the very first on the great roll of national honour. They are remembered for all time in Australia’s pantheon. They did not take part in combat. It’s unlikely they even fired a shot in anger … The campaign achieved nothing.

Aborigines who fought against the British between 1788 and 1928 have no formal recognition.

Meanwhile, on the home front, in the four months the Australian contingent was overseas, thirteen settlers were killed in North Queensland. In the same time frame, the 30-odd regular patrols of the Queensland Native Police would have conducted the by-then expected murderous reprisals. If we apply historian Ray Evans’ recent statistical analysis (2007), in which each Native Police patrol averaged 2.6 armed collisions, and if we allow Evans’ (conservative) estimate of two casualties for each ‘dispersal’ incident, we get a figure of some 150 Aboriginal deaths. And that was just North Queensland. Elsewhere during this period at least seventeen Aborigines were killed by troopers on Glen Helen Station in the Northern Territory, while on the Western Australian coast local reports declared that ‘war was raging’ (p. 226). But there is not a word of this at the Australian War Memorial, and not a single name.

In August this year, the Memorial unveiled three new bronze panels on its Roll of Honour, commemorating the 48 service personnel who have died while serving on United Nations peace-keeping missions. Their names had previously been omitted from the roll, because their deaths had been during ‘non-warlike operations’. It was only in response to a campaign organised by the soldiers’ families, and a petition bearing over 40,000 signatures, that Memorial policy was changed and the peace warriors finally saluted. It is true that in recent years, as the reconciliation mood has become established in the population at large, Aboriginal soldiers who fought in Australia’s overseas wars have received often long-overdue official public tribute and commemoration. But those who fought against the British between 1788 and 1928, many of whom who died defending themselves, their families and their country against an invading alien force, still have no such formal recognition, other than in the work of Henry Reynolds and his colleagues.

So bearing in mind the successful campaign of the peace-keepers’ families, with the national thirst for reconciliation unabated, with over 600,000 Australians identifying as Aboriginal in the last census, and with the message sticks of new technology and social media available even in the most remote communities, another petition to the Australian War Memorial might be in order. Or perhaps we just need to send them this book.


Attwood, B. 2005, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Evans, R. 2007, A History of Queensland, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Fison, L. & Howitt, A. 1880, Kamilaroi and Kurnai: Group-Marriage and Relationship, and Marriage by Elopement; Drawn Chiefly from the Usage of Australian Aborigines; Also the Kurnai Tribe, Their Customs in Peace and War, George Robertson, Melbourne.

Foster, R. & Nettelbeck, A. 2012, Out of the Silence: The History and Memory of Australia’s Frontier Wars, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Keating, P. & Watson, D. 2009, ‘The Redfern Speech’ (10 December 1992), in Great Australian Speeches: Landmark Speeches that Defined and Shaped Our Nation, ed. P. Robson, Pier 9, Sydney.

Lake, M. & Reynolds, H., with McKenna, M. & Damousi, J. 2010, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarization of Australian History, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Reynolds, H. 1982, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne.

Reynolds, H. 1987, The Law of the Land, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Reynolds, H. 1998, This Whispering in Our Hearts, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Reynolds, H. 1999, Why Weren’t We Told? A Personal Search for the Truth about Our History, Viking, Melbourne.

Roberts, T. 2005, Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.

Rowley, C.D. 1970, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society: Aboriginal Policy and Practice, vol. 1, Australian National University Press, Canberra.

Rowley, C.D. 1971a, Outcasts in White Australia: Aboriginal Policy and Practice, vol. 2, Australian National University Press, Canberra.

Rowley, C.D. 1971b, The Remote Aborigines: Aboriginal Policy and Practice, vol. 3, Australian National University Press, Canberra.

Stanner, W.E.H. 1969, After the Dreaming: Black and White Australians – An Anthropologist’s View, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney.

Windschuttle, K. 2002, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847, Macleay Press, Sydney.

David Hansen is Senior Researcher at Sotheby’s Australia. A former public gallery director and curator, he has written extensively on the representation of Aborigines in colonial art; his Seeing Truganini won the Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate in the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.