Thu. May 23rd, 2024

What were the Australian Wars and why is history not acknowledged?

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May11,2024
Key Points
  • The Australian Wars could only be acknowledged after the proclamation of ‘Terra Nullius’ was legally challenged and overturned.
  • The Australian wars were fought throughout the continent, from the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, and until the mid-1930s.
  • Colonial records and archaeological evidence uncovered by teams of experts demonstrate the horrific scale of the conflict.
CONTENT WARNING: This article and podcast episode contain references to violence that could distress some people. 
When on the shores of what is now known as Australia, he declared this vast land as ‘Terra Nullius’, nobody’s land. However, the island continent was home to hundreds of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and clans — hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples that were instantly deemed as ‘subjects’ of the British Crown.
This became the trigger for the , the brutal conflicts between the Indigenous peoples and the settlers that marked the foundation of Australia. A history that is only starting to be recognised now.
is an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman with European heritage. She produced “The Australian Wars”, a documentary series that details the nature of the struggle of Indigenous peoples defending their lands from British settlers.

These were the wars that were fought in Australia, and they were the wars that really made the modern Australian state.

Rachel Perkins, Filmmaker.

were fought throughout the continent, from the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, and until the mid-1930s, but these conflicts were not taught in school or even acknowledged as war until the late 20th century.
is one of Australia’s most respected historians and an expert in warfare. When he started teaching history in 1966, there were almost no references to Aboriginal people in history books.
“It only mentioned the Aborigines twice, merely in passing, and there wasn’t even an entry in the index”, he says.

Watch the trailer for The Australian Wars:

Prof Reynolds says that this was partly because the Frontier Wars were not perceived in the mid-20th Century as full-scale warfare, as the conflict was akin to guerrilla war.
“The view was that it was too small and scattered to be considered having the gravity of warfare. There were no uniforms, no marching soldiers… Never really was a case of large formations and battles in the classical sense, but nonetheless, it clearly was a form of warfare.”
, another expert in the Australian Frontier Wars, agrees. He says this misconception is a result of the first and second world wars, which changed the way in which warfare was perceived.
However, these types of large-scale wars are unusual in the history of humankind.
“They knew it as a war back then. All the colonial documents referred to as warfare, but in the 20th and 21st century, we have lost sight of that. And I think there are also some underlying political reasons why many people can’t identify it as a war,” Dr Clements explains.
Those political reasons stem back to a legal contradiction between the proclamation of ‘Terra Nullius’ and British law. Aboriginal people had been declared subjects of the Crown, thus, the Empire could not “officially declare war… to do so would mean that they were declaring war on their own citizens,” Rachel Perkins says.

“However, the British used military force to ensure that their occupation of the continent was successful,” she adds.

Frontier War

Frontier conflicts took place across the nation. Source: Supplied / Australian War Memorial Source: Supplied

Mabo and the overturning of ‘Terra Nullius’

The Australian Wars could only be acknowledged after the proclamation of ‘Terra Nullius’ was legally challenged and overturned, in the early 1990s, in what is known as the landmark Mabo decision.
“Up until this time, the view had been that the Aborigines did not own the land, so therefore the fighting couldn’t be about the control of land because they didn’t have any legal title to land. After 1992 and that judgement, the nature of the war had to change because clearly it was about the sort of issues which war has always been about: control over territory,” Prof Reynolds says.
Dr Clements says the failure of the British Empire to recognise Indigenous ownership of land in Australia is a historical anomaly.
“At the very Heart of the British colonisation of Australia was a flawed premise. Unlike all the other countries the British colonised, they did not acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous owners here in Australia. Because of that, there were no treaties, there was no attempt to negotiate with the local peoples and to this day we struggle from the legal standpoint to understand what their rights are for the land.”
And that failure to negotiate led to brutal bloodshed.
Colonial records and archaeological evidence uncovered by teams of experts demonstrate the horrific scale of the conflict.
alone holds more than 400 remains of Aboriginal ancestors in their repository, many showing evidence of death by executions, decapitations, and massacres.

Rachel Perkins says the descendants of those who survived will always remember.

A lot of Aboriginal people have been the vessels for carrying with history. Aboriginal people have handed down the stories of what happened to them, to us, in our families. So, I grew up knowing about the massacre of my people in Queensland and I knew about the violent rape of my great grandmother, etc.

Rachel Perkins, Filmmaker.

Rachel Perkins - The Australian Wars

Rachel Perkins – The Australian Wars Credit: Dylan River/Blackfella Films

The Black War

was the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history.
“During the Black Wars more Tasmanians were killed than the number of Tasmanians that died in Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and peacekeeping missions combined,” Rachel Perkins says in the Australian Wars series.
Dr Nicholas Clements says the level of violence from both sides was so intense, colonial authorities and settlers were “petrified”.

“Aboriginal resistance was striking. Everybody knew somebody in the colonial world who had been killed or wounded by Aboriginal people, who that had their farms burnt down. It was absolutely terrifying,” he says.

In fact, serious people were contemplating having to abandon the colony.

Dr Nicholas Clements, Australian Historian.

But the Europeans prevailed, and almost annihilated Indigenous Tasmanians.
The conflict intensified due to sexual violence.
“The trigger for the violence, the match that lit the spark, was sexual violence,” Dr Clements adds.
The systemic rape and abduction of Aboriginal women was so common, that he attributes the survival of some Aboriginal clans to sexual assault.

“It’s only by a hair’s breadth that we even have Aboriginal descendants in Tasmania today, because they were almost completely wiped out, largely by violence,” Dr Clements says.

What is Native Title explainer NITV Eddie Koiki Mabo

Eddie Mabo with his legal team. Source: SBS Credit: National Museum of Australia

Fighting fire with fire

To crush the Aboriginal resistance in many parts of Australia, colonialists created the Native Police, a trained paramilitary force used to instil terror.
“You recruited native soldiers, and you used them as a military force. This was undoubtedly the major force in breaking down Aboriginal resistance,” Professor Reynolds says.
The men were given uniforms, guns, and horses. Dr Clements believes they were manipulated by white officers, who used them for their traditional Aboriginal knowledge and bush skills.

“The toll taken by the native police in Queensland alone was in the tens of thousands. Estimates go as high as 60 to 80.000, I believe, which is absolutely staggering, and it casts a moral cloud over this whole nasty business,” he says.

Australian Aboriginal camp in the nineteenth century

A nineteenth century engraving of an aboriginal camp – Marmocchi Source: Getty Source: Getty

Rachel Perkins had to confront all this history during the making of the Australian Wars documentary series.

“I found a recording that had been made by my grandmother talking about her mother’s family being massacred, that I had never heard before, and I had never been to the place where it happened, and I had never really found out where it happened until I made the documentary series,” she says.
Dr Clements, whose predecessors were settlers, believes that all Australians need to overcome feelings of shame and shed light on past injustices.

“Whether someone’s ancestors were involved or not, we are all the inheritors of Aboriginal land, which was stolen land. At a minimum, we all have a role to play in unveiling this history, coming to terms with this history and playing a role in a positive future.”

Nowhere was resistance to white colonisers greater than from Tasmanian Aboriginal people, but within a generation only a few had survived the Black War.

Nowhere was resistance to white colonisers greater than from Tasmanian Aboriginal people, but within a generation only a few had survived the Black War. Source: The Conversation / Robert Dowling/National Gallery of Victoria via The Conversation Source: The Conversation / Robert Dowling/National Gallery of Victoria via The Conversation

Why isn’t this history commemorated?

Professor Reynolds believes Australia, a nation that honours its fallen soldiers in its many war memorials, needs to openly recognise the fact that the Frontier Wars happened and were riddled with criminal acts against humanity.
“How is it that we can’t come to terms with the Australian wars?” he questions.
“This is not the case in the United States, they recognise all the conflict with [Native Americans] officially as wars. It’s clearly not the case in New Zealand, the Maori wars have always been a very important part of history.”
Rachel Perkins says the reason for this anomaly is simple.

“Australia is one of the unique places in the world where the colonials didn’t leave,” she says.

The colonists or the settlers that came with them have remained in power, so I think that makes it a bit more difficult for the nation to acknowledge or celebrate those that defended the country because the colonial occupying force hasn’t left!

Rachel Perkins, Filmmaker.

Dr Clements believes that ‘lest we forget’, the phrase commonly used to honour Australian fallen soldiers, should be extended to those warriors who fought against the British occupation of their lands.
“I would feel so much prouder if my country acknowledged with courage its own past, the wrongs of its predecessors, and fully committed to righting those wrongs to the best of its ability in the future … I want my children to go up where, in the landscape, whether it’s with memorials or whether it’s with dual naming, Aboriginality is there, it’s present, it’s acknowledged.”
is available to stream on SBS On Demand in five languages: Simplified Chinese, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. The series is also available with audio descriptions/subtitles for blind or vision-impaired audiences.

This content was first published in September 2022.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “What were the Australian Wars and why is history not acknowledged?”
  1. Who is currently working on bringing awareness to the Australian Wars and their impact on Indigenous peoples?

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