Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas, but there are no official commemorations of the battles fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists. Delving into why it is more controversial to talk about the frontier war now than it was 100 years ago, Forgotten War continues the story told in Henry Reynolds’ seminal book The Other Side of the Frontier, which argues that the settlement of Australia had a high level of violence and conflict that people chose to ignore. That book prompted a flowering of research and fieldwork that Reynolds draws on here to give a thorough and systematic account of what caused the frontier wars, how many people died, and whether the colonists themselves saw frontier conflict as a form of warfare. This powerful book makes it clear that there can be no reconciliation in Australia without acknowledging the wars fought on its own soil.
Henry Reynolds is currently an ARC Senior Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania at Launceston. He was for many years at James Cook University in Townsville. He is the author of many well-known books including The Other Side of the Frontier, Law of the Land, Fate of a Free People and Why Weren’t We Told?
It struck a chord when the reviewer of this book for Melbourne’s ‘The Age’ newspaper, Raymond Evans, cited that the main street of a Queensland provincial town was derived from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘plenty dead’, being close to a site of frontier violence where the First Australians came off second best. It reminded me of how incensed I was when I discovered, through reading James Boyce’s fine history ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, that the main street of another provincial town, one in which I had lived in and taught for a while, was named after an official of a large colonial agricultural concern. It was revealed that this fellow had callously murdered an Aboriginal woman on a Circular Head beach, but of course a subsequent investigation exonerated him of any wrong doing. At least there was an investigation! I now realise that perhaps the Sunshine State’s Bundaberg and my own island’s Wynyard would only be two of a number of many former frontier communities with similar provenances for the nomenclature of suburbs and streets.
In another unrelated column in the same former broadsheet, the always readable columnist Stephen Wright recounted the tale of the brief but vicious Eumeralla War in the lava lands of Victoria’s south-west. Here native clans, led by warriors with the anglicized names of Jupiter and Cocknose, put up stout resistance before being quickly wiped out by a force of the colony’s mounted police in 1844. Of course Tasmania’s own earlier Black War is well documented. This conflict and other factors decimated the original inhabitants. Along with the ‘convict stain’, our country’s frontier struggles have been neatly pushed under the carpet of our history for a very long time. The former now seems to be a badge of honour. The turmoil on the fringes of advancing white settlement, in contrast, although well recognised for much of this nation’s first century, disappeared from sight in the second. Reynolds has been largely instrumental in pulling this story of imperial war back into the nation’s consciousness, for all, in the third. Reynolds first came to my attention as one of the talking heads in the illuminating SBS series ‘First Australians’ – and he does indeed have a very fine head for television. His manner and mode of speech carries with it a certain gravitas indicating one would be foolish to doubt his views. He was equally impressive in the launch of ‘Forgotten War’ at a Hobart bookshop recently.
Looking back, when we tally the figures provided by notoriously unreliable contemporary sources for the amount of death and mayhem caused in the frontier war, the approximate number of twenty to thirty thousand casualties make these times the equivalent of the Indian Wars of Wild West notoriety. It seems that Australia did not miss out on a conflict in which an imperial power, with superior armaments, defeated and subjugated an indigenous people. The question Reynolds ponders is whether or not the combatants of the time actually regarded what was happening as ‘war’. Reynolds leaves us with little doubt that, from the colonial administration down, they did. He enlists much historical notation to prove his point. This was no quick victory though. In many areas the locals did not put away their spears and waddies easily; organising opposition to the invaders that lasted right through till the 1930’s, only twenty years before I entered the world. That is a sobering thought. No state or territory was spared. There has been a ‘great Australian silence’ on the matter, but now the ‘whispering in our hearts’ has been frog marched out into the open. We finally have made a start on putting these matters to right, but I doubt that in my lifetime names such as Pemulwuy, Mosquito and Jandamarra will be as venerated as those of Monash, Morshead and Blamey.
Australia is an unusual country in that it takes as ‘its coming of age’ a military defeat on a far away foreign shore, as well as its national day being the moment the country was invaded, leading to another defeat; that of our native peoples. In my view, neither event is something we should be inordinately proud of – but if one is seared into our collective consciousness, it is only right and proper that so should the other. Henry Reynolds is doing his bit to ensure that happens.
I read Anzac’s Long Shadow earlier in the year and found it to be a critical and refreshing look at aspects of Australia’s military history and the detrimental or skewing effect that our martial myths have on both our soldiers and the collective consciousness and culture of the Australian people.
Forgotten War is similarly a book that looks at our forgotten war(s) (the only ones fought on Australian soil for control of it) and our cultural amnesia in relation to it. If I can crudely sum up an Australian’s sense of history it might go something like this. Captain cook landed, settler’s and convicts arrived, there was isolated problems with the indigenous population but on the whole Australia is a peaceful nation of beer drinking sportsmen and women, that’s never known war on its own soil.
Forgotten War outlines succinctly and accurately that colonisation was not a largely peaceful process and that for a good 140 odd years settlers fought a series of conflicts for control of the continent and Australia’s aboriginal inhabitants resisted, forcefully and with some early successes until numbers, technology and the bushcraft of the colonisers improved.
White Australia has a problem with its acceptance of this history. It’s a curious situation. I can understand the racist impetus to obliterate the Aboriginal side of this history. What could be worse than defeat? Why, enforcing the view that you never really fought to defend your land anyway. In doing so, however, we bury the history of white settlement and of white settlers, neglect the harsh realities they had to face, the conflict they fought.
This situation is as ridiculous as suppressing the reality of the Indian Wars in American history.
Reynolds has produced very accessible text, you needn’t be a history nut to enjoy this. Indeed it helps open up that era of colonial settlement, and give it some balance. You’ll understand why settlers living on the frontier walked to the wash house or barn fully armed and in twos. Not because they harboured some unrealistic notion of the danger posed by Aboriginal warriors but because they had first hand experience of an ongoing conflict and a skilled and fast moving enemy.
Reynolds opens with an overview and lays out several points for consideration. At what point did the narrative change from frontier war into something else? Can we call it a war? What kind of war was it? What were the costs of conflict in property, livestock and human lives (at 6000 settlers and 30,000+ Aboriginal dead it’s our countries third largest loss of life due to conflict). Was a genocide carried out?
This book should get you thinking about why (when military historians regard the resistance as a conflict) we don’t honour the settlers nor the early aboriginal warriors in our military myth through the War Memorial, why we don’t teach the history of early conflict when it’s there in black and white print from the pages of almost any colonial newspaper. The only answer I can come up with is that it doesn’t fit some very deep seated and erroneous concepts of self, Australians have.
This book caused me to reflect upon my country’s singular reverence for its war dead. Our Cult of Remembrance outstrips even religion in terms of what is sacrosanct. Australians will rarely allow Diggers to be slighted, or the rose filtered view of our ANZAC soldiers to be questioned. Suggest that perhaps we should move on, tone down the focus and you’d be tarred and feathered.
Yet I could find any number of folks who would not bat an eyelid at suggesting that Aboriginal people should forget the past – forget a conflict of 140 years, the deaths and the associated social and cultural costs.
This is a book every Australian should read if they want to be honest with themselves about the beginnings of our recorded history.
Read Reynold's 'Other side of the Frontier' instead. Other than some discussion of new studies by other scholars, there is little that is new in this book. Instead, there is a notable and - to my mind somewhat disconcerting - shift from discussing the frontier as a genuine war (with back and forth, faults and suffering on both sides) to a more legalistic and ethical mindset that downplays the agency and choices of the aboriginal resistance.
Reynold has little understanding of the concept of war. He is right to call the Australian frontier a war, but then tries to demonstrate this with body counts or discussions of massacres. At one point he, tantalisingly, cribs from the many good military historians who have discussed Australia's frontier wars, and cites a 'very short introduction to Clausewitz', beginning to highlight the significance of political objectives - rather than the means - as core to defining war and its impact - such as the conflict's significance for discussions of sovereignty. Yet this is soon dropped for a return to a legal and ethical framework of heroes and baddies that I did not find when recently reading his older work.
This is a bit of a strange book. It cribs the best of his work on 'Other Side of the Frontier' (1981), and jams it alongside the worst of his rants about Australian foreign policy, where he trots out tired and contradictory arguments about Australian dependence on our great and power friends. A subject which grows through Forgotten War (2013) and became its own stand alone book in 2016 titled 'Unnecessary Wars' (my review coming).
The shift in language about the Frontier from 'Other Side' to 'Forgotten War' seems indicative of a larger cultural shift. We have far more scholarship today that helps show why the Australian frontier really should be understood as a war, yet as a society seem even further than ever from having a solid grounding in understanding war itself. As such, we are at risk of finally accepting that our land was founded in war, yet not able to understand what that means. An honourable few military historians have tried to bridge this gap, and while many more on my side of the fence need to, I'd argue the bigger problem is that many who focus primarily on Australia's early history need to learn more about war if they are to invoke its powerful framework.
There is a violence in Australia’s history that few are prepared to acknowledge, argues Henry Reynolds. The nation that venerates the Anzac for his war heroism also fails to recognise the Aboriginal Australians who perished fighting for their traditional homelands.
In Forgotten War, Reynolds discusses the numerous conflicts that took place on the continent between the 1790s and 1920s. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 30 000 people died on the Australian frontier – 90% of whom were Indigenous. From the systematic annihilation of the Tasmanian Aborigines under Governor George Arthur, to the customary killing of ‘native pests’ by pastoral frontiersmen, Reynolds argues that Australia is a nation founded on violent and bloody warfare, and that these events – and the people involved in them – should no longer remain officially ignored.
Reynolds has written Forgotten War with a remarkably straightforward and erudite pen. He has remained scrutinisingly close to the sources he cites, and in doing so, he has produced a book that is accessible for both the history buff and the novice alike.
This book was hugely helpful. Reading it was an emotional rollercoaster. I was angry, frustrated, sad. I mourned the loss of those people whose land this was, I was sickened by what white Australians did. I finally felt like I had a tiny insight into the real history of Australia, into what was done. I have no idea how we could ever even begin to fix it.
In this book, Reynolds talks about not only the numbers of people killed in the war for Australia, but also of the nature of that war; the skirmishes, the use of the Native Mounted Police, the discourse around the war and how it was 'forgotten' by modern Australia. It's as though this was a dirty secret we wished to sweep under the rug in the hopes that it wouldn't dirty the shiny imagery of our strong settler ancestors.
I recommend every Australian read this to gain a better understanding of our history, in the hopes that this knowledge will allow us to think of ways to move forward together and create a better future.
Argumentative and defensive. That works if you want to immerse yourself in Australian history or more recent politics, but it is less useful if you want to spend time on what happened rather than on how to categorize or commemorate it.
Excellent last chapter is the kicker. Although I read it drunk so who knows really. If you want an overview of the colonial period then this is as good a place to start as any. Also incorporates some more recent issues such as the Mabo case and the political battle over remembrance.
This book is a consolidation of all Henry Reynolds' studies and books about the frontier war between European settlers and aboriginal people in Australia, starting in late 1700s until the 1920s.
Key things I learnt from this book:
* This war of conquest saw the expropriation of the most productive land over vast continental distances, and the transfer of sovereignty from first nations people to the British government and its successor colonial administrations
* The normal and legal way of proceeding with an invasion at the end of the 18th century was to negotiate with the indigenous people to purchase a site for a settlement and then to gain access to more land by treaty and purchases
* The above was not the case in Australia. The country was treated as if there aboriginal people were not in occupation of the land nor exercising sovereignty over their territories. Thus, the country's land and sovereignty was claimed by the British Crown without any negotiation with first nations people
* The above had an massive impact on how settlement unfolded in Australia. There was no need from settlers to negotiate, learn from or communicate with aboriginal people in order to get more land. This resulted in unjustified violence and death against first nations people
* Violence underpinned the whole colonial project
* Aboriginals normal way of life made them difficult adversaries. They lived off the land and their deep knowledge of the country helped them attack (settlers and their resoirces) and hide out effectively (at least initially) from European settlers
* Eventually, settlers learnt how to track down aboriginal people. For example, they searched for smoke from open fires at night
* The first settler governments proved to be more violent against aboriginal people than the British
* Despite that the killing of aboriginal people by settlers does not fit with the definition of genocide (their intention was mainly to take the land, not to exterminate aboriginal people as a whole), the aftermath of the frontier war resulted in more than 20.000 aboriginals deaths
* Despite Australia's deep tradition to commemorate Australian lives lost in foreign wars, there is no official recognition of those who died lost their lives in the frontier war nor the war itself
* The frontier war was the war that shaped the nation, not the fateful invasion of Turkey at the direction of the imperial government.
As an Aboriginal Studies teacher, and someone who is passionate about understanding Blak history, I really enjoyed this book. By enjoyed I mean, the writing style allowed me to delve into this book, I found quotes that I could use in the classroom and I continued to learn more about how Australia’s history has impacted on today. Like apparently the Australian War Memorial commemorates the most minuscule of Australian war events…but doesn’t even mention the Frontier Violence experienced at a larger scale? I also like the comparisons of Indigenous Americans, Māori People and First Nations conflict with Europeans as it reflects the impact of each group. All in all, an amazing book.
A really interesting analysis of the conflict that occurred on the frontier. I have settled on 3/5 however as the structure was very frustrating to the point where it did a disservice to the content. The book is dense with facts, which I'm not opposed to, but I felt like Reynolds could have benefited from a harsher edit that focused on communicating those facts in a way that was more cohesive. The clearest example of this is in the 2nd to last chapter. The first few pages of that chapter seem entirely useless to the core of the argument being made at the end of the chapter and the bulk of that information could have been removed or communicated earlier on in the book when describing the details of the conflicts. The strongest chapter, in my opinion, was the last where Reynolds plainly lays out his argument. The novel oscillates between being a bare facts history book and one that actually makes an argument and this chapter was the latter, it had personality and was persuasive. I am very inspired to read more about the frontier and the way in which these conflicts were minimised throughout history.
An interesting book about the Australian frontier violence that had occurred between 1788 and the 1930s though you never know it could be going on for much longer. It is fully referenced and has many sources used within the book, which I find commendable. It is interesting to see what was happening in Australia though people are more likely to conveniently forget that many Aboriginals were shot in Australia than in other wars that Australia was involved in.
There was no treaty like in New Zealand just wholesale slaughter when cattle were speared and other deeds covered up like when the native mounted police were moving bands of Aboriginals on, which in other words were shooting them. No one knows the exact number of Aboriginal people who were shot when pastoralists, miners and squatters moved into the area. There is still more to the story we as Australians should learn instead of thinking it is still only white history like the bogan elite think it is.
Every person who lives on this part of land should read this. A fact driven unromanticised account and analysis of the interactions of early "settlement". He gives power back to the strive to consciously retain land and process of life that was totally corrupted, abused, and blatantly inherently and with racist intent both ambivalently and proactively deconstructed. Anyone who thinks Australia Day is a time of pride should probably take a realistic deep breath and delve into the spiteful, deceitful and laughably arrogant world of British colonialism. Wrongs to be righted.
A very worthwhile read. Tries to make a difficult thesis concerning Australia's lack of recognition of its "war" of conquest against strong resistance by the Indigenous population. Yes, I agree it was a "war."
A masterful work that has helped crystallise my thinking on notions of war, conquest, sovereignty and genocide. Although I don't agree with all of Reynolds' conclusions in this and other works, Forgotten War is a must read for anyone passionate about Australian history.
This book has some interesting information but far too often, with a very thinly veiled attempt, follows the politically correct view point that white people are to blame for everything. The language used by Henry is very anti colonist in many places in this book.
The general narrative that had been propagated by the British has now seeped deeply into the Australian narrative that the British colonizers just showed up in Australia and everything fell into order as the land was empty, or sparsely populated, or the Aboriginals didn’t put up any resistance. However, this was not the case as Henry Reynolds challenges this narrative and proves in this book that the colonizers faced resistance nearly about everywhere and the Aboriginals gave them a tough time. These battles/skirmishes were clubbed under the term Frontier Wars which are largely forgotten as the Aboriginals fought to preserve their sovereignty and the British were bent on taking it from them. As part of the truth-telling, this war and the sacrifices of the Aboriginals must be acknowledged and honored as they died defending their lands along with the War Memorial in Canberra and other cities of Australia.
It took me a while to get fully into this as it took a while to fully understand the history of denying the frontier wars in 20th century Australia. However, once you get a clearer understanding this makes an interesting and powerful read.
Am important piece of scholarship about Australia’s history. It dispels many myths and highlights the significance of frontier conflict and warfare on Australian history, the politics of truth and nation-making.
Forgotten War picks up where The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European invasion of Australia left & argues that the Frontier Wars should be commemorated with the same regards as the wars and military engagements fought by Australia's military.
This book is a passionate plea for the recognition of the many Aborigines who died defending their ancestral lands in Australia. The writer is, however, an experienced historian and he goes about the task with a dispassionate objectivity and attention to the sources. In his first chapter, “A distressing moment”, he describes a particular instance of conflict in Van Diemen’s Land in September 1831, and gives some illuminating quotes from the Launceston Advertiser of the time: Are these unhappy creatures the subjects of our king, in a state of rebellion? Or are they an injured people, whom we have invaded and with whom we are at war? Are they within the reach of our laws; or are they to be judged by the law of nations? Are they to be viewed in the light of murderers, or as prisoners of war? (page 11) Reynolds is a professorial fellow at the University of Tasmania, and he has been researching and writing about the frontier conflict in Australia for over forty years. He was one of the chief protagonists of the “history wars” at the beginning of this century, and was accused by Keith Windschuttle of fabricating his evidence. I will not go into this controversy in a short book review; suffice to say that the charge was amply rebutted at the time. Reynolds states that there was no reluctance during the nineteenth century to talk about a war with the Aborigines and he gives many examples from newspapers and letters of the time. They were fighting against the settlers whom they considered as invaders of their land. The ‘forgotten war’ is a frontier war, mostly in the form of guerrilla war, which began almost from the time of the first settlement in 1788, extended over most of the continent during the succeeding century, and did not end until the late 1920s in the Northern Territory. He surveys general histories of the first two thirds of the twentieth century to show that the historical forgetfulness began then, fostering a myth that the settlement of the land was basically peaceful, and the Aborigines simply gave way or died out. He discusses the questions whether the frontier conflicts were really warfare and what kind of warfare they were. In a chapter on the cost of warfare, he does not try to produce a figure for the number of deaths during this time, for a number of reasons: We are uncertain of the size of the Indigenous population when settlement began. We have no idea how many people died in the smallpox epidemic that swept across south-eastern Australia in advance of settlement. We are unsure what the population was in particular regions when the tide of settlement arrived. We are even unsure of the number of Indigenous people alive after localised conflict came to an end. There appears to be no official estimates of those killed in conflicts anywhere in Australia (page 122). He argues that there was never any deliberate policy by a colonial government to exterminate the whole race, so the word “genocide” is not appropriate (pages148-157). He also highlights the fact that what was at stake was the ownership and use of the land. Both sides of the colonial conflict understood this clearly. One serious omission in this book is any analysis of the role of the missions in this frontier conflict. In his discussion of the opening up of the Northern Territory by the South Australian Government, he notes that a Native Police force was set up on the Queensland model in 1885. This was officered by Constables Willshire and Wurmbrand, who proceeded to carry out many punitive expeditions in the area surrounding Alice Springs in subsequent years (pages 208-209). There is no mention of the Hermannsburg Mission, set up in 1877, which became a safe haven for Aboriginals fleeing such murderous attacks. Here is Constable Willshire’s own statement: "And as to those natives that frequent mission stations and come into contact with religion, they are the worst miscreants under the sun. They leave the mission stations to commit their diabolical murders and thefts, and go back to the missionaries quick so as to take off anything that may appear like guilt. They often, unknown to the missionaries, use the station as a place of refuge." It is widely acknowledged by the Aranda people themselves that they would not have survived as a community without the mission. To return to the subject of the ‘forgotten war’. Reynolds speaks of the “extraordinary” and “anomalous” situation that Aborigines who fought and died for the empire on the other side of the world are remembered and recognised, but those who fought against the empire and died defending their homelands are forgotten (pages 46, 234). His conclusion is that “Lest we forget” has been replaced with “Best forget the conquest”. Reynolds sees the most important question which needs to be resolved, as what position the Indigenous people occupy in modern Australia (page 235). As long as we ignore the history of dispossession and subsequent frontier conflict, we are excluding them from the nation. A full national reconciliation will involve a recognition of the Aboriginal dead who fell defending their homelands.
The Black Line operation comprised of a mixed bag of convicts and soldiers in a 120 mile long daisy chain attempting to herd the local aboriginals onto a peninsula.
Any competent army officer will tell you that it would be impossible to retain command and control of such an operation even today, with radios and GPS. Inevitably chaos ensued.
Reynolds has clearly never commanded troops or devised or executed policy. He comes from a self selecting group of lofty academics who take delight in biting the hand that feeds them; the Australian Tax Payer.
What is needed is a fair and honest analysis of indigenous policy in the 1800's not this amateurish drivel.
Henry Reynolds provides a thought provoking argument on the frontier wars between the Australian aboriginals and the British settlers/soldiers. His argument of the deaths of at least 20,000 aboriginals and 2,000 whites should be recognised for what it was - a war, albeit a guerrilla engagement between two unequalled opponents. The cruelty of the whites showed no bounds and the ability of the establishment to support them remains a stain on Australia's history. I am glad I read this very important work.