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Frontier thinking

Books | Two new books about frontier conflict bring fresh evidence that Aboriginal communities waged well-planned warfare on the settlers

Henry Reynolds 27 April 2020 1537 words

The earliest known photo of Aboriginal people in New England, taken in the early 1860s. Reproduced from New England from Old Photographs, by Lionel Gilbert (1980).

The Battle of One Tree Hill
By Ray Kerkhove and Frank Uhr | Boolarong Press | $34.99 | 284 pages

Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse
By Callum Clayton-Dixon | Anaiwan Language Revival Program | $30 | 176 pages

These are important books. They are published locally and, even in normal times, might not attract much attention. But both of them guide us towards new interpretations of frontier conflict.

Ray Kerkhove and Frank Uhr write about Southeast Queensland in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Callum Clayton-Dixon studies the New England Tableland over a longer period, reaching forward from the first incursion of settlers into the 1860s. Both books are the product of thorough research using published works, archival records and official publications. Both list more than thirty newspapers in their bibliographies, many of them obscure local publications. Both are written with the assurance of researchers who have mastered their chosen topic. The three authors know their period and they know their chosen locale.

Clayton-Dixon was born to an Australian family living in New Zealand in 1994. His family returned to Australia twenty years ago and made contact with family members in Armidale. Callum moved there permanently in 2015 and researched and wrote the master’s thesis that became the basis of this book, guided all the while by the hope that his writing would help empower his community by providing a resource for education and consciousness-raising. He had been inspired by a speech delivered by Wayne Wharton in 2013 in which the veteran Queensland activist had emphasised the importance of “telling the stories of our warriors.” Wharton declared that the colonisers had deliberately manufactured the idea that the country wasn’t defended by its Indigenous peoples.

As Clayton-Dixon unearthed details of the resistance of the local nations to the invading Europeans he shared his discoveries with his uncle. A printout of an article from the Sydney Gazette of 1841 was especially important, and the old man read it with a big grin on his face “full of immense pride.” They were his people, his warrior ancestors, and they certainly fought hard to defend their kin and country.

The bulk of Surviving New England is taken up with a wealth of evidence drawn from contemporary documents about the intense resistance to the ever-increasing numbers of the squatters, their largely convict servants and their vast flocks of sheep and cattle. Resistance fighters typically operated in small bands, taking advantage of favourable terrain and using hit-and-run tactics. With thousands of livestock seized and destroyed, many labourers killed and wounded, and stations ransacked of supplies, the pastoralists suffered significant losses.

Clayton-Dixon tabulates forty-one incidents of frontier conflict that occurred across the southern half of New England between January 1838 and May 1865 — dates much later than might be expected. By then, with close to 10,000 colonists living in the region’s towns, villages and more than 150 pastoral stations, the traditional owners were overwhelmingly outnumbered.

As Clayton-Dixon’s subtitle makes clear, his central theme is Aboriginal resistance and resilience during that forty-year period. His final words pay tribute to his ancestors’ “staunch resistance” and “unyielding determination to survive.” “It is because of them that we stand here today as a distinct people, with great pride in our identity, cherishing our continued connection to ancestral lands. Because of them, the sacred fire still burns.”

The Battle of One Tree Hill is the perfect companion volume to Surviving New England. The occupation of New England foreshadowed the rapid incursion onto the Darling Downs in 1840 and 1841 and the subsequent descent into the Lockyer and Brisbane valleys. The conflict documented by Clayton-Dixon intensified as the squatters moved north, foreshadowing the violent history of frontier Queensland.

Kerkhove and Uhr bring to their task an exhaustive knowledge of the written record, the country in question and the oral traditions of the local Aborigines. “We may not have the story entirely correct, but we have cross-examined most known and available pieces of evidence,” they write. “We have consulted every living historian who has previously written on this topic, and spoken with many representatives from the Indigenous families of the region.”

The striking feature of their story is the vigour and the initial success of the resistance, culminating in the conflict on and around One Tree Hill. The subsequent guerilla war, which persisted throughout the 1840s, resulted in the deaths of fifty-six Europeans and often crippling losses of stock and other possessions.

Here we have examples of what we now know was typical conflict during the expansion of colonial settlement for more than a hundred years. But what is new is the decisive conviction that it was warfare and that it must be treated with the gravity we reserve for battles and campaigns conducted overseas.

Kerkhove in particular has spent years documenting how the Aboriginal nations of southern Queensland conducted their campaigns and developed tactics to counter their enemies. He credits them with strategic intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience, pushing against what he sees as an overwhelming assumption that Aboriginal resistance was parochial, half-hearted and devoid of long-term planning. The usual image, he has explained, was a handful of warriors pitifully tossing some spears — a hopeless prelude to wholesale massacre. The clear implication was that Aboriginal nations were incapable of collaborating or of mounting effective, inventive, planned resistance.

Kerkhove’s views would be broadly accepted by the present generation of historians who have been rewriting the story of the frontier. But if war it was, then many changes follow, and they will influence not only how we talk about frontier conflict but also how we conceptualise it. National history itself will have to move in sympathy.

Up until now, Aborigines have typically been seen as victims and consequently either pitied or disregarded. Several generations of historians left them out of the national story as people of no consequence. W.K. Hancock, our most distinguished historian of the first half of the twentieth century, delivered a typically harsh judgement in his classic general history published in 1930, describing their response to British invasion as “pathetically helpless.” Contemporary history points peremptorily in the opposite direction.

These authors’ documentation of First Nations’ resistance establishes beyond doubt that the warriors stood their ground against overwhelming odds with resolve and courage. They were by any measure patriots and heroes who died fighting for country, kin and custom. By explaining why they fought, but more significantly how they fought, the writers put themselves among the fresh phalanx of historians opening up a new front in Australia’s military history.

The most important general conclusion that presses upon us is that it was Aboriginal resistance in its many manifestations that determined the nature of the fighting, where it erupted and how long it persisted. Settler violence was a response to that resistance. The common emphasis on the brutality of the frontiersmen and their racial animus might be understandable, but it leaves out the determining character of Indigenous initiative. If the settlers had been able to secure their prize without facing almost universal and armed opposition they would have done so peaceably, avoiding the cost, burden, fear and anxiety of guerilla warfare.

The matter of massacres is much with us at the moment. And while scholarly efforts to document them are laudable, there remains the question of whether the term is apposite in a time of war. Mass killing of the kind in question normally occurred during periods of enhanced conflict. Aboriginal bands in such circumstances cannot be considered as unarmed civilians. Warriors were always armed, ready to hunt or fight, carrying their spears with them all the time. Their tactics were not to confront groups of settlers but to stalk individuals in isolated places and kill them, often with extreme brutality.

The problem that faced the settlers was that they had great difficulty in finding their enemies in the bush. In the early colonial period, frontiersmen and soldiers were on foot and could rarely “come up” with the Aborigines, except when they attacked them around their campfires at night. The imperial tactics used to punish and harass native people were not available in Australia. There were no villages to destroy, no crops to burn, no domestic animals to kill or disperse, no wells to poison.

And then there is the question of genocide, a term widely used to describe frontier conflict. Given the known fate of many small Aboriginal nations it is an understandable usage, but it runs headlong into the competing discourse about warfare. Any examination of the evolution of the genocide convention suggests that what we are dealing with in Australia must be one or the other. One of the critical distinctions that emerged as UN committees developed the convention was that even mass killing in a time of war did not constitute genocide because the intention was to crush an enemy’s resistance not destroy them as a people.

Kirkhove, Uhr and Clayton-Dixon have provided us with valuable studies of frontier conflict at a particular time in an area overlapping the Queensland–New South Wales border. They have been able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the resistance by Aboriginal people was well planned, persistent and carried through with courage and determination. What ultimately defeated them was the ever-increasing number of the British invaders. It is clearly time to move beyond the idea that the Aborigines were victims whose fate was simply to suffer and to die. We must see them more with admiration than pity, and above all with respect. •

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