A Case Founded In Fiction

jan 2014 coverLast year, the historian Henry Reynolds introduced his latest book on Australian frontier conflict, Forgotten War, declaring his intention to depose the history of the landing at Anzac Cove in 1915 as the symbolic founding event of the Australian nation. In its place, he said we should substitute the history of frontier conflict between British colonists and Aborigines. He sneered at what he called “the ongoing carnival of military commemoration” in the histories supported by the Commonwealth Department of Veterans Affairs and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in the lead-up to the centenary of Anzac in 2015:

This book is my response to that partisan and discriminatory history. It is written in the belief that it will be unconscionable to indulge in a crescendo of commemoration and ignore the fundamental importance of the war between settlers and Indigenous nations within Australia. This is the forgotten war of conquest that saw the expropriation of the most productive land over vast continental distances, and the transfer of sovereignty from the Aborigines to the British government and its successor colonial administrations. This is the war that made the nation, not the fateful invasion of Turkey at the direction of the imperial government.

Some readers will find the title of Reynolds’s book puzzling: what forgotten war? Reynolds and his histories of Aboriginal warfare are anything but forgotten. He has been writing on the same topic for more than forty years. His first book on this subject, Aborigines and Settlers, appeared as long ago as 1972 and in the ensuing decades he published at least another ten books on the same theme, always to considerable acclaim and publicity. Thanks to the work of Reynolds and his academic followers, the national history curriculum now dictates that children in Year Nine of high school spend one quarter of their Australian history course on frontier warfare.

Moreover, the central political demand of Forgotten War is neither new nor forgotten. Since his book Fate of a Free People in 1995, Reynolds has campaigned in the national media against the Australian War Memorial for failing to honour Aboriginal guerrilla warriors. In recent years, he has been a prominent member of a group of Australian academic historians seeking to devalue the Anzac tradition. In the lead-up to the April 2015 centenary, they are using their university positions and public funding (especially their access to a sympathetic publisher, Kathy Bail, at the University of New South Wales Press) to openly campaign to replace the reputations of the young men who died at Gallipoli with what they call “the leaders of the Aboriginal resistance”.Disturbingly, as Mervyn Bendle demonstrates in the lead article to this edition, one of the institutions that appears to have recently opened a chink in its once-solid intellectual armour is the Australian War Memorial.

The cover illustration of Reynolds’s new book is a landscape painting by the nineteenth-century Australian artist William Charles Piguenit, Hawkes­bury River with Figures in Boat: On the Nepean (1881). The painting is of a location which, according to Reynolds, was the site of one of the forgotten wars which Australians should commemorate. His publisher’s cover designer has photoshopped Piguenit’s painting, colouring the shores of the river dark red to emphasise the alleged bloodshed.

According to Reynolds, in the early years of British settlement the Hawkesbury River district was the site of a bloody contest of momentous proportions in which the Aborigines sought to destroy the livelihood of the settlers and drive them from the land. Moreover, it was the archetype of the recurrent warfare that came to define the colonial frontier as it spread across Australia throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. “Aboriginal resistance to the intrusion of settlers into their country,” Reynolds writes, “was widespread and persistent. It was common to almost every part of Australia and continued for well over a century. It was one of the most enduring features of the nation’s history.” He claims:

It was a form of economic warfare aimed at both individuals and whole frontier communities … This pattern of systematic raids on the corn crop was first apparent on the Cumberland plain and along the Hawkesbury River in the early years of settlement. Massive Aboriginal raids on the ripened corn and reprisals from the increasingly desperate farmers and military detachments led to what historian of early Sydney Grace Karskens called the “maize wars”.

As the nineteenth century unfolded and the colonial frontier advanced up the east coast of the continent, Reynolds says the same pattern of “systematic raids” emerged. “Similar events unfolded,” he writes, “wherever small farmers took up land in the fertile river valleys that notched the east coast far into the wet tropics.” However, rather than a detailed chronicle of the wars in these river valleys, apart from the Hawkesbury he provides only four examples along the whole east coast—none of them in the first fifty years of British settlement and all of them in Queensland.

In other words, as far as frontier conflict on the eastern coast of the continent is concerned, the conflict in the Hawkesbury district in the 1790s and early 1800s bears the weight of responsibility for establishing his claim. If Reynolds is to avoid the charge that his small sample of incidents amounts to cherry-picking the evidence from more than one hundred years of history along this 3000-kilometre coastline, what happened on the Hawkesbury is essential to his case.

On the surface, Reynolds would appear to be on firm ground. There is a broad consensus among today’s academic historians that in very early colonial times the Aborigines waged war against the settlers by raiding their crops. The most ambitious account is by the military historian John Connor who claims that in their struggle against the British settlers on the Hawkesbury, the Aborigines actually invented a new and innovative military strategy. They discovered their most effective means of attack was to set fire to the settlers’ crops and kill their animals. Hence, Connor argues, their raids on farmhouses and farms should be recognised as “a new form of warfare: Australian frontier warfare”. “It was this conflict over land,” he claims, “which made the Hawkesbury-Nepean River the location of the first frontier war in Australia.”

However, in 2009 Jan Barkley-Jack produced a substantial study of nearly 500 pages on the early history of the district, titled Hawkesbury Settlement Revealed: A New Look at Australia’s Third Mainland Settlement 1793–1802. The relations between Hawkesbury colonists and Aborigines in this period was only one part of her overall investigation, but her findings nonetheless derive from the most thorough search of the available evidence yet undertaken. She examines transcripts of court cases and other contemporary documents which few academic historians, who largely recycle each others’ footnotes to the more familiar primary sources, have seen. Barkley-Jack repudiates the prevailing consensus, especially the interpretation of John Connor:

The burning of settler property can hardly be seen as a mainstream weapon of the Aborigines at the Hawkesbury … on the evidence, there appears little support for Connor’s statements that there was a full frontier war at Hawkesbury from early 1795 to 1802.

So when Reynolds in 2013 used the Hawkesbury as the archetypal site of the recurrent warfare that defined the colonial frontier, the traditional protocols of academic history bound him to at least acknowledge the existence of this previous work and, preferably, to give his reasons for coming to a different conclusion. Unfortunately, he did neither. Rather than debate Barkley-Jack’s conclusions and thereby alert his readers to the existence of an alternative view of the so-called Hawkesbury wars, he pretended her work did not exist. He gave her the airbrush. Hence his campaign to replace Gallipoli with frontier conflict as the war that made the nation is founded in deceit.

My own view is that there was no encounter between whites and blacks anywhere on the Australian frontier that could accurately be described as warfare. There was nothing even remotely resembling, for instance, the genuine colonial warfare between British settlers and the Maoris in New Zealand.

I am far from alone in this and am arguing a case originally made in the 1950s and 1960s by the anthropologist Bill Stanner and in 1970 by the historian Charles Rowley. Instead, the process of first contact right across the continent was one of Aborigines “coming in” to white society in order to gain a more reliable and recurrent supply of food than available in the sparse and arduous world of nomadic hunting and gathering. White society was a powerful magnet and many Aborigines vied with one another to join it. To make this case in some detail, however, I need to finish a book of my own on the subject which, hopefully, will be published in time to take its place in the discussions about our past during the Anzac Centenary in April 2015.

Leave a Reply