‘Truth Telling’ and Aboriginal Tribal Warfare


The Uluru Statement from the heart which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently endorsed in full, has a plethora of legal, racial and practical problems. More specifically, it argues a voice to parliament will be a part of the pursuit for historical ‘truth telling’, which includes the frontier wars and various massacres committed by European settlers. However, the statement remains silent on anything that does not support this one-sided view of Australia’s past.

One such incident is the silence on Aboriginal tribal warfare prior to and during European Settlement. Historian Geoffrey Blainey in The Story of Australia’s People, (Which won the prime ministers literary award in 2016) remarks, 

The new and very large Cambridge History of Australia … rightly denounces the massacres of Aborigines in the sheep lands but ignores the massacres of Aborigines by neighbouring Aborigines in the near and distant past.

One particular chapter in Blainey’s book, the Duel and Battle, argues that the evidence for frequent and lethal fighting is ‘almost overwhelming’. In fact, the average death toll between Aboriginal tribes was so high Blainey believes it rivalled the most violent warfare in European periods:

Such comparisons reveal that the annual death rate through warfare in that corner of Arnhem Land was nearly six times as high as that of the United States during an average year of its participation in the Second World War. Even the direct drain on Japan’s population through the loss of fighting men in China, the Pacific and all other theatres of war between 1937 and 1945 was not quite as high, statistically, as warfare’s drain on the population of Arnhem Land. In the Second World War, only the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Germany suffered losses of higher relative magnitude.

A key source was Edward Stone Parker , a Methodist lay preacher who was sent to Port Phillip from London to serve as one of four assistant protector of Aborigines. He embraced the role with gusto and much sympathy, studying Aboriginal languages and their traditional way of life. He famously remarked ‘On the whole their way of life was a satisfying one, and could have been almost idyllic – but for their frequent fighting and the persistent fear of revenge.’ Parker goes onto quote a well-informed Aboriginal man who argued that before the British arrived ‘the country was strewed with bones, and were always at war.’ Indeed ‘whole tribes have been exterminated by sudden attacks on nocturnal surprises.’ While Parker strongly denounced the conflict between settlers and Aborigines, he identified that the wars between tribes were more destructive. 

The fighting was both brutal and constant. The British settler with the most experience in observing traditional warfare was William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with a friendly aboriginal group. After two women in Buckley’s group were killed, an ambush soon followed which saw several women wounded and later beaten to death. Their limbs were removed by sharp stone axes and shells. As Tim Flannery writes in his introduction to The Life and Adventures of William Buckley:

Buckley records fourteen conflicts involving the violent death of a tribe member over the thirty-two years that he lived with the Wallarranga. Nine of the causalities were women, seven children and seven men. Ten enemies (two of whom were children) were killed in revenge. Buckley also documents the massacre of a tribe near Barwon Heads, the remnants of whom joined his group. The average size of an Aboriginal tribe was between twenty and sixty families, so the recorded death rate through violence is high indeed. Buckley cites just two principal causes for the conflict: disputes over women, and ‘payback killings’ following a death by natural causes.

As Flannery is not raving about the weather, he can be taken seriously for a change: Significantly, he goes on to write:

Just why these bloody disputes were such a feature of the Aboriginal society that Buckley documents is unclear. Some writers have speculated that Aboriginal people had already come under stress and suffered disruption from European influence, but there is little evidence in Buckley’s narratives for this.

Another supporter of the Aboriginal people who encountered inter-tribal violence was William Thomas who documented a devastating massacre in 1834 near modern day Melbourne. So significant was the loss of life that the historian Marie Fels, who immersed herself in the Thomas manuscripts, at first believed the stated death toll of 77 was a handwriting error!

There are even incidents of invasion and groups pushing out traditional holders of territory. For example, the Goonyandi people were evicted from their traditional lands in today’s Western Australia by their neighbouring tribe, the Walmadjari.  In the words of Blainey, ‘the loss of territory must have been a frequent event.’

In 1875, the Southern Arrente in Central Australia were almost entirely wiped out by the Matuntara people. Between 50 and 80 assailants ambushed a group of women and children. The death toll, estimated at between 80 and 100, included women and children, many of whom were left to die after their limbs were broken.  Murdering women and children was a standard tactic to nullify the chances of the tribe rebuilding and seeking revenge. Genocide, in other words.

Without the goodwill of the protectors of Aboriginal people and early convict escapees, the massacres of tribal groups by other tribal groups would not have been documented. A state of violent conflict worse than the European theatre of war speaks to the complexity of Australia’s history and the danger of appending to colonisation a basket of unique violence specific to one cultural group. 

This goes to show the fraudulent dangers of national repentance and reparations. Who will pay the Southern Arrentes’ descendants for their loss? Will the Matuantara people be called upon to ‘pay the rent’ for the land they took from the Southern Arrente? Should the government insist there is an inherited debt of guilt to be apportioned for crippling women and children and leaving them to die? Will the perpetrators’ descendants be called upon to apologise in an admission of public guilt? It is hard to see anyone holding to that position. As Douglas Murray points out in his recent book, The War on the West

In recent years, the critics of the West have marked themselves out through a set of extraordinary claims. Their technique is a pattern. It is to zoom in on Western behaviour, remove it from its context of the time, set aside any non-Western parallels, and then exaggerate what the West actually did.

A similar thing is happening in Australia right now. If activists want to think seriously about putting the responsibility of past injustices upon modern descendants, the current demand for repentance and reparations must be expanded beyond ‘white guilt’ to acknowledge the massacres of Aborigines by other Aborigines.  ‘Truth telling’, if it is to mean anything, should not be politicised.

11 thoughts on “‘Truth Telling’ and Aboriginal Tribal Warfare

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Blainey is right. Beginning at least 40,000 years ago, and likely as early as 110,000 years ago, Australia arguably saw at least three pre-1788 waves of Aboriginal invasions. These were by the Tasmanians, theen the Murrayans and finally the Carpentarians, and with not a trace of ‘Treaty’ at any stage. Each wave of invaders would have established populations in equilibrium with the prevailing climate, available resources, predator populations and other ecological factors well before the next wave arrived and altered things.
    The first Aboriginal wave was probably the ancestors of the Tasmanian Aborigines, and/or possibly of the Australian Pygmies. The next was probably the Murrayans, and the last in were the Carpentarians.
    Note that there was probably war and conflict between the successive groups. Conservation of their distinct ethnicities until the Europeans arrived testifies to the lack of interbreeding between those ethnicities. Aborigines carried spears and nulla nullas for hunting game, but also narrow wooden shields, which have only one use: defence against incoming spears; and also formidable warriors’ spears, barbed against movement both forward and back once a victim was struck.
    Pre-1788 Australia was thus arguably no Garden of Eden.
    See also https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/history-wars/2002/06/the-extinction-of-the-australian-pygmies/

  • Peter OBrien says:

    The University of Newcastle Massacre Map website states that between November 1843 and June 1844, settlers massacred 70 Aborigines at Tambo Crossing in eastern Victoria. The original source for this is attributed to Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson who travelled through that area in 1844. In fact Robinson reported a massacre of one Aboriginal tribe by another, based on evidence he took from a member of the attacking tribe. Yet by virtue of some very dubious logic, ‘historian’ Peter Gardner was able to turn this into a massacre by settlers. You can read all about this in Chapter Six of my book Bitter Harvest. Still a handful of copies left I believe.

  • rosross says:

    I have no issue with recording and investigating massacres but it must be all of them, including Aboriginal on Aboriginal and Aboriginal on Europeans. Otherwise it is racist hypocrisy.

  • DougD says:

    “Otherwise it is racist hypocrisy.” No, rosross, it’s “truth telling” in the meaning that term is fast coming to bear in this stupid country.

  • john.singer says:

    If you believe in the Racial Discrimination Act then you must require that the Truth-Telling is the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth. At the moment you are discriminating against the majority of your citizens who are not part of the Aboriginal race.

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    rosross is correct – and if some of those massacres are just “stories my Nanna told me” , so be it. Either the whole story is told, or none of it.

  • whitelaughter says:

    As my aboriginal ancestors roamed across what is now New Parliament House, this could get interesting…

  • brandee says:

    The “Red Chief” by Ion L Idriess recounts the folk history of the aboriginal tribal chief in the Gunnedah region of NW NSW. Interesting how the young warrior captures his two wives, with restrained violence, and brings them back to his tribe where there was a scarcity of available young females because the elders had reserved them for themselves.
    Much of the story however is about the execution of the carefully planned ambush by the Red Chief that resulted in the night-time spearing and elimination of a large number of a competing tribe.
    The story is a good collaboration of the Luke Powell thesis on tribal violence and massacres.

  • petroalbion says:

    While working in Fiji I was told that one reason why Fijians celebrate Prince Charles’ birthday, was because the arrival of the British put an end to the rampant and unpredictable internecine fighting that bedevilled their lives. This meant that every night Fijian families would go to bed in fear that they could all be dead before dawn. Payback being one of the causes for the attacks. And they were sure that the end result without the British, could have been similar to what happened on Easter Island.

  • colin.white18 says:

    Does it matter who did what to whom 200 or 500 years ago? I think not, what is happening today and planning for tomorrow are far more important; deal with these issues instead of claims for compensation.

  • Farnswort says:

    A good piece. Thanks, Mr Powell.

    In the aforementioned “The Story of Australia’s People: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia”, Geoffrey Blainey also makes the observation that “the present Aboriginal generation might well be living now in a time of peace which their ancestors, century after century, did not experience.” British settlement actually imposed a lasting peace on a continent that had been beset by brutal tribal warfare. Blainey acknowledges that such a statement will be disputed by some present-day Indigenous people but in his view “the evidence of some of the most ruthless battles is not yet public knowledge.”

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