Even if we consider a figure of 100,000 [Aborigines killed by whites in the frontier wars] it dramatically changes the nature of the national narrative. Such a startling denouement cannot be easily assimilated into long-known plots. The figure is equal to all Australians who have died in all our much storied wars overseas. Truth-telling is now more important than ever. — Henry Reynolds
The Aboriginal elite who devised the Voice to Parliament insist there are two inherent concepts that must be fulfilled: treaty-making and truth-telling. Yet neither of these concepts has so far generated much public debate. Nonetheless, because they are part of the package the Parliament would have to accommodate if the Voice is written into our Constitution, they deserve to be taken seriously. I want to deal here with what is involved in the issue of truth-telling.
The term “truth telling” emerged in South Africa after that country abandoned apartheid in 1991. It described the series of public commissions and forums staged to denounce the sins of the previous white supremacist regime. In Australia, the most detailed account available of how something similar will happen here is in Henry Reynolds’s book Truth-Telling, published by the University of New South Wales Press in 2021. Its contents deserve to be better known if Australian electors are to be properly informed about what they are voting for at any referendum for the Voice. As the book declares on the cover blurb, its political ambitions are far reaching:
Truth-Telling shows exactly why our national war memorial must acknowledge the frontier wars, why we must change the date of our national day, and why treaties are important.
Reynolds’s book says that the most important war Australia has experienced took place over 140 years as the British invasion spread across the Australian frontiers from 1788 until the 1920s. He claims that Aborigines defended their land across the entire continent and their death toll of more than 100,000 warriors was greater than the total number of Australian soldiers killed in all the overseas wars in our subsequent history. We have long established the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to commemorate the latter who died defending their country but Reynolds complains we have done nothing to remember the Aborigines who did the same for their own country. According to him, the war against the Aborigines was by far the more important because it defined the nation more indelibly than the Anzac tradition ever could.
In making this case, Reynolds devotes chapters to discussions of the politicians and judges who brought about the Federation of Australia in 1901 and who, when discussed today, are identified among Australia’s “founding fathers”.
In Truth-Telling, Reynolds holds these men in contempt. He gives extended discussions of three of them who were premiers of their respective colonies in the 1880s and 1890s: Samuel Griffith of Queensland, John Downer of South Australia and John Forrest of Western Australia. Reynolds writes:
They were men to be reckoned with, at the forefront of Australian politics and jurisprudence for forty or fifty years. Their roles in the destruction of Aboriginal society over vast areas of the continent are rarely celebrated, commemorated or even discussed.
Claims like this are nothing new for Reynolds, who has made a fifty-year academic career out of condemning Australians for racism. Like most of those on the political Left today, his obsession has been given a new impetus by contemporary American radical politics, especially the Black Lives Matter movement.
Reynolds wants to see the reputation of the founding fathers he names destroyed, their public identity trashed, and any symbols of their works such as statues or public inscriptions torn down and thrown out. Reynolds reserves his lengthiest and most bitter condemnation for Samuel Griffith, who he claims should be remembered not as one of the principal authors of our Constitution and the first Chief Justice of Australia’s High Court, but as a man guilty of “crimes against humanity”.
Reynolds focuses on the role of Griffith (right) in Queensland politics in the twenty years before he moved into the judiciary. He was colonial attorney-general from 1874 to 1878 and premier from 1883 to 1888, and again from 1890 to 1893. This was the time, Reynolds says, when white settlers drove their sheep and cattle into the far corners of the colony. He describes the period as one of “perpetual conflict with Aboriginal bands defending their homelands”. Thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children were supposedly killed but Griffith approved it all. “Griffith knew exactly what was happening out there in the vast hinterland,” Reynolds says. “He did little to stop the killing.”
In Griffith’s years in parliament, Reynolds claims, there were numerous monthly patrols by Queensland’s Native Police, a heavily armed force whose official instructions were purportedly to disperse large gatherings of Aboriginal people by shooting them, and to respond to complaints from settlers by doing the same. Reynolds writes:
Griffith sat in and presided over cabinet meetings during his twelve years in office. Along with his ministerial colleagues, he was not only complicit in the killings, he was personally responsible for it. That is the inescapable fact about cabinet responsibility in the system of government inherited from the British. He may have had few contacts with Aboriginal people, had rarely travelled out into the vast hinterland, and may have had little to do with native police officers, but that is all beside the point … His ability in, and great grasp of the law, praised in numerous accounts of his career, makes him especially culpable.
Reynolds claims many Queenslanders at the time believed that it was both morally and legally permissible to kill Aboriginal people who resisted the spread of white settlement. He accuses Griffith himself of harbouring similar thoughts, even though as a man trained and steeped in the common law, and the drafter of the Queensland Criminal Code, Griffith should have recognized that the Aboriginal people had long had the legal status of British subjects. “If they were killed it was murder unless there were mitigating circumstances,” Reynolds writes. “No other interpretation was possible.”
During his time in office there were hundreds of extrajudicial killings. About this there can be no doubt. He was ultimately responsible and therefore guilty of what, after 1945, came to be known as crimes against humanity.
According to Reynolds, John Forrest (left) and John Downer were no better. As premier of the colony of Western Australia from 1890 to 1901, Forrest bestrode the new parliament during the violent suppression of the Aboriginal resistance in the Kimberley. His whole family was deeply involved in this as leaseholders, managers and financiers. Reynolds quotes only one source on Forrest, Chris Owen’s 2016 book Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905, which claims that by the mid 1890s the police were systematically eradicating Aboriginal people from the pastoral land and that the government was aware of what was happening.
Downer (right) purportedly did the same when he was attorney-general and premier of South Australia between 1881 and 1893, when the colony also governed what is now the Northern Territory. Reynolds quotes again from just one writer, Tony Roberts, author of the 2005 book Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900, who claimed there were dozens of massacres around the Gulf of Carpentaria between 1881 and 1887 when Downer was attorney-general. Reynolds says Downer was guilty of deliberately defying the law by ignoring Aboriginal rights in every one of the pastoral leases for the Gulf Country. Had Downer upheld the law, he says, things might have been quite different and hundreds of Aboriginal lives would have been saved.
So, how does Reynolds think we should respond today to what he calls “this blood-soaked history of pastoral expansion”? Most of his answer is directed at Samuel Griffith:
Should anything be done about Griffith? Or should we discreetly avert our eyes from the blood on the great man’s hands? The answer we come up with will be a key indicator of whether truth-telling will bring about change, whether it will lead to fundamental reassessment of reputations or merely to an accumulation of facts.
Reynolds provides a list of actions we should take today as part of truth-telling. For a start, he wants the Brisbane electorate of Griffith to be renamed. He points out the Australian Electoral Commission has already done this to other electorates, such as Batman and McMillan, whose namesakes were also accused of killing Aboriginal people. Reynolds wants Griffith to get the same treatment, even though this might arouse greater opposition from the white electorate since “it is much easier to take symbolic action against the foot soldiers than against the high command and knights of the realm”.
Reynolds also wants Griffith University to be renamed. He says precedents have been provided by prestigious universities in the United States who have removed names of colleges commemorating men with connections to the slave trade. Reynolds suggests students and staff at Griffith University could set the ball rolling by following the example of Princeton University in the United States, which recently dropped the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school and residential college. Reynolds said Brisbane students should organize “a mock trial to prosecute Griffith for crimes against humanity” while academics in the university’s School of Criminology should publicly interrogate his legal career.
Reynolds is confident these kinds of symbolic changes will happen once truth-telling is installed after a referendum for the Voice. His underlying ambition is not confined to the names of electorates or universities. They are symbols of his much bigger project to change the way Australians think about themselves and the society they inhabit. He wants Australians to feel just as ashamed of their own heritage as the residents of the American deep South now feel about the way their forbears tolerated the lynching of blacks after the American Civil War. Reynolds writes:
A close and contemporaneous American parallel with the frontier killing in Queensland was the widespread practice of lynching, which reached its most intense phase in the 1890s. It was clearly a matter of extrajudicial killing that was widely approved in the southern states, quite regardless of the formal legal situation. As in Queensland, the law was just ignored.
In other words, Reynolds’s truth-telling project in the wake of the Voice has serious cultural implications. It is not just a matter of being “gracious” towards our continent’s first inhabitants, as Prime Minister Albanese maintains. Nor is it a matter of changing a few names here and there or replacing a handful of historical symbols. It is a program to destroy the reputation of the founding fathers and that of the nation they created in 1901, and thereby overturn not just the accepted national narrative but the Australian culture, values and laws that have made us who were are.
Although Reynolds has persuaded several left-wing historians and members of the Aboriginal activist elite to provide promotional blurb for his book — “a political call to arms” (Mark McKenna); “exposes the denial at the heart of Australia’s foundation” (Tom Griffiths); “an important foundation for truth-telling and treaty-making (Mick Dodson) — some of them, surely, must be concerned about the contrast between how vast are Reynolds’s claims in this book and how deficient is the evidence to support them.
In The Other Side of the Frontier, the book that made him famous when published by Penguin Books in 1981, Reynolds claimed that 20,000 Aborigines had been killed in frontier warfare. Of these, he said, 8000 to 10,000 were killed in Queensland, largely by the colony’s Native Police. However, the only source Reynolds footnoted for these figures was an essay of his own titled “The Unrecorded Battlefields of Queensland”, published by his employer, James Cook University, in a little-read anthology he edited himself. When I found it, I was surprised to see it was not a record of how many blacks had been killed but of how many whites had been killed by blacks in Queensland in the nineteenth century. Reynolds counted white deaths at between 800 and 850 but added, only in a footnote at the very end of the piece:
Aboriginal fear and insecurity was, we must assume, infinitely greater than that of the settlers. Their death rate may have been ten times more than that of the Europeans.
This was the sole “evidence” he offered for his claim of a total of 10,000 Aboriginal deaths in Queensland.
In 2017, Reynolds’s former colleague at James Cook University, Noel Loos, published his own version of the frontier wars thesis with the telltale title, In the Shadow of Holocausts: Australia and the Third Reich. In it, he recounted the origin of Reynolds’s initial figure. In the early 1970s, he and Reynolds were writing a joint study of the number of white and Chinese settlers killed by Aborigines in Queensland between 1861 and 1897. Loos recalls:
“How many Aborigines were killed in the process of resistance to the invaders?” Reynolds asked. I assured him that it was impossible to give an accurate estimate but a conservative best guess would be at least ten times the number of colonists and their employees killed in frontier resistance. Then and now I thought my figure was very conservative. I had been tempted to say at least twenty times the number of colonists and their employees killed but timidly opted for the lower number. Reynolds accepted my estimate as also applicable to Southern Queensland. And so a best guess became “history”.
So, that’s how they do history at James Cook University. They make it up between themselves.
Moreover, in left-wing academic circles this invention was welcomed. It helped awaken the potential of Aboriginal history to tell a story of terrible oppression by the white ruling class and gave Australia a new category of victims. Reynolds’s figure was soon defended by a growing pool of lecturers and students as authoritative. This was despite the fact that Reynolds himself admitted there was a problem with getting evidence to prove his claims because the records of the Queensland Native Police had been largely destroyed in the 1930s.
Soon after this, however, an exhaustive study of native police operations in Victoria from 1837 to 1853 told a story precisely the opposite of what Reynolds claimed occurred in Queensland. Written by Marie Fels and titled Good Men and True, it was published in 1988 by the University of Melbourne. It was closely based on the abundant records of native police operations she found for her region. Fels concluded that the native police were largely responsible for the relative absence of conflict in Victoria. They had been a deterrent force against both sides of the racial divide and the low degree of trouble was the mark of their success. So, in Victoria, where the records survived, there was little killing, but in Queensland where the records were gone, the killing was rampant.
In Reynolds’s latest foray into statistics in Truth-Telling, he endorses an academic paper based on the “meticulous research” of Raymond Evans and Robert Ørsted-Jenkins of the University of Queensland. The paper, titled “I cannot say the numbers that were killed: Assessing Violent Conflict on the Queensland Frontier”, was given at a conference of the Australian Historical Society and published in the Social Science Research Network Electronic Journal in 2014. It is the principal source that Reynolds now offers for his figure of more than 100,000 deaths in Australia’s frontier wars.
The method of Evans and Ørsted-Jenkins was based on their unproven premise that every patrol by the Queensland native police was made in order to disperse Aboriginal bands who threatened white settlers. They claim the term “disperse” was always used as a euphemism for killing. They take a small quantity of surviving data of native police patrols, and treat that as a statistical sample of what they think must have been the total of number of patrols. Evans says that in his own sample, the average number of killings of Aborigines per patrol was two, but in Ørsted-Jenkins’s sample of patrols the average was 12.7. So the duo agreed to adopt the figure of 12 deaths per patrol. There is no surviving figure for the number of patrols the native police actually made in Queensland, but Evans and Ørsted-Jenkins claim they were probably made every month, and sometimes several times in a month. So they estimate there were 3420 patrols in the period from 1859 to 1897. Their conclusion is:
If we again pare that number back to 12 killed per patrol we arrive at the sobering total of 41,040 Aborigines killed during 3420 official frontier dispersals across almost forty years of conflict.
In other words, all the meticulous research that Reynolds attributes to their efforts is nothing but another version of the kind of guesswork he pioneered in 1981. The number of patrols is a guess, the number of killings per patrol is a guess, and so the total of 41,040 must be nothing more than a guess too. Moreover, they go on to add more guesswork about the number of Aborigines supposedly killed by white settlers themselves, without the help of the native police. This is a figure created by Ørsted-Jenkins, who claims he has compiled an archive of 644 “frontier collisions” in Queensland between 1824 and 1898, and from this he argues for a “tentative figure” of 20,640 Aboriginal deaths at private hands. (If you do the sums, this means each “collision” must have killed an amazing average of 32 Aborigines.) Evans and Ørsted-Jenkins also add to their pile another 3500 deaths which they claim took place in the 1850s, even though they provide no evidence of any kind that these did occur.
The result of all this statistical manipulation is a grand total of 66,680 — that is, 65,180 Aborigines plus 1500 whites — killed in the frontier wars in colonial Queensland. On this assessment, the ratio of Aborigines to whites killed in that period becomes 44 to 1. In other words, Evans and Ørsted-Jenkins think Reynolds and those who followed him after 1981 were being far too conservative in their 10 to 1 estimate of the same ratio. They add with emphasis that students of World War I will notice that “the figure is remarkably close to the Australian combat death rate of 62,300 in that war”.
Reynolds, himself, is only too happy to accept the new figure. Loos agrees, calling its authors “brilliantly convincing”. In Truth-Telling, Reynolds not only endorses it but, taking his cue from the reference to World War I, he adds his own guesstimate that another 40,000 Aborigines were killed by whites in states other than Queensland. This brings his total of frontier deaths to more than 100,000. As he has confidently repeated ever since, most recently in an appearance at the National Press Club last November, that figure eclipses the total number of Australian soldiers killed in all our overseas wars. Hence, the frontier wars become the biggest Australia has ever experienced.
Moreover, when he now speaks in public, Reynolds does not feel obliged to quote his new figure as an estimate or a statistical appraisal. He presents it to his audience as incontrovertible. Some of his followers, like Rachel Perkins in her SBS television series The Australian Wars, have already publicised it as an absolute truth.
In the mentality of today’s left-wing progressives, the frontier wars have become the most culturally significant definer of the Australian national character. They want the Anzacs who died in World War I to lose their position in the Australian narrative and the largely imaginary Aboriginal warriors who perished on the frontier to take their place.
The new chairman of the Australian War Memorial’s board, former Labor leader Kim Beazley, announced in December that frontier wars would feature in a new $550 million redevelopment of the building, which would include new galleries and places of contemplation. At the time, Beazley said that the building’s most sacred places, the Hall of Memory, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Pool of Reflection, would not be affected by the renovation. However, Reynolds and his followers have other plans. In particular, they want to place alongside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier killed in the trenches of France, a coffin for the Unknown Aboriginal Warrior killed on the frontiers of Australia. Both Reynolds and Rachel Perkins endorsed this demand at the National Press Club in November. Reynolds writes in his book:
From a national perspective, the War Memorial’s implicit disrespect for the warriors of the First Nations represents a case of profound moral failure … The placing of a tomb for the unknown warrior in the heart of the memorial next to the grave of the unknown soldier, would have been an event of immense national importance, a symbol of respect, inclusion and reconciliation.
While Beazley might not have a plan to do this just now, it is not hard to see how quickly he would change his mind once an Aboriginal Voice is embedded in our Constitution and its members call for him to comply with this demand.
As Reynolds and Perkins have also told their audiences, they have other ambitions in the pipeline. They not only aim to demean the reputations of the men who made Federation but also have plans to turn Australia Day on January 26 from a holiday to a funeral service. They demand recognition of frontier wars on all the many plaques, arches and obelisks in those smaller memorials that honour our soldiers in suburbs and country towns across Australia.
In other words, the Aboriginal elite are directly targeting those themes, signs and symbols that have traditionally expressed what it means to be an Australian. They want to redefine the psyche and soul of the nation. This is the real cultural issue at stake when Australians go to the polls to vote on the referendum for the Voice.