Australian Frontier Wars: Interview with Prof. Henry Reynolds


The Australian Frontier Wars were fought from 1788 to the 1920s between Indigenous Australians and an invading coalition of white settlers, militia, police, and colonial soldiers. Estimates of the total death toll range between 20,000 and 50,000 Aboriginal lives lost and between 2,000 to 2,500 Europeans.

To mark NAIDOC week, NSW Young Labor member Joey Watson interviewed Professor Henry Reynolds, one of Australia’s most respected historians to learn more on this nation defining conflict and how it might be better remembered, starting with the Australian War Memorial.

What where the frontier wars and why can we categorise it as a war?

Well in the early period the conflict was often between Aboriginal people and British soldiers because Australia was garrisoned by British troops who were here partly to control the convicts but also to ensure settlement proceeded without too much resistance from the Aborigines so there were numerous expeditions in early NSW and early Tasmania where soldiers were used to attack Aborigines.

Now that was often difficult because the Aborigines were able to see the soldiers and get out of the way. But there were military campaigns in early Australian and it was probably in Tasmania that the conflict most resembled war. It was called the Black War. That was the name used at the time. That’s not the name we impose on it now. That was the term used in official documents used in Britain to describe what happened.

In a 5 year period the Aboriginals killed something like 250 settlers and no doubt many of them were killed but the ratio was much closer. Now 250 settlers killed in short period of time in a small colony brings it close to many of the other small wars Australia has been involved in. So just in terms of the conflict, the number of people killed, the damage done the cost of the conflict, that conflict in Tasmania must be seen as a war.

In your experience, what barriers have existed to formal recognition?

I became a historian of the Frontier by accident. The accident was that I accepted a job in Far North Queensland in Townsville at a time when there was still a great deal of quite open conflict. Now people weren’t killed but there was a great deal of fighting and bashings in that society. This led me to investigate the past.

The first difficulty was that this sort of material had not been written about. There was almost nothing in the history of Australia which gave any idea of the extent and the duration and the nature of the conflicts. So you had to go back to the original documents. So that meant also you were starting a new area of history and starting it as a very junior academic in a very minor institution in the remote part of Australia so you had that institutional resistance. And one of the first people who was also working in this area, a man named Charles Rawley went around the history departments in the late 1960s to say he was doing a national history project on the Aborigines. He said that in the history departments he found no interest and people didn’t think it was a very decent or honourable thing to be researching.

So there was resistance from people who didn’t want to know about this very terrible and brutal aspect of Australian history. Historians and ordinary people want stories about their country about which they can feel proud about. History in a way grew up as something which supported the nation and there is in every society there is resistance to telling the truth about the history.

Now the largest area we were worried and disturbed about was indeed our treatment of the Aborigines and above all our historical treatment out on the frontiers of settlement.

I expected and understood the resistance. I was teaching students and talking about this every few days and I knew from them that some of them accepted and welcomed these stories but there were many students who found it disturbing, they found it upsetting and some of them were quite aggressive.

They didn’t think we should be talking about it. They said:

“We must forget the past... let’s move on from the past...what is past is past”.

“What’s the point in dragging up these old stories?”.

“We want to get on together and dragging up these old stories will make that more difficult”.

Many countries face that problem. Is it best or forget the past or is it best to remember? Some countries say, yes we should remember but others certainly say what is past must be left, we are not ready to cope with them. So I understood. I understood why people didn’t want to talk about it. Particularly where I was living, where people, Aborigines and Europeans and Islanders mixed together everyday in the street and in society and so they felt if we are to get on we must put the past behind us.

What are some ways we could recognise these conflicts?

Well I think, I think we don’t need a Truth Commission but this is what societies have done across the world, in Europe, in Africa, in South America, in Central America. We had two enquiries that were like Truth commissions, there was the Stolen Generations inquiry and the inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Now they were that sort of thing but I think it wouldn’t hurt for us to have essentially a Truth Commission that was given the job of investigating the history and being well funded. Now if we spent just a percentage of the money which is spent on our other wars, our overseas wars we could do a great deal of serious investigation but that doesn’t happen at the moment and that’s what needs to happen.

If the institutions like the War Memorial don’t want to do this, I think there needs to be set up in Canberra probably an Indigenous museum which could do this work well funded and tell this story to Australians and to all our visitors what happened in the past. We need that sort of institutional support.

Otherwise it is just individuals writing serious books and articles in academic journals and it doesn’t reach out, it doesn’t reach out because it isn’t funded in the way that the War memorial and Veterans Affairs is funded. Hundreds of millions spent on history but it’s their sort of history and they don’t want to have that sort of forensic investigation on the Frontier Wars.

Why do you think it’s important that Australians recognise the Frontier Wars?

I think it’s important because I think the past is important. I’m a historian, that’s my profession but I think the past is important and I think that it is absolutely critical that we understand and appreciate and empathise with Indigenous Australians.

In those years, I was 30 years in North Queensland I spent a great deal talking to and having relations with Aborigines and Islanders and I know how important it is for them to have recognition. That’s what victims of tyranny, victims of torture all over the world say.

We just want people to know, we want the recognition. We want people to accept, they don’t even have to say sorry but we want them to acknowledge what happened to us in the past. Now that is what Aborigines and Islanders overwhelmingly want. They want acknowledgment and they want respect, the respect that you give people when you treat their history as important to yours. Now that’s what we don’t do.

We treat our white history of war with enormous respect. We go around the world and we dig up bodies that have been buried for generations. We dig them up, we bring the remains back, we tell the relatives, we often pay for the relatives to go to Europe and we have proper military funerals. We count every single person who has died in battle. We treat our war dead with tremendous respect. Now I’m not suggesting we change that but if that’s the way we treat our war dead in overseas wars there is something extremely odd when we don’t want to know about those killed in Australia.

There are no official monuments, there a few private monuments but no official monuments. There is no public institutional recognition and that’s what we need.

Joey Watson is a member of the Truth Collective. The Truth Collective is a youth led movement of activists, academics and artists working together to end the conspiracy of silence which has defined the Australian national identity for far too long. We believe that there can be no genuine reconciliation without truth. For more information visit:


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  • commented 2015-07-20 13:42:11 +1000
    Encouraging to see that my generation is increasingly ready to learn and speak the truth of our history.Harnessing both the wisdom and knowledge of the elders and academics in these areas together with the energy and optimism of the youth we can be a powerful force for progress.