Sunday, 6 July 2014

They Fought With Honour

The Aborigines of the Australian War (1788-1901)


In January 1788 the British invaded the island continent now known as Australia. Over the following years those invaders would use all their manpower, resources, and weaponry to subjugate the indigenous people, in a war herein referred to as the Australian Aboriginal War. This may come as a shock to most non-Aboriginal Australians, for no references to the Australian Aboriginal War will be found in the standard histories of this continent. Yet the facts bear witness to the truth of its occurrence.

A beach-head was established at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788 by the invading force known as The First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. From this strategic position the British armed forces of the day launched their campaign against the local Aboriginal people who had occupied the land for over 60,000 years. The military initially included a detachment of 213 Marines under Major Robert Ross, but was later replaced by Regiments of soldiers who had fought in the European, African, and Asian arenas. 

This civilisation - the Aboriginal people of Australia - were now to face one of the most barbaric and war-like of foes that the world had ever known - the British, who were then engaged in a course of world-wide invasion and domination known as empire building. The war to come in this new colony would be ruthlessly fought on the part of the British - race which, in the name of Empire, created the abomination known as `Concentration Camps' during the Boer War; daily flogged its citizens for minor crimes; distorted Charles Darwin's theory of evolution into a form of scientific racism; and promulgated a demeaning class system which still exists to this day.

The British invasion was, ostensibly, a peaceful attempt to colonize an unoccupied continent. Australia was declared by the British to be unoccupied - Terra nullius - at the time of the English invasion. Yet this land was inhabited by perhaps 1 million indigenous natives in 1788, spread far and wide across the continent in family groups and tribes. Their civilisation, after over 60,000 years uninterrupted development, was based on a complex mix of social, economic and religious laws and customs. The existence of this civilisation was almost completely denied by the invaders, and considered unworthy of recognition. The British soldiers in their arrogance did not consider their conflict with the Australian Aborigines as worthy of being termed 'war', or on par with the campaigns waged against the more aggressive natives of Africa and India.

No war was declared in 1788, for the British did not consider the Aborigines a serious threat, either militarily or politically. The leaders of the invading armies - namely the Governors such as Phillip, King, Hunter and Macquarie - openly proclaimed peace with the natives. Yet the realities of the invasion could not be denied, for no treaties were drawn up, no compensation offered for loss of homelands and livelihood, and no declaration of equal rights pronounced or enforced; and all the while Aborigines were being shot, slaughtered, raped and abused in the most brutal of campaigns. War - defined as 'fighting between nations; state of hostility; conflict' - existed on Australian soil. Governor Lachlan Macquarie let the proverbial cat out of the bag in 1816 when he issued secret military orders to his regiments to seek out all the Aboriginal people north, west and south of Sydney and take them in as "prisoners of war", or kill them if they attempted to escape.

The British invasion was publicly proclaimed as being 'for the good of the primitive savages inhabiting the continent'. These 'unfortunate people' were to benefit from the moralising and sobering influences of the so-called superior British civilization, and it was believed that they should be grateful Mother England had claimed this land before the French. Such were the sincere, though distorted, beliefs of the British invaders. In their ignorance and quest for power they failed to see the enlightenment and advantages of Aboriginal society, and its harmony with the land they now claimed as their own.

This most subtle of invasions - termed 'discovery and settlement' in white histories - would have such a destructive effect on the Aboriginal people and their traditional society, that if war had been officially declared on 26 January 1788 the ultimate effects could not have been any worse than the reality - in fact it may have been more humane and less destructive of Aboriginal society for the British to have openly declared war upon their arrival. Perhaps more of the original inhabitants may have survived the genocide and atrocities which were secretly carried out over the following years, with tacit approval from local and home authorities.

This public denial of war with the Aborigines on the part of the British invaders was a shameful act by a society which was supposed to be the epitome of civilisation - a superior race - and presented itself as such to the world. When the denial conflicted with the reality, when the local whites were proven to be more barbaric and savage than the Aborigines, the local and home authorities were forced to cover-up the Australian War. This was achieved by failing to prosecute whites guilty of black massacres and atrocities; making few references to their extermination in official reports; shifting the blame for conflict onto the Aborigines; and carrying on as though the natives did not exist, or were gradually heading towards extinction.

The Australian War lasted from 26 January 1788 until well into the twentieth century, especially in areas of Queensland and Western Australia, though its major battles (if they can be termed such) occurred prior to 1850. The war was fought along many fronts, with extreme prejudice on the part of the whites, as the boundaries of settlement continued to extend and new outposts were created.

If any person doubts that it was a 'war' within Australia they merely have to read such recent books as Henry Reynolds' The Other Side of the Frontier (1984), Eric Willmot's Pemulwuy - The Rainbow Warrior (1987), and Geoffrey Bloomfield's Baal Belbora - The massacre of a peaceful people (1988) for numerous accounts of skirmishes, massacres and barbarities on the part of the white invaders, and the courageous resistance by the Aborigines.

Despite constant denials by colonial governors since 1788, Governor Macquarie finally revealed the reality of the situation in 1816 when he proclaimed that all Aborigines to the south-west of Sydney were to be taken as 'prisoners of war' during a punitive campaign which he had instigated. If the natives resisted they were to be shot, and the bodies of slain Aboriginal men were to be hung from prominent trees, in public view, to terrorize the survivors. Governor Darling in 1824 was also moved to declare a state of emergency in the Bathurst district whilst trying to deal with the local resistance lead by the Aboriginal warrior Windrayne. During both these campaigns large numbers of New South Wales Aborigines were killed. There is therefore no doubt in this author's mind that the whites were fighting a war against the black natives of Australia from the time of the arrival of the First Fleet.

All along the frontier the whites met unexpected resistance - especially after offering no equitable terms for peace, taking the Aborigines' land and food supplies, and physically abusing them. This opposition was somewhat surprising to the English as the Aborigines were considered docile, inoffensive, and not intelligent enough to organise any united opposition. When resistance occurred, the local authorities and settlers with vested interests retaliated swiftly and indiscriminately. White settlers and convicts would brutally attack the local Aborigines with musket shot, sword, savage dogs, poison, and any other legitimate implement of warfare then available. Their campaign was secret and subversive, with massacres rarely reported. When confronted by well meaning, compassionate whites, these white vigilantes and murderers would plead motives of self defence, and any reports would greatly underestimate their `successes' regarding the number of natives killed during these attacks.

A psychological war was also waged on the part of the British against the natives. Aboriginal men and women were abused both physically and mentally, alcohol was introduced to the race, and the traditional family unit was attacked and broken down by the murder of men, rape and abduction of women, and the removal of children from parents. The corrupting influences of the white lifestyle and religions were devastating to a society which had known an inner peace and stability for thousands of years.

The Australian Board of Missions in 1853 was proclaiming the benefits of removing Aboriginal children from the corrupting influences of their families and `the barbarities of the bush'; all the while encouraging the Government to support their work in this regard.

Whilst Aboriginal men were prime targets throughout the campaign, women, children and old people were also slaughtered in this most brutal of wars. It was a war so shameful that it was always hidden by the white community and denied, or rather, not considered worth considering right up until the present day. The majority of Australians are still unaware of the shocking realities of the post 1788 - pre 1900 history of this land. All they are told of are the brave endeavours of the first pioneering settlers and explorers who set out to tame a supposedly harsh continent. In such noble terms war and genocide were couched.

As part of the British strategy during the Australian War white settlers formed the unofficial vigilante army - the shock troops if you like - who went into `unsettled' areas to establish outposts in the form of stockyards and cattle and sheep runs. Theirs was the most brutal of campaigns for they operated without military discipline and with a free reign to dispose of any local resistance to their settlement and exploitation of the land. Yet this undisciplined, amateur force was most effective in that it often encountered an unsuspecting `enemy' and was therefore able to kill many natives before those people could re-group and address the problems of holding back, or escaping from, this evil attacking force.

The majority of the Aborigines were given no alternative but to defend their land, for according to their long held beliefs and traditions they had intimate ties with specific localities. They were part of the land. They knew no other reality, and could not therefore understand the whites refusal to share this country with them. The barbarity of European civilisation and its disregard for individual life must have seemed incomprehensible to the Australian Aborigines. Dealing with such an alien, thoughtless people would have seemed like a nightmare.

The whites attacked with superior firepower, and later on with overwhelming numbers. By the time the Aborigines could successfully launch retaliatory actions, the white settlers would be reinforced by Army detachments and police squads who quickly and efficiently carried out punitive expeditions in which any Aborigine met with could, and would, be shot on sight or terrorized.

It has been conservatively estimated by white historians that for every European killed during the Australian War, ten Aborigines died in retaliation or without cause. The actual figure is obviously greater for the majority of killings went unreported. Rape of Aboriginal women was common, and accepted, in such a hostile atmosphere, especially when there were so few white women to satisfy the European males prior to the arrival of large numbers of female immigrants during the 1840s. Rape was almost encouraged, for a half-caste Aboriginal was seen as more amenable to `civilising' and conversion to western religions than were full-blood natives. These Aboriginal women were just one group of many such victims of rape in war which history has known.

Old people, who were seen as leaders, and children, who were similarly viewed as future warriors and mothers of the race, were all slaughtered during the campaign. The indiscriminate attacks on native camps and shootings by the whites invaders inevitably resulted in many deaths on the part of the slowest and most frail of the Aboriginal population, namely old people, pregnant women, and children. Yet in considering them victims of a war, the ruthless whites bore no pangs of conscience with regards to their destruction.

The Aborigines were seen as less then human; a useless animal to be disposed of; a pest to be cleared from the land. Thoughts of their humanity were often rejected. Whilst the spearing of a sheep or bullock by an Aborigine would be considered an `atrocity' by the whites, the slaughter of a group of natives by Europeans would bear no such tag, and was often merely referred to an `an unfortunate incident' or `for their own good in the long run'.

The complete extermination of the Aboriginal people - the term now used is `genocide' - was the ultimate aim of the invading British force, just as it had been Adolf Hitler's aim against the Jews and other minority groups during the 1930s and 40s. This Australian genocide was readily endorsed by the great majority of the white population who stood silently by as witnesses and spoke of `successes' in the Tasmanian and eastern Australian arenas. The supposed extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines was considered their greatest victory!

In the face of such a barbaric, uncivilized opponent as the British - who all the while operated with the strongest belief in the racial superiority of whites over blacks - the local Aboriginal people fought on in a guerilla campaign. The white invaders and their food supplies, sheep and cattle, houses and buildings, were all attacked during the initial phases of black resistance, when there were enough able-bodied Aboriginal warriors and patriots alive to carry out successful operations. However with time, and the wholesale slaughter of their people, the Aborigines of Tasmania and eastern Australia were decimated, and by the 1850s the war was over in those areas. The whites could arrogantly declare victory in this shameful undeclared war, and move their campaigns further to the west, in the direction of the expanding frontier.

Australia by 1850 was firmly in the hands of the white invaders, with the Aborigines foreigners in their own land. They were a defeated people, with no rights or privileges. They were not to be officially declared Australian citizens until 1967, over one hundred years later, and this despite their thousands of years of occupation of the land.

After having fought courageously, and almost to the last man, for their homes, families, and beliefs, in a war against superior destructive weaponry and manpower, the Aboriginal veterans of the Australian War were forced to live out their final years under an oppressive yoke. No recognition of their courageous resistance was granted by the British conquerors, though their white equivalents were rewarded with public accolades, grants of land, money, and supplies.

Aboriginal warriors such as Pemulwuy, Dewal, and Windrayne were declared outlaws and often mercilessly hunted down and killed, or imprisoned. Pemulway was killed in 1803 and his head cut off and despatched to Sir Joseph Banks in England for scientific study and ridicule.

Generally no medical assistance was offered by whites towards Aborigines injured and maimed in skirmishes and encounters. They were left to die on the field of battle, and often callously denied a traditional burial, with local ministers rushing in to give the natives a Christian burial. More often than not the families and relatives of the victims would be unaware of their fate or final resting place.

A similar trauma would later be felt by Australians who lost fathers, sons, etc., amongst the trenches and mud of the French battlefields during WWI. No bodies would be located.

No peace was ever offered by the whites. Complete extermination was seen as the ultimate, achievable objective.

It eventually became accepted amongst the white population during the nineteenth century that extinction of the race was inevitable - almost according to divine providence - thus alleviating any widespread feelings of guilt or shame on their part. Such a belief in the eventual extinction of the Australian Aboriginal people is still widely held throughout Australia.

The effects of the overwhelming defeat and destruction of their society on such a proud, peaceful, and civilised race as the Australian Aborigines have never been fully investigated or addressed, yet much could be learnt from such a study.

The above account of the Australian War fought between the British and indigenous Aborigines begs comparison with so much of the strife which exists in the world today. The racial arrogance, hatred, and extremism of the Afrikaans towards black South Africans is equivalent to, and shares its origins with, the common British attitude towards the Australian Aborigines in 1788 and beyond; the genocide practiced by the white invaders from 1788 until early this century is reflected in Hitler's treatment of the Jews and Stalin's purges in Russia; the greed of British settlers for land and profits still exists in the guise of the current consumerism of Australian society.

The lack of compassion for one's fellow man, whether black, white, or brindle, is still with us, and is perhaps the most potentially destructive aspect of our society. Racism and religious intolerance are rife throughout the world - witness the common white Australian arrogance and feelings of racial superiority towards post-war ethnic groups such as the Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, and Vietnamese.

The above scenario is the reality of our history. Whether you are Aboriginal or of British descent; European or Asian; if you consider yourself Australian then this phase of Aboriginal history is your history, for it is the history of the land, with the blood of thousands of murdered Aborigines spread far and wide throughout the continent attesting to the fact.

A war was fought - of this there is no doubt - and casualties were heavy on the side of the Aborigines. A truce was never declared. Families of the Aboriginal dead, veterans, and other victims of the Australian War, carried on in the most extreme conditions of neglect and prejudice, as veritable outcasts in their own land.

Thousands of Aborigines died in defence of their country, yet we have no memorial to them. Those Australians (white and black) who died in twentieth century wars are memorialised and remembered.

Whilst it took over a decade for Australians to welcome home the Vietnam veterans, it has taken over 200 years for us to even consider the plight of this country's original veterans and victims of war. Those first Aboriginal warriors who, in defence of their land, cast their spears at Captain Cook and his men as they tried to land at Botany Bay in April 1770, and continued the battle with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, deserve such consideration.

There were thousands of other such Aboriginal warriors, patriots, freedom fighters - whatever you want to call them - who gave their lives right across the continent during the intervening years, and they deserve our respect just as much as do the men who fought under the Australian flag at Gallipolli and in defence of Australia during World War II.

Those original Aboriginal warriors needed no flag behind which to rally against the evil white invasion, for they were fighting for their land; for their homes and families; for the very existence of their society. They knew nothing of the Union Jack or Southern Cross, only that the former was held in high esteem by the invaders.

The Aborigines' battle was literally fought on their doorstep and in their own backyard, to use European terms. Thankfully white Australians have never had to fight such a desperate battle against an invading force. The closest we have come were the Japanese attacks on Darwin and Sydney harbour during World War II.

As Anzac Day approaches once again it is appropriate that for the first time the people of Australia, along with veterans of twentieth century warfare and defenders of this land, agree to accept and honour the deeds and heroism of this country's first war veterans, namely the Aboriginal men, women, and children who fought in the Australian War of 1788-1850s - a war which almost totally destroyed one of the oldest and most civilised of societies upon this earth.

They fought with honour in a war without honour on the part of the English invaders.

They fought for their own equivalents of `God, King, and Country'.

They fought for the Dreaming, the Land, and family.

They fought valiantly and died courageously.

They were Australians fighting for Australia.

Lest we forget.

{Originally written March 1990}