Australian Frontier Wars
(1788–1928)
   A series of frontier wars waged by Australian Aborigines against British settlers, soldiers, and police from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century for control of what is now Australia.
   British authorities did not recognize these conflicts as war, as to do so would undermine the basis on which the British had occupied Australia. The British did not acknowledge aboriginal land ownership when they established the colony of New South Wales at Sydney in 1788. Unlike other British colonies, no treaties were signed with indigenous peoples. The British government claimed that all Australian Aborigines had automatically become British subjects and therefore any aboriginal armed attack was defined as criminal rather than warlike activity. As the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, told Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales, in 1837 that “To regard them as Aliens with whom a War can exist, and against whom H[er] M[ajesty]’s Troops may exercise belligerent right, is to deny them that protection to which they derive the highest possible claim from the Sovereignty which has been assumed over the whole of their Ancient Possession.”
   Australian Aborigines fought on the frontier using a combination of traditional warfare and new tactics developed to deal with the new enemy. Aborigines spoke about 250 different languages, and these nations were further divided into smaller autonomous groups sharing kinship or a connection to a particular area of land. Aborigines did not have chiefs or hierarchical structures of government. Instead, decisions were made by a consensus of the elder men. For this reason, Aborigines found it hard to unite against the British and generally each group fought the invader on their own. Warriors used traditional tactics of raiding and ambush and also learned to attack crops, sheep, and cattle and to burn fences and farmhouses. In some areas where the terrain assisted this style of warfare, Aborigines were able to temporarily hold back the settlers. They retained their traditional weapons of spears and clubs and made little use of firearms. The British, as the sole colonizing power in Australia, were in a position to prevent firearms passing across the frontier, but equally the spear was a symbol of manhood in some aboriginal groups, and they may have thought it inconceivable to fight with another weapon.
   On the British side, warfare was carried out by soldiers, mounted police, and settlers. Although New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) remained mainly convict colonies, governors were unwilling to distribute firearms among the civilian population and sent detachments of soldiers to the frontier to fight the Aborigines when required. These operations were defined as “aid to the civil power” rather than warfare. Martial law was declared in New South Wales in 1824 and in Van Diemen’s Land from 1828 to 1831 to provide legal protection for any soldier who killed an Aborigine. The last major British army deployment to the frontier took place in New South Wales in 1838. Therafter , settlers and police took over the fight.
   The defining factor in the British success on the Australian frontier was not firearms but horses. These gave the extra mobility, both in range and speed, that was necessary to pursue and attack aboriginal raiding parties. The New South Wales Mounted Police was established in 1825. At first this consisted of soldiers mounted at the colonial government’s expense, but at the War Office’s insistence, it became a civilian force from 1838. Aborigines were also recruited for native police forces. Under the command of white officers, and deployed against Aborigines to whom they had no kin relationship, the Queensland native police in particular became notorious for its brutality.
   Settlers did the bulk of the fighting on the British side on the Australian frontier. They defended their farms from aboriginal attacks and carried out punitive raids on aboriginal campsites. These actions were veiled in secrecy for fear of prosecution for murder. As the Victorian farmer George Faithfull wrote about his district in the 1840s, “People formed themselves into bands of alliance and allegiance to each other, and it was then the destruction of the natives really did take place.” In the end, colonial authorities arrested and tried only a tiny number of settlers for murdering Aborigines. Fewer still were convicted and punished.
   The Australian frontier was not universally violent. In some areas, especially coastal regions, there was little armed conflict as Aborigines and settlers found ways to share economic resources and coexist. Where fighting did take place, Aborigines fought in small groups against the British colonizers, so although the numbers of casualties may have been small, the casualty rate was proportionally high and devastated aboriginal groups. Although the fighting on the Australian frontier was small scale, it conformed to Clausewitz’s classic definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”
   The first frontier war in Australia was fought for control of the Hawkesbury River west of Sydney between 1795 and 1816. The Darug people destroyed settlers’ maize crops and burned their farmhouses. Resistance ended once a British army expedition scoured the river valley and killed 14 Aborigines during a nighttime raid on a campsite. When the British crossed the Blue Mountains onto the inland plains, the Wiradjuri people killed cattle and convict stockmen. The Wiradjuri campaign forced the New South Wales Governor to declare martial law and led to the creation of mounted police units. In 1826, Lieutenant Nathaniel Lowe was charged with ordering the shooting of an aboriginal prisoner while serving with the mounted police. His fellow officers, however, quickly acquitted him when he came to trial.
   Van Diemen’s Land saw sustained frontier warfare from 1826 to 1831. Governor George Arthur mobilized 10 percent of the male civilian population along with soldiers and police in 1830 and had them march across the settled districts to clear these areas from Aborigines in an operation that became known as the “Black Line.” The operation failed to capture many Aborigines, but its scale disheartened the raiding parties, and gradually each group came in and agreed to leave their land for the Flinders Island reservation.
   From the late 1830s, settlers and their sheep and cattle spread rapidly onto aboriginal land, bringing conflict throughout inland eastern Australia. In what is now Victoria, aboriginal warriors deliberately dislocated the legs of hundreds of sheep so that they would be useless for pastoralists. In what is now Queensland, there were about 10 cases in which settlers probably poisoned Aborigines with flour laced with arsenic or strychnine. In the 1880s, fighting flared in western Queensland and the north of western Australia. The Kalkadoon were defeated in 1884 when they foolishly abandoned their raiding tactics after six years of success and openly attacked settlers at Battle Mountain, near Kajabbi in Queensland. In western Australia, one pastoral company claimed it lost 7,000 sheep to Aborigines in 1888 alone. Fighting continued in the Northern Territory at a sporadic level into the twentieth century. When a Walpiri man killed a white miner at Coniston, the local police officer mounted a punitive expedition and killed at least 31 Aborigines. An action that once had been condoned was now finally criticized, and there was an official inquiry into the massacre.
   The frontier wars remain a controversial part of Australian history. According to Ernest Scott, the first great Australian historian, there had not been any frontier conflict at all. He wrote in 1910 that “Australia is the only considerable portion of the world which has enjoyed the blessed record of unruffled peace.” In the 1970s, this view was revised as historians began examining official and private records and found example after example of frontier warfare. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Keith Windschuttle led a conservative critique of most that has been written about frontier conflict, arguing that other historians had exaggerated the level of violence and the number of casualties. A second dispute revolves around whether “genocide” was perpetrated on the Australian frontier. There is no instance of government authorities ordering the extermination of Aborigines, so this argument considers whether there is evidence of individuals and small groups showing the intent and having the means to commit genocide. Both debates are certain to continue for some time.
   See also <>, <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Attwood, Bain. Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005;
    Broome, Richard. “The Struggle for Australia: Aboriginal-European Warfare, 1770–1930.” In M. McKernan and M. Browne, eds. Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace. Canberra: Australian War Memorial in association with Allen & Unwin, 1988;
    Connor, John. The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002;
    Moses, A. Dirk, ed. Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005;
    Reynolds, Henry. The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1982;
    Reynolds, Henry. An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australias History. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 2001;
    Windschuttle, Keith. The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Sydney: Macleay Press, 2002.
   JOHN CONNOR

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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