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It's our country
“Aboriginal peoples are the first peoples of this continent by an immeasurably long period of time – currently it is believed we go back at least 60,000 years. As a result of that long occupancy and ownership of this continent, we have a distinct cultural identity and traditions and practices, including a unique connection to sea and country…
In most Indigenous cultures in Australia, land is regarded not just as a physical resource, but as a social resource: ‘country’ is the term used by many Indigenous people to refer to customary estates. These landscapes are defined and bound by custom and hereditary rights, shaped by a priori spiritual forces and imbued with spiritual power… ‘Country’ may include land and water whether owned under Australian title or not..”
Megan Davis and Marcia Langton, “Introduction” in It’s Our Country: Indigenous Arguments for Meaningful Constitutional Recognition and Reform (Parkville: Melbourne University Press, 2016): 1-2.
The Myth of Terra Nullius in Australia
These images are landscape photographs by Henry King made in the late 19th century in southeast Australia and found in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. The path of a river through the dense bush of the Illawarra region features in one photograph and the clearing of land to establish a homestead in another. Such photographs were mass produced in colonial societies; they were shared as postcards, exhibited at world fairs and included in photo albums. These are photographs of the frontier and came to signify an empty country awaiting settlement by European people. With no acknowledgement of how First Nations peoples own and use these lands, the enjoyment of these photographs circulated the myth of terra nullius.
Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning 'land belonging to no one'. When colonising Australia, the British Government used this term to justify the dispossession of the first peoples. The British colonists argued that there was no evidence of Aboriginal agricultural, social or religious structure and therefore concluded that the first peoples did not own the land. By not recognising Aboriginal farming practices, architecture and cultural connections to country, the colonists claimed sovereignty over Australia, ignoring the rights of First Nations peoples who had lived there for at least 65,000 years.
The historical archives describe in often brutal detail the violence that attempted to make this myth fact with massacres of Aboriginal peoples, deliberate exposure to smallpox and the forced removals from country. One of the first recorded massacres of Aboriginal people was at Appin in 1816 on Dharawal country. The journal of Lachlan Macquarie, the governor of New South Wales, reveals his military orders which resulted in the shooting of Aboriginal men, women and children, while others were driven off a steep cliff. Macquarie “ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains… In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance… officers … have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors."
Massacres continued throughout the nineteenth century, and into the next, across the continent, mostly in response to displays of resistance and guerrilla warfare. These facts of frontier violence became silenced in the culture of White Australia during the early twentieth century. In south east Australia, First Nations peoples, who had survived the frontier wars, were relegated to suburban enclaves or reserves on the outskirts of towns. History books reported a convenient myth of peaceful settlement, which was represented in countless paintings and photographs of a light-filled and gentle rural landscape, devoid of frontier conflict or Aboriginal claims to country. The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner labelled this ‘cult of forgetfulness’ the Great Australian Silence (Stanner 1969).
Although historians and activists have worked to correct the historical record since the 1960s and the Aboriginal rights movement has demanded land rights and self-determination, the ‘cult of forgetfulness’ lingers and the histories of dispossession and of war remain barely visible in the public realm. The current dearth of memorials to the frontier wars in Australia indicates the tenacity of the myth of terra nullius, as does the continual reading of photographs, such as the example given here by King, of an empty land awaiting development or preservation as an untouched wilderness.
W.E.H. Stanner, After the Dreaming, Boyer Lectures 1968, (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969).
Marcia Langton, "What Do We Mean by Wilderness? Wilderness and Terra Nullius in Australian Art," They Sydney Papers, (Summer 1996): 11-31.
Melissa Miles “Out of the Shadows: On Light, Darkness, and Colonisation” in Miles, M, The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography, (Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2015): 77-112.
Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of of Australian Aborigines since 1788, (French's Forest: Child & Associates, 1988).
The Frontier Wars and the Australian War Memorial
“Aborigines bled as profusely and died as bravely as white soldiers in Australia’s twentieth-century wars… [But] do we make room for the Aboriginal dead on our memorials, cenotaphs, boards of honour and even in the pantheon of national heroes?“
Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier (Ringwood, VIC: Penguin, 1982), 201.
“We want this recognised, redefined as a war of resistance against the British which was continued into the Australian period... I dream about the day that we can look at some young child walking into the war memorial and seeing a representation that brings back the long fight of their people for their land.”
Gordon Briscoe quoted in “War memorial battle over frontier conflict recognition” Australian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcast: 26/02/2009 http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2502535.htm
The Australian War Memorial (AWM) built in 1941 is considered “among the world's great national monuments.” (1) Its pyramidal structure made from sandstone and topped with a copper sheathed dome incorporates a commemorative area, museum and extensive archive. The AWM is a dominating presence in Australia’s capital city, set atop a hill on Anzac Parade, the main commemorative thoroughfare, facing Parliament House. Displays about Australian forces engaged in combat or peacekeeping operations since the nineteenth century fill its exhibition spaces: the Boer War, the World Wars, the Vietnam War and many others. The commemorative area incorporates a reflection pool, a Roll of Honour listing the names of over 100,000 Australians who have died at war and the Hall of Memory which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Given over a million people visit each year to solemnly pay their respects, the AWM carries huge symbolic weight and has been called “the soul of the nation,” enshrining the idea of the Australian character that emerged from the war effort, particularly the Gallipoli legend. (1)
At the time of writing (June 2016), there is no display of the frontier wars at the AWM. The acts of war that followed the progressive invasion of the Aboriginal nations of Australia have been well documented. It began in 1770 during Britain’s first expedition to the east coast of Australia, when shots were fired at a small group of Dharawal people. Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and deployment of guerilla tactics led to the death of a couple of thousand colonists. However, it is estimated that over 100,000 First Nations people died as a result of direct violence including horrific massacres where whole families were murdered. The last officially endorsed massacre was a series of at least three police patrols in 1928 at Coniston, Central Australia, where more than 31 people from Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye country were murdered.
In the Atlas of Australian Wars (2006), the former Chief of Army and military historian John Coates described the frontier conflicts as a “brutal, bloody and sustained confrontation that took place on every significant piece of land across the continent.” The war included significant military strategies. In 1824 martial law was declared in the town of Bathurst, New South Wales, in an effort to curb the resistance led by the Wiradjuri warrior Windradyne. In Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) martial law was declared in 1828 and continued for three years. These proclamations gave legal impunity to the colonists killing the first peoples and expediting access to resource-rich land.
It continues to frustrate many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that the AWM refuse to acknowledge this war.(2) Many argue that the AWM is not fulfilling its purpose “to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war and to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.” (1) The Director of the memorial and conservative politicians have argued that such acknowledgement is outside the charter of the Australian War Memorial: to honour Australians engaged in external conflict and to commemorate Australia’s military forces, that is “any military force of the ground raised in Australia” which does not include the police forces or British military units involved in the frontier wars. (3) However, such an argument assumes the first peoples engaged in the frontier wars were not Australians.
This debate highlights the lack of memorials to the frontier wars in Australia and the need for more national memorials to Indigenous loss and survival. Whether or not acknowledgement at the Australian War Memorial is sufficient to addressing this history and its remembrance is not certain. It would challenge the representation of the Australian character “enshrined at the memorial” by recognising “the forbears of many non-Aboriginal Australians” as the “aggressors” who “conducted themselves in ways inconsistent with” this “imagined Australian-ness.”(4) Yet, the triumphal and dominating presence of the AWM in the landscape is perhaps inadequate to the task of representing the ongoing trauma and loss produced by the frontier wars.
(1) https://www.awm.gov.au/about/origins/, accessed 8/6/2016.
(2) Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier (Ringwood, VIC: Penguin, 1982); Reynolds repeats this argument in his books Fate of a Free People (2005) and Forgotten War (2013). Other examples are John Pilger’s suggestion in his documentary film The Secret Country (1985), Richard Frankland’s open letter to the Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian War Memorial in 2005 (Age Editorial, 20 June 2005). Ken Inglis’s book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape. Peter Stanley and John Connor, Australian Defence Force Academy featured in www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2502535.htm accessed 16/10/13
(3) “War memorial battle over frontier conflict recognition” http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2502535.htm accessed 10/6/16.
(4) Dean Ashenden, "Best We Forget?," Canberra Times, 23 April 2013.