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A Critical Analysis of the Notion that Frontier Conflict is a Myth

Author: Daniel Eaton

Date: 15 October 2020

Topic: Australia- Frontier


During the 1990s a war would be fought, not on a battleground of terrain nor between warriors and soldiers but in the intellectual minds and words of politicians and historians. The outcome of this war would help to shape a collective cultural identity that either recognised or rejected, acknowledged or ignored the violent past it was built upon. This essay will examine the notion that Australian frontier conflict is a myth. It assumes the position that frontier conflict indeed existed in many forms and was in fact wide spread. From this position, using primary and secondary sources, it argues that the language and attitudes of both historians and reporters portrayal of the indigenous people and events were the abettor of this myth. It demonstrates that this portrayal has lead to an awareness of a violent past that has largely eluded the non-indigenous population. And furthermore, that such language and attitudes employed by those with political agendas and others continue to perpetuate this myth today, resulting in a non-indigenous cultural identity that forgets its past.

It has become evident throughout history that a major contributing factor to the enabling of violence across cultures is the failure to recognise other people as fellow human beings. This process, known as dehumanisation, has seen colonists across the world disengage their moral inhibitions so as to justify the extermination of indigenous people as if they were insects or to enslave and take possession of them. Often referred to as savages, blacks, pests and brutes, it is hard to find a colonial newspaper, letter or book that does not use similar deprecating language when describing the first Australians. This type of language is perhaps none better evidenced by an article in The West Australian Newspaper describing the condition of a displaced group of Aboriginal people restricted to the outer East Perth region in 1933, journalist Ernestine Hill describes them as,

"not only woefully dirty, but often diseased and verminous, who hold out claw-like fingers for sweets and pennies [...] a pathetic band of scavengers, scarcely human, flies in their eyes and picaninnies on hips, [...] scrambling like wild beasts for offal thrown from the galley windows, they do indeed merit the description of lowest specimens of the human race".

Dehumanising the Aboriginal people would create the foundation of a non-indigenous cultural identity that negates the moral responsibility associated with the unethical treatment of others. It would lead to the ignorance of atrocities and the minimisation of violent encounters between the British and the first Australians. One such encounter, reported in the Perth Gazette, 1841 details an ambush type attack carried out by military officials in the Vasse district 300 kilometres south of Perth upon a group of unarmed men gathered at “their resting place at night”, and shot dead five men. The article states that the party had intended to capture them but that their resistance resulted in what it merely describes as a “scuffle”. In some cases, violence toward Aboriginal people was even celebrated. Another article in the same publication describes what has become known by some as the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’ in which a militia of twenty five men, led by Sir James Stirling, killed as many as 30 or more individuals including women and children. The event was reported by the paper as a;

“successful and decisive encounter, [a] severe but well-merited chastisement [upon] a complete nest of hornets, which had rendered themselves the pest of the surrounding country” it continues, if they offer “to revenge in any way the punishment which had just been inflicted on them [that] four times the present number of men sent would proceed amongst them and destroy every man, woman and child”.

The entire narrative of Australia's colonial past has been constructed from this white washed softening of frontier conflict and dehumanising of the first Australians. From it, has been built a non-indigenous cultural identity that describes the period of the arrival, and presence of the British that displaced the Aboriginal people's prior presence. It is a heroic story of discovery and pioneering that celebrates the founding of a great nation and the taming of an unforgiving land. The settlers triumphs characterised by Britishness and honour through mateship. Filled with stories of courage, hardships, sacrifice and fortitude. In contrast, the first nations people were portrayed by historians as everything that the white settlers were not. Uncivilized, savage, small in number, void of wealth or possessions. They were the cause of their own undoing since they could not, or would not adapt to this new civilised way of life. Often described as a meek and compromising race that offered little to no resistance to the acquisition of their land. Australia was a continent not of conquest but of settlement, the Aboriginal people were instantly subjects of the king, not enemies of the state, though they could be tried, outlawed or murdered. Any harm upon them was mostly attributed to unintentional factors. The frontier was on the whole peaceful, acts of hostility between the indigenous population and settlers was uncommon.

This romanticised narrative of Australia's settlement would hold unchallenged for over a century. It only came to be questioned within the context of a post-war social-political climate that saw a growing recognition of human rights internationally. An expansion and critical analysis of history leading up to that period would follow in what has been labeled as “a democratisation of history” in which those, once ignored by historians, such as the working class, women, migrants, gay and lesbians and indigenous people, would sought to “liberate themselves from their oppression and suffering” by reclaiming history and working to break what has been referred to as the “Great Australian Silence”.

The issue of frontier conflict became one of contention and saw the culmination of arguments by two sides that came to a head during the 1990s in what has become known as “the History Wars”. On the one hand, are the so-called ‘black armband’ historians that argue the nature of the frontier and colonisation was wholly violent and that massacres of Aboriginal people were common. Counter to this are the arguments of the conservatives, spearheaded by Keith Windschuttle who maintains that the numbers of indigenous killings are at best speculative and it was against Christian standards and the law of the settlers so they would not, indeed, could not have carried out such atrocities on such a scale. However, Windschuttle's arguments rely heavily on unrealistic and disingenuous demands for forensic evidence that simply cannot be met. Postcolonial literary scholar, Russell West-Pavlov comments that Windschuttle’s work is “highly tendentious and hastily researched” and that in “historiographical terms is shody and easily refuted”. Historian Bain Attwood describes him as one who has an intellect poised for conflict and that he conceives the truth in simple black and white terms. Regardless of what the conservatives argue, there is in fact ample material on all the states archives to prove the first nations people fought an enthusiastic and spirited, yet unsuccessful battle. Reynolds states “no one who reads colonial newspapers, speeches, letters or books can overlook the persistent racial violence without grossly distorting the truth.”

As outlined in the preceding paragraphs the proclivity for dehumanising the Aboriginal people and minimising violent encounters with them is at the core of what created and perpetuated the myth of frontier conflict, but this practice was not purely a product of the times. It may be less ubiquitous today but it most certainly still exists. A senate committee for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra continues to dehumanise the first Australians by having recently rejected protests to remove controversial stone carved gargoyle depictions of Aboriginal people displayed alongside native fauna, but rather replace their deteriorating condition with replicas. In an address to the Reconciliation Convention in 1997, John Howard minimises the past atrocities against the aboriginal people by referring to the events as a mere ‘blemish’ on our past. Not a deep wound or cut, not a lasting scar, but a ‘blemish’, something that is temporary, that can be ignored or would easily heal. Furthermore, a nationwide absence of memorials upholds the notion of a ‘Great Australian Silence’ with online databases showing records of just 37, mostly insignificant, memorials across the country to commemorate Indigenous lives lost in battle compared to over 5000 for non-indigenous Australians.

This type of misrepresentation and distortion of the truth has a profound effect on the identity of a culture. It is history that provides us with the narratives that tell us who we are, where we came from, it sets up our moral grounding and how we relate to other groups. For this reason, much of this new narrative does not sit well with those that prefer the heroic story of discovery. For others, the acknowledgement of a violent past has become widely accepted, yet still sits in the background of Australia’s non-indigenous collective memories. This essay has shown that the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people, together with the minimisation of violent encounters, have created and perpetuated the idea that frontier conflict is a myth. And furthermore, that such misrepresentations continue to permeate the sociopolitical arena today, fostering a tendency to quickly move issues of Aboriginality to the corner recesses of non-indigenous Australians collective memories, since a conscience heavy with guilt is less than desirable and it is easier in our day to day lives to simply forget.


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