Why Australia needs to admit to a frontier war and sign a makarrata

“Why not send asylum seekers to Australia? It sounds like an awful country, would be a great deterrent,” a Twitter response to Rudd’s PNG announcement on Friday.

aborignalReading Henry Reynold’s Forgotten War helps throw light on Kevin Rudd’s new boat people policy. Australia is a settler country with a massive insecurity complex and European-Australians like to tell people from other countries they can or cannot live here. But white Australia has never recognised how the land was won in the first place. The history of white invasion is everywhere. I found it easily when I went looking for local history for a “150 years of Roma” book we did last year. I also found the bloody story of the Maranoa conquest was not unique. The history of Queensland is of black oppression and is a tale repeated across the country whenever the British took possession of the land. The evidence, Reynolds said, spilled from the record “like blood from an open wound”.

That evidence is mostly dismissed as unimportant or contested. Australian history is painted as peaceful occupation of a continent. However while we are blinkered today, white people of the time understood the conflict. White “ownership” of Australia has always been a fragile flower. It is assertive but fearful. It is brash but insecure. It craves relevance and demands acceptance. This complex attitude found voice in Rudd’s ban on boat people without visas. The Tampa was brought up to date with a repetitive thud. Giving boat arrivals a lifetime ban for breaking the visa rule was not aimed at keeping refugees out of Australia. It was aimed at winning an election by neutralising the silly but powerful slogan “stop the boats”. Refugees will be banished to poor neighbours out of sight and out of mind. As left-wing commentator Tad Tietze says, Rudd is implementing this policy not because he is a racist but because it addresses an irrational fear in his electorate, worried about “invasion” by asylum seekers.

This fear has been part of the psyche of European settlement since its invasion of Australia. The British were uninvited guests in 1788 and over 140 years they came in large numbers, fighting wars with their hosts. These hosts defended their land with vigour. In European eyes they were “wild blacks” that had to make way for towns, farms, sheep and cattle. The Europeans also wanted to stop any other invasion coming in after them. They rushed through legislation to stop the Chinese from sharing in the gold rush and kept Kanaka cane-workers indentured for decades until they were packed off home again. The White Australia Policy openly told the world, the newly federated nation was for Anglo-Celts only. Feeling vulnerable at the bottom of Asia, Australia needed reassurance it was a Britain of the South.

According to the Australian War Memorial, Australian military history started in 1885 with Britain’s colonial expedition to save General Gordon in Sudan. Australia’s contribution was a handful of soldiers dying of disease. The War Museum ignores a more substantive and critical conflict on our own shores already 90 years old and still not ended in 1885. Six generations between 1790 and 1930 lived through border skirmishes costing thousands of lives as the Europeans wrestled control from the blacks in a slow rolling contest for resources across Australia.

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 they added 1373 people to a black population of 300,000 to a million already there. The new arrivals didn’t realise every part of Australia had local tribes and didn’t care. Phillip relied on Aboriginal help but believed the land was ownerless. Europeans got their legal and moral justification for this blatant theft from the concept of ‘terra nullius’ (land which belongs to no one).

Britain’s Navy understood the importance of possession. The island of Bedanug in the Torres Island was renamed Possession Island after Captain James Cook laid claim to all of eastern Australia there in August 1770. George Vancouver named a spot on the south-west corner of Western Australia “Possession Point” as he laid claim to the western side of the continent 21 years later. These claims were extravagant statements of intent aimed at discouraging other European claimants. The claims left the people who actually owned the landmass none the wiser they were dispossessed.

Cook’s statement of possession ignored countless palls of smoke he saw from the deck of the Endeavour as he sailed up the east coast. His naturalist Joseph Banks showed equal cognitive dissonance when he told a 1779 House of Commons Inquiry Botany Bay was a good site for a penal settlement because it scantily populated. Banks knew New South Wales was a dangerous place. His 1770 diary recalls his first experience of warriors on the rocks as “threatening and menacing with their pikes and swords.”

Australia was an unknown quantity and it was easier to ship British criminals off to North America. But when Britain lost the US and its ability to take prisoners, London was on the verge of anarchy with hundreds of rotting hulks incarcerating thousands in the Thames. Britain urgently needed a new dump for its riff-raff and Banks’s proposal was dusted off. The First Fleet was given orders to set sail to the end of the world without any idea what would await it.

In 1788 Phillip landed in Botany Bay and found it did not match Cook’s and Banks’ glowing descriptions. While he despaired over the landscape Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse arrived four days later. Phillip knew it was critical to get a toehold on the continent. Writing in 1928 Edward Jenks said there was some justification for saying England “won” Australia by just six days. It was true but a Eurocentric exaggeration. The Aborigines would have fought French colonists just as tenaciously and for just as long as they did the British.

Phillip respected the natives but he had orders. On moving the settlement to Sydney Cove, he reiterated Cook’s claim for sovereignty. He was captain general and governor in chief over lands from Cape York to the southern tip of Tasmania and west to the centre of Australia. With the Fleet clinging to Sydney and starving to death, this commission was a fantasy. But it was also a signal of ambition as well as God’s writ no court would dare challenge. In 1913, Australian High Court chief justice Isaac Isaacs called Phillip’s commission an “unquestionable position” and it remains so today.

According to English law, Cook and Phillip’s affirmations meant every action was a police matter rather than an act of war. If the whites brought cattle and sheep onto Aboriginal country and the natives reacted by spearing a beast, then they would be prosecuted under British law. If they went further and killed a white, then it would be treated as murder. If a white person then took revenge and killed a black, that too was murder.

But on Australia’s vast frontier civilised trappings like police, courts, priests and papers were non-existent. Settlers knew it was war not a police action and behaved accordingly. They were either petrified or took the law into their own hands and killed the blacks with impunity. The one time the law did try to enforce native rights, it backfired. In 1838 Governor George Gipps hanged seven white stockmen for the deaths of Aborigines at Myall Creek after a jury initially found them not guilty. Whites were outraged their own people were executed for doing what they had to do: kill or be killed. The lesson the settlers learned was not to stop killing but not to tell anyone about it.

The Government’s wishful thinking extended to the impact of farming. While promoting the cultivation of the land, Whitehall said colonial pastoral leases should not interfere with native hunting rights. In 1848, Secretary of State Earl Grey ordered NSW Governor Charles Fitzroy to give only “the exclusive right of pasturage in the runs, not the exclusive occupation of the Land, as against Natives using it for the ordinary purposes”. But pasturage was an exclusive occupation. Whites displaced Aboriginals from their camps, hunting grounds, sacred sites and water. The Aborigines, weakened by European illnesses, retreated into guerrilla warfare using the knowledge of the land to pick off easy prey at the edges. Outraged whites responded with ferocity and modern weapons.

The settlers admitted what lawmakers would not. This was a war and there could only be one winner. The newspapers supported settler rights. In 1870 the Rockhampton Bulletin justified as a “deplorable necessity” the death of Aborigines whenever they attacked European life and property. “They should be treated as enemies of the state,” the paper warned, “and shot down with as little compunction as soldiers shoot each other in battles among civilised men”. The Queenslander told its readers in 1884 whenever a black person was seen, he was “brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. Remorseless deaths continued across Australia as the frontier conflict rolled on.

Queensland had the highest death toll of any colony thanks to the Native Police. White officers led “tamed” blacks from other regions on outings of “dispersals”. Dispersing was euphemistic language and meant exactly what the Rockhampton Bulletin and the Queenslander newspaper wanted it to mean: killing as many of a dangerous enemy as possible, without remorse and without telling anybody about it.

Without a written language, defeated indigenous people were pushed to the edge of the Australian story and forgotten about. Australian history became a story of a peaceful and productive takeover of land tamed by pioneers. Aboriginal status as non-people was confirmed at federation when the 1901 Constitution said “natives shall not be counted”. Aborigines were so low in the scale of social organisation that in 1911 the Privy Council thought it was “idle to impute to [them] some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.” Social Darwinism predicted they would soon die out.

Many whites did their best to accelerate that prediction. In 1928 the battle for control of Central Australia ended in the Coniston Massacre across a wide area of south-western Northern Territory. Kamalyarrpa “Bullfrog” Japanangka murdered dingo trapper Fred Brooks for stealing his wife. Acting on native law, Bullfrog speared Brooks then cut his throat with a traditional stone knife made of chert flakes. The killing caused outrage. A reprisal party armed with 1920 Lee Enfield rifles “dispersed” up to 60 people in 10 engagements across the territory in revenge for Brooks. In this group punishment, they missed Bullfrog.

Despite a board of inquiry neither Bullfrog nor the revenge party were ever charged for murder. History’s silence helped Governments implement paternalistic assimilation policies that tore black families apart. Those that didn’t live in shanties at the edge of towns were sent to internment camps like Woorabinda and Barambah while others were farmed off to white families or donated as slave labour to church and other institutions. A “Stolen Generation” spent their days try to put together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives.

By the 1960s the worldwide anti-colonial movement was starting to affect Australia. The Aborigines had not died off as predicted and many tapped into the worldwide black consciousness. The White Australia Policy was gradually ditched and the 1967 referendum meant blacks would finally be counted. The softening continued in the seventies and eighties under Whitlam, Fraser and then Hawke. Aborigines still lived on the margins and Australia never apologised or admitted there was a war.

In 1979 a committee was set up to promote a treaty and after three years it took a list of demands to the Government. What they wanted was a makarrata, a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations”. A makarrata was a covenant to protect indigenous culture, restore land rights, access mining royalties and the right to control their own affairs. The Government resisted compensation requirements and would not budge on land rights. The makarrata was rejected. It took the 1992 High Court Mabo decision to overturn terra nullius and give retrospective validity to traditional land tenure. The courts left the politicians scrambling to catch up.

Paul Keating’s Redfern speech that year remains the closest an Australian prime minister has come to an admission of dispossession. His speech celebrating the coming year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993 talked about a test “which so far we have always failed.” Keating said Europeans had brought only devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia and their plight affected everyone. He recognised whites did the dispossessing and their germs and their culture killed Aboriginal people. Yet while he diagnosed what happened, he didn’t say how it happened. Keating mentioned ‘war’ three times in the speech and each reference was about a European conflict not the Australian one he came close to defining.

His successor John Howard wouldn’t take the risk people would associate dispossession and war. Howard wanted white Australia relaxed and comfortable and rejected the idea of war. Making Australia’s story shameful, Howard said, would only make people apprehensive and despairing about the future. He only would admit to a few “black marks” in an otherwise happy history.

Howard had to deal with the fallout from the 1997 Wik Judgement. While neither Mabo nor Wik tackled Cook’s statement of possession, the landmark court cases swept away 200 years of domination of white pastoral leases over native title. These leases covered nearly half the country, much of it National party heartland. Facing insurrection from his own Coalition partners, his ten point plan compromise allowed ‘pastoral activities’ to continue without interference from native title.

Howard was also convulsed by the response to the Bringing them Home report. People held “sorry ceremonies” across the nation and expressed regret for the Stolen Generation though Howard refused to join in. He preferred practical reconciliation’ that led to the NT Intervention.

Kevin Rudd made a big deal of his sorry speech but like Keating and Howard, he couldn’t mention the war. His focus was on the child-removal policies and he said nothing about violent dispossession. Rudd wanted a truce in the history wars not a war treaty. In 2009 introducing Thomas Keneally’s Australians: Origins to Eureka, Rudd rejected the view Australian history lacked sufficient colour, movement and drama despite having “no revolution, civil war and ‘rivers of blood.” Rudd’s truce was to pretend the war never happened.

Last month Michael Anderson of Sovereign Union said assimilation projects were still alive and well. Anderson compared Aboriginal imprisonment in Mission Stations with the ‘illegal immigrants’ locked away today in detention centres. Like immigrants in Christmas Island, the Aborigines were fed, but “all our civil and political rights were taken away.”

Many are outraged Rudd has eroded those rights for people coming here from other countries. But few have made the comparison with black Australia. Rudd’s immigration solution is the flipside of 220 years of oppression to Aborigines. We will never feel safe about our borders until we properly acknowledge the damage done within our realm. Australia needs a makarrata to formally end a war blacks have not forgotten.


3 thoughts on “Why Australia needs to admit to a frontier war and sign a makarrata

  1. The thing about wars is if there is no passing by the elected of the day to say it is a war then for history it is not a war. And I have issues with those who forget historiography. We who were not there may only read the lines of those who were and should not draw our conclusions in the light of today’s failings. Both sides did what they did because of their beliefs and the times they lived in without the benefit of hindsight.

  2. This is magnificent.

    I think the blindness towards the fact that *there was a war* goes far beyond anti-Aboriginal bigots; this lack of historical perspective even affects many people of good will who support “Sorry Days” and so on. This, plus the usual guff at election time about how Australian politics isn’t violent lets people regard the horrors Aboriginal people have faced as individual acts of cruelty by bad white people, not systematic oppression.

    And given the lack of critical thought displayed by ALP fans whenever Keating opens his right-wing mouth, it’s good to see that he – who is so often portrayed as “brave” – squibbed it just as much as the rest.

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