Another Australia Day has passed with the clamour growing for a change of date because of its pejorative connections for Indigenous Australians. I’ve written about this in the past. My view is simple: always make Australia Day the fourth Monday of January. It keeps the holiday at the end of summer and it removes the stigma of the connection with the British landing in Sydney in 1788, though it means that Australia Day will still fall on January 26 once every seven years or so.
But the calls to remove the direct link are justified and those that cannot see that, are blind to Australia’s history. History may not be a popular subject in schools, but its resonance affects our lives in many ways and Australia’s continued failure to reach an accord with its Indigenous people remains the nation’s blackest stain.
I thought Australia Day was a good opportunity to revisit Henry Reynolds’ ground-breaking 1981 work The Other Side of the Frontier. The book was the first to systematically explore life on the other side of the frontier after the British arrived in Australia with the intention as Reynolds put it “to turn Australian history, not upside down, but inside out.” A lack of written evidence had always been used never to use this approach to Australian history but Reynolds pored through official documents, first-hand accounts and oral testimony to examine the evidence.
The book is “inescapably political” with profound conclusions still not fully accepted 35 years later. Reynolds destroyed the notion that the Aboriginal people of Australia were passive in the face of the newcomers. It begins with the first contact with white explorers, ghostly figures who came on to country, usually carefully watched as they moved. They were often provided with local guides – as a courtesy, and also to ensure they moved on quickly. Trade routes criss-crossed Australia bringing news as quickly as it brought goods and explorers often found that European artefacts and animals had preceded them into indigenous lands. Knowledge of the mysterious and dangerous power of firearms was particularly quick to cross the continent. The invaders were greeted with a mix of curiosity and fear.
The biggest problem was how to include these newcomers in Indigenous cosmology. Many thought they were the pale ghosts of reincarnated ancestors so they could be absorbed into kinship networks, but the younger ones could see their behaviour made them all too human. Many white communities had their “foundations cemented in blood” as one Victorian protector of Aborigines put it. Violence led to resistance, which began in the early years of Sydney and fanned out through the continent as settlers moved in. The period of warfare depended on the number of settlers and whether the local geography allowed the native population to hide easily and conduct guerrilla tactics.
Aboriginal people had sophisticated concepts of land ownership with strict laws on trespass, particularly related to sacred sites. Land use was complex with intermingling on territory and temporary hospitality based on the principle the visitors would eventually leave. The settlers, however, had no such intention. They ruthlessly asserted exclusive occupation from day one, occupying the flat, open land and monopolising the water. Private property allowed for no reciprocity. They also desecrated sacred sites and there was further conflict over the lonely white men taking access to Aboriginal women. And when Aboriginal men took revenge, they were denounced and attacked as villainous murderers. Conflict was driven by tension and misunderstanding, European possessive over land, competition for women and contrary concepts of personal property. Group punishment was common as was an ominous settler desire to end conflict “once and for all”.
The end of Aboriginal civilisation was a death by a thousand cuts. Frontier conflict was “ragged, sporadic and uneven”. Indigenous people were courageous in the face of attack but there were only a handful of massed battles. Most large gatherings dispersed by use of armed police or arsenic poisoning such as at Kilcoy. When there was open confrontation such as in central Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal shields were useless against 16 armed and mounted whites. By the time the frontier reached Cooktown, the natives were more cautious using the knowledge of their scrubby hinterland to keep the invaders at arm’s length. Native Police (usually with clansmen from other parts of Australia under the direction of a white sergeant) used traditional bushcraft and knowledge of horses and guns to undermine resistance to great effect in Queensland.
With most of their land taken from them and on the verge of destitution, many Indigenous people came into the settlements. There they ended up as cheap or slave labour or beggars living in fringe camps subject to disease, malnutrition, alcoholism and social disintegration. While disease was a major killer, Reynolds calculated the Aboriginal death toll in conflict as 20,000 across the continent. Queensland had the highest death toll as its conquest coincided with developments in weaponry, use of the Native Police and a new colonial leadership that had a vested interest in the development of pastoral property on Aboriginal lands.
Reynolds said the evidence contradicted the widespread view in the early 20th century that Aboriginal society was “pathetically helpless” in the face of the European onslaught. Indigenous people were not passive objects of European charity or brutality. The white explorers depended on them, early settlers feared them and it was only the weight of superior firepower and disease that eventually overcame them across the continent.
Reynolds asks when their dead will be accorded the same respect as the white Australian dead in overseas wars. Australian frontier violence was political violence and cannot be ignored because of its time and distance. It is something – as the Australia Day debate testifies – the nation has yet to come to terms with. “If we are unable to incorporate the black experience into our national heritage,” says Reynolds, “we will stand exposed as a people still emotionally chained to our 19th century British origins, ever the transplanted Europeans.”