Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago

Conversation image
Plaque commemorating 75th anniversary of the Coniston massacre. AAP Image/Karen Michelmore

The following article written by  Bryce Barker with the assistance and input of other team researchers was published online in The Conversation on 31 March. It was subsequently re-published in a range of outlets, including the Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and also resulted in a radio interview with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. The piece generated more than 300 comments on the Conversation website, and many dozens more on Facebook pages that linked to the piece. The majority of commenters were in support of the suggestion that Australians need to have a more explicit discussion about what happened in our past, though there were a few people who took the opposite view. We reproduce the article below for the interest of our followers.

Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago

By Bryce Barker, University of Queensland

Much has been made in the last few days of the University of New South Wales’ “diversity toolkit” offering teachers guidelines on Indigenous terminology.

The most controversial directive was a line about using the term “invasion” to describe Captain Cook’s arrival here:

Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a “settlement” attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.

This story made the front page of the Daily Telegraph. Radio personality Kyle Sandilands quickly condemned it as an attempt to “rewrite history”.

But detailed historical research on the colonial frontier unequivocally supports the idea that Aboriginal people were subject to attack, assault, incursion, conquest and subjugation: all synonyms for the term “invasion”.

This was particularly the case in Queensland, where the actions of the Native Mounted Police were designed to subjugate Aboriginal resistance to European “settlers” on their traditional lands, and to protect pastoralists, miners and others from Aboriginal aggression.

The UNSW guidelines are not “rewriting” history – they are simply highlighting a history that has never been adequately told in the first place. This history is one that certain sections of Australian society are determined to deny, led by conservative media commentators who recently whipped up an indignant storm about how a university chooses to educate their students.

It is telling that Sandilands suggested people “get over it – it’s 200 years ago” when we so revere the notion of Lest We Forget when remembering our role in a foreign war (WW1) 100 years ago.

It is also worth remembering in this context that large scale massacres of Aboriginal people were still being carried out through the 1920s and early 1930s in some parts of Australia.

A newly begun project focusing on the archaeology of the Queensland Native Mounted Police and Indigenous oral histories will look at the physical evidence of frontier conflict, including the range of activities undertaken by the Queensland Mounted Police, and the effects of their presence on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

The first step will be to listen. As Jangga Elder Colin McLennan, from Central Queensland, said in a recent project meeting:

… this subject has been left idling too long. Aboriginal people are very sensitive about what happened. We need to investigate these places and we need to talk about them openly and honestly … I’ve kept a lot of this knowledge in my head about Aboriginal people being slaughtered and the locations of the killing fields in my country. It’s like an open wound that needs to be healed and it needs to be dealt with. This history belongs to all of us. We need to share it with each other.

In a way, Sandilands isn’t trying to deny the scale of frontier conflict (although many do) – he just wants us to forget about it. But who we, as Australians, choose to remember and what events we commemorate are inherently entwined with how we view ourselves and how we want the world to see us as a nation.

Official records of the Coniston massacre, which took place in the Northern Territory in 1928, admit to 31 Walpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children being killed by Constable William Murray and his men. Is not an event on this scale – which happened just 88 years ago – worth remembering? Is not a Walpiri man’s death defending his way of life just as worthy of remembrance as a World War I digger’s ten years earlier?

Why are we as a nation so reluctant to face up to this part of our past? Inconvenient truths that risk tainting the white “pioneer/settler” narrative are, it seems, not to be commemorated but forgotten.

Although the historical record documenting frontier conflict is a powerful and unequivocal record of our colonial past, it is mostly limited to written records that largely exclude Indigenous voices.

Yet the magnitude, persistence and near-universality of Aboriginal oral narratives of frontier violence are surely telling.

Combining the material evidence for frontier conflict through archaeology with written records and Aboriginal oral tradition and memory, might be the one way to track events and their repercussions more clearly.

Along with oral tradition, monuments and sites are powerful tools in remembering. They are physical markers on the landscape of events that happened.

For many Indigenous communities, the physical evidence of frontier conflict in Queensland in the form of Native Mounted Police camps and locations where people were killed are — just like Gallipoli — important places of remembrance that should never be forgotten.

Hopefully one day non-Indigenous people will be able to visit these sites and reflect on our collective history, rather than being threatened by it.

3 thoughts on “Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago

  1. I believe this should have happened years ago. Places marked with significance of horrific incidents should be exposed and the truth be told in order for the Indigenous community to heal. I live near a place called Murdering Creek Road, I asked my students in class do they know what happened there and they don’t know. But this name this place is indeed a terrible place for Indigenous people. Telling the truth is not rewriting history it is correcting it. The area I live is Noosa, Queensland.

  2. I grew up in Mt Is a in the 70s /80s with parents who researched Aboriginal culture and bush foods.and heard many stories of shootings spearing poisonings massacres and hunting parties. The problem is that most people grew up with the benign story of settlement which is much easier to accept than the brutal violent truth of what actually happened. I am very lucky to possess a report written by sub inspector Urquhart detailing a dispersal on Granada station in 1885.I have always found it strange that a nation that venerates it’s military history is so reluctant to recognise the conflict that took place with the aborigonial people who were defending themselves. This one document contains enough information to form the Bassi’s of an interpretive centre which could enhance tourism in the area and expose our hidden history. America makes movies and understands it’s past, we deny ours.

  3. I apologise for this very belated response, but I’m relatively new to this blog and am still catching up on past posts.

    There are at least three cinema and/or TV production companies, two Australian, one multi-national and partly based in Australia, that would have no qualms about exposing the reality of this country’s colonial past; indeed, one of them has already been involved with two frontier race relations-themed cinema productions – albeit set in the early 20th century, rather than the colonial era.

    As to massacres, the question that’s not usually asked is ‘how did they occur again and again over decades?’ After all, Aboriginal men were all armed warriors, and we know they fought back against settlers and police, often very bravely, when they had the opportunity, so why were they repeatedly and consistently surprised by settlers attacking sleeping camps at first light? My reading of many years has revealed two salient facts that go a long way to explaining the prevalence of massacres:

    1. Despite the universality of the revenge raid in Aboriginal culture, which you might expect to have engendered nocturnal security measures, the only instance I’ve read of Aboriginal people assigning someone as a night watch occurred on the Palmer River goldfield*. Many clans kept dogs, and these were expected to raise the alarm if attackers were approaching, but they were just as likely to be caught asleep as their masters. Otherwise camp security seems to have been left entirely to chance, so if an attacking party, whether tribal or settler, maintained silence the victims would more often than not be caught unawares.

    I think this lack of security consciousness can be attributed to the fact that revenge raids were relatively infrequent in the experience of any one clan, and that they were often unanticipated because the grievance of the attacking clan had been forgotten or was unknown to the victims because it originated in the attackers’ perceptions of hostile magic.

    In the case of conflict with settlers, aside from the ingrained habits of tens of thousands of years already mentioned, fears would have been allayed by their low population density and distance from Aboriginal camps, and there was also probably a confident misapprehension on the part of the Aborigines that they couldn’t easily be located by the settlers.

    2. Rather than individually retaining their weapons when not in use, Aboriginal warriors had the unfortunate habit of piling them centrally, so if they couldn’t be reached in time or, as seems to have been the case at Waterloo Creek^, the attackers got between the warriors and their weapons, they and their families had no choice but to flee, thus becoming easy targets for pursuing settlers and police. Conversely, we know that when they were able to retrieve their weapons warriors usually ‘shewed fight’.

    *Unlike the widely dispersed settler population of the pastoral frontier, the Palmer diggings were overrun with thousands of white and Chinese miners, so Aboriginal clans were constantly surrounded by hostile parties and consequently could never afford to relax their vigilance.

    ^One of the mounted police, Corporal Hannan, was speared in the leg by the only warrior who did manage to seize his weapons, suggesting that, had all the warriors been armed the attacking party would have had a serious fight on its hands and might even have been beaten.

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