In dealing with all savages you must make yourself feared.George Pearce Serocold (25 December 1857)
Frontier conflict in colonies such as Australia was less military and more irregular than the popular conception of warfare, characterised by quick, highly-focused, short-term attacks, non-professional combatants, and a range of changing and temporary alliances between Indigenous groups. In this it replicated the situation in other settler colonial nations such as the US (McBride and McBride 2019:11).
This made it no less a war. Any conflict in which the combatants operate at opposing ends of a political or tactical spectrum and in which their respective populations, abilities, technologies and means to engage are unequal can be termed asymmetrical warfare (Smith 2019:2). Asymmetry in war takes many forms, one of which — irregular warfare — encompasses all of the elements of frontier conflict. Its various synonyms — Petite guerre (‘small’ war), guerrilla war and partisan war — all describe unconventional forms of conflict that fall outside the classic state-on-state or army-on-army traditions (Grenier 2005:1). Such conflicts are typically characterised by raids, havoc, ambushes, surprise and harassment (Smith 2019:2), and involve a wide range of protagonists, including civilians.
Claims for denying the status of war to Australian frontier conflict adopt a threshold approach. One line argues that the formal definition of war applies exclusively to exercises between State parties, and that therefore only engagements overseas on behalf of the nation count. Another holds that the widely distributed small-scale nature of colonial conflict prevents it from being compared to formal organised engagements or battles. These positions and the legislation governing the establishment of the Australian War Memorial have prevented frontier conflict from being memorialised in the same orthodox vein as twentieth century engagements, and generated considerable debate.
The participants in frontier conflict themselves drew no such distinctions. Apart from the organised protection offered by the Native Mounted Police (NMP), George Carrington (an Oxford graduate who spent several years in Queensland, including working as a shepherd on a pastoral station on the Clarke River, inland from Townsville, in the mid- to late 1860s) noted that there also existed,
… a continual private enmity, between each white-fellow and native, until the latter has come to be considered in the light of a troublesome wild animal to be shot at and hunted down, whenever seen in the open country. He is also to be pursued occasionally, into the scrubby and mountainous regions, which have been allotted to him, and his camps must be plundered, as a gentle hint of what he may expect, if he ventures out. In fact there is a steady, but irregular, guerilla war fare going on, the blackfellow having, on his side, cunning and knowledge of the country, and the other side depending on their superior weapons and skill. There can be little doubt, however, about the final result, as for every white man killed, six blackfellows, on an average, bite the dust.(Carrington 1871:154)
For others it was ‘war to the knife’ — conflict for which only violence taken to its extreme could suffice — especially following specific events such as pivotal attacks on European settlers. George Pearce Serocold, occupier of the Cockatoo pastoral run in central Queensland, felt the spectre of excessive force in the wake of the massacre of the neighbouring Fraser family at Hornet Bank by Aboriginal people in October 1857:
There is now war to the knife, and we are not without apprehensions of our head station being attacked at night — large pillars of smoke are being sent up all round to the West and to the North —being signals from one camp to the other — Your pistols have become my daily companions — and we are well prepared whenever they come.(Serocold 1858).
For historians such as Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos (1976) the existence of widespread communal anxiety and a plethora of guns, as well as the extent and economic toll of Aboriginal attack, combined to create all the groundwork for war. Further, the Mabo judgement handed down in 1992, which established the sovereignty held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over their own lands, should have retroactively recognised it as such:
… frontier fighting no matter what form it took had to be about the ownership and control of territory. It therefore had to be a war, and because it was fought in Australia and about the control of the continent, it was Australia’s most important war. For us it was, on any measure, far more consequential than the balance of power in European in the early twentieth century or the contemporaneous scramble to carve up the Ottoman Empire.(Reynolds 2019:4)
The Qld Government worked hard to maintain the asymmetry of war within its colonial boundaries and avoid anything resembling the situation faced by the British in New Zealand, where Maori combatants had ready access to guns. One of the main ways they achieved this was through the institution of the NMP:
Galloping over the prairies of the interior on my official tours, I have more than once seen a black Trooper of my escort, at the word of command, unsling his carbine, and kill a bustard on the wing, with a single bullet, at the distance of forty or fifty yards. It may not be altogether impertinent to add that it is a common opinion of competent judges that had a similar force be maintained in New Zealand, also at the expense of the Colonists for the last twenty years, the mother country would have heard little of “wars” in that quarter; especially if care had been taken there, as in Queensland, to recruit the Troopers from tribes dwelling in districts remote from those in which they would be stationed and to enforce the laws prohibiting the acquisition of firearms and ammunition by the Natives except when in the employment of the Government.(Bowen 1861)
Acknowledging colonial frontier violence as war means recognising key elements of it as part of a larger pattern of cause and effect, intent and purpose. Many aspects of Aboriginal and settler behaviour turned on this pattern, especially the anxieties that animated actions on both sides. Such a “weight of fear and the imaginary” (Ryan 2008:483) was both widespread and well entrenched, held both individually and communally, and affected the inhabitants of stations and towns alike. It shaped many aspects of daily life and habituated people to certain behaviours, such as carrying firearms, monitoring their surroundings and, wherever possible, seeking protection in groups. Its contours mapped a wide range of potential events, including rape, death, the sacking of huts, drays and stores, and the destruction of stock and crops.
The most underreported element of such warfare was the psychological tactics deployed by participants to intimidate and control, including via the mutilation of bodies after death. This was reported in the newspapers as solely an Aboriginal act against colonists, although Europeans are also documented to have engaged in such practices, for example, the strings of ears decorating Frank Hann’s Lawn Hill station near the Gulf of Carpentaria (Creaghe 2004) and the skulls that supposedly once formed the borders for an ornamental flower bed at Raglan station in central Queensland (Capricornian 25 October 1924:66; Morning Bulletin 12 February 1925:7). The excessive violence that marked many reprisal killings was another way of inflicting psychological damage, as George Serocold noted in the aftermath of Hornet Bank:
The magistrates met and consulted; unless immediate severe measures were adopted it was clearly seen that fresh murders would quickly follow, the result of which would be that the whole of our servants would abscond, our flocks be left to the native dogs and blacks, our stores pillaged & the country given up. Severity was in reality mercy in the end. Accordingly twelve of us turned out, & taking rations with us we patrolled the country for 100 miles round for three weeks and spared none of the grown up blacks which we could find.
I had hopes that my sword was turned into a ploughshare for good—& loath indeed was I to draw it—but it was a choice of evils—& we acted as we believed to be for the best in this crisis.
Little did I think that the very nice pair or pistols, your last present to me on my leaving England, would be required to take human life;—they now lay near my head—and God grant me a cool head & a steady arm if these treacherous scoundrels pay us a visit.
I sincerely hope the lesson we have given them will prevent them even doing any more mischief but this is hoping too much.
In dealing with all savages you must make yourself feared.(Serocold 1857)
Racial politics were firmly embedded in Western ways of thinking about Indigenous societies by the mid 19th century, allowing Europeans and others to confer an array of savage propensities on Aboriginal people, imagining them as routinely planning a range of acts from treachery to cannibalism. In part this allowed settlers to justify campaigns against Aboriginal people on the basis of both necessity and inevitability.
Morris (1992) has argued that the precarity of the frontier, the thinly spread European population and the seeming unpredictability of Aboriginal resistance tactics fuelled an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty amongst colonists and engendered a culture of terror that was harnessed by both sides. This created a spiral of violence: ‘For the Europeans, the acts of violence by Aborigines could only be extinguished by the exercise of a greater terror through violence. The cultural representations of Aborigines empowering them as treacherous beings devoid of mercy or pity, in effect authorised and inspired greater acts of terror’ (Morris 1992:86). In contemporary warfare such acts would be termed ‘managed atrocities’ — overt and visible acts of violence against an enemy that are an acknowledged part of psychological warfare (Scott 2004:147–148).
The presence of patterns in such practices on the part of Aboriginal people hint at particular, although unknowable, logics. The removal of kidney fat (Queenslander, 12 March 1904:2) was relatively familiar to Europeans, given that it was a widespread practice across Australia and regularly carried out on sheep and cattle. Observers seemed well aware that it was a substance to which ‘the blackfellow attributes peculiar virtue’ (Brisbane Courier, 3 December 1864:5). The grease was used to coat participants’ bodies during ceremonies and to coat spears, as well as in other ways as a talisman to impart strength and protection.
Stripping the body and severing its parts, however, is not referred to in documents as having any specific meaning, although its regularity implies that it was animated by explicit intent. Removing hands and feet and/or beheading are reported from cases as widespread as Mt Lindesay (Sydney Herald, 15 May 1841:2), Bowen (QSA2996261), and the Hodgkinson (Capricornian, 24 December 1881:14). The Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser hinted that such practices were relatively common, claiming that the death of a shepherd on the Mackenzie River, central Queensland, whose head had been ‘literally hacked off, his hands chopped to bits, and the dead body otherwise mutilated’, was ‘the usual handy work of our brethren’ (Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, 7 April 1866:3).
Removing legs below the knees also recurred. When a shepherd was killed on Rosedale on the Upper Burdekin in 1865, ‘… his arms and legs were hanging by the mere skin, … his teeth and eyes were knocked out, his throat cut by his own knife, and a stake driven through his neck into the sand’ (Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Qld Advertiser, 10 January 1865:2). Similarly cedar-getter Thomas Hanley’s body was found on the Daintree in 1877, ‘in a sitting posture, leaning against a tree, with a spear wound through his body from side to side, his two legs chopped off below the knees, one leg … lying beside the body, the other missing; the head scalped. Regan was lying beside him in the same posture, a spear wound through the heart, and scalped. The other man — George — was a short distance away with one arm chopped off, scalped as the others, and four spear wounds’ (Mackay Mercury and South Kennedy Advertiser, 24 November 1877:2). Similar treatment was also meted out to Aboriginal men who had transgressed customary law (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 23 May 1893:2).
These practices in the Torres Strait have been argued to reflect ‘expressions of complex cosmologies … appropriate to either neutralizing the spiritual danger and potential destructive power of spirits of the dead, intruders, and castaways (for example, hand removals) and/or enhancing spiritual power and status (for example, head removals)’ (McNiven 2018:23). While the precise motivations from one area cannot be generalised to another, the concept that such transgressive acts were animated by symbolic logics of control is likely, and they could certainly have functioned as psychological tactics of protection and support (for Indigenous participants) and intimidation (against settlers) in an ongoing war.
Apart from any arcane ritual meanings, the potential to harness these and other displays to intimidate or defy would not have been lost on Europeans. Pastoralist John Ker Wilson recalled that as soon as he attempted to move north into Queensland around Goondiwindi, Aboriginal groups wiped out portions of his stock. At one point he counted 80 speared carcasses of cattle on the fields of the Callandoon run, some of which had their ‘heads …. cut off and stuck up on sticks’ (John Ker Wilson 18 June 1861, Qld Legislative Assembly 1861 Select Committee into the Native Police: 71). Such an act was echoed some forty years later and more than 1500km further north by Aboriginal people around the Lower Laura NMP camp in far north Queensland:
In every black’s camp, for a radius of miles round the Native Police Camp, there is either fresh beef to be found, or else the bones of cattle they have killed and eaten, and in several cases done, I believe, in mockery of the Native Police, the heads of the beasts they have killed being put up on stumps or hung on trees.(Cooktown Herald, 23 May 1884)
It is tempting to read such acts on the part of Aboriginal people as guerilla warfare, intended to foster insecurity. It is important to remember that the frontier was only defined as such by those who did not normally live there—for Aboriginal people it was precisely the opposite: home.
Bowen, G.F. 1861 Letter from George F. Bowen to the Duke of Newcastle, 16 December, Governor’s Letterbook of Despatches to Secretary of State for Colonies, Queensland State Archives 17671.
Carrington, G. 1871 Colonial Adventures and Experiences of a University Man. London: Bell and Daldy.
Creaghe, E.C. 2004 The Diary of Emily Caroline Creaghe, Explorer. Adelaide: Corkwood Press.
Grenier, J. 2005 The First Way of War : American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814. Cambridge: CUP.
Loos, N. 1982 Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier 1861–1897. Canberra: ANU Press.
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McNiven, I. 2018 Ritual mutilation of Europeans on the Torres Strait maritime frontier. The Journal of Pacific History 53(3):229–251.
Morris, B. 1992 Frontier colonialism as a culture of terror. Journal of Australian Studies 16:72–87.
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Scott, P.D. 2004 Atrocity and its discontents: US double-mindedness about massacre, from the Plains Wars to Indonesia. In A. Jones (ed.), Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity, pp. 146–63. London: Zed Books.
Serocold, G.P. 1857 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 25 December. West Glamorgan Archive Service, Wales, UK, GB 216 D/D T 2974/6 1857.
Serocold, G.P. 1858 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 3 March. West Glamorgan Archive Service, Wales, UK, GB 216 D/D T 2974/7 1858.
Smith, S.D. 2019 An introduction to asymmetric warfare. In S.D. Smith and C.R. Geier (eds), Partisans, Guerillas and Irregulars: Historical Archaeology of Asymmetric Warfare, pp.1–10. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.