Remembering the frontier wars

We must do more to remember how much Aboriginal Australia has lost through colonisation

By Jim Houston

May 4 2017While we mark the death and destruction of war on ANZAC day, we must do more to come to terms with the violent history of our own country. Retired Anglican priest Jim Houston has a novel suggestion for reminding us all that this land was taken from peoples and cultures virtually destroyed by colonisation.

Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Shortly after Anzac Day I read an online article by a Melbourne academic theologian, the Revd Dr Andrew Hamilton. Quoting the above text from the Beatitudes, he noted sadly that:

“We have no public holiday to reflect on peace. Peace Studies are not taught in schools nor seriously researched in universities. On the other hand war is constantly glorified as the proving-ground for heroes by short-term politicians harnessing fear. Perpetual war is necessary to feed the global armaments industry.”

Despite our Lord’s commendation of peacemakers, Christian churches seem reluctant to embrace the issues – through lack of conviction, reluctance to follow Jesus – or fear of political repercussions?

On Anzac Day we had gone to St Paul’s Cathedral to an ecumenical occasion entitled ‘A Service of Lament, Repentance and Hope’ marking the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 during the First World War, and also to remember those who said ‘no’ to war — and also those who died  in the Aboriginal wars.

We honoured the courage and self-sacrifice of all who fought, we lamented the destruction and waste of so many young lives, the pain and anguish of those who returned and of their families and communities. We were called to repentance leading to new hope in the gift of God’s peace. And in this time of heightened tensions we prayed that Australia and other nations will not be led into war.

It came as a surprise to learn that, while 61,000 Australian soldiers died in the First World War, 65,000 Aborigines had died in the colonial wars in Queensland alone! Quite early in the Tasmania’s colonial history the indigenous population was virtually wiped out. By the 1920s, of the several hundred of thousand Aboriginals estimated to be living Australia-wide at the time of first settlement, only 60,000 remained! By then well-meaning Christians saw it as our duty to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’. But it seems that God had other plans. Today Aboriginal numbers stand at over 600,000.

The historians’ failure to make much mention of the frontier conflicts has meant that few Australians have ever become conscious of the magnitude of the losses. Nor did we older Australians ever learn anything significant about it in our schooldays. Contemporary historians have termed this ‘the great Australian silence’. Indeed, some recent national leaders have even made light of the claim as being merely an aspect of the ‘culture wars’.                        

How can we encourage more of our fellow Australians (especially our fellow-Christians) to become more aware of the ‘founding people’ of our country and of their true history since 1788, so that we might appropriately recall and honour their survival against such odds – and not only on Anzac Day?

It occurs to me that one idea might be for all highways Australia-wide to display signs announcing, for example, ‘Welcome to Wurundjeri land’ in English and the local Aboriginal language. This would mark the bounds of Aboriginal occupation and remind everyone that the whole country originally had an association with a specific Aboriginal people – perhaps even triggering the insight that it had simply been purloined and that justice is yet to be done. I intend trying to check the idea out with wider representative Aboriginal bodies.