The ‘frontier wars’: Undoing the myth of the peaceful settlement of Australia


Lynette Russell

Professor and Director, Monash Indigenous Studies Centre

The ‘Mounted Police and Blacks’ lithograph depicts the massacre of the Gamilaraay people by British troops at Waterloo Creek,
southwest of Moree, New South Wales, in December 1837 and January 1838.

In February, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told Parliament that an Australian government had yet to acknowledge the nation’s true history. The section about the nationwide killing of Indigenous people by European invaders was usually missing.

“We have all failed,” Albanese said. “Truth must fill the holes of our national memory.”

The Aboriginal people who died at the hands of the settlers should be recognised, he said. “They, too, died for their loved ones. They, too, died for their Country. We must remember them, just as we remember those who fought more recent conflicts.”

Albanese also confirmed his support for the Makarrata Commission, part of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, released in May 2017 by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention.

A Makarrata Commission would tell the truth about how Australia was colonised, including the massacres of Indigenous people that took place all over the continent.

A month after Albanese’s speech, the Victorian government announced it would hold the nation’s first truth and justice commission – to tell a more complete story of the state’s colonisation, as part of its historic treaty process.

Monash Indigenous studies historian Professor Lynette Russell AM welcomed Albanese’s statement and the Victorian initiative.

“The myth of the peaceful settlement of Australia is something we need to undo, because we talk about reconciliation in Australia, but for the most part, we like to do it without truth,” she says.

“The War Memorial represents wars between nation states, and essentially wars between equals. In lots of ways, the frontier wars are anything but a war between equals.”

Australian history classes rarely include accounts of a violent frontier, and few monuments exist that tell the story of the Indigenous people who lost their lives in a conflict sometimes called “the frontier wars”.

Although work is being done to uncover the stories of Aboriginal resistance and to document Indigenous massacres, these accounts haven’t yet entered mainstream understanding, or bipartisan acceptance.

“We need to improve the historical literacy of Australians,” Professor Russell says. “It was not a mythic, peaceful settlement. It was an invasion. It had deep ramifications for Aboriginal people, their ongoing dispossession and alienation. If we want to undo some of that, or we want to move forward as a sophisticated, reconciled nation, then we’ve got some growing up to do.”

Plaque commemorating the NSW Red Rock (Blood Rock) massacre of indigenous people in the 19th century by colonists.
Plaques such as this, commemorating the Red Rock (Bloodrock) massacre by colonists of the Gumbaynngir people in New South Wales, are rare.

Some historians, including Henry Reynolds, have called for the story of the frontier wars to be incorporated into the Australian War Memorial. But Professor Russell isn’t sure the memorial is the best place to tell the story.

“I think it’s a really great debate, and it’s one a mature nation could have, and it could be really fruitful,” she says. “But it has to be done against the background of what, I think, is an obscene amount of money [$500 million] being spent on the War Memorial.”

Reynolds’ research estimated that up to 3000 Europeans and at least 20,000 Aboriginal Australians lost their lives in the frontier conflicts.

More recently, Raymond Evans, of the University of Queensland, has estimated that in this “largely unpublicised guerrilla war”, 66,680 Indigenous people lost their lives in 6000 attacks by settlers and native police in Queensland alone. Queensland was the most densely populated part of Australia pre-settlement, and the “epicentre of the struggle”, he says.

Read more: Australia’s history is complex and confronting, and needs to be known, and owned, now

He and colleague Robert Orsted Jensen arrived at this figure using methodology described here. If their estimate is correct, it would mean that the number of people who lost their lives in Queensland was more than the number of Australians who died in WWI (62,300). Evans puts the ratio of Aboriginal to settler deaths at 44:1.

“The War Memorial represents wars between nation states, and essentially wars between equals,” Professor Russell says. “In lots of ways, the frontier wars are anything but a war between equals.”

The one-sidedness of the conflict has been painstakingly recorded by historians at the University of Newcastle, led by Lyndall Ryan, who have made a map and searchable archive, Colonial Frontier Massacres of Australia, 1788 to 1930.

This research, which continues to expand, estimates 8391 Indigenous lives were lost in the massacres it has been able to verify, and 312 Europeans. Their sources included parliamentary papers, private journals and letters, newspaper articles, anthropological reports and Indigenous records – both oral and visual.

According to the archive, massacres were often planned events that took place in secret without witnesses. A code of silence in the immediate aftermath makes detection difficult – although survivors sometimes spoke out years later, when they believed the danger had passed.

“Should we redefine what we’re talking about, when we talk about the colonial period, as a period of war?” Professor Russell asks.

“Maybe it’s a different type of war, an undeclared war. People see their lands invaded. They see people come, stay, and take from them. Dispossession and dislocation – all follow on from that. Then it segues into the removal of children … then you remove culture and language.

“In a way, it almost dignifies them to put them in the War Memorial as though, somehow, this is equal to attempting to land on the beaches at Gallipoli.”

Not a war in the Western sense

Although Indigenous people sometimes protected their borders, had rivalries with other tribes, or conducted raiding parties, they didn’t wage war in the Western sense. “They were doing something different,” Professor Russell says.

“People often say, ‘The Maori people fought back, and Aboriginal people didn’t.’ That’s absolutely not true. We know Aboriginal people fought back.

“[But] If you read, particularly, some of the work on the frontier wars, you do start to get this idea of Aboriginal people creating skirmishes, plotting, and planning in the ways we expect Western war to proceed. They are battle-ready, and they’re working out the best strategies for this.

“Now, they might have been doing that, but my fear is, because you’ve already got in your mind the view of the noble soldier, you then ascribe that to Aboriginal people, who are retaliating against the invasion in their land on their terms, not the European terms. That makes it really quite tricky to then turn around and say, ‘Oh, look, it’s war as we recognise it.’”

An exterior courtyard of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra
There’s debate about the appropriateness of the story of the frontier wars being incorporated into the Australian War Memorial.

During the Eumeralla Wars – a protracted conflict between the Gunditjmara people in what’s now known as Victoria’s Western District, British colonists and police, the Aboriginal resistance was regularly reported in the press, Professor Russell says.

Indigenous people “fought back in various ways. They fought back overtly. They actually, literally, attacked settlers’ huts. Particularly, if you’re a shepherd on the outskirts of a station, then you could be in a lot of trouble, but they had to be very careful in how they managed their retaliation …

“There’s also covert retaliation – retaliation that the settlers might not have even seen, including the use of sorcery and magic, to influence people.”

The siege mentality

In the mid-19th century, colonists recognised that “they were under siege”, she says. “It was commonly spoken of. It was also common for settlers to talk about the validity of Aboriginal people trying to protect the land … Trying to chase off the invaders. It was part of the general writing. People wrote it in their diaries. They wrote it in letters to the newspaper. They would say things like, ‘Who can blame them. We’ve taken this from them.’”

But by the turn of the century, this conversation about Aboriginal resistance all but vanished from public view, she says.

“I think it’s tied into the dying-race paradigm, where, suddenly, everybody thinks Aboriginal people are dying out. It smooths the pillow of the dying race … humanitarianism comes to the forefront.

“Aboriginal people are needing protection. They’re needing to be looked after, but there’s also an anticipation they will go away – as in, they’ll disappear. They will be absorbed into the wider population. They’ll become white, or they’ll die out.”

In reality, Indigenous people were herded onto protectorates, deprived of their liberty, punished for talking in their own language, and their children were taken away. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” Professor Russell says.

She hopes that during the Victorian truth and justice commission “these stories of dispossession, and violence, and all the rest, can be captured, kept, and held in posterity. People in the future will know what happened here. To me, that’s the most important thing we really need.”



Are You Overlooking or Rationalizing Abuse? That’s Denial!

Denial is a necessary defense mechanism, but it can cause a lot of hidden harm.

Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT

Toxic Relationships

Posted Dec 01, 2019

Source: Oleg Magni/Pexels

We’re all in denial. We’d barely get through the day if we worried that we or people we love could die today. Life is unpredictable, and denial helps us cope and focus on what we must in order to survive. On the other hand, denial harms us when it causes us to ignore problems for which there are solutions or deny feelings and needs that if dealt with would enhance our lives. Unfortunately, if you’re in denial, you won’t know it. Read on to learn how to recognize denial in its many forms.

Types and Degrees of Denial

When it comes to dependent behaviors, denial has been called the hallmark of addiction. It’s true not only for drug (including alcohol) abusers, but also for their partners and family members. This axiom also applies to abuse and other types of addiction. We may use denial in varying degrees.

      First degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists.

      Second degree: Minimization or rationalization about it.

      Third degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences.

      Fourth degree: Unwilling to seek help for it.

Thus, denial doesn’t always mean we don’t see there’s a problem, we might rationalize, excuse, or minimize its significance or effect upon us. Other types of denial are forgetting, outright lying or contradicting the facts due to self-deception. Deeper still, we may repress things that are too painful to remember or think about.

Reasons for Denial

Denial is a defense that helps us. There are many reasons we use denial, including avoidance of physical or emotional pain, fear, shame or conflict. We’re actually wired to deny for survival. It’s the first defense that we learn as a child. I thought it cute when my 4-year-old son vehemently denied having eaten any chocolate ice cream, while the evidence was smeared all over his mouth. He had lied out of self-preservation and the fear of being punished.

Difficult emotions

Denial is adaptive when it helps us cope with difficult emotions, such as in the initial stages of grief following the loss of a loved one, particularly if the separation or death is sudden. Denial allows our body-mind to adjust to the shock more gradually.

It’s not adaptive when we deny warning signs of a treatable illness or problem out of fear. Many women delay getting mammograms or biopsies out of fear, even though early intervention leads to greater success in treating cancer. Applying the various degrees, above, we might deny that we have a lump; next rationalize that it’s probably a cyst; third, admit that it could be or actually is cancer, but deny that it could lead to death; or admit all of the above and still be unwilling to get treatment.

Inner conflict

Another major reason for denial is inner conflict. Children often repress memories of abuse not only due to their pain, but because they’re dependent on their parents, love them, and are powerless to leave home. Young children idealize their parents. It’s easier to forget, rationalize, or make excuses than accept the unthinkable reality that my mother or father (their entire world) is cruel or crazy. Instead, they blame themselves.

As adults, we deny the truth when it might mean we’d have to take action we don’t want to. We might not look at how much debt we’ve accumulated, because that would require us to lower our spending or standard of living, creating inner conflict.

A wife rationalizes facts that suggest her husband is cheating and supplies other explanations. Confronting the truth forces her to face not only the pain of betrayal, humiliation, and loss, but the possibility of divorce. An addicted parent might look the other way when his child is getting high, because he’d have to do something about his own marijuana habit.

Frequently, partners of addicts or abusers are on the “merry-go-round” of denial. The Addicts and abuser can be loving and even responsible at times and promise to stop their drug use or abuse, but soon it returns breaking trust and promises. Once again apologies and promises are made and believed because the partner loves them, may deny his or her own needs and worth, and is afraid to end the relationship.


Another reason we deny problems is because they’re familiar. We grew up with them and don’t see that something is wrong. So if we were emotionally abused as a child,we wouldn’t consider mistreatment by our spouse to be abuse. If we were molested, we might not notice or protect our child being harmed. This is first degree denial.

We might acknowledge that our spouse is verbally abusive, but minimize or rationalize. One woman told me that even though her husband was verbally abusive, she knew he loved her. Most victims of abuse experience third degree denial, meaning that they don’t realize the detrimental impact the abuse is having on them – often leading to PTSD long after they’ve left the abuser. If they faced the truth, they’d be more likely to seek help.

Shame and trauma

Shame is an extremely painful emotion. Most people, including myself for many years, don’t realize how much shame drives their lives – even if they think their self-esteem is pretty good. Needs and feelings are often “shame-bonded” in childhood if they were ignored or shamed. We may deny a shame-bonded feeling, such as fear or anger, minimize or rationalize it, or be unaware of how much it’s affecting us.

Denial of needs is a major reason people remain unhappy in relationships. They deny problems and deny that they’re not getting their needs met. They’re not aware that that’s the case. If they do, they might feel guilty and lack the courage to ask for what they need or know how to get their need met. Learning to identify and express our feelings and needs is a major part of recovery and is essential to well-being and enjoying satisfying relationships.

How to Know if You’re in Denial

You might be wondering how to tell if you’re in denial. There are actually signs. I’ve mentioned some, including rationalization, making excuses, forgetting, and minimization. If you’re in a relationship with a drug user or drinker, does your partner’s behavior affect his or her job, family and social obligations, or your relationship? Here are more. Do you:

  1. Think about how you wish things would be in your relationship?
  2. Wonder, “If only, he (or she) would . . .”?
  3. Doubt or dismiss your feelings?
  4. Believe repeated broken assurances?
  5. Conceal embarrassing aspects of your relationship?
  6. Hope things will improve when something happens (e.g., a vacation, moving, or getting married)?
  7. Make concessions and placate, hoping it will change someone else?
  8. Feel resentful or used by your partner?
  9. Spend years waiting for your relationship to improve or someone to change?
  10. Walk on egg-shells, worry about your partner’s whereabouts, or dread talking about problems?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, uncover how you may have been trained to deny and tips for what you can do. A professional therapist can assist your recovery by pointing out your defenses, questioning contradictions between your thoughts and reality, helping you identify denied feelings and needs, and supporting you in facing your fears and inner conflicts and in making changes.

©Darlene Lancer 2014