Friday, 18 October 2013

FORGOTTEN WAR by Henry Reynolds

NewSouth, 2013, 280 pages, $29.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon 

The contrast is striking, says Henry Reynolds in Forgotten War, between the “relentless, lavishly funded public campaign to make [overseas] war the central defining experience of national life” in Australia compared to the historical amnesia surrounding the domestic war which raged across the continent’s settlement frontiers for 140 years from the 1790s with its scores of thousands of Aboriginal dead.

Whilst a few Indigenous men, Aborigines who “fought for the empire” as members of the armed forces, are increasingly celebrated, the many more who fought against the savage encroachments of empire on their traditional lands are lost to official recognition.

The “ongoing carnival of military commemoration” honouring every Australian soldier who died overseas is loud, government-driven and a sacred national obligation.  The ‘line of blood’ which accompanied white settlement, in which 30,000 or more Indigenous inhabitants were killed by British soldiers, Australian police and settlers, is, however, denied or skirted around with vague references to “unspecified wrongs and regrettable blemishes”.  The historiographical mentor of mainstream politicians and conservative historians would seem to be Basil Fawlty – ‘whatever you do, don’t mention the war’.

When frontier conflict is acknowledged, its status as war is repudiated by official Australia.  On every significant metric of war, however, other than the trappings of “smart uniforms and well-drilled marches of returning heroes”, the frontier war a very real war.

Although the war’s sporadic skirmishes and small-scale clashes may have lacked the major set-piece battles of conventional European armies or the occasional “dramatic confrontations between frontier settlers and aborigines of the kind witnessed in the United States, New Zealand and South Africa”,  it was persistent and the bodies piled up in comparable, if not greater, numbers.

The Australian frontier war dead (30,000 Indigenous and 2,500 soldiers and settlers) outstrips the contemporaneous American Indian War dead (15,000 and 6,500) and the New Zealand Maori War dead (2,100 and 750).  The Australian frontier war dead also rank with Australian deaths in World War 1 (62,000) and World War 11 (40,000).

Its status as war now suppressed, the picture of the Australian frontier conflict was different at the time, however.  It was recognised as war at the “highest levels of colonial society and by the many experienced military officers who had served in the Napoleonic wars”.  In the absence of land acquisition through negotiation, purchase or treaty, war was seen as inevitable by all the early colonial governors.

The governors also adopted ‘total war’ as a key strategy to, as Governor Phillip declared, ‘infuse a universal terror’ (his specialty was decapitation, Governor Macquarie’s the hanging of bodies in trees) to discourage further Aboriginal resistance.  There was no distinction between warriors and non-combatants – the common policy was to shoot on sight and to fire indiscriminately into the men, women and children in  sleeping Aboriginal camps.  The retaliatory, punitive raids to avenge Aboriginal spearing of settlers and destruction of their property were “quite disproportionate” (up to ten-fold ratios).

There is no Hall of Infamy to match the iconic Stockmen’s Hall of Fame for the cattle drovers and pastoralists who, with the notches on their rifle butts safely excised from view, are now the gritty, stoic stars in the nation-building narrative of a “hard and heroic fight against nature itself” in which the “frontier became a site of struggle with the land, not a fight for possession of it”.

Territorial conquest - in Australia’s case, the forced transfer of all the most productive land from  40,000 years of Indigenous ownership and control – has always been the main prize defining all wars.

This violent theft, “one of the greatest appropriations of land in world history”, was accompanied by abundant rhetoric about the need for ‘utter annihilation’ of the Aborigines, a people seen as ‘inhuman savages’.  Few were the voices of “humanitarian disquiet”, even rarer the voices of political dissent which recognised the legitimacy of Aboriginal war in defence of their homeland, a patriotism, as one letter-writer put it, which ‘we would esteem as a virtue in ourselves’. 

The war stopped short of genocide when the out-gunned Aborigines admitted defeat and accepted their dispossession, spared further annihilation because the squatters and cattlemen “had a desperate need for Aboriginal labour” in the face of the scarcity and high wages of white workers.

The comforting motif of the “peaceful settlement” of Australia, which had long dominated history-writing on colonial Australia, has been profoundly upset by the new history of violent conquest whose proponents, such as Reynolds, have been dubbed ‘black-armband’ historians and accused of “fabricating evidence and engaging in a hate-filled crusade to denigrate the nation’s history and undermine its moral legitimacy”.  Historical veracity, and addressing contemporary Indigenous disadvantage, however, requires a recognition of the human devastation and land theft of Australia’s frontier wars.

Whilst it is “easy to romanticise” Australia’s khaki wars fought at a geographical distance, fusing militarism with nationalism through the “sacred incantation” of ‘Lest We Forget’, says Reynolds, it seems that ‘Best we forget’ applies to the brutal reality of the frontier wars.  Reynolds’ compelling book challenges, with academic and moral vigour, a still damaging historical forgetting of Australia’s true past.

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