By Henry ReynoldsNon-fiction New South Publishing
Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas. Why are there no official memorials or commemorations of the wars that were fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists? Why is it more controversial to talk about the frontier war now than it was 100 years ago?
Forgotten War continues the story told in Henry Reynolds’ seminal book The Other Side of the Frontier, which argued that the settlement of Australia had a high level of violence and conflict that we chose to ignore.
That book prompted a flowering of research and fieldwork that Reynolds draws on here to give a thorough and systematic account of what caused the frontier wars between white colonists and Aborigines, how many people died and whether the colonists themselves saw frontier conflict as a form of warfare. It is particularly timely as we approach the centenary of World War I. This powerful book makes it clear that there can be no reconciliation without acknowledging the wars fought on our own soil.
The Age wrote: ‘This is an important and richly textured book - one that deserves wide reading and debate. It is probably the most impressive and instructive book Reynolds has written since his ground-breaking volume, The Other Side of the Frontier, in 1981.’
Henry Reynolds’ Forgotten War calls for the principle of ‘lest we forget’ to include all Australians who died in defending their country, including Indigenous people. Timely historical analysis of newly collated and discovered evidence shows that the coming of European settlers to Aboriginal territories was firmly defined as a frontier war by those involved at the time, government officials and settlers alike.
The concept and phrasing of ‘war’ then faded or was expunged from official histories. Elegantly written, authoritative and reflective, this places our history in its contemporary context. Reynolds makes a compelling and measured case that we should officially honour and acknowledge the tens of thousands of people who died in our frontier wars.
The non-fiction judging panel also wished to commend Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
Henry Reynolds first major work, The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), was instrumental in shifting cultural understanding of the relationship between British settlers and Indigenous people in the early era of Australian colonisation. Opening up a new avenue of scholarship, the subsequent surge of historical, anthropological and sociological research had profound effects on the prevailing national narrative. After decades of omission, frontier violence was no longer ‘an optional topic that the discerning historian could decide to deal with or ignore’; evidence of it ‘spilled unbidden from the contemporary record like blood from an open wound.’ New generations of non-Indigenous Australians, raised with the narrative of peaceful settlement and terra nullius as balm to their colonial conscience, were forced to confront this new understanding of their own history.
But the following years also saw another massive cultural shift: a powerful upswing in the prominence of military history as the forge of national identity; a political restructuring of the Australian narrative that focused on overseas war as the making of the modern nation. The result was the history wars: ongoing cultural and political contention over the nature and extent of frontier violence, the implications of inherited guilt, the weight of responsibility for reparation and reconciliation with Indigenous Australia, and the subsequent inevitable reassessment of Australian identity. Taking a national stage with the influence of three prime ministers and decades of academic and popular debate, the results of this unwieldy and prolonged conflict could be distilled metaphorically into the two national monuments on either side of Lake Burley Griffin: on one, a war memorial that obstinately refuses to acknowledge frontier brutality and the massive Indigenous casualties of it; on the other, a Reconciliation installation that omits any mention of settler violence.
Forgotten War revisits that blood-soaked frontier landscape, 30 years after the publication of Reynolds’ pioneering work. Was it war that occurred between the British and Indigenous Australians? asks Reynolds. Today’s military historians insist it was, and that recognition of it as such is entirely appropriate. If that is the case, then, how do we account for its absence from our national veneration of military endeavour? How could we possibly have meaningful reconciliation without it? And how would such acknowledgement change the way we conceive of ourselves as a people?
With a comprehensive and incisive investigation into the volumes of documentary evidence of frontier violence, Forgotten War surveys the matter through the eyes of the settlers themselves. Account after account of the nature of the conflict, the expectation of widespread casualties and the recognition of the military dynamic to many of the skirmishes at the fringes of white occupation are woven together with a keen eye and sharp analysis of the contemporary representations of such. The questions of legal interpretation of war and genocide and the interplay between politics and everyday settler practice which could, in the hands of a less adept practitioner, become an exercise in semantics and rhetoric, are carefully contextualised and assessed. Reynolds’ research is compelling, and the energy in his writing lifts it from the page and drives it firmly over lazy generalisations of ‘peaceful’ settlement, easily-conquered passive resistance, or blameless narratives of population decimation through disease. The Indigenous population fought against colonisation and fought hard, and central to the thesis of Forgotten War is the argument that recognition of their crusade is just as crucial to the national story, and they ought to command as much respect as any veteran or victim of Vietnam or Gallipoli. It was war, and understanding it as such is the key to understanding frontier Australia, and reconciliation today between black and white is inevitably incomplete without it.
Forgotten War is a book that cannot help but reshape our understanding of our shared history. There is a reason, after all, why Reynolds’ work is considered pivotal in this field. Once read, ‘nothing,’ as Reynolds himself argues, ‘would ever be quite the same again.’
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist