The Australian War Memorial claims it helps Australians “understand the Australian experience of war”.But does it?
The memorial does not commemorate the conflicts between Indigenous Australians and the British from 1788, known as the “Frontier Wars”.
I and some fellow students travelled to Canberra last year to talk to the war memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson.
Dr Nelson told us the memorial was not the “appropriate” place to commemorate the Frontier Wars. However, this position is becoming increasingly isolated from the views of historians and many others.
Was it war?
In December 2013, the memorial said there was not “substantial evidence” that state colonial forces or military units ever fought against the Indigenous population of this country.
However, there is much that contradicts this. Over the decades, military historians have described the conflict that took place from 1788 as warfare.
And it has been reported that an estimated 22,000 first Australians and new Australians died.
Then there is primary evidence from Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s 1816 diary entry: “I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march …”
There are also hand-written diaries, newspaper articles and personal accounts by the English. And, most importantly, there are the oral traditions of Aboriginal people with recurrent narratives relating to massacres and conflict.
‘Violent and tragic outcomes’
Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, is a professor of law and director of research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney.
“Although the colonists eventually prevailed, Aboriginal people around Australia resisted incursions on to the land, often tenaciously, with violent and tragic outcomes,” says Professor Behrendt in her 2012 book Indigenous Australia for Dummies.
If these sources and voices are not enough, the Oxford Companion to Australia’s Military History declares: “Frontier wars were fought in Australia from the late 18th century to the early 20th century as Australian Aborigines battled British soldiers … for control of the continent.”
Dr Nelson asserts in a letter to us that “Australian-raised or home-grown military units … were not involved in … conflicts” between Indigenous Australians and British soldiers, colonial police and British- and Australian-born settlers.
Aboriginal people were killed, he says, by British soldiers or settlers or police, but not by the Australian military.
Is this correct? Perhaps, technically. But what if we think differently?
We openly regard our Indigenous peoples as first Australians, so perhaps it is time to reimagine the Aboriginal warriors as the first Australian warriors.
These Aboriginal people were born and raised within the customary laws of their nations. If the memorial does not recognise the new Australians – those British soldiers – as Australian military, the definition of Australian warfare should be reconceptualised to recognise that the first Australians could be considered an army defending their country.
Where should we remember?
There seems to be agreement that the Frontier Wars should be commemorated, but the memorial argues it is not the place to do so. Why not?
It is an almost sacred Australian institution and is visited by millions each year.
We gather there to remember the fallen. If Indigenous people from the Frontier Wars are withheld from this shrine, they will never be recognised and commemorated as equal Australians, the fallen warriors of this country.
Fear of remembering
Perhaps the memorial’s reluctance stems from fear, fear that acknowledgment of the truth about the birth of our nation will somehow bring us into disrepute.
Perhaps that fear extends to concerns about diminishing the Anzac legacy. Coming to terms with our nation’s history means understanding the truth of Australia’s foundation, which includes wars, discrimination and prejudice.
Perhaps this is a foundation our nation is not ready to face. The service of our Anzac troops and the battles fought in the frontier wars are separate, but connected.
“We will remember them,” so the poem goes, but we cannot remember without first acknowledging and accepting our past.
So every year, when Australia as a nation celebrates April 25 as Anzac Day, do we solemnly promise “Lest we forget”, or do we silently swear never to remember?
Nadine Walker is in Year 11 at Killara High School in Sydney. One of her subjects at school is Aboriginal Studies.