John Connor, The Australian frontier wars 1788-1838, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2002, xii + 175 pp., maps, bibliography, index, soft cover, rrp A$29.95

Reviewed by: BRAD MANERA, Australian War Memorial

Once upon a time, it was common knowledge that the frontiers of European settlement on the Australian continent were potentially violent places that occasionally erupted into localised warfare. The contemporary media used the language of war, and visitors to the colonies liberally laced their recollections with descriptions of armed conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Awareness of this aspect of the Australian frontier experience faded from the public domain over the course of the 20th century.

In the early 1980s Henry Reynolds reintroduced Australians to this violent period in our history with The other side of the frontier (1982). Over the past few years, however, revisiting conflict history has taken a turn for the surreal, with a very small, but extraordinarily vocal, group led by writer Keith Windshuttle claiming that the colonisation of Australia was a largely peaceful process. These vague but oft-repeated denials of frontier warfare have had a disproportionate effect on the presentation of Australian colonial history. Rational studies of Australian frontier conflict, such as the opening chapter of the authoritative and encyclopedic An atlas of Australia’s wars (2001) by John Coates, have been overwhelmed by the Windshuttle denial team.

Now John Connor, an academic from the Australian Defence Force Academy, has added his research to aid our understanding of the early settlement of Australia. His book is a well researched and very readable study of Australian colonial warfare, from first settlement to the late 1830s. Connor chooses 1838 as his cut-off date, as it is the year of the Myall Creek massacre and the trials of the perpetrators of that outrage. It is the period when the burden of settlement and pastoral security, punitive expeditions and other operations against the indigenous population devolved from the control of the British garrison to that of the settlers and local police.

The first and largest chapter is an analysis of the weapons and warfare of the Aboriginals and a summary of the conflicts that involved units of the British army as Britain built her empire in the first decades of the 19th century. The following chapters offer a largely chronological narrative of frontier conflict, charting its spread as the frontier of European settlement rolled across the landscape. Connor is a historian, not an anthropologist, and if he has a political agenda it is too unpolemical to interrupt the logical narrative of the work.

Chapters two and three of The Australian frontier wars 1788-1838 describe the conflicts that punctuated the early days of the colony of New South Wales, from the first hostile reactions to European settlement around Sydney, to economic warfare around the Macquarie towns and out to the mountains. Chapter four provides an interesting summary of the well-known but poorly understood period of martial law around Bathurst in the mid-1820s and the operations of the mounted police in the Hunter Valley. It concludes with a brief description of the extraordinary trial of Lieutenant Nathaniel Lowe of the 40th Regiment for murder of an Aborigine.

In chapter five, Connor looks first at the role of elements of the British army that were involved in the largely abortive settlements in what is now the Northern Territory. The second part of the chapter deals with contact between settlers and soldiers and Aboriginals in Western Australia, from the foundation of the colony in 1829 to the battle of Pinjarra in 1834. In the final pages of the chapter, he discusses the historiography of the battle and offers an opinion on the current discussion of terminology. Since the 19th century the incident has been know as a “battle”, but more recently some have sought to rename it the “Pinjarra massacre”. Connor makes a strong case for the retention of the battle description.

In chapter six Connor summarises the Black War in Van Diemen’s Land from 1826 to 1831. Much has already been written about the guerilla war that culminated in the spectacular failure of the British army’s “Black Line” and the inevitable defeat of the Palawa. Connor uses maps and graphs intelligently but economically to aid the reader in understanding the course of the war.

The final chapter deals with the situation on the northern and southern extremities of settlement on mainland Australia. It begins with the Myall Creek massacre and ends with the operations of the mounted police in what is now Victoria. Although the book does not have a conclusion as such, each chapter is a self-contained summary of that aspect of Australia’s frontier wars.

The colonisation of Australia was different to the wars of conquest the British army was committed to elsewhere in that empire on which the sun never set. Armed clashes between indigenous populations and settlers were sporadic, rarely coordinated and, by comparison with other opponents of British imperialism, like the Zulu or Maori, of relatively low intensity. These clashes did cause casualties and can be described as warfare. As a military historian, I find it a useful source when comparing our colonial experience with similar studies like Donald Morris’s The washing of the spears: the rise and fall of the Zulu nation (1965) and James Belich’s The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict (1986). John Connor’s work is a significant contribution to the historiography of colonial Australia.