Tuesday 17 December 2013 by Marylou Pooley. 6 comments
Opinion, views and commentary

Recently the Memorial was asked whether it was planning to tell the story of the conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia during the nineteenth century.

The Australian War Memorial was conceived during the terrible fighting on the Western Front in the First World War. Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent (and later official war historian), was determined that Australians should be made fully aware of the service and extent of sacrifice of members of the Australian Imperial Force. Bean’s concept was for a national memorial that would commemorate what the nation had done during the war.

Today, the Memorial’s Council continues to adhere to Bean’s concept of honouring the services of the men and women of Australia’s military forces deployed on operations overseas on behalf of the nation.

The “Frontier Wars” were a series of actions that were carried out by British colonial forces stationed in Australia, by the police, and by local settlers. It is important to note that the state police forces used Indigenous Australians to hunt down and kill other Indigenous Australians; but the Memorial has found no substantial evidence that home-grown military units, whether state colonial forces or post-Federation Australian military units, ever fought against the Indigenous population of this country. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is proud, however, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have served in Australian military forces since before the Boer War and continue to serve today. Their service is the subject of significant ongoing research.

The protracted conflict that occurred during the colonial dispossession of Indigenous Australians is a tragic fact of Australia’s history, even if some details remain disputed owing to the paucity and unreliability of the records. The story of Indigenous opposition to European settlement and expansion is one that should be told, but which cannot be told by the Memorial. As defined in the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, the Memorial’s official role is to develop a memorial for Australians who have died on, or as a result of, active service, or as a result of any war or warlike operation in which Australians have been on active service. The definition does not include internal conflicts between the Indigenous populations and the colonial powers of the day.

In September 2013, the Director of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, addressed this query at an address given to the National Press Club. On that occasion Dr Nelson stated that the Australian War Memorial is concerned with the story of Australians deployed in war overseas on behalf of Australia, not with a war within Australia between colonial militia, British forces, and Indigenous Australians.

Dr Nelson agrees that our nation needs to reflect on the fact that the story of colonial conflicts has not been told in a national institution; however, the Memorial, concerned as it is with Australians serving overseas in peacekeeping operations or in war, is not the appropriate institution in which to do so. The institution best placed to tell those stories is the National Museum of Australia and perhaps some of the state-based institutions most likely to have artefacts or relics that exist from this period in our history. Dr Nelson has proposed to the National Museum of Australia that it consider presenting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through the course of the nineteenth century in a comprehensive way. Violent confrontation was one part of a broader history.





If it is the AWM's view that the frontier wars should be covered in a national institution but that it is prevented from doing so by the wording of its act, has the memorial sought to have its act amended? Surely this would be a better solution than arbitrarily splitting the coverage of Australia's military history between the NMA and AWM.

tony peterson

The mission of the AWM is to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society. (AWM About the AWM) If indigenous people are Australian and if they have been subjected to war or warlike operations, this experience is part of that mission. The 1980 Act does not prevent this. Definitions of the Defence Force include those raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth i.e. colonial conflicts. (section 3) In Section 6 "Powers", the AWM is to provide facilities to stimulate interest in Australian Military History. (Section 6 (2) g) With estimates of over 20,000 Europeans and Aboriginals killed, the "Frontier Wars" would be the bloodiest warlike conflict within Australia's current borders. (estimated deaths from AWM War History Colonial Period)


Best place for such recognition is not the AWM but the National Museum of Australia, which already recognises such events as the Myall Creek Massacre. The AWM should stay as the place to commemorate our involvement in overseas wars against other countries, otherwise the next thing the AWM will be asked to commemorate is the stolen generation, child abuse etc. This would only mix up these events with the chief purpose of the AWM and lessen their significance. Not to downplay the significance of these events, but they are better explained and commemorated elsewhere.


The frontier wars and Aboriginal dispossession are founding events/activities in modern Australia. These activities made it possible for non-indigneous people to live peaceably in Australia. Although Australians have taken part in wars overseas largely in support of other countries, it has also supported the sovereignty of Australia, built on the frontier wars & dispossession. Many people at the time considered that the actions of police and settlers were wars and some suggested that war be declared, see also Henry Reynolds, The forgotten war, 2013. Instead of effectively saying 'it's not our business, it's not legal', the AWM would be to work with the National Museum and other cultural institutions to create a last exhibition of this aspect of history, at the same time alter the terms of the AWM Act.

Helen Carrick

Last year I, along with many others, signed a petition through "Change" seeking to have the names of Peace keepers who had died on duty recorded in the AWM. This was eventually successful - even though the act had to be amended to allow this. Why can't another amendment be made? Why does this "Conspiracy of Silence" have to continue??? Given the large number of school students who visit the AWM, what a wonderful opportunity it would be for them to learn about the "Forgotten Wars" - fought here in Australia.

Bruce Cameron

Four of the five comments above make the same point. Is it not appropriate for the AWM to respond? Bruce