Will the Australian War Memorial tell the story of colonial conflicts?

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Note: the following was first published as a blog post on this website on 17 December 2013.  The post can be read at www.awm.gov.au/blog/2013/12/17/response-question-about-frontier-wars .

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.


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