Aborigines

‘Truth Telling’ and Aboriginal Tribal Warfare

Luke Powell

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The Uluru Statement from the heart which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently endorsed in full, has a plethora of legal, racial and practical problems. More specifically, it argues a voice to parliament will be a part of the pursuit for historical ‘truth telling’, which includes the frontier wars and various massacres committed by European settlers. However, the statement remains silent on anything that does not support this one-sided view of Australia’s past.

One such incident is the silence on Aboriginal tribal warfare prior to and during European Settlement. Historian Geoffrey Blainey in The Story of Australia’s People, (Which won the prime ministers literary award in 2016) remarks, 

The new and very large Cambridge History of Australia … rightly denounces the massacres of Aborigines in the sheep lands but ignores the massacres of Aborigines by neighbouring Aborigines in the near and distant past.

One particular chapter in Blainey’s book, the Duel and Battle, argues that the evidence for frequent and lethal fighting is ‘almost overwhelming’. In fact, the average death toll between Aboriginal tribes was so high Blainey believes it rivalled the most violent warfare in European periods:

Such comparisons reveal that the annual death rate through warfare in that corner of Arnhem Land was nearly six times as high as that of the United States during an average year of its participation in the Second World War. Even the direct drain on Japan’s population through the loss of fighting men in China, the Pacific and all other theatres of war between 1937 and 1945 was not quite as high, statistically, as warfare’s drain on the population of Arnhem Land. In the Second World War, only the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Germany suffered losses of higher relative magnitude.

A key source was Edward Stone Parker , a Methodist lay preacher who was sent to Port Phillip from London to serve as one of four assistant protector of Aborigines. He embraced the role with gusto and much sympathy, studying Aboriginal languages and their traditional way of life. He famously remarked ‘On the whole their way of life was a satisfying one, and could have been almost idyllic – but for their frequent fighting and the persistent fear of revenge.’ Parker goes onto quote a well-informed Aboriginal man who argued that before the British arrived ‘the country was strewed with bones, and were always at war.’ Indeed ‘whole tribes have been exterminated by sudden attacks on nocturnal surprises.’ While Parker strongly denounced the conflict between settlers and Aborigines, he identified that the wars between tribes were more destructive. 

The fighting was both brutal and constant. The British settler with the most experience in observing traditional warfare was William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with a friendly aboriginal group. After two women in Buckley’s group were killed, an ambush soon followed which saw several women wounded and later beaten to death. Their limbs were removed by sharp stone axes and shells. As Tim Flannery writes in his introduction to The Life and Adventures of William Buckley:

Buckley records fourteen conflicts involving the violent death of a tribe member over the thirty-two years that he lived with the Wallarranga. Nine of the causalities were women, seven children and seven men. Ten enemies (two of whom were children) were killed in revenge. Buckley also documents the massacre of a tribe near Barwon Heads, the remnants of whom joined his group. The average size of an Aboriginal tribe was between twenty and sixty families, so the recorded death rate through violence is high indeed. Buckley cites just two principal causes for the conflict: disputes over women, and ‘payback killings’ following a death by natural causes.

As Flannery is not raving about the weather, he can be taken seriously for a change: Significantly, he goes on to write:

Just why these bloody disputes were such a feature of the Aboriginal society that Buckley documents is unclear. Some writers have speculated that Aboriginal people had already come under stress and suffered disruption from European influence, but there is little evidence in Buckley’s narratives for this.

Another supporter of the Aboriginal people who encountered inter-tribal violence was William Thomas who documented a devastating massacre in 1834 near modern day Melbourne. So significant was the loss of life that the historian Marie Fels, who immersed herself in the Thomas manuscripts, at first believed the stated death toll of 77 was a handwriting error!

There are even incidents of invasion and groups pushing out traditional holders of territory. For example, the Goonyandi people were evicted from their traditional lands in today’s Western Australia by their neighbouring tribe, the Walmadjari.  In the words of Blainey, ‘the loss of territory must have been a frequent event.’

In 1875, the Southern Arrente in Central Australia were almost entirely wiped out by the Matuntara people. Between 50 and 80 assailants ambushed a group of women and children. The death toll, estimated at between 80 and 100, included women and children, many of whom were left to die after their limbs were broken.  Murdering women and children was a standard tactic to nullify the chances of the tribe rebuilding and seeking revenge. Genocide, in other words.

Without the goodwill of the protectors of Aboriginal people and early convict escapees, the massacres of tribal groups by other tribal groups would not have been documented. A state of violent conflict worse than the European theatre of war speaks to the complexity of Australia’s history and the danger of appending to colonisation a basket of unique violence specific to one cultural group. 

This goes to show the fraudulent dangers of national repentance and reparations. Who will pay the Southern Arrentes’ descendants for their loss? Will the Matuantara people be called upon to ‘pay the rent’ for the land they took from the Southern Arrente? Should the government insist there is an inherited debt of guilt to be apportioned for crippling women and children and leaving them to die? Will the perpetrators’ descendants be called upon to apologise in an admission of public guilt? It is hard to see anyone holding to that position. As Douglas Murray points out in his recent book, The War on the West

In recent years, the critics of the West have marked themselves out through a set of extraordinary claims. Their technique is a pattern. It is to zoom in on Western behaviour, remove it from its context of the time, set aside any non-Western parallels, and then exaggerate what the West actually did.

A similar thing is happening in Australia right now. If activists want to think seriously about putting the responsibility of past injustices upon modern descendants, the current demand for repentance and reparations must be expanded beyond ‘white guilt’ to acknowledge the massacres of Aborigines by other Aborigines.  ‘Truth telling’, if it is to mean anything, should not be politicised.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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