Battlefield Australia : Frontier Conflict in Early Australian Settlement by Sue Carter


It has been estimated that the first people arrived in Australia possibly around 45,000 years ago and from that time, until the settlement of Europeans on the eastern coast, the Australian Aborigines had been turning space into place for much of that time.

It is equally quite easily demonstrated that Indigenous

people were frequently massacred indiscriminately

and with impunity in Colonial Queensland and

that their remains were treated with disrespect,

if not outright contempt (Ørsted-Jensen 2011: 169)

They viewed their lives as being part of an overall design where everything had a right to live, they carved their position nestled in the landscape, and viewed their lives within it as part of a design in which Country was seen as place. Everything within the Indigenous cultural paradigm was multidimensional and people were attached emotionally, psychologically and metaphysically to the land they inhabited (Bird 1996). They sang songs regarding the history and birth of their part of Country, painted and recited stories which were passed down through generation after generation. They believed in procreation.

The process of bringing life into being…. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the continuity of life on earth, nor is continuity a process which can be taken for granted…. Where Dreaming performed actions, or where they came to rest, these places are known as sacred sites…. The people who belong to the site, who are its owners and custodians in Aboriginal Law, know how the site should be managed…. no hunting, fishing, gathering or burning can take place (Bird 1996: 44).

NOTE : Australian Aborigines refer to their land as ‘Country’. When being welcomed by the Traditional Owners, the Elder in the group will shake your hand and say “Welcome to Country!” The term “Country’ is used in the following article out of respect for the Indigenous culture.

The settlement of the continent included invisible boundaries that were known by the various tribes. Each had their own district where they belonged through spiritual and ancestral bonds and there was interaction between neighbouring tribes where their boundaries overlapped in many complex ways, through spirituality, kinship ties and interaction. A major aspect of the inter-tribal and family relationships was that of sharing; no one owned anything – it belonged to all within the group (Reynolds 2006). They lived with and on the land – protecting, nurturing and preserving – for thousands of years.

When Europeans first of all appeared in Australia in the 18th century they described it as Terra Nullius – a place belonging to no one. But it soon became apparent that there were inhabitants on the continent. It was decided that the land could be taken by conflict, by reducing numbers and driving people to other parts of the country. However, little did they understand that, due to tribal law, this was not possible and many became disposed not only of their lands, but also their spirituality, kinship ties and way of life that they had known for thousands of years.

At first the Indigenous people showed trust towards the Europeans for they believed them to be their ancestors, returned from the dead.

West Australian Aborigines explained to the official Aboriginal interpreter that they attributed the pale colour of the Europeans to the influence of saltwater during the long marine journey to the land of the spirits (Reynolds 2006: 40).

This trust soon turned to confusion when Europeans began to settle on their land, taking ownership of an area that was part of Country. This went against the Indigenous people’s belief system, their understanding of Country, their laws, their sacred sites, and interactions. It led to frustration and anger that their land was being taken, they were no longer allowed to be there, and with tribal laws, they could not just move onto neighbouring areas.

The Government of the time tried to, in most areas, find a way of integrating the Indigenous people within settler society. Writing in 1880, G Nicolay, in his Handbook of Western Australia, stated that ‘the attention of the Government has always been directed to the welfare of the aborigines – and yet but little has been done’ (Nicolay 1880: 92). Even in 1880 people noticed and recognised that despite what was being said, little action was actually undertaken to protect or assist the Indigenous People that were dispossessed of Country.

Earlier, in 1838, Arthur Phillip, Governor to New South Wales ‘adopted a non-hostile approach’ towards them and ‘ordered the flogging of settlers who took Aboriginal spears and nets or damaged Aboriginal canoes’ (Australian Government 2008: n.p). What is clear is that this was not adopted across the state, and would largely have fallen on deaf ears.

As the years passed, the care given to try and protect and assimilate the Indigenous people into settler society waned. A large number of atrocities would have been known to authorities, local, state and national. Reports to authorities were questionable too, but remained unquestioned – for example, statements from settlers and police differed (Olive 2007: 68-69), and Indigenous people were not allowed to be witnesses so their statements, views and recollection of events were hardly ever taken into account. There are a few recorded incidents where they were, but these are very rare, and only surface where public opinion was against the violence that was so brutally inflicted upon the natives, even some of those in authority had an negative attitude towards the Indigenous people, as the following examples shows, regarding the findings of the Myall Creek Massacre.

The hanging of seven stockmen in 1838 for their part in the Myall Creek massacre caused controversy throughout the colony, led to heightened racial tensions and hardened attitudes towards Aboriginal people (Reece 1974: 48). This was evident on the day of the execution when the Australian newspaper published a letter which said, ‘I look on the blacks as a set of monkies, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one’ (Australian 18 December 1838), (cited in Australian Government. 2008).

In 1849 a settler by the name of James Brown was brought to trial for the murder of a group of Indigenous people. Although Aboriginal witnesses were not usually allowed to give evidence, as they were viewed as being untrustworthy, in this one recorded instance, they were:

He [James Brown] is alleged to have shot dead a family group of nine Aboriginal people on his station…. The Protector went to the district and was taken by an Aboriginal witness to the site where the bodies had first been buried, and, at a later point, exhumed and burnt in an effort to destroy the evidence (Foster & Nettlebeck 2012: 70).

This is one rare occasion where an Indigenous person was permitted to give witness as to the events.

Such was the fate of many, at the hands of a so-called civilised people. Frontier conflict, between the ever increasing numbers of settlers, (mostly released criminals), and the local Indigenous people increased as more and more land was required to hold the growing population.

Massacres perpetrated against Indigenous people in Australia spanned from the period of initial settler contact in 1788, to the supposed closing of the frontier in the north of the country in 1930 (Litster 2006: n.p.).

Attacks on Indigenous people were undertaken sporadically at first, when the frontier was moving slowly, however, with the increase in population, and the need for more land, and quickly, the attacks became more organised. Four types of attacking parties have been identified by Dwyer and Ryan (2012); the hunting party, the ambush, poisoning and the military style attack. However, this is not how incidences were reported to the authorities. They were called ‘clashes…. encounters, melees, collisions and skirmishes’ (Dwyer and Ryan 2012: 105). The following describes a typical ambush.

Although widespread and large-scale relative to the population size of the indigenes, the modus operandi of the settlers and Native Police was to ambush camps and shoot people as they fled, usually resulting in small numbers killed at one time at a single location (Barker 2007: 10).

In cases such as this, the remains were usually left where they were to decay and be scavenged by animals, leaving no trace in the archaeological record. Writing in 1892, Calvert stated that ‘There exists a theory that all savages are the degraded descendants of civilized ancestors’ (Calvert 1892: 1) and this was how the majority of settlers viewed the Indigenous population. They were not interested in understanding the indigenous laws or way of life, in which disputes were settled ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ (Nicolay 1880: 86). All they wanted was the land, and if that meant killing for it, then that was seen purely as a means to an end.

Atrocities against Aboriginal men, women and even children increased as settlers were too impatient to wait for the Government to find a solution to hostilities. Parties were sometimes dispatched to hunt down and kill any Indigenous person, who they believed had committed a crime against a settler or community.

The party sometimes find the culprit, and dispatch him there and then; but if they fail, their anger becomes so inflamed that they slay any unfortunate native who falls into their bloodthirsty hands (Calvert 1892: 21).

Unfortunately this became common place. In 1927 the Daily News in Perth reported that during a Royal Commission in the Forrest River Massacre that ‘four Aborigines met their death and their bodies were burned near Gotegote-marrie ….. that four aborigines met their death and were burned near a place called Dala’ (The Daily News 1927: 1). Burning bodies was believed to be a way of hiding a crime and disposing of evidence without trace; ‘The bodies were cut into small pieces, burnt, and any evidence carefully removed’ (Loos 2007: 102); ‘Bodies are burnt so that there is no physical evidence; death becomes shrouded in a silence’ (Rose 1991: 32). Sometimes, relatives would come and recover the remains and take them away for a traditional burial (Barker 2007: 10).

Small settler communities would band together to protect themselves and preserve what they had, and if this meant spilling blood then so be it. In 1869 a pioneer from a small outback town stated ‘that his community “had its foundations in blood”’ (Dennison Times 1869 cited in Reynolds 2006: 67), and another that “I believe I am not wrong in stating….that every acre of land in these districts was won from the Aborigines by bloodshed and warfare” (History of Maryborough 1897 cited in Reynolds 2006: 67).

Queensland Indigenous people suffered horrific reprisals and paybacks, with settlers and the Queensland Mounted Police were recorded as ‘smashing children against rocks…. And after shootings, cutting up bodies, burning bodies, and hanging up parts of corpses in trees’ (Evans & Goodman 2002: 79). C. B. Hall travelled through Queensland in 1840 and wrote a report for Charles Joseph La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.

Reported some disturbing scenes….native skeleton in a waterhole….bones under a gumtree….bones under logs….casual finding of dead bodies not buried in the local way but “all of a heap”….aftermaths of battles that had been occurring all over the district (Pascoe 2007: 58-59).

Due to the nature of settler society, and the lack of settler women across the continent, Indigenous females were subject to abduction, rape, and kept for the pleasure of the aggressor, the…

Emergent frontier custom of ‘ginbusting’ trampled over sexual customs and incest taboos. Sexual relations between white men and black women were, then, a major source of misunderstanding, bitterness and conflict (Reynolds 2006: 77)

These are only a few examples of what was happening across the continent. Many killings and massacres are not recorded ‘a lot of things that happened in the early days have been covered up or were never written down’ (Allbrook & Jebb 2009: n.p). Settlers appear to have been in a constant disagreement with Aborigines regarding land, possession and resources. Not only were local Indigenous men shot, they were also abducted, some made to work on pastoral stations, others taken away and sold to work on the pearling boats off the north-west coast of Western Australia; this activity was commonly known as Black-Birding (Reynolds 1987: 85). Indigenous people were being forced to work against their will, or were killed if they refused to work.

The Australian press were none too sympathetic to the plight of Aboriginal people. The North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser editor printed that they were…

Ruthless savages …. These destitute monsters evidently are a race of beings totally destitute of the common attributes of humanity, and as we have said before, should be dealt with accordingly (The North Australian 17 November, 1857: 3, cited in Reynolds 2001: 122).

The Moreton Bay Free Press, quoted in Reynolds (2001), was also guilty of stirring things up,
For they referred to the Indigenous people as…

‘Ruthless savages’ who threatened the progress of civilization on the frontier and whose ‘blood thirsty spirit’ endangered the lives of all pioneers. Retribution must be exacted, but to be effective it had to ‘fall upon them suddenly and terribly’. In fact their absence from the earth would be ‘rather a blessing than a curse’ (11 May 1858 cited in Reynolds 2001: 122).

It is of little surprise then, that despite the Governments good intentions, what really happened on the frontier was out of their control, and much went unrecorded. Settlers were protecting the property that they had legitimately purchased from the government, not understanding the Indigenous people’s customs or laws, or that they were actually displacing a people who had ties to the land and viewed it as a living entity.

Another, aspect of the colonial attitude towards indigenous people, and which affected attitudes of settler society, was the belief that the Australian Indigenous people were part of the past, living in the present. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution raised a number of questions and observations around the time, and…

Investigations into Aborigines’ status as a possible evolutionary link between humankind and ape became a central concern of anthropologists in the latter part of the 19th century and lead to the dissection of Aboriginal cadavers and a huge demand from museum curators for Aboriginal skulls (Gareth Jones & Harris 1998: 260).

With the need for examples to satisfy the evolutionary theories ‘the building of such collections involved grave robbing, contract killing, massacres, and murder’ (Gareth Jones & Harris 1998: 261). The number of deliberate murders under the name of ‘science’ will never be known.

The return of Aboriginal Indigenous remains to Australia is one way that some closure can come to modern day Indigenous peoples. Still fighting for Country through Land Rights, which spans the 225 years of suppression, a small step in the direction of Reconciliation has to be returning the remains of ancestors, to be reunited with Country and respectfully laid to rest.

Following is a list of some of the recorded and known massacres, which deserve to have memorials dedicated to those that lost their lives.

1790 Botany Bay
1800’s The Black War – Tasmanian population practically wiped out.
1816 Cateract River, Sydney
1816 Appin Massacre, New South Wales
1824 Bathurst Massacre
1828 Cape Grim Massacre
1830 Fremantle, Western Australia
1833-34 Convincing ground Massacre, Victoria
1834 Battle of Pinjarra, Western Australia
1836 York, Western Australia
1838 Waterloo Creek Massacre
1838 Broken River, Banalla
1838 Myall Creek Massacre
1838 Gwydir River Massacre
1838 Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, New South Wales
1839 Campaspe Plains Massacre
1839 Mundaring Gully Massacre, Victoria
1830’s–40’s Wiradjuri Wars
1840-50 Gippsland Massacres
1840 Konongwootong Massacre
1841 Rufus River Massacre
1841 Lake Minimup, Western Australia
1842 Brisbane Valley Massacre
1842 Kilcoy Station poisoning massacre
1842 Evans Head Massacre
1843 Warrigal Creek Massacre
1846 Cape Otway Massacre
1849 Balonne and Condamine Rivers, Queensland
1849 Hospital Creek Massacre
1849 Butchers Tree Massacre
1849 Narran River Massacre
1849 Avenue River Station Massacre
1857 Hornet Bank
1861 Central Highlands, Queensland
1865 La Grange Expedition Massacre
1867 Goulbolba Hill Massacre
1868 Flying Foam Massacre, The Burrup, Western Australia
1873 Battle Camp Massacre
1874 Barrow Camp Massacre
1874-5 Blackfellow’s Creek Massacre
1879 Cape Bedford Massacre
1880’s-90’s Arnhem Land Massacres – several.
1884 Battle Mountain, Queensland
1887 Halls Creek Massacre, Western Australia
1890 Speewah Massacre
1890-1920 Kimberley, Western Australia – known as The Killing Times
1906-7 Canning Stock Route, Western Australia
1915 Mistake Creek Massacre
1918 Bentinck Island Massacre
1924 Bedford Downs Massacre
1926 Forrest River Massacre, Western Australia
1928 Coniston Massacre

These are only some of the known and recorded massacres and killings, with possibly hundreds of others lost to time and will never been known. May they all, wherever their remains lie, rest in peace.

Frontier atrocities against Australian Indigenous people were appalling. Frontier conflict is not pleasant at the best of times, but what happened in Australia has been covered up for too long. I leave you with the words of Henry Reynolds (2006) when summing up attitudes towards frontier conflict – and conflict it was – real, bloodthirsty, brutal – a battlefield and a war, waged almost silently, and with little record of it.

It can be found in almost every type of document – official reports both public and confidential, newspapers, letters, reminiscences. Settlers often counted black bodies either in anger or in anguish; members of punitive expeditions confessed to their participation in a spirit of bravado or contrition. Later observers came across bones and skulls; burnt, buried or hidden and occasionally collected and put proudly on display (Reynolds 2006: 127).

European settlers were considered to be more civilised than the Indigenous people of Australia – but were they?

Header Image : The Australian Aboriginal Flag : WikiPedia

Written by Sue Carter

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Magazine



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Thanks David. It's good to see more people are writing on the massacres. I still meet adults who 'never heard' of massacres. @davidbewart

Christina Macpherson
Christina Macpherson

Excellent outline of our hidden and shameful history .   Lack of empathy for the Aboriginal people continues to this day. And I worry that Australia's new government will try to further twist education away from this truth, following John Howard's view that there shouldn't be  a"black arm band" view of history, and following the condemnation of Henry Reynolds by those who cannot face history's truth.  

However, Australia has no hope of developing a decent and truly civilised culture, unless we own up to our history.


Arthur Phillip governor 1838 - typo, was governor between 1788 & 1792 and was died in 1814.