Remembering this country’s first war

Mike Butler is a Jagalingu man and is currently serving as SUPRA’s Indigenous Officer

Mike Butler is a Jagalingu man and is currently serving as SUPRA's Indigenous Officer

Last week little white crosses began appearing around the Quadrangle, each one with the hand written name of Sydney University person who died in World War One. It was a humble and fitting reminder of why we shouldn’t forget the affront to humanity that is war.

In a similar vein, and on behalf of other Indigenous people, I thought it appropriate to remember those killed on Australian soil in what is now known as the Frontier Wars. The additional instalment was not to take away from what the white crosses represent but rather an addition to the memorial to represent the lives lost in the violence of the Frontier Wars

The Frontier Wars is the collective term for the violent conflict that characterised the opening up of Australia to white settlement. It was a grubby and insidious form of warfare far removed from the battlefields of World War One. Instead of mass troops movements it relied on small-scale terror of vigilante squads, emphatic reprisals and ethnic-cleansing that decimated populations and traumatised survivors for life.

If you haven’t heard about it, that’s understandable; the official history of Australia does not recognise it. Nevertheless, new historical research currently calculates that more men, women and children were violently killed on Australian soil (67,000-110,000) during the Frontier Wars than Australians killed in World War One (60,000).

Despite these facts the Australian War Memorial and the Returned and Services League (RSL) refuse to recognise the Frontier Wars by falling behind the barricades of historical dishonesty and obfuscation to find reasons why it doesn’t deserve recognition

As I went back and forth past the Quad throughout the day, I saw people walk up and down past the crosses stopping to read the names written on each cross. More often than not these people stopped to read the newly erected Frontier Wars memorial too.

At around 1pm, I saw University security personnel stand by it the memorial and mumble something into their walkie talkie. The next time I passed at 3.30pm the sign was gone. By taking down the Frontier War memorial Sydney University became the latest in a long line of establishments to contribute to the whitewashing of this nation’s history. Acknowledging the Frontier Wars as part of ANZAC Day might just be the most important thing ever to happen to what we call the ANZAC tradition.

When ANZAC Day began, well back before it got the rancid tang of chest-beating jingoism that’s present today, there were no cheering crowds. The first marches were soldier-only affairs and while ostensibly they marched to remember the dead, you didn’t have to scratch too deep to see it was their way of acknowledging that the ones who made it out were the real casualties. The dead were dead, but the living carried the mental trauma of war, which spread into their lives, the families and the society they came back to. It is because of that, the true essence of ANZAC Day is a far more powerful and decent thing than military glorification. It’s a way of seeing war for what is it – hell – and allowing the survivors to deal with that with truthfulness and dignity.

And it’s exactly for these reasons that recognising the Frontier Wars would not only be a good thing to do, but that ANZAC Day would be the perfect place to do it. Because if the carnage of the landings at Gallipoli was the birthplace of this nation, then Australia’s Frontier Wars were the rape that led to it. And once we all face up to the fact, we as a nation will be better for it.