Lest We Forget… The Frontier Wars

Every Australian town has a memorial to those Australians who endured the horrors of war overseas, yet similar physical memorialisation of the war that took place in and around these towns is almost entirely absent.

Every city, town, and locale in Australia shares a role on the frontlines of the genocidal Frontier Wars. Between 1788 and as recently as 1928 onwards, colonial violence followed the leading edge of white settler colonisation. As Europeans continued to invade further into Australia, first in the southeast and later in the tropical north, they fought a genocidal war over land and resources with First Nations People across the continent.

However, although the landmark SBS docuseries Australian Wars has recently labelled this as “our most important war”, the Frontier Wars do not appear to be front-and-centre in conceptions of our shared history for many non-Indigenous Australians.

The efforts of historians like Henry Reynolds and Marcia Langton, who continue to attempt to commit the conflict to popular memory, have produced some progress in this area. Lyndall Ryan’s University of Newcastle team, who continue to add new data to their shocking yet important massacre map project, is also a key part of this truth-telling. These efforts, alongside countless other First Nations and settler-descended activists and educators working in the field, have produced some level of popular acknowledgement that such extreme violence took place in Australia. However, there is clearly a long way to go in recognising the place of the Frontier Wars in Australia’s history within our national imagination.

Indicative of this fact is the almost total lack of adequate local memorialisation of the Frontier Wars across Australia.  This is not to say that we should not remember those who died in Australia’s name on foreign soil – but it is clear that the current physical recognition of First Nations People who died on First Nations soil is horrendously lacklustre.

In many places where incidents in Australia’s longest conflict can be specifically identified, there remains a total lack of a memorial. Every Australian town has a memorial to those Australians who endured the horrors of war overseas — from the World Wars to Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and even the Boer War — yet similar physical memorialisation of the war that took place in and around these towns is almost entirely absent.Take Caboolture, for instance – now essentially an outer northern suburb of Brisbane, but historically a small town in its own right. In August 1862, a detachment of Queensland Native Police murdered at least seven Buyibara people by the banks of the Caboolture River.

Caboolture has numerous memorials to the ANZACs — not only is there a memorial in the traditional style just adjacent to Moreton Bay Council, but there is a large ANZAC-related artwork draped across a water tower on Caboolture’s King Street. However, there is not a single memorial to the Frontier Wars, not least aimed at recognising the horrific events that occurred just metres away from where the current war memorial stands. In fact, it was only through looking at the Ryan’s Massacre Map that I learned this act of colonial brutality had occurred in a place I have visited regularly since birth.

This is not to say that there are no memorial sites anywhere in Australia aimed at the frontier wars. The Cullin-La-Ringo massacre site, near Springsure in Central Queensland, does actually commemorate the violence that occurred there in 1861. It was in Cull-La-Ringo in October 1861, that 19 colonists, including political figure Horatio Wills, were killed by Kairi people. This represented one of the largest single massacres of white settlers by First Nations Australians, and the event is marked by a brown sign and grave sites at the location.

The sign reads: This is the site of the massacre of 19 people by a local Aboriginal tribe on 17th October 1861. The people killed were in a party led by Horatio Wills and were resting in the early afternoon when the tribe moved into camp and killed the ten men, two women and seven children.

The gravestones themselves tell a similar story in archaic and frankly sickening racist terminology. What is missing is any reference whatsoever to the possibly 400 local Kairi people who were indiscriminately murdered by white settlers and Native Police in one of the largest reprisal campaigns in Australian history, or more fundamentally, that these events occurred in the context of the genocidal invasion of the Australian continent. Additionally, the signage at the site makes no effort to identify the Kairi as the First Nations People murdered. With framing in such undeniably biassed terms, we cannot appropriately acknowledge the Frontier Wars in our national history. 

Even memorials that more appropriately recognise the Frontier Wars are often in dire need of maintenance or updating. Driving for the first time between Mt Isa and Cloncurry in Far North-Western Queensland, through the savannah country of the tropical outback, I was surprised to find a prominent memorial to Mitakoodi and Kalkadoon warriors at a rest stop by the side of the road.

The memorial was unveiled in 1988 by then Queensland “Minister for Ethnic Affairs” Bob Katter — at the time a state MP in the Bjelke-Peterson government — and was built in consultation with the Mitakoodi Aboriginal Corporation. The memorial reads: “You who pass by are now entering the ancient tribal lands of the Mitakoodi dispossessed by the European[.] Honour their name[,] be brother and sister to their descendants” on both sides. 

Accompanying a broken boomerang, the Aboriginal Flag and iconography representing Mitakoodi and Kalkadoon warriors, is a poem, dedicated to First Nations resistance to white settler incursion during the Kalkadoon Wars — a prolonged local conflict that ran from 1870-1890.

Unfortunately, the memorial suffers from poor maintenance. The lettering on the plaques is hard to read, and shotgun pellet-holes litter the images of the warriors. In fact, the memorial had to be entirely reconstructed in 1992 after it was destroyed by explosives in a disgusting act of vandalism.  

This is not to say that adequate local memorials to the Frontier Wars don’t exist. The Myall Creek Massacre memorial in northern NSW to the Wirrayaraay people who were murdered at the site on 10 June 1838 is one such example. Despite incidents of racist vandalism in 2005 and 2021, the memorial remains in good condition, and is managed by Gwydir Shire Council along with the Myall Creek Memorial Committee. However, Myall Creek is also unique in being the only extrajudicial massacre of First Nations Australians during the entire Frontier Wars to result in a successful criminal prosecution of perpetrators. This shouldn’t be what it takes to have a memorial to the violence of our past.

Ultimately, it is shocking that the most important conflict in Australian history is locally remembered — or rather forgotten — in such a way. How are we to build a general consciousness of the violence of colonisation in Australia if physical reminders of our bloody past are either neglected, incomplete or simply non-existent. “Lest We Forget” is a refrain etched into the Australian consciousness — through constant repetition at school assemblies, ANZAC Day ceremonies and on plagues and cenotaphs peppered all across Australia. It is time that these three words are extended to include the First Nations People  who fell in Australia’s longest, most brutal and most consequential war.