Australian Frontier Wars – Suggested Reading & Resources

Background reading on the Frontier Wars will generally need to come from multiple sources. There is no ‘Osprey’ to give you all the quick info you need though one title goes a long way to bringing the Aboriginal Warfare side of things all together. Generally, you will have to use multiple sources to get a full picture of Australian Frontier Warfare though one or two titles gets you along way there covering the major forces at play.

The titles included here will give you a decided ‘military history’ focus, so they’ll put the wars in the context of the colonial conflict that it actually was. Most books aren’t solely on the military aspects but those shown have a strong level of content to keep us focused on the military theme. A number of books covering social histories include chapters on military aspects of frontier warfare so are useful as well.

Two sources that are particularly good are Connor’s Frontier Wars (as mentioned in the opening post) and the chapter of Aboriginal Armed Resistance in The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. These two titles alone will give you an excellent starting point to look at the period. That said, the former is very specific to the early Frontier War period  (1788-1838) and the latter is more all encompassing, being mandatory reading to get a full appreciation of aboriginal armed resistance. Libraries in Australia tend to have access to these titles.

(Note – the Oxford Companion will probably not be easy to find for those without access to an Australian library. Therefore, many of the points I will include in my blog posts will lean heavily on this reference work so you should get the thrust of its content).

When researching material there is actually a huge amount of information available online – to numerous to mention. It does however require a good deal of sifting through to get out the military components of frontier warfare.

The titles listed below for the most part offer balanced views, being primarily empirical in their approach, with most authors understanding the times in which the Frontier Wars occurred.

Excellent titles to flesh out your reading with a military content are;

  • The Australian Frontier Wars –  John Connor. Excellent military history – a must buy.
  • The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles – Chris Coulthard-Clarke. Top notch Frontier War content and an all round good book to look at many Australian battles.
  • A Military History of Australia (chapter 1, 2 & 3)  – Jeffrey Grey
  • Resisting the Invader (chapter in Aboriginal Australians) – Richard Broome
  • Before the Anzac Dawn (chapter 1 – Traditional Indigenous Warfare; chapter 2- Frontier Warfare in Australia) – Stockings & Connor, editors
  • Australia Two Centuries of War & Peace – Australian War & Allen and Unwin Australia, 1988
  • The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Aboriginal Armed Resistance entry ) – Oxford University Press. A very good book full of many descriptions of early settlement clashes, with good detail – highly recommended.
  • Dress and Insignia of the British Army in Australia and New Zealand (1770-1870) – R.H.Montague – the definitive book on British Army uniforms in Australia and NZ. Includes some thumbnail sketches of service for various regiments as well.
  • The Black War (Tasmania) – Nicholas Clements – A very good book on war in Tasmania. His thesis the book is based on is here.
  • The Other Side of the Frontier – Henry Reynolds. One of the original scholars to investigate frontier conflict, Dr. Reynold’s works provide a solid basis for further investigation and really should be in everyone’s library for those interested in this topic.
  • Police of the Pastoral Frontier – Native Police 1849-59 – L.E. Skinner. I found a copy online…description below.
  • Remote Garrison: The British Army in Australia 1788-1870 – Peter Stanley. A 1986 book on the British Army in Australia, which includes colour illustrations depicting British troops as they appeared in clashes with Aborigines. This provides a better guide to the ‘campaign look’ for collectors preferring a less parade ground look.

Here are some more titles useful for our purpose, with good supporting information.

  • Six Australian battlefields – Al Grassby and Marji Hill – A quite biased anti-British view, the authors being ever prone to using jingoistic rhetorical flushes to make their points. That said, it is still an otherwise enjoyable and not unfair read in many respects. It provides many useful details wargamers look for and for both sides, which is when the book is at its best – worth getting a hold of.
  • Mounted Police in N.S.W. A History of Heroism and Duty since 1821 – John O’Sullivan   
  • Mounted Police of Victoria and Tasmania – John O’Sullivan
  • Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers – edited by Mark W Allen, Terry L Jones
  • The British army and the counter-insurgency campaign in Van Diemen’s Land with particular reference to the black line – McMahon, JF. Very interesting breakdown of warfare in Tasmania.
  • Forgotten War – Henry Reynolds. A social historian, Reynold’s pioneering work is recommended reading to get a well rounded picture of aboriginal-colonial relations.
  • The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police – Jonathon Richards. Some regard this book as to focused on proving the excesses of police methods, nevertheless it has solid information and good research – a slightly missed opportunity by not presenting a more rounded view of frontier conflict in Queensland overall.
  • The Black Resistance – Fergus Robinson and Barry York. A useful ‘militant’ perspective of resistance and highlights many actions that the aboriginals fought – useful, but read with caution.


The above titles are only the beginning and much more information exists with some research. The bibliography in many of the above works provide additional guidance and avenues of research in this regard.

A very good modern piece describing the South East Queensland Black War is by Dr. Raymond Kerkhove titled A Different Mode of War. This is great stuff and shows how things were anything but a walk over for white settlers and how this topic can be evaluated from a military perspective.

An old article in Miniature Wargames issues #112 (September 1992) and #113 (October 1992) – The Kalkadoon War 1874/84 by Greg Blake, is good reading. As an aside, Greg has written a book on the Eureka Stockade which is worth checking out for those interested in that topic.


Online Resources

Here is a selection of links, each of which is worth exploring. Such is the amount of content you might as well follow the links and explore for yourself – they all have much to offer.

Queensland Native Police –

So there you go. More titles than you originally thought I guess and certainly plenty of information for seeing the conflict side of the Frontier Wars and often from both perspectives. There is plenty of information and ‘juice’ here to keep you firmly focused on the military aspects of this colonial conflict.

A final note.

When one scours the internet many webpages and books present modern views of past times, so be aware of this as a word of caution to the avid reader when gathering information. Lots of inflammatory wordage is sometimes used around this subject as it is still a hot topic in Australia in some quarters. Fortunately a more balanced a well rounded view is coming forth, based on empirical data. It’s usually just best to extract the content you’re after rather than adopt a partizan view IMHO as certain authors sometimes do…keep an open mind!

Also, you might need to dig down a bit to seek out the military component of the activities carried out at the time in any specific theatre. John Connor in his superb ‘Australian Frontier Wars’ book alludes to this as much, as his book focuses on military history, not social history, for contextualising events of the day and the combatants response.

As he says, “previous dogma portraying ‘massacres’ presenting them as ‘victims’ in battles they sought may very well need to be re-interpreted (correctly) as battles that ended in defeat. This is not to say that such excesses did not occur, no, it is saying that not all such labelled events were as they have been portrayed to modern readers. Many were stand up fights that ended with defeat, turned ‘massacre’ to some who interpret events in this light”

…like I said, look for the military language and situation, rather than social interpretation. I defer to Broome and Connor and their sage words in this regard.

As a parting shot, here is an interesting contemporary newspaper article of an engagement at Rufus River in October, 1841 that is worth reading…often portrayed as a ‘massacre’ in modern times, it sounds more like a mutual battle/skirmish to my ear, not unlike something you’d encounter in Southern African during the Cape or Zulu Wars, but that off course is for you to decide…

…’battle’ or ‘massacre’ ?



Report of Mr. Moorhouse to His Excellency the Governor.

Lake Bonney, 190 miles from Adelaide, September 4th, 1841.


I have the honor to inform His Excellency the Governor, that the expedition, consisting of twenty-nine Europeans and three Aborigines, sent from Adelaide on the 31st July, to meet Mr. Robinson and others, on their route from Sydney, is now on its return, having been effectual in rendering all the assistance that was necessary, to whom it was designed.

On the 27th, as we were only five miles from the Lake, I had the party assembled, to repeat my instructions. Each individual was distinctly told that no firing could be allowed, until the sub-inspector of police gave the command. “I advised them, in case of attack from the natives, to use every exertion to protect our drays.” At nine o’clock we marched, and in an hour and a half saw two gentlemen on horseback (Mr. Robinson and Mr. Levi ) on the opposite side of the Rufus, one mile below Langhome’s Ferry. We saluted them heartily, and inquired if their party were all safe?

They replied that both their persons and property were uninjured, although they had been attacked on the previous day by a party of 300 blacks. Mr. Robinson continued, that about mid-day, as they were driving the sheep and cattle along the road, they observed at about the distance of one hundred yards, a number of blacks; he suspected their movements were hostile and accordingly ordered all the property to be collected into as limited a space as possible.

Seven men were set to guard the cattle and sheep, and nineteen well armed men (ten mounted and nine on foot) to the front. Whilst they were doing this, the natives had formed themselves into a semi-circular line, each flank not being more than thirty yards from the sheep.

The Europeans formed into a single line, and commenced firing, and continued until they had fired eight rounds each. By this time, the natives not having approached sufficiently near to spear the sheep, had lost five of their number and ten more wounded. The party being two miles from the Rufus, continued their march, and encamped at Langhome’s Ferry.

After narrating the previous day’s adventure, Mr. Robinson enquired where he could cross the herds and drays, as he was then reconnoitering the river, and intended to cross immediately. He had just been up to the Lake, but the Rufus at its junction with the Lake was too broad and too deep, therefore he should try the ferry. The sub- inspector of police, a volunteer gentleman, and myself, rode in advance of our party along the Rufus, as far as the Lake, and greatly to our surprise, discovered a large mob of natives running towards us, each bearing his implements of war.

We hastened to our party and communicated what we had seen; we had the drays placed on the banks of the river, and formed the constables into a line two deep, in order to protect them. In half an hour after the natives were seen in the scrub, about half a mile from us, in tending, evidently, to commence an attack.

I then gave the command of the party to Mr. Shaw, the sub-inspector, and said, he might issue such orders as he thought necessary for our safety, and the overland party that we had to protect, urging him strongly not to allow any firing until I had spoken to the hostile natives.

I requested Pangki to accompany me in advance, and after proceeding 400 yards from the ferry, the three natives that had left us two days before, plunged into the water and came to us. I asked them the result of their interview. They answered that the Lake people would not listen to their advice; they knew the Europeans had tomahawks, blankets, and food, and they were determined to take them, let the consequences be what they might. I took the two natives to the ferry and recommended them to sit there until the contest was over.

Mr. Shaw’s party on the western, and Mr. Robinson’s on the eastern side of the Rufus, now advanced and commenced firing. The natives were almost instantly thrown into confusion, 100 running into the scrub, and about 50 into the water, with an intention of concealing themselves in the reeds. The Europeans followed them, to the water’s edge, and continued the firing for about 15 or 20 minutes; and the result was, to the natives, the death of nearly 30, about 10 wounded, and four (one adult male, one boy, and two females) taken prisoners; and to the Europeans, one individual (Mr. Robinson) speared in the left arm.

As soon as there was the least probability of taking prisoners, the command to cease firing was given, and immediately obeyed. More might have been taken had we carefully examined the reeds, but we were prevented doing so by hearing a loud noise at the drays, as if the natives had rushed upon them. Those who remained in the reeds escaped during our absence. Instead of pursuing them, all hands were employed in crossing the cattle and sheep.

At 11 o’clock on the following day every thing was safely got across. I then formally took the two wounded prisoners, after supplying them with a day’s provision, and said they were at liberty to return to their friends. I tried particularly to impress them with the idea that we were wishful of living on peaceful terms with them, and requested them to bear in mind that the prisoner was taken as a guarantee for their future conduct.


Statement of Mr. Robinson, in company , with Mr. Warrener and Mr. Barker,

I left Gundagy, upon the Murrumbidgee, on the 1st July, with 6000 ewes, 15 horses, 500 head of cattle, three drays, and 26 in the party. In consequence of the reports of the fate of Mr. lnman’s. and Mr. Langhorne’s parties, we were well armed. In proceeding down the Murrumbidgee, we saw blacks the whole way, but kept them off the camp, and never allowed one of them to come near. The Darling was in full stream, and there were three cattle lost in crossing.

On approaching the Rufus, I had remained a day’s march behind, looking for the strayed cattle, and saw thirty or forty natives, armed, proceeding across the track towards the Lake. The blacks, on seeing me crossed the Murray. The day following I had gone ahead to look for a landing place. On my return to meet the party, I saw about three hundred blacks.

On their perceiving me, they formed themselves into a half circle, and appeared inclined to oppose our progress. I immediately went back to our party — got all the sheep and cattle together— left about nine men with the drays— and with the remainder of the party went to the blacks, who by this time had come up within a few yards of the sheep, making the most horrid yells and gestures, and evidently preparing for an attack on our property.

On our approach, they had advanced, and we commenced firing; we discharged about eight rounds each before the blacks gave the least way. They now began to retreat. We then advanced, and drove them back into the bush. During this affray about fifteen were killed and wounded.

We then proceeded to the Rufus, where we encamped. On the morning, in searching for a place to cross the Rufus, which was full, I discovered the party that had come out from Adelaide to meet us.

They told us that they expected an attack that day. I said I thought not, as we had beaten them the day before. On preparing to cross the Rufus at the place where Mr. Langhorne’s men were killed, some of the Adelaide party said the blacks were approaching through the scrub. Three blacks, whom Mr. Moorhouse a few days before had sent ahead to pacify the hostile tribe, returned and informed us that the blacks were close at hand in great numbers — that they were full of wrath, and determined to fight and take away our blankets, tomahawks, and sheep.

By this time they were in sight on the Sydney side of the Rufus, The overland party attacked them, and drove them into the Rufus, where they were met by the Adelaide party. During this engagement from thirty to forty were killed, and as many wounded ; and one man, a boy, and two women taken prisoners. One woman and boy were liberated; the other woman was claimed by one of the Adelaide blacks as his wife. The prisoner attempted to escape on the subsequent day; but was afterwards secured after receiving three shots. After this, Mr. Moorhouse admitted several of the Lake Bonney blacks to his camp, who are accompanying him to Adelaide.

I left the party about 15 miles on the west side of Lake Bonney, about 70 miles from Adelaide; and no other attack was anticipated. The sheep and cattle are in very good condition, and may be expected to be at their stations about the end of next week.

I consider that, notwithstanding the severe punishment the blacks have just had, they will annoy any following party as much as they did ours; and unless there be an armed party of twenty-five or thirty, I should say they would incur great danger in the journey.

The following website provides a very good description of the events leading up to the battle/skirmish at Rufus River. It shows just how combative and committed the aboriginal warrior tribesmen could be and portrays them as anything but victims of a massacre. Of additional note are the many interesting tid-bits of information of a typical military confrontation by both the colonists and natives – recommended.

2 thoughts on “Australian Frontier Wars – Suggested Reading & Resources

  1. I had a partial read of the Tasmanian thesis (skimming over the Black Line material): a very thorough and detailed examination of military organisation and operations, only let down by a lack of analysis of combat dynamics, and excessive, and redundant, use of, the comma.


  2. I agree. Very good indeed and nice to see the topic assessed as the military operation that it was. As always, such a paper only whets the appetite for more detail. Good stuff though. 😉


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