Australian Frontier Wars

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1829 map of Australia

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When one looks at Australian military history, there is one glaring omission in books, documentaries and general discourse covering that topic – that is, the longest war fought by Australians, which as it turns out, was on her own soil. Only in recent years has it now become accepted that British settlement in Australia was anything but peaceful and near constant conflict did in fact exist on her expanding frontiers.

Confrontation raged from tropical Cape York to the mountains and valleys of Tasmania across to the deserts of Western Australia, the ‘outback everywhere’ and the desolate ‘red centre’ – truly an epic backdrop when one looks at the scale and scope of confrontation. It was a war that lasted near on 142 years across an entire continent, from first contact in 1770 until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The aboriginal peoples of Australia, like so many other indigenous populations, resisted their invader but ultimately succumbed to the march of colonialism. Like all indigenous populations they suffered defeat and depredation, but they also fought with tenacity, guile and endurance…worthy of any warrior peoples.

As to whether this conflict should be considered ‘war’ at all has been the subject of debate in modern times, the so called ‘history wars’, though recognition war existed is now generally accepted. The reason it was not called a war at the time, and hasn’t until recently, is that unlike other colonial conflicts it would acknowledge a legal position counter to the British policy of Terra Nullius.

This policy determined that the Australian continental land mass was not ‘owned’ by its native inhabitants. Thus with a stroke of a pen, Britain claimed Australia as her own and all native peoples became British subjects. Therefore, resistance to British settlement was deemed ‘civil disturbance’ wherever it took place and thus was not a military matter, but a civil one. To declare ‘war’ against the aboriginal inhabitants would be to acknowledge they had previous land ownership claims – something Terra Nullius did not allow for.

Off course, conflict between the British and the Aboriginal peoples was in fact war; acknowledged by those at the time who new the face of it all to well and were involved. The fiction that no war existed would be for example to suggest the Korean War was a ‘police action’ or some other legalise position of conflict that was undoubtably war.

In New Zealand a contemporary conflict was going on, the so called Maori Wars (aka New Zealand Wars), that involved the maori inhabitants who were doing just as their Australian counterparts were doing ie resisting white settlement through force of arms. As the maori had concepts of land ownership, this became a war of conquest by the British as settlement expanded and was understood to be such – the same thing was happening in Australia, but the warfare was similar, though different.

Without getting to lost in the technical aspects of whether a state of war existed, or indeed defer to modern, often politicised, interpretations as to whether war existed, it is worth noting the words of a young Tasmanian reporter of the day in 1831. His comments about the end of the so called ‘Tasmanian Black War’ are pertinent in appreciating that it was indeed war between one people and another…he said;

“the subjects of our king, in a state of rebellion? or are they an injured people, whom we have invaded and with whom we are at war? Are they within the reach of our laws; or are they to be judged by the law of nations? Are they to be viewed in the light of murderers, or as prisoners of war? Have they been guilty of any crime under the laws of nations which is punishable by death, or have they only been carrying on a war in their way? Are they British subjects at all, or a foreign enemy who has never yet been subdued, and which resists my usurped authority and dominion?”

As to wether warfare existed, the common opinion of the day that he expressed is quite telling. He goes on;

“What we call their crime is what in a white man we should call patriotism. Where is the man amongst ourselves who would not resist an invading enemy who would not avenge the murder of his parents, the ill-usage of his wife and daughters, and the spoliation of all his earthly goods by a foreign enemy, if he had an opportunity?

He who would not do so would be scouted, execrated, nay executed as a coward and a traitor; while he who did would be immortalised as a patriot. Why then shall we deny the same feelings to the Blacks? How can we condemn as a crime in these savages what we would esteem as a virtue in ourselves? Why punish a black man with death for doing that which a white man would be executed for not doing?”

So it was clear to the many people of the time that war did indeed exist and it was an opinion held generally by the man in the street and experienced military officers alike, who themselves had seen the conflict before, particularly guerrilla war, as it was in Spain during the Napoleonic conflict in that far away place, only a few short years before.

From this, we can indeed see that war it was.res

The purpose of this series of posts is to shine a light on information we can gleam for the conflict, now come to be known as the Australian Frontier Wars.

The spark for my own investigation was the lack of information on this conflict, at least from your typical ‘go to’ sources. What was easily found was usually tantalisingly detailed in someways, but lacking any cohesive assessment or even acknowledment from some quarters, that there even was resistance and conflict – the more digging I did, the more it become apparent this was an untold story from a military and gamer’s perspective.

Apart from some reference here and there, there seemed little for the wargamer to dig his teeth into when it came to the who, how, whys and wherefores of frontier conflict. It would appear that the lack of major battles and large tribal vs colonial confrontations is partly behind a lack of interest in the subject. Other (unsavoury) aspects of colonial settlement, not uncommon in other popular wargames conflicts, also plays a part.

When combined with the (insurrectional) nature of aboriginal warfare and the methods used to eliminate it, one can walk away with a skewed perspective of events that transpired from both side’s point of view. Finally, the lack of easily obtainable information in the guise of Osprey titles or a few specific books on the topic is a factor for the potential Frontier War gamer.

So my aim is to have a closer look at this subject from a military (and wargamer’s) perspective. It is a gamer’s focus, not a social historian’s one.

It might stir up a bit of discussion and/or show how these ‘skirmishes’ can be portrayed on the table-top, what forces were involved, unique aspects of the conflict and maybe something new to learn along the way.

It must be stated from the outset, that it is not the purpose (or place) of this blog to discuss the rights and wrongs of British settlement in Australia and its long term implications and the manner in which it was conducted…this is a wargamer’s resource blog, nothing else. Those wishing to undertake such discussion must look elsewhere.

The information presented however, will provide food for thought on the subject, which is one of the benefits of an historical research hobby and can thus still be of value to the non gamer as well, if one were to happen upon these humble pages.

That said, the emphasis on the ‘resistance’ side of the conflict (a wargamer’s view) in no way diminishes the other less savoury aspects of the early colonial experience the indigenous peoples endured. These experiences, sadly enough, were to varying degrees suffered by many native populations subject to colonisation; Australia is no special case, though certainly one of the less well known.

Equally, many acts of violence were perpetrated against the colonist population and so it goes in these tit-for-tat ‘guerilla wars’ –  our focus will be on the military aspects of this conflict just as wargamers do for any other colonial conflict.

It is the opinion of this author that we do the Australian aboriginal peoples a great disservice by not recognising their spirited and determined defence of their land, at such great cost.

As Brevet Major John Campbell said of the Tiwi aboriginals; they had “cunning, dexterity, arrangement, enterprise and courage”. Similarly, the explorer Leichhardt said of the aboriginals he encountered that “the black with his weapons is no coward. Calmly he meets his enemies“.

These comments are not isolated references and hardly the description of an adversary not accorded respect….they were not mere ‘passive victims’ but ardent foes and fierce defenders of their land when called to do so, who fought with great tenacity and courage…there is much to admire in their warrior spirit and conduct…’glory for all’ of a sort that comes from our small table top clashes…nothing more.

In some small way, I hope the information here highlights the military aspects of the conflict, defined as it is was by both sides, not just one. With luck, I hope it will put the period in a more positive frame for gamers to try their hand at a different kind of colonial war, with each side having an equal chance of success on the tabletop using our miniatures rules, a luxury not afforded the real combatants of the day.

These same factors, just like the Cape Wars in Africa, Indian Wars in North America or Maori Wars a little closer to home, in New Zealand, provide the canvas upon which we shall pit one adversary vs another. The low level skirmishes of this conflict, like those others, fit in nicely with miniature wargames using 30-100 figures per side virtually at a 1:1 scale.

Thus, we shall focus on the deeds of soldiers, settlers and native warriors; we treat each with due respect by providing a glimpse of the conflict they waged against one another, to both resist and settle Terra Australis, as we are now coming to understand it. Wordage is used as of its time which the reader should not interpreted in the pejorative; hence Aboriginal, Black and Native are equally used side by side with Whites, Colonists and Invaders in context as is appropriate.

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The Frontier Wars as we shall view them is very much a ‘bottom up’ approach, which reflects the scale of games we play. There was no such thing as an overall aboriginal resistance strategy. Each clan and tribe responded to the settler threat in their own way, typically in a similar way with local variations. With our focus on relatively small scale table-top battles, this is all we are interested in…very much ‘local conflict, local history’.

Thus whilst the end result was never really in doubt, it does not mean that local conflict was. Many times white settlement was ‘defeated’ by being restricted or driven off and regional resistance was fierce and sometimes coordinated, usually at great cost. All this levels the playing field somewhat for our miniature battles and provides each side an equal chance of victory.

There is no attempt to re-write history here, just maybe uncover some, so that it can become more well-known and open as a ‘legitimate’ wargaming period. The kiwis have their Maori Wars and Australians have their own colonial conflict, it just hasn’t truly been unearthed yet…well, not in the mainstream anyway.

The subject matter is vast, like the continent it was fought on, and (as mentioned above) information is not that easy to obtain from the usual sources, but it does exist with some digging. What research that has been undertaken is illuminating and whets the appetite for more. Hopefully these pages will help you along by hitting on some of the wargamer’s ‘juice’ to get the mind thinking about possibilities. By the time we are done you will see that there is more than meets the eye.

Military histories are few but one outstanding contribution by John Connor, The Australian Frontier Wars, is a must read to get an appreciation of many of the dynamics involved. As one reviewer said it “it is a clear-headed, dispassionate work, a timely reminder of the character and value of good, empirical scholarship that is impervious to the pressures and fashions of the prevailing political climate”. These sage words very much set the tone for wargaming this period and this author’s approach to it; this book provides lots of ideas and ‘good guff’ for the avid gamer – I highly recommend it…you can read a good review here.

On the Internet information can be equally hard to find and for a wargamer’s focus, there being only glimpses of the Frontier Wars popping up here and there, but nothing really substantial for the intrepid player to aid in pulling together information to game the period. Hopefully I can add to the body of knowledge freely available to push the subject along and make it a little more accessible for others.

If there is one thing that wargaming is good at it’s looking at the nuts and bolts of how a war was fought and often times learn a helluva lot along the way – possibly more than any other period, this is indeed ‘uncovered’ history. I lay no claim to be an expert by any measure, so take from these posts what you will.

The subject matter encompasses over a hundred years of constant conflict fought over an entire continent the size of western Europe – it is huge in both time, physical size and scope, so I hope after my series of posts you can see that there is a lot wargaming potential and maybe it piques your interest to have a go at something different.

For my part, at this point, I shall be concentrating on the early and middle years from a modelling and gaming perspective, roughly encompassing first settlement up until the nominal end of the Queensland Black War (1855), where conflict arguably reached its zenith and parity between forces existed for the last time. This alone is a huge swath of subject matter, each component part worthy of its own detailed treatment.

The entire subject is like doing all colonial expansion in Africa in one go – there is just so much going on with multiple different ‘looks’ to each era and theatre. This will align with the models I have and their utility as well as interleave with the other contemporary conflicts that interest me such as the Cape Wars in South Africa, Indian Mutiny and the Maori Wars in New Zealand.

As a last point, it is also worth pointing out that the focus will be on the interaction between the colonists and the aboriginals. Its primary focus is that clash, not the internal skirmishes that occurred in the colony such as those between rebellious settlers, convicts, bushrangers and authorities.

Whilst some of these types will pop up in the context of the Frontier Wars, they are not the focus…so the Eureka Stockade, Ben Hall, Ned Kelly and all that will have to take a back seat…as interesting as those subjects can be….though maybe one or two will sneak in as is relevant to the text.

That said, I will be looking at the great Australian explorers as an avenue for gaming as the release of Studio Tomahawk’s Congo African explorer game seems eminently suited to the Australian setting, being both contemporary and similar in many respects…it is a very good fit.

With that, I hope you’ll join me in taking a look at warfare in colonial Australia over a series of posts which will be a little different to the usual spread of common colonial topics.

In the next post we’ll take a little bit of a look at the Australian Frontier Wars and what you need to game them.

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Aboriginal warriors!

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5 thoughts on “Australian Frontier Wars

  1. Interesting idea.
    Looking forward to seeing your progress.
    Do you have a copy of Chris Clark’s The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles listing historical skirmishes with the indigenous tribes for ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Peter,

    “Do you have a copy of Chris Clark’s The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles listing historical skirmishes with the indigenous tribes for ideas?”

    Yes. It gives very good coverage of Frontier Wars clashes – it sounds like a book you have so you are probably well acquainted with it. Certainly a top notch title for AFW content and other Aussie battles.

    I hope my series is of interest.

    Cheers

    Happy Wanderer

    Like

  3. Figures are from Eureka Miniatures ..from their Denisovan range. Check out the following posts on Frontier Wars to see the figures 😉

    Like

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