Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Traditional Warfare – part I


A common misconception when one thinks of Aboriginal resistance to white settlement is that either there was none, or that they were totally in capable of resisting the ‘white invader’. Both answers are incorrect…and by a long way. Aboriginal peoples are also portrayed by some authors as being an entirely ‘peaceful people’ who shunned warfare amongst themselves and who thus became easy to defeat when colonist arrived…once again, totally wrong. As writer John Eyre noted on the traditional ritualised combat between tribes;

‘If the meeting of the tribes be for the purpose of war, a favourable situation is selected by one of the parties, and notice is sent to the other, who then proceed to the place of meeting, where both draw out their forces in opposing parallel lines. Day-break, or nearly about sunset in the evening, are the times preferred for these engagements, as the softened light at those hours does not so much affect the eyesight, and the spears are more easily seen and avoided.

Both parties are fully armed with spears, shields, and other weapons, and the fight sometimes lasts for three or four hours, during which scarcely a word is spoken, and but little noise of any kind is heard, excepting a shrill cry now and then, when some one is wounded or has a narrow escape. Many are injured generally on both sides, and some severely so; but it rarely happens that more than one or two are killed, though hundreds may have been engaged”

Aboriginals were a warrior people in the same way that warrior peoples existed in Africa, North America, Asia and the Pacific. The manner in which aboriginals conducted inter tribal warfare was however far less destructive than most other warrior peoples, this being largely based on the simple need for warring clans to ‘survive the battle’ so as not to destroy each others relatively small tribal groups, even though strong enmities often existed.

The concept of ‘payback’, or as the Maori people would say ‘utu’ (revenge), was a key cause of warfare between tribes ie an upholding of honour; these were key elements in tribal warfare across many native peoples and also were causes for conflict between white settlers and Aboriginals. This often manifested itself in the way the white settlers seized land and sometimes, aboriginal women. Whilst some initial sharing of land resources was tolerated the ever encroaching white settlers invariably forced the aboriginal people to flee or fight – usually they fought.


…a new enemy

After the initial clashes between tribesmen and colonists, the aborigines adapted their traditional war fighting methods to take account of the white man’s way of war, utterly foreign to them up to that time. They conducted a number of approaches which saw them win numerous tactical engagements and also drive back white settlements in places on a strategic level.

Due to this increased threat the settlers had to adapt their tactics as well, in the same way they had done in Africa, Asia and North America. Often, overwhelming and heavy use of force was adopted to try and ‘break the spirit’ of their enemy, this resulting in a cycle of ever increasing ‘total frontier warfare’ until material resistance was not possible any more.

In the next series of posts we shall take a close look at traditional warfare between aboriginal tribes and their subsequent adaptation to fighting white soldiers and settlers as warfare became more common and widespread. I’ve broken these posts into nice digestible chunks as there is a fair bit of information when looking at the full sweep of the topic.




Clans & Tribes

At the time of arrival of the British ‘First Fleet’ in 1788 in Port Jackson (modern day Sydney CBD) the continental Aboriginal population was approximately 750,000 people scattered across a land mass the size of North America – a very low population density. Though concentrations did occur this led to the belief by the British that the land was largely deserted or unoccupied ie Terra Nullius.

In fact the Aboriginals were distributed over the entire continent in a vast number of small groups of as little as 50 people and as high as many hundreds. It is understood that two types of groupings occurred; nomadic bands and land occupying clans.

‘Bands’ were a nomadic class of tribesmen that roamed their hereditary lands subsisting on hunting, fishing and gathering. Clans on the other hand had a more permanent ‘settled’ residence on land that had largely defined boundaries between one clan and another, though some conjecture on this point has been debated.

The bands and clans, regardless of their land owning methods, had a general ‘live and let live’ approach to the use of their land. Neighbouring aboriginals could utilise the resources and obtain passage over their neighbour’s lands. As long as resources were not taken beyond what the owning aborigines needed to subsist then all was well. It was this spirit of land/resource sharing that enabled the white settlers who arrived in Sydney to coexist for the first few years in relative harmony with the Eora people around Sydney Cove.

Dependant on locality dwellings for the indigenous peoples varied but typical hut construction was in a hemispherical or sometimes ‘tee-pee’ style shape which seems quite common, reminiscent of many North American Indian dwellings. Made of branches, bark and sometimes animals skins they can be easily put together utilising resources from the land, being suited to either nomadic or more permanent settlements. Here are a useful selection of pictures showing dwelling types.









Clans and Bands with shared borders often fell into the same language group. This grouping would place them as part of the same tribe, which is to say they had a kinship with those neighbouring peoples who often shared their land, but they were not of the same ‘family’.

Aboriginal society being egalitarian (ie non hierarchical) invariably meant that as it was not beholden to a birth-right allegiance, tribal connections were ‘loose’ and in no way implied a ‘default’ greater inter-tribal alliance obligation. However this did not preclude such alliances occurring, particularly under the strong leadership of a charismatic leader.

Usually age and wisdom were the virtues that provided an aboriginal man his place in the tribe and standing with neighbouring groups. Warlike chieftains did emerge in times of crisis, such as Pemulwuy in Sydney or Dundalli in South-East Queensland, to name but two. As research continues into Frontier Warfare such alliances are now thought to be more common than previously thought and as more specifics emerge there appears to be a much greater degree of cooperation between tribes than currently thought.





Though all seems harmonious in this ‘idyllic’ live and let live existence, inter tribal warfare did exist for a number of reasons. Warfare in the Aboriginals sense of the word was relative to their social structure, size and intended outcomes from conflict – the concept of warfare as practiced by large nation states or tribal kingdoms and confederations is not relevant when one looks at Aboriginal warfare. Whilst ‘limited’ it was constant and widespread and many peacetime activities prepared the warriors for war as well.

Warfare was intertwined with aboriginal daily life – men often sat around a camp fire regaling themselves with stories of battles, raids, and heroic clashes. These experiences were to subsequently include victories against whites.

Usually land itself was not a cause of war but the use or control, or excessive use of specific resources on the land were. Raids were conducted to seize women who were captured and integrated into a tribe. This was sometimes done as a response for a previous grievance or as a form of ‘economic warfare’, as the necessity of women were largely considered a critical resource of a band or clan for traditional duties and to sustain offspring for the group’s survival.

If one tribe had a member murdered or they suffered a loss of life from sorcery then both would usually trigger a tit-for-tat response/counter-response. Sometimes these responses would involve small raiding parties or large gatherings of the respective bands or clans, where perhaps a duel would be fought between warriors that could escalate into a full blown inter-tribal clash.

Simple initiation rights of a class of junior warriors also triggered outbreaks of violence, with success allowing rights to visual recognition via shield painting and pattern design and/or warpaint usage. Tribal kinship groups also fought to uphold prestige or status against neighbouring tribes so as to affirm land and women rights.

All these reasons or causes could involve clashes by as few as 20 to 30 men or much more serious clashes involving large numbers of warriors, possibly over 100 in larger clans. Other than specific killings in retribution that have more in common with stealthy ‘commando raids’ than open warfare between tribes, the limited resources available to all tribes meant that warfare was limited as well. Similarly, the small numbers of tribesmen in the group and the need for all to participate in the gathering of the tribes resources meant no independent warrior class existed – all men able to fight did so.

The above forms of warfare were largely summed up by the 1840 America scientist Horatio Hale as being either revenge attacks, raids for women, ritual trials and formal battles, the latter being the most lethal.

The simple need to hunt and gather resources for the tribe limited the time available to engage in prolonged conflict, hence ‘set piece’ ritualised encounters or one-off stealthy raids settled most issues and fitted with the subsistence needs of the tribe or clan – this however would change with the coming of the white man.

To avoid undue loss of each group a ritualised form off warfare existed to limit losses for the greater good of both tribes. Once vengeance or honour had been satisfied there was little reason to continue with excessive violence, else the viability of both groups would be placed in jeopardy.

This ‘limited warfare’ and generally non hierarchical inter-tribal conflict kept losses to a minimum, such that whatever the initial reason or cause of conflict, no ongoing inter-tribal alliance ‘army’ engaged in conquest or extended periods of warfare against neighbouring groups.

An interesting ‘step-by-step’ detailed breakdown of traditional fighting by the writer Petrie is worth describing. Interestingly, it shows in detail the respective roles and responsibilities of each type of ‘warrior class’ within the tribal fight, from the youth (kippas) to the old men directing battles from behind along with seasoned warriors – this is a highly organised ritual style of warfare.

It is relatively easy to see how these roles would be interpreted for adaptation to the new type of warfare the aboriginals were forced to wage against the white settlers.



  1. Contestant groups move entire camp to ridges surrounding open plain – women move camp first
  2. Set up camp according to direction of home country (N S E W) with youths (kippas) separate again
  3. All men paint selves up and decorate selves with feather down
  4. Women dance & sing on battle field – wave yam sticks with branches of bushes tied to
  5. War whoop from camp (top of hill)
  6. Warriors file into field in companies (tribal groups) in line – sets of twos, singing war song:
    1. led by “great men” war champions (6 in pairs)
    2. followed by youths in middle
    3. seasoned warriors behind (6 in pairs)
  7. Women plant yam sticks in ground as troops enter, and await warriors’ arrival
  8. Youths open battle – for 20 minutes – toss weapons from distance (nb this ‘proving self in battle’ is their first duty after bora initiation)
  9. Seasoned warriors move in – toss spears/ boomerangs/ waddies from distance – for 1 hour, old men direct from behind,- thin shields deflect
  10. Try chase opponents off and away from field towards ridges or beyond
  11. Once someone is wounded, friends shout “tor!” – appearance of ‘first blood’ ends the battle
  12. All sides retreat and break – squat down 100 yards apart, treat wounds
  13. When rested, two warriors from one side rush at opponents’ side, brandish spears etc and threaten (challenge)
  14. Two from other side respond
  15. Group of four or five each side duel (hand-to-hand)
  16. Long fight (up to 5 hours): turrwan (big man – best champion) accepts single-handed combat at close quarters with opponent’s turwan (usually avenging death of relative, blamed on opposing side) – duel with thick shield and waddy (and carry stone knife in teeth)
  17. Once one drops weapons, or shield is split, start knife duel – stab or gash thighs or back (not allowed to stab chest- offenders killed)
  18. Onlookers eventually separate turrwans
  19. Various small duels (including women’s yamstick fights) of other major champions & aggrieved parties
  20. All retire back to camp, go hunting etc for evening meal
  21. Repeat steps 1-20, for over a week
  22. All depart for home country, usually on good (cooperative) terms


An example of a intertribal fight was witnessed in 1887 on the central coast of New South Wales near present day Coffs Harbour – it provides a graphic description of the elements described above. It provides many interesting details of a battle, equipment and customs. The late date just shows how untamed the country was in many parts even into the 20th century.



Blacks Tribal Fight

A Unique Experience

       Mr. Walter Harvie of Coffs Harbour, who is now 83 years of age, was the only white witness of the biggest aboriginal tribal fight along this coast in the last 60 years. It was about 40 years ago. Mr. Harvie describes the unique incident as follows:
        I was drawing cedar from Bongal scubs to the Bellinger at the time, and employed two black boys. Their father was boss of the coast blacks from the Bellinger to a good distance north. We named him “Long Billy”. The boys were about 16 and 18 years of age and very intelligent. They were very useful to me in minding the bullocks. Naturally they wanted to go and see the fight, and they asked me to go with them. I went — partly because I was anxious as they were to see the fight and partly because I wanted to keep in touch with the boys, in case they might be enticed away. They had been with me about two years and could speak English. Later they joined the Queensland black police..

Aboriginal Customs

       The two boys I had were “Caperas”, which meant that they were a stage between boys and men. They had undergone their examinations by the heads of the tribes some time previously for promotion to manhood, although it was not in such a severe form as in former years. But they were barred from eating certain kinds of food. Bush turkeys, goannas and flying foxes were taboo, also several kinds of game, but fish, oysters, damper and any other food were allowed. They were debarred from living in the camp with other blacks, particularly if there were any women or girls about.

They had an appointed chaperone, who was always with them. He was generally an old aborigine who, in addition to his fighting implements carried a nitched piece of thin wood with strings attached, which made a buzzing sound when whirled in the air. It was a “row row”, and when used in the right way would make a row all right. This was used by the man in charge to keep all stragglers away from where the caperas were. There were other caperas in the group besides my two boys.


The Battle Ground

      The battle ground was on the bald ridges between Bongal and Boambi Creeks and when we arrived there we met a great number of blacks. The fighting men were naked, except for strong belts in which they carried their fighting implements. Their bodies were painted with fantastic stripes of different colours. They carried spears and heelaman in their hands. The heelaman was a piece of light wood about 16 or 18 inches long and about 14 inches wide, rounded on one side, and it had a grip hold for the hand on the flat side. This was their shield for warding off spears and blows from other weapons. I was directed by the head men to stay with the boys, as I would be safe with them from any weapons flying about. The boys soon found a suitable spot from which we would have a good view, and all the time the old chap kept up a noise with his whirling machine to keep intruders away.


The Battle

       The fighting men were rushing about making an unearthly row on both sides, but after a time they got into two lines about 50 yards apart. Then a large number on either side fell back as reserves, some distance away. Two men who appeared to be distinguished warriors jumped out in front of each line and made short speeches. When they finished they threw the boomerangs, which was a signal for a general clash. There was a yell that could be heard a long distance away and boomerangs and throwing sticks filled the air like flocks of birds.

After they had expended all these missiles they started with spears about 10 feet long, of which they had great numbers. It was wonderful to see how they could elude them, knocking them aside, catching them on the heelaman, jumping straight up to let them pass underneath their feet, and even catching them in their hands and returning them like a flash. But each man kept his eyes glued on his opponent. Spears were picked up by the toes and returned, and it was wonderful how they could protect themselves behind the heelaman.

        After about half-an-hour’s strenuous fighting the front line men had used up all their weapons. Then the front line fell back on both sides, removing all who had been put out of action. The reserves took their place in the line and the fighting went on as fierce as before.

When all the spears and boomerangs were used up the others joined in and they started with copens, a very dangerous weapon about 3 feet long with a heavy knob at the end. The contestants then got scattered in pairs over about half-a-mile of clear ridge and there was very fierce hand to hand fighting. We had a good view from where we were and could hear their weapons clashing on the shields. There were desperate yells and we could see the men falling, but whether they were seriously wounded or not we could not tell.

       About an hour from the time the battle started we could see that both sides had had enough. The southerners began to get away to their camp in twos and threes, and shortly afterwards there was a general stampede and the battle was over, bar the shouting and rattle of weapons. When the noise had quietened down there was much talk between the leaders and the different tribes (there were a number of tribes engaged) and soon they came to an agreement and began to attend to the wounded, of whom there were many. Some were so seriously wounded that they never recovered. I was told that three were killed outright in the fight.

        I made a rough count and calculated that about 500 men were engaged in the battle. They were the finest crowd of men I’ve ever seen together — tall and muscular, and every one an athlete of no mean calibre. The lubras were very plucky. They ran about among the fighting men picking up weapons that had been used.

      I believe I am the only white man in New South Wales, and perhaps in Australia, who has ever witnessed such an exhibition. It would have made a fine picture, especially the hand to hand fighting near the finish, which was very fierce, and there were dozens lying about the ground in various attitudes. A great many had to be carried off to the different camps. The carriers made rough stretchers of saplings to carry those who could not walk and the wounded were attended to by old aborigines and lubras, who seemed to be experts at fixing up spear wounds and broken heads.


A Big Corroboree

       I saw some that had to be helped off the battlefield taking part in the big corroboree that was held at night. There must have been over 1000 blacks congregated there, all in nature’s garb except for short fringes worn around their hips by the lubras and pieces of skin of some animal hanging from the belts of the men. They had no blankets – the government dole had not reached this far. But they had plenty of rugs well tanned and sewn with a thread of their own make.

All the tribes took part in the corroboree. I remember that one part was a kangaroo hunt. A number of the blacks camped at Boambi for a long time, feeding and tending the men who were were wounded in the fight. I was running my bullock team there and was often about my run. Although they must have been often on short allowances of food they never interfered with my bullocks.

I noticed in a Sydney paper some months ago where a writer stated that aboriginals never used the boomerang in their fights. That is wrong. I have seen several, and the boomerang was always the principal weapon used. 


An interesting group shot of Territorian aboriginals. This group, possibly a small clan of it own, shows youths, young men with weapons, two tribal elders and several women – a typical tribal community. Note both the young and old stand bearing weapons. One warrior also displays distinctive body scarring, these marks telling the story of an individual or tribe.


In the next post we shall take a look at the weapons used by the aboriginal people for fighting both intertribal as well as resistive warfare against the white settlers.