Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Way of War (part III)

In the previous post we looked at Aboriginal (adaptive) weapons and battle preparation. In this post we shall round out our discussion of the Aboriginal way of War with a look at tactical methods.



“In their attacks upon European parties I believe the natives generally advance in a line or crescent, beating their weapons together, throwing dust in the air, spitting, biting their beards, or using some other similar act of defiance and hostility.

I have never witnessed any such collision myself, but am told that the attack is always accompanied by that peculiar savage sound produced by the suppressed guttural shout of many voices in unison, which they use in conflicts amongst themselves, and which is continued to the moment of collision, and renewed in triumph whenever a weapon strikes an opponent.

When hostilely disposed from either fear or from having been previously ill-treated, I have seen the natives, without actually proceeding to extremities, resort to all the symptoms of defiance I have mentioned, or at other times, run about with fire-brands in their hands, lighting the bushes and the grass, either as a charm, or in the hope of burning out the intruders.”

 – John Eyre, European explorer


Tactical methods

There are many interesting tactical vignettes described in the above passage though one can never say this was universally the way aboriginals fought. The experience of all who encountered aboriginal warriors varied dependant on the size of force engaged, the terrain and the objectives of the warriors themselves.

What is apparent from the above is the psychological terror they wished to instil in their foe, the bolstering of their own morale by the same and the nature of deployment that hints at a suggestion of tactics of envelopment that fitted the concept of ‘the hunt’.

Whilst this cannot be determined for certain, it is not beyond reason and most likely that this obvious tactical deployment with larger numbers of warriors against smaller bodies of enemy forces using traditional hunting methods was widespread. Although this is but one example of an encounter with large numbers of aboriginal tribesmen closer examination does see some tactical patterns emerge.

Typically, initial contact between whites and aboriginals was often cordial. Soon, when it became apparent that the settlers would force the aboriginals off their land an attack or killing of a settler was conducted by the aggrieved tribe. The retribution of the local authorities and the settlers themselves, where possible, was then punitive and often disproportionate so as to cower the natives into submission. This pattern of attack and reprisal escalated until often a regional area became one of insurrection against the advancing white settlers and their soldier or police minders. This was a common pattern of contact for decades between whites and aboriginals and set the tone for a century of conflict.

In this situation the aboriginals had to decide to either fight for their land or be pushed off into neighboring tribal areas, this itself, triggering inter-tribal warfare. Most tribes fought to some degree, others to the bitter end, still some bowing to the inevitable march of civilisation and making the best of what they could.

For the most part they fought and the manner in which they did so were many fold.



Battles & Raids

Initially the instinctive reaction was to gather many warriors and attempt to settle the issue by force of arms and sheer numbers, perhaps in one great battle. This mirrored traditional patterns of conflict resolution between ‘tribes’. This occurred on a number of occasions to varying degrees and persisted intermittently throughout the period of the Frontier Wars.

In the southern Queensland war in the 1840s, aboriginal warriors who were surprised whilst raiding for livestock (sheep or cattle), were noted as forming up and “giving fight” rather than fleeing. The runaway convict Davis who lived amongst the South Queensland tribes noted warriors were obliged by custom to stand their ground when violently attacked, regardless of the context.

Another contemporary settler noted “the blacks of those days were not curs, and would stand up and face the white man’s gun.” The explorer Leichhardt likewise noted: “the black with his weapons is no coward. Calmly he meets his enemies.”  As at Coomba (near the Bunya Mountains) warriors stood for four hours against a barrage of guns and hurled boulders upon a group of squatters. On the Upper Burnett, 500 warriors “marched on the head station” and then ransacked the station.

There are many instances of pitched battles involving hundreds of warriors throughout the early and mid period of the frontier wars. Often these would occur as a result of being surprised in camp or on a raid. Whilst still occurring in the latter period aboriginal tribes quickly understood the power of the modern rifle and refrained from unnecessary pitched battle engagements, preferring to switch to less bloody and more effective tactics.

These types of engagements best represent the typical stand up set-piece battle that usually the colonial forces preferred, being able to rely on their massed firepower. Given the aboriginal’s ability to ‘quickly’ mass for battle, these sort of stand up fights were not uncommon. Naturally enough the advances in weapon technology made these types of attacks a more deadly proposition and ultimately were doomed to failure. Whilst viable in the first half of the nineteenth century they were potentially suicidal by the second, though they still occurred, usually on the aboriginal’s terms such that they thought they would have a significant advantage.

The noted Australian Frontier War author, Henry Reynolds, made clear that many confrontations with “massed warriors” occurred. Perhaps most well known are the  Murray River actions of 1841 (The Islands NSW and Rufus River by Lake Victoria) where a series of engagements involving some 200 to 400 warriors who stood their ground – in neat files – against groups of 11 to 68 armed whites (some of them former police).

The warriors often times drove off the whites forcing them to flee their drays, this being a case of the crescent-shaped ‘formation’ being used once again, which in that case almost encircled their prey. Even as late as the 1890s, Janadmarra in the Kimberleys began his resistance with open combats, only later moving onto ambush tactics.

Frontier historian Ray Kherkhove notes, “ambush-style guerrilla fighting seems to have evolved as an extension of revenge or execution raids, yet perhaps its prevalence was born of necessity rather than a choice. Due to the impact of gunfire, the “dash in the open” gave way to a “crafty ambush behind some huge rock or tree.”  Even when ambush-style attacks became the norm, raiding parties still often utilized the ‘shock effect’ of assembling, rushing stations and huts with hundreds of painted warriors.

So, even though open field engagements were anything but rare, it became clear to the aboriginals that trying to win a battle of attrition would be futile. Thus, a form of economic warfare and terrorising attacks evolved, both classic guerrilla warfare methods of fighting. One typical method of attack was that on a homestead or station, usually isolated and unable to raise an alarm for safety.

This could be against the occupants, the livestock and/or crops, usually near to harvesting. These raids were designed to inflict economic harm, not so much by death, though this obviously occurred. This ‘limited war’ hoped to minimise retribution on their own community but still inflict maximum ‘to hard to farm’ pain…which was often successful and not always understood by those assessing aboriginal warfare outcomes.

Broadly speaking, further tactical characteristics developed in the way aboriginals engaged the whites. Good use of ground in moving unseen to their target or an ambush site, combined with extensive reconnaissance and planning resulting in successful shock tactics, their objective often being to resupply from their enemy’s stockpiles. Aborigines could move quickly over great distances, up to 50 miles in a day not being uncommon. Because of this rapidity of movement, often the numbers of Aborigines opposing the whites were overestimated.

In planning an attack, care was taken in selecting good withdrawal routes, with coordination and deception in both pre-planned and emergency situations being employed. This was evident in attacks such as raiding one hut to draw off settlers, whilst the main assault was launched elsewhere.

In attacking, Aborigines often taunted their intended victims in english to frighten them into discharging their firearms. Tactically the use of silent hand-signals used in tracking amd stalking game was equally effective against Europeans. Strategically, there was also a system of tree marking involving a series of marks or chops, relay ‘post men’ runners who could rapidly move between tribes to communicate, and most of all, smoke signalling.

Smoke signalling was used to convey messages quickly and effectively between tribes from all types of terrain. The settler, John Campbell and his party, who fought off a raiding party whilst climbing the hills to the Darling Downs, knew a second attack was being arranged as “all this time we could hear their signals passing alongside the Sugar Loaf Mountain to the Red Hill, some two miles ahead of us“. The crackle of smoke fire is what he could ‘hear’. Fred Walker, the head of the Native Police, found it was the main “code” used by the raiding groups to “communicate with their detached mobs” and to decide “the locality of meeting places.”

Perhaps more effectively, long distance signal transmission was made possible by the use of a series of sentinel outposts on high ground that could relay a message quickly to tribes when news of white explorer or armed force expeditions were detected. This method also triggered attacks, such as the one on the Murray River when a rescue raid was conducted against captured tribesmen. As a white settler observed “the escaped blacks notified the tribes on the Murray by signal fires to attack the hut, which they did at night to rescue the others.

It is worth noting that this method was used in vastly different regions and by different tribes, thus this same intelligence gathering and transmission system was applied in many districts by aboriginal peoples. Through smoke signalling, clans from even hundreds of kilometres away would turn up “almost simultaneously” at assigned spots, which may explain how many hundreds of warriors could be assembled at fairly short notice to attack outstations.

These tactics of raiding your enemy into submission often without killing settlers, particularly women and children, which would only bring about retribution on a tribe, was a measured strategy that sort to inflict proportional damage to whites whilst not forcing the whites to conduct disproportionate reprisal attacks. Often, the ultimate goal was to simply drive the squatters away without antagonising the whites to such a degree that they were ‘forced’ into overwhelming reprisals which potentially could end in the clan’s annihilation.

This once again highlights the limited guerrilla warfare aims of tribal communities to produce maximum results for minimal loss. Other attacks were aimed to achieve more and often did; in the Queensland Black War White settlement was held back after the famous ‘Battle of One Tree Hill’ near Toowoomba, 12 September 1843 – one of the few named battles of this conflict, when Aboriginals routed settlers, and restricted settlement expansion for months.



Farm Raid 

A typical farm attack went as follows. An aboriginal would appear before a homestead and entice the occupants to come out by setting fire to wooden roofs, shouting insults in english, etc. The whites would inevitably be forced to come from their dwelling and then the aboriginal would attempt to spear the occupants or lead them into an ambush or at least away from their home.

Other warriors would then raid the building for all belongings or destroy the structure and/or its contents, possibly killing or terrorising any other remaining whites inside. Meanwhile the settlers in pursuit of the original band of warrior would soon find themselves short of ammunition or in some other peril, at which point the aboriginals would attack finishing them off by death or serious injury.

Naturally enough, facing this type of attack, isolated and assailed from all sides, was terrifying in the extreme. It caused many settlers to abandon their homesteads and forced authorities to act to disperse the offending tribes with retaliatory attacks or where this was not possible, then an abandonment of the settlement occurred. This was quite common in many areas of white settlement expansion.


A variation on this was to attack crops. Knowing the seasonal nature of crop production (corn/maize) and the reliance of the settlers to harvest in late autumn and early winter, the aboriginal attacks could deliver significant economic harm, particularly in the early years of a colonial settlement or against isolated settlements that relied on the harvest as a principal food source. At one point food supply was severely effected in the early years of the Port Jackson settlement by crop attacks mounted in the grain growing region of the Hawksbury, north of Sydney. Such attacks could be on quite a large scale, up to 150 men, women, children being involved at a time.

These raids also served the dual purpose both as a source of food gathering for the tribe itself, as corn can be quickly eaten without requiring the husking and grinding of wheat and barley, whilst serving the equally valuable purpose of conducting attacks on the settlers thereby denying them a food source. reducing their morale due to the loss of their crop after much toil and perhaps even restricting their own regional food supply further hampering settlement expansion and sustainability.

The other principal method of attack was the livestock raid. As settlement expanded pastoralists naturally became the target of dispossessed aboriginal tribes. Often raids occurred simply to kill or maim the livestock which had significant effects in making properties viable. This occurred often and on a significant scale.

On other occasions, sheep were carried away or even herded away to be used as a ready food source for attacking tribes, thereby freeing up the warriors to fight rather than hunt for food. Record exists of clans having holding pens for captured livestock, indicating an adapting of the traditional ‘hunt and gather’ limited warfare ability of tribes to a more sustainable ‘fight and gather’ mode of war fighting.

In any raid, the targeting of horses was conducted if possible, as Aboriginals understood their importance as a means of escape, as a military advantage through the use of mounted riflemen and a means of rapid communication.

This understanding of the economic nature of war, or the ‘indirect approach’ as Liddell Hart would say, suggests a prescient understanding of the factors at play by aboriginal leaders to achieve their overall (strategic) goal of restricting or reversing settlement through select tactical engagements that limited reprisal attacks against their own kin.

Other attacks involved ‘terror raids’. The aim of such attacks was to instil fear in the settlers. These same attacks also had the effect of reducing a settler’s chances to employ stockmen to make his farm viable – yet more economic warfare. These terror attacks often limited the killing of the settlers to ensure the whites understood they lived in constant fear of harm or the destruction of their property, though such attacks did not always come without physical violence.

This form of psychological warfare was used to wear down the white’s morale and boost their own. It involved many forms, from intimidatory ‘home invasions’, open mocking in the face of attempted white retaliation, humiliation of white settlers in their own communities and on-going small-scale harassment ‘attacks’ that placed the non combatant population in constant stress and fear…the soft underbelly of colonial forces who cannot protect and be everywhere.

Even large towns lived under fear of raids forcing citizens to move in groups and/or be in constant possession of firearms. In some locations the fear of these raids forced the construction of heavily protected blockhouses, designed with loopholes and barred windows. This practice widened as settlers expanded further north into remote areas and frontier violence increased.

Fire raids were also employed to destroy wheat crops in spring and summer and farmhouses in winter and autumn – fire was a common and oft used method of attack. Fire was delivered via hand held firebrands or from distance by throwing fire spears. It was used to burn crops, outbuildings, and throwing spears bound with burning grass onto thatched roofs, to drive defenders into the open.

Many ambush attacks were carried out against dray convoys (wagon trains) by the use of road blocks to lay traps or prevent resupply of remote towns or outposts.

Strategems of surprise, subterfuge and ruses were quite common. This could involve ‘freindly’ working aboriginals, often women and sometimes children, providing intelligence of a potential target. Women were often used to lure or flirt with men, sometimes then to be speared; or an attack could be made from a different direction whilst their attention was distracted.

Sometimes, aboriginal women could keep settlers in their farmhouse whilst a raid or attack against livestock was undertaken by other warriors. All manner of ingenious methods to distract, divert and diminish the White’s ability to respond were used in both settlement raids or against armed White posses.

The most ‘successful’ incidence of this was the Wills Tragedy at the farm at Cullin-la-ringo, 1861. Up to 50 locals entered the farmstead under the pretence of peaceful entry and then turned on the civilian occupants, killing many. Such actions spurned a growth of settlement blockhouses, as described above, providing a refuge to defend against such attacks. Indeed, many farmhouses were built expressly with the dual role of being a home as well as an unassailable blockhouse from which a defence could mounted until help arrived.

All these attacks were designed to emphasise hit and run tactics which suited the tactical situations where their targets were unlikely to receive succour, even in a prolonged engagement which could last many hours, such as the six-hour long battle the Faithful brothers fought against the Duangwurrang people at Broken River near Benella, (Victoria) in 1838. In such an engagement ammunition was even replenished by women and young boys boldly advancing to retrieve thrown spears – bravery was not the sole domain of men.


In all these attacks war parties were often small but it was not uncommon for them to be very large, upwards of three hundred warriors, such as the highly successful raids conducted by the  Milmenura people of the Coorong district along the Murray River (South Australian coast) in the 1840s. Typically farmhouse raids were on a smaller scale, 20 or so warriors, but larger numbers were definitely possible, particularly if the intention was to steal possessions, rather than general wholesale destruction.

All these forms of fighting emphasised attacking where the enemy was weak and withdrawing in the face of significant White resistance. Though aspects of honour in the heroic tradition was known to aboriginal warriors, as the many revenge attacks attest to, the idea of slavish devotion to it in the western tradition did not exist. Their way of war did not require loss of life to serve ‘honour done’. Much better to hit and run and fight another day – typical guerrilla warfare tactics. When overwhelmed or outnumbered they would retire from combat and withdraw into the bush, usually unable to be followed by any pursuing whites, particularly if on foot.

They were masters of the bush and were increasingly difficult to find, track or locate the denser the terrain they emerged from or retreated to. They were able to easily hide in dense vegetation, hiding amongst trees, river reeds, narrow gorges or rocky hills. They sort sanctuary in caves, covering their tracks by burning grass and camping in places horses could not easily traverse. They used picket systems and smoke signals to convey enemy locations or an approach.

This sophisticated system of war enabled them to strike at will and resist successfully for months, more usually years, before ever being run to ground or forced to capitulate.


Some Indigenous Military Strategies during the ‘Resistance Wars’ 

The following list provides details of typical aboriginal attack strategy and tactics. These strategies emphasise the methods used in the shift to a guerrilla style of warfare. They do not represent all types of attacks, just the most common. As noted above, set piece large scale attacks were also possible.


  1. One or two ‘forward scouts” make “friendly” visit for surveillance of situation, and to lure any residents away from their armaments
  2. Masses of warriors jump out from hiding – either from along creek bank, behind ridge or behind trees (show of force –scores to hundreds of warriors involved)
  3. Harass residents into fleeing or otherwise club/spear residents
  4. If residents retreat to buildings, lay siege by removing roofing/ firing roofing/ spearing through holes/ 
blocking gun slots/ bending or breaking muzzles
  5. Remove/ drive off horses (means of escape)
  6. Sack buildings of all contents
  7. Take all herd, flock and stored goods


  1. Create a distraction for stockmen/ station owner/ shepherds to keep them away
  2. Take over flock/ herd
    • Funnel herd/ flock in pre-planned direction:
    • into mountains or dense scrub (if harassing settler into leaving)
    • past rows of hidden warriors (if killing on-the-spot)
into difficult-to-follow terrain (if moving entire herd/ flock to “bush pens”)


  1. Initial challenge: present large masses of menacing warriors (at a safe distance) and call out threats
  2. Continually follow travelers for long distances, closely monitoring their actions and relaying ahead to other bands (via smoke signal, runners etc)
  3. Wait till part of travelling party is sufficiently removed from rest, or when their armed members are away from rest of travelers
  4. At a pinch or other site presenting enough cover, surprise the vulnerable/ isolated portion
  5. Advance upon group with bodies of warriors chanting war songs (file out from cover and stand ground)
  6. Simultaneously hurl spears, boomerangs etc. at the group
  7. Sack dray/ supplies
  8. Follow rest of party, from a safe distance
  9. Mock and harass
  10. When a manageable portion of remaining travelers come to a suitably vulnerable position, attack this 
portion with another large mass of warriors – advancing out and standing ground
  11. Repeat as often as required

DEFENDING A CAMP (during surprise raids by Native Police or vigilantes)

  1. Send out alert (call to arms) when enemy spotted
  2. Men form a line (barrier) and hurl spears and other projectiles
  3. Women and children run for cover (disperse widely into bush)
  4. Where possible, engage attackers individually (one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat)

(source – Kherkove; A different mode of war)



For all their advantages, the aboriginal warrior was an able, but not unassailable foe.

In Van Dieman’s Land for example, the constant series of guerrilla raids by aboriginals against farmhouses and travel parties by day, meant that white colonists used incessant night time raids against aboriginal camps, often easily detected by fires lit for comfort.

Often these ‘base’ camps were in difficult terrain, often undetectable. However, if found, they became death traps as there would usually be no place to run from the attack. Because of the aborigines spiritual fear of the dark, this caused them to avoid night movement and sleep inside a circle of small fires making detection relatively easy if tracker patrols found the general location of a clan. Typically, in the late afternoon, security forces would maintain a watch for fires, approaching by night and attack at dawn.

The other disadvantage the aboriginal warrior could be placed in was open field battle. The whites were at a considerable advantage if they had horse mounted troopers and were able to catch tribesmen in the open. This would lead to a rapid surrounding and then destruction of a fleeing clan or mob, particularly if the Colonial forces had faster firing modern weapons.

If fighting whites on foot they could use their speed to break contact but unless they could find protection in rough terrain they would likely be run to ground by mounted forces. This was a notable feature of the conflict in Northern Australia in the second half of the 19th century.

Perhaps tragically, on many occasions the biggest disadvantage they faced was from other aboriginals. Often tribal enmities allowed whites to secure support of friendly tribesmen to track and find aboriginal hideouts – this negated the one true advantage the aboriginals had ie to engage at will and disperse as required when confronted with poor target opportunities or unexpectedly stiff or an overwhelming retaliatory force.

However, it was in the institution of the Native Police Forces where the detribalised aborigines were at their most effective and proved of most value to the whites. These troopers, first used in Victoria in the 1840s, reached a peak of ‘efficiency’ in Queensland that made them the dread of all aboriginal clans they engaged.

Often taken from entirely different regions to mount war on their brethren to avoid any clash of tribal affinity, ironically, it is perhaps the aboriginal native police, under white officers, that were the most effective and ruthless force ever to be under arms on the Australian continent. Needless to say, this was the experience of many indigenous peoples where colonial conflicts of the 19th century occurred, with similar native forces raised across the globe to do their master’s bidding.



In retrospect it can be seen that the aboriginal warrior was an enemy to be respected. He adapted his traditional methods of fighting and hunting to great advantage when fighting against white settlement.

It must be said that there can be no doubt that aboriginals fought fiercely and the very nature of protracted guerrilla war inevitably lead to a normalising of violence on both sides as each were in a death struggle for control of land owned and appropriated.

When one looks at the aboriginal way of war it is clear that there was methodology behind all aspects of their ‘operational art’ and tactical evolutions. It also important to recognise that the Aboriginal way of war did not use the same metrics of success that is usually the case in the western tradition. Their system of warfare did not revolve around a high enemy body count as a means of deterrence, but rather sustained economic warfare combined with elements of psychological warfare to reduce, restrict or repel an invader.

The emphasis on economic warfare through military means with the principal goal of the destruction of property and livestock was a viable and to a certain degree successful strategy. The many intimidatory psychological ‘attacks’ further weakened their adversary’s morale and helped them limit new settlers from encroaching on their land.

Combined with all the other facets of resistance as described above, given their resources, they proved remarkably able adversaries and frustratingly hard to bring to heal – this frustration often drove the whites to use disproportionate retaliatory force, further escalating violence.

The very nature of traditional aboriginal clan and tribal based warfare enabled these same methods to be adapted to fighting the whites. Given the limited resources needed to use such tactics and the sheer size of the Australian continent this meant that invariably the conflict would be drawn out for many decades, as each clan or tribe resisted in turn, adapting traditional methods to white settlement.

The simple fact is that the aboriginals were eventually outnumbered and whilst holding their own to a point up to the mid 19th century the advent of breechloader and repeater weapon technology, horse mounted troopers and organised government forces, meant the contest became lopsided and uneven and could only have one end.


6 thoughts on “Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Way of War (part III)

  1. Hi Happywanderer. Good work. The recreations you are attempting interest me. I can flick you some stuff you may want to use – please email me.


  2. Hi Ray,

    Thanks so much for popping by. Your work has been an inspiration for my own research and I have, with credit, leant on much of your work.

    I don’t have you email, is there somewhere I can find it online or can you pop it in this thread? I’m very much interested in what you may have.


    Happy W


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s