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

Ernest Giles expedition suffers an Attack at Ularring, 1889

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In the previous post we looked at aspects of Aboriginal (traditional) tribal warfare before white settlers arrived. In this post we shall take a closer look at how the Aboriginals adapted their style of warfare to the new enemy.


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“It has been said, and is generally believed, that the natives are not courageous. There could not be a greater mistake, at least as far as they are themselves concerned, nor do I hold it to be any proof that they are cowards, because they dread or give way before Europeans and their fire-arms.

So unequal a match is no criterion of bravery, and yet even thus, among natives, who were labouring under the feelings, naturally produced by seeing a race they were unacquainted with, and weapons that dealt death as if by magic, I have seen many instances of an open manly intrepidity of manner and bearing, and a proud unquailing glance of eye, which instinctively stamped upon my mind the conviction that the individuals before me were very brave men”.

– John Eyre, explorer

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Adaptive Warfare

Aboriginal Warfare has been largely dismissed as little more than ‘the hunt’ repurposed against the colonists, with no concept of either a cohesive strategy or tactical evolutions being attributed or thought possible to such an ancient people. Some have even suggested that aboriginal warriors were not war like in anyway.

The record shows however that these ideas are old-fashioned and paternalistic. Aboriginal warfare did in fact adapt to the new enemy they were forced to fight. Furthermore, there can be no question about the spirit and courage with which they undertook that task. As a pioneer wrote in 1869 “every acre of land in these districts [Sydney and its surrounds] was won from the Aborigines by bloodshed and warfare“.

Whilst it is true that there was no standardised aboriginal ‘war doctrine’ against white settlers, their tactical arrangements produced a remarkably similar response where ever conflict occurred; the implementation of tactics were clearly based on their traditional hunting skills, available resources, inter tribal knowledge of contact with the white man’s ways and the natural evolution of tactical methods through experience. Their tactics and strategy was appropriate given those factors at work. They understood the expansionist/pastoralist reason, or driving force, behind white settlement and developed methods by which to combat it.

Taken collectively, their approach to conflict was quite sophisticated in comparison to many other native peoples whose response, to say the least, was often less than subtle and generally at greater cost to their own people. Whilst those same people may have died valiantly in the western tradition of sacrifice the aboriginal style of warfare garnered less numerous accolades amongst its enemy who were forced into a long and arduous war of attritional pacification that took over a century to complete – it just wasn’t cricket.

Traditional warfare methods between aboriginal tribes, repurposed for fighting white settlers, had had little chance in turning back or deterring the British. In some respects the Aboriginals and British shared a similar ‘formality’ to deciding grievances on the battlefield amongst their own peoples. Just as aboriginal warriors formed up and exchanged missile fire with one another and then closed to contact to decide the day, so too did the napoleonic era massed ranks of European infantry utilise tactical evolutions all designed to determine a decisive battle, and often a war, in a day on a ‘prearranged’ battlefield.

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For the aboriginal tribes this ‘arrangement’ was a necessity so that inter-tribal conflcit could be resolved and the tribes could resume the pressing tasks of hunting and gathering – there just wasn’t time for a long drawn out conflict. For the British similar factors were often at play if one takes a macro view of the cost of global empire and ongoing wars – they too wished to resolve conflict as quickly as possible to limit the strain on the public purse and return to more profitable pursuits in the emerging industrialised world; one great battle or a ‘quick campaign’ suited their purposes very well.

Strategically this was not possible in Australia. There was no aboriginal confederation of tribes under one great leader who ‘ruled’ his people. The social structure and need for each warrior to hunt and gather as his primary task meant no permanent warrior caste developed within aboriginal society, but all men became warriors. Instead, each tribal band, sometimes allied with others, fought a ‘local war’ that generally speaking, was for disputed territory with the usual minimalist resources typical of most, if not all tribes. This was both a blessing and a curse as it meant that continued resistance could be accomplished with frugal resources but concerted large scale continuous warfare was not possible and generally not as destructive. There were off course many exceptions and variations to this theme.

This is not to suggest that ‘set piece’ battles did not occur; It was not the dominant form of warfare but did take place on numerous occasions, with mixed results. Most famously the ‘stand up fight’ at Battle Mountain, near Cloncurry in north western Queensland, where the clash between the Kalkadoon tribes of upwards of 600 warriors against the force of 300 or so settlers and police was very much a stand up fight in the colonial tradition. Repeated charges by the Kalkadoons resulted in their defeat against the mass firepower of breach loading weapons – a similar battle fought against slow loading musket armed troops could easily have had a different result. The outcome however, was decisive.

Similarly, at the engagement known as the Battle of Battle Camp, Cape York Peninsula, 500 Warriors repeatedly attacked 80 or so miners supported by a detachment of Native Mounted Police in a surprise attack. Once again, the power of the Snider rifle decided the issue. Fortunately for the colonists their pattern of settlement was commensurate with an increasing technological edge in weaponry against increasingly aggressive and larger force aboriginal opponents.

Kalkadoon warriors – c.1900. These would be typical of the warriors that fought at Battle Mountain.

As these later engagements showed weapon lethality had a devastating physical and psychological effect on small clan based groups of warriors, even if they were able to be organised into larger inter-tribal coalitions. They simply could not sustain a war of annihilation against an enemy who replaced lost equipment and fallen men relatively easily, which disproportionately he had in larger, virtually unlimited numbers.

Regardless of this march of weapon technology however aboriginals from very early on realised that the destructive effects of firearms meant that limiting the effectiveness of British firepower were key factors in any overall ‘sustainable’ or ‘winning’ strategy. In optimal circumstances resistance could successfully be waged for a decade of more, such as the Pallawah tribe, whilst for most other tribes their demise came within a handful of years, sometimes months. Regardless of time frame, resistance was mostly fierce.

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This led them to adopt or repurpose their natural hunting skills in combination with their warrior ethos to evolve a low resource, long term viable war fighting style ie guerrilla war, the principal manner in which most aboriginals fought white settlement. Today we would call it an insurgency.

This gave them many advantages on the tactical and strategic offensive/defensive as well as diminishing those of their adversary; these responses were anything but primitive in tackling the strategic problem, a form of war conducted to this day by those operating under the same tactical and strategic limitations against a better resourced and equipped enemy, which is what aboriginal tribes did. This natural response occurred all across the continent and was the principal feature of the Australian Frontier Wars ie small scale guerrilla raids in it many forms, all recognisable to a student of that style of warfare.

Even the ruthless modern firearm equipped troopers of the Queensland Mounted Police had to realise as the Cooktown Herald newspaper opined in 1874 that miners were having to “enter into guerrilla warfare, and risk their lives against these able foes, who were immeasurably their superiors in tactics and bush fighting“.

This form of war also fitted in with their tribal organisational structure. Whilst the fractured tribal nature of aboriginal society meant that large coalitions under one great war leader was counter to typical concepts of aboriginal communities, some regional leaders did emerge to coordinate and conduct extensive low intensity guerrilla war, particularly after agreed strategies we’re decided at inter-tribal gatherings.

This was only natural when one considers the huge areas over which conflict occurred. If one were to take a more regional view then coalitions of ‘united tribes’ as the explorer Leichhardt described them, produced a method by which a more cohesive and coordinated ‘system’ of resistance started to become possible.

This infact is often what happened as each tribal group told of their stories of contact with colonists at regional ‘festivals’; such councils discussed and implemented strategies that often stretched British government resources considerably, delaying and on numerous occasions turning back settlement in some areas for years.

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With single tribe resistance being problematic, though not without their own successes, these traditional tribal gatherings by neighbouring clans took on even greater importance, further strengthening the need for ‘coordinated action’. No better example of this were the united tribes involved in the southern Queensland Black War (1842-1855) with some 14 to 15 groups said to have been involved; similarly the Wonnarua and Kamilaroi tribes of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales combined in an effective campaign of resistance, further emphasising the point.

Similarly a coalition of tribes in the Sydney basin also formed an alliance that proved successful for a period of time. Often these large tribal confederations had notable leaders to inspire and lead them. These so-called ‘executioner warriors’ (kooringal) such as Pemulwuy in Sydney, Jandamara of the Kimberleys in Northern Western Australia, and Dundalli, Multuggerah and Yilbung of South-Eastern Queensland brought forth “depredations” on whites in the same way other indigenous war leaders in African and North American colonial conflicts did, though never enmasse such as an Isandlwana or Little Big Horn type ‘disaster’. Such tactics could and did delay white settlement for many years in some regions…most decidedly victories by the measure of the day.

Even though ‘traditional’ armed responses persisted throughout the period of resistance some detribalised aboriginals, such as those that lived and understood the colonist’s world, became accustomed to the white’s ways and used some of those skills to fight back. Even previously employed Native Police sometimes deserted, on pain of death no less, and fought with their knowledge of white man’s methods in combination with their natural warrior attributes. Much of this occurred in the north of the country and toward the end of the 19th century, though there were exceptions.

Therefore, if we were to articulate the nature of the guerrilla war waged against the British then we can better appreciate just how effective aboriginal warfare was in conception and execution. Though not every guerrilla war ends in success, as the aboriginal’s eventually didn’t, it does not invalidate their conduct in waging it.

Guerrilla War –

The main strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare involves the use of a small attacking, mobile force against a large, unwieldy one. The guerrilla force is largely or entirely organized in small units that are dependent on the support of the local population. 

Guerrilla war involves small-scale raids, ambushes and attacks. Guerrilla tactics are based on intelligence, ambush, deception, sabotage, and surprise. Against a local district force guerrilla fighters may make governance impossible with terror strikes and sabotage. These tactics are useful in demoralizing an enemy, while raising the morale of the guerrilla. In many cases, guerrilla tactics allow a small force to hold off a much larger and better equipped enemy for a long time.

Guerrilla operations typically include a variety of strong surprise attacks on transportation routes, individual groups of police or military, structures, economic enterprises, and targeted civilians. Attacking in small groups, using stealth and sometimes captured weapons of the enemy, the guerrilla force can constantly keep pressure on its foes and diminish its numbers, while still allowing escape with relatively few casualties. The intention of such attacks is not only military but political, aiming to demoralize target populations or governments.

Guerrilla warfare resembles rebellion, yet it is a different concept. Guerrilla organization ranges from small, local rebel groups of a few dozen guerrillas, to hundreds of fighters, deploying from small independent and inter-dependant groups. In most cases, the leaders have clear political aims for the warfare they wage. 

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The above description of ‘classic’ guerrilla warfare methods is sophisticated and multi tiered – aboriginal resistance included all of the above stratagems in various combinations dependant on tribal resources, capabilities and willingness to fight. Though no overarching political aim was established, regional political aims were, and thus the above strategic and tactical goals all apply.

Therefore, to give context to aboriginal tactical warfare we must ‘translate’ their innate living and martial skills that were adapted to fight both other tribes and whites. Their ‘way of war’, as mentioned above, largely is defined by the tactics of an insurgency campaign which is accepted as a viable military system of resistance to this day.

As Henry Reynolds noted in his ground breaking book “The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia”;

“Aborigines reacted quickly and creatively to the settlers when provoked and/or threatened. They categorically resisted assimilation and declined servitude. Aboriginal warriors gathered, deliberated, conducted patient surveillance, and used guns garnered from previous raids to ambush assailants, loot properties and inspire trepidation within isolated colonial properties. Their superior skills of bushcraft guaranteed success. A squatter on the Gwydir in 1789 believed that the whole British army would be unable to apprehend one tribe in his district so well acquainted are they with every thicket, reedy creek, morass, cave and hollow tree, in which they can secrete themselves, and so inaccessible to a horse of any white man”.

With that, we conclude part one. In the next instalment we’ll take a closer look at what the component parts of aboriginal warfare were fighting the whites to see how their experience and application of tactical methods compares to the above definition. This will give us a chance to detail their style of fighting that shall prove useful for us to properly portray them on the table top or in a campaign setting to properly define the goals of the competing sides.

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