The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838 (review)
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The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788–1838. By John Connor. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002. ISBN 0-86840-756-9. Maps. Notes. Select bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 175. $24.95. Available in the U.S. from the University of Washington Press in Seattle.

John Connor sets out to create the first comprehensive military history of Australia's frontier wars, and he succeeds impressively. He surveys the combats and analyses their military features thoroughly, covering the numerous small-scale fights between specific Aboriginal groups—who also warred among themselves—and British convicts, settlers, and government troops between 1788 and 1828, in all the main regions of colonization. He does this in the middle of a much-publicized, historiographic controversy now raging among the leading writers of Aboriginal history. The more extreme followers of Henry Reynolds insist that the British invaders massacred the indigenous people horribly time and time again, perpetrating what we now call crimes against humanity. Their opponents, led presently by Keith Windshuttle, condemn this "Black Armband" interpretation as gross exaggeration, unsubstantiated by verifiable Aboriginal casualty figures. Left and right wing national politicians are participating vigorously. Indigenous politicians are publicly involved. The latest overview of this debate is the Brian Atwood and S. G. Foster edition, Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience (Canberra: National Museum of Australia, 2003). John Connor's title appears in one footnote, no. 17, of the introductory chapter by the editors, with no comment about it there or in their text. Connor himself discusses much of the evidence they argue about, and sometimes agrees with some of their factual conclusions. But his focus is on war and militarism rather than apportioning responsibility for massacres and genocides.

Connor's frontier wars fit within the general pattern of British Empire wars against indigenous people in all the main colonies. Everywhere the British moved into the lands of indigenous people and in one way or another displaced the original owners. Everywhere the indigenous population densities were lower or much lower than those of the incoming colonists. This was not only the case in the patterns of invasion in the founding of Virginia from 1607 to 1622 and of New England from 1620 to 1676, examples which Connor might have found additionally useful to his own case. Even the foundations of Spanish Hispaniola from 1493 to 1514 and of New France from 1541 to 1665 are probably relevant to these general points. As in Australia later, fights over food (called "food fights" in Virginia), led to frontier wars. Population pressures and displacements led to competition and violence not only between colonists and indigenes but among traditional warring indigenous groups also. Indigenes raided European crops and herds and burned frontier settler houses. But some also made alliances with the colonizers. Settlers set up gangs to attack indigenes and colonial authorities sent European troops and settler militias against indigenous resistance groups but also made alliances and attempted to integrate the original landowners into colonial society. Everywhere numerous colonizing invaders displaced or destroyed [End Page 957] less numerous indigenes even after suffering serious defeats at the hands of indigenous warriors.

Connor's main colonization wars in Australia follow these patterns. Up to 1828 there were five Australian foundation colonies. Sydney up to 1791 and the first British efforts in Northern and Western Australia between 1824 and 1834 he calls "beachhead frontiers" where government foundation outposts, even with unruly convict workers, did not press seriously on Aboriginal living resources. Violent British-Aboriginal encounters were small and few. Collaboration became the dominant feature. But as ex-convicts and free settlers began to move into interior river valleys with good soil for corn, wheat, and pasture, they impinged on the important Aboriginal food bases in the Hawksbury-Nepean River areas from 1795 to 1816, the Bathurst and Hunter Valley Districts from 1822 to 1826, in Van Diemen's Land from 1821 to 1831, and the Liverpool Plains and Port Philip districts up to 1838. In these foundation agricultural settlements hungry Aborigines raided settler fields and flocks, settlers shot at raiding Aborigines and formed gangs to attack Aboriginal villages, Aborigines attacked isolated farm houses and settlers, and the government subsequently sent troops...


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