Let’s just call it a war

Uncle Bill Allen Junior, a descendant of Wiradyuri warrior leader Windradyne
Uncle Bill Allen Junior, a descendant of Wiradyuri warrior leader, Windradyne

Gudyarra – The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance – The Bathurst War, 1822-1824
By Stephen Gapps
NewSouth, 2021, 288pp., $34.99.

Bathurst is best known as the site of an annual car race on Mount Panorama. But this town also contains a story still not widely known across this wide brown land: how an Aboriginal warrior by the name of Windradyne led a coordinated and effective war of resistance by the Wiradyuri people against colonial settlers.

Stephen Gapps’ account follows his earlier book, The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, which details the military tactics used by both British colonisers and Aboriginal forces.

The key in both these books is the use of the word “war” to describe what went on after the British invasion. White Australia has used all sorts of other, nearby words: conflict, trouble, skirmishes. But rarely the word “war”.

For example, in his Pictorial History of Bathurst, Bathurst historian Theo Barker describes a “conflict” that grew from “spasmodic” to “serious”. He includes the words “hostility” and “resistance” but never “war”.

Accounts by white authors sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause have also contained a squeamishness about the use of the word war. Gapps notes a 1970's account of Windradyne that focused on massacre, tragedy, and suffering rather than resistance.

The use of the word war, then, is a political claim as well as a historical descriptor. Just as Bruce Pascoe has made us think again about Aboriginal food cultivation — why not just call it agriculture? — Gapps is inviting us to think again about what Aboriginal people were doing when they took up arms against invading colonisers.

Why not just call it a war?

Gapps seeks to shatter the idea that the Wiradyuri were simply attacking settlers as opportunities arose and instead conducted a “co-ordinated, sustained and intense campaign” against the occupiers.

But the war didn’t start immediately. Gapps explains that for the first seven years or so after the “discovery” of the Bathurst plains in 1815, Governor Macquarie took a cautious approach, not so much out of respect for the Wiradyuri but to prevent a disorderly landgrab. The slow rate of colonisation in those early years created misunderstandings on both sides: that the settlers would remain a small number within the vast Wiradyuri lands; and that the Wiradyuri were not warlike.

In 1822, under Governor Brisbane, the policy suddenly changed in favour of wealthy colonists itching to get to the other side of the Blue Mountains. Up until 1821, only 2520 acres of Wiradyuri land had been granted to colonists; by 1825, this had reached 91,636 acres. Very quickly, the place was crawling with settlers, their shepherds, their cattle and sheep.

Wiradyuri access to traditional land and water was being curtailed on all sides. Colonists and their workers, overwhelmingly men, began to “interfere” with Aboriginal women.

Things came to a head with the potato field massacre in May, 1824. A group of Aboriginal people were killed as they helped themselves to a colonist’s potatoes (growing in what had traditionally been a cultivated yam field).

Enter Windradyne, a young warrior patronisingly called “Saturday” by colonists. He led a series of coordinated, targeted attacks to destroy stock and property. The townspeople of Bathurst watched on as a cart bearing the bodies of seven white stockmen trundled through town. Clearly, the “friendly” Wiradyuri had their limits. Far from being “unwarlike”, they were actually practiced warriors with a history of armed conflict with other Aboriginal nations. Alarmed and frightened, the colonists embarked on a campaign to get the colonial military involved.

Governor Brisbane duly declared martial law on August 14, 1824, suspending normal civil government in favour of military leadership. Meanwhile, Windradyne upped the ante by coordinating a resistance involving war bands travelling over hundreds of kilometres of Wiradyuri country.

The Wiradyuri also formed strategic alliances with Aboriginal peoples of other nations, from the north, south and east, who also travelled over huge distances to battle the colonisers.

In response, a scratch militia formed of soldiers, overseers and convict stock workers, emboldened by Brisbane’s pronouncements, went out on killing sprees. Their muskets gave them a crucial advantage over Wiradyuri spears.

Eventually, faced with the threat of complete annihilation, Windradyne conceded defeat. In November 1824, he began to walk, with about 140 of his people, the 120 miles from Bathurst to Parramatta to meet with Governor Brisbane. At a great feast on December 28, Windradyne wore a straw hat with the word PEACE and a little representation of an olive branch.

This was the end of the first Wiradyuri war of resistance. While they lost, Gapps notes that the warriors had succeeded in slowing settler penetration into Wiradyuri country.

It was a war with many lives were lost on both sides. One day, writes Gapps at the end of the book, “it might take a more central role in our commemoration of Australians at war.” He notes that while there are many monuments to other wars, “there are no monuments to the Bathurst War”.

While Gapps’ book will do much to raise awareness of the Bathurst War, it is still an account top-heavy with detail coming from the colonial side. While he does refer to Wiradjuri author Mary Coe’s 1986 book about Windradyne, as well as interviews with Elders including Bathurst’s Uncle Bill Allen Junior, a descendent of Windradyne, and fellow Elder Brian Grant, his account relies most heavily on the trail of evidence left by colonial public pronouncements, newspaper articles, private journals and correspondence.

Gapps concedes that this “privileges the perspective of the coloniser”. He says he looks forward to more information that may come to light in the coming years.

Meanwhile, those of us living in Bathurst have had many opportunities to hear about the Bathurst War from one of the descendants of Windradyne himself, Uncle Bill Allen Junior, also known as Dinawan (Emu).

In 2017, for example, he told a public gathering down by the Macquarie Wambool to commemorate the declaration of martial law: “Windradyne led the resistance against the British. He was able to call on an army of warriors to come and fight the battle. Other language groups knew about Windradyne and the importance of who he was. The Gamilaroi, the Yorta Yorta from down south, people coming over the mountains, and from further up north.

“Bathurst boasts about what it has achieved and that’s good, but there was one bunch of people who suffered from that, and that was my people, the Wiradyuri people. We lost, big time.

“But there was no treaty. We’ve always said this is Wiradyuri land and we’ve never ever surrendered our sovereignty. So, to us, this is still our sovereign land.”

And so, why not just call it a war?