‘The Australian Wars’: Documenting the violence of colonisation

December 4, 2023
two men, one holds a spear
Still shot from 'The Australian Wars' by filmmaker Rachel Perkins, released by Blackfella Films. Image: screenaustralia.gov.au

The Australian Wars is a work of witness, remembrance and generosity. Directed by award-winning Arrente and Kalkadoon filmmaker, Rachel Perkins, and released by Blackfella Films and SBS in 2022, it details Australia’s frontier wars with clarity over three episodes, asking the audience to grapple with our past and how it might shape a shared future.

Perkins traverses the country, speaking to historians, archaeologists and traditional owners and deploying stunningly shot re-enactments, archives and artefacts. By documenting key aspects of this war — which lasted from the landing of the first fleet to the 1920s — she brings it into conversation with the Australia of today, and invites the audience to contend how it might be remembered.

The stories, beautifully shot and deeply connected to place, are also deeply personal — as Perkins articulates in episode three; “We turn away from things we don’t want to see, we all do it, and I admit I actually didn’t really want to make this documentary series because I knew I’d have to spend years going through the horror of it … and it has taken me to this place … it’s a place where many of my family members were killed, but my great grandmother survived to tell the story”.

By carefully embedding a narrative of place, the series does well in representing the entangled violence of colonisation — on peoples and the land. Perkins tells how once the limits of location (the perimeter beyond which no-one could graze herds or stock) were removed, legalising squatters rights, “one of the fastest land grabs in human history” played out, spurred on with speed by horseback. It was the ideological import of profit-making that underpinned this land grab, and sought ruthlessly to replace Indigenous systems of living with land.

Forced to flee what were violent and indiscriminate killings, local Indigenous people found refuge in areas not easily accessible to white settlers. These were areas Indigenous people knew intimately, and from which they could stage organised attacks on settler outposts.

As Perkins explains, “It’s the tactic of colonialism that you always hit back in a far more disproportionate and horrendous way than you have suffered.” In NSW, and most violently in Queensland, this meant the establishment of the native police; an Indigenous taskforce coerced into working for “next to nothing” while using their tracking and navigating skills against Indigenous peoples.

“Black people killing black people, it’s age old and it’s always worked”, says Gunditjmara man Damein Bell. Historian Raymond Evans says, “the native police were inspired by developments in South Africa where black Africans were used to kill other black Africans”.

The fact this history has taken so long, and is still struggling, to enter the public sphere is in part a product of what we value as evidence. Indigenous people have passed down stories of this violence for generations, and it’s not surprising considering, as Perkins points out, “we’re the grandchildren, the great grandchildren of the people they didn’t kill”.

“I just shake my head when someone tells me that [oral history can’t be trusted] I’d rather believe my grandfather than reading it out of the book”, says Balnggarrawarra traditional owner Cliff Harrigan.

Western science is only now catching up to what Indigenous people have always known.

Archaeologist Heather Burke is part of a multi-disciplinary team from five universities working with traditional owner groups to document the native police. Their work has shown the native police were run as an extensive paramilitary operation “existing for 50 years, its one sole purpose to protect European settlement in whatever form that took, and to put down resistance”.

Their archaeology has shown that in Queensland alone there were at least 150 native police camps, the longest one running for 44 years, and that “we’ll probably never know what that final number was [that died at the hands of the native police] … but you’re looking at something like 72,000 people”.

Names are treated with particular importance in the series — they are identified as a lingering trauma and continuum of the wars. While sites of violence are overwhelmingly unmarked and unobserved — save for colonial names such as “Blackfellows Bones”, or “Victory Hill” — the names of premiers and leading politicians of the era are writ large in Australia’s official history as pillars of civic decency and nation builders.

James Stirling, Lachlan Macquarie, John Batman; Australia is etched with perpetrators of violence.

Rodney Dillon of the Palawa nation in Tasmania says he has never driven across Batman Bridge, saying: “Batman was a serial murderer and he was proud of it … and [the governor] promoted him [for it].”

Tony McAvoy MC of the Wirdi Nation in central Australia reveals the throughline of this legalised brutality, saying “that type of treatment of our ancestors has left huge open wounds for our people, and the cases where the wounds have healed they’ve left an incredible amount of scarring”.

Part of the power of The Australian Wars is in opening and making accessible this part of Australia’s history. It has helped in recognising heroes of the resistance — such as Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man of the Eora nation and Tunnerminnerwait of the Parperloihener clan. No doubt there are many more to be uncovered.

The series begins and ends with the Australian war memorial in order for Perkins to address one of its key contradictions; “The Australian wars lasted over 100 years and were fought across the entire continent, yet they are given the most cursory mention at Australia’s war memorial”.

Alternatively, as historian Henry Reynolds puts it; “one it [the war] was fought in Australia, two it was fought about Australia, and three it determined the ownership and the control, the sovereignty of a whole continent, now what can be more important than that to us”.

The War Memorial is engraved with the names of the fallen and garlanded with poppies — “lest we forget”. It is a place that speaks solemnly of sacrifice, that mourns the victims of our opponents’ brutality and ignores the suffering caused by our own.

Between 1788 and 1934 about 100,000 lives were lost in conflicts between British settlers and the Indigenous population. Ignoring this begets the belief we don’t owe anything to anyone and renders days of remembrance as exercises in collective amnesia.

For too long, Australian history has reflected a lack of desire to relate to the past in ways that might implicate us. It belies a constant anxiety, as if a single negative discovery might unravel everything we are. The Australian Wars invites us to turn and face that history.

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