AUSTRALIA’S FRONTIER WARS: an end to forgetting

We have known for a long time that we should respectfully mourn the outrages of our colonial past, and that we should be celebrating 400 centuries of Tasmanian history, not just the past two.
We have known for a long time that we should respectfully mourn the outrages of our colonial past, and that we should be celebrating 400 centuries of Tasmanian history, not just the past two.


AUSTRALIA’S FRONTIER WARS: an end to forgetting

WE are often told that Australia, like every other nation with European colonial beginnings, was created through the vision, toil and struggle of ordinary men and women carving new beginnings from unknown and empty lands.

A rich heritage of exploration, discovery and success has come to define Australia’s national character.

It also conceals a dark history.

While the US, Canada, and New Zealand have faced the harsh realities of their foundation through frontier wars with indigenous people, Australia has yet to take this important and inevitable step. There are no memorials to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who died defending their country.

The most difficult chapter of our national origin story has not been honoured with the recognition it deserves — for the many thousands of lives lost, and the generations of trauma that have since been ignored. This makes life difficult for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people. It has also done no favours for everyone else. We are left stuck in conflict, mistrust and paranoia about our own history.

Perhaps because of our island geography, and the campaign to remove Aborigines completely from the lives of European settlers here, the Tasmanian experience of frontier war was more intense and more devastating than anywhere else in the Australian colonies.

As Nicholas Clements pointed out in his book Black War, the campaign against Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land was, per capita, one of the most destructive the world has ever seen.

It was described at the time as “extermination”. Some now call it a genocide. How can we ever acknowledge such a past when the truth may be too much to bear?

In his 1968 Boyer Lecture, Professor William Stanner called for an end to this “great Australian silence”. Ten years later, Geoffrey Blainey urged the Australian War Memorial to give attention to the frontier wars. Another decade on, Governor-General Sir William Deane again pointed to the continuing absence of any official memorial to these momentous and tragic events. In 2013, Professor Henry Reynolds reminded us of the continuing need for acknowledgment with his book Forgotten War.

Throughout Australian history, Aboriginal leaders have consistently called for justice through recognition of colonial aggression.

This process began in the 1820s with the Tasmanian leader and patriarch Mannalargenna, and was reflected by other leaders such as Pemulwuy, in NSW, and Yagan, in West Australia. It continues today with calls for constitutional recognition and the persistent need for a treaty that acknowledges past injustice.

In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the historic referendum that finally acknowledged the presence of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as a part of the our nation, it is a significant moment to finally offer Aboriginal people the recognition given to other Australians throughout our history.

This process has commenced with the announcement of Mona’s vision for Macquarie Point. How it is best done will emerge through consultation and collaboration between everyone affected.

Everyone was surprised at the announcement of Mona’s bold vision, including Aboriginal people, but it would not be Mona if it were not surprising and challenging.

However, what the vision involves should be no surprise to anyone. We have known for a long time that we should respectfully mourn the outrages of our colonial past, and that we should be celebrating 400 centuries of Tasmanian history, not just the past two.

Mona’s vision for Macquarie Point offers some suggestions on how we might do that. Hopefully, other ideas will now follow.

Goodwill and commitment to co-operation is required from every corner of the Tasmanian community. Everyone has the opportunity to be part of the solution. This is new territory for Australians, but many other places have successfully confronted their difficult pasts and succeeded in starting the process of transformation.

Our national identity was not born on the shores of Gallipoli, or in the trenches of the Western Front. These were important wars, but they were fought on foreign shores. It is time to acknowledge the conflict and bloodshed that began a century before Gallipoli. These were wars that were fought across the very hills and valleys that we call home. It is time to allow yesterday’s ghosts some rest.

Facing our own terrible past will take courage and maturity. It is not only necessary, but also inescapable. Macquarie Point provides an exceptional opportunity for Tasmania. This internationally significant urban renewal project can provide a place where arts and culture come together as a national symbol of hope and reconciliation.

Through this, we can find our way toward healing — and perhaps even forgiveness.

The rest of Australia will be watching closely how we manage this challenge. Based on the overwhelming feedback in the past few days, I think Tasmanians are ready to give it a try.

Macquarie Point can be a place that draws optimism and co-operation from across the world. It can recreate this island as a place where a dark history is transformed into a bright future.

Macquarie Point can be where Australia comes of age.


Greg Lehman has worked for more than 30 years in organisations such as the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Riawunna Centre for Aboriginal Education at the University of Tasmania, and the National Museum of Australia. He will be a guest curator for Mona at next year’s Dark MOFO.

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