“During the first half of the 20th century the Aborigines (sic) were written out of Australian history. This had the convenient effect of hiding much of the domestic bloodshed, allowing the celebration of what came to be viewed as a uniquely peaceful history of settlement… For generations weaned on this soothing syrup the new history of the frontier came as an unwelcome revelation and one often stoutly resisted.”
Henry Reynolds 
For most of the 20th century, many Australians were taught about the peaceful settlement of Australia, featuring stirring tales of pioneer grit and endurance. In the words of historian, Henry Reynolds, in this peaceful account of Australia’s colonisation “the frontier became a site of struggle with the land, not a fight for possession of it. The national narrative became one of a hard and heroic fight against nature itself rather than one of ruthless spoliation and dispossession. The squatter and the bushman became national heroes… No one wanted to notice the blood on their hands.” 
As a result of these misleading narratives, “the vigour of Aboriginal resistance was forgotten”.  In contrast to the Maori and the Melanesian, Indigenous Australians were regarded as lacking the capacity to resist invasion; instead, to quote one anthropologist from 1932, the Indigenous Australian “mutely dies”. 
In recent decades, however, many historians have exposed the narrative of peaceful colonisation as a myth, using first hand accounts, newspaper articles and diaries to reveal the tragically violent and bloody nature of Australia’s colonisation. Coming to terms with the facts of frontier violence and understanding the devastation that it left in its wake is key to moving forward together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
According to Indigenous historian, Larissa Behrendt, “In the beginning, Aboriginal people often met the newcomers with hospitality and generosity”.  However, as it became evident that the settlers were here to stay and Indigenous people were dispossessed of more and more of their lands, denied access to traditional food and water sources, and subject to sexual abuse and slavery at the hands of the colonists, “attitudes began to change and conflict was inevitable.” 
Although the total number of casualties due to violent conflict is hotly contested (see Reynolds and Windshuttle), historical records do document numerous occasions on which Indigenous people were hunted and brutally murdered by the colonists. Massacres of Indigenous people often took the form of mass shootings or driving groups of people off cliffs. There are also numerous accounts of colonists offering Indigenous people food laced with arsenic and other poisons.
Colonists were rarely punished for the atrocities committed against Indigenous people. The Myall Creek Massacre on the 10th June 1838 was one exception; seven white settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of 28 Indigenous people (mostly women, children and the elderly). However, in many instances, the killing of Indigenous people was endorsed by authorities.
Frontier violence often broke out in response to the spearing of cattle and livestock by Indigenous people, or the abduction and abuse of Indigenous girls and women by white men, and subsequent retaliatory killings. However, in some cases, hunting and murdering Indigenous people was regarded as sport, and took particularly brutal forms.
It is important to emphasise, as Behrendt does, that: “Although the colonists eventually prevailed, Aboriginal people around Australia resisted incursions onto the land, often tenaciously, with violent and tragic outcomes.” 
Indigenous Australians didn’t passively accept the invasion of their land, resisting vigorously, and sometimes violently. It was not only their physical survival that was threatened; their cultural and spiritual survival was also at stake as sacred sites were desecrated and connection to Country disrupted. In response, they sometimes employed guerrilla tactics, including raiding farms, killing stock, burning buildings, and even killing settlers.
Pemulwuy was an Aboriginal warrior from the Bidjigal clan of the Dharug nation, and a leader of the resistance movement to the south and west of Sydney Cove. These conflicts became known as the Hawkesbury and Napean wars.
Pemulwuy and his son, Tedbury, led raids on cattle stations, killing livestock and burning crops and buildings. The purpose of these raids was sometimes to obtain food, however they were often in retaliation for atrocities committed against Indigenous people, particularly the women. In response, Governor King ordered the shooting on site of any Aboriginal person in the Paramatta region, and a reward was announced for Pemulwuy’s death or capture.
Pemulwuy survived two bullet wounds, but was eventually killed in June 1802 after being shot by two settlers. He was decapitated, and his head was shipped to England. His son, Tedbury, continued the resistance. 
Windradyne was another significant leader of the Aboriginal resistance to white colonisation in the Bathurst region of New South Wales, where several violent clashes between Aboriginal people and white settlers prompted Governor Brisbane to place the district under martial law in August 1824. A reward of 500 acres was offered for Wyndradyne’s capture due to his involvement in incidents resulting in the death of several white settlers. However, Wyndradyne avoided capture, and was formally pardoned when he appeared at the Governor’s annual feast in an apparent move to negotiate. He died on the 21st March 1829 due to wounds suffered during a tribal fight. 
Yagan was a Noongar (or Nyoongar) warrior, and led the Aboriginal resistance in the Perth region, Western Australia, until he was killed by colonists in 1833. His head was severed, preserved, and sent to England. The conflict in the area continued after Yagan’s death; in 1834, Governor Stirling led an attack known as the Battle of Pinjarra. Unofficial reports hold that a whole clan of Aboriginal people was extinguished.
In 1997, Yagan’s skull was finally returned to the Noongar people. 
In some areas, such as Arnhem land, Aboriginal resistance succeeded in stalling the spread of the frontier. However, as Behrendt notes, “in the end, the squatters had the law and the firepower on their side.”  Indigenous people, their populations severely depleted by disease, dispossession and violence, drifted to the town fringes, cattle stations and christian missions.
Despite this outcome, Indigenous people continue to demonstrate incredible resilience today as they fight for recognition of their dispossession and ongoing rights to land.
- 1. Reynolds, H. 2013, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, pg.16
- 2. Reynolds, H. 2013, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, pg.30
- 3. Reynolds, H. 2013, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, pg.32
- 4. Firth, R. 1932 in Reynolds, H. 2013, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, pg. 27
- 5. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.251
- 6. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.251
- 7. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.202
- 8. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.242-243
- 9. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.268-269
- 10. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.283
- 11. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg.313