While Australian soldiers serving in the ANZAC engaged with Turkish troops in World War I, Aboriginal people in Australia were fighting their own battle against the British Colonialism.
ADELAIDE, Australia – Across Australia, ANZAC Day has been commemorated with official parades, games of two-up and silent reflection in memory of those who were killed fighting for their nation.
Initially conceived in 1916 to memorialise the loss of Australian and New Zealand soldiers killed in the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in the First World War, ANZAC Day in Australia now honours all who have undertaken military service in war or in peacekeeping forces on behalf of the nation.
Within this, there has been some question over which conflicts and which fighters are honoured. One open question is that concerning Aboriginal people who fought and lost their lives in resistance to the British colonisation of Australia.
What were ‘The Frontier Wars’?
In an article titled ‘Lest we Forget Over it’ Luke Pearson, a Gamilaroi man and founder of the successful IndigenousX digital platform, notes that, among his non-Indigenous family, Pearson has successive ancestors who fought and died in World War I and World War II.
“They are awarded a place of honour in the annals of Australia’s history, along with the thousands of other men and women who served,” he writes.
Yet, “[n]estled right in between the time my great-grandfather served in World War I and my grandfather served in World War II sits the last officially sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people, the 1928 Coniston Massacre.”
In the Coniston Massacre at least 60 Aboriginal people were killed by roving ‘reprisal parties’ with the full participation and facilitation of local police. It is known as one of the last events of ‘The Frontier Wars’, a term that refers to hundreds of deathly conflicts between Indigenous and British people from the inception of Britain’s colonisation of Australia in 1788 running all the way to the 1930s.
Marching for recognition
As Pearson alludes, Indigenous people and allied Australians have, for some time, been pushing for recognition of those who fell in the Frontier Wars in official war remembrance activities.
Ghillar, Michael Anderson is Convenor of the Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples in Australia. Since 2012, the Union has hosted the Lest We Forget March for Remembrance; a march of Aboriginal people that follows the official ANZAC Day parade through the Australian capital, Canberra, to the National War Memorial. The March for Remembrance marks “the colonial battles, the massacres, poisoning of waterholes and flour and other forms of killing that pervaded the whole colonial expansion throughout this Continent” as Anderson wrote this year in a letter to the National President of the Returned Soldiers League.
Following today’s March for Remembrance, Anderson spoke with TRT World by phone from Canberra. He said that, whilst the Director of the National War Memorial had denied the Union their request for official recognition of wreaths laid at the Memorial in recognition of Indigenous people lost to the Frontier Wars, the response to this year’s March for Remembrance was very positive.
In the official ANZAC Day parade there are always the men at the front, who are the ex-servicemen wearing their military medals, said Anderson.
“This year, those men up the top - they actually applauded us.”
“This has never happened before. It’s totally unprecedented.”
Anderson observed that there is “a growing acceptance” of remembering the Frontier Wars on ANZAC Day and that the ANZAC Day authorities in Canberra increasingly realise that “it’s not a protest”, but a genuine mark of respect for the pain and suffering of Indigenous people in their resistance to colonisation in Australia.
Stretching the meaning of ANZAC too far?
At the War Memorial in Adelaide, capital city of the state of South Australia, TRT World met Scott*; an Australian soldier who is currently serving in Afghanistan. Scott said ANZAC Day should remain focused around the First World War origin story.
“It's a commemoration of nationhood. Gallipoli was the first major conflict that occurred after the federation of Australia in 1901,” he said, unable to be named or photographed as he's currently a serving member of the Australian Defence Force. “That’s what ANZAC Day is about. What some people call the Frontier Wars just aren’t relevant to that.”
While Scott is skeptical about memorialising the conflicts between Indigenous people and British forces on Australian soil, he said he fully supports the recognition of Indigenous people who have served Australia in overseas wars.
“Recognising Indigenous people on ANZAC Day is not about recognising Indigenous people fighting British colonisation,” he said. “It’s about recognising the Indigenous sailors, soldiers and airmen who didn't get the recognition they should have when they got back they couldn't even vote, they couldn't even go and have a beer in an RSL club.”
To be sure, popular support for the recognition of Indigenous soldiers has grown in Australia in recent years. Last year, Aboriginal war veterans led the national Anzac Day march in Canberra for the first time.
Facing the bloodshed on Australian soil
For Anderson, recognition of the Frontier Wars is a crucial next step.
“It's one thing to be supportive of men in uniform,” observed Anderson, “and those who have done things in the modern period in modern wars.”
“It’s much harder for [those who can support recognition of Aboriginal soldiers in overseas wars] to accept what really happened in Australia.”