Frontier Conflict: The Australian experience
National Museum of Australia, $39.95 pb, 229 pp
How violent was the Australian frontier? At the moment, this is the biggest debate in Australian history. As most would know, the question has gained national attention largely through the efforts of Keith Windschuttle who, in four Quadrant articles in 2000 and 2001, argued, among other things, that historians had inflated the numbers of Aborigines killed on the Australian frontier and that the National Museum of Australia’s ‘Contested Frontiers’ exhibit contained factual errors. In December 2001 the National Museum organised a conference that brought together Windschuttle and many of the historians he had criticised. This book results from that conference and provides a useful introduction to the debate.
The editors, Bain Attwood and Stephen Foster, have structured the book so that it gently guides the reader through the issues and points of contention. They first set out the historical background, with chapters by Lyndall Ryan, John Mulvaney, Jan Critchett, and Raymond Evans, which provide case studies of frontier conflict from New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Victoria, and Queensland.
Windschuttle’s central role in the debate is reflected in his chapter being placed in the middle of the book as part of a section on the different types of available evidence and how they should be interpreted. Windschuttle’s argument that historians have fabricated written evidence and used unreliable oral evidence is challenged in chapters by Henry Reynolds on official, private, and newspaper records of frontier conflict, Richard Broome on calculating casualty estimates for the Australian frontier, Alan Atkinson on the British use of language in colonial Australia, and Deborah Bird Rose on Aboriginal oral evidence and its use in frontier history.
The next two chapters look at how frontier conflict has been remembered. Tom Griffiths talks in broad terms, while David Roberts examines the conviction of residents of Sofala, north of Bathurst, that Aborigines were massacred at nearby Bells Falls. The veracity of this story cannot be verified, but an Aboriginal belief that there was a Bells Falls massacre led to its controversial inclusion in the ‘Contested Frontiers’ exhibit.