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Frontier Wars, Class Wars, Imperialist Wars

Talk by Humphrey McQueen at the Railway Club, Darwin, 17 July 2012.

In paying acknowledgement to country I want to do more than mention custodianship and sovereignty. Too often those values are made to sound passive or legalistic. The reality is that across this continent and for more than 250 years, indigenous Australians resisted invaders with a mix of violence and inventiveness. These frontier wars flared around the Top End and the Centre into the 1930s. The attention paid to the massacres perpetrated by the invaders has marginalised the warfare waged by the indigenous peoples. A complex relationship existed between massacres on each side. Some of the war crimes by the invaders were punitive and others were preemptive. Whatever the proximate cause of each onslaught, the Aborigines were victims but never passive ones, like koalas waiting to be shot.

When the Australian Army named its light observation helicopter after the North Queensland tribe, the Kalkadoons, a spokesperson explained that they were a ‘among the most advanced when it came to forming themselves into battle groups to deal with their enemies.’ In September 1884, they made a last ditch defence at Battle Mountain where some 900 died.

Today, tourists need a permit to cross into Arnhem Land. Until the 1940s, they needed an armed escort. No-go areas lasted until the first Pacific war of 1941-45. From 1939, the invasion of the Top End by the 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) set off changes that scholars say spelt the end to the ‘Destruction of Aboriginal Society’. How lasting that change has been is debatable. What is certain is that the Aborigines found new ways of fighting back, most obviously, with the ‘Black Eureka’ at Port Hedland from 1946, which inspired the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition and the 1966 Gurindji claims for land rights.

Should this defence of Australia be commemorated at the thousands of war memorials around the Commonwealth? I hope not. All the wars currently carved in stone or inscribed on metal plaques are either of colonial aggression (against the Maori, the Boxers and the Boers) or clashes between Empires. The Black Resistance is unique in being a battle in self-defence, truly a fight for homeland security. Their nobility should not be sullied by association with imperial conquest.[1]

Nonetheless, indigenous and settler Australians need to spotlight the contrast between the attention lavished on the bombing of Darwin and the near erasure of the Frontier Wars from popular memory. If I had not arrived in the Territory with some knowledge of those conflicts I could have left without ever knowing about the heroic and ingenious campaigns waged by the original occupiers, often striking against the sheep and cattle that were the immediate reason for invasion.

The few side-references that I have spotted to the Frontier Wars are overwhelmed by the effort that has gone into commemorating – almost celebrating – the bombings of 1942 to 1943. Just as the near silence about the Black Resistance is a form of propaganda so is the promotion of ’19 February’. The latter is tied to the latest manifestation of Australia as an aircraft carrier for the US warfare state, with its Marine Base in Darwin and the locating of Drones at the Tindall RAAF base outside Katherine.

No doubt, locals had been pushing for years for funds to turn the bombing into a tourist attraction during the Wet. So, it is a matter of chance that the opening of the Museum at East Point this year for the sixtieth anniversary full four months after Obama’s visit and the announcement of the latest subordination of local force structures. Be that as it may, the anniversary has given new bounce to the old tune that the ‘Yanks Saved Us’. That chorus follows one verse about how we must be grateful in perpetuity and another verse about how we must do anything and everything to make sure that they save us next time. What we need is to save ourselves from this colonised mentality and from the recurrent Declarations of Dependence.

In that spirit, let’s go back a couple of steps to query the assumptions in this version of the ‘national interest’.

The point to keep stressing is that the Japanese never had any plans to invade Australia. Peter Stanley has given the most recent and thorough-going refutation of that claim in his 2008 Invading Australia. All the raids along the northern coasts were interdiction to prevent Allied attacks on the Japanese across the Netherlands East Indies to the mid-Pacific Islands. They invaded East Timor only after we violated Portuguese neutrality. The bombings were never a softening up for a conquest of any corner of this continent. Of course, to fear invasion was reasonable in the first half of 1942 given Japan’s triumphs from Pearl Harbour, Singapore and the Indies. Wartime panics, however, should have no place in post-war assessments, still less in devising security policies seventy years on. Hence, the war provides no reason to embrace the American alliance.

For several decades, propagandists for ANZUS promoted Coral Sea Week. Here, the claim was that the fate of Australia was decided during 7-8 May 1942 when the US navy won the battle of the Coral Sea. In fact, the Japanese won the battle of the Coral Sea, as our Official War History admits. Secondly, the Japanese were headed to Port Moresby, not to Australia. Once again, their object was to secure the defensive line to cut the US armed forces off from Australia as a vast aircraft carrier and supply ship. (This episode is dealt with in my 1991 book, Japan to the Rescue; the chapter about the Coral Sea is on my website.)

That book also exposes the emptiness of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty. The US did not want it and put its signature to this scrap of paper only to get an Australian signature on the Peace Treaty with Japan, another step in the Cold War containment of the People’s Republic of China. The ANZUS Treaty fell apart in 1985 with the withdrawal of New Zealand when it insisted on that the US own up to which of its visiting vessels were nuclear powered or armed. Since then, the spin has been about the ANZUS ‘Alliance’.

The Alliance has always been more substantial than the Treaty, and New Zealand remains part of the Alliance. For instance, the pillars of the Alliance remain the 1951 Radford-Collins Agreement for naval surveillance of the South-West Pacific and the Intelligence sharing (sic) agreements between the US, the UK, Australia and Canada.

Under the Treaty, US action was confined to the Asia Pacific so that Western and South Australia were left to fend for themselves.  Moreover, the US would act only after gaining approval from its Senate. These geographical boundaries and constitutional conditions were always so much my-eye-and-Mary-Poppins. The reality remains that the US will do whatever is in its own interests. It will reoccupy, whether we like it or not; it will fail to turn up no matter how much we do to curry favour. It is past time that our mis-leaders applied the same precepts of self-interest against the Marine base, the drones and the disaster that is Afghanistan.

Remembering that Australians were caught up in a world-wide war, and not just a war in the south-west Pacific, casts a different light on the question of who saved us. Although it is certain that the Japanese militarists had no thought on invading Australia in 1942, what would they have done had the rest of the war gone differently? In particular, we need to look to the Eastern Front and at the war in China. Had their Red Armies collapsed, the balance of global forces would have swung in favour of the Axis.

Curtin’s much publicised ‘Call to America’ late in 1941 is trotted out as evidence of how the Yanks saved us. When you read that newspaper article you find more appeals to the Soviet Union for help than to the US of A. Curtin knew that the Soviets had driven back Japanese advances in 1938-9 as they had in the early 1920s. The Japanese kept more troops in China than they ever sent south. The prime ambition of the Imperial Army was to conquer China and as much of Siberia as possible – extending the puppet regime of Manchukuo. Thus, if anybody saved us from a Japanese invasion it was the Soviet Army (allied to ‘General Winter’) and Mao’s People’s Liberation Army.

Mention of China is a lead into the Chinese seamen killed on the Neptuna during the bombing of Darwin; their working lives are honoured by the memorial that the Maritime Union has provided at the waterfront precinct. Today, the MUA protects Asian workers brought here on 457 visas to be underpaid and worked under sub-standard conditions. The multi-racial character of Darwin’s labour movement came home to me in the foyer of the Territory Archives with a photo of Aboriginal, Asian and European unemployed protesting together under the red flag in June 1931. (NTRS 3335, Photo 329) That solidarity reminded me of how the visiting British union leader and international socialist Tom Mann dealt with the bosses who, in the early 1900s, tried to trap him into outright opposition to White Australia. ‘Would you let your sister marry a Chinaman?’, they would ask at public meetings. ‘I’d rather she married a Chinaman than a capitalist,’ Tom shot back. They stopped asking.

Having the MUA memorial in the prime tourist strip is some counterweight to the new ‘Bombing’ Memorial at East Point. The curators there had a struggle to include any context for the ‘One Day of the War’, the bombing on 19 February 1942. They did squeeze in a wall of activated panels about the rise of Japan. Unfortunately, the story is distorted by starting in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration and not with the 1852-3 invasion of Japan by the US, which is the backdrop to Puccini’s Madame Buttlerfly. Ten years later, the US was back with the British, Dutch and Russians bombarding Japanese ports for trade treaties. Tokyo’s new rulers knew that they could avoid the fate of being sliced up like the Chinese melon only if they behaved like their attackers by joining the scramble for resources.

A less significant display at East Point is the white tuxedo of the Territory’s wartime Administrator Aubrey Abbott. A notice claims that he had extensive war experience but makes no mention of his extensive experience as an organiser of the class war when he headed the paramilitary Old Guard in New South Wales in the early 1930s. In the days after the bombing, Aubrey packed up his silver plate and fine china before heading for Alice Springs. By contrast, Darwin’s railway workers gathered all the spare parts and equipment they could before tracking south to build a workshop that contributed more to the war effort than did Abbott’s meal table.

We can puncture the ways in which past wars are being used to promote current and future wars by taking pointing up  the class-war dimensions. For instance, Simpson of donkey fame was a red-hot unionist who wrote to his mother in England asking when Britain was going to have a revolution to get rid of all the dukes and millionaires. The last surviving Anzac, Alec Campbell, was another red-hot unionist whose state funeral was marked by the women from his family acting as pall-bears because, as one of them said, ‘Dad was not a man of tradition. After all, he was a republican’.

Once more the fear of China is being drummed up During the war against the peoples of Indo-China, Australian prime minister Menzies lied to the parliament about a request from Saigon for troops and he lied to the electorate about the war being necessary to stop a southward thrust by Red China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Tell that to the Vietnamese!

Today, China’s only aircraft carrier is second-hand and won’t be serviceable until 2015. How can an economy that has to import 99 percent of its top-grade stainless steel conquer the world? Rather, any threat to Australian welfare is from China’s economic weaknesses.

The alarm at their buying up mines and farm land puts them in the same position as the Japanese around 1900. The Chinese are the last to the banquet table, playing catch-up with the US, UK and European investors. The solution is not to discriminate against Chinese corporations but to act in favour of Australia’s interest by nationalising the lot. Then we should conscript all the Young Liberals to fight off the marines sent to retake ‘their’ property. On that day, frontier wars, class war and imperialist wars will return but as a struggle for independence.


[1] For more detail see Fergus Robinson and Barry York, The Black Resistance, Widescope, 1977; Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, Penguin, 1980.

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