the black diggers and anzac history

last friday, anzac day, i again made the decision to forgo the main anzac march in the city as i have done for many years. i have found i could honour my australian father who was killed on the kokoda track during ww2 in other more private ways.

i have, however, been attending the black diggers march beginning at the redfern park cenotaph and after the laying of wreaths and some speeches we march to the block for more speeches and a feast of pies generously supplied by harry’s cafe de wheels.

the most moving moment of the whole event, at least to me, was the ode and the playing of the last post. these words and bugle notes have been with me as i attended the dawn services at martin place in the city as a child and as a teenager. the most stand-out event was my attendance at the bomana war cemetery in papua many years ago. after the obligatory ‘gunfire breakfast’ of course.

i do however find examples of obsequiousness that i personally find very grating but i do, however, have an understanding of why they are done. twice the australian anthem was sung to us by hilton donovan, once at the park cenotaph and again at the block. i make a personal decision, as i know other aborigines do, to not recognise this attempt by government to whitewash our black and white history. at the park we were already upstanding so as hilton rendered these words of shame i wondered how many of our fallen brothers and sisters would have agreed with the words of this odious work.

i urge all aborigines to actually read and decode the secret english embedded in this piece. i see nothing of value for our people. it does not even recognise our existence in its words of comfort to the invaders. at the block, as hilton repeated the words once more, i remained seated. as i did for many years when they played god save the queen as the anthem.

we have the usual coterie of political representatives, none of whom have ever wore a uniform or heard a shot fired in anger i will claim, speechifying us with their words and being given the honour of laying wreaths at the redfern cenotaph and receiving gifts at the block.

i must state here and now that i do not include the nsw governor, professor marie bashir with this group of camp-followers. the standing ovation given in full honour and respect to her was most deserved and required and i fully endorsed that being done. my honour and respect to marie goes not to her office but to her personally. marie is a long time supporter of the aboriginal struggle and my involvement with her goes back to the early 90’s when she was in charge of health, and mental health issues especially, whilst i was the management committee co-coordinator of the aboriginal deaths in custody watch committee. we would meet, along with others, to discuss the health and mental health issues of aboriginal inmates and young detainees in the incarceration system.

i attempted to congratulate her supportive stand once more but her attention was continually diverted away from my presence by the organisers.

another irksome practice i find is to give space to some local aborigines who are identified as being leaders of the redfern community to strut their stuff so to speak. like the politicians, i believe none have ever served or heard a shot fired in anger. neither have i heard a shot fired in anger but i have served in the ran, however briefly, and the cmf in my younger years. i state unequivocally that i am not ‘back-dooring’ an application to lay wreaths or get gifts. most certainly i am not. i just want some sense and reality in the black diggers event. whilst it may be seen to be correct to get the brigadiers and other military officers of high rank to lay wreaths we must ask where are the lower rank black diggers?

a couple of years ago mention was made, however briefly, of the frontier wars and their most natural inclusion on this day of remembrance whilst wreaths were laid at the redfern park cenotaph. that seems to be no longer practiced. professor john maynard at the block made an excellent contribution on this most important point but the organisers, including pastor ray minnecon, a man i have great respect for in this important area, seem to prefer to now leave their thoughts on the inclusion of the frontier wars to others outside of the organising group. why? why is not a wreath laid to the struggle of our warriors, both men and women, who gave their lives fighting for their lands against the invaders?

why does not ray, who i know has a deep personal commitment to the frontier wars process, lay that wreath? perhaps mark spinks, the mc of the event, could do so? why is there now silence at the cenotaph relative to our fallen warriors? is not the laying of a wreath a proper and respectful recognition of our collective aboriginal struggle and to those who lost their lives to, and as a result of, that struggle? i would say yes.

why is there now a strong sense that the political correctness of the black-arm-band construct is now being placed in the dominant position? i assume that the answer is funding. the pipers and tunes scenario. but surely no government funding is really required. i believe that the black diggers event can be produced without the need for government dollars from any level.

it is my understanding that ray and others, including myself, fully support the inclusion of the frontier wars not only in the main cenotaph in canberra but also at redfern and other aboriginal and torres strait islander events to commemorate our fallen warriors in all the wars our people have fought and died in. another aim is to have a national aboriginal and torres strait islander war memorial, at a place yet to be decided. that national memorial will be managed by our own people only and we will decide the true history that will be included in that memorial. our war memorial will remove the white-blindfold and our history of our involvement in all wars will be told. without conditions.

in canberra, our memorial to our fallen warriors is behind the main memorial up a bush track. why is it there? in sydney our aboriginal artwork memorial is also not included in the main memorial building but is to the rear or to the side of that building. again, why? as in all areas of life, recognition without respect, a proper respect, is truly demeaning. to my mind the racism continues.

roll on 25th april, 2015. whereby the centenary of a military disaster, defeat and retreat from gallipoli is to become a nationalistic frenzy as our governments and politicians seek to manufacture a glorification of war over the need for remembrance of the horror of war.

the article below sets out the need to include the frontier wars into our combined recognition and understanding of the real black and white history over the previous 226 years. the history wars of the black-arm-band view and the white-blindfold view must end. and end now!

the attached release comes from michael mansell as the secretary of the aboriginal provisional government. i fully support the sentiments in the apg statement whilst pointing out that my words and questions put above are, in my opinion, fully supported by the two following articles.

Lest we forget, wars undeclared

April 25, 2014
Although war was never declared, armed conflict between Australia’s indigenous people and Europeans was widespread. The consequences echo still. In an extract from his book Forgotten War, Henry Reynolds examines the evidence.

Prisoners of an undeclared war: Aborigines in shackles early last century.

Anyone acquainted with conditions on the Australian frontier knew that bloody work had been done. Writing in 1880 the pioneer ethnographers Lorimer Fison and Alfred Howitt declared:

”It may be stated broadly that the advance of settlement has, upon the frontier at least, been marked by a line of blood. The actual conflict of the two races has varied in intensity and in duration . . . But the tide of settlement has advanced along an ever-widening line, breaking the native tribes with its first waves and overwhelming their wrecks with its flood.”

We will never know how many Aborigines died directly or indirectly as a result of the conflict, how wide or how deep was the line of blood. Contemporaries often estimated the death rate in particular districts and a few observers attempted to calculate a more general figure. But then as now problems abound with making such estimations.

This image is commonly reputed to be Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal warrior, but it is, in fact, an unidentified North Queensland warrior photographed by Henry King in about 1900.

We are uncertain of the size of the indigenous population when settlement began. We have no idea how many people died in the smallpox epidemic that swept across south-eastern Australia in advance of settlement. We are unsure what the population was in particular regions when the tide of settlement arrived. We are even unsure of the number of indigenous people alive after localised conflict came to an end. There appears to have been no official estimate of those killed in conflict anywhere in Australia.

Even if a government had sought out such information the task would have been immensely difficult. Much of the killing happened on the edge of settlement in regions remote from the reach of authority. Because there was no official recognition of a state of war any killing was technically murder. Frontier communities were notorious for keeping secret their exploits in the war. Killing was referred to using a lexicon of known euphemisms. Punitive parties may often not have known how effective their attacks were, particularly when they operated in the dark or if they shot at groups some distance away. When the bodies of victims were encountered they were almost universally burnt to destroy the evidence. The long career of the Queensland Native Police was cloaked in official secrecy and most of the records were destroyed. If it is difficult to determine how many people died in direct conflict with the settlers. It is even harder to estimate how many more must have subsequently died of wounds or from the fierce rigours of prolonged and uneven warfare.

There was considerable interest in the question in the late 19th century but as the Aborigines themselves disappeared from the historiography of the first half of the 20th century, no one seems to have thought it an important matter for speculation. With the new interest in Aboriginal history that arose in the 1970s and 1980s attempts were made to assess how many people, both white and black, died in the frontier wars.

Historian and author Henry Reynolds: “Much of the killing happened on the edge of settlement in regions remote from the reach of authority. Because there was no official recognition of a state of war, any killing was technically murder.”

In my book The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), I argued that it was ”reasonable to suppose that at least 20,000 Aborigines were killed as a direct result of conflict with the settlers”. Twenty years later this estimate became one of the points of contention in the series of controversies known as the history wars, with suggestions that such interpretations were part of a widespread attempt to ”fabricate” an inaccurate and partisan version of Australian history. The one enduring effect of the intense controversy was to stimulate new research and encourage the reconsideration of previous work on frontier conflict. We are now a little closer to understanding the full impact of the frontier wars on Aboriginal society, with the appearance of new scholarship dealing, in particular, with Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory and covering the years from the 1820s to the 1880s.

The most striking new work appeared in Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900 by Tony Roberts, published in 2005. While focused on one region – the eastern part of the Northern Territory to the south of the Gulf of Carpentaria – the work has much wider significance. It is the product of 30 years of research, during which Roberts travelled over the country, interviewed old residents both black and white, and followed the paper trail in the relevant archives and libraries. The result is a compelling picture of the era of pioneer settlement and conflict between the invading frontiersmen and the roughly 3000 resident Aboriginal people, who were divided into 15 discrete language groups.

Pastoral occupation began with a spectacular surge in the early 1880s, when the distant South Australian government threw the whole region open for settlement. The sudden invasion of the white men and their horses and cattle was a traumatic experience for the resident bands. They lost the capacity to follow their traditional patterns of travel, land management, hunting and food gathering within weeks of the invasion, and were often forced to retreat into the most marginal country in their homelands where water was scarce and the food quest arduous. They had realistic fears of walking in open country. Men were shot and women abducted.

Roberts carried out the most detailed and exhaustive surveys of the killing fields. He is able to list 53 sites where there were ”multiple killings” of Aborigines but assumes there are many more he does not know about. At least 600 men, women and children died violently, or about one-fifth of the pre-contact population. The death toll could have reached 700 or 800. Thirty Aborigines died for every white man killed. Disease played no part in this massive, disproportionate loss of life. As a result of territory-wide research, Roberts has concluded that at least 3000 Aborigines died in conflict with the invaders of their homelands.

Queensland remains the colony that saw the most intense and enduring conflict. Several reasons can be readily suggested for this situation. The colony was huge, roughly 1.8 million square kilometres, and almost all of it able to support substantial Aboriginal populations totalling perhaps 200,000 divided into well over 100 tribal groups. The whole landmass was equally able to support a variety of European industries, but their establishment was protracted, occupying the whole second half of the 19th century. Throughout much of this time – from 1856 to 1900 – political control was in the hands of the colonists themselves. The restraining, albeit distant, and compromising voice of the imperial government was silenced.

The Queensland frontier has attracted renewed interest since the contention of the history wars. Jonathan Richards has produced a meticulous study of the Native Police force and Robert Orsted-Jensen has completed a massive study of the frontier wars. Ray Evans, the doyen of Queensland historians, has returned to the same subject he has worked on for more than 30 years. The renewed scholarship has reinforced the interpretation of the Queensland frontier as a site of vast brutality and mass killing.

Richards argues that the Native Police force was created ”to kill Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland” and as a result lies ”close to the heart of European Australia’s dark nation-making origins”. He stresses that it was essentially a military organisation rather than a normal police force.

Orsted-Jensen’s study complements Richards’ book, establishing beyond reasonable doubt that violence accompanied the expansion of settlement in Queensland and that this was known, openly discussed and accepted by colonial leaders in politics, business and the press. Orsted-Jensen makes clear that the activities of the Native Police were well understood, as was the widely used term ”dispersal”, which unambiguously referred to the practice of shooting indiscriminately into Aboriginal camps. Colonial opinion embraced the view that such punitive action was a necessary accompaniment to successful colonisation. It was also widely accepted that when Aboriginal bands killed or wounded settlers it was imperative to take severe retaliatory action, killing widely and disproportionately. There was a widespread understanding that the colony was engaged in a kind of warfare.

Orsted-Jensen also shows that there was a persistent debate about the need to exterminate the hostile tribes. His richly documented work shows that not only was Queensland distinguished by the extent of frontier violence, it also provides the researcher with a rich source of contemporary commentary. The many newspapers often contained reports or letters that provide detail of brutal Native Police action or violence of settlers, along with a constant stream of reports about Aboriginal hostility. The frontier newspapers have an immediacy that makes for compelling reading.

Ray Evans has recently returned to the subject of frontier violence, taking on the difficult and contentious task of assessing the number of Aborigines killed in frontier warfare and more specifically the death toll that can be attributed to the Native Police. This has always been a vexed issue. The force, as is well known, patrolled the frontier for decades, and throughout its history it rarely arrested, imprisoned or brought to trial any suspects. It is also known that the white officers were required to provide regular reports of their patrolling activity to police headquarters in Brisbane but that the great majority of these reports have not survived.

Evans begins by calculating the extent of the force’s activities from what we do know. Between 1859 and 1898, 85 camps were established and existed for varying periods, although the average camp life was seven years. During that time, detachments of the force conducted regular monthly patrols. In all there may have been as many as 7000 patrols, but Evans decides to work with a minimum figure of 6000. From there he uses the surviving records of 22 monthly patrols conducted in central and north Queensland between 1865 and 1884, during which the officers recorded 57 collisions or dispersals – an average of 2.6 engagements per patrol. The officers recorded incidents but not usually the numbers killed. As Evans points out, however, even with a conservative assumption that only two people were killed in the average dispersal, ”we find ourselves confronting an aggregate estimate of 24,000 violent Aboriginal deaths at the hands of the Native Police between 1859 and 1897 alone”.

This figure takes no account of deaths due to the action of the settlers themselves or of those that took place before the separation of Queensland from New South Wales in 1859. Commenting on these figures, Orsted-Jensen suggested they ”confront us with powerful indications that we could well look at a total which by far exceeds 30,000 Aborigines killed in conflict with settlers in Queensland during the 19th century”. These figures are historically plausible, cogently presented and immensely challenging.

But the sharpest debate at the time of the history wars was about Tasmania, where a very different story unfolded. The major conflict took place from 1826 to 1831. While we have precise figures for white deaths in conflict, the Aboriginal death rate has often been a subject of controversy. The problem is compounded because we are uncertain of the size of the original population, with estimates ranging from 3000 to 6000 for Tasmania. What we do have is a precise count of those who survived the conflict and a reasonable estimate of the numbers in the early 1820s before the war began. Recent research has determined that all the available accounts of conflict indicate that about 350 Aborigines were killed but that the total death toll may have been as high as 1000, most of them killed in unrecorded nocturnal raids by vigilante groups.

The estimates made about the cost of war in Tasmania are broadly consistent with the assessment made about early Victoria by Richard Broome in his 2005 book Aboriginal Victorians. He concluded that hundreds of violent clashes occurred across the grasslands during the decade of European invasion. Over that time of conflict, 70 or 80 settlers were killed and perhaps 150 injured. Using a range of studies Broome attempted to arrive at a reasonable figure of Aboriginal casualties and concluded that ”a total figure of a thousand black deaths at white hands is likely”.

A compilation of regional studies does not allow us to assess the overall death rate in Australia’s frontier wars. But some things are clear. Aborigines were killed by settlers every year somewhere in Australia from 1788 to the early years of the 20th century, and died in disproportionate numbers. The research of the last decade has led most engaged scholars to conclude that the controversial 1981 estimate of 20,000 Aboriginal dead needs to be revised not downwards but steeply upwards to 30,000 and beyond, perhaps well beyond. And the dead do matter. They intimidate us. They force us to reassess many other aspects of Australian history. That is the least that can be done.

This is an edited extract from Forgotten War. It is published by NewSouth and won the 2014 Victorian Premier’s award for non-fiction. Henry Reynolds is a Tasmanian historian.

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ANZAC celebrations hide Australia.pdf

4 thoughts on “the black diggers and anzac history

  1. Aboriginal soldier refused beer at Cairns RSL says:

    Excerpt from ‘Towards peace – a workers journey‘ by phil o’brien and bernie dowling

    From the El Alamein campaign

    All through August our battalion patrolled out in front. A few times I went out on reconnaissance patrols with instructions not to engage in any action unless absolutely necessary. Once we came close to a German work party busily digging; I was petrified as I watched them, but after estimating numbers, we went back to our lines without incident. The fighting patrols that were sent out had the most experienced blokes who were, in the main, big men.

    On one such patrol there was a full blood aboriginal, Paddy Walsh. The Germans trapped the patrol and took everyone prisoner, bar Paddy, who, because of his colour, was scorned as a trophy by the German white supremacists. Paddy came back unharmed. Later, after the war when in Cairns, Paddy met an army mate, ‘Bluey’ Lees. They went into the Cairns RSL where Paddy was refused service. Bluey Lees went to town verbally on the barman, the RSL and racists in general. Bluey, like myself, was a waterside worker after the war.

  2. ANZAC celebrations hide Australia’s shame says:

    Press release from Michael Mansell
    [Editor’s Note: The allegations in Michael Mansell’s press release form part of the history wars. For more information about the allegations against Edward Curr (my great-great-great-great grandfather) see Cape Grim massacre. Needless to say more aboriginal people’s voices should be heard about what happened during the frontier wars and less, dare I say, of Keith Windshuttle’s apologia’s for colonization.]

    ANZAC celebrations hide Australia’s shame – double standards on historic sacrifice- no monuments or holidays for the Aboriginal fallen

    Michael Mansell argues that ANZAC Day, like Australia Day, is another step by white Australia in promoting its pioneer image while ignoring its ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. “The essence of ANZAC remembrance”, he said, “is the honouring of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us. The ANZAC’s did not fight for Aborigines- they fought for whites. Those Aborigines slaughtered by white invaders in their quest for our lands are who should be remembered and honoured, yet there are no monuments, and no holidays for the fallen victims of that war. Australia turns a convenient blind-eye to this genocide because the facts do not sit well with a country that celebrates all that is white, glossing over the shocking harm meted out to Aborigines.

    Like Australia Day promotions that spins a racist event into a national day of celebration, ANZAC Day has its roots in the belief in white supremacy. The war in Turkey was not for the benefit of Aboriginals: the whites had taken our lands already, so what were we defending? Australia sent an army to help mother-England, not Aborigines”.

    Mr Mansell said, “Aborigines who went to Gallipoli went for different reasons to their white comrades: so severe was the racism and discrimination against Aboriginal people within Australia that Aborigines were hoping to be socially accepted. Joining the white man’s fightwas a way to do it. When they returned to Australia they were once again discriminated against.

    In the same way that Australia Day celebrations highlight participation by some Aboriginals to falsy depict universal acceptance of the controversial date, ANZAC celebrations try to convey Aboriginal soldier participation asjustifying looking away from history at home. This is using black soldiers as pure propaganda.

    Michael Mansell says Australia’s promotion of ANZAC Day helps Australia avoid responsibility for redressing dispossession. There has never been an apology for what was done to us. There is still no law compelling governments to hand back our stolen lands. Australia reveres its fallen warriors at Gallipoli 100 years ago with monuments and public holidays, yet Australian history is blind to the massacres of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Aborigines massacred in the quest for our lands. There is a growing view that the seizing on an event across the other side of the world is a good diversion from having to acknowledge genocide and slaughter within Australia. In Tasmania, bridges and streets are named in honour of the killers of Aboriginal families. After slaughtering several Aborigines near Ben Lomond while they slept, John Batman later killed a wounded Aboriginal man just because he could no longer keep up. The Batman Bridge is named after John Batman. An estimated 30 men, women and children were run off the cliff at Cape Grim by Edward Curr and his VDL men.

    The Bowen Bridge is named after Lt Bowen whose men slaughtered a tribe a Risdon Cove in 1804.

    The Myall Creek massacre in NSW, the Fremantle hunt for Aborigines who killed some chooks in the 1830’s; between 60 and 200 Gunditjmara were massacred at Portland over a beached whale carcass; between 8 and 50 Kamilaroi were killed on Australia Day, January 26th at Waterloo Creek, and the 1867 Goulbolba Hill Massacre, in Central Queensland where 300 Aboriginal people, including all the women and children, were shot dead or killed by being herded into the nearby lake for drowning, are all but forgotten. Let us not forget that ANZAC Day was initiated in the same era in which Aborigines were excluded from the Australian constitution. It was thought that after the genocide and dispossession, and sheer domination by whites, that Aborigines would die out. It is one thing for a nation to honour its dead, but quite another to turn a blind eye to those killed because they were of a different race or that the slaughter does not fit the image Australia wishes to project of itself. If Australia is to fairly deal with the warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice then make a national day for the Aboriginal dead Lest We Forget indeed”.
    Michael Mansell
    Secretary 24th April 2014

    1. Anzac, an unauthorised biography says:

      Anzac, The Unauthorised Biography
      Carolyn Holbrook

      Raise a glass for an Anzac. Run for an Anzac. Camp under the stars for an Anzac. Is there anything Australians won’t do to keep the Anzac legend at the centre of our national story?

      But standing firm on the other side of the Anzac enthusiasts is a chorus of critics claiming that the appetite for Anzac is militarising our history and indoctrinating our children. So how are we to make sense of this struggle over how we remember the Great War?

      Anzac, the Unauthorised Biography cuts through the clamour to provide a much-needed historical perspective on the battle over Anzac. It traces how, since 1915, Australia’s memory of the Great War has declined and surged, reflecting the varied and complex history of the Australian nation itself. Most importantly, it asks why so many Australians persist with the fiction that the nation was born on 25 April 1915.

  3. Frontier Wars and Anzac Myths says:


    Strong evidence suggest that colonial Queensland’s Frontier Wars alone took the lives of more than 68,000 Australians, whereas WWI in comparison accounts for the loss of 63 000 Australians lives. This new evidence is from a paper delivered by Raymond Evans and Robert Ørsted-Jensen at the annual Australian Historical Association conference at University of Queensland on 9th July 2014.

    Historians have until now ‘guesstimated’ a minimum ratio of 10:1 for indigenous frontier casualties. Yet even this was deemed extremist by those in denial.

    An increasing number of Queensland historians have since come to believe that Queensland alone would quite easily account for the accepted national minimum of 20,000.

    In 2010 Raymond Evans issued a small statistical calculation indicating that 24,000 might be a better minimum figure for this colony.

    Point of Departure
    The original Native Police reports disappeared while in the custody of the Queensland Police Department.

    Remnants of these files have survived among records in other government offices.

    These remnants proved sufficient for statistical sampling.

    To read more go to

    See also

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