Homelands war on Wiradyuri country

Raymond Evans has sent in this review of Stephen Gapps first comprehensive account of the Bathurst War, 1822–24 in Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance – the Bathurst War, 1822-1824. This book is interesting because it increases the case for a re-evaluation of Australia’s colonial history. It may be no accident that while the Black Wars were raging in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land the colonists from Port Jackson were murdering Wiradyuri people on the fertile plains around Bathurst. Here is Ray’s review of Stephen Gapps book. Should the history be revised and change our concept of native title. For example should the Yorta Yorta case in the High Court be revisited to see if the judgement holds up? The Yorta Yorta lost because it was claimed that the first nations people lost connection to the land. What if the truth was that they were driven from their land as part of a wide ranging war of dispossession conducted by the British military and its governors? Suddenly the judges rationale becomes tenuous at best, and eventually unsupportable. – Ian Curr, 25 July 2022.

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In Stephen Gapps’ preceding frontier history, The Sydney Wars – an illuminating and frequently startling study – he establishes, with as much veracity as the attenuated sources will allow, that, virtually from the outset, Australian colonisation was not merely carceral and punitive but also militarily organised, determinedly aggressive and territorially omnivorous. In that original study, this military historian detailed and mapped some 250 incidents of inter-racial violence in the coastal environs of Sydney, on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains.

In this chronological sequel, spanning roughly 1813 to 1825, he deftly guides us across that range to its western reaches, extending some 200 kilometres inland. Conflict eventually emanates from the intruder side of the frontier, out of what was originally the ‘Grand Depot’ of Bathurst (27), a tiny white territorial toehold in First Nation Country; and, in rapid answer, from the surrounding plain-lands and escarpments, held for immeasurable millennia by at least a dozen distinct occupier groupings. These territories extended from what is, today, Rylstone and Lithgow in the east to Orange and Molong in the west; from Wellington and Mudgee in the north to Rockley and Oberon in the south. This ‘beautiful and Champain [sic] country’ (26) – ‘one of the finest landscapes I ever saw in any country I have yet visited’, to quote Governor Macquarie in 1815 (35) – was to be the ensuing conflict’s hard-fought prize. For, crucially, this was Wiradjuri Country, held across the fertile Bathurst Plains by ‘a thriving, powerful culture’ (49), with a ‘long history of traditional warfare’ (34). This is why present-day Wiradjuri Elder, Uncle Bill Allen Junior, pointedly asks why Australian historians have called the ensuing conflict ‘Frontier Wars’. ‘Why not’, he ripostes, call it ‘the Homeland Wars? It was a war to defend our homelands’ (216). Upon the invader side, however, it was also, basically, a Land-Theft War, fuelled by ‘large Capital’ (203) – though Australian historians do not usually call it that either, despite the fact that such a glaring reality seems difficult to avoid.

Australian colonisation advances upon parallel paths of commission and omission – the complimentary strands of outright seizure and fortifying denial. The very idea of Aboriginal ownership and the attendant realisation that they, as colonists, were engaged in acts of grand larceny stood as a bridge too far for most of the British incomers, even though, all around them, ‘stone quarries, campsites, carved trees, rock carvings and paintings, tool-making sites, stone arrangements, villages and farmed land’ (44) gave the lie to their pristine dreams. Rare indeed was the observation that the Wiradjuri were clearly ‘the original proprietors of the country’ and that the British incomers in turn were unwelcome invaders who might rightly question how to ‘approve of our own conduct’ (163). Instead, the ‘rich, beautiful tract of fertile land with hardly a tree to be seen’ conveniently became ‘designed by nature for … occupancy and comfort’ (31) or gifted by God as a ‘land of Goshen’ (77) awaiting some triumphal, white exodus across the Blue Mountains.

Dispossession, it would seem, carries its own convenient cultural lode, reassuring to the material intentions of the willingly deluded. So they enter confidently, not in their own eyes as plunderers, but as rightful inheritors of an unbelievable bounty – fish-filled rivers, limestone, copper and coal seams and seemingly unending horizons of pasturage for their hungry sheep and cattle, all convertible into profit and rich living. It now becomes the province of the high-end of Sydney society, with their assigned convict workforces and free land grants of other people’s territories. But the new arrivals also mislead themselves to their own detriment in assuming, due to initial welcoming gestures from traditional hosts, that these are docile rather than warlike peoples – and that the intended, sleight-of-hand land transfer may be easily accomplished with just a few trinkets and other novel handouts.

Gapps’ instructive maps – strangely not listed in his Table of Contents – eventually show, as they chronologically build the contours of struggle, some 60 incidents of significant conflict, only seven of which occurred prior to 1822. The rest are concentrated between that year and the close of 1824, and constitute, overall, the sites of around eight known battles; 15 instances where Aborigines were killed in small groups or larger massacres; 10 places where whites died violently and 26 more where huts or homesteads were looted and burnt and valuable stock driven off in numbers.

Around a score of colonists, mostly convict shepherds and stock-keepers, were dispatched in guerrilla raids led by individuals such as ‘Windradyne, Jingler, Simon, Blucher, Sunday, Old Bull [and] Murundan’ (163) – a small resistance war, or ‘gudyarra’ in Wiradjuri language. Possibly some 200 Wiradjuri people of both sexes and all ages were killed by the colonists in what the latter openly referred to as a ‘war of extermination’ (2, 148, 170, 177, 182). So the entire debacle was admitted as warfare by both sides with nothing officially declared as such; virtually no detailed reports of bellicose proceedings being lodged from the field and no specific dispatches sent back to the metropolitan centre, Whitehall. Though some Redcoats were implicated in group killings, very little of the violence appears to have been manifested by military manoeuvres – the Declaration of Martial Law of 14 August 1824 leading instead to an indeterminate explosion of private ‘settler’ rage and bloody atrocity.

Gapps has done a splendid job sifting through all the hints and conjectures, along with the memoirs and amateur histories, posing as authoritative but composed decades later. As with The Sydney Wars, his progressive, actionist maps are fluent, arresting illustrations of the true juggernaut of early Australian expansionism and the bold resistances it everywhere encountered. Across the two accounts, Gapps has now amassed a total of 310 recorded instances of frontier/homeland violence. Significantly, however, very few of these would register on the Massacre Map of Australia’s Frontier Wars, an initiative led by Lyndall Ryan (https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php). Even the 10 group killings of Aborigines listed in Gudyarra as ‘massacres’ (272) only partially fit the proscriptive specifications of that larger undertaking. Overall, Gapps’ focused accounting of all known incidents of combative, inter-racial agency provides us with a more authentic grip upon the entire tragedy of this encompassing and excoriating land struggle.

Raymond Evans
13 July 2022

Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance – the Bathurst War, 1822-1824, by Stephen Gapps, Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2021, 288 pp., $AU34.99 (pbk), IBSN 978-1-7422-3671-1, Publisher’s Website https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/

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