Australian frontier wars

Australian frontier wars

New South Wales Mounted Police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Waterloo Creek Massacre of 1838
Date 1788–1934 Location Australia Result British victory Dispossession of land of the indigenous clans
British Army
Native Police
NSW Mounted Police
Border Police
British colonists
Regular police forces
Indigenous Australians
Casualties and losses
Minimum 2,000–2,500 deadMinimum 40,000 dead

The Australian frontier wars is a term applied by some historians to violent conflicts between Indigenous Australians [JS1] and white settlers during the British colonisation of Australia. The first fighting took place several months after the landing of the First Fleet in January 1788 and the last clashes occurred in the early 20th century, as late as 1934. A minimum of 40,000 Indigenous Australians and between 2,000 and 2,500 settlers died in the wars. However, recent scholarship on the frontier wars in what is now the state of Queensland indicates that Indigenous fatalities may have been significantly higher. Indeed, while battles and massacres occurred in a number of locations across Australia, they were particularly bloody in Queensland, owing to its comparatively larger pre-contact Indigenous population.

Background and population

“Night Attack by Blacks”, monotone painting by Livingston Hopkins

In 1770 a British expedition under the command of then-Lieutenant James Cook[JS2]  made the first voyage by Europeans along the Australian east coast. On 29 April Cook and a small landing party fired on a group of Dharawal people who sought to prevent the British from landing at the foot of their camp at Botany Bay, described by Cook as “a small village”. Two Dharawal men made threatening gestures and a stone was thrown to underline that the British were not welcome to land at that spot. Cook then ordered “a musket to be fired with small-shot” and the elder of the two was hit in a leg. This caused the two Dharawal men to run to their huts and seize their spears and shields. Subsequently, a single spear was thrown towards the British party, which “happily hurt nobody”. This then caused Cook to order “a third musket with small-shots” to be fired, “upon which one of them threw another lance and both immediately ran away.” Cook did not make further contact with the Dharawal.

Cook, in his voyage up the east coast of Australia, observed no signs of agriculture or other development by its inhabitants. Some historians argue that under prevailing European law such land was deemed terra nullius or land belonging to nobody or land ’empty of inhabitants’ (as defined by Emerich de Vattel). Cook wrote that he formally took possession of the east coast of New Holland on 22 August 1770 when on Possession Island off the west coast of Cape York Peninsula.

The British Government decided to establish a prison colony in Australia in 1786. Under the European legal doctrine of terra nullius, Indigenous Australians were not recognised as having property rights and territory could be acquired through ‘original occupation’ rather than conquest or consent. The colony’s Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, [JS3] was instructed to “live in amity and kindness” with Indigenous Australians and sought to avoid conflict.

The British settlement of Australia commenced with the First Fleet[JS4]  in mid-January 1788 in the south-east in what is now the federal state of New South Wales. This process then continued into Tasmania and Victoria from 1803 onward. Since then the population density of non-Indigenous people has remained highest in this region of the Australian continent. However, conflict with Aboriginal people was never as intense and bloody in the south-eastern colonies as in Queensland and the north-east of the continent. More settlers, as well as Indigenous Australians, were killed on the Queensland frontier than in any other Australian colony. The reason is simple, and is reflected in all evidence and sources dealing with this subject: There were more Aborigines in Queensland. The territory of Queensland was the single most populated section of pre-contact Indigenous Australia, reflected not only in all pre-contact population estimates, but also in the mapping of pre-contact Australia (see Horton’s Map of Aboriginal Australia).

The indigenous population distribution illustrated below is based on two independent sources, firstly on two population estimates made by anthropologists and a social historian in 1930 and in 1988, secondly on the basis of the distribution of known tribal land.

The Distribution of the Pre-Contact Indigenous Population when Imposed on the Current Australian States and Territories.
State/TerritoryShare of Population in the 1930-EstimatesShare of Population in the 1988-EstimatesDistribution of tribal land
Western Australia19.7%20.2%22.1%
New South Wales15.3%18.9%10.3%
Northern Territory15.9%12.6%17.2%
South Australia4.8%4.0%8.6%

All evidence suggests that the territory of Queensland had a pre-contact Indigenous population density more than double that of New South Wales, at least six times that of Victoria and at least twenty times that of Tasmania. Equally there are signs that the population density of Indigenous Australia was comparatively higher in the north-eastern sections of New South Wales, and along the northern coast from the Gulf of Carpentaria and westward including certain sections of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Indigenous tribe on the banks of the River Torrens, 1850

Estimated Minimum Indigenous Population by 1788 (based on Prentis 1988).
State/TerritoryPopulation in numbersPopulation in percentage
Western Australia150,00020.2%
New South Wales160,00018.9%
Northern Territory100,00012.6%
South Australia32,0004.0%
Estimated Total795,000100%

Impact of disease

The effects of disease, infertility, loss of hunting grounds, and starvation on the Aboriginal population were significant. There are indications that smallpox epidemics may have impacted heavily on some Aboriginal tribes, with depopulation in large sections of what is now Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland up to 50% or more, even before the move inland from Sydney of squatters [JS5] and their livestock. Other diseases hitherto unknown in the Indigenous population—such as the common cold, flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis—also had an impact, significantly reducing their numbers and tribal cohesion, and so limiting their ability to adapt to or resist invasion and dispossession.

Traditional Aboriginal warfare

Aboriginal warrior

According to the historian John Connor, traditional Aboriginal warfare should be examined on its own terms and not by definitions of war derived from other societies. Aboriginal people did not have distinct ideas of war and peace, and traditional warfare was common, taking place between groups on an ongoing basis, with great rivalries being maintained over extended periods of time. The aims and methods of traditional Aboriginal warfare arose from their small autonomous social groupings. The fighting of a war to conquer enemy territory was not only beyond the resources of any of these Aboriginal groupings, it was contrary to a culture that was based on spiritual connections to a specific territory. Consequently, conquering another group’s territory may have been seen to be of little benefit. Ultimately, traditional Aboriginal warfare was aimed at continually asserting the superiority of one’s own group over its neighbor’s, rather than conquering, destroying or displacing neighbouring groups. As the explorer Edward John Eyre [JS6] observed in 1845, whilst Aboriginal culture was “so varied in detail”, it was “similar in general outline and character”, and Connor observes that there were sufficient similarities in weapons and warfare of these groups to allow generalisations about traditional Aboriginal warfare to be made.

In 1840, the American-Canadian ethnologist Horatio Hale[JS7]  identified four types of Australian Aboriginal traditional warfare; formal battles, ritual trials, raids for women, and revenge attacks. Formal battles involved fighting between two groups of warriors, which ended after a few warriors had been killed or wounded, due to the need to ensure the ongoing survival of the groups. Such battles were usually fought to settle grievances between groups, and could take some time to prepare. Ritual trials involved the application of customary law to one or more members of a group who had committed a crime such as murder or assault. Weapons were used to inflict injury, and the criminal was expected to stand their ground and accept the punishment. Some Aboriginal men had effective property rights over women and raids for women were essentially about transferring property from one group to another to ensure the survival of a group through women’s food-gathering and childbearing roles. The final type of Aboriginal traditional warfare described by Hale was the revenge attack, undertaken by one group against another to punish the group for the actions of one of its members, such as a murder. In some cases these involved sneaking into the opposition camp at night and silently killing one or more members of the group.

Connor describes traditional Aboriginal warfare as both limited and universal. It was limited in terms of:

  • the number of members of each group, which restricted the number of warriors in any given engagement;
  • the fact that their non-hierarchical social order militated against one leader combining many groups into a single force; and
  • duration, due to social groups needing to regularly hunt and forage for food.

Traditional Aboriginal warfare was also universal, as the entire community participated in warfare, boys learnt to fight by playing with toy melee and missile weapons, and every initiated male became a warrior. Women were sometimes participants in warfare as warriors and as encouragers on the sidelines of formal battles, but more often as victims.

While the selection and design of weapons varied from group to group, Aboriginal warriors used a combination of melee and missile weapons in traditional warfare. Spears, clubs and shields were commonly used in hand-to-hand fighting, with different types of shields favoured during exchanges of missiles and in close combat, and spears (often used in conjunction with spear throwers), boomerangs[JS8]  and stones used as missile weapons.

Available weapons had a significant influence over the tactics used during traditional Aboriginal warfare. The limitations of spears and clubs meant that surprise was paramount during raids for women and revenge attacks, and encouraged ambushing and night attacks. These tactics were offset by counter-measures such as regularly changing campsites, being prepared to extinguish camp-fires at short notice, and posting parties of warriors to cover the escape of raiders.

General history

Detail of an artwork by the Port Jackson Painter that shows the spearing of Arthur Phillip[JS9] , 1790

First settlement

Initial peaceful relations between Indigenous Australians and Europeans began to be strained several months after the First Fleet established Sydney on 26 January 1788. The local Indigenous people became suspicious when the British began to clear land and catch fish, and in May 1788 five convicts were killed and an Indigenous man was wounded. The British grew increasingly concerned when groups of up to three hundred Indigenous people were sighted at the outskirts of the settlement in June. Despite this, Phillip attempted to avoid conflict, and forbade reprisals after being speared in 1790. He did, however, authorize two punitive expeditions in December 1790 after his huntsman was killed by an Indigenous warrior named Pemulwuy,[JS10]  but neither was successful.

Coastal and inland expansion

During the 1790s and early 19th century the British established small settlements along the Australian coastline. These settlements initially occupied small amounts of land, and there was little conflict between the settlers and Indigenous peoples. Fighting broke out when the settlements expanded, however, disrupting traditional Indigenous food-gathering activities, and subsequently followed the pattern of European settlement in Australia for the next 150 years. Indeed, whilst the reactions of the Aboriginal inhabitants to the sudden arrival of British settlers were varied, they became inevitably hostile when their presence led to competition over resources, and to the occupation of their lands. European diseases decimated Indigenous populations, and the occupation or destruction of lands and food resources sometimes led to starvation. By and large neither the Europeans nor the Indigenous peoples approached the conflict in an organised sense, with the conflict more one between groups of settlers and individual tribes rather than systematic warfare, even if at times it did involve British soldiers and later formed mounted police units. Not all Indigenous Australians resisted white encroachment on their lands either, whilst many also served in mounted police units and were involved in attacks on other tribes. Settlers in turn often reacted with violence, resulting in a number of indiscriminate massacres. European activities provoking significant conflict included pastoral squatting and gold rushes[JS11] .

Unequal weaponry

Fighting between Burke and Wills‘ supply party and Indigenous Australians at Bulla, Queensland in 1861

Opinions differ on whether to depict the conflict as one-sided and mainly perpetrated by Europeans on Indigenous Australians or not. Although tens of thousands more Indigenous Australians died than Europeans, some cases of mass killing were not massacres but quasi-military defeats, and the higher death toll was also caused by the technological and logistic advantages enjoyed by Europeans. Indigenous tactics varied, but were mainly based on pre-existing hunting and fighting practices—utilising spears, clubs and other simple weapons. Unlike the indigenous peoples of New Zealand and North America, in the main they failed to adapt to meet the challenge of the Europeans, and although there were some instances of individuals and groups acquiring and using firearms, this was not widespread. In reality the Indigenous peoples were never a serious military threat, regardless of how much the settlers may have feared them. On occasions large groups attacked Europeans in open terrain and a conventional battle ensued, during which the Aborigines would attempt to use superior numbers to their advantage. This could sometimes be effective, with reports of them advancing in crescent formation in an attempt to outflank and surround their opponents, waiting out the first volley of shots and then hurling their spears whilst the settlers reloaded. Usually, however, such open warfare proved more costly for the Indigenous Australians than the Europeans.

Central to the success of the Europeans was the use of firearms, but the advantages this afforded have often been overstated. Prior to the 19th century, firearms were often cumbersome muzzle-loading, smooth-bore, single shot weapons with flint-lock mechanisms. Such weapons produced a low rate of fire, whilst suffering from a high rate of failure and were only accurate within 50 metres (160 ft). These deficiencies may have given the Aborigines some advantages, allowing them to move in close and engage with spears or clubs. However, by 1850 significant advances in firearms gave the Europeans a distinct advantage, with the six-shot Colt revolver, the Snider single shot breech-loading rifle[JS12]  and later the Martini-Henry rifle as well as rapid-fire rifles such as the Winchester rifle, becoming available. These weapons, when used on open ground and combined with the superior mobility provided by horses to surround and engage groups of Indigenous Australians, often proved successful. The Europeans also had to adapt their tactics to fight their fast-moving, often hidden enemies. Strategies employed included night-time surprise attacks, and positioning forces to drive the Aborigines off cliffs or force them to retreat into rivers while attacking from both banks.

Dispersed frontiers

Native police in 1865

Fighting between Indigenous Australians and European settlers was localized, as Indigenous groups did not form confederations capable of sustained resistance. Conflict emerged as a series of violent engagements, and massacres across the continent. According to the historian Geoffrey Blainey[JS13] , in Australia during the colonial period: “In a thousand isolated places there were occasional shootings and spearing’s. Even worse, smallpox, measles, influenza and other new diseases swept from one Aboriginal camp to another … The main conqueror of Aborigines was to be disease and its ally, demoralization”.

The Caledon Bay crisis [JS14] of 1932–4 saw one of the last incidents of violent interaction on the ‘frontier’ of indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, which began when the spearing of Japanese poachers who had been molesting Yolngu women was followed by the killing of a policeman. As the crisis unfolded, national opinion swung behind the Aboriginal people involved, and the first appeal on behalf of an Indigenous Australian, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, was launched to the High Court of Australia in Tuckiar v The King. Following the crisis, the anthropologist Donald Thomson was dispatched by the government to live among the Yolngu. Elsewhere around this time, activists like Sir Douglas Nicholls[JS15]  were commencing their campaigns for Aboriginal rights within the established Australian political system and the age of frontier conflict closed.

Frequent friendly relations

Frontier encounters in Australia were not universally negative. Positive accounts of Aboriginal customs and encounters are also recorded in the journals of early European explorers, who often relied on Aboriginal guides and assistance: Charles Sturt[JS16]  employed Aboriginal envoys to explore the Murray-Darling; the lone survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition was nursed by local Aborigines, and the famous Aboriginal explorer Jackey Jackey loyally accompanied his ill-fated friend Edmund Kennedy to Cape York. Respectful studies were conducted by such as Walter Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen in their renowned anthropological study The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899); and by Donald Thomson [JS17] of Arnhem Land (c.1935–1943). In inland Australia, the skills of Aboriginal stockmen became highly regarded.

New South Wales

Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars

The first frontier war began in 1795 when the British established farms along the Hawkesbury River west of Sydney. Some of these settlements were established by soldiers as a means of providing security to the region. The local Darug people raided farms until Governor Macquarie [JS18] dispatched troops from the British Army 46th Regiment in 1816. These troops patrolled the Hawkesbury Valley and ended the conflict by killing 14 Indigenous Australians in a raid on their campsite. Indigenous Australians led by Pemulwuy also conducted raids around Parramatta during the period between 1795 and 1802. These attacks led Governor Philip Gidley King[JS19]  to issue an order in 1801 which authorized settlers to shoot Indigenous Australians on sight in Parramatta, Georges River and Prospect areas.

Bathurst War

Conflict began again when the British expanded into inland New South Wales. The settlers who crossed the Blue Mountains were harassed by Wiradjuri warriors, who killed or wounded stock-keepers and stock and were subjected to retaliatory killings. In response, Governor Brisbane proclaimed martial law on 14 August 1824 to end “…the Slaughter of Black Women and Children, and unoffending White Men…”. It remained in force until 11 December 1824, when it was proclaimed that “…the judicious and humane Measures pursued by the Magistrates assembled at Bathurst have restored Tranquility without Bloodshed…”. There is a display of the weaponry and history of this conflict at the National Museum of Australia. This includes a commendation by Governor Brisbane of the deployment of the troops under Major Morisset[JS20] :

I felt it necessary to augment the Detachment at Bathurst to 75 men who were divided into various small parties, each headed by a Magistrate who proceeded in different directions in towards the interior of the Country … This system of keeping these unfortunate People in a constant state of alarm soon brought them to a sense of their Duty, and … Saturday their great and most warlike Chieftain has been with me to receive his pardon and that He, with most of His Tribe, attended the annual conference held here on the 28th Novr….

Brisbane also established the New South Wales Mounted Police, who began as mounted infantry from the third Regiment, and were first deployed against bushrangers around Bathurst in 1825. Later they were deployed to the upper Hunter Region in 1826 after fighting broke out there between Wonnarua and Kamilaroi people and settlers.

Wars on the plains

An illustration of the explorer Charles Sturt‘s party being “threatened by blacks at the junction of the Murray and Darling, 1830”, near Wentworth, New South Wales.

From the 1830s British settlement spread rapidly through inland eastern Australia, leading to widespread conflict. Fighting took place across the Liverpool Plains, with 16 British and up to 500 Indigenous Australians being killed between 1832 and 1838. The fighting in this region included several massacres of Indigenous people including as the Waterloo Creek massacre[JS21]  and Myall Creek massacres[JS22]  in 1838 and did not end until 1843. Further fighting took place in the New England region during the early 1840s.


Poster issued in Van Diemen’s Land during the Black War implying a policy of friendship and equal justice for white settlers and Indigenous Australians. Such a policy did not actually exist at the time.

The British established a settlement in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) in 1803. Relations with the local Indigenous people were generally peaceful until the mid-1820s when pastoral expansion caused conflict over land. This led to sustained frontier warfare (the ‘Black War‘), and in some districts farmers were forced to fortify their houses. Over 50 British were killed between 1828 and 1830 in what was the “most successful Aboriginal resistance in Australia’s history”.

In 1830 Lieutenant-Governor Arthur [JS23] attempted to end the ‘Black War’ through a massive offensive. In an operation which became known as the ‘Black Line‘ ten percent of the colony’s male civilian population were mobilized and marched across the settled districts in company with police and soldiers in an attempt to clear Indigenous Australians from the area. While few Indigenous people were captured, the operation discouraged the Indigenous raiding parties, and they gradually agreed to leave their land for a reservation which had been established at Flinders Island.

Western Australia

Portrait of Noongar warrior Yagan’s severed head, 1833

The first British settlement in Western Australia was established by the British Army at Albany in 1826. Relations between the garrison and the local Minang people were generally good. Open conflict between Noongar and European settlers broke out in Western Australia in the 1830s as the Swan River Colony expanded from Perth. The Pinjarra Massacre,[JS24]  the best known single event, occurred on 28 October 1833 when a party of British soldiers and mounted police led by Governor Stirling[JS25]  attacked an Indigenous campsite on the banks of the Murray River.

The Noongar people, forced from traditional hunting grounds and denied access to sacred sites, turned to stealing settlers’ crops and killing livestock to supplement their food supply. In 1831 a Noongar person was killed taking potatoes; this resulted in Yagan killing a servant of the household, as was the response permitted under tribal law. In 1832 Yagan and two others were arrested and sentenced to death, but settler Robert Menli Lyon [JS26] argued that Yagan was defending his land from invasion and therefore should be treated as a prisoner of war. The argument was successful and the three men were exiled to Carnac Island under the supervision of Lyon and two soldiers. The group later escaped from the island.

Fighting continued into the 1840s along the Avon River near York.

In the Busselton region, relations between the white settlers and the native Wardandi people were strained to the point of violence, resulting in several Aboriginal deaths. In June 1841, George Layman was speared to death by Wardandi elder Gaywal. According to one source, Layman had got involved in an argument between Gaywal and another Wardandi tribesman over their allocation of damper, and had pulled Gaywal’s beard, which was considered a grave insult. According to another source, Layman had hired two of Gaywal’s wives to work on his farm and would not let them go back to their husband. A manhunt for Layman’s killer went on for several weeks, involving much bloodshed as Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers, and troops killed unknown numbers of Aboriginals in what has become known as the Wonnerup Massacre. The posse eventually shot Gaywal and captured his three sons, two of whom were imprisoned on Rottnest Island[JS27] .

The discovery of gold near Coolgardie in 1892 brought thousands of prospectors onto Wangkathaa land, causing sporadic fighting.

Continued European expansion in Western Australia led to further frontier conflict, Bunuba raiders also attacked European settlements during the 1890s until their leader Jandamarra was killed in 1897. Sporadic conflict continued in northern Western Australia until the 1920s, with a Royal Commission held in 1926 finding that at least eleven Indigenous Australians had been killed in the Forrest River massacre[JS28]  by a police expedition in retaliation for the death of a European.

South Australia

Aborigines attack squatters sleeping near Lake Hope, 1866

South Australia was settled in 1836 with no convicts and a unique plan for settlers to purchase land in advance of their arrival, which was intended to ensure a balance of landowners and farm workers in the colony. The Colonial Office were very conscious of the recent history of the earlier settlements in the eastern states, where there was significant conflict with the Aboriginal population. At the initial proclamation day in 1836 Governor Hindmarsh[JS29] , made a brief statement that explicitly stated how the native population should be treated. He said in part:

It is also, at this time especially, my duty to apprize the Colonists of my resolution, to take every lawful means of extending the same protection to the native population as to the rest of His Majesty’s Subjects, and of my firm determination to punish with exemplary severity, all acts of violence or injustice which may in any manner be practiced or attempted against the natives, who are to be considered as much under the Safeguard of the law as the Colonists themselves, and equally entitled to the privileges of British Subjects.

Governor Gawler [JS30] declared in 1840 that Aboriginal people “have exercised distinct, defined, and absolute right or proprietary and hereditary possession … from time immemorial.” The Governor ordered land to be set aside for Aborigines, but there was bitter opposition from landowners who insisted on a right to choose the best land. Eventually the land was available to Aborigines only if it promoted their ‘Christianisation’ and they became farmers.

The designation of the Aboriginal population as British citizens gave them rights and responsibilities of which they had no knowledge, and ignored existing Aboriginal customary law. However, Aboriginal people could not testify in court, since, not being Christians, they could not swear an oath on a bible. There was also great difficulty in translation. The good intentions of those establishing and leading the new colony soon came into conflict with the fears of the Aboriginal people and the new settlers. “In South Australia, as across Australia’s other colonies, the failure to adequately deal with Aboriginal rights to land was fundamental to the violence that followed.”

Soon after the colony was established, large numbers of sheep and cattle were brought overland from the eastern colonies. There were many instances of conflict between Aborigines and the drovers, with the former desiring the protection of their land and the sheep and the latter quick to shoot to protect themselves and their flocks. One expedition leader (Buchanan) recorded at least six conflicts and the deaths of eight Aboriginal people.

In 1840 the ship Maria [JS31] was wrecked on Encounter Bay, about 100 km south of Adelaide. A search party found that all 26 survivors of the wreck had been massacred. The Governor summoned the Executive Council under martial law and a police party was sent to the district to deliver summary justice against the offending tribe. The police party apprehended a number of Aboriginal people; two men were implicated, tried by a tribunal from members of the expedition, found guilty and hanged. There was vigorous debate in the colony between those approving the immediate punishment for the massacre and those condemning this form of justice outside the normal law.

The town of Port Lincoln, which was readily accessible by sea from Adelaide, became an early new settlement. A small number of shepherds began to encroach on the land occupied by a large Aboriginal population. Deaths on both side occurred and the settlers demanded better protection. Police and soldiers were sent to Eyre Peninsula, but were often ineffective due to the size of the area and the number of isolated settlements. By the mid ’40s. after conflicts sometimes involving large numbers of Aborigines, the greater lethality of the white people’s weapons had their effect. Several alleged leaders of attacks by Aboriginal people were tried and executed in Adelaide.

The experience of the Port Lincoln settlement on Eyre Peninsula was repeated in the South East of the state and in the north as settlers encroached on the Aboriginal people. The government attempted to apply the sentiments of the state’s proclamation, but the contradictions between these sentiments and the dispossession that the settlement involved made conflict inevitable.


Fighting also took place in early pre-separation Victoria after it was settled in 1834.

In 1833–34, the battle for rights to a beached whale between whalers and the Gunditjmara resulted in the Convincing Ground massacre[JS32]  near Portland, Victoria.

A clash at Benalla in 1838 known as the Battle of Broken River of which at least seven white settlers were killed, marked the beginning of frontier conflict in the colony which lasted for fifteen years.

In 1839 the reprisal raid against Aboriginal resistance in central Victoria resulted in the Campaspe Plains massacre[JS33] .

The Indigenous groups in Victoria concentrated on economic warfare, killing tens of thousands of sheep. Large numbers of British settlers arrived in Victoria during the 1840s, and rapidly outnumbered the Indigenous population.

From 1840, the Eumerella Wars[JS34]  raged in south west Victoria, and many years of violence occurred during the Warrigal creek and Gippsland massacres.

In 1842, white inhabitants from the Port Fairy area wrote a letter to the Charles Latrobe[JS35]  requesting the government improve security from “outrages committed by natives” and listing many incidents of conflict and economic warfare. An excerpt of the letter printed on 10 June:

“We, the undersigned, settlers and inhabitants of the district of Port Fairy, beg respectfully to represent to your Honor the great and increasing want of security to life and property which exists here at present, in consequence of the absence of any protection against the natives. Their number, their ferocity, and their cunning, render them peculiarly formidable, and the outrages of which they are daily and nightly guilty, and which they accomplish generally with impunity and success, may, we fear, lead to a still more distressing state of things, unless some measures, prompt and effective, be immediately taken to prevent matters coming to that unhappy crisis.”

In the late 1840s, frontier conflict continued in the Wimmera[JS36] .


Aftermath of the 1861 Cullin-La-Ringo massacre[JS37]  in which 19 settlers were killed by Aborigines, the deadliest attack on settlers in the frontier wars

Fighting near Creen Creek, Queensland in September 1876

The frontier wars were particularly bloody and bitter in Queensland, owing to its comparatively large Indigenous population. This point is emphasised in a 2011 study by Orsted-Jensen, which by use of two different sources calculated that colonial Queensland must have accounted for upwards of one third and close to forty percent of the indigenous population of the pre-contact Australian continent.

Queensland represents the single bloodiest colonial frontier in Australia. Thus the records of Queensland document the most frequent reports of shootings and massacres of indigenous people, the three deadliest massacres on white settlers, the most disreputable frontier police force, and the highest number of white victims to frontier violence on record in any Australian colony. In 2009 professor Raymond Evans calculated the indigenous fatalities caused by the Queensland Native Police Force[JS38]  alone as no less than 24,000. In July 2014, Evans, in cooperation with the Danish historian Robert Ørsted-Jensen, presented the first-ever attempt to use statistical modelling and a database covering no less than 644 collisions gathered from primary sources, and ended up with total fatalities suffered during Queensland’s frontier wars being no less than 66,680—with Aboriginal fatalities alone comprising no less than 65,180—whereas the hitherto commonly accepted minimum overall continental deaths had previously been 20,000. The 66,680 covers Native Police and settler-inflicted fatalities on Aboriginal people, but also a calculated estimate for Aboriginal inflicted casualties on the invading forces of whites and their associates. The continental death toll of Europeans and associates has previously been roughly estimated as between 2,000 and 2,500, yet there is now evidence that Queensland alone accounted for an estimated 1,500 of these fatal frontier casualties.

The invasion of what is now Queensland commenced as the Moreton Bay penal settlement from September 1824. It was initially located at Redcliffe but moved south to Brisbane River a year later. Free settlement began in 1838 but a wholesale invasion and settlement only really began with the great rush to take up the surrounding land in the Darling Downs, Logan and Brisbane Valley and South Burnett onwards from 1840, in many cases leading to widespread fighting and heavy loss of life. The conflict later spread north to the Wide Bay and Burnett River and Hervey Bay region, and at one stage the settlement of Maryborough was virtually under siege. Both sides committed atrocities, with settlers poisoning a large number of Indigenous people, for example at Kilcoy on the South Burnett in 1842 and on Whiteside near Brisbane in 1847, and Indigenous warriors killing 19 settlers during the Cullin-La-Ringo massacre[JS39]  on 17 October 1861.

Major massacres

Queensland’s Native Police Force was formed by the Government of New South Wales in 1848, under the well connected Commandant Frederick Walker[JS40] .

The largest reasonably well documented massacres in south east Queensland were the Kilcoy and Whiteside poisonings, each of which was said to have taken up to 70 Aboriginal lives by use of gift of flour laced with strychnine. Central Queensland was particularly hard hit during the 1860s and 1870s, several contemporary settlers mention the “Skull Hole” or Mistake Creek massacre on Bladensburg station near Winton which in 1901 was said to have taken up to 200 Aboriginal lives. In 1869 the Port Denison Times reported that “Not long ago 120 aboriginals disappeared on two occasions forever from the native records” Frontier violence peaked on the northern mining frontier during the 1870s, most notably in Cook district and on the Palmer and Hodgkinson River goldfields, with heavy loss of Aboriginal lives and several well known massacres. Battle Camp and Cape Bedford belong among the best known massacres of Aboriginal people in Cook district, but they were certainly not the only ones. The Cape Bedford massacre on 20 February 1879 alone was reported to have taken as many as 28 lives, this was retaliation for the injuring (but not killing) of two white “ceder-getters” from Cooktown. In January 1879 Carl Feilberg[JS41] , the editor of the short lived Brisbane Daily News (later editor-in-chief of the Brisbane Courier), conveyed a report from a “gentleman, on whose words reliance can be placed” that he had after just “one of these raids…counted as many as seventy-five natives dead or dying upon the ground.”

Raids conducted by the Kalkadoon held settlers out of Western Queensland for ten years until September 1884 when they attacked a force of settlers and native police at Battle Mountain near modern Cloncurry. The subsequent battle of Battle Mountain ended in disaster for the Kalkadoon, who suffered heavy losses. Fighting continued in north Queensland, however, with Indigenous raiders attacking sheep and cattle while native police mounted punitive expeditions. Two reports from 1884 and 1889 written by one of the prime combatants of the Kalkadoons, Sub-inspector of Native Police (later Queensland Police Commissioner) Frederic Charles Urquhart[JS42]  described how he and his detachment pursued and killed up to 150 Aborigines in just three or four so-called “dispersals” (he provided numbers up to about 80 of these killings, the rest was just described without estimating the actual toll).

The conflict in Queensland was the bloodiest in the history of Colonial Australia. The latest studies gives evidence of some 1,500 whites and associates (meaning Aboriginal servants, as well as Chinese, Melanesian and other non-Europeans) killed on the Queensland frontier during the 19th century, while some recent studies suggest that upwards of 65,000 Aborigines were killed, with sections of Central and North Queensland witnessing particularly heavy fighting. The figure of 65,000 is considerably higher than the common national minimum of 20,000 colonial Aboriginal casualties.

Northern Territory

The British made three early attempts to establish military outposts in northern Australia. The initial settlement at Fort Dundas[JS43]  on Melville Island was established in 1824 but was abandoned in 1829 due to attacks from the local Tiwi people. Some fighting also took place near Fort Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula between its establishment in 1827 and abandonment in 1829. The third British settlement, Fort Victoria, was also established on the Cobourg Peninsula in 1838 but was abandoned in 1849.

The final battles took place in the Northern Territory. A permanent settlement was established at modern-day Darwin in 1869 and attempts by pastoralists to occupy Indigenous land led to conflict. This fighting continued into the 20th century, and was driven by reprisals against European deaths and the pastoralists’ desire to secure their land. At least 31 Indigenous men were killed by police in the Coniston massacre [JS44] in 1928 and further reprisal expeditions were conducted in 1932 and 1933.


The artwork Aboriginal Memorial commemorates Indigenous Australians who lost their lives defending their land since 1788, and has been on display at the National Gallery of Australia since 1988

Armed resistance to British settlement was generally given little attention by historians until the 1970s, and was not regarded as a “war”. In 1968 anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner[JS45]  wrote that historians’ failure to include Indigenous Australians in histories of Australia or acknowledge widespread frontier conflict constituted a ‘great Australian silence’. Works which discussed the conflicts began to appear during the 1970s and 1980s, and the first history of the Australian frontier told from an Indigenous perspective, Henry ReynoldsThe Other Side of the Frontier, was published in 1982.

Between 2000 and 2002 Keith Windschuttle[JS46]  published a series of articles in the magazine Quadrant and the book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. These works argued that there had not been prolonged frontier warfare in Australia, and that historians had in some instances fabricated evidence of fighting. Windschuttle’s claims led to the so-called “history wars” in which historians debated the extent of the conflict between Indigenous Australians and European settlers.

The frontier wars are not commemorated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The Memorial argues that the Australian frontier fighting is outside its charter as it did not involve Australian military forces. This position is supported by the Returned and Services League of Australia but is opposed by many historians, including Geoffrey Blainey, Gordon Briscoe, John Coates[JS47] , John Connor, Ken Inglis[JS48] , Michael McKernan and Peter Stanley[JS49] . These historians argue that the fighting should be commemorated at the Memorial as it involved large numbers of Indigenous Australians and paramilitary Australian units.

 [JS1]Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. The time of arrival of the first peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP. Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP. Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP. Evidence of fires in South-West Australia suggest ‘human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago’, although more research is required. Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years and 125,000 years BP

 [JS2]James Cook FRS (7 November 1728 – 14 February 1779) was a British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy. He made detailed maps of Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, during which he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.

 [JS3]admiral Arthur Phillip (11 October 1738 – 31 August 1814) was a Royal Navy officer and the first Governor of New South Wales who founded the British penal colony that later became the city of Sydney, Australia.

After much experience at sea, Phillip sailed with the First Fleet as Governor-designate of the proposed British penal colony of New South Wales. In January 1788, he selected its location to be Port Jackson (encompassing Sydney Harbour).

Phillip was a far-sighted governor who soon saw that New South Wales would need a civil administration and a system for emancipating the convicts. But his plan to bring skilled tradesmen on the voyage had been rejected, and he faced immense problems of labour, discipline and supply.

 [JS4]The First Fleet was the 11 ships that departed from Portsmouth, England, on 13 May 1787 to found the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. The Fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free people (accounts differ on the numbers), and a large quantity of stores. From England, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, arriving over the period of 18 to 20 January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival.

 [JS5]Squatting in Australian history referred to someone who occupied a large tract of crown land in order to graze livestock. Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first (and often the only) settlers in the area. Eventually, the term squattocracy, a play on “aristocracy”, developed to refer to some of these squatters.

 [JS6]Edward John Eyre (5 August 1815 – 30 November 1901) was an English land explorer of the Australian continent, colonial administrator, and a controversial Governor of Jamaica.

 [JS7]Horatio Emmons Hale (May 3, 1817 – December 28, 1896) was an American-Canadian ethnologist, philologist and businessman who studied language as a key for classifying ancient peoples and being able to trace their migrations.

 [JS8]A boomerang is a thrown tool, typically constructed as a flat airfoil, that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. It is well-known as a weapon used by Indigenous Australians for hunting.

 [JS9]Admiral Arthur Phillip (11 October 1738 – 31 August 1814) was a Royal Navy officer and the first Governor of New South Wales who founded the British penal colony that later became the city of Sydney, Australia

 [JS10]Pemulwuy (also rendered as Pimbloy, Pemulvoy, Pemulwoy, Pemulwy, Pemulwye, or sometimes by contemporary Europeans as Bimblewove or Bumbleway) (c. 1750 – 2 June 1802) was a First Nations man of Eora descent, born around 1750 in the area of Botany Bay in New South Wales. He is noted for his resistance to the European settlement of Australia which began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788

 [JS11]During the Australian gold rushes, significant numbers of workers (both from other areas within Australia and from overseas) relocated to areas in which gold had been discovered. A number of gold finds occurred in Australia prior to 1851, but only the gold found from 1851 onwards created gold rushes.

 [JS12]The British .577 Snider–Enfield was a breech-loading rifle. The American Jacob Snider invented the firearm action, and the Snider–Enfield was one of the most widely used of the Snider varieties. The British Army adopted it in 1866 as a conversion system for its ubiquitous Pattern 1853 Enfield muzzle-loading rifles, and used it until 1874 when the Martini–Henry rifle began to supersede it.

 [JS13]Geoffrey Norman Blainey AC FAHA FASSA (born 11 March 1930) is an Australian historian, academic, philanthropist and commentator with a wide international audience. He is noted for having written authoritative texts on the economic and social history of Australia, including The Tyranny of Distance.

 [JS14]Jump to search

The Caledon Bay crisis, refers to a series of killings at Caledon Bay in the Northern Territory of Australia during 1932–34, referred to in the press of the day as Caledon Bay murder(s). Five Japanese trepang fishers were killed by Aboriginal Australians of the Yolngu people. A police officer investigating the deaths, Albert McColl, was subsequently killed.

 [JS15]Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls, KCVO, OBE (9 December 1906 – 4 June 1988) was a prominent Aboriginal Australian from the Yorta Yorta people.

 [JS16]Captain Charles Napier Sturt (28 April 1795 – 16 June 1869) was a British explorer of Australia, and part of the European exploration of Australia. He led several expeditions into the interior of the continent, starting from both Sydney and later from Adelaide.

 [JS17]Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson, OBE (26 June 1901 – 12 May 1970) was an Australian anthropologist and ornithologist who was largely responsible for turning the Caledon Bay crisis into a “decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations”. He is remembered as a friend of the Yolngu people, and as a champion of understanding, by non-Indigenous Australians, of the culture and society of Indigenous Australians

 [JS18]Major General Lachlan Macquarie, CB (/məˈkwɒrɪ/; Scottish Gaelic: Lachann MacGuaire; 31 January 1762 – 1 July 1824) was a British Army officer and colonial administrator from Scotland. Macquarie served as the fifth and last autocratic Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821, and had a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony.

 [JS19]Captain Philip Gidley King (23 April 1758 – 3 September 1808) was the third Governor of New South Wales, and did much to organise the young colony in the face of great obstacles.

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James Thomas Morisset

Lieutenant Colonel James Thomas Morisset (1780 – 17 August 1852), penal administrator, was commandant of the second convict settlement at Norfolk Island, from 29 June 1829 to 1834.

The Waterloo Creek massacre (also Slaughterhouse Creek massacre) refers to a series of violent clashes between mounted police, civilian vigilantes and Indigenous Gamilaraay peoples, which occurred southwest of Moree, New South Wales, Australia, during December 1837 and January 1838

 [JS22]The Myall Creek massacre at Myall Creek near the Gwydir River, in the central New South Wales district of Namoi, involved the brutal killing of at least twenty-eight unarmed Indigenous Australians by eleven colonists on 10 June 1838 at the Myall Creek near Bingara, Murchison County, in northern New South Wales

 [JS23]Sir George Arthur, 1st Baronet KCH (21 June 1784 – 19 September 1854) was Lieutenant Governor of British Honduras from 1814 to 1822, Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) from 1823 to 1837. The campaign against Tasmanian Aborigines, known as the Black War, occurred during this term of office.

 [JS24]The Pinjarra Massacre, also known as the Battle of Pinjarra, is an attack that occurred in 1834 at Pinjarra, Western Australia on an uncertain number of Bindjareb Noongar men, women and children by a detachment of 25 soldiers, police and settlers including—and personally led by—Governor James Stirling.[1][5]:25 Stirling estimated the Binjareb attacked to number “about 60 or 70” and John Roe, who also participated, to about 70–80, which roughly agree with an estimate of 70 by an unidentified eyewitness

 [JS25]Admiral Sir James Stirling (28 January 1791 – 22 April 1865) was a British naval officer and colonial administrator. His enthusiasm and persistence persuaded the British Government to establish the Swan River Colony and he became the first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia.

 [JS26]Robert Menli Lyon (1789–1874) was a pioneering Western Australian settler who became one of the earliest outspoken advocates for Indigenous Australian rights and welfare in the colony. He published the first information on the Aboriginal language of the Perth area.

 [JS27]Rottnest Island (known as Wadjemup to the local Noongar people, and otherwise colloquially known as Rotto) is an island off the coast of Western Australia, located 18 kilometres (11 mi) west of Fremantle. A sandy, low-lying island formed on a base of aeolianite limestone, Rottnest is an A-class reserve, the highest level of protection afforded to public land.

 [JS28]The Forrest River massacre, or Oombulgurri massacre of June 1926, was a massacre of Indigenous Australian people by a group of law enforcement personnel and civilians in the wake of the killing of a pastoralist in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

 [JS29]Rear-Admiral Sir John Hindmarsh KH RN, also known as Governor Hindmarsh, (baptised 22 May 1785 – 29 July 1860) was a naval officer and the first Governor of South Australia, from 28 December 1836 to 16 July 1838.

 [JS30]Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler, KH, (21 July 1795 – 7 May 1869) was the second Governor of South Australia, at the same time serving as Resident Commissioner, from 17 October 1838 until 15 May 1841.

 [JS31]Aboriginal Australians on the Coorong massacred some or all of the 17 survivors of the wreck as they journeyed to Adelaide, an event which became known as the Maria massacre. A punitive expedition, acting under instructions from Governor Gawler that were later found to be unlawful, summarily hanged two presumed culprits.

 [JS32]The Convincing Ground Massacre was a skirmish between the indigenous Gunditjmara people Kilcarer gundidj clan and local whalers based in Portland, Victoria in South-Eastern Australia. Tensions between the two groups had been building since the establishment of the town as a whaling station some five years previously, however, around eighteen thirty three or eighteen thirty four, a dispute over a beached whale would cause events to escalate.

 [JS33]Campaspe Plains massacre, occurred in 1839 in Central Victoria, Australia as a reprisal raid against Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and occupation of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung lands.[1] Charles Hutton took over the Campaspe run, located near the border of Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung, in 1838 following sporadic confrontations.

 [JS34]The Eumeralla Wars were the violent encounters between European settlers and Gunditjmara aboriginals in the Western District area of south west Victoria.

 [JS35]Charles Joseph La Trobe, CB (or Latrobe; 20 March 1801 – 4 December 1875) was appointed in 1839 superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales and, after the establishment in 1851 of the colony of Victoria (now a state of Australia), he became its first lieutenant-governor.

 [JS36]The Wimmera is a region of the Australian state of Victoria. The district is located within parts of the Loddon Mallee and the Grampians regions; and covers the dryland farming area south of the range of Mallee scrub, east of the South Australia border and north of the Great Dividing Range. It can also be defined as the land within the social catchment of Horsham, its main settlement.

 [JS37]In mid October 1861, a squatter party from the colony of Victoria under Horatio Wills began a temporary tent camp to start the process of setting up the grazing property of Cullin-la-ringo. Wills’s party, an enormous settlement train including bullock wagons and more than 10,000 sheep, had set out from Brisbane eight months earlier to set up a farm at Cullin-la-ringo, a property formed by amalgamating four blocks of land with a total area of 260 square kilometres (64,000 acres). The size of the group had attracted much attention from other settlers, as well as the Indigenous people.

 [JS38]Australian native police units, consisting of Aboriginal troopers under the command usually of a single white officer, existed in various forms in all Australian mainland colonies during the nineteenth and, in some cases, into the twentieth centuries. The Native Police were utilised as a cost effective and brutal paramilitary instrument in the expansion and protection of the British colonial frontier in Australia. Mounted Aboriginal troopers of the Native Police, armed with rifles, carbines and swords escorted surveying groups, pastoralists and prospectors into frontier areas.

 [JS39]The Cullin-la-ringo massacre or Wills Tragedy occurred north of modern-day Springsure in Central Queensland on 17 October 1861. It remains the largest massacre of white settlers by Aboriginals in Australian history, and a pivotal moment in the frontier wars in Queensland.

 [JS40]Frederick Walker (14 April 1820 – 19 November 1866) public servant, property manager, Commandant of the Native Police, squatter and Australian explorer.

 [JS41]Carl Adolph Feilberg (21 August 1844 – 25 October 1887) was a Danish-born Australian journalist, newspaper editor, general political commentator, who are today best known as an Australian indigenous human-rights activist

 [JS42]Frederic Charles Urquhart (27 October 1858 – 2 December 1935) was a Native Police officer, Queensland Police Commissioner and Administrator of the Northern Territory.

 [JS43]Fort Dundas was a short-lived British settlement on Melville Island between 1824 and 1828 in what is now the Northern Territory of Australia. It was the first of four British settlement attempts in northern Australia before Goyder‘s survey and establishment of Palmerston, now known as Darwin. The three later attempts were at Fort Wellington, Port Essington and Escape Cliffs.

 [JS44]The Coniston massacre, which took place near the Coniston cattle station in the then Territory of Central Australia (now the Northern Territory) from 14 August to 18 October 1928, was the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians and one of the last events of the Australian Frontier Wars. People of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye groups were killed. The massacre occurred in revenge for the death of dingo hunter Frederick Brooks, killed by Aboriginal people in August 1928 at a place now known as Yukurru, also known as Brooks Soak.

 [JS45]William Edward Hanley “Bill” Stanner CMG (24 November 1905 – 8 October 1981), often cited as W.E.H. Stanner, was an Australian anthropologist who worked extensively with Indigenous Australians. Stanner had a varied career that also included journalism in the 1930s, military service in World War II, and political advice on colonial policy in Africa and the South Pacific in the post-war period.

 [JS46]Keith Windschuttle (born 1942) is an Australian writer, historian, and former ABC board member.

 [JS47]Lieutenant General Henry John Coates, AC, MBE (28 December 1932 – 11 June 2018) was a senior officer in the Australian Army who served as Chief of the General Staff from 1990 to 1992. After retiring from the Army he became an author and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy branch of the University of New South Wales, pursuing aspects of Australia’s military history.

 [JS48]Kenneth Stanley Inglis, AO, FASSA (7 October 1929 – 1 December 2017) was an Australian historian.

Inglis completed his Master’s degree at the University of Melbourne and his doctorate at the University of Oxford. In 1956 he was appointed as a lecturer to the University of Adelaide. He subsequently became Professor of History at the Australian National University, and the University of Papua New Guinea.

Inglis has written extensively on the Anzac tradition, the Stuart Case, war memorials, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.[1] In 2008 he joined the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Melbourne, as an Adjunct Professor.

Inglis died, aged 88, on 1 December 2017

 [JS49]Peter Alan Stanley FAHA (born 28 October 1956) is an Australian historian and research professor at the University of New South Wales in the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society. He was Head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia from 2007–13. Between 1980 and 2007 he was an historian and sometime exhibition curator at the Australian War Memorial, including as head of the Historical Research Section and Principal Historian from 1987. He has written eight books about Australia and the Great War since 2005, and was a joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2011.

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