The Tanami + the Frontier wars

After meeting up with friends in a very green Alice Springs we set out on the 15 hour drive along the Tamani Road in Warlpiri country to Lajamanu.

The history of this landscape  is that of the Frontier wars involving a series of conflicts over 140 years (1788 to 1934) that were fought between Indigenous Australians and mainly British settlers. Denialism, the failure to acknowledge  the existence of armed resistance to white settlement and the widespread frontier conflict,  constituted a ‘great Australian silence’ in Australian  history. This politics of ethnic amnesia  started to shift  in the 1970s,  when it was acknowledged that Australians had been engaged in the intentional physical killing of groups of people because they were those people, and forcibly removed children from their group with the intention of ‘transforming’ them into members of another group.

Central Australia was one of the last frontiers in the European conquest of Australia and, when administered by South Australia in the 19th century (between 1860 and 1895) 40 per cent of the population in the Alice Springs region, were mostly shot in the name of ‘dispersal’. Frontier massacres were erratic, episodic, sporadic, from a dozen to ten dozen dead at a time, more eliminationist than simply punitive in intent — for stealing livestock or spearing cattle ranchers, bushmen, miners and men who took Aboriginal women.

 Coniston in the Tanami desert was its western outpost in the European conquest of the Northern Territory.    The conflict was caused by the  pastoralist’s attempts  to occupy Warlpiri land and then to secure that land from the Warlpiri. This conflict lasted until the 1930s,  and  it was centred around the Coniston massacre,   in an area in and  around Coniston Station, just north of  Yuendumu. Coniston  is the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians. It was a series of punitive raids that occurred over a number of weeks as police parties (ie., vigilantes under the command of a white police officer, Constable William Murray)  killed indiscriminately to establish white Australia by killing  over 200 or  more Walpiri, Anmatjere, Kaytete and Allyawar people.   
Termite mound, Tanami

Termite mound, Tanami


In 1928 Central Australia experienced a severe drought that reduced the ground water. The original owners of the land did what they had done for thousands of years and gravitated to their ancient water sources, mainly in the form of soaks.For the pastoralists, the lack of water came at a crucial time as they were carving out vast tracts of land to run cattle. Conflicts between Aboriginal people and white settlers resulted. The Aboriginal people were angry as they watched their waterholes being destroyed by cattle, fences being erected and white men taking their women as wives or servants. Their law, customs and traditions were being violated. 

The new pastoralists saw that the Aboriginal people  were competing with their cattle for the precious water. They considered their cattle to be  more important than the Walpiri people. This was a frontier society determined to maintain its whiteness,  determined to put an end to Aboriginality, and  ensure the erasure of the Aboriginal presence, one way or another. Aborigines as a distinct group would disappear.

The Coniston Massacre took place over the period mid August to early October 1928, and was comprised of two periods of killings, one in August and another in September through October.

Tanami Road, Northern Territory

Tanami Road, Northern Territory

The trend in the bloody history of the Frontier Wars hat had been established by the time of the Coniston Massacre was  that Aboriginal Australians would commit a crime, policemen would be sent into the bush to arrest them and bring them to trial. Instead, the policemen would murder not only the Aboriginal people  involved but massacre anyone else who was around at the time. The white inquiries into the massacres were a whitewash–the massacres were justified in that the Aboriginal people were in the wrong  for attacking white people, and the  injustices perpetrated by the judicial system were tolerated. With the original inhabitants terrorized  the way was clear for the new white settlers to establish their regime.  

Coniston was no different. Despite it being the best- documented and one of the bloodiest of all frontier conflicts in Australian history the Board of Inquiry set up by the Bruce -Page Commonwealth Government was a whitewash.In all cases the shootings were justified as self-defence and that settlers or police had given no provocation. The blame lay squarely with the ‘Walmulla’ tribe which was allegedly advancing into the Coniston country ‘to wipe out the settlers’. There was not a ‘scintilla of evidence’ that the police party was a punitive expedition. The Board also stated that there was no evidence of any starvation of Aboriginal people in Central Australia.

 White Australia has largely forgotten these kinds of  massacres that make a mockery of  claims that Australia’s settlement was fairly guided by the British rule of law and that where it applied,  it offered security and justice to Aboriginal people. What happened was the systematic extermination of a national, racial, ethnic, political, religious or cultural group. Article II in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which  Australia ratified in 1949, and it entered into force in 1951, defines genocide as:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Words used in  books of Australian history about Aboriginal history and  the massacres, such as pacifying, killing, cleansing, exterminating, starving, poisoning, shooting, immolating, beheading, exiling — point to genocide -ie., the central and compelling intent of ‘erasing the Aboriginal presence’ by settler Australia. The structural violence’ arising out of a short-term land conflict saw the attempt at segregation and protection from killers turned into incarceration, which was a systemic ‘destruction of the essential foundations’ of Aboriginal societies, certainly as the ‘destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity and even the lives of individuals belonging to such groups. The system protected their biological lives,  but assuredly destroyed their societal institutions and inevitably, much of their cultural tapestry, their ethnic, religious and linguistic integrity.

It is possible to deduce a genocidal intent in a particular act from the general context of other culpable acts directed against a particular community, in short, evidence from the circumstances. The Warlpiri  people are still affected and  are still hurting  and suffering from the trauma of the Coniston massacre.  It emptied the Warlpiri homeland, leading to the ‘end of the hunter-gather life’ for many people of the region. The Warlpiri are seen, by many  as a doomed hunter-gatherer people unable to withstand the agriculture, animal husbandry and machinery of modern capitalism.


One thought on “The Tanami + the Frontier wars

  1. Pingback: historical silences | The Long Road to Lajamanu

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