The Other Side of the Frontier

Subtitled “Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia”, Henry Reynolds’ now-classic The Other Side of the Frontier has changed the way we understand the history of relations between European settlers and Indigenous Australians.  Finally, an attempt and recording an alternate perspective of history, the perspective of the first Australians, had been made.  Originally published in 1981, it is still controversial for some in parts, and it stands the test of time.  

Utilising mainly primary sources from the 19th Century, through themes Reynolds explores the multiple ways and locations Europeans and Indigenous Australians met, interacted, fought, and lived.  This is not the story of first contact, but a documentation of the many frontiers Australians experienced and resisted colonisation.  These themes sometimes surprised me: the ‘frontier’ here is not necessarily just pastoral, or coastal, but includes the incorporation of Europeans’ appearance in traditional beliefs and practices, motivations for resistance including food and water scarcity, and ultimately tactics and methods of resistance.

Because this is not just about how many died in the frontier wars, it’s about how contact changed every single aspect of Indigenous Australia.  Traditional society simply was not structured or practiced in a way the colonisers understood, and attempts instead were made to impose rather than appreciate what they had invaded.  There were no chiefs, it was a fully democratic society, with some additional respect paid to elders who were the nexus of magic; it was a fully reciprocal society, so exchanges were not tricks but the beginning of intimate, complex relationships.   And amazingly, but of course, the English colonisation was not the first white people some tribes had seen and, like the others before, tribes expected the English to move on too.  What happened instead of course we are living today.

“…there was the loss of land, the dislocation of the known universe, a previously unthinkable disruption of the cosmic cycle of birth and death and reincarnation…The future itself had been extinguished.  Death from disease and chronic infant mortality merely proved that the times were irrecoverably out of joint.”

Reynolds is absolutely scrupulously doing his job as he quotes primary sources directly, using their records to weave the best known image of these times.  But incidentally from these sources what comes through to me is one of distrust and malice.  It is sometimes stunning how, out of context of their times, the records Europeans made in reports, journals and correspondence are shockingly cruel, ignorant and violent.  Without premeditation Reynolds is able to create a clear impression of simple warfare, a lack of empathy, ignorance and stubbornness driving extreme violence.  Hearing this in the early settlers’ own words is actually horrific.

“Alienation of land was totally unthinkable, it was literally impossible.  If blacks often did not react to the initial invasion of their country it was because they were not aware that it had taken place.  They certainly did not believe that their land had suddenly ceased to belong to them and they to their land…The black owners may have been pushed aside but many refused to accept that they had been dispossessed; they never conceded the major premise of the invasion.”

One flaw in this book though is the singular perspective that is utilised to represent Indigenous Australians’ view point.  This problem is acknowledged by Reynolds in this edition’s new introduction.  There are multiple nations, tribes, and languages covering the entire country, and their practices and perspectives were not recorded like the Europeans’, because of course it is the Europeans doing the writing of history.  Considering the limitation of direct sources, I think Reynolds has done a good job here representing stories as best he can, and he acknowledges that other since have done even better, with more specific focuses of particular regions of Indigenous nations.

And after this academic, balanced themed history-telling, Reynolds’ conclusion is worth quoting:

“Frontier violence was political violence.  We cannot ignore it because it took place on the fringes of European settlement.  Twenty thousand blacks were killed before federation.  Their burial mound stands out as a landmark of awesome size on the peaceful plans of colonial history.  If the bodies had been white our histories would be heavy with their story, a forest of monuments would celebrate their sacrifice.”

It is shameful that the full history of our country is not taught in school.  Pretending that the story of the island known as Australia started in 1770 is a lie.  And in addition, we are further patronised because this excerpt we are educated in involves only white men with titles, not the women, not the convicts, and most importantly, not Indigenous Australians.  Henry Reynolds has started the conversation we have to have on telling our full history.

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