Cultural Artefact: Frontier Conflict


Colonial frontiers were ambiguous places, comprising official borders that marked the advancing limits of colonial incursion, areas allocated for settlement, governed by colonial authorities. They were not static, as they changed in size to accommodate new immigrants with their stock, and in nature as successive administrators explored new possibilities for development. There were also the unofficial frontiers, regions that extended beyond the reach of government scrutiny, inhabited by adventurers, by entrepreneurs not wishing to be restricted by intrusive legislation and competition, and by those who wished to escape the law. On the other side of these frontiers were the indigenous people, occupying the unbuffered borders, the vantage points where Aboriginal tribes experienced and interpreted the activities of European settlement. With these tribes unable to distinguish between official and unofficial conduct nor grasp the enormity and speed of the changes thrust upon them, it is little wonder that the frontiers were often places of conflict. When resistance sparked into open warfare, these border regions became the battleground of choice, as Aboriginal tribes often disunited by language and traditional enmities and divided by internal borders, lacked the numbers and force to strike directly at the colonial beachhead.

The voices that inform us of the conduct of conflict on both sides of the frontier are invariably those of the colonisers, but there was sufficient diversity of opinion and open public debate to provide insights into contemporary attitudes and behaviours regarding race and the process of colonisation.

The colonisation of Van Diemen's Land produced a number of frontiers, the earliest established by the arrival of sealers into the Furneaux Islands in 1798. By 1810, the over-exploitation of seals saw this activity move to other fields such as New Zealand. The industry, now marginalised, was taken over by more permanent inhabitants of the islands who became increasingly reliant on free labour provided by Aboriginal women. The sealers obtained most of these women by force, in raids. These kidnappings soured Aboriginal/European relations wherever the sealers operated, and contributed significantly to the demise of the Aboriginal population in the east and north-east. In 1830 GA Robinson reported three women among 72 males in the north-east, and in 1831 only four women remaining out of a total of 66 eastern Aborigines. Arthur complained about the daily injuries inflicted on the Aborigines by stockmen and sealers who attempted to 'deprive them of their women whenever the opportunity offered'. Occasionally, Aborigines were able to retaliate when catching sealers unawares on the mainland. In 1805, Aborigines attacked eight sealers and burnt 2,000 of their seal pelts at Great Oyster Bay, four sealers were killed at Cape Portland in 1824 and two more at Eddystone Point in 1828.

The first official frontier was established at Risdon Cove in September 1803 by Lieutenant Bowen. In the north Colonel Paterson established a colony at York in 1804. In effect there were now three frontiers, as the northern settlement did not come under the jurisdiction of Hobart until 1812. The first confrontation with Aborigines occurred on 3 May 1804 at Risdon Cove when a large party of Aborigines came close to the camp in pursuit of kangaroos. The acting commander, Moore, wrongly assuming that he was under attack, fired a carronade into the hunting party and his soldiers followed up with musket fire, killing and wounding an unknown number of Aborigines.

The second incident occurred later in the same year in the north, where, perhaps due to the earlier influence of the sealers, the Aboriginal response to European presence took a more aggressive tone. On 12 November, a party of Aborigines visited Paterson's camp and after an initial friendly interchange attempted to throw a sergeant from a rock into the sea. The guard responded with musket fire, wounding one and killing one. Apart from these fatal encounters, records indicated that the period from 1804 to 1824 was relatively calm, with Aborigines making numerous contacts with the colonists while engaging in small-scale trade for tobacco, tea, flour and highly prized dogs. However, this assumption of peace must be tempered by the knowledge that official records for this period are patchy at best. There are reports of sporadic encounters, some fatal, as Aborigines sought to protect their rights over food reserves now subjected to intense European hunting activity. The scarcity of these reports may be a consequence of the death penalty in force for the murder of Aborigines; there would be many colonists reluctant to chance the colonial authorities' arm in this matter.

In 1824 the situation changed dramatically with the onset of the Black War in which nearly 200 Europeans and an unknown number of Aborigines died. Hostilities were fuelled by competition for native game including seals and kangaroo), the assumption of Aboriginal hunting grounds for the grazing of stock, and the progressive dispossession of Aborigines from their tribal lands. It is no accident that in 1823, the year before the escalation in hostilities, some 441,871 acres were granted to settlers, a ten-fold increase on land allocated in 1821.

The target of Aboriginal resistance was undoubtedly the lives of the settlers. In 1824 twelve Aboriginal assaults produced twelve Europeans deaths and one wounding, with only one case of plunder recorded. In 1828 Arthur wrote of the Aborigines 'evincing an evident disposition systematically to kill and destroy the white inhabitants'. Although Aborigines such as Mosquito and Black Tom (Kickerterpoller) familiar with European culture played a prominent role during this early period, they were capitalising on existing discontent rather than fomenting it.

The appropriation of Aboriginal lands was extended to the north-west when 250,000 acres granted to the Van Diemen's Land Company was to open yet another frontier. On taking possession of these lands in 1826, Edward Curr, who was both company manager and magistrate, operated with little regard for the policies of the colonial administration in distant Hobart. The fact that the eight tribes displaced by the Company had taken no part in the Black War did not prevent Curr from encouraging their decimation by his employees. The Cape Grim Massacre of 10 February 1828 was the most widely known example of the excesses perpetrated under Curr's regime.

After a failed attempt to restrict Aboriginal movements to the unsettled districts, Arthur declared martial law on 1 November 1828 and organised the formation of roving parties. Aboriginal attacks for that year had risen to 126, involving 33 European fatalities including women and children. The roving parties, each consisting of five convicts and a police constable, were to be deployed in an attempt to capture Aborigines in the bush. Parties led by Gilbert Robertson, Jorgen Jorgensen and later John Batman had mixed success, with many more Aborigines killed than taken alive.

In January 1830, a more benign strategy was employed with the establishment of the Friendly Mission led by George Augustus Robinson, aided by cooperative Aborigines, including Trugannini and Wooraddy.

The mission's first task was to travel up the west coast and establish peaceful contact with local tribes for future negotiations. In other parts of the colony a reward was offered for the capture of Aborigines, £5 for every adult and £2 for every child taken alive. However, the continuation of hostilities encouraged Arthur to resort to military force and remove the Aborigines totally from the settled districts by initiating a dragnet of 2200 men. The six-week operation commenced on 7 October 1830 and yielded only two captives, a man and a boy, as most of the Aborigines had little trouble in passing through the line undetected. However, this massive show of strength did impress upon them the growing vulnerability of their position.

Robinson, now engaged in removing the Aborigines from their tribal lands, found this task easier as demoralised Aborigines were more likely to place their trust in his promises and offers of protection. Robinson's mission played a central role in removing Aborigines from the Tasmanian mainland to establishments in the Furneaux Islands. On 3 February 1835, Robinson reported that: 'the entire aboriginal population are now removed'. However, persistent reports of an Aboriginal presence in the Van Diemen's Land Company lands necessitated a further expedition in 1836. This new search party contacted an Aboriginal family near Cradle Mountain, but they refused to join the Mission and escaped back into the bush, only to be recaptured later.

Further reports continued to emerge of a persistent and hostile Aboriginal presence in the north-west. A small band of the Tomeginner tribe from Table Cape had evaded capture and were mounting regular attacks upon Company servants, stock and huts. An attack on two Company servants at Table Cape on 27 February 1842 marked the final recorded incident in the Black War. The fate of this small band is open to speculation, but a few months later the newly appointed Company manager James Gibson reported to his directors that there were no other Aborigines left in Company lands.

Ian McFarlane