Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Forgotten War, by Henry Reynolds

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The Frontier Wars, in which European settlers fought the original owners for access and sovereignty over the land, took the lives of some 25,000 to 30,000 Aboriginal men, women and children. Historian Henry Reynolds asks the question: why doesn’t this conflict have its own national memorials and a prominent place in school curriculums? Reynolds explores questions of international law, sovereignty and genocide.  His excellent command of this material brings a forgotten part of Australian history back into the light of day.

Henry Reynolds opens his new book with the question: why do we not acknowledge Australia’s Frontier Wars in our national memorials, school curriculums and political discourse? During the First World War, 60,000 Australian soldiers lost their lives. The Second World War cost the nation 40,000 lives. Most historians who have studied the Frontier Wars agree that the death toll amongst Aborigines during that conflict numbered around 25,000 to 30,000. By this grim calculus, the Frontier Wars are surely on a par with Australia’s involvement in the two big European wars of the twentieth century. The main difference is, of course, that the Frontier Wars were fought on Australian soil. Why aren’t they recognised?

There is a wealth of evidence in the historical record – contemporary newspaper reports, parliamentary speeches and correspondence – to support the argument that many at the time saw the settler conflicts as a war. A considerable amount of settlers even spoke of the need to exterminate the Aborigines entirely, thus allowing the Europeans to put the land to economic use.

Reynolds is a master of this material, having trawled through records for many decades of his professional life. He marshals an impressive array of documentary evidence that is shocking in its violence and organises it into a neat and concise argument. The best thing about Forgotten War is its brevity and sense of purpose. Reynolds knows exactly what he wants to say, has well thought out his positions and can support his arguments convincingly.

The book considers a variety of key historical issues. Again, Reynolds really knows his stuff as he discusses Australian sovereignty, legality and the possibility of genocide. Much that we don’t question about Australian sovereignty, about our own very right to be here, Reynolds puts under a fascinating spotlight. Most Australians see our place here as one of a natural inevitability, that European superior technical know-how and a market economy could only sweep away any indigenous culture and its right to the land. Reynolds shows the huge legal grey areas, under both international and British law, which make this conceit dubious.

 Forgotten War is a must read. It tells a riveting and horrific story with authority and impeccable research. Even those who strongly disagree with Reynolds will find a challenging and formidable opponent.

Forgotten War, by Henry Reynolds. Published by New South Books. ISBN: 9781742233925  RRP: $29.99