Wreath laid at the Buderim War Memorial, ANZAC Day, 2019
Today is ANZAC Day and we consider the loss of lives as a result of sanctioned conflict between armies on behalf of constitutionally recognised governments under appropriate rules of war. That is the story as told for the First and Second World Wars.
This concept of war, the recognisable concept of war, bears little resemblance to what happened in this country between the white settlers and the people of the 280 language groups or independent sovereign nations.
At the checkout at my local grocery store I struck up a conversation with Isabel, a fresh-faced, bright-eyed year 11/12 student. She asked me how I was going to spend today. I said I was coming here to speak about the Frontier Wars. She replied, “I don’t do history but I know about that. Australians don’t seem understand it wasn’t a war, it was a massacre, it was genocide. Please tell them that.”
I had the same response from an English exchange student, the spokespeople for the progressive Jewish temple, the Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim communities in Melbourne at a recent gathering to reflect on the Statement from the Heart and more.
To describe what happened as ‘wars’ gives these acts a sense of normalcy they never had. War was not declared, nor was it entered into equally by both parties. War was not carried out by the soldiers of opposing nations, it was the action of those who were invading the property of another and who took what ever means at their disposal to rid themselves of any who resisted.
In the same way war was never declared, a truce or settlement was never reached. No treaty agreed to, no reparation for the cost of war ever given and no truce ever made. How could it be? Under the doctrine of discovery and Terra Nullius there was no one here, no one existed on this land.You cannot fight a war with people who do not exist.
What you were doing was clearing the land of vermin (William Cox 1825).
At the very best even those who engaged as humanists at the time (missionaries and others) did so to convert the sovereign people into human beings as christians to be integrated, if possible, into white society. That was the doctrine of discovery.
This was not at any level war. It was genocide. It was the purposeful destruction of a people, their cultures, languages and spiritualities because they were not human. It was the total annihilation of the other under the guise of peaceful “Christian” settlement.
With in a little over 100 years, 87% of the Aboriginal population ceased to exist. Overall the population dropped from around 750,000 to under 100,000 as a result of conflict, massacres, introduced diseases, sexually transmitted diseases and the impact of alcohol and cigarettes.
In some places this was 100% of the population. In the Mudgee shire in NSW, where I come from, that was the case. By 1876 the last tribal aboriginal Tom Penney died. What had begun as a reprisal on the local tribes in 1825 for the death of a worker grew into a campaign of annihilation. William Cox, the builder of the road over the Blue Mountains responded with “the only solution is to exterminate this vermin – women and children included”.
18 aboriginals were killed at Rylstone in the first instance and, within 50 years all were gone as a result of massacres (unrecorded), poisoning of water holes and flour, stirrup-ping and ‘hunting’ trips and more. These activities have been verified by the families of school mates who shared recollections of taking part in these events. Interestingly I hear more of these stories from the ancestors of white settlers than I do from aboriginal people. There is another story in this but that’s not for today.
It wasn’t war as we know it. It was a holocaust. It was so devastating that the Mudgee shire was declared a funeral midden by other tribes because of the extent of the eradication campaign.
The people responsible for this provided the land and much of the funds to build the local Anglican church and are an integral part of the church’s history in this area, a history that has still not been addressed here and elsewhere, an issue we will return to in just a moment.
The hardest affected areas were on the East Coast of Australia and, arguably in Queensland. It is to be remembered the conflict between the sovereign people and the invaders was primarily conflict with squatters and settlers needing to access pastures and resources such as water. The local people were used to a mode of existence of share with and be shared with. Yet, once the squatters and others found what they were looking for, they had no intention of sharing it with the local people.
This “war” has never ceased. It continues today with the high levels of suicide, domestic violence, poverty, curable illnesses, racism and the removal of children from families at an historic high. Since Jan 1, for example, 35 young people as young as 12 have committed suicide. According suicide prevention campaigner Gerry Georgatos, “This year, almost half of Australia’s child suicides have been of First Nations children and of child suicides aged 14 years and less, nearly 90% this year have been First Nations children.”
The war continues with the propaganda machine closing down the discussion on the Statement from the Heart with bogus concerns, it’s immediate dismissal by the Prime Minister of the time, the selling of the benefits of a racially targeted cash management card, the demand that in more traditional areas education must be substantially delivered in English and children must be born in white hospitals off country and the list goes on.
So where does this leave us as both the beneficiaries of genocide and as the church?
Those in power continue to close down our voice and to prevent us from being heard. Even in the church we do not have a voice. Despite efforts to get the church to recognise and implement fully the Statement of the Heart it has been reduced, as one Bishop said to me recently, to an educational not a spiritual issue and therefore won’t be included on the agenda at such as clergy conferences and the like. There is only one Aboriginal Bishop in Australia (the National Aboriginal Bishop, not a Diocesan Bishop) and a small number of Archdeacons, none of whom are in positions to bring about systemic change.
Aboriginal people see this and remember the churches role through the missions and the missionaries in the destruction of culture, language and spirituality and stay away. As I am often asked by interviewers, “Why should we trust the church? We know what you have done to our culture.” We may still have to become white to be recognised (western education, western qualifications, western values) but we no longer have to embrace Christianity and the church.
I became an Anglican priest because it was the whitest thing I could do. I could not be black in a white shire. I could not be black because of our family’s direct connection to Jimmy Governor (Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) but despite my efforts to be white ( my skin colour included) I was known as Blackfella’s Youngfella locally and remain so even 60+ years later.
Becoming white changes little.
Those who are beneficiaries of the genocide, not the frontier wars, including the church must:
- Accept their complicity in this act, then and now;
- Take steps to hear the Aboriginal voice without talking back – no more heroic white people stories or checking our stories with theirs;
- Repent and seek forgiveness as a deliberate movement towards makarrata and treaty;
- Take steps to provide full reparation for the impact of the past and the present on Aboriginal people, not the funding of programs for Aboriginal people but the returning of assets including property, artefacts and the provision of financial reparation without strings;
- Take steps to include us in the decision making processes, not superficially, but with the power and respect that comes from being the only sovereign people in this land. There should be aboriginal elders (some who will not be Anglican or christian) and aboriginal clergy on such as Archbishops & Bishops-in-Council, in General and Diocesan synod leadership roles and available to advise parishes to ensure all that we do honours the sovereign people of this land.
Jesus in Matthews Gospel reminds us of the primacy and centrality of love. Love, Gospel love demands repentance and reparation before reconciliation. Without it we are only playing at being the church in this place and context.
As young person at the checkout said, “It was not a war”. It is not a war. It is more deeply spiritual than that. AmenI
Let us go in the Spirit of Christ our kin
To honour our ancestors,
To serve each other
And to empower the common good;
…… in the name of the God of Holy Dreaming, and of Jesus Christ our elder and of the Creator Spirit. Amen.