Australia has often sought to equate chapters of its colonial history with contemporary values.
Stories of First Fleets and pioneering expeditions invariably involve violence and deaths within Aboriginal communities, but history books are largely documented from a colonial perspective.
“Australia’s memory is selective,” says Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and host of a new SBS documentary series The Australian Wars.
Indeed, the National War Memorial may include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served in wars since the Boer War of 1899–1902 – but there is no recognition of Australians who previously died in colonial battles on home soil.
Perkins, whose own ancestors were killed in conflicts, refers to this as “the great Australian silence”.
The Blackfella Films documentary relies heavily on re-enactments, beginning with encounters dating back to 1790, just two years after Cook’s arrival. No treaty was ever made with the Crown, land was never ceded.
While the arrival of the world’s mightiest empire began as a small, largely friendly endeavor, convicts who strayed were gored.
The first governor of NSW, Arthur Phillip decided on a strategy to convince the locals of his friendly intentions. The Wangal warrior Bennelong was captured but quickly learned English and served as a mediator until his escape. A famous exchange later followed in which Phillip was gored but survived and did not retaliate.
The search for new land for grain in Parramatta led to conflicts with the Barramattagal people and opposition from the local chief Pemulwuy. 100 warriors fought crown troops, using their knowledge of the land, fauna, and fire.
Further violence involving the Dharawal people ensued in the Hawkesbury River region as dawn raids ordered by Governor Macquaire resulted in the deaths of men, women and children. The ‘Appin Massacre’, as it has come to be known, is still the scene of annual memorial ceremonies, while a rare memorial at Sackville Reach dedicated to Hawkesbury’s Aboriginal people still represents deep pain.
Blackfella has gone to some lengths to recreate these historical war scenes, which helps bring home the tragedy and fury Perkins highlighted.
There is also a confrontational visit from descendants buried in boxes in a storage facility at the National Museum of Australian.
These remains are still awaiting reburial.
It is clear that we still have a long way to go to eliminate closure, reconciliation, equality and imbalance in our history books.
The Australian Wars airs Wednesday at 8:30pm on SBS.