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"Two Colonial Australian Frontier Books: a Review." Topic


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Henry Martini16 Apr 2019 10:28 p.m. PST

'The Sydney Wars' by academic historian Dr Stephen Gapps, published last year, has been mentioned previously elsewhere on TMP. I finally got around to reading it recently, so I thought I'd present a few of my impressions of it here.

Dr Gapps' central premise is that violent confrontations between settlers and Aborigines around early Sydney (1788-1817) should be technically and legally regarded as war(s), and primarily guerilla war(s), and in making his case he's supported by the actions of senior colonial officials, who sometimes used the word 'war' in proclamations relating to inter-racial conflict, who acknowledged the existence of and contrast between periods of peace and outbreaks of hostilities between the colonial government and various 'tribes', and who even accepted overtures of surrender on the part of those they recognised as indigenous leaders of hostile forces.

Dr Gapps' book is certainly the most military historically complete account of this period I've yet read: the plans and actions of colonial officials, civil and military, and the movements and deployments of troops and paramilitary auxilliaries are narrated in great detail, and the same goes to a lesser extent for the actions of Aboriginal clans and those indigenous resistance leaders who have been identified (such as Pemulwuy), in as much as they can be from the more limited documentary evidence. The colonial forces involved were always very small, with most 'columns' consisting of not much more than a dozen men.

The problem in making a case for war and guerilla war is that Aboriginal attacks on the settler population were always targeted against civilians and their property; military and other well-armed forces were generally avoided and/or evaded where possible. With just a few exceptions, when armed clashes between they and Aboriginal warriors did occur they resulted from colonial search and capture/destroy operations, and only on occasions when the Aborigines couldn't escape.

There's a set of maps in the book that charts the gradual expansion of settlement over the Cumberland Plain. These maps are marked with symbols representing various types of violent encounters. The final map combines all the previous maps, showing all the known violent incidents from 1788-1817. One type of symbol registers 'battles', of which there are only four altogether. One example is the 1816 defeat at Razorback of a mixed party of settlers, soldiers, and constables variously armed or unarmed, by warriors of the Gandangarra tribe of the Blue Mountains. The colonial force would have numbered perhaps fifty at most. Gandangarra numbers are unknown, but might have been in the low hundreds. The other fights tagged as battles are in the same numerical region. Obviously the word 'battle' is being used here to refer to any stand-up fight involving more than a tiny handful of combatants, however, the vast majority of the incidents described in the book fall into the categories of brief, one-sided robberies, robberies with violence, assaults, murders, and massacres sometimes resisted but more often not. So, to my mind, in contrast with later frontier conflicts in Australia, there's not much substance in this early period as it's related here on which to hang tabletop wargames. Of course, there's nothing to stop wargamers disregarding or stretching the actual history and partially 'imaginising' it. In that case you'd have to assume that your Aboriginal leader is a Pemulwuy-type figure capable of galvanising warriors into unusually bold actions.

Also, there are some obvious 'gapps' (sorry) in the author's military historical knowledge that rather surprised me, such as the following: 'Lang said he was shown places on the Hawkesbury, where the "commando" system (mobile, hand-picked troops) had been carried on…'. Clearly Gapps is here referring to the WW2 and later usage of the word 'commando'; he seems to be unaware of the original meaning derived from the Boer military system, which would have been how Lang understood it, i.e. an organised general levy of armed male citizens.

The other book is 'Frederick Walker: Commandant of the Native Police', by Paul Dillon. Walker was the founder of, and first Commandant of the northern NSW (later Queensland) Native Mounted Police appointed by the colonial authorities. This is promoted as a biography of Walker, but it fails to meet that qualification on a number of counts.

The first oddity that struck me was the cover illustration: it has nothing whatsoever to do with the putative subject matter of the book. It depicts an Eora man (possibly Bungaree) in British officer's military uniform in early Sydney. That's a good indicator of what's to come when you open the book. You will search in vain in the 'introduction' for any mention of Walker, or for that matter the NMP. In fact, not until page 41 are either the NMP or Walker invoked; the preceding 40 pages consist of a rambling, directionless, shabbily-written (much of it phrased in a variety of yobbo informalism; eg.'…you can whistle Dixie all you like and play the trumpet till ya blue in the face…') and ungrammatical and badly punctuated extreme right-wing rant, in which the author targets such relevant figures as Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating and enlightens us with his opinions on such pertinent subjects as immigration and multi-culturalism! There are also many passages that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable in their blatant racism, such as concocted cod-Aboriginal dialogue the author puts in the mouth of Bennelong: "Dat can't be true because we already knowed we're 'ere. Dat Captain Cook plenty humbug".

Despite being the output of a commercial publishing house this tract seems to have entirely escaped the attentions of either a proof reader or an editor; the manuscript appears to have simply been printed as received from the author.

I had hoped this book would contain a complete biography of Walker, but it reveals no more about his life and background than I already knew from prior reading, accounts of which commence with his arrival in Australia when he was in his early-mid twenties. In fact the author asserts that nothing more can be known about him.

So, what then is there of value in this travesty, you might ask. Well, hazily expressed as they are, some of the author's points in the main text of the book that are actually relevant to its putative historical subject matter are reasonable but its main value to the history buff and miniaturist is the large number of otherwise difficult-to-access historical documents it contains in the form of contemporary reports and letters. For instance, it's possible to trace in detail the professional relationship between Walker and the Colonial Secretary and between Walker and his influential friends, and his public battles with a segment of the squattocracy, by which are revealed many insights into his character and personality and the actions of the NMP, and which help to explain his decline and eventual dismissal. So, as unpleasant and inadequate as this tome is in many respects, it shouldn't be rejected out-of-hand by wargamers researching colonial Australian frontier conflict.

Personal logo Unlucky General Supporting Member of TMP17 Apr 2019 11:56 a.m. PST

Thanks for that analysis. I enjoyed it. So, one largely worth reading and the other not so much? Perhaps Dillon is from the school of Windschuttle and might have released his work in serial within the pages of Quadrant? Certainly appears wargaming the period will continue restrained within the skirmish realm.

Henry Martini17 Apr 2019 5:39 p.m. PST

Yes UG unsurprisingly Dillon's admiration for Windschuttle is openly declared in the 'introduction'.

As I said, his book is still worth reading if you want to better understand the wider political background to the NMP and Walker's attitude and approach to his command of it. This comes out via the chronologically sequenced chains of communiques, reports, and letters it contains, either between Walker and other important figures in the story, or from him and others to newspaper editors.

Your final point captures the main advantage colonial Australia has over many other conflicts: like some Old West fracas, it's entirely realistic to play out an entire localised campaign at the skirmish level but for the reasons stated above I'm just not sure that this early period is the best choice of sub-period in which to set it. In later conflicts the tribes were more likely to openly take on large, well-armed parties of settlers, explorers, police, and even military (see, for instance, the first-hand account of a fight I recently posted under the title 'Frontier Skirmish', and my comments in later posts in that thread), and you also get the opportunity to create multi-faction campaigns by incorporating bushrangers and rebels into your games (and Chinese tongs if you set them in QLD in the 1870s).

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