Australia has often struggled to equate chapters of its colonial history with contemporary values.
Accounts of first fleets and pioneer expeditions invariably include violence and deaths within Aboriginal communities, but the history books are largely documented through colonial eyes.
‘Australia’s memory is selective,’ says Rachel Perkins, director and presenter of a new SBS/NITV 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 acknowledgment of Australians who died at home in earlier colonial battles.
Perkins, whose ancestors were killed in conflicts, refers to this as “the great Australian silence”.
The Blackfella Films documentary draws heavily on reenactment starting with the meetings of 1790, just 2 years after Cook’s arrival. No treaty was ever made with the Crown, the land was never ceded.
While the arrival of the world’s most powerful empire began as a largely amicable small business, the inmates who strayed have been skewered.
The first Governor of NSW, Arthur Phillip, has opted for a strategy to capture and convince the locals of his friendly intentions. The warrior Wangal Bennelong was captured but quickly learned English, acting as an intermediary until his escape. A famous exchange would later ensue with Phillip being pierced, but surviving and without reprisals.
The search for new land for crops in Parramatta led to conflict with the Barramattagal people and resistance from the local leader Pemulwuy. 100 warriors would fight the troops of the Crown, using their knowledge of earth, fauna and fire.
More violence would ensue in the Hawkesbury River region with the Dharawal people, when dawn raids ordered by Governor Macquaire led to the deaths of men, women and children. The ‘Appin Massacre’, as it has come to be known, is still the site of annual memorial services, while a rare memorial in Sackville Reach dedicated to Hawkesbury Aboriginal people still represents deep sorrow.
Blackfella have gone to some trouble reconstructing these period theaters of war, which helps drive home the tragedy and anger highlighted by Perkins.
There is also a comparison visit by descendants to remains buried in boxes in a repository at the National Museum of Australian.
Those remains still await burial.
It is clear that we still have a long way to go towards closure, reconciliation, equality and addressing an imbalance in our history books.
The Australian Wars airs Wednesdays at 7.30pm on SBS and NITV.