Monday 10 October 2022

The "Frontier Wars"

or a documentary series was recently screened on television here. It is a version of the history between the white settlers and the local people they met.

It is not a pretty history but then history rarely is. In this case however it has been made out to be something it almost certainly was not. There is almost no suggestion that the two groups made any attempt to mix or get along with each other. It concentrates almost entirely on a failure to do so. 

Of course we have historians who are attempting to research all this. In terms of "history" they are fortunate in that they only need to go back to 1788. There should be plenty of material available. One of the problems is that there is actually not that much material and almost all of it comes from "white" accounts. Another is that what is available does not always fit with the politically correct version of history - that the whites were always in the wrong, that they deliberately brought in measles infested blankets and they massacred  the indigenous population without ever facing any sort of justice. 

Of course this is not true. There is fault aplenty on both sides. What is more there is yet another strand of history which is almost impossible to research and which is never mentioned - that of the wars between indigenous tribes. The so-called "welcome to country" ceremonies are rooted in some of the ceremonies which were performed to invite neighbouring tribes onto land a tribe considered their own. It would seem there were often clashes between groups.

I know very little about all this - well no more than anyone who has read a reasonable amount of history. What I do know something about is the relationship between my paternal great-grandmother and the indigenous people along the section of the Murray adjacent to the dairy farm. I was told about this by her own children - my grandfather and his brothers and sisters. Let me explain.

My paternal great-grandfather was a sailor, a ship's pilot and a self-taught maritime cartographer. He was responsible for mapping a good deal of the coastline up and down what we call "the Gulf". His work allowed the many ships of the day to come in and out of what was then the main port. In the course of that work he met many indigenous people and apparently had excellent relations with them. When he retired he, like so many other members of the clan, took up a second career - as a dairy farmer on the River Murray. Great-grandpa and his wife had not been there that long when he died very suddenly as he was herding the cows in to be milked. Great-grandma took over the running of the farm and with it the business of being the local shopkeeper and postmistress. It also meant getting on with the local indigenous people who lived along the banks of the river.

Great-grandma's ideas about that probably did not please everyone. She actually employed them and paid them. She saw to it their children were clothed - although not necessarily shod. She saw to it the children attended school (and church on Sundays). Her grandchildren (the Senior Cat and his cousins) played with them when they were there on holiday. 

"Grandma treated them just the same as anyone else," one of my great-aunts told me. I don't doubt that was true. My great-aunt was known for her "robust" way of speaking and would not have hesitated to criticise. When the Senior Cat's cousin was writing the family history and researching the time spent there he came across other documents, often from people outside the family, which said the same sort of thing. There are old photographs of groups which  include members of the local indigenous community.  

Yes, it was probably very "paternalistic" if you like - but that was the way things were often done then. The idea however that relations were often "bad", so bad that murder and mayhem were more common than good is patently ridiculous. The penalty for murder was death - on both sides.

As a family we like to think of Great-grandma as someone special and in many ways she was. At the same time I suspect there were many other women who were in circumstances similar to that of my great grandmother.  I think it is very likely they had the same sort of relations with the local indigenous communities with whom they found themselves living. Nothing else makes sense. 

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