Review: Stephen Gapps has written a nuanced account of the First Wiradjuri War of Resistance

Stephen Gapps, who believes the story of the Wiradyuri war against Europeans deserves greater recognition. Picture: Supplied

Stephen Gapps, who believes the story of the Wiradyuri war against Europeans deserves greater recognition. Picture: Supplied

Looking back to 1788, it seems extraordinary that the British Government would send out its First Fleet loaded with convicts and soldiers when so little was known about the destination and its inhabitants, and with so little preparation, and with no diplomacy. Terra nullius was the British Government's assumption, and it did not check if this assumption was true.

Of course, the decision to send the First Fleet arose out of a certain desperation. There were so many convicts in England that there was no space for them, and other destinations like those in North America were blocked off after the War of Independence.

The Europeans who arrived at Port Jackson were totally unprepared for local conditions. Inadequate thought had been given to selecting convicts to make sure there were enough people with the skills necessary to construct shelters and to grow crops. The early reports that had informed the initial decision to ship out convicts turned out to be misleading. The climate was harsher than reported, food was scarce, and droughts more frequent. Supply ships came erratically and many were lost. But perhaps most striking of all was the lack of knowledge of the peoples whose lands were to be appropriated.

Given all this, war with the Aboriginal peoples can be seen as both predictable and inevitable, as Stephen Gapps shows in his fine new history. This new book is about the First Wiradjuri War of Resistance, covering the years from 1815 to the Bathurst War, 1822-1824. It follows on from Gapps' highly regarded earlier history, The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, also published by NewSouth. The current narrative assumes that readers already understand the first few years of European settlement and the start of the frontier wars.

European explorers discovered a route across the rugged Blue Mountains (following the Aboriginal routes along the ridges) in 1813. News of the extensive, beautiful and fertile Bathurst Plains beyond these mountains stimulated Governor Macquarie's ambitions to facilitate the grazing of cattle and sheep to feed the colonists, even though the countryside was obviously already occupied by the Wiradjuri peoples.

Initially, Macquarie permitted stock to travel beyond the mountains while he waited for the Earl Bathurst's formal sanction to send colonists as well. But in late 1819, Macquarie was accused by many in Britain of being too lenient to convicts, and he was investigated by Commissioner Bigge. After Bigge's report, Macquarie was recalled to London, and replaced by Governor Brisbane, a harsher man with different policies.

There followed, from 1821, the opening up of "the Bathurst region as grazing land for wealthy pastoralists. ..[and] within a short time, with their convict workers in tow, the families whose names would become well-known... in the region began to arrive".

Gapps shows how different British leaders' policies could affect the speed of occupation and the spread of conflict, as well as the degree of violence. It was hardly surprising that the Wiradjuri objected to the Europeans' arrival. Their traditional lands and hunting grounds were now claimed by outsiders and occupied by sheep and cattle, thus driving down the kangaroo population.

In this competition for scarce resources, Gapps argues that conflict was inevitable. Strong Wiradjuri leaders, including the almost mythical figure of Windradyne, amongst others, led the opposition to land appropriation. Their strategies and those of the British culminated in outright warfare from 1822-1824.

Gapps has written an absorbing account of this occupation and the war that followed. The narrative is detailed, well-referenced and researched and will be an invaluable resource. He covers colonial policies including to the convicts, the introduction of martial law and the methods of policing, and the personalities of leading figures on both sides. While the First Wiradjuri War was a local war, conflict was to spread out across the country as settlers moved further and further afield. From the start it was inevitable that war would follow in the competition for scarce resources.

At the end of the book, Gapps reports a conversation with a Wiradjuri elder during interviews for the book. The elder asks why we continue to call these conflicts the "frontier wars" when they were wars to defend Aboriginal homelands, and might be more appropriately referred to as the "homelands war".

The answer is that the victor writes the history. But in Gapps' history, he has gone a long way to redressing this imbalance. In so doing he has provided a thoughtful - and nuanced - account of the First Wiradjuri War.

Alison Booth is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the ANU and a novelist.

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