Armistice Day – the most egregious exclusion

“WE REMEMBER:  Tasmanians Reflect on a Century of Sacrifice”.  This was the Launceston Examiner’s banner title for the 90 page supplement published for Armistice Day, 2008.  I suggested in an earlier piece that the supplement inadvertently revealed areas of egregious neglect in our memorialization.

Although Armistice Day recalls the last day of the First World War, November 11, 1918, as a day of commemoration for Australians it encompasses all foreign wars in which Australians have participated, not just those fought since 1914, but those fought earlier as well.  The Boer War (1899 – 1902) is the most obvious example of this, and the Examiner’s supplement gives some recognition to this, but it also mentions the NSW contingent (which contained several Tasmanians) which went to the Sudan in 1885, and perhaps more interestingly the British units which went from Van Diemen’s Land to fight the Maoris in New Zealand in the 1840s. 

It is instructive that the public memorialization of war in Tasmania extends back to the 1840s and no further, and that the 1850 memorial at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart is “arguably the oldest war memorial in Tasmania”, as the Examiner would have it.

“Arguably” is the wrong word to use in this context.  “Absurdly” better suits the historical record, but I would much prefer “absurdly and egregiously”, even if the phrase is tautological, because it was just three or four years before this British military force went to New Zealand that the last recorded incident in the Black War in Tasmania occurred, at Table Cape in 1842.

It is not merely thoughtless and insipid journalism to overlook the lack of memorialization to those who fought and died in the Black War in Tasmania, but it smacks of ignorance, prejudice and denial.

Is it too much to ask, as Henry Reynolds has been doing for more than 20 years, for us to stop this deliberate and outrageous exclusion of Aborigines from the narrative of our memorialization of wartime sacrifice, whether it be on Armistice Day or Anzac Day?

Why is it, that among the many family stories in the Examiner’s supplement, there is not one that seeks to speak to us about Tasmania’s own internal war in the decades before the 1840s?  Why is it that the whole feature could not look at anything that happened militarily before British troops were sent to fight Maoris in the 1840s?  After all, British troops fought Tasmanian Aborigines from the time of the British colonization in 1803-4 until 1842, especially in the period from the mid-1820s to early 1830s when most of their land was taken from them.

Combined Tasmanian casualties in the Boer War (including 27 killed), the Korean War (22 killed), the Malayan-Borneo insurgency (2 killed) and the Vietnam War (17 killed),  were less than half those killed on either side in Tasmania’s Black War. 

Resistance to invasion was a life and death issue for Aboriginal Tasmanians in the first 30 years or more of the 19th century.  The initial indications that resistance (or perceived resistance) to occupation would be met by military force occurred at both Risdon and Port Dalrymple in 1804, when an unknown number of Aborigines were killed by soldiers of the New South Wales Corps.

Aboriginal guerrilla resistance gradually increased as the area of the “settled districts” expropriated their main hunting grounds and “destroyed their natural food, the kangaroo”.  During the 1820s a variety of increasingly intensive military efforts were employed against them, including public hangings of several resistance fighters, the establishment of garrisoned military districts, the use of martial law, punitive military expeditions and “roving parties”.  This all culminated in the failed attempt by 2000 armed troops, free settlers, emancipists and convicts to drive the Aborigines from the settled districts into the Tasman Peninsula, soon followed by George Robinson’s missions, which brought Aboriginal military defence of their land to an end.

Henry Reynolds asked in 1981 “… do we make room for the Aboriginal dead on our memorials, cenotaphs, boards of honour and even in the pantheon of national heroes?  If we are to continue to celebrate the sacrifice of men and women who died for their country can we deny admission to our fallen tribesmen?”.

As the Examiner has reminded us, we are and have been a society which takes great pride in commemoration of those who have died in our nation’s uniforms in overseas wars.  We have egregiously erred in denying admission to this commemoration of Tasmanians who fought for their country, in their country.  We need to reflect on a sacrifice which extends beyond battlefields in foreign places to our places.

Peter Henning

Peter Henning


Earlier on Tas Times: Armistice Day: The egregious exclusion of Tasmania’s military nurses

Why is it, that among the many family stories in the Examiner’s supplement, there is not one that seeks to speak to us about Tasmania’s own internal war in the decades before the 1840s?  Why is it that the whole feature could not look at anything that happened militarily before British troops were sent to fight Maoris in the 1840s?  After all, British troops fought Tasmanian Aborigines from the time of the British colonization in 1803-4 until 1842, especially in the period from the mid-1820s to early 1830s when most of their land was taken from them…

...Henry Reynolds asked in 1981 “… do we make room for the Aboriginal dead on our memorials, cenotaphs, boards of honour and even in the pantheon of national heroes?  If we are to continue to celebrate the sacrifice of men and women who died for their country can we deny admission to our fallen tribesmen?”.