Our native wars - no longer out of mind.

Indigenous Warrior - Painting : E67342

Aboriginal Warrior - Painting (detail): E67342. Painting (detail) on wooden board from Melbourne Ward collection.

Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

In November 1828, only three years after becoming a colony separate from New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) declared martial law. Governor George Arthur issued the declaration because the Aboriginal Tasmanians continued their intense and effective resistance - preventing European settlers encroaching on their land in central-east Tasmania.

Colonists mounted a full scale military operation, known in Australian history as the infamous Black War. The war ended inconclusively. However, the tenacious defenders of their native land – believed to be many times more numerous than they were – had only a few warriors left and no prospect for viable independent existence. Subsequently, in 1835, about two hundred surviving Aborigines – men, women and children - from the entire island were deported to a detention camp on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait.

In the past few decades modern Australians have became increasingly interested in celebrating our involvement in wars – almost all fought in foreign lands alongside, and for, the armed forces of other countries. Yet our ‘domestic’ wars, of which the Black War in Tasmania is the most prominent, attracted no formal recognition or public interest.

In his latest book, ‘Forgotten War,’ Henry Reynolds, a prominent Australian historian brings the frontier wars to our attention. He also argues that these wars of resistance deserve far greater recognition and understanding because they shaped our history, social makeup, land tenure and our destiny in more profound ways than any other war we fought.

It just happens that the Australian Museum has two spears from Aboriginal Tasmanians. It is impossible to tell if these spears were ‘war trophies,’ weapons confiscated from warriors deported to Flinders Island, or were made for use or for sale, while the makers were in detention. The spears were collected, directly or through someone else, by Joseph Milligan (medical doctor, scientist and botanist) who could have obtained them between 1831 and 1847 – a period when he witnessed the war and was later closely involved in the supervision of detainees.

While the precise circumstances in which these spears were made and used are unknown, it is clear they were weapons of the same Aboriginal men who either participated in the Black War or witnessed it from a close or near distance. The spears have the uniquely Tasmanian form, unknown anywhere else, and they can be dated to the 1830s or the first half of the 1840s – as the need for spears and the incentive and opportunity to produce them declined rapidly after the deportation of Aboriginal Tasmanians to Flinders Island in 1835.


Henry Reynolds, Forgotten War. Published by New South 2013