Dr Ray Kerkhove is an Adjunct Associate Professor with University of Southern Queensland, specialising in Indigenous history and culture. He has worked for almost four decades with First Nations groups. Ray has written a dozen books, a score of peer-reviewed articles, and numerous heritage reports. He mostly works as an independent consultant with some 48 clients including universities, local governments, art organisations, museums and Aboriginal groups. Ray is my gust this morning around 8.30am
New research reveals the organised resistance and sophisticated war strategies of the First Nations people during Australia’s Frontier Wars. This ground-breaking new evidence shows the war tactics were originally, effective against invading forces, with minimal casualties on Indigenous combatants.
Frontier Wars is Australia’s biggest story, with 61,000 Australians dying in World War 1, compared to as many as 127,000 Australians dying during the Frontier Wars1. Evidence finds that the Aboriginal resistance was more effective than previously believed, with 2,000 - 5,000 of these deaths being white Australians2. This eclipsed the deaths that Australia sustained during the Vietnam (521 deceased), Korean (340 deceased) and Afghan Wars (41 deceased) combined.
Despite the fact there is a great deal written about the Frontier Wars and invading forces' tactics, up until now, there was little research on how First Nations people organised their resistance or what strategies they employed.
The new evidence suggests there was an organised resistance and effective employment of training, ranking, complex communication systems, alliances, and far-reaching leadership. In some cases, this combination pushed back the tide of white settlement for years. Kerkhove found that Aboriginal weaponry and defences were more effective than is assumed. He shows that Aboriginal groups quickly adapted to using guns, glass, and iron weapons, and even horses against settlers.
The new evidence revealed in How They Fought, Indigenous Tactics and Weaponry of Australia’s Frontier Wars by Dr Ray Kerkhove uncovers First Nations’ formidable warrior traditions. It dispels the myth of Australia’s Frontier Wars being simply a story of massacres and defeat.
The history of Australia’s Frontier Wars is becoming a hot topic for debate and research. It is now part of our national educational syllabus. However, there are very few books available which explain, in detail, the modes of warfare First Australians applied during the Frontier Wars. How They Fought is written as an introductory guidebook.
It is broken into chapters covering organisation, strategies, weaponry, and defences. The book considers both traditional practices and technological and tactical adaptations. To make this complex topic more accessible, How They Fought includes numerous tables, figures and diagrams that illustrate and summarize the contents.
Talking with First Nations people, Ray discovered that many of them spoke of how they once had a highly developed warrior culture. He was surprised that although a great deal was being written about the Frontier Wars, there was virtually nothing about this in most books he read. Particularly, there was very little that told him how First Nations organised their resistance or what strategies they employed.
Instead, it seemed to him there was an assumption that Aboriginal groups had no longterm objectives in their struggle. Their 'resistance' was more like a protest - a prelude to an inevitable slaughter.
Despite their whole world being under threat, Australia's first citizens supposedly did nothing more than toss a few spears then go back to their campfires, and wait to be massacred.
Struck by the insanity of this narrative, Ray spent over a decade researching actual firsthand accounts of skirmishes and battles of the Frontier Wars. Studying many hundreds of individual incidents recorded in news reports and personal reminiscences, he began to notice recurrent patterns and slowly pieced together an entirely different story.