Australia Was Founded on an Act of Genocide. It’s Time to Make Amends.

Henry Reynolds has demolished the apologetic arguments of conservative intellectuals, showing that the British colonization of Australia was a crime even by the standards of its time. Reynolds makes a powerful argument for recognizing Aboriginal sovereignty.

Jimmy Clements (c. 1847–1927) was an Aboriginal elder from the Wiradjuri tribe in New South Wales. (The Print Collector / Getty Images)

A new book by Henry Reynolds, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, is the product of a lifetime spent researching the frontier wars that the British settler colonies in Australia waged against the Aboriginal people.

Reynolds takes his inspiration from the “Uluru Statement from the Heart,” released in 2017 by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. The statement demands the Australian government to amend its constitution to mandate an indigenous voice in parliament. It also calls for a truth and reconciliation process, and a negotiated treaty between Australia and its First Nations. Although the former Liberal PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the statement, it has since garnered public support.

Reynolds also responds to intellectuals and historians associated with the Australian right, who, following former PM John Howard, attacked what they called the “black armband” school of history. These conservative historians proposed that we should not judge Australia’s colonial settlers retrospectively, but rather understand them in light of their contemporary values and laws.

This is precisely what the first part of Reynolds’s book does. Truth-Telling not only builds on the Uluru Statement by making a powerful case for retrospectively respecting Aboriginal sovereignty. It also demonstrates that even by their own eighteenth- and nineteenth-century standards, Australia’s colonizers were criminals.

In their quest to build a national mythology, right-wing historians have downplayed the genocide committed against indigenous Australians. The second part of the Truth-Telling sets the record straight, debunking the lies that have justified colonization and genocide, beginning with the notion that this was an uninhabited land.

Annexation and Resistance

As Reynolds recounts, when Captain James Cook laid claim to the eastern half of the continent, he contradicted official instructions to take possession only of “convenient situations,” with the consent of the natives. British sovereignty justified itself with the legal notion of terra nullius, that is, “nobody’s land.” Seeking to reassure the British government, Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s voyage, claimed that New South Wales (NSW) was sparsely populated by people with no sovereignty. He reported that its inhabitants lived a “mere animal existence,” mainly on the coast, and would soon abandon their lands to the Europeans.

As Reynolds demonstrates, first contact between British settlers and First Nations peoples contradicted this fantasy. When Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived, they encountered tribal groups with distinct boundaries, languages and customs. Far from abandoning their lands, indigenous peoples fought for their sovereignty, pushing back against encroachments, and asserting their rights.

As a result, from the beginning, there was a contradiction in British attitudes toward First Nations people in Australia. They incoherently deemed them both as British subjects (and entitled to the protection of British law) and as enemy combatants.

Reynolds’s work highlights indigenous resistance, not as some kind of “instinctive reaction,” but as a just war against invaders. This war of resistance began early. In 1790, two years after the British established the first European settlement at Sydney cove, Pemulwuy, an Eora man, speared and mortally wounded Philip John McEntire, the convict gamekeeper to Arthur Philip. Pemulwuy went on to lead a twelve-year guerrilla campaign against the colonizers.

As First Nations peoples defended themselves, early NSW governors such as Phillip and Lachlan Macquarie sent detachments to “strike terror” among resisting tribes. Because the Aboriginal nations of Australia were autonomous, the pacification of one region had little bearing on others. Consequently, as settlers moved from Sydney to the hinterland, they escalated their violence against people they theoretically considered British subjects. This was how the frontier wars began.

Civilization and Truth-Telling

Reynolds is at his most insightful when showing that, far from bringing the “rule of law,” the First Fleet initiated a violent campaign of expropriation against those labeled recalcitrant to “civilization.”

In particular, he demonstrates the link between personal enrichment and colonization that drove the frontier wars. With little to no accountability, the colonial settlers waged war against indigenous peoples in order to expand their landholdings and profits. This process was so violent that the British authorities were, at times, uncomfortable with its extremes. Nevertheless, the British did little to restrain the colonial logic they had set in motion.

Describing this is an important part of the truth-telling called for by the Uluru Statement of the Heart. It’s also key to debunking conservative historians. For example, Reynolds notes that colonial-era newspapers, books, and articles were surprisingly open about the mass killings of Aboriginal people. They even hosted debates as to the necessity of extermination. As the pioneer Edward Curr wrote in 1886:

In districts which are not easily traversed on horseback, in which Whites are few in number and food is procurable by the Blacks in fastnesses, the term [of warfare and bloodshed] is usually prolonged and the slaughter . . . considerable.

This is significant given Australia’s subsequent silence about these killings. A social Darwinism that regarded Aboriginal people as an inferior and declining race was the ideological justification for genocide.

The colonizers further justified their actions with the claim that nomadic tribes without agriculture should cede their land to settlers who would use it more productively. Ignoring indigenous land management and agriculture, European colonizers instituted a system of pastoral leases granting settlers the right to drive off Aboriginal “trespassers.”

As Reynolds notes, the British government had qualms about the brutality of this process, particularly in Port Phillip. Consequently, they inserted indigenous usage rights into these pastoral leases. Across the continent, settler governments ignored these rights, or remained ignorant of them, until the landmark 1992 Mabo High Court decision resurrected them, granting indigenous Australians the ability to claim limited land rights.

British authorities devolved legal responsibility over indigenous peoples to the colonies in the 1850s, driving a particularly brutal phase in the frontier wars in the north of the continent. Although a new land bill passed in 1860 expanded settlement in Queensland, Europeans continued to be vastly outnumbered by First Nations peoples. Indeed, there were large areas of the north where Aboriginal life — and sovereignty — had continued undisturbed.

Settlers in Queensland in particular were unencumbered by humanitarian concerns. This moral indifference, combined with the increasing sophistication of European weaponry in the latter half of the nineteenth century, made colonization in these areas especially brutal. Reynolds highlights the use of native police — paramilitary units of Aboriginal troopers led by white officers that operated in secret to ruthlessly “disperse” groups of Aboriginal men, women, and children.

For Reynolds, the existence of the native police points to a complexity that must be part of truth-telling. At times, Aboriginal people were themselves coerced into aiding this expansion of “civilization.”

But Reynolds also points to the bravery and heroism of indigenous fighters. He identifies some dissenting news reports that recognized indigenous warriors as engaged in a just defense of their homelands. He notes an article in a Launceston newspaper by an author named “J. E.” who stated the following:

What we call their crime is what in a white man we should call patriotism. Where is the man amongst ourselves who would not resist an invading enemy; who would not avenge the murder of his parents, the ill-usage of his wife and daughters, the spoliation of all his earthly goods, by a foreign enemy, if he had the opportunity?

Recognizing Aboriginal warriors as patriots defending their nations can strengthen an argument for indigenous sovereignty. Reynolds drives home his point in arguing that institutions such as the Australian War Memorial should commemorate indigenous combatants and the hundred thousand indigenous dead as combatants in a colonial war.

Settler Colonialism

Despite its many strengths, Truth-Telling suffers from a lack of analysis of colonial settler capitalism. Ultimately, settlers drove Aboriginal people from the land to commodify it and generate market profits through grazing and agriculture. This helps to explain the legal frameworks that governed settlement. It also undermines Reynolds’s view that better laws (or a more consistent application of existing ones) would have lessened the impact of colonization.

For example, Reynolds compares Australia unfavorably to other settler colonies in North America. When he refers approvingly to Canada’s stronger native title provisions, Reynolds implies a certain disregard for the logic of settler colonialism in general.

This is apparent when he turns to the question of whether an alternative was possible. When the colony of South Australia was legally established in 1834, Reynolds notes that the Colonial Office, under a reformist British parliament, raised doubts about British sovereignty over Australia’s interior. However, the problem wasn’t an ill-conceived understanding of indigenous sovereignty.

By establishing colonial settler states, the British had unleashed a genocidal logic. It’s hard to see how recognizing indigenous sovereignty would have restrained this. As Reynolds himself notes, British misgivings were quickly overridden when overlanders and squatters arriving from New South Wales brought the brutality of the frontier wars to South Australia.

The first section of Truth-Telling closes with a long discussion of treaties, which Reynolds believes could have forestalled much of the violence. Reynolds condemns the British for turning their back on a tradition of treaty-making developed in North America and elsewhere. In his view, treaties between sovereign indigenous nations and the new Australian colonies might have provided a degree of mutual respect, restraining settler violence and securing land usage rights for Aboriginal people.

Leaving aside the importance of demanding a treaty between Australia and its First Nations today, a wider view of settler colonial capitalism undermines Reynolds’s case for historic treaties. In practice, treaties between very unequal powers rely solely on the goodwill of the stronger power.

Perhaps treaties might have lessened the degree of cultural loss. But it’s just as important to recognize that settlers have historically used treaties as a tool of dispossession. United States and Canadian history is littered with broken and coerced treaties that saw Native Americans surrender their land only to be pushed by colonizers into impoverished reserves at great loss of life and culture.

Reckoning With the Historical Wrong

Despite the controversy surrounding it, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has led to a widespread reconsideration of Aboriginal people’s agricultural practices prior to invasion. This has bolstered support for indigenous land rights. Truth-Telling sets out to provoke a similar rethinking of the political organization and sovereignty of Australia’s First Nations peoples. Reynolds makes his case particularly powerful by placing indigenous resistance front and center, suggesting it should be understood as a patriotic defense of their homelands.

The timing is important, too. Although the Australian government enshrined limited land rights through the Mabo decision in 1992, Aboriginal people still experience deep poverty, racism, and dispossession. Aboriginal people face far higher rates of death in custody, and their culture is regularly destroyed with impunity.

Australia’s shift away from a pastoral economy and toward mining has not halted the destruction of Aboriginal lands. At the same time, the movement for Aboriginal sovereignty has grown, with historically significant Invasion Day protests every year.

By powerfully confirming the positions taken by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Henry Reynolds, has also highlighted the need to push further. Truth-telling is a precondition for genuine justice. But a complete act of truth-telling would also require holding Australian settler colonialism fully to account.

For nonindigenous Australia, a change of heart, of consciousness and of understanding is necessary, of course. But empathy won’t be enough to redress such a vast historic wrong.

It’s a worthwhile goal to pressure the Australian War Memorial to commemorate Aboriginal people who died in the frontiers war. And constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples may be a step forward. But without deeper, structural change, they are likely to be cosmetic changes only.

Indeed, Truth-Telling’s account of genocide and Aboriginal sovereignty raises the questions of reparations and decolonization. It doesn’t just indict colonial-era Australia — it strikes at the heart of contemporary Australia, a state whose logic is still premised on European colonial settler capitalism.