Kristyn Harman interviews Stephen Gapps, author of Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance – The Bathurst War, 1822–1824 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2021).
Congratulations on the publication of Gudyarra, Stephen! It’s interesting to see that you’ve chosen to use the Wiradyuri word for ‘war’ as the title for your book. What informed your choice? And what connotations do you think this might have for readers?
I think it’s important to acknowledge languages when writing about histories that include First Nations people and places. I think it’s time for non-Indigenous Australians to learn more about the languages from the Country they live on, and even begin to learn them. I’m inspired by recent efforts in dual place naming such as Mount Panorama – Wahluu (not only famous for the Bathurst Races but now the cultural significance of the place to Wiradyuri people) and the Macquarie River – Bila Wambool at Bathurst. I was also inspired by Anita Heiss’s River of Dreams – Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray that so deftly weaves Wiradyuri language into a story in English, without fuss and often leaving the reader to work out the meaning of the Wiradyuri word – which it is not hard to do in the context of the story. I believe, despite any reluctance from publishers who often seem to think introducing language will annoy readers, that writers and historians should make efforts to include language. It seems to me a small effort that can produce a great amount of respect and acknowledgement.
I also wanted to get across what I think is an important point about our understanding of war in colonial Australia. There has been a narrative that in effect is that the Frontier Wars were not real wars, and so too that Aboriginal people did not, or could not, conduct full-scale warfare. I think this is slowly being shown in a different light by historians striving to understand how warriors adapted traditional warfare into anti-colonial resistance. Using the Wiradyuri term for ‘war’ for me highlights what I see as in effect a declaration of war in 1823 where Wiradyuri people completely broke off contact with the colonists and when they were attacking them declared they would ‘murra gerund’ or ‘tumble down white fellows’ – kill all the white men.
A lot of archival research sits behind your narrative, as does time spent on country. Did being on Country change some of the ways in which you read archival documentation about the Bathurst War? If so, how?
It most certainly did. I knew that this was important. With my previous Frontier Wars book The Sydney Wars, I was already very familiar with that landscape – the Cumberland Plain and the Blue Mountains. But not so the Central West – beyond the Oberon region and some of the Wollemi area and of course the goldfields tourism sites. So I made sure I dedicated a lot of time going to all the places I was writing about. And I always camped out. A lot of time was spent driving and camping – but it was very much worth it. It did change the way I read the historical information.
Two examples spring to mind. I had read about the abandonment of the Swallow Creek Government Stock Station due to Wiradyuri attacks in 1823. During my travels I was shown a prominent rock outcrop on a ridge line by a Wiradyuri man. Only when standing there did I realise it was a perfect vantage point for watching the Swallow Creek valley below, as well as monitoring the way into Swallow Creek from Bathurst. Suddenly it made sense to me why, when the station was reoccupied by government stockworkers, it again came under attack a day or so later.
So too I was shown Church Hill near Blayney by Wiradyuri descendant Lisa Paton (then working at Orange Aboriginal Land Council) and realised the terrain had a lot to add to the (always limited) historical archive. From this vantage point you can see the prominent peaks long distances away. It then began to make sense to me that the attacks on outstations that occurred over vast distances within days of each other in mid-1824 could easily have been communicated from such peaks. Suddenly, I could understand how the historical records of attacks across the region made sense across the landscape.
Australia’s frontier wars have sometimes been represented as skirmishes between convict servants and Aboriginal people, yet in Gudyarra you reveal a more complex set of historical actors, including cows, sheep, horses, soldiers, militias, Aboriginal guides, and mounted police. How might a broader appreciation of the array of colonial actors change our understanding of these armed conflicts?
I’m so glad you include cows, sheep and horses as actors alongside soldiers, guides and others. When I did an indexing search of ‘cows’ and ‘cattle’ they are the most numerous terms in the book. I think this is really very important and not peripheral to the colonisers – these animals were the advance guard, if you like, of colonisation itself, and they were a critical and contested food supply as well. I think there has been a great deal of misunderstanding of the role of sheep and cattle in colonisation – they were not so much the destroyers of grass, creeks and rivers (in this early period at least) that we think pushed out traditional food sources. Rather, they were a new economic resource that Wiradyuri people took up – but one that could never be accepted by colonists as there was almost no concept that culling the odd sheep or cow was a tolerable loss for the occupation of someone’s lands. In many cases on the frontier it was the killing of cattle and sheep that led to reprisal killings by colonists of Aboriginal people and spiralled into war. Sadly, as I recount in Gudyarra, property often held a higher value for colonists than the lives of Wiradyuri people.
While there were numerous British soldiers stationed in the Australian colonies from 1788 until 1870, there seems to be little archival evidence surviving to detail what these soldiers were doing while on active duty. To what extent does archival silence skew historians’ understandings of soldiers’ roles in the frontier wars?
It is true there is little historical evidence of the activities of British soldiers on garrison duty in particular. But I think this archival silence has led to a deal of speculation about what the military did during this period, and tended toward over-emphasising their role in many conflicts. In Bathurst, for example, it was not the military who fought and massacred Wiradyuri people, but armed settlers and convicts who often set out in what can only be called massacre parties – intent on killing any Aboriginal people they came across. The great military-led sweep across the Bathurst region after the declaration of martial law failed to contact any ‘enemy’ Wiradyuri at all. Yet colonists such as ex-Sergeant Miller later described how he led a mounted and heavily armed party of colonists to destroy any Wiradyuri they met.
The role of the military in Bathurst at least was for me a question more about how complicit they were in allowing these massacre parties, or at least not doing anything about them, and in effect covering up killings by failing to report them. This is where a key archival silence around the military seems to lie. If one later report by the Missionary Lancelot Threlkeld is correct, it seems the Military Commandant at Bathurst may well have confiscated the heads of Wiradyuri people brought into the settlement by these massacre parties and taken them to the UK to sell.
In a similar vein, Australia’s frontier wars have been represented as localised conflicts between small groups of Aboriginal people and British colonists. Yet you have shown in Gudyarra that at times large warbands comprising people, including women, from numerous Aboriginal groups came together to fight against the invaders. How might recognition of such warbands change our understandings of conflicts such as the Wiradyuri war of resistance?
Understanding the role of what we might call ‘warbands’ as military units is I believe critical in understanding the warfare during Australia’s colonial resistance wars. Indeed, understanding the adaptation of systems of traditional Aboriginal warfare has until recently been limited. Historians such as Angus Murray and Ray Kerkhove in particular are asking us to think about the military organisation and tactics of warriors – and one element of this is how a family, clan or several allied clan groups were, in times of total war, all involved in conflict.
Traditional alliances were formed in resistance warfare, and there are examples of traditional enmities being left aside as well. The numbers of Wiradyuri warbands were regularly reported as being in the hundreds – and that was usually only reporting the male warriors, not the entire warband group. When thousands of warriors are allied in a state of war, as was the case in 1824 in Bathurst, attacking colonists on multiple fronts and locations across a vast area, the idea of ‘small, localised’ conflict soon dissipates.
You’ve highlighted how it suited British colonists to see Wiradyuri people and other Aboriginal peoples as being not at all warlike. Why is it so important to dispel this lingering myth in Australia today?
I think it is important to highlight the complexities of what ‘war’ meant, and means, in both colonial society and Aboriginal societies. As the Wiradyuri showed, the idea of total war was not anathema to them. Yet traditional Aboriginal society placed a strong emphasis on protocols and ways of avoiding all-out conflict. I think we need to carefully consider how colonists may have wanted to view Aboriginal people as not ‘warlike’ in order to suggest they were better off being colonised, and how contemporary ideas of war being brought upon Aboriginal people may lead to thinking they were always peaceful. The difference lies I think in conquest, in colonisation. The Wiradyuri seem to have generally accepted, if not welcomed the Europeans from 1815 to 1821, but when the juggernaut of the land rush and massive numbers of sheep and cattle were pushed onto Wiradyuri Country from 1821, the calls by Wiradyuri people to ‘tumble down white fellow’ can only be seen as all-out resistance to the invasion of their lands, or resistance war. If we don’t recognise this as resistance warfare today, we fail to understand these historical calls; what I believe were in effect declarations of war, to ‘tumble down white fellows’.
You have mentioned that there are currently no monuments to the Bathurst War. Is there any impetus locally on the part of Wiradyuri and/or the descendants of British colonists to see any such monument erected?
At a recent talk I gave at Bathurst, several Wiradyuri people called for greater recognition of the Bathurst War in the district. But they did not want to see statues of Aboriginal warriors erected, rather, different forms of commemoration. In the broader community there appears to be a growing momentum for the recognition of the Bathurst War as part of the history of the Central West of NSW, but the shape and form of this commemoration is still to be played out in the lead up to the 200th anniversary of the declaration of martial law west of the Blue Mountains in 2024. And it may well be something that is not a replication of colonial or modern monuments, but takes new forms based in ancient knowledge. As Wiradyuri Elder Uncle Bill Allen junior said about what shape commemoration of the Bathurst War should take, a memorial reserve is what he would like to see.