The Statistics of Frontier Conflict
by Richard Broome
What Can Statistics Tell Us about Frontier Violence?
The recent events of September 11 tell us clearly that statistics matter. Atrocious killings or disasters occur around the globe every hour, every day, but the large-scale one arrests us more. Indeed, there has been some anxiety in the United States as the World Trade Centre death toll has fallen, from 6,000 to 3,300 as the weeks progress. Some Americans have felt that perhaps the tragedy will be diminished. However, most have taken the view, it seems, that it does not matter if it is 6,000 or half that. As Jennifer Lerner, an academic psychologist in Pittsburg remarked: once you are 'beyond the threshold where you count individuals', the exact number does not affect the psychological experience of the tragedy. September 11 will remain a metaphor of fanaticism and terror, whatever the exact figure, because more than just a handful died and because of the egregious plan that was acted out. So it is with the frontier violence statistics in Australia. In the end, it does not matter if it was two or three thousand whites killed on the frontier or ten, fifteen or twenty thousand indigenous people who were killed. We are repelled by the disproportionate power of the combatants, by the barbarity of the face of battle, and by the acts of massacre on both sides that punctuated a more general killing. Violence was a marker of the Australian frontier, as whites killed blacks, blacks killed whites and blacks killed each other in the disruptions of invasion.
We will of course never know exactly how many were killed on the frontier, because of the nature of the evidence. No only was the f rontier beyond rigorous dministrative, policing and judicial systems, by definition and in practice, but it was at the hard end of colonial life as many settlers struggled to make a go of their life's resources in psychologically threatening surroundings. And the issue of violence led people to be secretive and wary of what they said or recorded. Added to this are the problems of cross-cultural understandings of the law. Also, there is a lack of records left by both sides, especially Aboriginal informants, although some oral history remains that must be scrutinised. However, despite the problems of sources, but touched on here, there is still a considerable amount of material to make judgements about the statistics of frontier violence.
What Estimates have been made about Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Violent Deaths and How Satisfactory are the Methodologies?
Estimates of frontier deaths are as old as the frontier itself. From the first moments on the Hawkesbury, settlers began to count the cost and send tallies to governors calling for action against Aboriginal attackers. Aboriginal people soon protested to officials and protectors about the violence practised against them by settlers. However, as histories began to be written in the late nineteenth century and the dispossession was rationalised, estimates of frontier deaths became vague or non-existent. What Stanner has termed the 'Great Australian Silence' ensured that little was said. Over the years a few outspoken writers like Clive Turnbull in his Black War (1948) chronicled Aboriginal deaths. The Australian Encyclopaedia in its 1963 edition, contained over a hundred pages on Aboriginal people, including a statement by Norman Tindale that 'many Aborigines were killed in clashes with settlers'. However, he attributed their demographic fall mostly to 'considerable' losses through disease and especially 'mental and spiritual' decline. An unsigned 5,000 word article on 'Conflict with Aborigines' in the same edition described five large-scale killings - three by blacks, two by whites and many incidents predominantly of black aggression and 'guerrilla warfare' against whites. It gave several regional estimates of violence.
Charles Rowley in his seminal The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), produced the first continental approach to Aboriginal history and fathered a new genre of history. Rowley was also among the first to rediscover frontier violence and the Aboriginal resistance to invasion, which had been bowderlised from texts. He wrote that 'no real allowance has been made for the extreme violence of the treatment of the Aboriginal; for the facts are easily enough established that homocide, rape, and cruelty have been commonplace over wide areas and long periods'. However, given the state of knowledge in 1970 he believed 'it is very difficult even to guess at the scale of violence.
Ten years on, in his pathfinding work into Aboriginal perspectives, the Other Side of the Frontier (1981), Henry Reynolds devoted two chapters to the frontier conflict around the continent, exploring Aboriginal motives and objectives, tactics and traditions. He asked what was the cost of this warfare that was fought sporadically across the continent over 150 years. It was a question, he rightly suggested, 'which white Australians have rarely posed and never satisfactorily answered'. The emergence of scholarly Aboriginal history in the late 1970s, which produced regional studies, meant that Reynolds could now attempt what Rowley could not. Reynolds set about adding up detailed death counts by Ryan, Christie, Prentis, Green and his own work with Noel Loos, which covered five regions: Tasmania, Victoria, north-eastern New South Wales, south-western Western Australia, and Queensland. On the basis of this partial coverage, Reynolds estimated that 'somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 Europeans' were killed in the frontier clashes across the continent.
But how did he approach the count of Aboriginal deaths through violence? Reynolds understandably found this extremely difficult, but appears to have decided that to ignore the question was to slip back into the 'Great Australian Silence'. To estimate Aboriginal deaths Reynolds again turned to the regional studies. From these, he suggested that 'for the continent as a whole it is reasonable to suppose that at least 20,000 Aborigines were killed as a direct result of conflict with the settlers'. He implicitly rather than explicitly used a method of applying a ten to one inter-racial fatality ratio of black to white violent deaths. He pointed to the discrepancies in regional death tolls, especially between Tasmania, where the ratio was about four black deaths to every white death, while his own work suggested it was ten to one in Queensland. Reynolds highlighted that setters in Tasmania lacked horses, breech-loading and multi-shot weapons, unlike those on northern frontiers. In his Frontier (1987), Reynolds estimated that perhaps '3000 settlers died and 3000 were wounded in Australia as a whole', up from '2000 to 2500' in his earlier book. Of Aboriginal deaths he maintained his earlier 'informed guess' of 20 000, adding, that it may be 'too low'.
My own work, Aboriginal Australians (1982), which was in press at the time The Other Side of the Frontier emerged, argued that the European death toll 'was probably somewhere between 1000 and 1500' and using Reynolds and Loos' ten to one Queensland ratio set out in their 1976 article, suggested the Aboriginal deaths might have been 'about 20,000, yet it could be much more'. In 1984, after apparently much debate, the Board of the Australian War Memorial agreed to include a chapter on frontier war in the book edited by Michael McKernan and Margaret Browne, Australian. Two Centuries of War and Peace (1988). I was invited to author a 12,000 word continental survey of the clashes on the frontier, which I titled the 'Struggle for Australia'. I surveyed fighting in broad regions and times zones across the continent, to assess changing military tactics and technology, to engage with the face of frontier fighting, and to count the cost of the violence. Regarding European deaths I was able to find close counts for eight regions, the five Reynolds used (somewhat refined), and counts for incomplete areas of northern Western Australia, western Northern Territory and New England in New South Wales. To this tally of 1,280 I added estimates of 120, 150 and 150 for South Australia and the remainder of the New South Wales and the Northern Territory respectively, making 1700 in all, which I suggested might be 1800 allowing for unrecorded deaths of about 1 in 20. I wrote that further research might verify a 'total around 2000'. I then discussed the range of regional black-white death ratios around the country, ranging from four to one in the sparsely populated Tasmania, through ten to one in the heavily black-populated Queensland to forty to one in sparsely populated Gippsland. I decided on ten to one as a likely average ratio, in the light of the claim by Noel Loos that his ten to one ratio in heavily Aboriginal-populated north Queensland might be 'so conservative as to be misleading' and yet there were ratios in other regions, which seemed to be 'well below 10 to 1'. Thus, I concluded that a ten to one ratio 'gives an Aboriginal death toll of 18 000 to 20,000'.
I then made another calculation, which Keith Windshuttle in his November Quadrant article stated was an 'extraordinary' mathematical formula of 'how to reach the figure of 20,000'. However, I had merely sought to understand if the figures of '18 000 to 20 000' were at all possible, not to calculate. I opened this paragraph with the words, 'is this figure feasible?' I then pondered what 20 000 deaths meant on average for each group in terms of Tindale's estimate of 586 Aboriginal cultural-linguistic groups in Australia at contact. The average of 34 deaths did not suggest that 20 000 was a wild estimate.
Windshuttle's also reviewed my article on 'massacres' in the Oxford Companion to Australian History (OCAH). He was silent on my warnings, which occupied half the article, about exaggerating massacre and accepting colonial gossip. I argued this diminished Aboriginal people into victims and 'threatens to dominate our understanding of the frontier, obscuring other themes'. These points are elaborated in my 1994 article 'Aboriginal Victims and Voyagers. Confronting Aboriginal Myths', listed in the entry, and which he does not seem to have read. Indeed, Windshuttle appears to misread part of my OCAH entry, claiming that it 'completely omits any mention of the mass killing of Europeans by Aborigines'. Yet the necessarily condensed 800-word article contains the sentence: 'Politicised views of massacre have also obscured instances of black massacres of whites, and all-Aboriginal (inter-se) killings'.
No other historians of Aboriginal history have attempted a continent-wide analysis of the frontier fatalities. Some writers have made inordinate claims, such as Bruce Elder's 100,000 Indigenous death tally. The lack of new estimates is not 'collusive', as Windshuttle asserts, but is due to the lack of additional exact regional counts to refine the estimates. Dick Kimber has given a rough figure of 500-1000 deaths in the Northern Territory between 1871 and 1894 but it is not as yet a close count. Clearly there are great difficulties with such continental estimates, without more studies and given what I have said about the sources in section one. Windshuttle's view is that: 'until we have much better evidence, it is impossible to say and historians should eschew the temptation. To guess at or make up figures is irresponsible. To do so is to fail the historian's duty to his profession, to his readers and to the people whose lives he is portraying'.
I will argue at the end of this paper why continent-wide estimates should continue to be attempted. But first I want to pursue the Victorian figures more closely to discuss the nuances fought over by historians of Aboriginal history. This is because Keith Windshuttle has attacked their efforts, accusing them of 'collusion', adding that: 'fabricated and exaggerated Aboriginal massacres have become accepted as historical fact because of the sloppy work of Australian historians'. It is also important because it is upon regional and colonial counts, that continent-wide estimates rest.
In 1979 Michael Christie published his PhD, an important regional study of colonial Victoria to 1886, which among other achievements, ended the myth of a peaceful European penetration of Victoria and Aboriginal passivity. Christie revealed significant frontier violence but failed to cover the equally important cultural resistance and accommodation, practised by Aboriginal people. He also assumed Aboriginal motivation and overemphasised the power of the muzzle-loading rifle. And, despite his impressive archival work, when it came to given a colonial count for frontier violence, he avoided a grass-roots count because he believed there was a significant under-reportage of frontier killings. Instead, Christie accepted the estimate of Edward Curr, a former pastoralist and author of The Australian Race (1886-87), an ethnographic work, that between fifteen and twenty-five per cent of Aboriginal people had died through white violence across Australia. Taking the higher level without justification, Christie claimed 2,000 Aborigines in Victoria died from white violence, based on a 8,000 loss of life in the frontier period. Christie also claimed in his thesis that 200 whites were killed on the Victorian frontier.
In a review of his book in 1980 I criticised Christie's figures of Aboriginal deaths, on the grounds of method, since it was derived from the top end of Curr's 1888 estimate and not from the archives he scoured. I also suspected it was too high. Beverley Nance wrote an important reply to Christie in 1981, which explored the Aboriginal motives for violence, which Christie had found unproblematic. Nance counted European deaths at 59, which she claimed was a very reliable figure. She wondered, given that there were about 200 inter-se deaths, why Aborigines killed more Aboriginal people than whites. Her answer is a fascinating exploration of the Aboriginal connection between deaths and sorcery, a chain of connection between Aboriginal people of which Europeans were not a part. Nance also claims that the number of Aboriginal deaths was about 400, one fifth of that claimed by Christie. However, Nance does not say how she came to that figure. Her excellent MA thesis, on which this article is based, was somewhat misnamed as 'The Aboriginal Response to White Settlement in the Port Phillip District, 1835-1850', as it is about Melbourne and central Victoria. Therefore it is not authoritative on Gippsland, the Western District and north-western Victoria. Thus, as Nance's fine article has not extended the research base of the thesis, her claim of 400 was probably too low.
Research on the Western District from the late 1980s has added to the findings of Peter Corris' pioneering 1968 study. Corris had counted 159 Aboriginal deaths and over 20 European deaths in the Western District. In 1990, Jan Critchett published A Distant Field of Murder. Western District Frontiers 1834-1848, from her PhD research. The book contained in two detailed appendices, fatal incidents against both Europeans and Aborigines, listing 33 and 68 respectively. These are careful counts indeed. Keith Windshuttle states of Critchett's: she 'counts a total of 200 Aborigines' killed by whites. Critchett in fact listed 257 known deaths. To this she added legitimate estimates for the known mass killings at the Convincing Ground, and by both Taylor and the Whyte brothers, and several other incidents, arguing that 330, possibly 350 Aboriginal people were killed, as opposed to 35 Europeans. It is more than interesting that this careful count produces a ratio of about ten black violent deaths to one white death. Windshuttle also says 'there were only three events that involved mass killings', while Critchett's list actually contains 13 killings of over five people (five being a reasonable definition of 'mass'). Critchett adds that only five Europeans faced trial for the 68 incidents listed. (Critchett, p. 130-132 and appendices 2 and 3.) However, Windshuttle naively asserts, that 'ever since they were founded in 1788, the British colonies in Australia were civilised societies governed by both morality and laws that forbade the killings of the innocent.' This may have been the aspiration and the actuality in the towns, but the frontier was different, despite good government intentions. A study of the law in Port Phillip by Susan Davies has revealed how European prejudice, the Aboriginal inability to give evidence, language barriers, and cross-cultural misunderstandings rarely delivered British justice to Aboriginal defendants or victims.
In 1995, Ian Clark published Scars in the Landscape. A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803-1859. His book covered most of Western Victoria (but not the Murray Valley), an area larger than Critchett's Western District, which encompasses only land south of the Grampians. Clark listed 107 fatal incidents. Like Critchett's list, Clark's is complete with all known details and sources. However, he leaves additions to his readers. Fifty-five incidents, just over half the number, entailed one to three deaths, totalling 88 people. Another 19 incidents listed comprised between 5 and 10 deaths, and there were a further 13 incidents encompassing 11 or more deaths. Of those counted exactly, there were 331 Aboriginal deaths. There was also the Convincing Ground tally in which 'all but two of a clan' were killed, which Critchett counts reasonably as about sixty, making 391. Added to this also were six 'unknown' death tolls, and one labelled as 'dozens'. However, three of these incidents are imprecisely documented and should be discounted. Perhaps Clark's tally might approach 430. Clark's careful research does not quite match the word 'massacre' in the title, as not all the incidents were such, particularly the 29 single deaths and perhaps some with a tally of 2 or 3 deaths.
In his PhD thesis on Gippsland culture contact, Bain Attwood estimated Aboriginal deaths in Gippsland at 350, but later suggested it may be lower. There were also only six European deaths. Don Watson's Gippsland study, Caledonia Australia (1984), was published in the same year Attwood's thesis was completed. Watson did not count the toll by incidents, but discussed some of the alleged massacres. His account was in the tradition of Aboriginal victimology, arguing that the destruction of Kurnai society in Gippland was not 'inevitable', but rather gratuitous and grotesque'. Watson gave no overall figure but quoted Henry Meyrick's contemporary estimate of 450 killed  and high massacre counts without demur. Peter Gardner, a Gippsland local historian, has done assiduous archival research for his Gippsland Massacres, (1983, 1993) but like Watson, gives no overall counts or estimates, and tends to victimology as well.
What then might be the overall figure of Aboriginal deaths at the hands of whites in Victoria? Michael Christie who claimed 2,000 has an unsatisfactory method of working from an 1888 'guesstimate' percentage. The exhibition 'Koorie', by the Koorie Heritage Trust, which ran for a decade from 1988 at the Museum of Victoria accepted Christie's base figure and added 'many thousands more [who] died beyond prying eyes' to it. This has been critiqued in my 1994 article 'Aboriginal Victims and Voyagers. Confronting Frontier Myths'. While 'Koorie's' and Christie's estimates of more than 2000, are clearly too high, Nance's estimate of 400 is far too low, given that this number is closely counted in Western Victoria alone. Critchett gives 350 for just the Western District and Clark perhaps 430 for a larger area, but not all of Western Victoria. The Western Victoria figures, added to those of Gippsland give a figure of about 700 (taking Attwood's lower 250 estimate to be conservative). This excludes the Murray Valley and northeast Victoria and the fact that some deaths went unrecorded after seven settlers were hanged for the Myall Creek massacre. Thus one thousand is probably closer to the reality, a figure I suggested in 1988 and again in 1995. Indeed, the firm figure of 700 black deaths, which does not include two regions of Victoria, with 59 whites killed, gives a ratio of 12 to 1 for Victoria. A tally of one thousand violent black deaths at white hands in Victoria gives a ratio of 17 Aboriginal dead to every European. Both, especially the latter is higher than the 10 to one ratio applied nationally by Reynolds and me. The one thousand tally is about ten per cent of the Aboriginal population at settlement. Perhaps I was too sanguine when I suggested that the Victorian frontier 'was one of the least violent of frontiers'. Yet clearly most deaths were from the impact of disease, malnutrition and psychic disruption from European invasion.
This analysis of the Victorian material reveals the general carefulness of historians of frontier history, who respectfully debate issues and are mostly reflexive about their findings. The analysis also suggests that a ratio of ten to one is not unreasonable. Indeed, Victoria was between a ratio of12 and 17 black deaths to every 1 white death, and probably closer to the latter ratio, based on a thousand deaths. And, the Victorian frontier was still arguably less violent than some, for at least four reasons. Gun technology on this frontier, which had closed in almost all areas by 1850, was single shot and muzzle-loading guns. The native police force, with some expeditionary exceptions, was benign compared to the force found on northern frontiers. Thirdly, the Port Phillip District was unique in having a serious (albeit inadequate) protective effort, which meant that settlers were more under the eye of colonial officials, with instructions from London to try and apply British justice to Aboriginal people. Fourthly, racial ideas hardened after the 1850s, due to dominant ideologies about difference, shifting from environmental to racial explanations, and also due to a loss of optimism due to the apparent fading away of Aboriginal people.
Do Statistics Provide an Adequate Indication of the Extent of Frontier Conflict? Is it better to ignore them?
The statistics of frontier violence are certain to be inaccurate as the historical record is by nature fragmentary, and the records of the frontier and of violence are markedly so. Indeed most statistics are debatable. Do we for one moment think that the census, as careful as it now is, counts every last person on census night, and that all answers to the census are correct? Thus, we need other measures of historical phenomena than the qualitative. We can only fully understand the frontier and its violent face by reading the letters of settlers, the reports of missionaries and government officials, and the memories of settler and Aboriginal descendants. Settlers could be violent to each other, to the fauna and bird life they shot for the freedom of it, to the land they overstocked, levelled and chopped out with little thought, and the Aboriginal people they pushed aside in the name of their God-given right to go forth, multiply and make the land fruitful. Violence to Aboriginal people, while not the only human relationship that existed on the frontier, was a significant marker of the struggle to win the land.
In Port Phillip in the 1840s, settlers' letters and diaries recorded the mood of the frontier. In 1839 at the height of the troubles, Niel Black of the Western District said new pastoral stations could be won if 'the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left'. David Wilson on the Upper Werribee River in 1840 despaired of the frontier, where people 'lose all regards to religion and learn too many bad habits'. Yet facing debt from scabby sheep and Aboriginal raids, he wrote that Aborigines: 'one link removed from the ourang outang' should be extirpated, as they were 'unworthy of life'. Henry Meyrick, condemned frontier killing, especially of women and children, yet said he would shoot an Aboriginal man killing his sheep. The frontier was an extraordinary place where British law and order struggled to assert itself, vainly at times. As Richard Howitt the colonial commentator wrote: 'In colonies, men cast off their disguises. Consequently every kind of monstrosity and villainy display themselves in all their hideous nakedness colonially'.
For this reason he stayed in Heidleberg in the early 1840s to avoid as he put it, 'the disagreeable situation of killing or being killed by such hideous creatures' as Aborigines, who were 'still after all, human beings'. While Howitt might be operating on town hearsay, Wilson and Black were on the frontier. The Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson often caught frontier voices as he journeyed around Victoria. In Portland in 17 May 1841 he took tea with Messrs Henty and Blair. Henty related the story of the Convincing Ground fight. Blair expressed his disgust at their nakedness and wondered if they were really human. Then he added, so Robinson recorded, 'he knew what he would do if he was governor. He would send down the soldiers and if they did not deliver up the murdered he would shoot the whole tribe'.
Can we then ignore statistics? No certainly not, if only for the reason that we live in a scientifically-based culture awash with statistics. Everyone and everything is measured. Some measurements are exact like rainfall statistics, the price movements of the stock market, cricket statistics or those of the road toll listed in the Age each day. Other statistics are much more imprecise like those concerning the incidence of crime, but they are counted, listed and are accorded significance in any case. Others like economic indicators lead to estimations, which shape economic policy. These are not economists' lies and fantasies, but careful and honest attempts to judge the mood of the economy. The statistics of frontier violence share the characteristics of all the above. At times they are as precise as a rain gauge, but more often that not, they mirror modern crime statistics, which depend on the level of reportage and detection, itself subject to many factors.
Above all, frontier statistics give broad indications like economic forecasts, and like these, can be mistaken. But economists are sincere professionals, as are historians of the frontier, who make honest attempts to represent the past. Historical writing demands accuracy and evidence. But our readers demand in the end the 'big picture', a generalisation. So if we write about the frontier, then we are expected to come up with a number. This has led to 'guesstimates' but not the attempt to 'deceive' and 'fabricate' that Keith Windshuttle has asserted. Henry Reynolds in his Other Side of the Frontier, when discussing continental death tolls, hedges his estimates with phrases such as 'intelligent guess'; 'it seems reasonable to suggest'; and 'reasonable to suppose'; all signs for his readers as to what is occurring. Similarly I used such words as: 'difficult to assess'; 'there are no certainties': 'estimates are made for such unknowns', to sent clear signals that these were estimates based on case studies and transparent methodology. In the face of readers' expectations for generalisations, historians cannot stay silent, but must qualify and make clear what they do. Generally this has been the case, especially as many historians are more reflexive about their work today than their forbears.