The best books on the Frontier Wars fought downunder

Who am I?

Kristyn Harman is an award-winning researcher who successfully completed doctoral research investigating the circumstances in which at least ninety Australian Aboriginal men were transported as convicts within the Australian colonies following their involvement in Australia’s frontier wars. She has published extensively on historical topics, and currently lectures in History at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. Having lived in both countries, Kristyn is fascinated by the different understandings that New Zealanders and Australians have of their nation’s respective pasts. She is particularly intrigued, if not perturbed, by the way in which most New Zealanders acknowledge their nation’s frontier wars, while many Australians choose to deny the wars fought on their country’s soil.


I wrote...

Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles

By Kristyn Harman,

Book cover of Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles

What is my book about?

Many people have heard about the tens of thousands of English and Irish convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies. Far fewer are aware that Australian Aboriginal men and Māori from New Zealand were also transported to, and within, these penal colonies. This book reveals for the first time how warriors were arrested and taken into custody following their involvement in the frontier wars fought across Australasia (Australia and New Zealand) between the British colonists and First Nations people, and also following frontier conflict at the Cape colony. Rather than being treated as prisoners of war, these warriors’ militant actions against the invaders were criminalised. After standing trial, a few were hanged. Others were sentenced to transportation. Most Aboriginal convicts died in custody. Very few survived to return home.

The books I picked & why

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The Australian Frontier Wars: 1788-1838

By John Connor,

Book cover of The Australian Frontier Wars: 1788-1838

Why this book?

Remarkable accounts from nineteenth-century newspapers, letters, and diaries reveal that most Australian colonists realized that their invasion of the vast continent whose fringes they inhabited was not unfolding peacefully. Warfare broke out between the white invaders and Aboriginal peoples as the frontier shifted further from the coastline, and it was not until 1870 that the last of the British soldiers left the Australian colonies. Shockingly, over time many descendants of the British chose to forget about Australia’s frontier wars and even denied that frontier conflict had ever taken place. John Connor’s book provides significant insights into the militarized Australian frontier from the time of first settlement in the late eighteenth century through until the late 1830s. It’s an important reminder about the struggles that took place as First Nations people contested the incursion of the British into what became Australia. Connor writes back clearly and concisely against notions of the peaceful settlement of the continent and dispenses with the myth that Aboriginal people were not organised fighters.


The Vandemonian War

By Nick Brodie,

Book cover of The Vandemonian War

Why this book?

Van Diemen’s Land is the former name for the island at the bottom of Australia now called Tasmania. The British who invaded the island changed the colony’s name after the place became infamous. Not only was it home to the British Empire’s most feared convict stations, but it also had a fearsome reputation as the location of one of the most brutal genocides in the Empire’s history. Nick Brodie draws on extensive, yet previously ignored, archival documents to refute the long-standing myth that the Vandemonian War was fought between hapless convict shepherds at the far reaches of the island colony and the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants. He demonstrates instead how this significant conflict was an orchestrated campaign in which the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony used military and para-military forces to prosecute his war against Aboriginal people. Ultimately, the British won the Vandemonian War and then purposefully covered up the military nature of their victory.


The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony, 1788-1817

By Stephen Gapps,

Book cover of The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony, 1788-1817

Why this book?

By the latter decades of the twentieth century, the so-called ‘history wars’ pitted those Australians who acknowledged the violent foundations of the Australian nation against others who denied that the frontier wars ever took place, and who advocated instead that Australians ought to celebrate the heroism of white colonists. The story of Australia’s founding as a nation starts in Sydney. It was the site of the initial encampment established by the British when they invaded a tiny area on the eastern edge of Australia in 1788, then claimed the entire east coast of the continent for the Crown. Stephen Gapps carefully analyzes a wide range of historical evidence to demonstrate how Sydney and its surrounding regions were the initial sites at which British and Aboriginal forces refined their military tactics during violent strategic encounters along the expanding frontier. These violent encounters set a pattern that played out, with local variations, over much of the remainder of the continent across the following decades.


The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806 – 1845

By R.D. (Ron) Crosby,

Book cover of The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806 – 1845

Why this book?

While many New Zealanders realize that frontier wars were fought following the country’s annexation by England in 1840, very few are aware of a series of bitterly contested battles that took place over the half-century prior to New Zealand becoming a crown colony. This book is significant as Ron Crosby reveals how, after Europeans began to visit the north of New Zealand, Māori traded with the newcomers. They grew food, and replenished supplies for whalers, timber getters, and even for missionaries in exchange for European trade goods that included muskets. Armed with muskets, Māori iwi (tribes) from the far north of New Zealand became well placed to go to war against other iwi with whom they had issues to resolve. Fueled by European technology, the resulting series of battles, referred to as the ‘musket wars’, saw more than 20,000 Māori killed prior to 1840. Many more were enslaved or became refugees.


The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa

By Vincent O’Malley,

Book cover of The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa

Why this book?

Just a few years after New Zealand became a British crown colony, armed conflict broke out in 1845 between representatives of the crown and local Māori. These frontier wars continued to be fought, particularly across New Zealand’s North Island, up until 1872. Understanding New Zealand in the present requires gaining an understanding of the New Zealand Wars. Vincent O’Malley’s book provides an insightful introduction to these complex conflicts. He explores in some detail what caused these conflicts, where and how the various battles that make up the wars were fought, and who might rightfully claim the various victories involved. O’Malley also usefully examines the consequences flowing from the New Zealand Wars. His book is richly illustrated with many evocative full color and black and white images depicting key participants, places, and moments in the New Zealand Wars.


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