A review of Colonial Frontier Massacres, an interactive web map of massacres on the Australian colonial frontier, developed by Lyndall Ryan, Bill Pascoe, and team
Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930
Lyndall Ryan, University of Newcastle, Australia
Jennifer Debenham, University of Sydney
Bill Pascoe, University of Newcastle, Australia
Robyn Smith, University of Newcastle, Australia
Chris Owen, University of Western Australia
Jonathan Richards, University of Queensland
Stephanie Gilbert, University of Queensland
Robert J. Anders, University of Tasmania
Kaine Usher, Freelance Software Engineer
Daniel Price, University of Sydney
Jack Newley, University of Newcastle, Australia
Mark Brown, TasFire
Le Hoang Le, University of Newcastle, Australia
Hedy Fairbairn, University of Newcastle, Australia
Jennifer Guiliano, IUPUI
Lydell Ryan and Bill Pascoe
Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930 is an interactive web map of massacres on the Australian colonial frontier providing access to details about each site, supporting evidence from historical sources, and interpretative context. It includes massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, colonizers, and others. This project aims to raise public awareness and provide reliable information about this much debated and contested topic in Australian history.
Combining rigorous, balanced research and methodology with primary sources that enable people to judge the veracity and nature of events for themselves has resulted in a valued and trusted resource in this “post-truth” era. The medium in which history is portrayed and told shifts from conventional prose narrative to visual interaction — the map itself tells the story. Previous maps of colonial massacres in Australia were incomplete, lacked supporting evidence and methodology, or used inappropriate symbolism.
The site is based on a lifetime of research by Professor Lyndall Ryan, and several years of ARC grant funded research for this project. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives were consulted and involved throughout the process at many levels, including formal sessions at Wollotuka and AIATSIS, feedback at conferences, casual conversations, and employment of Indigenous staff which influenced decisions about data structure, data availability and visualisation.
Since launching in 2017 the Colonial Frontier Massacres site receives hundreds of visitors daily. The site has had widespread interest in the media, including reporting in The New Yorker, The Guardian, ABC, BBC, NITV, and many regional news outlets. In collaboration with the Guardian's
“Killing Times,” the project received the 2019 Walkley Award for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs and the 2019 NSW Premier’s Digital History Prize. In national politics, it informed the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in the Australian Parliament.1 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been overwhelmingly supportive and it has been referred to on Reconciliation Australia’s website as part of the national Truth Telling process.2
Histories that seek to document Indigenous experiences throughout colonization often begin with the recognition that doing the work of writing about the Indigenous past requires engaging with issues of trauma, violence, authority, heartbreak, and survivance. For Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930, a digital project that seeks to “identify and record sites of frontier massacre of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across Australia from 1788 to 1930,” our starting point as visitors is not just a statement of acknowledgement of the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal Nation (the Aboriginal peoples who lived upon the land where the work of the project was completed) but also the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and peoples about whose experiences the projects seeks to explore. It also highlights how contemporary Indigenous communities have been shaped by these acts of violence. As British colonizers spread through Australia, they enacted a campaign of violence that relied upon violent massacres to disrupt Indigenous life and control Aboriginal resistance. The project method clearly distinguishes what constitutes a massacre from other instances of colonial violence. Addressing this topic through a map, timeline, bibliography, and links to digitized sources and visual representations, the project offers an elaborate, yet incomplete, way to understand how massacres functioned within colonial strategy.
Preliminary conclusions provided in the introduction, reached through this archival recovery and mapping project, details how massacres spread steadily across Australia. A twenty-year span (1820s-1840s) in the southeast of the continent, a ten year span (1860s-1870s) in Queensland, and one in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region in Western Australia (1890s) are revealed as peaks within the longitudinal analysis of massacres in Australia. Particularly compelling is the automated timeline function, which allows the viewer to visually see the episodes happen chronologically throughout the land. Less useful is the actual timeline tab, which renders the timeline data as a scrolling table. Users must scroll continuously to navigate with no ability to facet or limit the data dynamically.
The project notes that the general public serves as its primary audience. I can easily see future phases of work seeking to build out the educational components of the project. Contextual essays for particular events, or even of colonization in Australia, would be of great utility to non-specialist users, as would examples of lessons and other curricular materials that could help teachers incorporate the project within their classrooms.
As a digital historian, I admit my sadness that the project has not embraced making the project data available to other researchers so they could use and elaborate upon it. Users are welcomed to submit corrections; however, the utility of the project for a user’s own analysis with other digital tools is limited. I also wonder how decolonial methods might inform the work of the project in a more nuanced way. For example, the base map of the project utilizes the WGS 84/Pseudo-Mercator (EPSG:3857) map rather than the Map of Indigenous Australia or other Indigenous maps of the various periods, which the project itself notes are readily available. At minimum, I’d hope to see overlay options to decenter European cartography and foreground Indigenous ways of knowing. This would help decenter the notion that colonialization was a foregone conclusion and would subtly remind the viewer of the continuity of Indigenous places and peoples. Similarly, within the rendering of the data in the mapping and timeline, there is an opportunity to lead with Aboriginal place names for massacre events rather than to default to British-Australian place names. While these may seem minor quibbles that don’t impact the utility of the project for the viewer, these issues are not minor in terms of privileging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing. These changes would only bolster an excellent project that undoubtedly has use for scholars.