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Review: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930

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

Published onNov 28, 2022
Review: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930

Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930

Project Directors
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

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Jennifer Guiliano, IUPUI

Project Overview

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.

The website has been effective in engaging the public in Australia and globally through the use of a clear, simple map that tells a story at a glance, conveying unequivocally the central message that there were a great many massacres on the frontier and that these were disproportionately of Australia’s Indigenous people. While the site uses commonplace and open standard technologies, such as Keyhole Markup Language (KML) and JavaScript mapping application programmer interfaces (APIs), the innovation lies in the intersection of these technologies with history methodology, public scholarship, and ethics. The site encourages people to relate at a personal level with the events beyond statistics. The timeline allows users to see the pattern of massacres as the frontier expanded over more than 150 years, to find sites of particular interest to them, such as those close to where they live or grew up; and to access more detail including a 3D terrain view, a short narrative, and links to online primary sources. 

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

Project Review

Jennifer Guiliano

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. 

Built using KML, an eXtensible markup language (XML) for geographical visualization, and JavaScript APIs within the ESRI mapping software, the base of the project is exhaustive research completed in state, territorial, and national archives; newspapers; and media works including film and art. Developed in four stages with the project currently in its last stage, the rendered map provides the primary way of navigating the project, with each geolocated marker representing an incident where six or more people were killed. When users click on a yellow marker, the associated box details the massacre site name, number of victims, number of attackers, dates of the massacre, and language group of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders involved in the incident. Expanding the box offers further information generated from the sources, including information about time of day, motives, any reprisals, weapons used, and a brief narrative of the events. Here, the extent of the work completed by the project team is evident in the more than twenty-two items within the data model that can be recorded by researchers. Each expanded record is also accompanied by a contemporary map showing the current site of the massacre. By a conservative estimate, the project dataset represents more than 1000 instances of massacres. The provided guide includes both a video walkthrough and a “how to use this map” step-by-step navigation of the project site which will assist new users.

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.

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