Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony 1788–1817 

NewSouth (2018),  432pp, ISBN 9781742232140, p/bk, RRP: $34.99

Recent years have seen the publication of a good deal of compellingly sensitive histories of the early years of British invasion and settlement in and around Warrane or Sydney Cove. Historians have been attracted to the possibilities inherent in stories of mutual misunderstanding and grasping negotiation, moving us towards a new national origin story, one that has emphasised entanglement and accommodation on a middle ground that was tragically to be overtaken by conflict as the British expanded, invading the hinterland and engaging in a series of increasingly brutal frontier wars.

In The Sydney Wars, Stephen Gapps derides these early moments of possibility and instead urges us to consider Sydney as both the site and the stake of a war that raged almost from the very beginning. He reminds us that the sound of gunfire formed the regular background music of the early colony and shows us the ways the terrain of the emerging city shaped the war, as well as the ways the British tried to mould patterns of settlement and occupation to transform both territory and the balance of violent force. This allows him to tell a different story of Australian origins, one that foregrounds a conflict that stems from the British drive to conquer land and Aboriginal refusal to cede it.

Covering the first three decades of British invasion and settlement on the Cumberland Plain, Gapps provides us with a meticulous account of almost incessant military conflict. He traces the ebb and flow of the wars that raged across the Sydney basin, exploring changing tactics and methods, and the development of military knowledge and technologies. British officers at the time, he reminds us, understood themselves to be under attack, to be at war. Why has this perspective since been pushed aside? One wonders what precisely is at stake in telling this story of war rather than accommodation, conflict rather than conciliation. There are, I think, three notes on approaching this critical period in the history of Sydney that we can derive from this book.

First, Gapps shows us the benefit of a practice of reading (or re-reading) the early British manuscripts, journals, and diaries of Sydney for evidence of Indigenous military tactics that the men who were there were unable or unwilling to acknowledge. By reading with a military historian’s facility with the mechanics of armed conflict he is able to describe a war that featured parties whose military strength was unequal, but not radically so; the British were aware that, at times in the first decades of their occupation of Sydney, Aboriginal warriors held the capacity to destroy the growing town.

Second, he places the militant actions of individuals or groups into the larger context of conflict over land and sovereignty. Gapps discusses the tactics of Aboriginal warriors as they changed over time, emphasising their agency and resistance along with their considered approach to warfare. And settlers who attacked the Sydney people are similarly placed in the context of the war. The distinction between redcoats or a ‘posse’ of white convicts, each of whom may have skirmished or killed groups of the Sydney people, appears only as minor, or secondary. More formal military forces may have drawn on their prior counterinsurgency experience in Ireland, North America, and India, but we are reminded that whatever the nature of the orders they followed, both formal and informal British forces formed part of the same enterprise of making the land available for white settlement.

And third, Gapps implicitly makes an important claim about colonisation and the appropriate genre for representing its depredations. While I found his continual dismissals of what he terms ‘cultural history’ to be a little grating, Gapps’ insistence that violence was not tragedy but inevitability is nonetheless compelling. This kind of account boils the colonisation of Sydney down to its essence. Conflict stems, as he quotes Pattyegorang telling William Dawes in 1790, from the fact that ‘white men are settled here’. Similarly, at a meeting with Bennelong and others, David Collins was informed by the Sydney people of their anger that ‘wherever our colonists fix themselves, the natives are obliged to leave that part of the country’. The outbreak of open conflict between the British and the Sydney people should be represented, then, not as a tragic story of possibilities frustrated but—to the extent that the British had come to stay—as a story of predictable and unavoidable war.

This story of Sydney is important because in many ways it established a template for what was to follow across the continent. This is a local history, but also a national and imperial one. The Sydney Wars is a valuable contribution to the way we understand both the history of the early years of British settlement in Sydney and the way we consider Australian origins.

Visit the NewSouth Books website: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/sydney-wars/

Reviewed by 

Dr Ben Silverstein

Australian National University

July 2018

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