The Sydney Wars 1788-1817: bringing together the sources


Emma Dortins reviews Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars: conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, Sydney, NSW, NewSouth Publishing 2018.

The Sydney Wars, as its title suggests, brings under a single conceptual umbrella the conflicts between Aboriginal peoples of the Cumberland Plain and the British colonists. It spans  thirty years from the arrival of the First Fleet. Both the lens of war, and the geographical unit of the Cumberland Plain, yield a distinctive new view of this history as Eora, Dharug, Gandangarra, Dharawal and Darkinjung groups made complex patterns of movement both into and away from settlements the British pushed out across the region. Gapps writes as a historian with a particular interest in, and understanding of, military history. He pays attention to the integral role of military thinking in the British approach to the NSW colony, the evolving strategies of the Aboriginal groups he terms collectively ‘the Sydney people’, and a close attention to the detail of war-on-foot.

In his epilogue, Gapps wonders why it has taken so long for someone to write this history. He places part of the blame on other historians, who have become embroiled in histories of cross-cultural encounters, and entangled with the concept of inevitability. He implies that had more historians been attuned to military history, a more direct connection could have been made between the resistance histories of the 1970s and 1980s and a thoroughgoing history of the Sydney wars. As a somewhat entangled ‘cultural historian’ myself, my understanding is that historians of the past 30 or 40 years have at least partly wanted to question the powerful narrative that the setting of Phillip’s foot on shore here would lead to the British domination of the entire continent. In order to do so, historians have undertaken to re-assess Sydney entirely as an experiment that might have had different results, and thereby to reinstate a sense of historical contingency in the story of the founding of Australia’s first colony. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003) was perhaps the high point in asking the question:  ‘If we assume nothing and start again, could we imagine that a different history might have stemmed from Sydney Cove?’ One of the costs of this approach has  been an inclination to imagine the period as a kind of neutral zone, in which British domination had not yet gained a foothold, and each ‘encounter’ between Aboriginal people and the colonists could be reappraised, in an extended first encounter.

Gapps’ undertaking shows that this is to miss a quadrant of the landscape – though I do believe that his kind of military history would not have been possible without re-establishing a sense of contingency;  indeed it illustrates another face of that very contingency. The Sydney Wars is no resistance history. Rather, it is a squarely empirical, closely descriptive chronological account of the period, drawn predominantly from first-hand accounts. One of its achievements is to reassert the ‘Sydney wars’ as a conflict over presence, land, resources (involving and exacerbated by sexual violence towards women), rather than a ‘cultural collision’.

As Gapps shows, the British presence was a military presence from the outset. The units and their officers had experience in a range of wars from India, Africa and the Americas, and he emphasises that they were not unfamiliar with guerrilla warfare or unwilling to adopt guerrilla tactics at times. The colony at Sydney Cove was set up with defence in mind (from the French, from insurrection and from the native population). Gapps’ close narrative of the period shows that if we presume a militarised setting, many aspects of the colony carry a different inflection. Historians have had their ears trained to the varied ‘encounters’ between colonists and Sydney’s Aboriginal people, especially over the first twelve-to-eighteen months after the First Fleet’s arrival, often trying to gauge how friendly or hostile they might have been. In Gapps’ history all these encounters become edgy, cordial, unexpected episodes within a militarised context. Gapps draws the reader into an understanding of the importance of these meetings, movements and displays as military performance – formations, handling of weaponry and demonstrations of power on both sides. The British arrived with their red coats and muskets. The Sydney people too were experienced in war and were ready to show their power to the colonists. At the same time, the Sydney people began to pick off unarmed individuals venturing out from the colony, instilling fear, making the hinterland dangerous and displaying mastery of their Country.

The Sydney Wars very effectively illustrates how understandings of military conduct penetrated, and bound together, colonial society. The Marines, then the NSW Corps shared aspects of military knowledge with decommissioned privates who were settling in the colonyand with the many convicts and settlers who had some military experience. Gapps also demonstrates how their efforts were bound together by the instructions of the Governors, who  used both military and paramilitary resources to keep watch, carry arms and at times undertake aggressive manoeuvres. As other reviewers have observed, one of the most interesting lights this history casts is on the distinctions usually drawn between the military proper in the colony, and everyone else – in Gapps’ history even ‘misconduct’ by settlers or convicts bearing arms is integrated into the military framework, understood by colonial government to be a necessary part of the wars.

Gapps is keen to pursue a military history throughout, though at times he acknowledges there was tension between military imperatives and economic logic, for example in the establishment of colonists along the Hawkesbury. Although the narrative strains under this pursuit at times, his determined focus highlights the ways in which the placement of colonists in outlying areas and their land clearing activities, were closely linked with the military effort as well as food growing. Much more importantly, it foregrounds the actions of the Sydney people in raiding or destroying crops and dispersing stock around the main settlements as well as isolated outposts, across the period. ‘Economic sabotage’, Gapp’s argues, was a central and highly successful part of the Sydney people’s war, as it has been in guerrilla warfare before and since.

The Sydney Wars throws a different light on the on-again off-again nature of the conflicts, conceiving them as episodes in a regional war. Darkinjung and Dharug people moving in and out of the Hawkesbury settlements, for example, while Hunter issued oscillating instructions to colonists about whether it would be ‘misconduct’ to engage in hostile action, or not to engage, become in this history not questions about the nature of British intentions, or consistency in Aboriginal policy, but a flip-flopping of strategies based on circumstances. The question of whether to exercise hostility or civility in this framework was perhaps not unlike the awkward question of whether Britain was at war or under truce with France if one happened on a ship when no instructions had been received recently. One of The Sydney Wars’ most powerful observations is that the Sydney people were in a situation of both surviving and supporting guerrilla warfare for three decades. Living ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the settlements, notwithstanding mutually beneficial relations with some of the colonists, men, women and children lived with the strain of war. Gapps’ history, in having brought together these Sydney wars, which have until now been understood as a series of isolated or recurring ‘conflicts’, may provide a key to more fully understanding what this was like.

As Penny Russell (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 2018) and Ben Silverstein (Dictionary of Sydney, 25 July 2018) note the impact of Gapps’ history on historians’ and the public and popular view of early years of the NSW colony will take time to unfold. Gapps does not take us down this road himself. He concentrates on re-appraising the sources and providing an – often distinctive – account of the action. This approach prevents overdetermination of the meaning of events that have been so intensively examined over the past few decades for their moral tone – good/bad, strong/weak, noble/corrupt – but also leaves us to work out what happens next, because, like it or not, there are moral implications to how we understand this history.

Gapps’ himself closes in a commemorative mode, offering a roll of honour for casualties on both sides of the Sydney wars so that they can be contemplated, and remembered.


Stephen Gapps will be speaking at the PHA’s Marking Time conference on Friday 31 August. He is on a panel called,Entangled histories: indigenous wars, military and shared spaces.

Image: Looking for a station site: a picture of an Aboriginal person pointing the way to a mounted man, Samuel Thomas Gill, Courtesy: Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales


Reflections on writing an ocean history


by Dr Joy McCann, Visiting Fellow, School of History, Australian National University… 

The central theme explored at the recent annual conference of the Australian Historical Association was ‘The Scale of History’. The organisers asked participants to consider how questions of scale—temporal, geographical, social, archival—influence their research. The theme resonated strongly with me, having recently grappled with the vast geographical, temporal and spatial scales of ocean history while writing Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean (NewSouth, 2018).

Environmental historians are inclined to venture into subject areas that require them to embrace vast scales of time and place, and this is particularly so in the case of ocean history. In geographical terms, the world’s five major ocean basins—the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern Oceans—form part of an interconnected planetary ocean covering three-quarters of Earth’s surface and containing 97% of all its water. Added to that is the fact that oceans are three-dimensional environments, stretching from the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean or, as the North American historian Eric L Mills described it, the ‘two great masses of fluid on the surface of the earth’.[1] The temporal dimensions of ocean environments are equally vast, evolving as a result of the physical transformation of the planet in deep geological time.

The Southern Ocean occupies the southernmost region of this vast three-dimensional environment. It had its origins in the long, slow movements of Earth’s crust as it shifted and compressed and fractured over 3.5 million years. Around 40 to 20 million years ago a rift opened between Australia and Antarctica. Ocean water flooded in from the west marking the end of a continental bond that had lasted for millions of years. Thus was formed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows entirely around Antarctica south of Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. It is the least known and least visited of the world’s oceans. Apart from a series of about 20 tiny, mostly volcanic subantarctic island groups that dot the surface of this circumpolar ocean, there seems to be nothing but water, wind, atmosphere, ice, and the myriad of creatures that call this tempestuous region home.

An ecologist recently asked why I had written a history of the Southern Ocean. As he put it, how could an ocean have a history when ‘no-one lives there’?  Historians do favour terrestrial environments, and I found this to be equally true of the high southern latitudes where the Antarctic continent—rather than the ocean that surrounds it—has taken centre stage in polar histories. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in writing ocean history amongst environmental historians, particularly given the emerging sense of an environmental crisis in the world’s oceans and the imperative to understand the history of human-ocean relationships. As the American ocean historian, Helen Rozwadowski has argued we need to historicise the ocean itself because ‘even those are as intertwined with human history as the far corners of the terrestrial world’.[2]

My first impulse was to view the Southern Ocean as a place, to explore it as a three-dimensional environment rather than to just focus on its surfaces and edges. From my work as a public historian I was used to grounding my writing in a sense of place. Therein lay my first challenge. The Southern Ocean is characterised by currents and gyres and eddies representing the restless movements of water on a massive scale. How could I distill a sense of place in such a complex, fluid, dynamic environment? I decided to experiment with a different approach, putting the ocean at the centre of the narrative and writing from the midst of those winds and currents and fog and ice for which the Southern Ocean is notorious. The idea of shifting the historical gaze from land to sea is not new. In 1995 the French historian, Fernand Braudel, employed a similar idea in his long durĂŠe history of the Mediterranean Sea in the age of Philip II. Unlike the more conventional event-based histories, he was able to discern slow and subtle changes in the relationships between people and the Mediterranean environment over time, revealing how the Mediterranean was not a single place with a single history but rather a complex environment with multiple histories.[3]

From my vantage point in the midst of the Southern Ocean’s circumpolar storm track, I found it invigorating to navigate between the ocean’s natural and cultural histories, traversing back and forth across vast scales of time and space. Importantly, I could explore the history of the ocean both above and below its surface, catching glimpses of a vessel on a perilous voyage, of an individual sailor seeing his first ice berg, of a polar explorer’s encounter with an emperor penguin colony, of an oceanographer discovering the tooth of a prehistoric shark alongside the remains of coal from a steamer, or of a scientist puzzling over the long-distance migration of a floating island of giant kelp. I also found that the Southern Ocean was inhabited, not only by water and wind and marine creatures, but also by stories and legends that reflected different historical and cultural relationships with the ocean.

With the ocean at the centre of the narrative, I found that its winds, currents, ice, islands and depths offered a natural framework for the chapters. It also offered unexpected insights. Almost from the start, my perspective challenged the conventional north-south orientation of Western sources and histories of exploration and colonisation in the southern hemisphere. My story assumed a west-east orientation because it was impossible to examine the environmental history of the Southern Ocean without being caught up in its powerful westerly winds and circumpolar current as told through diaries and logbooks, images and stories. This brought into sharp focus local places and societies and relationships with the ocean, producing a distinctively Southern Hemisphere perspective and a heightened sensibility towards its human and non-human inhabitants.

There are, of course, many histories of the world’s oceans, although they tend to privilege narratives that focus on the ocean surface as a highway for maritime communication, trade and war and as a resource for exploitation. It struck me that, by putting the Southern Ocean at the heart of the narrative and attending to its natural history as well as its human history, I was giving it a sense of agency. So my story weaves back and forth between people and place, between human encounters and the seasonal heartbeat of the sea ice that surrounds Antarctica, between scientific expeditions to understand the deep ocean and the distinctive characteristics of species like kelp and krill, between Indigenous peoples and their ancestral relationships with the sea.

This interweaving of natural and cultural histories enabled me to move more easily between global and local scales of storytelling as well as between deep geological time and recent human history. In order to deal with these extremes of scale, I chose a particular species or person or event that offered a portal into a larger story. I tell a story, for example, about the Wandering Albatross which has the longest wingspan of any bird. GPS tracking has shown that they can fly up to 15,000 km across the Southern Ocean in these ‘albatross latitudes’. By focusing on the albatross I could examine cultural perceptions of the winds known as the Roaring Forties, the history of interactions between albatross and science in the high southern latitudes, the Western legend of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Indigenous cultural relationships with the albatross, as well as illuminating the bird’s own natural history and current threats to its survival as a species. In this way, I was able to explore different forms of environmental knowledge and different ways of knowing the Southern Ocean. I was also able to trace the emergence of an environmental awareness of the ocean’s vulnerability to human actions, from the theatres of slaughter that devastated fur seal populations on remote subantarctic islands in the nineteenth century, to the exploitation of whales and Antarctic krill in the twentieth century and the more recent recognition that the Southern Ocean is changing in response to global warming. Indeed, for Southern Ocean scientists it has become a barometer of global warming.

I discovered a great paradox in the Southern Ocean. It is renowned for being stormy and remote and inaccessible but, in reality, everything is interconnected in this ocean—currents, winds, ice, creatures, plants, islands, continents and people, past and present, nature and culture. I have come to think of this awareness as a kind of ‘ocean consciousness’ which was apparent in earlier books and reports about oceans, before air travel replaced long distance sea travel. In the 1950s, for example, scientists like the US marine biologist Rachel Carson and oceanographer Hank Stommel were writing about oceans and their natural and cultural histories in a lyrical and engaging way, attracting wide publicity and enthusiastic lay readers. I think that perhaps we lost that ocean consciousness somewhere in the postwar era, in the Southern Ocean at least, at a time when scientific specialisations began to portray the region as a kind of international field laboratory.

In the process we also lost its stories. So my project has really been about recovering some of those stories, revealing the three-dimensional ocean environment as a place of entangled histories—both natural and human—engaging people emotionally and through the senses, through the interweaving of cultural beliefs, scientific ideas, ocean conservation politics, and the more conventional themes of maritime exploration and exploitation. In this way, I have sought to locate the Southern Ocean within a spatial and temporal context to create a deep history, as well as to reveal encounters between humans and species that draw us into a more nuanced understanding of this extreme, opaque yet vulnerable more-than-human world.


Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean will be launched at the 2018 Canberra Writers’ Festival  by Caroline Le Couteur, MLA.

When: Saturday 25 August 2018, 4.30 pm to 5.30 pm

Where: Members’ Dining Room 3 (MDR3), Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House

The event is FREE but an RSVP to will be appreciated.


[1] Eric L Mills, ‘Creating a global ocean conveyor: George Deacon and the hydrology of the Southern Ocean’, in Keith R Benson and Helen M Rozwadowski, eds, Extremes: Oceanography’s Adventures at the Poles, Science History Publications, Mass., 2007, p. 107.

[2] Helen M Rozwadowski, ‘Oceans: Fusing the history of science and technology with environmental history’, in Douglas Cazaux Sackman, ed, A Companion to American Environmental History, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, West Sussex, 2010, p. 442.

[3] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.


Dr William Ingram, medical officer and biologist with two British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (1929-31) holding a young albatross captured at Crozet Island, circa 1930. Photo: Frank Hurley. Source: National Library of Australia.

Naturalist reading deep-sea thermometers during the scientific voyage of the HMS Challenger (1872-6), 1880. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Social media and ‘saving’ specialist heritage


by Peter Hobbins  …

I was a reluctant adopter of social media, and have in fact given presentations entitled ‘the sceptic’s guide to Twitter’. Since sending my first tweet in 2014 (, however, I’ve come to appreciate the platform’s value in sharing information, building networks and serendipitously encountering all manner of unexpected content.

Over the past week, however, I have also experienced Twitter’s extraordinary power in mobilising a worldwide community around at-risk heritage. Just a week ago I received an email from the Australian Society for the History of Engineering and Technology (ASHET). It shared the sad fate of the Australian Computer Museum Society, a small group comprised primarily of former programmers and engineers who have gathered a wealth of computing artefacts. These range from late 1950s storage media to 1960s and 1970s mainframe ‘minicomputers’, through to punched cards, desktop consoles and the revolutionary ‘personal computers’ of the early 1980s such as the Microbee and Commodore 64. Along with the devices, circuits and peripherals, they also collected documentation, manuals and trade magazines, all with the aim of creating a computing museum that has never come to fruition.

The ASHET email outlined the society’s dilemma: the storage facility in which the collection resided would be bulldozed in two weeks and they had nowhere else to go. For the coming fortnight, the society’s Treasurer announced, their Villawood warehouse would be “open for anyone who cares to come and take anything away and help preserve our computing heritage”. In short, they would rather give it away than see it destroyed, even though it meant dispersing the (uncatalogued) collection forever.

I visited Villawood the next day and found several poorly lit rooms crammed high with ageing equipment and tired but friendly volunteers. Station wagons and vans were coming and going as enthusiasts and collectors stopped by to admire, fossick and depart with whatever took their fancy. Computing history isn’t my speciality so I relied on the volunteers to explain the function and value of various items, including a substantial 1960s minicomputer that had once held an important place in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. Despite my enthusiasm and willingness to urgently document its role and significance, it sadly didn’t fit my own institution’s collecting policy.

What I did do, though, was photograph a selection of items and some wider vistas of the collection and posted them on Twitter that Saturday afternoon. Since then the response has been phenomenal. One tweet in particular has already attracted 88 likes, 24 replies and 193 retweets. Within a day I was being contacted by a programming guru in California and the Computer History Museum in the same state. I’ve since had direct messages and emails from curators, collectors, enthusiasts and IT folks from Britain, Sweden and around Australia. Several have tens of thousands of Twitter followers or hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. There have been offers to set up a GoFundMe rescue fund to pay for emergency storage, while many locals have offered garage, warehouse and shipping container space. I’ve put all of them in touch with the volunteers, and also dropped a line to local archives and libraries in case they wanted to rescue any technology to enhance their own digital preservation setup. Even finding a useable 5¼ inch floppy disk drive is hard work these days!

I’m sad to see the collection being picked over and dispersed; it will clearly never form the basis for a museum. However, I’ve also been heartened by some of the stories, particularly an 18-year-old enthusiast and his 20-year-old boss from Kiama, who drove up in a truck and saved a suite of rare minicomputers which they hope to restore to working order. It may mean that some of these devices – and their rapidly dying programming languages – will survive a little longer. While not an ideal outcome, the transformation of a simple tweet into practical action has been truly inspiring.