Monday, July 28

The lessons of Myall Creek

This is, hopefully, the final version of a post which has been revised and re-revised to ensure it is accurate with the ascertainable facts and fair in its treatment of those matters which must remain subject to conjecture. Because of the revisions, Grumpy Old Journo has fiddled with the posting date to bring it higher up inthe blog.

The Myall Creek massacre, horrifying though it was, may be more worthy of study today because of the questions it raises. We know, because the evidence is undeniable, that in early June of 1838, eleven men galloped up to a group of huts on a remote cattle station in the north of New South Wales, roped together at least 28 peaceful and unarmed Aborigines, most of them women, children and old men, led them over a nearby ridge, and slaughtered them.

As the mounted men prepared to lead them away, a twelfth man, Charles Kilmeister – an assigned convict stockman who had enjoyed the Aboriginal children's friendship and the sexual comfort of the women, and who appears to have assured the group they would be safe camped near the huts – joined the murder party.

Days later, when the cattle station's superintendent, free immigrant William Hobbs, returned to the huts, he followed tracks over the ridge and found the remains of a big fire. In the ashes were partly burned bodies, bones, and many small skulls – the children had been decapitated. The stench was almost unbearable.

After he showed the remains to the superintendent of a neigbouring station, Hobbs determined to report the crime. For his pains, he was to lose his job. His wealthy squatter employer, Henry Dangar, rode out to the station to tell him his work was unsatisfactory.

After some prevarication, the new chum Governor George Gipps ordered Police Magistrate Edward Denny Day to ride from Muswellbrook with a party of mounted police to investigate the crime. Day took many depositions and built a powerful case against the murderers.

The most compelling evidence came from the young hutkeeper George Anderson, a convict assigned to Dangar. Originally reticent, he gave a fuller account when Day re-interviewed him and obtained a sworn deposition. Anderson may have decided to avenge the murder of an Aboriginal woman who'd shared his bed, and with whom he may have fallen in love.

Anderson's evidence was crucial to the case, and it was to send more than half the murder gang to the gallows. Day knew Anderson's life was now in danger, and he took the young convict into protective custody.

Seven of the murderers hanged for the crime, but the colonial authorities of New South Wales needed to try them twice to get a jury to convict. It was the first time whites were executed for the mass murder of indigenous Australians, and it appears to have been the only time.

Perhaps because of the public outrage at the execution of whites for the killing of "savages", the authorities abandoned an attempt to re-try the other four acquitted in the first trial (the key reason, though, was the inability of an Aboriginal witness to understand the nature of a sworn oath).

The only murderer who was not a convict or ex-convict, the young squatter John Fleming, escaped and was never charged. Not many years later, he was living openly on the Hawkesbury and later became a churchwarden at Wilberforce.

The image shows the cover of a book which describes the Myall Creek massacre well. I've used a cropped image from this cover for a thematic logo through this post. I recommend Demons At Dusk as a compelling story based on solid history, albeit one the author has fleshed out with imagined conversations and thoughts of the main characters.

Later, I intend to defend Demons At Dusk against Jennifer Byrne and two of her panellists on the First Tuesday Book Club discussion of June 3 on ABC Television. Marieke Hardy described it as "an incredibly poorly written book", and Johanna Featherstone agreed, adding that "the Foreword [which was written by another First Sunday Book Club panellist, Peter FitzSimons] and the story you get about the author is very manipulative too . . .

There are flaws in Peter Stewart's writing, things one would not expect of a more experienced author, but where it counts – the telling of a compelling but straightforward story – his writing is plain, direct and powerful. If the trendy new literati find that amusing, so be it.

Cropped image from jacket of book Demons At DuskFor those reluctant to accept that white squatters and their men killed many Aborigines as they pushed their sheep and cattle across Aboriginal land, the Myall Creek massacre presents a challenge.

The challenge is they cannot dispute that a horrifying massacre took place, and that it was carried out by a party made up of a white squatter and the assigned convict servants or ex-convict employees of other squatters.

But the Quadrant mob are up to the challenge! From the deniers of frontier massacres comes this version: The conviction and execution of some of the Myall Creek murderers proves the colonial administration prosecuted white perpetrators of violence against Aborigines. There were no other prosecutions. Therefore there were no other massacres. QED.

The deniers skip facts they find inconvenient:

  • John Fleming, the murderer who was of a free settler family, was never arrested. It's hard to believe the authorities could not find him if they really tried.

  • The eleven convicts or ex-convicts in the murder party went on trial. The jury took 15 minutes to acquit them.

  • Seven of the eleven were held in jail and charged again with the murder of a different Aboriginal man and a male or female Aboriginal child. This time a jury convicted them, and they were hanged before the end of the year.

  • The authorities attempted to bring the other four to trial, but failed because they could not show that an Aboriginal witness, Davey, understood the nature of an oath. It's plausible, but cannot be proved, that this was an excuse to avoid a repeat of the colonists' outrage at the execution of white men for killing blacks.

  • The squatters subscribed to a defence fund, and must have done so generously because three of the colony's leading barristers represented the defendants. At no time did any squatter condemn the actions of the murderers.

The bare facts of the Myall Creek massacre are well enough known. What deserve more examination are the colonists' responses to the atrocity, and their outrage at the execution of some of the murderers. From them, we may better understand disputed aspects of Australia's history.

In particular, we should ask whether the Myall Creek massacre was part of a general campaign to remove the original inhabitants as squatters used convict servants to push their herds and flocks out beyond the Limits of Location, the official boundaries of white settlement.

Some historians might argue that the squatters and the earlier colonial administration were justified in severe reprisals against Aboriginal warriors who were killing whites.

But when they consider the Myall Creek massacre, and the colonists' outrage at the punishment of the perpetrators, they must confront a more disturbing suggestion – that the slaughter of peaceful and unarmed women, children and some old men showed an intent to eliminate the Aborigines altogether, apart from those individuals who might show value as stockmen or for sexual use.

Could it have been a mopping-up operation which came after a genocidal campaign?

Grumpy Old Journo refuses to use the word genocide when discussing relations between the indigenous peoples and the Europeans in the first colonial days. He is convinced the first colonial administrators, however mistakenly, believed the indigenous people could continue their way of life alongside the white newcomers.

But a few decades later, when ambitious men raced to carve out pastoral empires bigger than English counties, genocide may have been a fair description of what was taking place in the frontier regions.

Cropped image from jacket of book Demons At Dusk

Today, it's possible to read many accounts of Myall Creek, including some which try to set it into a backdrop of wider frontier conflict. The following are of value:

I've already recommended Peter Stewart's Demons at Dusk (Sid Harta Publishers, 2007; $29.95). Although the author has embellished his yarn with imagined thoughts and conversations, he has stuck closely to established historical sources for his basic account. As stated earlier, Grumpy Old Journo plans to discuss this book further in a separate post.

Stewart says that when historical accounts varied, he "almost invariably accepted" the version we can find in a much weightier book – almost 2.3 kg of it, in fact – in which author Roger Milliss details a case that Major James Nunn led a party of mounted police that killed hundreds of Aborigines in an officially sanctioned drive to make the Gwydir River region safe for the squatters' pastoral expansion. His Waterloo Creek – the Australia Day massacre of 1838, George Gipps and the British conquest of New South Wales (McPhee Gribble, 1992; available secondhand from around $70) is a solidly researched volume of some 965 pages, with extensive endnotes listing his sources, along with a detailed index, bibliography, timelines and maps.

Although I find Milliss's arguments persuasive, they cannot be proved because official investigations into Nunn's campaign were not pursued with vigour.

Milliss's background – including journalism in Moscow, working for communist newspaper Tribune in Sydney, and actor and director at Sydney's New Theatre – shows he comes from the far left of the political spectrum, which has made him even more of a target for right-wing commentators.

In Demons, Peter Stewart also acknowledges Bill Wannan's Early Colonial Scandals and Richard Trudgen's Why Warriors Lie Down and Die as sources which had the greatest influence of the writing of his book. He gives other references in the book's acknowledgements.

To the list, one may also add Bruce Elder's Blood on the Wattle and the historian Henry Reynolds's Why Weren't We Told? and The Other Side of the Frontier.

A concise account appears in Michael Cathcart's one-volume abridgement of Manning Clark's History of Australia.

For other viewpoints, one may turn to the first volume of Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication Of Aboriginal History (shortly to be followed by Volume II), or to miscellaneous articles on Windschuttle's website, particularly this essay. However, I believe the Quadrant editor may be a tad sloppy himself – on the Battle of Pinjarra in Western Australia in 1834, I cannot accept some of the interpretations he drew from his primary source, the journal of Surveyor-General John Septimus Roe.

In an online resource of considerable value, Macquarie University's Division of Law has published detailed contemporary accounts of many important colonial cases, including the first Myall Creek trial, the second trial which saw seven of the murderers convicted, a prosecution of two Sydney innkeepers who had abused the jury foreman for the guilty verdicts, the hearing in which the Attorney-General conceded the remaining murderers were unlikely to face trial, and a civil action in which Hobbs was partly successful in suing Henry Dangar for unpaid wages.

Cropped image from jacket of book Demons At Dusk

The report on the second trial is particularly interesting because it includes cross-examination of squatter Henry Dangar, appearing as a defence witness, about the land-grab scandal that saw him dismissed from government service some years earlier. The judge also questioned him about his dismissal of Hobbs, and was scathing about Dangar's integrity as a witness.

In both trials, suggestions emerge that the squatters had promised to support servants charged as a result of conflict with blacks. In his opening address to the first trial, Attorney-General John Hubert Plunkett said:

. . . a rumour has gone abroad that this defence [of the prisoners before the court] is made at the instance of an association illegally formed, for the purpose of defending all who may be charged with crimes resulting from any collision with the natives. I say that if such an association exist, that, if there be men who have joined together for the purpose of defending such men as these, the object of that society is to encourage bloodshed and crime of every description.

In the second trial, Justice Burton also shows his suspicion about the squatters' role. He interrogated Dangar about the defence fund, and later when confirming the death sentence, he said:

. . . there must have been some moving cause, some hidden hope that your crime would be concealed by parties interested that urged you on. You have flattered yourselves vainly; and I hope that if there be any parties who were interested in its concealment, they will be discovered . . .

The authorities gave no reward to Anderson, and they did not speed his progress through the system to his ticket-of-leave in 1841 and conditional pardon in 1846. Then he disappears from the pages of history.

For George Hobbs, his courage in reporting the crime and giving evidence destroyed what seemed a promising career in the colony. It took eight years – and the departure of Governor Gipps – before he could find regular employment, as chief constable at Wollombi, and later in Windsor and Wollongong.

Some time in the mid-1990s, while touring in northern NSW, I pulled up in the little country town of Bingara and asked for directions to the Myall Creek massacre site. Suspicion, perhaps even a touch of hostility, met my queries and I found no-one to help me.

These days, hopefully, there would be no such hostility – hundreds of people gathered on the June long weekend this year for a commemoration at the massacre site, which is marked by memorials.

At the memorial service, Federal Heritage Minister Peter Garrett announced the Federal Government had declared Myall Creek a protected site. Check out The Sydney Morning Herald's report , or the briefer report in The Australian.

Information signs acknowledge the contributions of Governor George Gipps [who may not deserve the accolade] and William Hobbs. They don't mention Anderson. Author Peter Stewart says in Demons At Dusk:

He is remembered nowhere but in the history books as the only white man in Australia's history to witness the massacre of Aborigines, not participate, and have the courage to give evidence in court against the perpetrators. [Strictly, Anderson did not see the massacre itself, but was a reliable witness to the events just before and after.].

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