Thursday, July 31

Demons At Dusk: Is this account of the Myall Creek massacre as bad as the 'experts' claim?

In my long post on the Myall Creek massacre, I promised to justify my praise for Peter Stewart's book Demons at Dusk. And again, that has resulted in a long, long post. I can only plead that I believe this essay deserves the extra length. That's Peter in the photo.

There are writing faults in Demons at Dusk, but they are not so bad they ruin the book – despite suggestions on Jennifer Byrne's First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV.

This post may not make sense unless you read the ABC transcript first.

To me, when panellist Marieke Hardy called Demons “an incredibly poorly written book”, she said more about herself than the book. Perhaps that's because I'm a journalist, and I value writers who use words with precision as well as vigour. “Poorly written”, I might buy. But “incredibly” so?

And turning to the views of panellist Johanna Featherstone, I find it a bit rich that someone who utters a sentence like this could accuse an author of poor writing:

Well I thought it was a poorly written book and I also thought it's a very difficult book to discuss for a few reasons and first of all the Foreword and the story that you get about the author is very manipulative too so you're told before you read it that this book is this great book that everybody should respond to, a very important one to know so you feel like you have a responsibility to read it, which makes it hard to criticise.

However, Stewart hasn't made my defence easy with this, the first sentence of his book:

The biting cold of this wretched London night had slithered through every crack of the large terrace house, but it did not prevent a nervous sweat from crawling down the back of the young apprentice as he crept slowly - his feet anchored by guilt - into his master's bedroom.

Apart from reminding the reader of that classic intro, It was a dark and stormy night, the opening sentence reeks of over-writing. Creeping with one's feet anchored by guilt – that's a good trick. And someone should tell Stewart about unneeded adverbs. How else would one creep but slowly?

But the writing does improve, despite some problems with the vernacular dialogue of 19th century convicts. Or perhaps it's that as the material becomes so compelling, the reader stops nit-picking about literary style and focuses on the unfolding story.

That was my experience with Demons. Early in the book, I found some passages jarred. But as I read further, I became so absorbed in the story I no longer noticed the writing techniques which conveyed it. That's not poor writing, surely?

However, if you can wade through more of Ms Featherstone's syntax, she does bring up some other important issues:

Then of course there's the whole issue of fiction writers recreating true histories which is hard in dealing with history and then there's the idea of a non-indigenous writer taking on the persona of indigenous characters and then how do you write dialogue accordingly, without making it sound, and I think you used, not jocular but the sort of caricature that sometimes comes across where you have taking on these different braves [the ABC's transcription software may have misheard something here] that I just found fraudulent and I couldn't believe and I think the same with the approach to violence, I think there was some really gross, awful scenes, but that's not why it didn't work, it's because I thought the writer had absolutely no quality control of language.

May this Grumpy Old Journo try to extricate some of the ideas buried in this morass, and discuss them individually?

First, the historical novel. Let's be blunt – but for novelists, many older Australians would know little of their nation's history. Until halfway through the 20th century, our respectable academic and professional historians delivered an account of Australia's development as a subset of the history of Britain's imperial glory.

When Australian historians finally did turn to Australian sources for their accounts, they found novelists, such as Eleanor Dark with The Timeless Land, had already mined the archives for background to their stories.

When I grew up in Perth, most West Australians knew more of their state's colonial history from Rix Weaver, a remarkable woman who wrote three well-crafted romantic novels – Behold New Holland, New Holland Heritage and Beyond Cooralong – than from anything they learned at school. Two heavyweights of Perth academic and intellectual life, Paul Hasluck and Public Librarian J .S. Battye, contributed forewords attesting to the accuracy of the historical background of her novels.

Of course, Demons at Dusk is not a novel with an historical background – it's something different, a history embellished with characters and conversations developed in the author's mind. Is that legitimate? I believe it is provided the author takes care to explain what is historically accurate, and what is conjecture – along with the basis for that conjecture – and Peter Stewart does that.

No-one takes Peter Carey to task for his fictionalised True History of the Kelly Gang – and after reading that book, one knows more about the life and times of Ned Kelly than from any formal history. But then Carey is part of the literary establishment, isn't he?

It's known the Myall Creek hutkeeper George Anderson had sex with an Aboriginal woman named Ipeta (or Heppita in some accounts). The trial evidence shows that when the Myall Creek murderers offered him one of the “jins”, he asked if they would instead spare the woman he'd had before. The murderers refused and led Ipeta away to be slaughtered.

Peter Stewart (and some writers before him) have developed this evidence into a theme about Anderson's love for Ipeta. Here's a passage from Demons at Dusk:

. . . now, as she stood in front of him on the creek bank, Anderson only allowed himself to look at her briefly - but it was long enough for him to take in every detail of her form. Her deep brown eyes were soft and kind, and her smile warm and gentle. Her smooth, dark skin glistened in the morning sunlight as water dripped from the curls of her thick black hair. For what seemed like an age to him but was actually only a moment, he watched as a droplet fell from her hair to her shoulder, slid over her breast to the tip of her nipple, where it paused momentarily before falling to the ground at her feet. Their eyes met briefly.

(Um, yes, perhaps that is a bit overwritten.) Is there a factual base to this tale of love? We can never know, but it's possible. Anderson, a young apprentice transported from London for having robbed his master, had been assigned to work for squatter Henry Dangar. Before sending him out to Myall Creek, Dangar had him punished with 100 lashes – a savage punishment, even by the standards of the day – for neglect of duty (Anderson was to tell the Myall Creek trials he did not deserve that punishment – he was helping a fellow convict move some cattle).

So it's possible Ipeta was the very first woman with whom Anderson had sex, and young men tend to fall in love – especially if Ipeta offered him special understanding because of compassion for this sad dogsbody.

Fictionalised narratives can help our understanding. For me, it came at the end of the court evidence when Anderson replied to a question. He'd heard only two shots. The party which led the victims over the hill had two swords [it was three, but one snapped some time during the slaughter].

Stewart uses an imagined conversation at the bar table to spell out the horror – with just two or three swords and up to 28 tied-up victims, most the Aborigines watched the killings taking place as they waited their turn.

The children would have seen many of their playmates decapitated.

Literary devices and literary language are not the only ways we tell our stories. Perhaps I may give as an example the story of Jimmy Governor. At the start of the last century, in July 1900, Governor and Jacky Underwood murdered the woman and children of a settler's family near Gilgandra in the central west of New South Wales, For months, until Governor's capture just north of Wingham in late October, newspapers carried many columns about the manhunt for the “Breelong blacks”.

More than half a century later, Australian writer Frank Clune reprised the story in a shortish paperback, Jimmy Governor (Horwitz, 1959), adding thoughts and conversations in a technique similar to that of Peter Stewart in Demons at Dusk.

To the literary establishment, Clune was beneath notice. His name appears nowhere in the Oxford History of Australian Literature edited by Leonie Kramer. Yet this popular writer – he penned more than sixty historical books, travel books (many were of the “wandering around Australia” type) and autobiographical works – probably told his fellow Australians more about their nation than any historian. Perhaps more than any novelist.

[Penned may be the wrong word for many of those works – many of Clune's books were ghostwritten by left literary lion P.R. "Inky" Stephenson, although Clune would have kept control of the output.]

In his Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (University of Queensland Press, 1978), academic J.J. Healy called Clune's Jimmy Governor “factual, compassionate, and intelligent”.

Perhaps it's worth quoting the last sentence of Clune's book:

I had nightmares for months after viewing this horrible sight [a waxworks tableau of Governor killing the Mawby family], and I avoided aborigines for years, until I found that they are decent, loyal and true friends.

Next up was Thomas Keneally, who retold the story with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Angus & Robertson, 1972), which Fred Schepisi made into a film. But Keneally – who described his book as “highly fictional” – was to say he would not write such a book again because of the sensitivities involved in writing about a different culture (“A new chant for Jimmie Blacksmith”, Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, 25-26 August 2001).

This is the issue to which Ms Featherstone referred with “ a non-indigenous writer taking on the persona of indigenous characters”. Yet, would an indigenous Australian be any more entitled to write of Jimmy Governor/Blacksmith? Governor was “half-caste”, in the terminology of the day, and according to Clune was light-skinned and had reddish hair. He strove to be part of white society.

To carry through with the logic of Keneally (and presumably Ms Featherstone), the author would have to be of 50-50 white and indigenous parentage to be entitled to write Jimmy Governor's story. To my mind, that's a bit precious. If the story-tellers are sensitive and accurate, we can accept their work.

If the stories are told competently – as well being worthwhile “yarns” – the authors have created something of value even when they fall short of some people's literary standards. Perhaps that is so with Clune's Jimmy Governor and Stewart's Demons at Dusk.

I have skipped over another point in the Tuesday Book Club debate – the argument between Ms Byrne and her other women panellists on one side, and another panelist, Peter FitzSimons on the other. FitzSimons is a former rugby international, now a Fairfax sports writer and columnist, a radio commentator, and author of well received books on Kokoda and the North Africa campaign. He became unstinting in his support for Demons at Dusk after Peter Stewart sent the manuscript to him.

Perhaps critics also dismissed Demons because Stewart did not secure a mainstream publisher. Sid Harta is a “partnership publisher” – one which normally requires authors to contribute to the publishing costs.

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.].

Monday, July 14

World's oldest blogger makes her last post

Olive Riley, widely known as the world's oldest blogger, died yesterday in Woy Woy. She was 108.

For some years, documentary film maker Mike Rubbo had visited her nursing home on the Central Coast of New South Wales, writing down her reminiscences and then posting them to her website. Her descriptions of growing up in Broken Hill, and her life through two world wars and the Great Depression, won her many eager readers around the world.

The Sydney Morning Herald today carried this report of her death. The report also carries links to her blog as posted by Mike Rubbo, and to another blog site posted by one of Mike's friends while he is overseas.

Grumpy Old Journo's list of links also has one to Mike's site,, but it was too busy and attempts to connect timed out.

The following picture, taken from a GOJ post last October 18, shows Olive Riley celebrating her 108th birthday with local schoolchildren: