I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Before European settlement began in 1788, the estimated Aboriginal population of Australia was 750,000. The colonists brought with them diseases for which the original peoples had no resistance. Aboriginal Heritage reports that less than a year after first contact “over half the Indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died from smallpox.” Syphilis, influenza, chickenpox, and measles killed thousands more. By 1900, the Aborigine population had fallen to about 75,000 in the entire country.
Disease and loss of traditional hunting land were the major killers, but violence also took a heavy toll.
In 1845, Bishop John Bede Polding described the prevailing attitude of colonists towards Aboriginals: “I have myself heard a man, educated, and a large proprietor of sheep and cattle, maintain that there was no more harm in shooting a native, than in shooting a wild dog.
“I have heard it maintained by others that it is the course of Providence, that blacks should disappear before the white, and the sooner the process was carried out the better, for all parties.”
In his 2000 book In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson recalled the appalling cruelty of settlers: “Aborigines butchered for dog food … an Aboriginal woman forced to watch her husband killed, then made to wear his decapitated head around her neck."
William J. Lines (Taming the Great South Land) wrote of a woman chased up a tree by her tormentors who stood below and took pot shots at her: “Every time a bullet hit, she pulled leaves off the tree and thrust them into her wounds, till at last, she fell lifeless to the ground.”
Paul Daley (The Guardian) writes of Indigenous women who “still talk in vivid detail about their ancestors who died after eating the bread, carefully laced with strychnine, that some of the settlers left outside the kitchens for them.”
To the whites, the natives were a form of wildlife, no different from kangaroos, emus, or dingoes. They were to be killed for sport and almost nobody faced criminal charges for doing so.
The Myall Creek Massacre
In the northwest corner of New South Wales is a place called Myall Creek. This was the site, in 1838, of a hideously barbarous act.
On June 10, a group of 11 stockmen arrived at Myall Creek with the aim of driving Aborigines off the land owned by one Henry Dangar (below). Most of the men were ex-convicts, others were actual convicts assigned to work for settlers; they were a hard bunch.
They found people of the Wirrayaraay nation camped nearby. The stockmen tied up the natives and marched them into a gully and slaughtered them with swords and rifle shots.
The death toll was 28, mostly children, women, and old men. The bodies were burned. The young men of the group were away at the time working at a farm 30 kilometres distant.
In the normal course of events that would have been the end of the story. But the Myall Creek Massacre did not fade into obscurity as so many other outrages committed against natives had done.
Brought to Justice
The manager of the land owned by Henry Dangar, called a station, was William Hobbs. He was absent when the killings took place and on his return he started to investigate. Through a series of intermediaries, the story reached the Governor of the colony, George Gipps, who ordered the local police magistrate to look into the affair.
The killers were identified and, very much in opposition to the sentiments of the time, brought to trial, charged with the murder of two of the victims. A jury took 15 minutes to find the men not guilty.
A letter writer to The Australian newspaper quoted one of the jurors as allegedly saying “I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black.”
A Second Trial
Attorney General John Plunkett ordered a second trial of seven of the 11 men on a charge of killing an Aboriginal child.
There was evidence of an effort to intimidate jurors and witnesses. Henry Dangar and other settlers were behind this attempt to pervert the course of justice, but their tactics failed and this time the seven accused were found guilty of murder.
Still, there was confusion. Inside History reports that “The foreman announced that the verdict was not guilty, however one of the jurors immediately informed the court that the foreman had delivered the wrong verdict and that the correct verdict was guilty. After a suitable inquiry, the judge entered verdicts of guilty.”
A little more than six months after the atrocity, the seven men responsible were hanged in the Sydney prison. The verdict and sentence split Australian society. A substantial majority sided with the killers, their view expressed by The Sydney Morning Herald: “The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time.”
No more time was “wasted.” Many other massacres of Aborigines took place after Myall Creek but no more charges were ever laid.
The last officially known massacre of Aborigines occurred at a place called Coniston Station in the Northern Territory. This happened between August and October 1928 and there is little agreement on the number of victims. The official death toll was 30 but some historians say it might have been 170. No one faced charges over the killings.
- The four others of the group of 11 were held in custody to await a trial that was to hinge of the testimony of an Aboriginal boy called Davey. But Davey vanished, never to be seen again and the men were released from prison. It’s said that Henry Dangar was behind the lad’s disappearance.
- One of that group of four men was John Blake. In 1852, he took his own life by slitting his throat. His great-great-grandson, Des Blake, has worked to make peace with Aboriginal descendants of the few survivors of the Myall Creek Massacre.
- In fact, there were 12 men in the party of thugs that descended on the natives in 1838. John Henry Fleming was the ringleader and he escaped any consequences probably because, unlike his companions, he was a free man. He died in 1894, a highly respected member of the community in which he lived. The local newspaper’s obituary noted that Fleming “… will be much missed for his kindness of heart and generosity to the poor; he was never known to refuse to anyone in want.” He had successfully scrubbed his character clean of the bloody stain of the past.
- “A Brief Aboriginal History.” Aboriginal Heritage, undated.
- “Myall Creek: Here, in 1838, a Crime that Would not be Forgotten Took Place.” Paul Daley, The Guardian, June 5, 2012.
- “The Myall Creek Massacre: the Trial and Aftermath.” Mark Tedeschi, Inside History, August 19, 2015.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor