Opinion  |  

The battle Australians don’t want to remember

180 years on from Myall Creek

This Sunday, June 10, marks the 180th anniversary of one of Australia’s most brutal war battles, but most Australians have never heard of it or attended a service commemorating those whose lives were lost.

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“It seems a strange and hypocritical contradiction that some black and white politicians tell us we need to ‘move on’ and not dwell upon the frontier wars of the past whilst at the same time we are saturated with ‘Lest We Forget’ Gallipoli – a failed [Allied, including Australian] invasion of another people’s country,” Indigenous history professor and grandson of the early Indigenous activist Fred Maynard, John Maynard said, when journalist Paul Daly asked him about the importance of commemorating events such as Myall Creek.

“Myall Creek and Coniston are two of the more prominent Aboriginal massacre sites and, as such, stand as markers not just for the horrific crimes that took place at these locations but reflect additionally the multitude of silences that remain across the wider continent.”

He’s not saying we shouldn’t commemorate Gallipoli, of course. He’s just drawing a big red circle around our nation’s collective hypocrisy when it comes to commemorating the loss of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives in Australia’s own Frontier Wars. And he’s right.

But the truth is that Myall Creek wasn’t really a battle. It was more of a war crime scene.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday June 10, 1838, a group of just over 30 Wirrayaraay people gathered around their campfire, chatting in their native tongue, Gamilaraay, and preparing their evening meal. They were camped on land that had been named ‘Myall Creek Station’ by settlers, but it was Kamilaroi country to them – the land they had been custodians of for 40,000 years.

Gathering around the campfire at Myall Creek Station that afternoon, they felt relatively safe. They’d recently relocated at the invitation of the station’s stockman, Charles Kilmeister, who had offered them protection.

Kilmeister was a convict who had been assigned to Myall Creek Station’s ‘owner,’ Henry Dangar, a government surveyor. Dangar was rarely around, like most of the wealthy landowners known as ‘squatters’ who had set up cattle and sheep stations beyond the ‘Limits of Location’ – the official boundaries of the colony – thereby avoiding paying government land fees.

William Hobbs, the station superintendent, was absent when the Wirrayaraay group arrived at Myall Creek station and Kilmeister welcomed them. When Hobbs returned, he was initially angry that they’d been invited to stay on the station, but was persuaded to let them stay.

A gang of 12 stockmen attacked the group, binding their hands and leading away all but a few who were able to hide, to be brutally murdered.

As the two groups spent time together their relationship developed. Apparently, one Wirrayaraay man known as “Young Charley” became a particular favourite of station superintendent Hobbs (a free settler), and the Myall Creek hut keeper (also a convict), George Anderson, was given his own nickname of “Jackey Jackey” by the Wirrayaraay group.

It seems that some degree of protection was given in exchange for Aboriginal men ‘sharing’ their wives sexually with the men at Myall Creek. George Anderson, the convict hut keeper at the station, had a sexual relationship with an Aboriginal man’s wife, called Ipeta.

Yet despite the Wirrayaraays’ efforts to negotiate their protection, late that June afternoon a gang of 12 stockmen attacked the group, binding their hands and leading away all but a few who were able to hide, to be brutally murdered.

Against all odds, the gut-wrenching account is included in Australia’s official record. And being included, it forces us to reckon with its truth.

The details of what took place are horrific and I’m not going to list them here. I will say that, even as someone who is well-acquainted with the kind of barbarism found in ancient historical studies of Celtic resistance and Roman brutality, I was deeply shaken by the accounts of what took place at Myall Creek.

Yet my horror only intensified when I learned that one of the reasons the massacre’s details are so noteworthy is their mere existence. By that I mean this: Myall Creek’s noteworthy because we know about it.

Against all odds, the gut-wrenching account is included in Australia’s official record. And being included, it forces us to reckon with its truth.

Accordingly, the first truth we must reckon with is that Myall Creek wasn’t the first or only time a large number of unarmed Aboriginal people were brutally murdered by a well-armed group of British men.

In fact, Myall Creek isn’t even one instance in a handful of historical examples. Instead, ‘clearing out’ Aboriginal people was evidently common practice in the stretched young colony.

“The killings at Waterloo Creek are a prime case: they were not a single event but an extended campaign designed to break the will of the Kamilaroi people in north-western NSW early in 1838,” writes Aboriginal scholar John Harris, in his essay entitled Hiding the bodies: the myth of the humane colonisation of Aboriginal Australia.

To put it bluntly, we only know about the Myall Creek Massacre because white people told the story.

“Snodgrass, a northern landowner himself, told Nunn, ‘you are to act according to your own judgement and use your utmost exertion to suppress these outrages’.”

Second, we must wrestle with the fact that the Myall Creek Massacre was a key moment in the development of Australian law.

Although it was neither the first nor the last massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia, the NSW Supreme Court trials that followed set a judicial precedent. Yet, while these trials may have put the massacre’s details officially ‘on the record’ of Australian history, there would have been no trials if non-Aboriginal witnesses hadn’t spoken up and sought justice.

To put it bluntly, we only know about the Myall Creek Massacre because white people told the story.

We don’t know much about other massacres because white people didn’t tell the stories. There would have been no significant legal justice moment if white people had not reported, investigated, prosecuted and testified against other white people for their crimes against Aboriginal people. In a young colony that was stretched beyond its ‘limits’ there weren’t practical pathways for Aboriginal people to pursue their own justice.

Now, before we file all this in the “dim, dark past we disapprove of” file in our brains, let’s take a moment for national self-reflection.

Perhaps it’s time Australians acknowledged we are still dismissing Aboriginal voices calling for Aboriginal justice.

Remember how quickly a Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory was called after the Don Dale Detention Centre report by ABC’s Four Corners? It was as if the ABC had enlightened the government to a new injustice, one they hadn’t already had a Royal Commission on in 1991 and received 339 recommendations about from an expert panel.

And then remember how swiftly our current government leaders dismissed calls for a dedicated Aboriginal voice in Parliament after last year’s Uluru Convention?

Perhaps it’s time Australians acknowledged we are still dismissing Aboriginal voices calling for Aboriginal justice.

The third truth we must reckon with this Sunday, when we commemorate 180 years – only 180 years – since the brutal Myall Creek Massacre, is our past and continuing failure to be honest about the dark parts of our nation’s history.

Various newspapers … took the view a white man should never stand trial for killing an Aboriginal man and it was in the colony’s best interest to drive them off their land.

When Attorney-General, John Plunkett began to prosecute the Myall Creek Massacre perpetrators in Sydney, he was far from celebrated for pursuing justice.

Instead, he faced an uproar from large sections of privileged, wealthy society. Various newspapers such as the Sydney Herald (owned by wealthy squatter Robert Scott) took the view a white man should never stand trial for killing an Aboriginal man and it was in the colony’s best interest to drive them off their land.

George Anderson, the prosecution’s key witness, was likewise reviled, requiring protective custody. Myall Creek Station squatter Henry Dangar promptly fired station superintendent William Hobbs for his part in reporting the incident to the authorities. Dangar then gathered his squatter friends and organised a fundraising campaign enabling the perpetrators to retain three of the best barristers in the colony.

The first trial took place on November 15 1838 at the Supreme court before Justice John Dowling and the jury took just 15 minutes to return a verdict of “not guilty.”

Unwilling to see the perpetrators go unpunished, Plunkett had the prisoners remanded in custody to stand trial again on a separate set of charges arising from the massacre.

The second trial took place on November 29 with Justice Burton presiding and only seven of the 11 men standing trial – a strategy devised by Governor Gipps and Plunkett in the hope that some of the group testifying against the others, a strategy that ultimately failed.

The Myall Creek Massacre is the kind of historic dark place we all wished was not a part of Australia.

This time Plunkett was able to successfully bring the credibility of Henry Dangar into question during cross examination and the jury finally returned verdicts of “guilty”. When Justice Burton sentenced them on December 15, he pronounced that,
“…. you and each of you be removed to the place from whence you came and thence to a place of public execution and that at such time as his Excellency, the Governor shall appoint, you be hanged by the neck until your bodies be dead and may the Lord have mercy on your souls.”

On December 18, 1838, Charles Kilmeister, John Russell, Edward Foley, John Johnstone, James Parry, James Oates and William Hawkins were hanged for their roles in the Myall Creek Massacre.

The other four were not prosecuted again. Free man John Flemming escaped arrest. Henry Dangar went on to be a wealthy, well-respected man. ‘Justice’ may have been served, but in hindsight, its limitations are striking.

One-hundred-and-eighty years on, the Myall Creek Massacre is the kind of historic dark place we all wished was not a part of Australia.

Given that it is, we should take the time to stop, remember, and say the words we reserve for our darkest national memories.

“Lest we forget.”

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