Frontier Massacres

Frontier Massacres #

 Cook’s Orders:

*“to look for signs of occupation and negotiate with any natives they encountered”.  he was further ordered “to open dialogue and establish friendship”. *

Thomas Morton, President of the Royal Society added:* “any natives you encounter are to be considered natural and legal possessors and no European nation has the right to occupy or settle among them without their consent.  *

Despite many hostile receptions, Cook ignored  his express orders and before leaving the shores of New Holland, Cook declared it* **“terra nullus”*, planted a British Flag on Possession Island.

John Clarke jested: *"*In Australia the Indigenous population was said not to exist, but then hunted down because they did”.

End of the Picnic     Francis Webb   1964 #

When that humble-headed elder, the sea, gave his wide

Strenuous arm to a blasphemy, hauling the girth

And the sail and the black yard

Of unknown Endeavour towards this holy beach,

Heaven would be watching. And the two men. And the earth,

Immaculate, illuminant, out of reach.

It must break-on sacred water this swindle of a wave.

Thick canvas flogged the sticks. Hell lay hove-to.

Heaven did not move.

Two men stood safe: even when the prying, peering

Longboat, the devil’s totem, cast off and grew,

No god shifted an inch to take a bearing.

It was Heaven-and-earth’s jolting out of them shook the men.

*It was uninitiate scurf and bone that fled.     * (dandruff)

Cook’s column holds here.

Our ferry is homesick, whistling again and again;

But still I see how the myth of a daylight bled

Standing in ribbons, over our heads, for an hour.

* *

* *

Aboriginal version:

January 26 marks the arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson where Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack on the land of the Eora nation. This was an invasion that had catastrophic consequences for all the peoples and nations who had lived there for tens of thousands of years.

What followed was brutal frontier violence and massacres, the forced removal of First Nations children from their families, indentured slave labour, and violent attempts to wipe out First Nations language and culture.

The fact that this violence and dispossession has not been formally acknowledged in over 200 years of contemporary Australia, whether through the history we teach, in the Constitution or failure to negotiate formal treaty/ies means that it is very difficult for many people to celebrate and that must be acknowledged.

Many Australians are either not aware of this history or, like our politicians, try to distract from the uncomfortable truths about our history and their contemporary consequences.

When the first ships of the first fleet arrived in Botany Bay, it was closely followed by the Gweagal clan, wondering why the huge clouds of ships with white people had returned.  There were many indications that all they wanted is for the whites to leave.  Phillip knew from Cook’s diary to be wary and conciliatory. 

Arthur Phillips’s instructions attached to his commission from the Crown were clear:

“You are to endeavour by every means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them, and if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or to give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment”.

On January 22, a fishing net hauled in a large quantity of fish.  The natives came by, made a large shout and took some of the fish as their privileged ownership.  The English saw it as primitive pilferage.  The next day, the natives came back, struck the fishermen with spears, and ran off with more fish as an assertion of native ownership.

There is no evidence that Phillip made any effort to establish a treaty with the natives to cede their lands with any offer of reciprocity.  Though he attempted to live in harmony with the indigenous people, his spearing at Manly Cove thwarted his best intentions.

Governor Macquarie’s egalitarian streak with its policy of tapping into the talents of expired convicts plus his extensive infrastructure projects created tensions.  The newly minted landed gentry, supported by the colony’s senior military, church and judicial officers, denounced the governor for welcoming ex-convicts into polite society. Others queried why a colony of criminal degenerates needed so many expensive marble buildings, criticising his 265 public works as “extravagances” and “fugacious toys”.

Despite his liberal credentials, his Appin massacre was one of the earliest officially sanctioned mass killings of Indigenous people.   Governor Lachlan Macquarie wrote in his diary in April 1816 that he felt compelled to “inflict terrible and exemplary punishments” upon Indigenous people living on the outskirts of Sydney.  His diaries further records that three military detachments were deployed to clear the country entirely of “hostile natives”.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance … the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors,”.

The soldiers carried out the Governor’s orders with alacrity, with one group killing at least 14 Aboriginal men, women and children near the upper reaches of the Cataract River.

William Wentworth, in 1820, reflecting fallacious white views about the inferiority of Aboriginal people and lack of affinity with cultivation and domesticity, wrote:  “The aborigines of this country occupy the lowest place in the gradatory scale of the human species. They have neither houses nor clothing; they are entirely unacquainted with the arts of agriculture; and even the arms which the several tribes have … and the hunting and fishing implements with which they administer to their support, are of the rudest contrivance and workmanship.”

The most infamous Massacre remains the the one at Myall Creek, northwestern NSW.  However this one received some Justice.  The first most isolated reforming Judge, John Hubert Plunkett, an Irish Catholic prosecutor successfully brought the murderers of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre to justice despite the resistance and hostility of the media supporting the budding bunyip aristocracy of landowners.  The case established the principle that “the natives of the colony have equal rights with the people of European origin to the protection and assurance of the Law of England”.  **Mark Tedeschi QC.   **It too was “more honoured in the breach than the observance”

Cultural Wars #

John Howard turned the condemnation of “black armband history” into a political calling card for a generation of conservatives, and together with his cynical  2007 “intervention” entrenched a culture of  indifference towards Indigenous Australia.  Enlightened people prefer a “black armband” to a “white blindfold”.  #

Professor Lyndall Ryan, leader of the University of Newcastle research team and Lorema Allam from  Guardian Australia’s collaborative series uncovered at least 270 frontier massacres over 140 years as part of a state-sanctioned and organised attempt to eradicate Aboriginal people. #

One of the most spurious claims by European settlers was that the indigenous population did not make proper use of the land.  This is convincingly disputed by Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and many other sources.  #

The Budj Bim of central west Victoria. #

Budj Bim is home to one of the world’s oldest aquaculture systems – a 6,600-year-old network of channels, dams and weirs developed by the Gunditjmara people to manipulate flood plains and water flows to trap and harvest kooyang (eels). It spans one hundred square kilometres on the site of the old Budj Bim lava flow in south-west Victoria, just north of the Great Ocean Road, about an hour’s drive from Warrnambool. #

It was nominated as a Cultural Landscape – a category of the World Heritage Convention that recognises combined works of nature and man.

Today, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape spans 9935 hectares and includes nine Gunditjmara-owned properties and a large section of Budj Bim National Park, which is cooperatively managed by Gunditjmara traditional owners and Parks Victoria.

The aquaculture systems are maintained by a team of Budj Bim rangers, who work in revegetation, feral animal control, weed control, and give tours to visitors.

The site is not only home to one of the world’s oldest and most complex aquaculture systems – it’s also the site of over 100 permanent stone dwellings. For thousands of years, dwellings such as these were home to a settled community of Gunditjmara people – a rarity in Aboriginal culture, which is mostly known to have been nomadic.

The reason Budj Bim’s aquaculture network – far more extensive than similar cultural sites in western Victoria and South Australia – was able to support a settled community was because of its once reliable water supply. But these days the demands placed on Australia’s waterways mean the site is unable to run at its full capacity.

With European settlement in the 1930’s came conflict.  Gunditjmara fought for their land during the Eumeralla Wars which lasted more than 20 years.  As the conflict drew to a close in the 1860s many Aboriginal people were displaced and the Victorian Government began to develop reserves to house them.  Those who refused to move were placed in a Mission, closed in 1919.  The lands were returned to the Gunditjmara in 1987.

David Marr writes about the massacres near Maryborough Queensland  in 1860. #

We’re only human. We hang on to lies that comfort us. A big consoling lie that still hangs around this history of slaughter and dispossession is that we can’t apply the outlook of the 21st century to killings on the frontier.

Tell that to those who denounced the crimes as they were being committed. Theirs was real time rage. “It is a fitful war of extermination waged upon the blacks, something after the fashion which other settlers wage war upon noxious wild beasts,” wrote Carl Feilberg, editor of the Queenslander in 1880.

Forced to build their own pyres: dozens more Aboriginal massacres revealed in Killing Times research 

“The savages, hunted from the places where they have been accustomed to find food, driven into barren ranges, shot like wild dogs at sight … ”

As war raged in the bush, a parallel campaign was fought in the newspapers of the country. Those outraged by the killings called on Christ more than we would these days. Their language was at times pompous and arch. They could be fiercely longwinded. But their verdict was absolutely 21st century: this was murder.

Lieutenant John O’Connell Bligh led his native troopers on a killing spree in Maryborough in February 1860. In gratitude, the citizens of the town got up a fund to present him with a ceremonial sword inscribed with suitable words of thanks. The result was a newspaper war that ran for a year.

The presentation of the sword was condemned in the Maryborough Chronicle as “one of the most disgraceful acts ever perpetrated by any community, a blot so foul and deep-stained as will leave on this otherwise fair portion of God’s earth the brand of eternal infamy”.

The Moreton Bay Courier gave the details: “Mr. Bligh … charged a camp near Mr. Melville’s, drove the poor creatures from it – some through the town, some into the river – and commenced butchering them forthwith. ‘Darkey,’ who had been constantly employed in the town – who could have been apprehended at any moment, had there been any desire, or occasion, was shot down opposite Mr, Palmer’s, where his body was left, and subsequently roasted.

“‘Young Snatchem’, an excellent and industrious black, was driven into the river, near the public wharf, – scores of men, women, and children stood by, and Lieut. John O’Connell Bligh stationed himself in the bow of a boat, which was in readiness, and forty or fifty shots were actually fired, five or six by Mr. Bligh himself. The boat overtook him (the black) in an exhausted state, and the ‘gallant hero’ – the deserver of a sword – lowered his carbine, and shot the defenceless, tired, unresisting wretch, in the back.”

I was up in Maryborough recently. It’s a town that commemorates everything about itself. Olympians’ names are set in the footpaths. Even old journalists like Margo Kingston and Quentin Dempster are honoured for being born in the town. Witty pedestrian lights celebrate PL Travers’s childhood years in Maryborough: GO is a green Mary Poppins in flight.

The new Anzac memorial in the park must have cost millions. A soundtrack of marching feet plays night and day. And in the museum down by the wharf is a fine memorial to the South Sea Islanders brought to cut cane in this stretch of Queensland. It reads: “The grim trade was, in reality, little better than slavery.”

But the men Bligh killed are uncommemorated. Nor could I find a memorial anywhere in Maryborough to the dead – white and black – in the battles fought up and down the river in the early years of the town. I asked around. No one knew of anything. Too soon, perhaps.

The frontier massacres would be so much easier to face if we hadn’t realised back then what they meant. But we did

We don’t need plaques. Newspapers are evidence we knew exactly what was going on back then. The papers fought both sides of the war. The slaughters were denounced and defended. Writers urged pastoralists on to further acts of savagery. Others said: we must never forget that this is their land.

Few put their names to these opinions. In these furious exchanges they signed themselves “A Squatter” and “Bunya Bunya” and “Quelque Chose” and “Outis”. Scholars are still trying to untangle their identities.

The sweep of the rhetoric was imperial. In 1868 Freeman’s Journal compared the work of the native police with the destruction of the Aztecs and Incas.

“Those who have read English histories of the conquest of South America by the Spaniards must have been greatly edified by the indignant denunciations of the cruelties practiced upon the natives by the invaders.

“We have little doubt that we should surprise many of our readers, even among those who do not believe in Anglo-Saxon impeccability, if we were to plainly tell them that atrocities, fully as bad as were attributed to the Spaniards of two hundred years ago, are committed at the present day with the consent and approbation of an Australian Government.”

Also with an undeniable 21st century ring is the abuse of the defenders as pious and out of touch with reality. Between then and now only the language has changed. Virtue signalling would be the accusation today, followed by some pithy insults about inner city life and a taste for coffee.

The night the citizens of Maryborough met at the courthouse to offer him a sword, Bligh’s critics were denounced as “croakers”. The Moreton Bay Courier reported Mr Howard in full flight: “Some of those gentlemen should have been in Maryborough as long as he had, should have heard, seen, and felt the merciless outrages the wretches, called by the croakers ‘the poor blacks’, had committed, and he had little hesitation in saying their tone would be changed.”

Newspaper reports of massacres in Queensland made their way around the world. In the winter of 1867, after the theft of tea and sugar from a store, the native police raided a camp on the edge of the Morinish goldfield. One of the miners wrote to the Rockhampton Bulletin. He didn’t need a century or so to work out what had happened here. He could see it with his own eyes.

The Pinjarra massacre: it’s time to speak the truth of this terrible slaughter.

* “At the fire nearest to the Creek, which separates the camp from the township, and around which a number of blacks apparently had been sleeping, two pools of blood and brains showed where foul murder had been perpetrated, and a gin’s clothing, all stained with blood, was also found, exactly as if the unfortunate blacks had just left the articles on finding herself wounded.*

“A little further on, close to a fire, where one person, probably an old man, had passed the night, another puddle of blood and brains were found, and the surrounding ground bore all the traces of the flight of wounded men, and of dead bleeding bodies having been dragged over it. The first body discovered was that of a black boy called Tommy … a well-known character in the district.

“The poor fellow was found lying in a water hole with three wounds, one through the arm, another through the chest, and a third through the brain. The next corpse found was a little lubra, stiff and stark, concealed under a bush.”

Henry Reynolds reports the miner’s account landed on the desk of the secretary of state for the colonies in London who promised to draw the matter to the attention of Queensland’s governor.

Nothing much happened. The commander of the troopers that day was sacked – one of the few who met such a fate in the history of the native police. Bligh was untouched. He went on to command the force and ended up a magistrate in the town where he committed his very public murders.

The frontier massacres would be so much easier to face if we hadn’t realised back then what they meant. But we did. There were voices back then speaking in newspapers, in pulpits and in parliaments with great clarity, responding to the killings exactly as we would expect good people to respond today.

But those voices didn’t carry the day. The killings went on.


Judith Wright attempts to assuage some of our guilt in this poem:

At Killula

*       The blue crane fishing in Killula’s twilight*

* Has fished there longer than our centuries*

* He is the certain heir of lake and evening, and he will wear*

* Their colors till he dies.*

* *

* But I am a stranger come of a conquering people.*

* I can’t share his calm who watches lake being unloved by*

* All my eyes delight in and made uneasy for an old murder’s sake*

* *

* Those dark-skinned people who once named Killula,*

* Knew that no land is lost or won by wars*

* For earth is spirit.*

* *

* The invader’s feet will tangle in nets there*

* And his blood be thinned by fears.*

* *

* Riding at noon, ninety years ago, my grandfather*

* Was beckoned by a ghost, a black accoutered warrior*

* Armed for fighting who sank into a bare plain*

* And now it’s time past.*

* *

* Quite short of sand, plumed reed and paperbark*

* Clear heavenly levels frequented by crane and swan.*

* I know we are justified only by love,*

* But oppressed by arrogant guilt, have room for none.*

* *

* And walking on clean sand,*

* among the prints of bird and animal,*

* I am challenged by a driftwood spear*

* Thrust from the water*

* And like my grandfather*

* Must quiet a heart accused by its own fear.*