The Myall Creek Massacre was a horrific atrocity, leading to the slaughter of twenty-eight innocent Aboriginal Australians from the Kwiambal tribe, of the Myall Creek district, on the 10th June 1838. (1). The execution of the twenty-eight Aborigines, the group consisting of men, women and children, went completely without reason. During May 1838 stockmen in stations in the lower Gwydir Valley, located at a distance of between forty and eighty miles from Myall Creek began to organize an expedition.
The purpose of this expedition was to clear the Gwydir area of Aborigines. 2) On Friday the 8th of June 1838 the expedition departed Bell’s station, approximately forty miles west of Myall Creek. It appears that a series of massacres and murders were conducted by the group of white travelers upon Aboriginal people. These murders are thought to have occurred on the eighth, ninth, tenth (Myall Creek massacre), and thirteenth of June. The group dispatched on the nineteenth of June, with the purpose of their entire journey being the extermination of Aborigines. (3). On the 10th of June the group reached Henry Dangar’s Myall Creek Station.
Joined by Charles Kilmeister, one of the head stockmen on the station, the mob approached a group of terrified Aborigines taking shelter nearby another stockmen, George Anderson. Twenty-eight Aborigines were tied up and marched ‘over a ridge’. Shortly afterwards, Anderson heard two shots fired. The group of Aborigines were shot, stabbed, decapitated and burnt. One Aboriginal woman was forced to watch the slaughter of her people, before being repeatedly raped and killed sometime later. (4). Conflict was evident between Aboriginals and Colonists from the very beginning of settlement. (5).
Prior to European invasion the Aboriginal people led a fairly nomadic lifestyle, with a belief system based upon that of the ‘dreamtime’. “The dreamtime stories were used as an explanation of how the world came to be, and how people must conduct their behaviour and social relations”. (6/Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians, p19). The Aboriginals followed strict traditions, and preferred a life of continuity rather then change. Traditions and belief structures were passed between generations and were deeply engrained in society, ensuring Aboriginal communities were stable and struggles for wealth and power rarely existed. 7). The Aboriginals had a complicated system of kinship, and everyone in their clan was considered a family member. The kinship system provided systems of behaviour and relationships, particularly with other tribes. Giving and receiving gifts was an important part of the kinship system, and was a form of industry within Aboriginal society. (8).
Aborigines had a pattern of clan and tribe territory, and diversity in cultures existed between clans and tribes, although all beliefs were based upon the central idea of the dreamtime. 9) The term best used to describe relations between the Aborigines and colonists would undoubtedly be ‘culture clash’. White Australians adopted a universal belief that indigenous culture was primitive and un-civilized, and saw no value in their traditions or beliefs. (10). The Aborigines were used for white labour and were often forced to ‘steal’ food. (11) The idea of stealing was in itself quite ironic, as in the Aboriginal culture stealing rarely existed as everything was shared.
One of the major issues existing between Aboriginal and White Australians was an in-ability to understand and accept the ideas and beliefs of the opposing race. (12). The Aboriginal land rights, such as their connection with sacred sites as well as their basic human rights were being blatantly ignored. “Aborigines were being beaten, raped and often killed with hardly a white hand being raised to prevent it. ” (13/David Day, Claiming a Continent, p182). There is no justification for the behavior of the men leading to the Myall Creek massacre.
Some historians have suggested concerns that may have encouraged the men to determine to exterminate the aborigines. Denholm, in his book ‘ Push from the Bush’, makes some suggestions. In January of 1838, six months prior to the Myall Creek Massacre, a mounted police force are said to have killed between twelve and eighty Aborigines. It is suggested that perhaps this event places the idea in the stockman’s head. Furthermore, if members of society see law enforcement officers behaving in such a manner, it can hardly seem surprising that they themselves would see no legal or moral issues with replicating this behaviour. 14).
Shortly after this incident, on the thirteenth of April, 1838, only two months prior to the Myall Creek Massacre, Aboriginals on the Broken River in the Port Phillip District are said to have ambushed fifteen armed white men, killing eight of them. It is suggested that this may have demoralized the men that were involved in the Myall Creek Massacre making them fearful of possible attack from Aborigines. (15). It is important to consider that however relevant these justifications may seem, the Myall Creek massacre had no legitimate reasoning behind it.
Both in court, and as justification during police investigation, the men claimed that their cattle had been butchered, and they were looking for the perpetrators. It appears that this was no more than an excuse, and a blatant lie. (16) Although the Myall Creek Massacre affected an enormous amount of people from both Aboriginal and white society, a significant amount of damage was done to Aboriginal morale. mass group of people, from the perspective of white society and the damage it did to Aboriginal morale. All eleven men involved in the massacre with question of perhaps one, were convicts or ex-convicts on tickets of leave.
The mob consisted of: Charles Kilmeister (stockman on Myall Creek run), John Russell, George Palliser, John Johnstone, Edward ‘Ned’ Foley, Charles Toulouse, James Hawkins, John Bjake, Charles ‘Jem’ LAMB, James Parry, James Oates, and a twelfth African-American man who escaped, John Fleming. (17, 18) Two men, Governor Gipps and police magistrate Edward Denny Day played an important and influential role in the legal proceedings of the Myall Creek Massacre. Governor Gipps was said to have “decided that the events of Myall Creek were an opportunity to reassert British Law on the lawless frontier”. 19/ B Elder,Blood on the Wattle, p92) Day was said to have been “the most unswerving, the most efficient and perhaps the most dispassionate magistrate in New South Wales. ” (21/D. Denholm/Push from the Bush,P80).
It is questionable as to whether without the significant involvement of these two men, as well as William Hobbs (overseer of the Myall Creek station), action would have been taken against the criminals. On the 28th of July, six weeks after the massacre, Edward Day arrived at Myall Creek to begin investigations on the massacre, and spent seven weeks accumulating evidence. 22). The eleven men were tried at the Supreme Court in Sydney on the 15th of November 1838. The main charge the men were faced with was the murder of ‘Daddy’, an elderly Aboriginal man. (23) Through evidence the apparent guilt of the men was obvious, and the Chief of Justice is said to have made the statement “….. and in order to fulfill my duty I must tell you that the life of a black is as precious and valuable in the eye of the law, as that of the highest noble in the land” (24/ B. Elder, Blood on the Wattle, p93).
It took the jury fifteen minutes, even after hearing the above statement, to find the men not guilty. To the surprise of the public, it was decided that the eleven men would be held in custody and re-tried using the same evidence. On the 27th of November the second trial was held, this time only persecuting seven of the eleven men. Kilmeister, Russell, Foley, Oates. Johnston. Parry and Hawkins were all found guilty and charged with murder. (25). On the 7th of December Governor Gipps stated his agreement with the verdict, and sentences the men to hanging.
All seven men were hanged on the 18th of December, 1838. (26). Throughout the investigation and trial of the men white society was desperately divided regarding their opinions. Most white people could see no justification in a white man dying simply because they killed an Aborigine. The case caused much public outrage and dispute within the settlement. (27) The aftermath and lessons learnt in regards to Aboriginal treatment by members of white society are debatable, as it appears that the government did not manage to convey their message successfully.
The aim of the persecution was to warn white settlers that Aboriginal brutality would not be accepted. However, the message that was received was ‘if you do kill an Aborigine, by all means, do not let the government find out. ‘ (28) An article written in the Sydney Herald on the 7th of December, 1838, the day seven of the eleven men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, conveying the laws’ reasoning behind convicting the men. The aim of the article appears to be to sway public opinion and convince society that the conviction was just.
The article uses words describing the aborigines as “poor defenseless human beings” (quote, 29, Syd Her primary, from book), and attempts to manipulate the audience through the use of visual and emotive language. The article attempts to sway public opinion by making suggestions as to the understandings of why the men have behaved in the manner that they did. After stating and acknowledging these reasons, the article re-states that their behavior was un-acceptable and under British law and the Christian faith, could not go un-punished.
It appears that education and powerful members of society in the 1800’s empathized with the Aborigines in some circumstances. The Myall Creek massacre was an event that shocked the government, and forced them to acknowledge the racial tensions that existed between Aboriginal and white Australians. The Myall Creek massacre was perhaps the first Aboriginal massacre in Australia to receive public and media coverage. This coverage and acknowledgement also reached an international scale.
This can be seen in the primary source of a letter written from Governor Gipps to a Lord Glenelg, in England. 30, reference Gipps’ primary). This tells us that Aboriginal relations had become an issue significant enough for communication regarding treatment and resolutions to be happening between the New South Wales Colony, and England. The letter was written on the 19th December, 1838, one day after the seven men were hanged. This also indicates the significance of this matter; the letter was written straight away, and gives a detailed description of events regarding the massacre. In his letter, Gipps describes the Aborigines as living in “perfect tranquility”(31/Gipps, Australian p 701) with the white Australians.
This may be indicative of two things. Firstly, it is possible that England was not aware of the gruesome slaughter that the Aborigines faced at the hands of the colonials. Secondly, it may indicate that Governor Gipps is re-iterating the brutality and lack of reasoning behind the massacre. He may well have felt that England would not approve of a white man being persecuted for the killing of an Aboriginal man. The racism and maltreatment faced by the Aborigines during colonialisation has had detrimental effects upon Aboriginals from all generations.
The brutality and blatant slaughter of the Aborigines has to be acknowledged by white Australian society. As the ‘Sorry” debate continues and political concerns grow, the study of an event such as the Myall Creek Massacre forces one to become aware of how disgustingly the Aboriginals have been treated. One has to wonder whether or not our society still holds the taboo attitude of white supremacy. There is a fine line between acknowledgement of equality and a patronizing pity. Events such as the recent Redfern Riot highlight the racial gaps that continue to exist within Australia.
Small numbers of our society gradually seem to accept the idea of taking responsibility for Australia’s past, and this can be seen in events such as the National Sorry Day, and walks across the Sydney Harbor bridge. A memorial was held on the 10th June, 2000, for the victims of the Myall Creek Massacre. The Myall Creek massacre was a horrific event of in-humane brutality. It was, unfortunately, only one of hundreds, possibly thousands of murders of Aboriginal people at the hands of white Australians during the period of settlement.
The Myall Creek massacre is significant to Australian History as it was the first time in over forty years (32) that a white Australian had been convicted of the murder of an Aborigine. This was also the first time that a ‘viable’ witness could give evidence in court, by taking an oath. (The aborigines were not considered able to take an oath, due to a lack of Christian beliefs, and their apparent lack of civilization. ) (33). The results of the Myall Creek massacre were un-doubtedly a milestone for the period of time in which they existed, in two ways.
Firstly, it appeared as though this may have been one of the first (recorded) times that a white man stood in the defence of the Aboriginals, and furthermore, the first incident of Aboriginal brutality that could not be ignored by anyone in the colony. The Myall Creek massacre forced the government and law enforcement agencies to do their job properly for the first time. Unfortunately, in the period of time, the event was not significant enough to eliminate brutality towards Aboriginals. What it proved to do was ‘scare’ the white man into being more careful when being involved in acts of violence.