Flat White

Will the ABC tell the whole story about Mount Dispersion?

Vic Jurskis

Illustration facing p. 104 Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia drawing of Mount Dispersion massacre, 1836 by Major T.L. Mitchell (Heritage NSW).

Vic Jurskis

1 June 2022

4:00 AM

I think ABC reached the zenith of Wokeism in a tall story supposedly Honouring Aboriginal History and Mourning an Atrocity at the Mount Dispersion Massacre Site.

They reported that, ‘At least seven Aboriginal people were killed, as they tried to flee across the river to safety, 186 years ago. Explorer Major Thomas Mitchell named it Mount Dispersion in euphemistic reference to the massacre.’

Barkindji woman, Sophia Pearce, is working to share its history with non-Aboriginal Australians in the spirit of reconciliation. ‘The truth-telling of this place for our people – not just Aboriginal people, but also non-Aboriginal people,’ Ms Pearce says.

Apparently, about 150 people met at the site, including dozens of local primary school children, who have been ‘learning about the massacre’ with Ms Pearce’s guidance.

In the spirit of genuine reconciliation here are the facts:

On March 24, 1836, Mitchell, while travelling down the right bank of the Millewa (Murray) River, reached Lake Benanee and saw ‘natives in great numbers along its western shores’. He continued west, looking for a crossing of the channel from the Lake to the River. Some natives told Mitchell’s Aboriginal guide Piper that there was a dry ford higher up the channel.

Mitchell wrote:

‘Thither we went, the natives accompanying us in considerable numbers but each carrying a green bough. (Green boughs were a sign of peace/friendship.) [The elders] from time to time beckoned us, saying the Aboriginal words for ‘come, come, come’.’

The explorers crossed the dry channel and set up camp.

‘It will be readily understood with what caution we followed these natives, when we discovered, almost as soon as we fell in with them, that they were actually our old enemies from the Darling! I had certainly heard, when still far up on the Lachlan, that these people were coming down to fight us; but I little expected, they were to be the first natives we should meet with on the Murray, at a distance of nearly two hundred miles from the scene of our former encounter. There was something so false in a forced loud laugh, without any cause, which the more plausible among them would frequently set up, that I was quite at a loss to conceive, what they meant by all this uncommon civility.’

Mitchell was appalled when his old enemies produced ‘the handsomest female, I had ever seen amongst the natives … the chief begged me to accept of her in exchange for a tomahawk!’

Amongst the belligerent tribe from the Darling River, ‘We distinctly recognised the man who, last year, threw the two spears at Muirhead; while on their part, they evidently knew again Charles King, who, on that occasion, fired at the native, from whose spears Tom Jones so narrowly escaped.’

The hostile tribe lit five large fires around Mitchell’s camp. His Aboriginal friend and guide, Piper, told him his wife had overheard the Darling Aborigines plotting an attack. Piper asked Mitchell what instructions he had about ‘shooting blackfellows’.

‘I told him the Governor had said positively, that I was not to shoot blackfellows, unless our own lives were in danger.’

Instead, a rocket was fired while his men gave three cheers. Most of the war-party ran off before coming back to light more fires at a distance and hailing Mitchell’s party with an invitation to a Corroboree. When Piper told them to go away, they made as if to start the ceremony with a bit of desultory noise before giving up the ploy.

Soon after daybreak on the following day, May 25, the Darling tribe set fire to the head of a fallen tree near the explorers’ tents and lit the bush further back on the windward side. Mitchell ordered eight men to advance on the natives, holding aloft their muskets. He told them not to fire unless attacked. The natives retreated.

The men returned, had breakfast, and the party set off, but the natives had caught up with them within a mile. Though they kept their distance, Mitchell saw with his telescope a powerful fellow in a cloak carrying a heavy bundle of spears. He recognised him as a brother and successor of ‘King Peter’ of the Darling. When they reached the river bank three miles on, part of the hostile tribe was already there. 

‘To attempt to conciliate these people had last year proved hopeless. Our gifts had only excited their cupidity, and our uncommon forbearance had only inspired them with a poor opinion of our courage; while their meeting us in this place was a proof, that the effect of our arms had not been sufficient to convince them of our superior strength. I was assured by Piper, and the other young natives, that we should soon lose some of the men in charge of the cattle.’

Instead of following the river, Mitchell went eighteen miles through thick mallee scrub with no water or grass for the cattle.

Next morning, May 26, Piper found tracks of two natives who’d been shadowing them. Five miles on, they regained the river and halted to refresh the cattle on a grassy hill. In the evening some natives came along their tracks and Piper invited them up to the camp.

Mitchell wrote:

‘I could not, from their apparently candid discourse, look upon them as enemies. They said, that the tribe which we had seen at Benanee, did not belong to that part of the country, but had come here to fight us.

‘One of them asked Piper several times, why I did not attack them, when I had so good an opportunity, and he informed us, that they were the same tribe which intended to kill another white man (Captain Sturt) in a canoe, at the junction of the rivers lower down. They also informed us, on the inquiry being made, that the old man who had then behaved so well to the white men, was lately dead, and that he had been much esteemed by his tribe. I desired Piper to express to them, how much we white men respected him also.’

On May 27:

‘Had not gone far, when we heard the voices of a large body of blacks following our track, shouting prodigiously, and raising war cries. It now became necessary for me to determine, whether I was to allow the party, under my charge, to be perpetually subject to be cut off in detail, by waiting until these natives had again actually attacked, and slain some of my people, or whether it was not my duty, in a war which was not my party, but these savages had virtually commenced, to anticipate the intended blow.

‘But, in order to ascertain first, whether this was the hostile tribe, I sent overseer Burnett with Piper and half the party into the scrub, which skirted our line of route. I directed the men to allow the tribes to pass along our track towards me … Piper recognised from this scrub the same people he had seen at Benanee. The natives however having immediately discovered our ambuscade, by the howling of one of their dogs, halted, and poised their spears; but a man of our party (King) inconsiderately discharging his carabine, they fled, as usual, to their citadel, the river, pursued and fired upon by the party from the scrub.’

By the time Mitchell got down to the river:

‘Most of the natives were then, near the other side, and getting out, while others were swimming down the stream. The sound of so much firing must have been terrible to them, and it was not without effect, if we may credit the information of Piper, who was afterward informed that seven had been shot in crossing the river, and among them the fellow in the cloak, who at Benanee appeared to be the chief. Much as I regretted the necessity for firing upon these savages, and little as the men might have been justifiable under other circumstances, for firing upon anybody of men without orders, I could not blame them much on this occasion; for the result was the permanent deliverance of the party from imminent danger.

‘I was indeed satisfied, that this collision had been brought about in the most providential manner; for it was probable, that, from my regard for the Aborigines, I might otherwise have postponed giving orders to fire, longer than might have been consistent with the safety of my men.

‘Unappalled by the effect of firearms, to which they were no longer strangers, they had boastingly invaded the haunts of other tribes, more peaceably disposed than themselves, for the avowed purpose of the meeting and attacking us. They had persisted in following us with such bundles of spears as we had never seen on other occasions, and they were on the alert to kill any stragglers.’

The final confrontation was so sudden that no man had stayed on the hill to take charge of the horses and cattle.

Mitchell wrote that Piper’s female partner:

‘Stood the only guardian of all we possessed. Her presence of mind, in assuming such a charge on such an occasion, was very commendable, and seemed characteristic of the female Aborigines. I gave to the little hill which witnessed this overthrow of our enemies, and was to us the harbinger of peace and tranquillity, the name of Mount Dispersion.’

The ABC story included Mitchell’s illustration of the warlike tribe, with none of the relevant information in the above quotes from the preceding pages of his book. I’m sure the schoolchildren will continue to hear a black and white story rather than the truth which would greatly assist reconciliation.

Mitchell’s books, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia and Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia not only present valuable insights into Australian geomorphology, prehistory, climate, soils, ecology, anthropology, history and sociology but they also exemplify the value of scientific observation and deduction. Education of young Australians would benefit greatly if these books were prescribed reading in high school curricula.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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