Peter O’Brien Quadrant Online 30th August 2022
The colonisation of the Australian continent was a traumatic and damaging event for the Aboriginal people of the time. Almost alone in the world, they had maintained a stone age culture virtually unchanged for thousands of years. That was not because their culture was inherently superior or more desirable but because they had been shielded from the evolutionary cultural influences of surrounding societies. That situation was never going to endure. Change was inevitable. Whether the modern world intruded into the continent by later invasion or simply contact through trade, the resulting encounter with the outside world would have been more traumatic than it was in 1788. For example, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe enjoys a life immeasurably better than the life she would have led had the colonisation that she so deplores not occurred. Life for Aborigines before colonisation was by no means idyllic.
The Massacre Map
Many Aborigines were killed in clashes with settlers. And there were massacres. Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle maintains an online Massacre Map (https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php), which shows the location and provides details of 416 frontier massacres which resulted in the killing of 11,174 Aborigines between 1788 and 1930. This is a highly emotional topic and engenders strong feelings of guilt on the part of white Australians and strong feelings of injustice on the part of Aboriginal and Islander Australians. It has connotations of genocide and forms one of the bases for claims for reparation. However, not every killing of Aborigines was a massacre. The Massacre Map project defines a massacre as the deliberate and unlawful killing of six or more undefended people in one operation. The problem with these figures is that they are not sustainable under critical examination.
According to the Massacre Map website:
Unlike “genocide”, there is no legal definition of massacre, or a “frontier massacre”. Most international scholars of massacre appear to agree that the minimum number of people killed to constitute a massacre is between three and ten people … In this project, a colonial frontier massacre is defined as the deliberate and unlawful killing of six or more undefended people in one operation. The definition applies to the frontier massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Colonists. The number, six, has been selected because of the devastating impact on these people.
You will note that the definition applies even-handedly to both Aborigines and colonists. In other words, colonists too were massacred. But, because they were seldom killed in numbers as large as six—they were mostly isolated settler families—their deaths are not recorded as a massacre of colonists but simply as part of the narrative describing the retributive massacre. In fact, where the murder of colonists resulted in a reprisal, in the Massacre Map, the murdered colonists themselves are often numbered among “attackers killed”! A good example of this is the Mount Cottrell Werribee massacre of 1836, which was in reprisal for the murder and mutilation of settlers Charles Franks and Thomas Flinders. Franks and Flinders are actually named as “attackers killed”.
The website also tells us:
The aim of a frontier massacre is either to eradicate the victims; or force the survivors into submission. The purpose is to clear Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from a particular area, or to prevent them from accessing a major watering hole, or ceremonial ground.
But, even a cursory perusal of the map reveals that many, if not most, “massacres” of Aborigines were carried out in reprisal for either killing colonists or killing or stealing their stock. It was not, as a general rule, to eradicate Aborigines or to prevent them from carrying out their normal activities.
To fact-check the Massacre Map is a daunting task. Historian and Quadrant contributor Michael Connor has already done a sterling job calling out serious shortcomings in a number of entries (see Quadrant November 2021 and January-February 2022). One of the points that Connor raises is that most of these massacres rely on secondary sources—accounts written by activist historians in the 1960s and 1970s—rather than primary sources such as contemporaneous newspaper or gazette articles or diary entries. And even where these sources cite contemporaneous evidence, it is not included in the narrative.
The Tambo Crossing massacre
In my so far limited research, I have identified one particularly egregious example of dubious scholarship. This is the Tambo Crossing massacre of 1843-44. The Map website entry states that between November 1843 and June 1844, settlers massacred seventy Aborigines at Tambo Crossing in eastern Victoria. The original source for this is attributed to Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, who travelled through that area in 1844. In fact, Robinson recorded that this incident was a massacre of Aborigines by an opposing tribe. But the historian Peter Gardner managed to interpret Robinson’s report as some sort of code to cover up a massacre by settlers. This is an example where a secondary source completely contradicts the primary source. I have covered this incident in some detail in my book Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.
South Australian massacres
I decided to undertake a painstaking audit of the Map commencing with South Australia because it has relatively few incidents, nine in total. I list them all below, with comments where appropriate. I cannot be accused of cherry-picking. (Disclaimer: I am not a paid academic, I do not live in a capital city and this is not a book, so my research is necessarily limited to what I can access online.)
Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges, fifteen killed:
On 14 March 1852 stockman Robert Richardson was killed by Yura warriors at Aroona station in the Flinders Ranges. Two Yura men, “Billy” and “Jemmy”, were arrested for the murder, but were not brought to trial for lack of evidence. In 1929, the reminiscences of Richardson’s employer, Johnson Frederick Hayward, were published in the “Proceedings” of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australia Branch). According to Foster and Nettlebeck 2001, p. 102 in the aftermath of the Richardson killing, Hayward “with several companions”, “ascertained where the Yuras were camped, in a gorge between the Heysen and ABC ranges, about four miles from Youngoona and thirteen miles south of Aroona homestead” [and in Hayward’s words] “determined to attack them at dawn” and capture the males, among them those suspected of Richardson’s murder. (Foster and Nettlebeck 2001, p. 102). “Hayward describes ‘a good fusillade’ on the Yura camp but does not quantify the number killed” although “40, 50, and 60” are cited and then crossed out. In “the final published account of the episode … the decision was taken by the editor of the ‘Proceedings’ … to print ‘fifteen’ without comment.” (Foster and Nettlebeck 2001, p. 102)
Sources Foster and Nettlebeck 2001, p 94-105. (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating **
The first thing to note is that this a reprisal killing, which is, of course, reprehensible. But it provides necessary context. The killing was not done to eradicate Aborigines, or drive them from their land. And the only source for the incident was settler J.F. Hayward, who died in 1914. The details come from his reminiscences published in 1929. The reference to numbers being cited and then crossed out suggests that the original source was handwritten notes. Which, in turn, suggests that authors Foster and Nettlebeck had access to that handwritten record. In which case why not cite it directly? Why not provide the complete text in which “40, 50, and 60 are cited and then crossed out”? And how much credence can be placed on the claim of fifteen killed, which was apparently an arbitrary decision of the editor? The incident may have taken place, but the number killed is highly questionable.
Avenue Range station, near Guichen Bay, eight killed:
In September 1848 settler James Brown and two employees at Avenue Range station near Guichen Bay shot and killed eight Wattatonga people and burnt the bodies. The body burning was witnessed by a white man who reported the massacre and then disappeared along with an Aboriginal man who was also a witness. Brown was arrested and charged with murder and the employees absconded. The Aboriginal witness was probably killed before he could be subpoenaed to give evidence at the trial. As a result Brown was never tried and the case was dropped. (Foster et al 2001: 78-80; Foster 2009: 1-15)
Corroboration Rating **
This incident appears to be well documented and there is ample contemporaneous evidence that it occurred as described. It was apparently in retribution for attacks on sheep.
Naracoorte Caves, six killed:
When settler William Brown was killed by Aborigines in the “New Country” over the South Australian border in July 1845, John Oliver and neighbours gave chase and “some” Aborigines were killed. (Blair to La Trobe, 31 July 1845, cited in Critchett 1990, p. 254). According to Michael Cannon 1990, p. 154, “Many years later, James C. Hamilton, whose family worked at ‘Bringalbert’, some distance to the north, described what happened: ‘A call to arms was made—the footmen going one way and the horsemen another. They were all armed with flintlock muskets and pistols of some sort—heavy, clumsy weapons they were, but effective enough. (I have put a ball into a tree at a hundred yards with one of these pistols, and used the musket successfully as a fowling piece.) It was a bad day for the ill-fated darkies. The horsemen came up with them in the ranges, behind Naracoorte, and saw one fellow carrying poor Brown’s gun, and a lubra wearing his coat. They opened fire, and many of the blacks went under. They made no show of resistance, but scattered and ran for their lives.’” (Hamilton, cited in Cannon, 1990: 154-5)
Sources Critchett 1990: 254; Cannon 1990: 154-5. (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating **
Again, this was a reprisal. The evidence was hearsay on the part of Hamilton, who was nine years old at the time and had not yet arrived at Bringalbert. From his account:
Mr. Adam Smith came to Sydney in 1839, to Hynam about the year 1844. He had a partner called Brown, who was murdered by the blacks. Mr. Brown was shepherding some sheep not far from the station, and, seeing a camp of blacks, he went over to have a chat with them, not fearing any harm, as he had a double-barrelled gun with him. He was in the act of stooping down to get a firestick to light his pipe with, when a blackfellow struck him over the head with a waddy, killing him instantly. They stripped him naked, taking all his belongings, including his gun. It was necessary to teach the blacks a lesson, and the station people met and decided to take the law into their own hands. This would be in the year 1845, just before we came to Bringalbert.
The murder of William Brown no doubt resonated more strongly with the settlers than it appears to have done with the authors of the Massacre Map narrative, to whom he is little more than a footnote.
Waterloo Bay, Elliston, Eyre Peninsula, ten killed:
In reprisal for killing of Captain James Rigby Beevor on 3 May 1849 and Anne Easton on 7 May 1849 it is possible that a settler posse chased a group of Wirangu people to Waterloo Bay on 17 May and shot and killed at least 10 of them as they sought refuge in the bushes down the headland. (Foster et al 2001, p. 53) The “massacre” is highly contested. Foster et al 2001, p. 50 point out “there is no ‘direct’ evidence … in the official documents from the period 1848–1850”. “Similarly there is no ‘direct’ evidence in the memoirs written by individuals who were directly involved in the events of 1848-1849.” (Foster et al 2001, p. 50). However they do acknowledge that on 16 May 1849, ‘“there were three parties of volunteers out at that time”, and that according to historian Greg Charter, “that if the massacre took place it occurred following the Beevor and Easten murders”. Charter quoted in Foster et al 2001, pp 53-4.
Corroboration rating *
Here we have a massacre in reprisal for the killing of two colonisers, for which there appears to be no credible evidence whatsoever.
Yeelanna, Eyre Peninsula, eight killed:
In oral histories collected by Christina Smith one account relates that: In May 1849 a “local shepherd, Patrick Dwyer, annoyed at Aboriginal people taking flour from his hut, laced some of his supply with arsenic. The flour disappeared and eight Aboriginal people became sick after eating it. Five of them died and three others became very ill and later died. Dwyer was arrested on suspicion of murder but released afterwards for lack of evidence.” He then disappeared to California. (Foster et al., 2001, p. 83)
Corroboration rating **
This appears to be a credible account.
Hornet’s Nest, sixty-eight kilometres east of Lake Bonney, Murray River, eight killed:
In May 1841, a party of police and stockmen led by Henry Field, attacked an Aboriginal camp in a place known as Hornet’s Nest in reprisal for the alleged killing of livestock by Ngin tait. It is alleged that eight Ngin tait people were killed. (Burke et al. 2016, 135-179)
Sources Burke et al 2016: 152-179 (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating **
This too seems credible, despite the lack of detail.
Cooninghera Waterhole, Diamantina River 1890, forty killed:
The massacre was in reprisal for killing of the station cook “who was guilty of rape”. Linguist Luise Hercus recorded an account of the massacre in the 1960s from Ben Murray, the nephew of a survivor, “Rib-bone Billy”. It took place when a large number of Mindiri and Wardamba people had gathered for a ceremony. “It made a huge impact on the Aboriginal community.” (Hercus 1977, p. 56) Journalist George Farwell was also told of the massacre during his travels along the Birdsville track in the 1940s. It was one of “several” and that “no official enquiries were ever held into these massacres which appeared to have been common morality of the day”. (Farwell 1950, p. 132)
Sources Hercus 1977: 56; Farwell 1950: 36-40. (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating **
Koonchera Waterhole (Clifton Hills), forty killed:
In the 1890s a punitive expedition of pastoralists and stockmen was undertaken in reprisal for Mindiri and Wardumba people killing bullocks. According to Wardumba man Ben Murray who was told of the massacre by his uncle, Rib bone Billy, the massacre was large scale. Linguist Luise Hercus recorded Ben Murray’s account of the massacre in the 1960s and published in 1977. (Hercus, 1977, 56-62)
Sources Hercus 1977: 56-62. (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating *
Nappamanna Station, near Pandie Pandie station 1890–1899, forty killed:
The massacre was in reprisal for the Wanganuru murder of a white man who had raped a Wanganuru woman. (Hercus 1977, p. 56) The incident was the third massacre in the region told to linguist Luise Hercus in the 1960s by Wardumba man Ben Murray, a nephew of Rib bone Billy who was alive at the time of the massacre. (Hercus 1977, p. 56) Journalist George Farwell was also told of the massacre on his journey through the region in the 1940s (Farwell 1960, pp. 38-40)
Sources Hercus 1977, p 56; Farwell 1950, p 38-40. (Sources PDF)
Corroboration Rating **
The last three incidents are all reprisals. It is a big claim that 120 Aborigines were killed in three incidents over a ten-year period. They are all based on oral evidence provided by Ben Murray in the 1960s, some seventy years after the events.
Below is an extract from Hercus:
The massacre described here by Ben Murray, who heard it from bjadu-dagali [Rib Bone Billy] himself, is but one of several that took place in the Birdsville area in the 1880s and 1890s. A number of groups were involved, particularly the Wapgarjuru, who were gradually coming out of the desert.
The massacres were often the end result of punitive expeditions undertaken to avenge cattle-stealing, as in this case and the tragic large-scale massacre at Koonchera Point, described by Mick McLean [an Arabana elder who died in 1976] in “The end of the Mindiri people”. According to his other epic account, “The end of the Wardamba people”, a major massacre at Nappamanna Station, near Pandie, was the result of the murder of a white man guilty of rape. The massacres of the Mindiri and the Wardamba involved a huge number of Aborigines who had come together for important corroborees. Yet another major massacre took place in the vicinity of Cooninghera waterhole (half-way between Birdsville and Durrie on the Diamantina), again as the result of the murder of a white man who had committed rape—this time it was a station cook, whose head was found in a camp oven.
The events described by Ben Murray are only one small part of a great tragedy. Yet apart from these memoirs recorded by surviving Wapgarjuru the massacres are generally unknown. Only Farwell’s Land of Mirage mentions them and he notes that: “No official enquiries were ever held into these massacres, which appeared to have been the common morality of the day”.
Ben Murray appears to have been an admirable figure. He led a colourful life, always in gainful employment and always on his own terms. He died in 1997 aged 101. His life story is well worth reading, but the following extract must cast some doubt on his reliability as a second-hand witness to these alleged massacres:
In his nineties Murray became popular for his storytelling, particularly for his tales of Gallipoli, which can be traced back at least to the 1940s. Unlike his bush tales though, these war stories seem to have emerged as a way of dealing with his close alignment with the German missionaries; he may have internalised graphic radio accounts of the Gallipoli campaign, relating these as his own experiences. He became known for these exploits, even leading an Anzac Day march (in a vehicle) at Port Augusta as he approached his centenary.
That is not to say these incidents did not occur, but what must be in doubt is their sheer scale. That they all involved forty killings seems suspiciously glib. And how likely is it that the massacre of 120 people in three incidents within a ten-year timeframe would go unnoticed and unreported among the white population, particularly the missionaries at Hermannsburg or Killalpaninna missions? And it would not need a missionary to blow the whistle. Many settlers too were sympathetic towards Aborigines and would be unlikely to sweep such depredation under the carpet. And if word got to the authorities about this, as I believe it must, they would have had no option but to take notice of it. This suggests to me that if these incidents did occur, it is more than likely that they involved many fewer deaths than reported, possibly as few as two or three.
You will have noticed that all the nine narratives above are accompanied by a corroboration rating. Most of them are two stars. According to the website, the corroboration rating:
indicates the level of confidence of the project researcher in the evidence. * Reliable evidence but more corroboration welcome. ** 2 sources of evidence but further corroborating evidence welcome. *** High quality corroborating evidence drawn from disparate sources.
The narratives of the Brachina Gorge, Guichen Bay, Yeelana and Hornet’s Nest incidents do not cite two sources of evidence, yet are awarded two stars. Michael Connor also notes that in many cases where there is a second source, it is simply a later historian citing the first source—not conducting their own research using primary sources.
All of the incidents, with the exception of Yeelana, cite only modern secondary sources. The website tells us:
Newspapers often provide the first reports of a frontier massacre and provide reports of official inquiries into a possible massacre. They can also provide many decades later, the voices of the attackers and survivors, who tell their story, long after the event.
For this reason, the most reliable sources of evidence are often found in secondary sources, long after the event, when fears of arrest or reprisal have long passed.
The last sentence seems to me to be a non-sequitur. Are they saying that secondary sources which are based on private correspondence or diaries or oral evidence are more reliable than contemporaneous records? In fact, reading newspapers and gazettes of the time reveals that colonists and settlers, across Australia, were by no means united in some racist determination to eliminate or subjugate Aborigines and to suppress any evidence of atrocities. There were many who deplored the mistreatment of Aborigines and were prepared to speak out about it.
So, to summarise. In South Australia, we have nine incidents in which a total of 167 Aborigines were allegedly killed. All but eight of these deaths are supported by only secondary source evidence. Of the remaining 159 deaths, 130 are highly questionable. If I were to classify these deaths as probable versus questionable, only 22 per cent of the total claimed deaths could be regarded as probable. If this trend were replicated throughout the map, only 2458 of the reported 11,174 Aboriginal deaths could be classed as probable.
Let’s investigate a bit further.
Other major massacres
Scott Seymour, George Brown and Roger Karge have exposed another dubious claim in their excellent recent book Truth Telling at Risdon Cove, which examines the evidence for a massacre of twenty Aborigines in the early days of Van Diemen’s Land. This incident, reported by the local commander at the time, Lieutenant Moore, recorded the killing of two Aborigines in response to an attack on a settler and a further threatened attack. The only evidence that twenty or more Aborigines were killed emerged twenty-six years later from a man named Edward White, who claimed to be a witness. Seymour et al prove conclusively that White could not possibly have been there at the time. The Massacre Map entry cites James Bonwick in support of its narrative, but Bonwick was only reporting hearsay evidence that came to him long after the event. His account was published in 1870. The only eyewitness evidence that supports the narrative came from Edward White, who we now know was not there. What emerges from reading the sources quoted in the Massacre Map is that many colonists, in this case James Bonwick, were quite ready to believe (and argue) the worst of their contemporaries. In other words, as I have argued earlier, there was not a culture of covering up “massacres”.
The Massacre Map lists four massacres of over 200 people, two of which claimed over 300 Aboriginal lives.
Slaughterhouse Creek, Gwydir River, 1838, 300 killed:
A party of fifteen heavily armed stockmen positioned themselves on the slopes of the ravine for a dawn attack on an Aboriginal camp below on the creek bed. According to Roger Milliss, (1992, pp 200-3) about 200 Gamilaraay were slaughtered. The massacre is embedded in the memories of the Gamilaraay in the region.
Source Milliss 1992, pp 200-3.
Corroboration Rating *
This is a strangely short narrative for an event that was reported and investigated at the time. There are numerous sources to this effect and yet the incident is accorded only one corroboration star. In fact, a number of historians, including at one stage Lyndall Ryan herself, believed that between forty and seventy were killed. Keith Windschuttle believes the true figure was a handful. Sergeant John Lee, who was with the main detachment of mounted police that pursued the Aborigines into the river, claimed that forty to fifty were killed. So, there are multiple sources available for this incident, which did in fact happen. And yet the only evidence provided for this incident is three pages from a book by Marxist journalist and author Roger Milliss published in 1992. What new and convincing evidence did Milliss provide in three pages that would render all these other sources irrelevant? One would have to say that, at least, 250 of the 300 deaths attributed to this massacre are highly questionable.
Thouringowa Waterhole, Bulloo River, Bullawarra, Thargomindah, 1865, 300 killed:
According to historian Timothy Bottoms (2013), in 1865, John (Jack) Dowling, was killed on his brother’s station at Thargomindah, by his Aboriginal servant Pimpilly in revenge for Dowling giving him a beating. Dowling’s brother, Vincent, led a posse of settlers including EO Hobkirk in search of Pimpilly. The posse found a large group of Kullilli camped at Thouringowa Waterhole on the eastern side of the Bulloo River and although they said that Pimpilly was not with them, according to Kooma descendant, Hazel McKellar, 1984, p. 57, the posse “chased them towards the Grey Range, shooting them down as they ran”. “Later in the day the posse went to another Camp, about 20 miles (32kms) down the river and shot about the same number.” (Hobkirk cited in Bottoms, 2013, p 63) Hazel McKellar (1984, p 57) A Kullilli descendant says the posse was led by the native police and that overall about 300 were killed.
Sources Bottoms 2013, pp 63-4; McKellar 1984, p 57.
Corroboration Rating **
Timothy Bottoms seems to be regarded as the authority. Here is an extract from his book:
… in 1865, while managing his brother [Vincent’s Thargomindah] Station John Dowling … was beaten to death with a waddy while sleeping beside his campfire. His “tame black boy” “Pimpilly”, had sought revenge for a beating he received from Dowling for not promptly bringing water to his “master” and his horse when so ordered. A Kooma descendant, Hazel McKellar, recalled: … (the reprisal party) found the tribe camped on the eastern side of the river, chased them towards the hills … shooting them down as they ran’.  … E O Hobkirk was in Vincent Dowling’s white posse that went in search of the alleged perpetrator. He described how they corralled a camp of Kullilli, and Dowling had demanded to know who had killed his brother, but the Kullilli confessed that they knew nothing about the murder, to which Dowling responded:
“If you do not tell me I will shoot the lot of yous.” Still they remained silent. Mr Dowling and the others then set to work and put an end to many of them, not tuching [sic] the lubras and young fry. This I know to be true as I helped first to burn the bodies and then to bury them. A most unpleasant undertaking! But I was only a “Jackaroo” on Chestnut station at the time, I had to do what I was told. Later in the day the party went to another Camp of blacks, about 20 miles down the river and there again shot about the same number.
Dowling continued to terrorise the Aboriginal population to avenge his brother’s murder.
So, the two sources are Hobkirk (an eyewitness) and McKellar (recounting oral history a century after the events). That a reprisal killing took place seems incontrovertible but neither source mentions a figure of 300 killed. It seems an unlikely figure and must be regarded as highly speculative.
Skull Hole, Mistake Creek, Forsyth Ranges, 1877, 200 killed:
PFM Mackay published an account told to him by Hazelton Brock in an article published in The Queenslander, 20 April, 1901: In 1877, George Fraser was droving 700 cattle to a new stockrun he planned to establish at Bladensburg, about 15 kilometres south of present day Winton, in Western Queensland. He led a party of about eight stockmen, including Hazelton Brock and Jack Wilkinson, a man named Bill and two “new chums”. After one of the “new chums” was killed by a group of Guwa warriors, Fraser buried the body and sent another stockman for help at the native police camp at Blackall. When a detachment of native police, led by sub-inspector Robert Moran arrived a week later, Fraser and his party had tracked the Guwa to a large camp site near a waterhole now known as Skull Creek and surrounded by steep cliffs at the head of Mistake Creek in the Forsyth Ranges. With the party now increased to 14 men, Fraser and Moran planned to attack the camp at dawn the following morning. The evening before the attack they tied up their horses more than a kilometre away from the campsite, climbed a hill above it and waited until dawn. With the sound of a mopoke as the signal, the 14 men surrounded the camp from above on three sides and began shooting. The Guwa scattered in all directions but most of them made for the waterhole. After many of them were shot, the native police went after the rest with their machetes and hacked many of them to death in the water. Hazelton Brock estimated that 200 Guwa were killed in the massacre. Brock “collared” an Aboriginal boy from among the few survivors, named him Boomerang Jack and brought him up as a stockman. In 1901 he was working on Collingwood Station, 50 kilometres west of Winton. In the aftermath, Brock took squatter John Arthur Macartney to the site to get some “bones and specimens”. Brock’s account of the massacre, was published in The Queenslander in 1901. The Norwegian naturalist Carl Lumholtz visited the Skull Creek site in 1881 and saw “a number of skulls”.
Sources Queenslander, April 20, 1901, pp 757-8; Lumholtz 1889, p 59; Bottoms 2013, p 172-4.
Corroboration Rating ***
It is important to remember that Brock’s account of the massacre as it appears in The Queenslander is not first-hand. It is related by P.F.M. Mackay and we do not know to what extent Mackay may have embellished the story. And as to Bottoms’s corroboration, I do not have access to his text, but I suspect he is merely quoting Mackay, in which case it would not be corroboration at all. It’s probable that Aborigines were killed but the figure of 200 is highly speculative.
Arafura Station, 1903–1908, 200 killed:
Merlan (1978, p 87) wrote that “When interviewed in 1957 George Conway mentioned that he had been hired to lead a hunting expedition into Arnhem Land in 1905 or 1906, and that his party had killed dozens of Aborigines.” Conway was an employee on Arafura Station owned by the Eastern & African Cold Storage Company. It was company policy to have teams of 10-14 men, led by a white man, roaming around on the station shooting Aboriginal people. Dewar (1995, p 9) corroborated this account: “A further attempt was made to develop a pastoral industry when Arafura Station was taken up by the African Cold Storage Supply Company in 1903 in central Arnhem Land. Arafura Station was not a commercial success (Bauer 1964, 157) and the company was liquidated in 1908. The station is remembered today for the extreme violence of its managers. Accounts have been collected from both Yolngu and non-Aboriginals who remember the massacres of Yolngu in the area (Bauer 1964, 157; Dreyfus & Dhulumburrk 1980, 19-20; Read and Read 1991, 19-24; Van der Heide 1985, 15, 16, 52, 53).”
Sources Merlan, 1978, pp 87-88; Dewar, 1992, p 9. See also Olney J, 2003, p 47.
Corroboration Rating ***
These incidents may well have occurred, and they are reprehensible, but they do not represent a single massacre as the website claims. Once again, the figure of a total of 200 killed is speculative.
I am not arguing that massacres did not occur. They did. The most notorious was the Myall Creek massacre of 1838 in which a group of twelve settlers massacred, without any provocation, twenty-eight Aborigines. Seven of those perpetrators were tried, found guilty and hanged. Not a perfect outcome, because the remaining five escaped justice. But it serves to illustrate my point that there was not a veil of secrecy thrown over the mistreatment of Aborigines by either officialdom or the print media.
And I do not question that 416 clashes, in which Aborigines were killed, took place over a period of some 150 years. What I do question is the number of deaths claimed and the classification of all of these incidents as massacres. If we accept the arbitrary figure of six deaths as constituting a massacre, it is not hard to imagine deaths of an indeterminate but small number being inflated to six.
Does this matter? Am I being obsessive, overly defensive or pedantic in raising these issues? Clutching at straws? After all, massacres did occur and is it not a worthy aim of Ryan and her collaborators to track down every incident they can? To make the database as comprehensive as they can? To expose to the light every single instance where white settlers and colonisers transgressed (or may have transgressed) against Aborigines?
To that question I would reply, to what end is this academic exercise aimed? Truth telling? How many atrocities does Ryan believe will be sufficient to firmly underpin the notion that Australia is illegitimate? That may not be Ryan’s intention, but that is certainly the way in which her “rap sheet” is being weaponised to inflame Aboriginal resentment against mainstream Australia. And a “rap sheet” is all the Massacre Map is. It is not history, in the same way that lists of the Kings and Queens of England is not history. Here the Holy Inquisition comes to mind. Ryan comes across as some sort of modern Torquemada scouring our history for every last morsel of shame.
History is all about context. Without context it is nothing. And the Massacre Map is entirely without context. It is inflammatory at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander grievance is being stoked to new levels. That, coupled with its misrepresentations, is why the Map must be challenged.
Peter O’Brien is the author of Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Quadrant Books, 2019) and Villain or Victim? A Defence of Sir John Kerr and the Reserve Powers (Connor Court, 2022).
1/ The University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia map 1788-1930.