January 26 is Australia Day. It’s our national day, and a gazetted public holiday. Why January 26? Because it was on this day in 1788 when a fleet of 11 ships, filled with Britain’s convicts (and free settlers), landed in Botany Bay to found a penal colony in New South Wales. The Britons were sending their convicts to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, however a war was waged against them, and the Britons ultimately got their arses handed to them. After 1783, the British had to find another dumping ground for their convicts because the newly-formed United States informed the Brits that they won’t be taking in any more. And so, the British chose Australia as their new designated convict dumping ground.
Fast forward to 2016. Australia Day is one where we will be seeing a lot of this:
And (rightly so), being reminded of this:
The history between 1788 (the arrival of the First Fleet) and 1901 (when Australia became a Federation) was glossed over in history class when I was in high school. More class time was dedicated to the Eureka Stockade, Ned Kelly, the Gold Rush and the First Fleet, and the stories of the Myall Creek Massacre and Bennelong were just footnotes in the pages of history. The Lambing Flat riots got more coverage than Myall Creek. Hell, I had never even heard of Pemulwuy until a new suburb in Sydney was established in 2004, bearing that name.
By and large, the picture painted in our minds was that the colony was peaceful for the most part, aside from occasional clashes with the indigenous people.
As it turns out, Australia’s early colonial history was more violent than what my high school history class led us to believe. And our society can pretend it doesn’t exist until they are blue in the face, but, you can’t change the past.
Australian colonial history was pretty violent. Time to explore the seemingly forbidden vaults of history…
The Australian Frontier Wars
Yep, you read that right. Initially things seemed peaceful between the European settlers and the indigenous tribes (and Governor Arthur Phillip wanted to keep it that way, under instructions from his superiors in Britain), but the first violent clash between the indigenous people and the European settlers was in May 1788, when the settlers started clearing land and catching fish.
As the European settlements along the coastline expanded, the clashes with the indigenous people became more frequent. The settlers began to encroach on the indigenous people’s traditional hunting and gathering grounds, creating fierce competition for resources, with the first frontier war in 1795 at the Hawkesbury River. The Frontier Wars dragged on for another 140 years. The most notable conflicts in this period were:
The Indigenous Resistance
Eora warrior Pemulwuy united three indigenous tribes (the Eora, Dharug and Tharawal) and led a series of campaigns against the European settlers from 1792 until his death on 2 June, 1802. He led most of his raids on settlements at Toongabbie, Georges River, Hawkesbury River, Parramatta, Prospect and Brickfield Hill (modern day Surry Hills).
One campaign Pemulwuy led was, among others…
The Battle of Parramatta – March 1797
After leading several raids in Toongabbie and the Hawkesbury, Pemulwuy led a band of 100 indigenous warriors in a raid on the British colony at Parramatta, during which five of Pemulwuy’s men were killed and Pemulwuy himself was wounded after colonists opened fire. Pemulwuy was captured and taken to a hospital, but he escaped from the hospital, despite his wounds and the leg iron shackled around his ankle.
Governor Phillip Gidley King later declared a bounty on Pemulwuy, and on 2 June 1802, Pemulwuy was shot dead, and his severed head was later shipped off to England. To this day, the exact whereabouts of his skull (or who has possession of it) remains unknown.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the colony…
Bathurst War, 1824
With the expansion of the Sydney colony, the European settlers searched for new lands for crops and settlements. Their biggest challenge was successfully crossing the Blue Mountains, and in 1813, explorers Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth successfully crossed the Blue Mountains (albeit using an Aboriginal track across the mountains), paving the way for a future settlement at Bathurst. When Thomas Brisbane was appointed Governor of New South Wales following Governor Macquarie’s resignation in December 1821, Brisbane changed the settlement laws, allowing land grants to be issued freely, especially land in the Blue Mountains and in the new settlement of Bathurst. As a consequence, the Wiradjuri people were dispossessed of their traditional hunting and gathering lands.
With nowhere to hunt and gather food (and everyone needs to eat), the Wiradjuri resorted to attacking the settlers’ livestock for food. This didn’t go down too well with the farmers. In early 1824, however, as a gesture of goodwill, one farmer offered potatoes to a passing tribe, who graciously accepted. The following day, they returned and helped themselves to the potatoes in the fields. The farmer didn’t take to this too kindly, and opened fire on the foragers, with many killed or wounded. The incident is testament to lack of understanding between cultures. Following the incident in the potato field, one of the survivors led a series of attacks on nearby stations.
In response, on August 14, 1824, Governor Brisbane declared martial law, and a detachment was sent in from the 40th Regiment, with reinforcements from local militia. The Wiradjuri ultimately surrendered, and martial law was repealed on 11 December 1824.
Myall Creek Massacre
In or about 1838, gangs of marauding stockmen were roaming Bingara and surrounds, hunting down indigenous people as though they were wild game. A group of approximately 35 indigenous people had sought safe haven at Myall Creek Station (a station is the Australian equivalent of a ranch), and were camped beside the station huts.
On 10 June 1838, a gang of stockmen turned up at Myall Creek Station, having travelled from station to station, in a (failed) pursuit of Aboriginal people to kill. After arrival at Myall Creek Station, the indigenous women and children ran into the convict hut, seeking protection. The stockmen rounded up all the women and children like cattle, bound them and took them to gully where they were hacked and slashed to death; the stockmen returned to the scene two days later to burn the bodies. A convict stockman named Charles Kilmaister, who was employed at Myall Creek Station, joined them in the slaughter. If you have the stomach to read a comprehensive account of what they did, you can read it all here.
The massacre was reported to the authorities and eleven men were arrested and charged with murder. Two trials were conducted; The first on 15 November 1838, and the second on 26 November 1838. The men were acquitted at the first trial, but were convicted of murder at the second trial and seven of the eleven men were sentenced to death by hanging, including Charles Kilmaister.
The Myall Creek Massacre is significant in that the white settlers responsible for the murders were held accountable for their actions, and punished to the full extent of the law. A memorial is erected at the site, and a memorial service is held annually on the anniversary of the massacre.
Post-Federation (1901 onwards)
On 1 January 1901, the Australian Constitution came into effect and united the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia. The colonies became the states of Australia as we know them today, creating the state-level tier of government. The Australian Constitution at the time, did not recognise indigenous people as citizens, as outlined under Section 127:
“In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.”
Section 127 of the Australian Constitution (repealed in 1967)
Before 1949, all residents of Australia were British subjects. The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 created the concept of Australian citizenship, including for indigenous people. Indigenous people also have the right to vote, and have had the right to vote since as far back as 1850s, but many were unaware that they had this right. The 1967 referendum was about including indigenous people in the Commonwealth Census (by repealing Section 127), and amending Section 51. A more detailed explanation is in this SBS article.
Anyway, back on topic. Even after Federation, the wanton violence against the indigenous people continued:
Coniston Massacre (14 August – 18 October, 1928)
Coniston Cattle Station is located in the Northern Territory, near Alice Springs. In or around 1928, the region was crippled by drought, livestock had denuded the land and competition for resources (read: water) was rife among the white settlers, aborigines, livestock and wildlife alike.
The massacre was triggered by the murder of a dingo hunter named Frederick Brooks by an Aboriginal man (other accounts state that it was two) on 7 August, 1928. Accounts vary as to why, but the general consensus is that Brooks was murdered because he had breached Aboriginal marriage laws, or had breached an agreement with the Aboriginal people for domestic tasks carried out for him by Aboriginal women in exchange for food (or both) at his camp at the Yurruku soakage. Meanwhile, there had been complaints of Aborigines spearing cattle in the region, and Constable William Murray, the Protector of Aborigines, was sent to Coniston from Alice Springs to investigate. Upon learning about the Brooks murder, he returned to Alice Springs to seek reinforcements, but his request was declined, and was given instructions to handle the matter on his own, “as he sees fit”.
Murray then mustered a search party to find Brooks’ killer(s), which soon descended into a revenge party. They found an encampment of approximately 20 indigenous people, and Murray opened fire on them after they disobeyed his orders to drop their weapons “In the name of the King” (though their refusal was probably more to do with the fact that they didn’t understand a word of English, rather than an act of defiance). Bullfrog, the Aboriginal man accepted to have been the man responsible for murdering Brooks, hid in a cave with several others, and ultimately they evaded detection.
Meanwhile, another dingo trapper named William “Nugget” Morton was attacked at Boomerang Waterhole by a small group of Aboriginal men. Nugget had already earned himself a sordid reputation among the Aborigines, sexually exploiting Aboriginal women. Nugget survived the attack, and killed one of his assailants defending himself. He reported the incident to Alice Springs Police by letter, and Constable Murray returned in September 1928, mustered another reprisal party and killed more Aborigines around the Lander and Hanson rivers. When returning to Alice Springs to write his report, Murray did not specify the number of deaths; The affected Aboriginal people estimate around 100 deaths.
The Coniston Massacre attracted attention from the British media, and the League of Nations (among other international bodies) had publicly criticised Australia for its handling of the incident. The Federal Government held an inquiry in January 1929, however no Aboriginal witnesses were called, and after 18 days, the inquiry found that only 31 Aborigines were killed by Murray, and all were in self-defence. It further found that there was no drought in central Australia in 1928.
The story of the Coniston Massacre has been adapted to a motion picture.
Where to from here?
Firstly, non-indigenous Australians need to come to terms with Australia’s shameful past. Telling the indigenous people to just “get over it”, is counterproductive. (We don’t tell the descendants of the ANZACs to just “get over it”, do we?) Shaming and guilt-tripping non-indigenous Australians over something that happened before they were born, is also counterproductive. (We don’t shame and guilt-trip Germans for the atrocities committed by the Nazis, do we?) So how can we overcome this without lashing out at each other over it?
That aside, we need know what happened. Their stories need to be told. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that it happened. We need to remember our history, so that it doesn’t happen again, no matter how dark or embarrassing it is to us now. We cannot change the past. But we can absolutely change our future.
Secondly, January 26, 1788 is the day that started the chain reaction. January 1 is the day that Australia became a Federation, but it is already an existing public holiday (New Years Day), so 2 January might be a gazetted public holiday. No one is going to give up a day off for the world. Maybe 27 May, being the day of the 1967 Referendum which allowed indigenous people to be included in the Commonwealth Census. Still, we need to find another day that’s not going to be a constant reminder to the First Nation people of the bullshit they endured from the “gubbas”.
There have been studies which have suggested that trauma is intergenerational. And in order for us to move forward, we need to break the cycle. The first step towards healing is to acknowledge the wounds. And in order to acknowledge the wounds, we need to know and to understand what happened. We need to make amends. We have already taken a step in the right direction with Kevin Rudd’s sorry speech in Parliament in February 2008.
Imagine our society as a big, embellished blanket. The blanket has been worn, torn and damaged from the abuses of the past. We all sit around the blanket, mending the rips and tears, repairing and replacing the damaged or missing embellishments, and maybe even adding new ones. The end result is a new blanket, stronger and more vibrant than before. And it doesn’t matter for skill, or whether you have a darning needle or a sewing machine – get stitching. We have a lot of healing to do.