An etching of the Myall Creek Massacre, published in the Chronicles of Crime, 1841.
NATIONAL: Tracker writer CHRIS MUNRO* revisits one of the worst massacres in Australia’s history, and urges us not to forget our past.
There’s a disturbing theory held by many proponents of Australian history. They believe if you’re moving along the many walking trails, bush roads or traversing reserves and national parks in this country you will be near an Aboriginal massacre site.
It’s a sad fact that there is no official record of Aboriginal massacre sites. There’s no trusted tally of the dead.
Save for 12 white stockmen from the Liverpool Plains region in northern NSW, the names of the countless murderers have never been officially recorded.
Ironically, part of the reason for this historical amnesia is one mass murder on Gamilaraay country. It has been recorded in graphic detail.
At a lonely patch of country, 16 kilometres east of Bingara, 30 Aboriginal women, children and male elders were slaughtered.
It was June 10, 1838 when a mounted squatter, John Fleming, led eleven of his peers onto Myall Creek station.
Their unarmed targets were a group of Wirrayaraay people of the Gamilaraay tribe. They were camping at the station at the request of its owner Henry Dangar.
The group, largely women and children, had been peacefully camped at nearby McIntyre station, as the able bodied men moved about following station work.
As Fleming and his men approached the station buildings, the Wirrayaraay women, camped close by, fled to nearby huts.
They pleaded with station hut keeper George Anderson to protect them. Anderson asked Fleming to declare his intentions.
A member of the group, John Russell, told him they were going to, “take them over the back of the range and frighten them.”
Anderson later gave evidence that one women, and one young child, were left behind at the huts. The reason? The men considered her “good looking.”
During the initial panic, two young boys also managed to escape by hiding in the creek. The remaining Wirrayaraay group were tied-up along a long stretch of rope and led about 800 metres to the west of the station huts.
Over the next two hours the group were brutally hacked to death one by one. Testimony at the trial would later reveal the slaughter was, at times, treated like a game.
The murderers lined up along the balustrades of crudely built stock yards with swords in hand. Their victims were forced to run as far as they could along a slashing line before dropping dead from their wounds.
Babies were beheaded, women, young and old, were brutally tortured and Wirrayaraay elders dismembered.
Fleming and his gang then left Myall Creek in search of the Wirrayaraay men, who they knew where working nearby but they returned two days later and further dismembered their victims and attempted to burn the huge pile of body parts.
Myall Creek station manager William Hobbs discovered the massacre when he returned from a business trip.
He counted 28 victims, by conducting a gruesome tally of severed heads. Hobbs reported the incident to the Governor in Sydney, George Gipps, who ordered an investigation.
Eleven of the twelve stockmen were arrested and charged with murder. Their trials began on November 15, 1838. All were represented by a top legal team provided by a consortium of landowners and pastoralists from the region.
On the advice of a local magistrate, none of the accused gave evidence against the other, a trend that would be repeated and refined in regard to the subsequent massacre of Aboriginal people.
The Chief Justice of New South Wales, James Dowling, took care to inform the jury during the trial that they should recognise the death of an Aboriginal person in the same light as that of a European person.
But after deliberating for only 15 minutes, the jury found all eleven men not guilty. The verdict met with uncontrollable cheering in the court room.
One juror told The Australian newspaper, at that time owned by William Charles Wentworth, what he really thought.
“I look at the Blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black.”
But the legal battle wasn’t over yet. The gang were remanded in custody and forced to face a second trial over charges relating to the same incident, but only seven of the twelve would eventually face a jury.
George Anderson was a key witness for the prosecution. He gave a detailed account of events. Anderson stressed he wanted no reward for his testimony, only protection. He did not need it.
Seven men were eventually found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. They were Charles Kilmeister, James Oates, Edward
Foley, John Russell, John Johnstone, William Hawkins and James Parry. Their leader, John Fleming was never caught.
All were executed on December 18, 1838. It was the first and only time white men were hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.