NATIONAL: Windradyne was a hero of the Wiradjuri people, and waged a fierce resistance against settlers, writes CHRIS MUNRO*.
In late May 1813, led by three Aboriginal guides, three English ‘explorers’ finally reached the summit of what they’d later name Mount York in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson were charged with finding a route across the rugged mountains into the unexplored ‘west,’ and they’d found a way.
The mountain range had long proved an impenetrable barrier to the Europeans since their arrival on Aboriginal soil, but after 21 days of struggle and near starvation, the trio had made the summit and sighted the unexplored ‘interior.’
Unknowingly, what they’d later report back to Governor Lachlan Macquarie would change the lives of thousands of people forever.
Inadvertently their ‘discovery’ would spark all-out war on the western plains that would rage for years to come, resulting in deaths of many.
From the perspective of the fledgling penal colony, what Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson had achieved was remarkable.
In their own words, they claimed to have seen “enough grass to support the stock of the entire colony for thirty years”.
What they failed to recognise though was the “grass” they were referring to was already someone’s heaven.
It was Wiradjuri land, home to one of the largest, most diverse Aboriginal tribes in the country.
The first recorded contact between the two groups took place later that year in December 1813 when surveyor George Evans made his way over the mountains at the request of Macquarie.
Evans was met with a charming group of people.
The Wiradjuri were described endearingly as gentle, curious, handsome, healthy and well proportioned.
Following Evan’s reports of excellent pasture, Macquarie ordered a road be built following the route of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, who in turn had merely followed a Wiradjuri trade route tens of thousands of years old.
It took only six months to complete the rough track through the hills, and before long the Governor himself made the nine-day journey by horse and cart to the site of a new settlement now known as Bathurst.
During these early days of contact, negotiation between black and white was fairly harmonious.
Much like exchange in many parts of Australia, Aboriginal tribes were more often than not generous, helpful and respectful of their white-skinned visitors.
In the case of Macquarie’s party, the Wiradjuri even directed them to the best, watered campsites in the region.
It’s believed too, that during this initial visit from Macquarie, the white chief first came into contact with a young Windradyne who’d later play a central role in an all-out war between black and white on the western plains.
The meeting was later described by Macquarie:
“After breakfasting this morning we were visited by three male natives of the country, all very handsome good looking young men, and whom we’d not seen before…to the best looking and stoutest of them I gave a piece of yellow cloth in exchange for his mantle which he presented me.”
Whether its fantasy or not, there’s unsubstantiated theories this young Wiradjuri man was in fact Windradyne, although this has never been proved.
Was he coming in for a closer look at the white chief? Was he sizing up his eventual opponents?
Either way, it’d take another 8 years before Windradyne was a household name across the western plains, this largely due to the actions of one man.
In December 1821, Macquarie resigned from his post and was replaced by Major-General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, who’d they later name the Queensland capital after.
Macquarie always had a cautious approach to the colony’s expansion, so much so that five years after a route over the Blue Mountains had been forged, the population of the western plains was still only 114.
But with Brisbane, the former Major General in charge, things were about to change, and change rapidly.
Brisbane opened up the floodgates to the plains, changing settlement laws and promoting a surge in land grants around the Bathurst region. This proved disastrous for the Wiradjuri.
Up until now, the Wiradjuri had been somewhat accepting of the settlement rate. Their hunting grounds were still intact, their sacred sites undisturbed and their white guests largely didn’t impede with their way of life.
But Brisbane changed all of that.
The influx of settlers put a huge strain on resources. Under Macquarie’s rule only a few hundred acres of Wiradjuri land had been cleared for cultivation and grazing. Under Brisbane, this figure increased to several thousand.
The disruption of hunting grounds and traditional land management aside, perhaps more abrasive for the Wiradjuri was the eventual destruction of some important initiation sites for men and women.
Before Windradyne would take centre stage, other Wiradjuri warriors had begun a campaign of intimidation toward the white settlers, burning huts, scattering stock and plundering crops.
These tactics had the desired effect too. Settlers abandoned their stations in droves. Cheap convict labour used by wealthy Sydney landowners refused to work without protection against the ‘savages.’
Brisbane declared martial law, meaning Aboriginal life was now fair game.
In the summer of December 1823, Windradyne or ‘Saturday’ as the whites called him first came to the attention of the colony.
He was implicated as the instigator of a skirmish that led to the deaths of two convict stockmen at Kings Plains, just north of the modern day town of Blayney.
The settlers were outraged by the incident and demanded military protection and intervention. Fighting on the Bathurst plains was hurtling towards all out warfare, and the lives a property of the colony were at grave risk.
Answering the call, Brisbane sent a military detachment to track and capture Windradyne. The Wiradjuri warrior wouldn’t go without a fight though and despite being outnumbered, he challenged the group to a fight. It took six men and a musket butt across the ribs to finally bring him to ground.
Windradyne spent a month in captivity back in Bathurst, his legs in irons. He’d lost the battle, but certainly not the war and was now more determined than ever to repel the pale invaders.
Upon his release, hostilities had intensified between settlers and the Wiradjuri.
Aboriginal women and children were now fair game. Settlers were poisoning food before offering it to Wiradjuri women and their babies. Massacres were becoming commonplace too, with no lives spared.
The Sydney Gazette reported at the time: ‘Advices from Bathurst say the natives have been very troublesome in that country.
Numbers of cattle have been killed. In justification of their conduct the natives urge that the white men have driven away all the kangaroos and opossums, and the black men must now have beef!’
A particular incident that sent Windradyne wild – involved his own family.
They’d been travelling through newly settled farmland on the river flats opposite Bathurst when approached by a white farmer offering them some potatoes from his field.
Unaware of the notion of property or ownership, the group returned the following day to begin harvesting more potatoes from the field, after all, they’d been planted on Wiradjuri land.
The barbarity of this act of thievery must have been particularly intense for our farmer. He responded by gathering a group of like-minded settlers who proceeded to track the potato thieves down, shooting them where they stood.
Windradyne’s entire family was wiped out. And it proved to be a very costly mistake.
After consulting Wiradjuri Elders and lore men, Windradyne was given the green light to lead the payback against the whites.
It was time to play hardball and Windradyne was ready.
That night he assembled a large group of warriors, painted up and ready for battle. They’d long been aware of the white man’s superior weaponry and they adjusted their tactics in response.
Windradyne became a master of hit and run guerilla tactics, but before he went on a terrorizing mission of revenge through the region, he’d have a surreal meeting with the 18-year-old son of an English station owner named William Suttor.
The Suttor family station, which still stands today out at Brucedale near Bathrust, was the first stop for Windradyne and his war party soon after the potato field incident.
William answered a knock at the door only to be faced with the imposing figure of a fully painted Windradyne and his party surrounding the house, weapons at the ready.
Luckily for a petrified William, his father George had taught him the Wiradjuri tongue – a skill that saved his life.
William’s son described the confrontation some time later.
‘Our hut was one day surrounded by a large group of blacks, fully prepared for war, under the leadership of their fierce chief and warrior, named by the white ‘Saturday’.
“There was no means of resistance so my father, then a lad of eighteen years met them fearlessly at the door. He spoke to them in their own language in such a manner as not to let them suppose he anticipated any evil from them.
“They stood there sullen, silent, and motionless. My father’s cheerful courage and friendly tone disarmed animosity.’
William expressed his outrage at the murder of Windradyne’s family and as such the Brucedale Station and its inhabitants were spared, and in fact, Windradyne would become close friends with both George and William, eventually being buried by the river at Brucedale.
Windradyne’s revenge was far from an aimless rampage. The encounter at Brucedale was evidence of that. Windradyne was handing out careful retribution based on Wirdajuri lore, and his next few ports of call would validate this theory too.
Millah Murrah, directly to the north of Bathurst was next on the list.
A man named Samuel Terry had built his homestead on a Bora ground, highly sacred to the Wiradjuri.
Attacks followed on similar properties at The Mill Post, Warren Gunya Station and Wattle Flat.
In all these attacks, white lives were lost, stock was speared or scattered and buildings were destroyed. It was a clear statement to the whites. ‘Leave our lands or else.’
But what came back at Windradyne and the Wiradjuri was completely unfathomable. The settlers responded by killing Wiradjuri women and children, in fact anyone they could get their hands on. They didn’t undertake this honourably either.
They ran children down on horseback, poisoned women with tainted food, attacked those burying the dead and drove whole family groups off the sides of cliff faces to their deaths.
These were evil acts perpetrated on the innocent. It was terrorism, plain and simple, and in complete contravention to Wiradjuri lore and customs. The Aboriginal idea of payback and warning was hugely different to those of the uncivilised white man.
As the war raged on, the Wiradjuri slowly began to lose lives and territory. In fact its estimated that one third of the total Wiradjuri population was murdered during the resistance.
Many groups, especially in the south of Wiradjuri lands were starting to consider surrender, but Windradyne and his 100 strong armed guard continued on their mission. A reward of 500 acres and several hundred pound was placed on his head but Windradyne couldn’t be taken alive.
He eventually re-appeared at the Governor’s annual feast in Parramatta on December 28 1824. He was still wanted dead or alive, but knew he was safe due to the sheer numbers of Aboriginal warriors in attendance.
The Sydney Gazette described him as one of the most, ‘finest looking natives we’ve seen in this part of the country…the most manly black native we have ever beheld.’
A warrior till the very end, Windradyne stayed in Parramatta for some time before returning to his people at Brucedale. Unable to be captured, he lived free until he was fatally wounded in battle with another Aboriginal clan.
He received a full ceremonial burial at Brucedale station and was buried sitting upright facing the rising sun, his weapons by his side.
Reflecting on the story of Windradyne and Wiradjuri wars, the irony is not lost on most. Wiradjuri trade routes, established and used for thousands of years eventually led the devil himself to the doorstep of a peaceful people.
In Windradyne though, the Wiradjuri found a proud, unstoppable force, willing to fight till the very end for what’s right.
*Chris Munro is a Gamilaroi man and a former NITV correspondent.