Tag Archives: Delungra

A Myall in my shoes

A Writer on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

“Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.”

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted, eye-popping racist responses from readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The black soil in my blood

A Writer’s birthright.

I WAS born in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales and I spent the first years of my life living on my parents’ farm between the crossroads village of Delungra and the town of Bingara.

The countryside consisted of rolling uplands, the last vestiges of the black soil country before they give way to Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Some of my earliest memories are of the soil, often baked hard into cracked clay beds, or sluiced with water into acres of mud, but always black. Black against the yellow straw grass that covered the hills.

‘Paxton’, the property where I spent my childhood, was salvaged by my parents from a derelict state. Despite a few years of success, death and divorce saw my rural childhood disappear like spinifex on the wind.

Nights of blazing stars. Days of grey skies over blue hills. Hailstorms and wind that blew the corrugated sheds around like leaves… all were replaced by the disturbing lights of cars in urban streets crossing my bedroom wall in town, of houses that seemed insanely close together, and people living right up against one another.

My family bridged a great divide. The country half were tall, Germanic, Presbyterian stock in great numbers, who, by the time I was born, lived with a fading sense of entitlement based on achievements past.

The other half were a small band of establishment city dwellers with a dose of very English mores.

An attempt was made to combine these energies in my parents’ marriage, but it failed miserably.

I left the country, and in many ways I have been running from it my whole life.

But when I left London to take up a job offer in Suffolk, barely an hour from the city, it was to work for a rural media company.

In my application, I evoked the country of my childhood to get the job. I didn’t need to pretend, I’d lived in and around a mixed crop and stock farm, and I knew a bit about how they operated.

Despite feeling like a complete sellout, I used my trump card – being of strong country bloodlines – and I could see the eyes of one of my interviewers misting over. There is a great camaraderie, and a willingness to help-out their own, amongst families who have worked the land.

I was a farm boy who had video production and communication skills, and I got the job.

Forget that I thought agriculture in general had lost its way, that I was vegetarian, and an animal liberationist who had little interest in farm machinery. I needed a good income, and an opportunity. Farming Press offered me that, and I took it, wondering when my secrets would be discovered.

BURGE'S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (photo: Barry Hughes www.geograph.org.uk/photo/41986).
BURGE’S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (Photo: Barry Hughes).

So I packed-up my room in a shared flat in London’s leafy Lewisham Park, and rented another in a tiny row of cottages in the charming little hamlet of Burgh, up a hill past a windmill from the even more charming village of Grundisburgh, just north of Ipswich, Suffolk’s historic county town.

With barely three days to prepare myself, I had to pack for a flight to Detroit, Michigan, to document the traditional skills of farming people across three states.

In the rush I didn’t get much of a chance to meet my new colleagues or my housemate, or settle into the Farming Press offices on the edge of Ipswich, a typical English company with some friendly faces, wanting to know this Australian who was going to work in the video department downstairs.

My first week’s pay was more than I would have earned in a month of cinema shifts. The Suffolk countryside was blossoming into a gorgeous spring. I got a touch of hay fever. I became lost on country lanes trying to find my way home. I was cornered by inquisitive cows. I bought my first ever car and was able to traverse the country without the crippling cost of train travel.

England had opened itself to me a little… and then I had to leave her in a rush of camera equipment and travelling instructions. America’s rural heartland was waiting.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.