Tag Archives: Myall Creek Massacre

Massacre books a Myall off the mark

ONE of the earliest crimes I ever became aware of took place just a few kilometres from my home. It wasn’t recent and it wasn’t widely discussed between neighbouring farmers. My mother whispered what she knew of the story one afternoon, in between social tennis matches at the Myall Creek courts adjacent to the old tin hall where we gathered for community events.

The 1838 Myall Creek Massacre has haunted and inspired me ever since, in much the same way it has done for generations of grazier families in the uplands between Delungra and Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Haunted, because there is justifiable guilt attached to the murder of innocent Aboriginal people. Haunted, too, because white men were hanged for the killings, for the first time in Australia’s history. Inspired, because the massacre memorial has become one of the most enduring actions of reconciliation this country has experienced.

In 2016, two new books, pitched as seminal to an understanding of this hateful crime against innocent Aboriginal people, were published. I read with interest, not only because I am indirectly writing about the massacre, but also because I was part of the great ignorance about this pivotal moment in modern Australia.

The more we read about it, the more we come to understand the inherent racism and inhumanity that fuelled it, the closer we get to shuffling off the fundamental penal colony principles this country still practices when it comes to race relations.

30329712Terry Smyth’s Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman (Penguin Random House) adds two critical elements to the analysis of the Myall Creek Massacre that I have not encountered before.

The first is the suggestion that part of the motivation for the killings was the habit of utilising Aboriginal trackers in the recapture of escaped convicts; that the massacre was, in part, justified by the convicts among the killers as payback for Aboriginal participation in Colonial justice. But Smyth doesn’t provide much direct evidence or make an argument for any of this, leaving him wide open to accusations of victim-blaming.

The second is Smyth’s courage in including the oral history about the exact nature of the crimes, as witnessed by an Aboriginal man who was not permitted under Colonial law to give evidence at either of the trials.

Most if not all of the writing on the Myall Creek Massacre stems from a desire to ‘own’ the story, or meet another storytelling agenda, and Smyth’s book adds to a growing list of titles that view the events from one strong angle.

However, by including the description of the crimes themselves – horrid, gutless acts of evil – Smyth has done a great service that far outweighs his focus on his eponymous Denny Day.

As interesting as Day’s story is, it is not the most critical element to the story of the Myall Creek Massacre.

The crimes are the core of that story, and must never play second fiddle to the stories of others. The book that has the courage to begin with the crimes themselves, and not shy away from the scene, will be the definitive Myall Creek Massacre title.

murder-at-myall-creek-9781925456264_hrMurder at Myall Creek by Mark Tedeschi (Simon and Schuster) is not that book. It’s an absorbing read but it should probably be re-branded as more of a biography of colonial NSW Attorney General John Plunkett and his impact on the legal system of New South Wales, and less of a broad title on the Myall Creek Massacre.

What it adds to the record are insights into why Plunkett moved for an immediate second trial of some of the massacre perpetrators, and how the risk paid dividends in terms of a generally just outcome.

Tedeschi makes the case for a better understanding of Plunkett’s character and exactly what he added to Australian civil rights. He also argues for why Plunkett has been largely forgotten by a nation whose history he impacted so significantly.

Elucidating the differences between Colonial and modern Australian legal processes is one of the key aspects to Tedeschi’s work, and this focus is essential to a full understanding of the prosecutions, and several unjust outcomes of the trial.

Day’s is a policeman’s story, Plunkett’s an attorney’s. Both their accounts will become crucial resources for whoever creates an unambiguous, mainstream book on this critical episode of modern Australian history, unfiltered by post-colonial perspectives.

A deeper look at the crimes that were the pivot of both men’s contributions will be key to the meaning and scope of that work. It has the potential to make white Australians see where we have for far too long feared to really look.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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. 

SWING
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.

SMOKE
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.

Back in town

Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).
DAY IN COURT Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).

A Writer returns to the scene of the crime. 

MORE than 20 years after my family moved away from the country town of Inverell, leaving behind failed dreams and a broken marriage, I returned on a rainy evening in late 2003 with some unfinished business.

I’d called ahead to my grandmother, who was still living there in a nursing home. Before taking her to lunch the next day, I dropped into the local courthouse, an imposing clock tower at the centre of town, where a helpful woman proceeded to assist me in finding my mother’s name in the court records.

The court staffer didn’t flinch when it quickly became apparent we were not looking for a plaintiff of any kind, but rather a defendant. Trouble was, I had no specific dates to search, only the barest clues from what I’d been told about mum’s appearance in the court on a shoplifting charge sometime in the 1970s.

That meant mum’s name was still on the police computer database, in which the dates became brutally clear: just before Christmas, 1977, the police had made their way to our property off the Bingara Road, with complaints from two Inverell shops that mum had stolen childrens’ clothing and kitchen implements.

All court records prior to 1980 were stored in the archives of the New England University at the nearby city of Armidale. Would I like them faxed over? I agreed to return to the police station adjacent to the courthouse when they were ready.

Next, I dropped into the council chambers with a request. I had in my possession a hand-sized flat stone which had been picked up off the driveway of our farm, a flint-like rock with a broad space for a thumb to hold the sharpened edge to use it for cutting – an aboriginal hand axe of indeterminate age.

I asked if there was any kind of Aboriginal cultural heritage centre, or perhaps a museum, which would be interested in taking this stone tool off my hands?

The council staffer held her gaze with an open, shocked mouth, and shook her head, muttering “no…,” and, “good luck with that,” before leaving.

The tourist information centre had the name of an Aboriginal elder who lived locally. I drove the streets of our old neighbourhood searching for the address, but there was no-one home, and the only Aboriginal public office was well and truly closed.

SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.
SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.

I began to wonder whether the stories I’d been told about this stone were true, or if they’d been elaborated into family myths? I had taken it to school for ‘show and tell’, with the family name written on it using thick black marker pen in my mother’s hand. She was interested in anthropology, and we had inherited all kinds of fossils and artefacts at her death at decade before.

But on returning to the riverside shopping centre to buy grandma a present, my doubts were allayed by the wall built of local stone at the gateway, the very same blue, brown and ochre basalt. The wall was all that remained of the department store built by my ancestors in the town. I knew then I had the right rock back in the right region.

Grandma was dressed and eager to get out and about, waiting for me outside the door of the nursing home. We laughed as I lifted her into the passenger seat of my four-wheel drive, me allaying any embarrassment she felt by reminding her of the hundreds of times she had lifted me into a car when I was a child.

We had a lovely lunch. She enjoyed the meal and hearing all my news about life in the big city. We’d corresponded about family stuff many times, and it seemed a waste of time to go over it all again – she and I had come to terms already. We loved one another, that’s all that mattered.

I dropped her home when she started to tire, and headed out of town, along a well-trodden road into the uplands south west of Delungra, where fields of wheat in black soil run for miles and miles under enormous skies.

I’d met the present owner a few years before, but I hadn’t come to see the house again. I’d picked-over the traces of my family’s dream many times before: the room where my baby brother died, and the hopeful imprint my parents had made on a property which was derelict when they moved there.

I looked over the stones on the driveway, and sure enough, scattered along the verges were more of those flinty fragments like the larger one in my pocket.

I was headed a few kilometres further west, to a lonely place on the Bingara Road, where a memorial had been built in the year 2000 to the Aboriginal men, women and children who were slaughtered on a hillside in 1838 at the hands of European settlers in what came to be known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).
MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).

There, I walked along the trail which marks the gruesome milestones of this iconic event – the first time in Australia’s history that settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.

I took the Aboriginal axe, with our family name impossible to erase from it, and buried it at the site, not only out of respect for the Aboriginal lives lost, but also those in my own scattered family.

Night was falling when I arrived back at the Inverell police station, where a large envelope awaited me. At a motel out of town I pored over its contents, like some terrible play in which my parents were protagonists.

Buried deep in the court transcripts, describing in detail how mum was found guilty of multiple counts of theft, was the news of one shop owner who’d waived all charges in the light of the psychologist’s report, and the one who’d refused.

The sentence in Mulawa Womens’ Prison in Sydney, a day’s drive away from her children, detailed the number of days’ imprisonment resulting from the value of each item of clothing stolen.

The transcripts of friends who stood in the dock spoke of her good character.

The psychologists’ report itself – one clinical, succinct letter linked mum’s behavior to deep feelings of guilt and shame about the death of her third child, the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

And then the suspended sentence – no jail time to be served, in exchange for a warrant of good behaviour.

I suddenly understood why mum did not put up a fight for her financial share of the marriage settlement. Buying her freedom had cost our family dearly, and walking away with nothing but a car and some furniture, she might have felt she’d repaid her dues.

I could also see why she eventually left town, allowing the myth to emerge that she’d left dad, not the truth, which was all the other way around. Our family name on ‘Burge Bros.’, an Inverell shopfront, speaks of our pedigree as descendants of proud local shopkeepers, which mum might have felt was brought into disrepute by a depressed city girl. Housed in the same precinct was the shop whose owner would not forgive her.

I remembered how mum recalled being interviewed by the police after my brother died. It was a matter of course, apparently, that the mother was the first subject of investigation after the death of a child who had been laid in his bed by her arms only hours before. Lindy Chamberlain was to face that same moment only seven years later.

And I remembered it was mum who told me about the Myall Creek Massacre. While the other adults were playing tennis at the courts near the creek, she pointed to the hillside and whispered to me about what had occurred. Whispered. Not to the other kids, or any of the white adults enjoying weekend sport, but just to me.

The Myall Creek Massacre memorial was eventually the subject of an Australian Story episode in which descendants of the settlers who committed the crimes reached out in reconciliation to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay people who were slaughtered.

SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

But in its first decade, it endured vandalism. Not brainless destruction, but calculated censorship of the facts about the case and its impact on lives.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, the place I was born, but it can be a harsh place too.

The shock and grief wrought on one family in the wake of the sudden death of one baby tells us how magnified the same emotions would have been after the sudden slaughter of multiple defenceless women, children and old men at Myall Creek, but despite the well-known contributing factors of depression and grief-related kleptomania, there was little reconciliation or understanding on offer for my mother in the 1970s. The community was still coming to terms with what happened to the Wirrayaraay.

Mum got away from Inverell and made a new life. Grandma died in 2008 and we gathered in Inverell for her funeral, but no-one in our family lives there anymore.

I’ll go back to Myall Creek one June for the annual memorial service. Hearing the true story of the place probably marks the start of my journey to being a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.