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Professor Richard Broome – Myall Creek Massacre

Richard Broome

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast, with myself Matt Smith and my guest is Professor Richard Broome of the History Program at La Trobe University.  He's here today to teach us about a dark chapter in Australian history.  A group of unarmed Aboriginals are rounded up and killed by white settlers and convicts, who were later punished for their crimes, in what becomes known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

Richard Broome:

The Myall Creek Massacre happened in 1838, in the New England area, which is approximately four to five hundred kilometres or possibly a bit more, from Sydney.  So this was on the sort of far frontier of the pastoral expansion of the 1830s.  There had been pastoral settlement in the area for one to two years before that, and there had been incidences in that time, clashes and Aboriginal people perhaps taking stock, because it was meat on their land basically.  These people were invited guests on to the land, they were using the land, so I think in moral terms, Aboriginal people saw that the stock was there for the taking – they didn't understand about private ownership of beef, and the market economy and export economy and all that.  There were inevitably clashes because of these thefts and of course people coming on to Aboriginal land, unannounced, often they would disperse people that they were frightened of and whatever, so there was actually a government punitive party sent into the area beforehand, and it had several clashes with Aboriginal people.  It was led by Major Nunn and he was actually later put up on investigation over the events that happened.  There is a bit of a history in the area, which is I think sending signals to settlers in the area, that allowed people to think that they could take their own revenge, take matters into their own hands.  So what happens in April is that there is a group of stockmen and shepherds who collect together, no doubt with at least a tacit approval of their employers, because most of them were convicts and they were not supposed to be abroad without their masters' permission.  They started looking for an Aboriginal group, that were supposed to be clashes, stock thefts and so they go looking for this group.  But they don't have any real information on who's doing it, and I think what appears to be the case was that they were just really looking for revenge and to make a statement against people that they thought if they inspired with terror, or hit them hard, then they might settle things down.  They actually eventually catch up with a group that had been on this station, quite peacefully, for several weeks, doing some work with the station owner, getting bark and things like that.  The station manager at that time was away.  The Aboriginal men are also away – they've gone over the range to do some work for another pastoralist nearby.

So when these men arrive, looking for trouble, looking to make I think a statement, they had swords, they had guns, they had been revved up for several days. They came to this property where there was really a group of women, children and older men.  Basically they threatened the two stockmen that were there.  Both of them had had sort of good relations with Aboriginal people over several weeks.  One of them they sort of push aside, pretty much and dismiss him as a young person of no account.  The other man actually agrees to go along with them, so they round up about thirty people, tie them together and take them over the ridge and then shots are heard, smoke is seen, what transpires is that they killed them in the grotesque way, usually with close-up weapons of swords and knives.  Some heads were removed.  And then come back, pretty much boasting about what they did.  And then they move off.

What happens is that the station manager comes back and finds from one of the two men what has happened.  He goes out and he counts the remains that he thinks are about 30 people.

Matt Smith:

So why was it reported though?  It sounds like it was not approved of, but a blind eye was turned to this sort of activity.  So why was it reported like a crime had been committed?

Richard Broome:

On the frontier there's a range of people – some people with very hard attitudes towards Aboriginal people and other people who can get along with them, who employ them, who think that they can be useful to the society, they can work well, and they have a different attitude.  So this station manager obviously was of a mind that this was appalling, what had happened, and of course the magistrate had to uphold the law, so once he was told, he had to investigate.  And so really it was quite a lucky incident.  There's been lots of violent incidences across the Australian frontier and usually they're hidden and covered up, and not much is said.  But in this case, there were people willing to speak out, and of course once it gets to government, Governor Gipps came with a new attitude – he had the riding instructions from the British Government that the Aboriginal people were to be treated as equal citizens, and had equal rights before the law.  Now of course that was in many cases a farce, they couldn't give evidence before the court, they couldn't understand court proceedings, but the idea was to give them a fairer deal than they'd been getting.  So Gipps is of a mind to do so, and his Attorney General as well takes up the case, because he believes that this is what should be done.

Matt Smith:

Was the attitude that these convicts and pastoralists displayed to the Aboriginals – was this typical amongst the settler colonial area, because this group of Aboriginals were actually accustomed to working and living with the settler community – some of them had anglicised names, a few of them knew English and presumably could plead for their life, and even that didn't have an effect.

Richard Broome:

Yes.  These were fairly general attitudes, held by most of the settlers.  I mean they saw themselves I think in a war situation.  There was a struggle for the land.  They had property that was worth a lot to them, and it was being taken, or killed or eaten or whatever.  And of course for Aboriginal people, it was their land, so look, both sides in their own view, thought they were right.  It is also mixed, because there were people in between, there's a couple of Aboriginal stockmen and they were not harmed in this whole episode, because it was said that they were naturalised.  They spoke English, they wore clothes, and they did pastoral work very well.  In that sense, it was not a total war, and it was perhaps even not racialised as we might think.  Of course, these two men were never harmed, and yet they were Aboriginal and one of the perpetrators, one of the convicts, a man named Johnson, was a Jamaican, who'd been obviously freed from slavery somehow, found his way to London where he got in trouble with the law and he was transported to New South Wales.  So one of the killers is black, and two that aren't killed are black, and that makes it an interesting situation.  And I don't think it's a hard line racial explanation – it's more about war I think.  And more about the tensions on the frontier.  And I think one of the things is those guys were just wanting to make a statement, and they were frustrated and they were fearful – they lived in a vast frontier they didn't understand, so they really felt vulnerable and therefore I think they over-reacted.  And so when they found a group that didn't have warriors in them, they still wreaked vengeance out of frustration I think, because it was no heroic deed to kill women and children and old men who had no weapons.  But they did it anyway.  It's a deep psychology that we'll never understand behind all that.

Matt Smith:

It was reported and from that point on something was actually done about it.  So what happened at this point?

Richard Broome:

Well, the government came and investigated the scene.  They took the depositions from Kilmeister, who was the man on the property who'd gone with the eventual killers, and he said some very interesting things that … you don't know what they would have done to me.  He was a bit ambiguous when he was talking about the white stockmen or Aboriginal people.  I think it's the white stockmen.  So he was under a lot of pressure to conform on the frontier in a situation where you have to stick with your own, whereas George Anderson, who was a younger bloke, a convict, who was treated very dismissively by the stockmen – they told him to go and get some milk when they first arrived.  Apparently he was hut keeper and they treated him like a low life in that sense.  He actually was one of them who gave evidence against them and there was other people in the district who'd seen these men in the previous two days, looking for Aboriginal people, displaying weapons, and talking about great deeds ahead.  So there was enough evidence to gather, the government did that and then they proceeded to a trial.  That trial was overturned, pretty much in five minutes, by the jury, and then the government ordered a new trial, on a different charge.  So the government actually was very determined to do something about this, and this is not all that unusual in frontier situations.

And a very interesting situation develops within Sydney where you have Sydney pretty much polarised between support for Aboriginal people and a view that were pests on the frontier and needed to be pushed aside, and that European people should not be held accountable for the clashes that happened.

Matt Smith:

I've actually got a quote here, if I could read it out, from the Sydney Morning Herald – the whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time.

Richard Broome:

It certainly shows the polarisation in Sydney, that the press spoke out, and they were allowed to speak out in these days, very candidly about the trial. It seems the pastoralists were supporting the defendants – they were getting them the best lawyers.  They formed a thing called the Black Association and there was also a suggestion that jurymen were being influenced by people around the town.  So the court proceedings were not the same as today.  And newspapers could speak out.  But on the other hand, you did have another newspaper in Sydney, I think it was called the Monitor, and it defended Aboriginal people.  It said that they were equal citizens, they were equal before the law, and these men should be prosecuted.  So there was two views operating at least in Sydney town.  In fact the humanitarian view was given expression in the formation of an Aboriginal Protection Society, which was the first time that had happened in the colonies.  That society later linked up with the Anti-Slavery Society in London.  So you can actually get a window on attitudes through such an event as this and the subsequent trial, the determination of the government to do the right thing, and the populist split.

Matt Smith:

So what was the outcome of the trial then?

Richard Broome:

Not all the perpetrators were hung, but about half of them were hung.  They confessed to a jailer just before the hanging, that, yes, they had done this deed, but they didn't think it was wrong for a white man to kill a black.  And actually, you know, you've got to have a bit of sympathy with their understanding of that, because this had never happened before in colonial society.  There would have been a frontier culture that when Aboriginal people hit your stock or whatever, that you can go after them.  The government had never prosecuted someone before.  Their own bosses were allowing them time off to do this, to take arms and horses off the property, and giving them the nod, and so there's a lot of social approval for what's happened to them.  And so you can see why they would have said that.  So half of them were hung.  But the only free man amongst them, John Fleming, was not hung.  He appears maybe to have been the ringleader because he was a son of the one of the pastoral families in the area, he as a free man and connected to a pastoral propaganda, would have been a natural leader amongst these men who are convicts or ex-convicts.  He just disappears and he does turn up twenty or thirty years later as a JP in some country town.  You know, his reputation seems to have survived.

Matt Smith:

This was the first time that there'd actually been punishment meted out for this sort of activity.  But was it the last?  Did it have a lasting effect?  Did it set a precedent?

Richard Broome:

Not really.  There were other isolated instances where Europeans were put on trial, but it was a rare occurrence in colonial society and I suppose what this event really does is that it just sends a signal to settler culture who are of a mind to take punitive action to do it covertly and to not talk about it too much.  And of course government punitive expeditions continued where governments saw that the situation was getting out of hand, but they always hit Aboriginal people, not settlers.  And so right up into the 1920s, there were a couple of police actions in Western Australia and the Northern Territory against Aboriginal people.

Matt Smith:

So if it didn't have a lasting effect, and it wasn't the most significant massacre that did happen, why is it remembered, and why do you teach about it in your Australian Aboriginal History subject?

Richard Broome:

Well, I think it's partly remembered because of the  wealth of documents we have about it.  We have depositions.  We have magistrates investigating it.  And very few people in Australia would try to deny that this ever happened, even those who want to put a different view of the frontier as a place of good government – they can't deny the events at Myall Creek.  I think it's seen to be quite horrific in the sense of how the killings occurred, they were not by rifle shots, they were by stabbings at close quarters, so it shows the sort of brutality of this frontier war.  And you know, brutal things happened to white settlers too.  You've got to be fair about that.  And the third reason I suppose is, because it is one of the few that did come to trial and successfully so.  It's lived on really in the popular memory, because of that.

Matt Smith:

How are the events remembered today?

Richard Broome:

Well, in several ways.  I mean, of course, historians write about it.  I teach about it.  Students do find it shocking, especially when I say to them that possibly it could happen amongst any group of people.  You know, I ask them whether these people were monsters, or within the sort of norm of human behaviour.  And that given the right circumstances, others have done this.  And I think that gives them pause for thought.  The other thing is, there's a remarkable thing that's happened in recent times and out of the Reconciliation movement there's been a coming together of descendants on both sides of the massacre and there's a wonderful Australian Story, a production called Bridge Over the Myall Creek, and it talks about those reconciling efforts where people from both sides, mostly who didn't know about their connections first to the events, and certainly didn't know about people on the other side surviving, come together, and I think it's a wonderful story for Australians to look to in terms of how the events of the past can be used by the present to find reconciliation and better understanding.

Matt Smith:

Professor Richard Broome there and his subject Australian Aboriginal History is taught at La Trobe University and is available as an online course through iTunesU.  If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other,  then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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