Myall Creek Part 1
A title in a book shop stings my conscience and provokes a photographic project.
Ruby gave me a gift voucher to a local bookshop in Port Macquarie for my 61st birthday. I went into town to check out the selection of photography-related books available. As I walked an aisle between rows of shelves the bold title of a paperback seized my focus and pricked my white conscience. It spoke of my country, the district where I was born and grew up, and an event that I had heard of but never taken the time to learn about. How many times in my life had I driven between Inverell and Bingara and crossed the bridge over the intermittent creek that gave the atrocity its name? Dozens if not scores. Not once had I sacrificed time to stop and contemplate the momentous event in Australia's history and pay my respect.
The Myall Creek Massacre
Murder at Myall Creek—The trial that defined a nation by Mark Tedeschi QC, Simon & Schuster 2016—gripped me with a mixture of intrigue and guilt. I picked it up and read the cover notes, was torn between taking it or completing my mission to the photography section and eventually settled on 'later'—I would check it out later. I replaced the book and continued to the 'Photography' shelves where I pored over a few titles before selecting two and proceeding to the checkout: Photography Masterclass—Creative Techniques of 100 Great Photographers by Paul Lower, Thames & Hudson 2016; and PHOTOGRAPHY—The Whole Story edited by Juliet Hacket, Thames & Hudson 2012.
That night, a Thursday, I slept fitfully...Myall Creek on my mind, and the knowledge that I would drive that road in three days time. We would travel to Inverell on Friday to visit Ruby's mother and sister before Christmas and on to Gilgandra on Sunday where our son, Dylan, is a history teacher (including Aboriginal Studies) at Gilgandra High School. I had been invited to be the guest speaker at the school's 2016 D.A.M.E. (Drama, Art, and Music Education) awards night.
On Friday, I was self-compelled to go back into town and purchase Mark Tedeschi's book before we left for Inverell. I started reading it on the weekend and couldn't put it down. On Sunday, en route to Gilgandra in a 40 degree heat wave, we turned off the road after crossing Myall Creek and took the Serpent Walk, reading each of the plaques set in granite stones along the way to the main memorial, a granite boulder at the site of the massacre.
Myall Creek Massacre Memorial4 December 2016 Presumably, someone has disagreed with the word 'murdered'. That saddens me and stirs my feelings of inherited guilt by racial association with the perpetrators and the majority of the colonial white society that opposed calling them to account. It was an unprovoked attack on dispossessed, innocent and peaceful people.
Using Mark Tedeschi's excellent and thorough book as a reference, I have put together a condensed and paraphrased account of the massacre. I follow Tedeschi's lead in using the following terms that were in common use at the time of the event (not meaning any disrespect to modern Indigenous people who prefer that term): aborigines, aboriginal, blacks, and whites.
On 10th June 1838, a group of eleven white men—ten ex-convicts and assigned convicts (protestants and catholics) led by John Fleming, a free man and station manager from a nearby property called Mungie Bundie Station—rode onto Myall Creek Station, itself a tract of land appropriated by a squatter named Henry Dangar and tended at the time by: two convicts—a stockman, Charles Kilmeister, 23, from Bristol, and hut-keeper, George Anderson, 24, from Middlesex; and two Aborigines—brothers Davy (Yintayintin 18) and Billy (Kwimunga 14) from a Peel River district tribe 100 miles to the south.
The party on horseback, armed with muskets, pistols and swords, and representing a range of squatters in the Big (Gwydir) River district, had been scouring the countryside with the intent of exterminating Aboriginal people in retribution for stock losses and hostilities towards whites. The Aborigines' retaliation for being dispossessed of their land and traditional hunting and gathering resources by squatters and their livestock was natural but of no moral consequence to the colony's Mother Country. Terra Nullius.
Approximately 40 members of the Wirrayaraay tribe (of the Gamilaraay nation) had been peacefully camped for almost five weeks nearby to the station huts after the stockman Charles Kilmeister had urged the station manager William Hobbs to give his permission. Hobbs took pity on the tribe because of their poor condition and acceded. The ten most able-bodied men in the tribe were away cutting bark on a neighbouring squatter's selection on June 10th. This left the remaining thirty or so women, children, and elderly men of the tribe in a vulnerable position.
There had been no suspicion that the Wirrayaraay were responsible for stock losses or hostility to the whites. Indeed, the leader of the tribe, named 'King Sandy' by white settlers, wore a brass breast plate given to him by the overseer at Byron Plains station, near present-day Inverell, as a mark of his acceptance by whites.
The Wirrayaraay camp erupted in panic as the marauders burst onto the scene in a gallop. Two young brothers, John and Jimmy, aged about eight, escaped by diving into the creek. Twenty-eight members of the tribe were captured by Fleming's gang. They were bound serially on a long rope and led away to a ridge half a mile from the huts, and accompanied, ironically, by the stockman Kilmeister who deemed it safer to join the intent gang than resist. The hut keeper George Anderson refused to participate but felt powerless to intervene. He instructed the Peel River Aboriginal boy Davy to surreptitiously follow the gang and their captives to observe from a safe distance.
The Wirrayaraay were led into a stockyard, untied and surrounded by the horsemen. A young woman named Heppita was kept aside. Fleming fired two shots into the air detonating mayhem. No further shots were fired. The terrified Aborigines were slaughtered with swords and trampled under hooves. Apart from the perpetrators, there were only two eyewitnesses to the murders: young Davy, hiding behind a tree nearby, and Heppita who had, incidentally, befriended and consorted with hut keeper George Anderson during the preceding weeks. Heppita had been 'saved' by Fleming for the sexual gratification of his party.
At the conclusion of the slaughter, Fleming directed that the bodies be decapitated, dismembered, placed in a heap, covered with dead wood and burnt. The gang camped in the bush that evening, drinking, carousing and violating Heppita.
The hut keeper George Anderson was horrified and filled with remorse when Davy returned and told him what had happened. He ordered Davy to run to the neighbouring property, Newton's Run, to tell the absent, able-bodied Wirrayaraay men that they were in grave danger; Fleming's party would no doubt resume their hunt the next day. At 10pm the Wirrayaraay men reached Anderson's hut to learn that their families had been killed. Anderson exhorted them to leave immediately for their own safety. The remaining Wirrayaraay walked 25 miles through the night to McIntyre's Station (near present day Inverell).
On page 107 of his book, Mark Tedeschi writes, "Some days later, between thirty and forty Aborigines, possibly including some of the ten or so younger [Wirrayaraay] men, two women and three children who had fled from Myall Creek Station, were murdered at McIntyre's Station, their bodies also cast onto a large open fire. Many suspected that the later murders were committed by the same stockmen who had perpetrated the Myall Creek Massacre."
The next day, Monday 11 June, Fleming and his band of killers rode the 16 miles to Newton's Run to hunt down the remaining Wirrayaraay men only to find that they had vanished. Heppita was still with the marauders but was never seen again after they left Newton's Run that day. On Tuesday 12 June, Fleming's gang returned to Myall Creek, still searching for the Wirrayaraay men. Discovering that the fire had not properly burnt the bodies, Fleming instructed Kilmeister to tend it until the job was done. Kilmeister's lack of diligence was to prove piquant in his and his cohort's taste of justice months later.
The fire at Myall Creek that was supposed to reduce the dismembered bodies to anonymous ashes didn't go the distance and left evidence that proved crucial when eleven of the twelve perpetrators were captured and put on trial. The murderous gang's leader, John Fleming, was never brought to justice, having escaped to Moreton Bay during a tenacious investigation conducted by Police Magistrate Captain Edward Denny Day who was based in Muswellbrook. Captain Day caught the other 11 men in the raiding party and walked them 200 miles in chains to custody in Muswellbrook. They were brought to trial in the Supreme Court in Sydney on 15th November 1838, 350 miles and 158 days separated from the scene of the crime.
Mark Tedeschi's book is a forensic investigation of events surrounding the Myall Creek Massacre as well as an enlightening account of judicial, political and social forces in play in the colony of New South Wales before, during and after the event. But it's not just about the massacre. In large measure, it's a celebration of the achievements of John Hubert Plunkett, the New South Wales Attorney General—from 1832-1856—who prosecuted the case against the murderers, who contributed enormously to political and legal reforms in the colony, and who played key roles in the establishment of some of Australia's finest institutions, including the University of Sydney, St Vincents Hospital, and an education system where denominational and state schools are both funded by the government. Although a devout Irish Catholic, he was a champion of secularism in government and public institutions.
Mark Tedeschi describes John Hubert Plunkett as "...a man with an abiding hatred of bigotry and injustice and a belief in the equality of all men under the law..."
In his homeland, Plunkett had known religious persecution and oppression at the hands of the English, yet he prosecuted his career with great respect for the Westminster system of government and the spirit (if not the denomination!) of English law that, underpinned by a protestant Christian belief system, asserted the equality of all men, black or white, and regardless of religious affiliation, in the eyes of God.
Tedeschi (p7) writes, "The injustice of oppression by English overlords had been implanted in the Plunkett family's DNA ever since the time of their illustrious ancestor, Archbishop Oliver Plunket [later Saint Oliver Plunkett], who became the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland in 1669."
"In 1678, anti-Catholic measures were reintroduced and Archbishop Plunkett was forced to go into hiding. Despite being on the run and having a price on his head, he refused to leave his flock. He was arrested in Dublin in December 1679 and prosecuted for high treason by the English on fabricated evidence."
On 1 July 1681, Archbishop Plunkett was executed—hanged, drawn and quartered, as was the customary, ignominious launchpad into eternity reserved for those convicted of treason.
"Murder at Myall Creek" describes the trials of the murderers in detail and fills me with admiration for the tenacity of John Hubert Plunkett and his brilliance as a legal practitioner, securing the death penalty for seven of the perpetrators in a second trial after all had been found 'not guilty' in the first trial. He must have been gutted when the first verdict was delivered, but, thinking on his feet when the judge asked was there any reason why the eleven accused should not be released, he had the wit to call for an immediate retrial based on some new evidence that he would bring. You need to read the book yourself to appreciate the complexity of the circumstances and the stature of the man. The judicial labyrinth surrounding the trials is intriguing to a layman like me. Plunkett stood with few allies to resist opposition to the trials by most of the colony's white society and its vested interests, and he resolutely championed the rights of the Aboriginal Australians.
While reading the book I felt ashamed of my origins (despite having no direct lineage with any of the perpetrators or squatters) and experienced a profound empathy for the dispossessed First Australians. Many things described in Mark Tedeschi's book pricked my social justice conscience.
Here's an example. The evidence of the young Peel River Aborigine, Davy (an eyewitness to the crime) was unable to be tendered in the Supreme Court trial because it was inadmissible for him, a non-Christian, to swear an oath on the bible to tell the truth! I cringe at the injustice of that alone. I wonder how many Christians, or 'Christians', down through the ages have lied under oath?
The subtitle of this blog post includes the phrases 'Unfinished business' and 'A personal step toward reconciliation'. I'm a photographer and I use photography to express myself. Something is compelling me to express my feelings about the Myall Creek Massacre visually. Is it inherited guilt? I don't know. I also don't know what visual form my expression will take, other than it being photographic in origin, but I'm open to my heart leading me where it will. In my next blog post Myall Creek Part 2, I'll share with you some preliminary, 'sketch' images that I made last Sunday while at the site of the massacre. They are the first steps on a journey that I hope will introduce me to some of the Indigenous descendants of the Wirrayaraay tribe, who I hope will empathise with my desire to collaborate and visualise and realise some art that can represent a tangible, personal step towards reconciliation. If that comes about it can be Myall Creek Part 3.
I called my sister Colleen who was present at the dedication and unveiling of the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial on June 10, 2000. I knew that she had been deeply moved by the experience and had written a poem.
"I've never experienced anything like it, Rob. Shared sadness for the past and hope for the future. There was a smoking ceremony, clap sticks and a didgeridoo. It was haunting. I was in a trance. I'll never forget it."
We Remember Them
We gathered on a clouded day in June
From far and wide the people came
We walked to the lonely hilltop
This was a walk of mourning
We came upon the Serpent path
We walked together, young and old
The rock upon the hill is vast
Candles burning, green and red,
We share new meaning with this place
Ngiyani winangay ganunga
Written by Colleen (nee Smith) Elliott to pay homage to the
Keywords: Aborigines, First Australians, history, injustice, justice, massacre, respect, shame, |444.16L
Attended the ceremony and was moved by its inclusiveness. As a child, I thought Myall Creek was in central Australia and now a resident of Gum Flat I realise, according to Google at least, that it starts behind our house. It's largely unknown in Inverell and as a ceremony- not attended. Many Indigenous people it seems to me, also avoid the commemoration. As a people there are as many schisms as with any society as there are family histories. Do we move ahead by celebrating today's achievements devoid of horrible History or do we honour the past and take stock of atrocities? And can we do both or is it beyond our capabilities to 'get a handle on it'?
There is a guilt in the wider community that pushes against an equal white response of anger—that it wasn't us! As a former teacher and school principal I've been confronted by powerful repercussions that are both emotional and sometimes violent from all angles. And those emotions have sometimes been strongest in parents and grandparents arguing the justices and injustices across my desk. Sadly for the kids on all sides it's a given. And later in age the knowing pub smiles, service club jokes along with opinions of influence—indicates a festering sore in those who believe themselves healthy.
I left a plaque with part of Kevin Rudd's 'Sorry Speech' on a granite stone in Bundarra Central School. Through an innovative teacher it lives in a garden created by students. The place and activity accompanied by its little fanfare, captures the muddled confusion of the descendants, in general terms Rob, of those murderers and victims. That school on the confluence of two great waterways should be alive with Indigenous history- but it's not.
And the Myall Creek site itself as Bill Bryson indicates in his 'Notes from Down Under', is easy to pass by. Meanwhile, as I sat in the Inverell Centrelink and chatted with the long term teachers' social inheritance—our past students, I lamented the statistically improbable 'dreadfuls' that have befallen so many. But we won't see much of that in the local paper, or behind shop counters or spread across the eateries and watering holes of the town.
You have reopened a chunk of the past with this, Rob, but for many, grappling with now is more than enough. And I'm saying this as a retired teacher of History, awareness of the past is a bit like Leunig's 'A bagful of Roosters'—too hard to hold and messy when reopened.
The June ceremony though has strong cross-cultural and religious bones with great visions for the future. I want to go again.
Wow! Thank you Rob - I have re-lived this most poignant moment in my life, when a hill became 'my mountain', from where I could reflect on the horrors of past days, as my soul envisaged what my eyes had not seen.
I felt a weariness lifting around all those gathered, as the red hued smoke settled, and my belief in the 'Spirit of Dreamtime' was born.
'Ngiyani Winangay Ganunga'
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