Frontier Wars: Fact or Fiction? The invention of massacre stories

The myths of frontier massacres in Australian history

The first part of this essay will demonstrate just how flimsy is the case that the massacre of Aborigines was a defining feature of the European settlement of Australia. The second part will examine the estimates by historians of the total number of Aborigines killed and show that some of the key assumptions upon which these calculations have been made are either unfounded or invented. The third part will discuss the motives behind the long tradition in Australia — a tradition begun by missionaries in the early nineteenth century and perpetuated by academics in the late twentieth — of the invention of massacre stories.

By Keith Windschuttle

The invention of massacre stories

The men moved from camp to camp along the Forrest River for the next week, killing as they went. When they entered a camp they first shot all the dogs, then the men, then the women and children. At one camp the women were chained to trees and forced to watch their menfolk being shot and the bodies burned. They were then marched for several miles before being shot and burned themselves. Estimates of Aboriginals killed ranged from 20 to 100.
— Phillip Knightley on the Forrest River Massacres of 1926

In his new book, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, the journalist Phillip Knightley demonstrates how deeply the notion that Australian society was founded on deadly violence against Aborigines has penetrated the mentality of those who shape popular opinion. The book is a 350-page historical survey published to mark the centenary of Federation in 2001 and is aimed at both a local and international general readership. Its chapter, “Black Australia”, will certainly shock many of its readers by its contrast between the Australian ethos of egalitarianism and a “fair go” and how we have dealt with the Aborigines. Knightley spends a page comparing the fate of the Aborigines to the Holocaust of the Jews.

It remains one of the mysteries of history that Australia was able to get away with a racist policy that included segregation and dispossession and bordered on slavery and genocide, practices unknown in the civilised world in the first half of the twentieth century until Nazi Germany turned on the Jews in the 1930s.

About half the chapter on black Australia is devoted to lengthy quotations from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report, Bringing Them Home, including two pages on the evidence given by Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo in their failed test case for compensation for being “stolen children”. The other half of the chapter is a short history of the massacres of Aboriginal people between 1788 and 1928, with specific discussion of four of them: the Battle of Pinjarra, WA, in 1834, where Knightley says a sleeping camp of 80 Aboriginal men, women and children were butchered; Waterloo Creek, NSW, in 1838, where he records 300 men, women and children were killed; Forrest River, WA, in 1926, which he says claimed between 20 and 100; and Coniston station, NT, in 1928, where he believes between 30 and 70 Aborigines, again including many women and children, met their death.

Since he left Sydney in 1963 to pursue a career in London, Knightley has been one of the world’s most successful journalists. As he has demonstrated in his pursuit of stories about international espionage, he has a great capacity for original research and is not easily misled by his informants. However, he is not an historian and his book on Australia is not compiled from his own research but from secondary historical sources. His discussion of Aboriginal massacres relies entirely upon the work of Australian historians. His paragraph on Waterloo Creek closely follows the entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998). His discussion of events at Forrest River and Coniston comes from Henry Reynolds’ book, This Whispering in our Hearts (1998). Part of his information about Pinjarra also comes from Reynolds but his source for the remainder is unidentifiable.

I don’t want to comment on Knightley’s claims about the “stolen generation” since the evidence and outcome of the Gunner-Cubillo case is sufficient on its own to refute most of what he says. Instead, I want to focus on his account of the mass killings of Aborigines. Knightley has chosen poor examples on which to draw his comparison between Australian settlers and the Nazis. For it has now been established beyond reasonable doubt that there was no massacre at Forrest River of any kind. Moreover, the information Knightley relies upon for the murder of men, women and children at Waterloo Creek is mostly false. His account of the Battle of Pinjarra bears almost no resemblance to what happened there. Of the four incidents he describes, only that at Coniston deserves the label “massacre”. The evidence for this last case is shocking enough in itself, but even here some historians have not been able to resist the temptation to embellish and exaggerate the story. In short, Knightley has been duped by the historians he relied upon. This is true of both the particular examples he has chosen and of the overall volume of mass killings he has accepted.

Knightley, of course, is not the only one to have been misled. Anyone who has read the work of the most prominent historians in this field is in the same position. Over the past twenty years, Australian historians have constructed a story of widespread massacres on the frontiers of the expanding pastoral industry that carried off between five and twenty per cent of the Aboriginal population on the mainland and up to seventy per cent of indigenes in Tasmania. However, when it is closely examined, the evidence for these claims turns out to be highly suspect. Most of it is very poorly founded, other parts are seriously mistaken, and some of it is outright fabrication.

The first part of this essay will demonstrate just how flimsy is the case that the massacre of Aborigines was a defining feature of the European settlement of Australia. The second part will examine the estimates by historians of the total number of Aborigines killed and show that some of the key assumptions upon which these calculations have been made are either unfounded or invented. The third part will discuss the motives behind the long tradition in Australia — a tradition begun by missionaries in the early nineteenth century and perpetuated by academics in the late twentieth — of the invention of massacre stories.


Forrest River: “the killing fields of the Kimberley”

I will start at Forrest River. There is now more and better evidence about what happened here than of any other similar event in Australian history. At the time, it was the investigated by the WA police force, the WA Aborigines Department, a royal commission, and was the subject of a committal hearing for a murder trial. In the 1990s, two books were written on the subject: Neville Green’s The Forrest River Massacres (1995) and Rod Moran’s Massacre Myth (1999). The source Phillip Knightley uses is Henry Reynolds’ chapter on the incident in This Whispering in our Hearts, which is itself compiled largely from the report of the royal commission and the book by Neville Green. Reynolds says the royal commissioner believed that 20 people might have been killed. He also cites the head of the local Aboriginal mission, Rev. Ernest Gribble, who said that 30 Aborigines on his roll had gone missing, presumed dead. He adds that Aboriginal oral history collected in 1973 put the total killings at a hundred and more. Here is the sequence of events.

On 23 May 1926, William Hay, co-owner of Nulla Nulla station, in the north of the Kimberley region near Wyndham, challenged an Aborigine who had just killed one of his cattle. A fight ensued and Hay was killed with a spear. Two police constables, James St. Jack and Denis Regan, were ordered to detect and arrest the culprit. Over the next four weeks, the constables, in two separate parties, accompanied for part of the time by two white special constables, two white civilians, two black trackers and other Aborigines, searched unsuccessfully for Hay’s killer in rugged terrain between Nulla Nulla station and the Anglican mission on the Forrest River in the Marndoc Aboriginal Reserve. After arresting and questioning a number of Aborigines on the reserve, the police were informed that an Aboriginal named Lumbia was the killer and that he was travelling with other Aborigines to a corroboree on the Lyne River, about 130 kilometres to the north. On 26 June, a smaller party comprising the two constables, six black trackers and two Aborigines from the mission, set out in pursuit. On 1 July, near the Lyne River, they found an Aboriginal camp, raided it, arrested Lumbia and detained three Aboriginal witnesses. On 12 July they arrived back in Wyndham and delivered their prisoner. Lumbia was subsequently tried for murder. He confessed but pleaded self-defence. He was found guilty and eventually served ten years imprisonment for the crime.

Between late May and early July, Rev. Ernest Gribble, the head of the Forrest River Mission, recorded in his private journal and in the Mission log rumours reported to him about the shooting of Aborigines by the police patrol. On 30 July, Gribble wrote the first of a series of letters to Inspector E. C. Mitchell of the Western Australian Aborigines Department accusing the police party of the murder of Aborigines. He later compiled a list of 29 Aborigines who once attended the Mission but who had not been seen since the patrol began. Between August and November, Gribble, accompanied by Rev. James Noble who was Aboriginal deacon at the mission, Aboriginal Inspector Mitchell and some black trackers, made visits to what they presumed had been the campsites of the police patrols. They identified tracks and collected what they thought to be charred and burnt human remains. Meanwhile, the head of police of the Northern District of WA, Inspector W. A. Douglas, launched his own investigation, which included visits to what were thought to be the police camps and interviews by a detective with a number of the Aboriginal participants in the patrol, as well as Aborigines at the mission. For a time, Douglas believed that he was uncovering a terrible tragedy. Douglas reported his findings to Commissioner R. Connell, the Commissioner of Police in WA, who concluded that there was no sustainable evidence that even a single individual had been murdered, let alone several. However, Connell decided that, because Rev. Gribble had accused two policemen of murder, it was not appropriate that the police force alone should determine the issue. Even though he noted there was no evidence that any particular person had been murdered, he recommended his Minister appoint a magistrate to investigate Gribble’s claims. The Premier subsequently appointed Stipendiary Magistrate G. T. Wood to conduct, sitting alone, a royal commission into the matter.

The royal commission was appointed on 26 January and reported its findings on 21 May 1927. It found that, in the first stage of the police patrols between Nulla Nulla and Forrest River, some unidentified members of the party had probably murdered seven Aborigines who were in their custody at the time. It also found that, in the second stage of the patrol to the Lyne River camp, Constables St. Jack and Regan had killed four Aborigines in their custody. In each of the eleven murders, the royal commissioner argued, the Aborigines had first been shot, then their bodies incinerated. On 17 July 1927, St Jack and Regan faced committal hearings for murder in Perth. After four days of hearings, Magistrate A. B. Kidson found that no prima facie case had been made that even one individual had been murdered during the police patrols. He dismissed the case and discharged the accused. Constables St. Jack and Regan were reinstated to the police force.

The book by Neville Green on the subject is designed to show that the magistrate in charge of the royal commission got it right and that the magistrate at the committal hearing got it wrong. He ranks the massacre “amongst the major crimes in Australia this century”. Green is a former schoolteacher who himself worked at the Forrest River Mission in 1967. More than half of his book is about the early establishment of the mission and about various cases of police pursuit, arrest and shooting of Aboriginal criminals and escapees from custody between 1882 and 1926. He devotes 69 pages, derived mainly from the evidence and conclusions of the 1927 royal commission, to the details of the Forrest River Massacres.

The second book on the subject, Massacre Myth (Access Press, Bassendean, WA) is by Rod Moran, a Perth journalist with an interest in social history who had previously written a biography of the Kimberley Aboriginal identity, Tommy Gray. Most of his 262 pages are devoted to discrediting the evidence, reasoning and findings of the royal commission.
It is rare in Australian historiography to have two competing works addressing exactly the same subject, published in such proximity to one another, but taking diametrically opposed positions. This alone makes the clash riveting. What makes really compelling reading is the way Moran’s account not only demolishes his competitor utterly but also overturns the interpretations made by all previous historians of this event. He confirms not only the committal hearing’s finding that there was no evidence of any murders on the site, but demonstrates convincingly that, for logistical reasons, there could not possibly have been murders of the kind the royal commissioner said took place. Here is a sample of the points he makes:

  • There were no eyewitnesses to any killings. Even the two mission Aborigines who were on the Lyne River patrol, and who were used as hostile witnesses against St Jack and Regan, did not see anyone killed, hear any gunshots, nor see any bodies burning or burnt. It was some days after they returned from the patrol that they volunteered evidence that it was possible that, while they were absent from camp, the killing and incineration might have taken place.
  • Apart from some teeth uncovered at one location, no human remains were found at any of the alleged murder sites. The Government Pathologist and Chief Medical Officer of the WA Health Department examined the remains submitted as evidence to the royal commission and, except for the teeth, declared them to be either not of human origin or of indeterminate origin. He said the teeth looked to be human but were mostly roots and, as there was no complete tooth found, he could not be certain. Moran points out that the teeth had not come from any of the police campsites and he argues the scene where they were found was consistent with the mortuary rights of the local Aborigines who disposed of their dead in “tree burials”.
  • No ballistic evidence was found of a massacre or even of more than one shot fired. No cartridges or live ammunition were found on any of the related ground. No burnt bullets or melted lead were found in any of the alleged cremation sites. One lone bullet was prised from a tree at one site inspected by the royal commissioner. Moran argues it is unlikely the police expedition camped where this tree was located. He also observes there had been three other, unconnected, parties of whites through this particular area before and after the police patrol, and the bullet could well have been theirs.
  • A substance thought to be blood on rocks, some tracks of alleged murder victims in sand and the detritus of camp fires found between November and March 1927 could not have been related to the police patrols. Green argues it is plausible for such evidence to have survived for six to nine months outdoors in the Kimberley climate because it never rains from April to December and because that summer the monsoon might have come late. Moran, however, consulted the records of the Perth Bureau of Meteorology and found that the seasonal tropical deluge, which would have obliterated any such evidence, began in November 1926 with three inches of rain, plus another 26 inches falling between December and March.
  • Moran also consulted a forensic specialist in Melbourne who told him it was impossible for an open-air cremation to destroy all evidence of the human origin of bone material. He shows that for a wood fire to consume an average adult male human body in open air, it would require two and a half tons of timber to be burnt over four and a half hours, but even then the teeth and parts of the skull would survive. For the four bodies to be destroyed at Lyne River, from where no human remains were recovered, it would have needed 10 tons of wood. Photographs of this very lightly timbered country in both Moran’s and Green’s books show it would be impossible to collect such a quantity in the time available. There was no devastation of the surrounding timber found at any of the alleged cremation sites. One of them was a rock, six feet by three feet (2m by 1m). The wood needed to burn one body, let alone three or four, could not be stacked onto a site this small. To burn beyond recognition the one hundred bodies that Henry Reynolds attributes to Aboriginal oral history would have required dozens of axemen to fell a small forest of trees.
  • Rev. Ernest Gribble gave the royal commission a list of 29 Aborigines whom he claimed had gone missing after the police patrols. Moran examined the surviving documentary evidence and found that five of the names reappear as visitors to the mission between late 1926 and 1928, nine individuals had not been seen in the vicinity for up to two years before they were declared missing, one woman on the list had been murdered in a tribal dispute three months before the alleged massacre, another woman was listed twice, and another eight had not been noticed as missing from the mission by anyone else but Gribble. Moran finds that 24 of the 29 individuals cited by Gribble as missing, presumed dead, should not have been on the list.

In other words, the lurid account Henry Reynolds has offered of the scene at Forrest River, of “members of the expedition combing the district, shooting men, women and children” and piling the bodies onto “specially constructed pyres” is false. These events never took place. Reynolds says the police did everything they could to keep their murders secret. “They burnt bodies, pulverised bones, buried charred remains, covered or scrubbed blood stains.” Yet the forensic material collected at the sites of these gory deeds was most likely nothing more than the left-overs from animals cooked over Aboriginal camp fires. What Roger Milliss has histrionically labelled the “killing fields of the Kimberley”, were nothing but a few old, empty campsites.

How, then, did such a story come to enter the public record? Moran argues that the case for the prosecution was largely invented by Rev. Gribble. He picked up some original, unfounded Aboriginal rumours that some people had been shot and, within his own imagination, constructed the scenario of a punitive expedition. He then persuaded himself and some of his staff that the tracks and burnt remains he found on the mission reserve were confirmation of his suspicions. In the case of the missing 29 visitors, as well as a number of other examples discussed by Moran, Gribble was not above faking evidence as well. He then cajoled most of those around him into accepting his version of events.
Gribble was a very disturbed man who had already suffered a mental breakdown while heading another mission in Queensland. Soon after his appointment to Forrest River he began discovering alleged white murders of Aborigines in the Kimberley. In 1922, he reported that, during the police pursuit of an Aboriginal murderer, a whole camp of natives had been massacred in a gorge of the Durack River. At the time, his claim was investigated by Inspector Spedding Smith of the WA Police and found to be false. At the royal commission, the WA Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville, testified about this incident. He said “no native had actually been shot” and that “natives had not been killed”. In 1923, Gribble wrote a report accusing a pastoralist named Siddons of the murder of an Aborigine called Nunjune. This time Gribble conducted an enquiry of his own, in which he said he interviewed 200 Aborigines, who confirmed the murder. Nunjune eventually turned up alive and well after having gone bush for several months. Moran discusses other false accusations by Gribble of a similar kind.

By 1926, Gribble had fallen out with the Board of Missions and the Anglican Bishop over his conduct of the Forrest River Mission. His mental condition deteriorated to the point that shortly after the accused police were discharged in July 1927, the Church dismissed him from his post at the mission. There are other aspects of Gribble’s motives that also deserve discussion but I will leave them until Part Three when they can be considered together with those of other missionaries who have had a similar obsession with massacre stories.

Apart from being a necessary corrective to the received interpretation, as well as a brilliant piece of detective work in itself, Rod Moran’s book has performed a valuable service for Australian historiography. The Forrest River case teaches us that the criteria of evidence about incidents of this kind that has been considered acceptable until now need re-assessment. Given that there are people who have been prepared to invent massacre stories, and given that these rumours can then take on a life of their own, historians should draw a firm line. They should ask hard questions about rumours, second-hand reports and similar evidence from those who were not at the scene of the crime. Historians should only accept evidence of violent deaths, Aboriginal or otherwise, where there is a minimum amount of direct evidence. This means that, at the very least, they need some reports by people who were either genuine eyewitnesses or who at least saw the bodies afterwards. Preferably, these reports should be independently corroborated by others who saw the same thing. Admissions of guilt by those concerned, provided they are recorded first-hand and are not hearsay, should also count as credible evidence. Let us see what happens when we apply such minimal criteria to the other three massacres Phillip Knightley records in his history of Australia.


Waterloo Creek and the legitimacy of British colonisation

The Oxford Companion to Australian History has an entry on the incident in January 1838 at Snodgrass Lagoon on Waterloo Creek, a sporadic tributary of the Gwydir River near the present-day town of Moree. Let me quote most of it to convey the impression given to anyone like Phillip Knightley who relies on this book for information.

Waterloo Creek massacre was the culmination of a series of attacks by white settlers in the New England district of NSW on the traditional owners, the Kamileroi. The Kamileroi’s loss of land and traditional food sources and, more importantly, the alleged kidnapping of their women by white men, prompted their attacks on shepherds, stockmen and stock. The aggrieved pastoralists demanded recognition and protection from the NSW government, which appeased them by authorising an expedition of mounted police in 1838. Its leader, Colonel James Nunn, instigated atrocious retaliatory measures against the group of Aborigines his party encountered at Snodgrass Swamp (Waterloo Creek) on 26 January. Several days later, the bodies of over 300 men, women and children were found in a nearby swamp — a number unmatched in other recorded massacres in Australia. They were reputedly killed over a period of three days. The creek was triumphantly named ‘Waterloo’, recalling Britain’s victory of 1815.

The central piece of information contained in this entry is false. No one found 300 bodies in a nearby swamp several days later, or at any other time. No one ever claimed they did. Apart from those directly involved at the time, no one ever found any bodies. Not even the author of the book that is the Oxford Companion’s sole reference for this subject makes such an allegation. It is pure invention. Although one of the troopers involved later said “forty to fifty blacks” might have been killed at the site, the most probable figure for Aboriginal dead at Waterloo Creek is less than ten, all of them male warriors. As I will argue below, they were not killed for the reasons given in this entry.

Only one contemporary individual mentioned a figure of 300 deaths in this incident. This was the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld, who at the time was head of a Christian mission to Aborigines at Lake Macquarie near Newcastle, five hundred kilometres away. Threlkeld said he was informed about the incident by the Gwydir River pastoralist John Cobb, who told him he learnt of it from public boasts made by the expedition leader, Major (not Colonel) James Nunn. Cobb himself had not been anywhere near Snodgrass Lagoon (not Swamp) or in the vicinity of Waterloo Creek at the time, so his own reported claims were second hand. However, there is no documentary evidence that Cobb actually told this story to Threlkeld, nor is there any evidence, apart from Threlkeld’s claim, that Nunn ever publicly boasted about such a thing to Cobb or to anyone else. In other words, none of Threlkeld’s claims — all of them third hand reports — are corroborated anywhere in the contemporary documentary record.

Threlkeld’s letters and papers were published in 1974 (ed. Niel Gunson) and they show that in September 1838, nine months after the event, when he first reported that Major Nunn had massacred Aborigines on the Gwydir, he put the figure at 120. In December 1838, without benefit of any additional information on the subject, Threlkeld wrote in his annual report that there were “two or three hundred, said to be slaughtered” by Major Nunn. In February 1839, however, he wrote a letter in reply to the Supreme Court Justice William Burton, who had asked him to identify the source of the information in his annual report. This time Threlkeld backed down about the total killed. He said that “vain boasting” by Nunn may have exaggerated the number of dead and that only those at the scene knew the true figure. The annual report’s unsupported figure of “two or three hundred” is thus the sole contemporary source for the death toll of “over 300” recorded with such certainty by the Oxford Companion.

It should be noted that this reference volume is not some cheap, scissors-and-paste job collated from old history textbooks. It is a new work produced by some of the leading figures in Australian historiography: Graeme Davison, Professor of History at Monash University; John Hirst, Reader in History at La Trobe University; and Stuart Macintyre, the Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. It was funded by what the editors describe as “a large grant” from the Australian Research Council, as well as money from La Trobe, Monash and Melbourne universities. So there were plenty of resources and opportunities to check the story. For the editors to publish such a wild and unsubstantiated accusation about Waterloo Creek is unscholarly and irresponsible. This is especially so since this particular incident is not some marginal sideshow but one that has come to assume considerable importance in questioning the very legitimacy of the British colonisation of this continent.

What happened at Waterloo Creek is important because of the contrast it provides to the events at Myall Creek in June of the same year. The latter was a genuine massacre, in which 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who had been camping peacefully on a sheep station near present-day Inverell were battered to death by stockmen and their bodies partially burnt. The station overseer found the corpses and reported them. The eleven men responsible were tried and at first acquitted. But on the orders of Governor Gipps they were retried. This time, the NSW Supreme Court found them all guilty. Seven of them were sentenced to death and hanged.

Ostensibly, the Myall Creek case meant that British justice prevailed. The unlawful killing of an Aboriginal person was regarded as murder. This upheld the principles of law on which the colony of New South Wales had been founded. Even though colonisation did not recognise Aboriginal title to the land they traversed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, it did regard Aborigines as fully human beings, subjects of the King of England, and entitled to the protection of his laws. These principles were emphasised in the orders given to Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788 and were reiterated at regular intervals by subsequent British Secretaries of State for the Colonies. In 1838, the then holder of this office, Lord Glenelg, sent Governor Gipps a long missive reminding him of his duties in applying the rule of law to all Her Majesty’s subjects. Under Gipps, the Government Gazette proclaimed any killing of an Aborigine was always to be investigated: “in every case in which an Aboriginal Native may meet with a violent death in consequence of a collision with white men, an Inquest or Inquiry is to be held in the same way as if the Deceased had been of European origin.”

However, some historians have argued that the trial and execution of the Myall Creek murderers, who were convict and ex-convict pastoral workers, of low class and intelligence, does not portray the social reality of frontier conflict and cannot be used to vindicate the British rule of law. This is because it was the exception rather than the rule. “Myall Creek massacre was unusual among massacres of Aborigines,” according to the entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian History, “in that some of the perpetrators were punished.” The massacre at Waterloo Creek is now held up as far more typical of the way colonial authority responded to Aboriginal resistance. Rather than an illicit act by the dregs of white society, Waterloo Creek was purportedly a punitive expedition ordered by the colonial authority itself.

The Acting Governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass, who sat in Government House in the eleven-week interregnum between the departure of Governor Bourke in December 1837 and the arrival of his successor Governor Gipps, set the events in motion. He told the head of the NSW Mounted Police, Major James Nunn, that, in response to murders of stockmen and the killing of sheep and cattle by Aborigines on the Namoi, Gwydir and Big Rivers, he should go to the scene with a party of mounted police. “You are to act according to your own judgement, and use your utmost exertion to suppress these outrages,” Snodgrass told him. If, as some historians have claimed, the killings at Waterloo Creek were an act of retaliation directed not at specific indigenous criminals but at the wider Aboriginal society in that region, then they would have clearly breached British law. If the killers had the sanction of Government House itself, and were directed by one of its officers acting under its instructions, then the colonial authority itself was guilty of criminal conduct. Hence, Britain’s claim to civilised behaviour under the rule of law in Australia would be a mockery.

This is certainly how the author of the major piece of work on these events sees it. In his book Waterloo Creek (1992), Roger Milliss claims that his account “lays bare once and for all the restless, unpropitiated skeletons embedded in the very foundations of modern Australia, and questions the grounds on which it claims of legitimacy are based”. Not only is this a story of “the white’s rapacious grabbing of the land” but also: “In its pursuit, morality and law are disregarded, … genocide committed, condoned and even encouraged.” Milliss, who was a journalist on the Communist Party newspaper Tribune in the 1960s and has also been a journalist in Moscow, Nairobi and London, as well as an actor in the Communist Party’s New Theatre in Sydney, has written a huge tome of almost 1,000 pages to establish this case. There is no doubt he has so far been highly successful. His book is now cited as the definitive work on the subject by reference works such as the Oxford Companion and several other historians. When published, the book won three literary awards: the Australian Natives’ Association Literary Prize, the National Book Council’s Banjo award for non-fiction (which it shared with David Marr’s biography of Patrick White), and the A. A. Phillips Prize for Australian Studies.

Despite the respect with which his work is regarded, Milliss himself acknowledges the difficulty facing anyone who wants to get to the truth of this matter. “There is no reliable or coherent account of Nunn’s expedition over the next seven or eight weeks,” he says. His own attempt to reconstruct the events, he admits at the start of Chapter Seven, “of necessity will involve a fair amount of hypothesis and educated guesswork. The full story of what became known in bush lore as ‘Major Nunn’s Campaign’ will unfortunately never be known.” Milliss’s account is so long because it contains a great deal of speculation about the mental state of Nunn and his troopers, of the pastoralists of the region and of the colonial authorities in Sydney. It also contains a great deal of speculation about the events concerned. Milliss argues that, in addition to massacring the Aborigines camped at Waterloo Creek, Nunn’s journey to and from the area itself was an eight-week killing spree, in which he traversed the colony, going well beyond the most direct route to the Gwydir River, shooting Aborigines on sight. It was a punitive expedition to force the Aborigines of the entire New England district, through mass terror, or what Milliss terms a “pogrom”, to cease their resistance to the British occupation of their lands.

However, what will strike the sceptical reader who bothers to wade through the whole book is the sheer paucity of evidence Milliss offers for any of this. The killing spree derives from nothing more than one contemporary rumour, coupled with the most implausible degree of speculation I have ever read in a work of history. The first of these is one of the third-hand reports from the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld that I mentioned above. In his letter to Judge William Burton in February 1839, written a year after Nunn’s expedition had returned, Threlkeld passed on an anecdote he said he had heard from the pastoralist John Cobb who himself was repeating a report “where Major Nunn made his boast before a large party of ‘Popping off with his holster pistols the Blacks whenever one appeared from behind a tree’ “.

The only thing Milliss uses to back up this thrice-removed rumour is his own “educated guesswork” about Nunn’s route to the Gwydir and return. Milliss draws a map containing the route Nunn said he took, which goes north straight from the Hunter Valley to present-day Tamworth and then north-west to Moree. However, Milliss adds to the map several very long trails that he offers as his own “conjectural” routes of where Nunn might have gone as well. These “conjectural” routes involve Nunn tracking the Namoi River between Tamworth and Wee Waa and return, and also making a wide, sweeping circle around the north, west and south of Moree. Together, they add more than 600 kilometres to the whole journey.

There is no evidence in anything Nunn, his troopers, or anyone else has said or written to support these conjectures. Milliss says we should accept them solely because, in Nunn’s own account of his journey, he took too long to get to some of the destinations he reached. There is no surviving daily log of Nunn’s expedition but Milliss creates his own and includes it in his book. In the journeys both to and from Waterloo Creek there are several days that Milliss reckons are unaccounted for. Milliss thinks that, at a distance of 150 years, he can tell how long the journey between each of the pastoral stations where Nunn stayed for the night, should have taken him. Nunn and his men travelled, mind you, on horseback, leading packhorses over unmade tracks in newly explored country. Nonetheless, Milliss says he took longer than he should have. Milliss then argues that the reason he took so long was that he must have gone to other places along the way. So he draws up his conjectural route to fill in the “missing” days.

Milliss then says that Nunn must have had a reason for keeping this purported route secret. He would have only kept quiet about it if he had something to hide. Ergo, he must have been on a mission of mass killing. “In heading downsteam,” Milliss writes to explain one of these conjectured side trips, “Nunn was thus planning a punitive expedition not against the killers of Cobb’s shepherds but any Aborigines he happened to come across, to teach them the real meaning of the white man’s power.” There is no evidence that Nunn ever took this or any other unrecorded journey or that he ever had these motives. They exist solely in Milliss’s imagination.

Milliss offers more speculation with a similar degree of credibility about the events at Waterloo Creek itself, and its aftermath. He repeats several times the Rev. Threlkeld’s claim that two or three hundred may have died there and includes only this number in the chronological summary of events at the start of the book. However, towards the end he acknowledges: “The total tally — 40, 70, 120 or 300 according to various sources — will never be known.” At one point Milliss does report an estimate made by people who appear to be contemporary witnesses. He reports a debate in the NSW Legislative Assembly where George ‘Bobby’ Nicholls, former proprietor of The Australian newspaper, claimed a group of gentlemen “who visited the scene some times afterwards reported that sixty or seventy blacks had been killed — ‘some of them shot like crows in trees.’ ” But this debate took place in June 1849, eleven years after the event. Given that Nicholls makes this claim without mentioning the names of those concerned or the year of their visit, it has no better status than that of local rumour and folklore. Milliss recycles other rumours published in 1859 and 1874, as if they could also count as evidence. He even includes a detailed description of another massacre, which he says claimed 300 lives but has so far escaped the notice of other historians. It was supposedly committed in May 1838 by the stockmen who had accompanied Major Nunn. Of this event, Milliss writes:

Bands of horsemen quickly formed and combed the countryside for blacks, shooting them on sight, riding them down and hacking them to death, chasing them through the scrub, charging their camps, ambushing them on riverbanks and waterholes, whacking about the bush for fresh prey. No one was spared, it was said. Women were galloped down for sport, their babies snatched from them and brained against rocks and trees.

As Milliss candidly admits himself, however, these details were not recorded at the time or even in the nineteenth century. They were compiled from the local legends of the town of Bingara, south of Moree, and given to Milliss in 1982 by their author, the former operator of the local picture show.

Now, this sort of stuff should not be flattered with the title of history, or indeed, scholarship of any variety. It is no better than the atrocity stories from World War I manufactured by military propaganda departments on both sides to persuade the readers of tabloid newspapers that the enemy were depraved beasts. And yet it appears in a work that has won three Australian literary awards, is published by a reputable university press and was reviewed with universal favour when it appeared. “A truly monumental study … a major achievement”, wrote Adam Shoemaker in The Australian. “History on a grand scale”, wrote Henry Reynolds in the Independent Monthly. “A mighty book … a goldmine”, wrote Lyndall Ryan in Australian Historical Studies. In my view, what this reception demonstrates is that traditional scholarly standards are no longer applied to works of Aboriginal history in this country. As long as it takes the correct line, any big book on the subject, no matter what fantastic claims it makes, will be praised to the skies.

Let me now give my own view of Major Nunn’s expedition. The principal primary source for these events is actually quite easy for anyone to check for themselves. Governor Gipps appointed a judicial enquiry into the affair. He was obliged to do this because, as soon as he returned to Sydney, Nunn reported that some Aborigines had been killed during his mission. The inquiry was conducted in April and May 1839 by a police magistrate and two justices of the peace. The evidence before it is published in full in Historical Records of Australia (Volume XX, pages 250-256), which is held by most large libraries. Although the inquiry took depositions only from four officers and two pastoralists out of the 28 officers, troopers and stockmen of the party, anyone interested in making up their own mind about Waterloo Creek will find it the most useful place to start.

It is clear that, on this expedition, Nunn was not engaged in “atrocious retaliatory measures”, as the Oxford Companion puts it, nor a “punitive expedition” as Milliss claims, but in the apprehension and capture of murderers. Between June and November 1837, on the sheep and cattle stations in the newly opened pastoral country now called New England, five white stockmen had been murdered by the local Aborigines. Those responsible may well have regarded this as justifiable homicide since they resented these intruders occupying their land, but under British law the colonial government was obliged to pursue them. Naturally enough, the white settlers of the region were keen for them to do so and at some stages accompanied the mounted police through their districts.

The usual means of apprehending Aboriginal suspects in the bush at the time was as follows. After locating an Aboriginal camp, a troop of police would ride up quickly and surround it. They would then interrogate their captives using an Aboriginal interpreter and inspect the camp for evidence, such as any property that had belonged to the murdered men. If, as they sometimes did, the Aborigines identified the culprits among them, they would be taken into custody and the rest released. If there was no evidence and the Aborigines said the murderers belonged to another tribe, the police would release them and resume their search.

In their journey north, at a place near present-day Manilla, Nunn and his party made one such raid and arrested two murder suspects. They later attempted to escape and in the struggle one was shot dead. When Nunn and his men reached a point on the Gwydir close to present-day Moree, they came upon an Aboriginal family and questioned them about the killing of two shepherds in the district, nine weeks earlier. The members of this family said they knew of the deaths since they had later taken part in driving off the sheep from the station concerned. They told Nunn in which direction the rest of the tribe had gone. Two days later the expedition found a large number of blacks camped at Snodgrass Lagoon on Waterloo Creek. What happened next is corroborated by all the eyewitness reports of the events, with one notable exception.

Nunn and his troopers charged the camp on horseback. They were armed but under orders to take prisoners and not to fire unless in self-defence. The women and children in the camp ran and hid but the men, who were armed with spears, responded defiantly. An Aborigine speared Corporal Patrick Hannan through the leg. When they heard the cries that Hannan has been speared, several of the troopers thought he had been killed. The same Aborigine then aimed a spear at Sergeant John Lee who drew his gun and shot him. A trooper shot another Aborigine who was attempting to spear Lieutenant George Cobban. The Aborigines then gave up the fight and fled. After this first engagement, Nunn and Cobban rode around to inspect the area and both testified that they saw “four or five” bodies of blacks.

After an hour or so there was a second engagement in which the troopers, under Cobban’s command, followed the blacks for about a mile and a half where they attempted to capture members of the now dispersed tribe. Of the dead in this action, Cobban testified: “I cannot say positively how many were killed and wounded. I only saw three or four bodies, although I rode over a great deal of ground.” However, Sergeant Lee, who was with Cobban in this second engagement testified: “From what I saw myself, I should say that from forty to fifty blacks were killed, when the second firing took place.” These are the only eyewitness accounts of both actions that discuss the numbers involved. On Cobban’s account, the total number of dead was eight or nine. Lee’s estimate of forty to fifty killed is obviously a possibility.

There are at least four reasons, however, for believing that Cobban’s account is the more probable. First, as Nunn’s next most senior officer, it was Cobban’s responsibility to reconnoitre the sites afterwards to assess the dead, which he said he did on both occasions. Second, Lee himself acknowledged the difficulty he had in measuring what was going on:

… the confusion was so great and the scrub so thick, that I had enough to do to take care of myself and my horse. I could not see all that was done. It was impossible for the party to act in a body; every man had in fact to act for himself …

Third, while the troopers in the second action could not see all that happened, they could hear the shots. In his evidence, Cobban, who was in charge at the time, attempted to account for most of the shots heard. He records one warning shot being fired. He said he saw two blacks in the creek being fired upon but he could not say if they were hit or not. He also heard some firing further down the creek and was informed “one or two” blacks had been shot. Overall, he said:

the firing was very desultory, the party being very much scattered; there being a shot fired now and then, there was nothing like a regular firing; I cannot say what time occurred between the first and last shot.”

If forty or fifty were killed, this part of Cobban’s evidence could not be true. It is possible, of course, that all the inquiry heard was a sanitised version of events and that the officers had agreed with one another to present much the same evidence. However, the fact that Lee’s statement of the number dead is at such variance with Cobban’s would appear to rule out such collusion.

Fourth, there is the fact that at no time after January 26 did anyone report coming across the bodies of any Aborigines killed at the site. If there had been only a small number, then the dead might have been buried or cremated by their tribesmen. But if the number had been much larger it would have been very difficult to dispose of them without leaving some trace. Waterloo Creek, especially around Snodgrass Lagoon where the action took place, was a very desirable grazing site and by June 1838 the squatting partners John Brown, John Hector and Edward Trimmer had formed a run there. There are no reports that they found any human remains on their property, a most unlikely circumstance had there really been a mass killing of forty or fifty people, let alone three hundred, five months earlier. Despite the seven years’ research he said he put into his book, Roger Milliss could not identify anyone who had been to the site — in 1838 or any year after — who said they had seen human remains there.

On the balance of evidence, then, Cobban’s body count of eight or nine dead is probably the most accurate. But even if the number was actually higher than this, it still does not amount to something that could be accurately termed a “massacre”. Waterloo Creek was a legitimate police operation to apprehend people reasonably suspected of murder. In fact, their suspicions were correct because Nunn’s men found a tomahawk, knife and clothing of the white murder victims at the camp they raided. The troopers only opened fire after they had been themselves attacked with weapons. In short, this is not a story that warrants the hyperbole with which it has been surrounded. It does not demonstrate that the British colonisation of New South Wales was the kind of lawless, barbaric regime that its historians have tried to portray.

It does, however, reveal one similarity with the events at Forrest River. The person most interested in generating alarming reports about this incident was another missionary, Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld. Like his counterpart Rev. Ernest Gribble, the Rev. Threlkeld had little compunction about fabricating massacre stories and trying to influence government opinion with them. In fact, in his day, as I will show later, Threlkeld gained a reputation as an obsessive inventor of such tales. This is not to say that he shared the kind of mental problems displayed by Rev. Ernest Gribble. His letters demonstrate that he remained lucid until old age. However, Threlkeld’s career nonetheless does reveal a set of motives that have some parallel with those of the Western Australian missionary. I will discuss these in Part Three of this essay.


The Battle of Pinjarra

The Battle of Pinjarra is another incident which, like Waterloo Creek, is now used by historians to question the legitimacy of the British occupation of the Australian continent and of its commitment to the rule of law and civilised values. This event was not only sanctioned by the authority of the Swan River colony, but was a military mission led into the field by the Governor himself, Captain James Stirling. It took place on the Murray River near present-day Mandurah, eighty kilometres south of Perth. Here is what Phillip Knightley says about it:

Western Australia was probably the worst state for the murder of Aboriginals. In 1834 British soldiers under the command of Captain James Stirling, the state’s first governor, butchered a sleeping camp of eighty Aboriginal men, women and children from the Nyungar tribe near Pinjarra. Their leader, Yagan, had learned English and tried in vain to explain Aboriginal law and culture to the settlers.

Knightley then goes on to tell how Yagan was shot and decapitated. His head was sent as a trophy to London. In 1997 Aboriginal elders travelled to England to retrieve the head and give it a proper ceremonial burial. A statue of Yagan was subsequently erected in a park in Perth to commemorate his heroic defence of his country against the British invaders.

Unfortunately for Knightley, he has got the wrong man. Yagan was not the leader of the Nyungar people at Pinjarra. He was not even a member of their tribe. He was from the Wajuk tribe. Moreover, he could not have been at Pinjarra in 1834 because he had been shot dead in July 1833 while on the run for the murder and mutilation of two white transport drivers. The leader of the Nyungar tribe at Pinjarra at the time was named Kal-yute and he was one of those who survived the battle. Knightley’s figure of eighty dead is also wrong. I have not been able to find one other historical reference that puts so large a total on those killed. Even the Oxford Companion to Australian History, which on every other frontier conflict pushes the number of Aboriginal dead to the uppermost limit of the available estimates, only claims a body count of 35 at Pinjarra. The diaries from members of Stirling’s expedition say they encountered a camp with a total population of seventy or eighty Aborigines, of whom they killed only a proportion. Nor were the Aborigines asleep at the time. The encounter took place at 8:35 a.m. on the morning of 28 October and was over by 10:15 a.m.

The Battle of Pinjarra is commonly labelled today a “punitive expedition”. The Oxford Companion even calls it a “planned ambush” that taught the local Aborigines, who had till then violently opposed white intrusion onto their lands, the futility of their opposition. After this incident, their resistance subsided and the outpost at Peel Town could be safely expanded into the settlement of Mandurah. However, the actual reason for the mission was to apprehend the killers of Hugh Nesbit, a private in the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, who had been murdered by Aborigines in April 1834 near the soldiers’ barracks at Peel Town. The 25-man expedition to capture them included Governor Stirling, the Surveyor-General Captain J. S. Roe, the Superintendent of Police Captain Ellis, the Superintendent of Natives Mr Norcott, five mounted police and ten members of Nesbit’s 21st Regiment.
When the party found the Aboriginal camp, they sent in an emissary, the local pastoralist Thomas Peel, who knew the tribe, to persuade them to come out and negotiate with Captain Stirling. This was unsuccessful and so the troops began to surround the camp.

There are two accounts of the battle itself, one by an officer who was not at the place where the shooting started. The other report claimed that, when the troopers rode in, they recognised one of the wanted tribesmen, Noonar. When he saw he was identified, Noonar tried to spear a trooper but was shot by Norcott. Another Aborigine knocked Captain Ellis off his horse and speared him, fatally, in the head. One of the police officers was also speared. The reports by the expedition members are the only ones we have and, whatever one might think of their motives for saying so, they claimed the blacks threw their spears first and they fired in self-defence. The attack on members of their own party then led the police and troops to open fire at large on the tribe. The Aborigines retreated but continued to show what Captain Roe described as “much resistance”. Although the troopers pursued them and continued to fire on them, Roe said the tribesmen “nevertheless threw numerous spears with amazing precision and force”.

There are different contemporary reports of how many Aborigines were killed. One said 15 to 20 were shot dead; another said 50 bodies were later found buried in a mass grave; a third said 25 to 30 were killed; but a fourth denied this last report and said the precise the death toll was ten men, three women and one child. The most credible modern estimate is by Frank Goldsmith in an article for the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1951, well before the current tendency emerged to push Aboriginal death tolls as high as possible. After surveying the eyewitness accounts and secondary literature, Goldsmith put Aboriginal casualties at between ten and twenty.

The name by which this incident has long been known, the Battle of Pinjarra, remains an accurate one. Even though the British had overwhelming superiority in firepower, it was a real battle between warring parties, with casualties on both sides, rather than a massacre of innocents. It was not an ambush, since the Aborigines were well aware of the troopers’ presence beforehand. It was not a punitive expedition either. This description might, ex post facto, make sense, seeing that it had the same consequences as an act of that kind. The encounter certainly did teach this tribe the power of the white men and it forced them in a brutal way to come to terms with the occupation of their lands. But at the time it was mounted, the mission’s first aim was to capture the murderers of a British soldier, which was both a lawful and a morally justifiable objective.

The massacres on Coniston station

The events on and around Coniston station in 1928 bear some superficial similarities to both Pinjarra and Waterloo Creek, in that they entailed two police expeditions to capture the killers of a white stockman and to arrest those responsible for the attempted murder of a local pastoralist. However, there is enough detailed information about the sequence of events, including testimony at a murder trial and before a Commonwealth Board of Enquiry, to show that a significant number of innocent Aborigines lost their lives as a result. Of the four listed by Knightley, only Coniston deserves to be known as a genuine massacre.

As I noted earlier, Knightley derives his account of these events from Henry Reynolds who himself relies largely upon the book The Killing Times (1984) by John Cribbin, the former ABC journalist. Although he is clearly outraged by the killings, Cribbin treats the subject honestly and openly. The first two-thirds of his book is his own narrative reconstruction of what happened. He finishes with a verbatim reproduction of most of the evidence and interrogation from the Commonwealth Board of Enquiry held between December 1928 and February 1929, plus some Aboriginal oral history about the events. Both types of evidence provide plausible support for his reconstruction.

Coniston was a cattle station on the Lander River, about 250 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. The Lander is normally a dry watercourse that peters out in the Tanami Desert. It is punctuated by half a dozen water holes, or soaks as they were called. In August 1828, a sixty-seven year old stockman, Fred Brooks, went dingo trapping on the station. He arrived at one soak where a small group of Aborigines were already camped. He persuaded one of the men to lend him his wife for the night, with the promise of food in return. By morning, however, he had not made the payment so the husband and another Aborigine attacked Brooks and killed him. That night a half-caste Aborigine from Coniston station accidentally found the body and reported it.

The police station at Alice Springs sent Constable George Murray to apprehend the killers. Murray was a Gallipoli veteran who had joined the Northern Territory Police Force soon after he returned from the war. At Coniston station, he deputised a party a three white stockmen and four Aborigines to accompany him. Between 15 August and 1 September 1926, this party travelled 1360 kilometres up the Lander River and beyond in search of Brooks’ killers. Along the way, they left seventeen Aborigines, two of them women, dead. They returned with two members of the Walbiri tribe who went on trial in Darwin for murder. The only witness to testify about the murder was an Aboriginal boy captured by the expedition. At the trial, the boy gave two quite different accounts of how Brooks was killed and so the accused were acquitted. Cribbin says the real killers, whom he names, were never apprehended.

At the trial, Murray himself described his methods. He would track an Aboriginal camp, surround it with his men, then ride in himself calling to the natives: “Drop your weapons in the name of the King.” The Walbiri were bush Aborigines, who had little contact with whites and spoke no English. If the men did not immediately lay down their boomerangs and yamsticks, Murray fired at them. If they tried to run away, he shot them too. The men who accompanied Murray said their orders were not to shoot unless in self-defence and not to harm women and children. However, at one camp, when Murray got off his horse and was in a physical struggle with several Aborigines, the others fired into the group. This left three male and two female Walbiri dead. In this first expedition, the evidence shows that while Murray acted provocatively and looked for any excuse to shoot the tribesmen he met, the fact that he had three white witnesses restrained his actions to just within the limits of the law. The total of seventeen Aborigines he admitted killing during this mission was probably an accurate count.

However, in his second expedition, not even the pretence of legality was maintained. This was mounted to capture a group of fifteen Walbiri who had attacked the pastoralist who ran Broadmeadow Station, north of Coniston. To call it a station is an overstatement since it was nothing more than a pastoral lease of a large tract of desert, with a herd of cattle but no homestead. The leaseholder, William Morton, ran the property on his own and slept in a tent. On 27 August he set out to patrol his boundaries. After travelling about 40 kilometres he camped for the night at Boomerang Waterhole, a fetid pond on a bend in the Lander River.

Morton was a very large man, a former circus wrestler, well known in the district for beating up any Aborigines who incurred his displeasure. Partly for revenge and partly to steal his food, a group of Walbiri who were camped near the waterhole decided to kill him. The next morning, as he ate breakfast, fifteen of them attacked him with nulla nullas, boomerangs and yamsticks. They injured him severely but he had the strength to fight his way twenty metres to get his gun. He shot dead two of those attacking him and then rode off to get medical treatment.

Constable George Murray had not long returned from Coniston to Alice Springs before he was assigned to pursue Morton’s attackers. On 24 September, he and Morton, with two half-caste Aboriginal assistants, set off to capture them. This second expedition of Murray’s, which traversed the country between the Lander and Hanson watercourses, continued until 18 October. It can only be described as a long trail of mass murder. Even though Morton knew the identity of the tribesmen who tried to kill him, he and Murray had no compunction about shooting the males of most groups of Aborigines they encountered. They made no attempt to bring anyone back alive for trial. Murray himself told the Commonwealth Enquiry that he and Morton had killed fourteen men but Cribbin has other, credible evidence that there were even more. He lists the death toll as: Tomahawk Waterhole 4; Circle Well 2; Baxter’s Bore 8; Tippinba 6; Gunadjerai/Djaralygu 15.

Murray justified his actions by claiming that every killing arose from assaults by the Aborigines. On five occasions, he said he rode into their camps, dismounted, and then tried to arrest those present. They resisted and he was forced to shoot them. Morton corroborated his story in every detail. Cribbin shows these claims to be highly dubious in themselves. It is not credible, he points out, that Murray would make the same mistake of dismounting and allowing himself to be physically attacked five times in the same expedition. Cribbin also compares the testimony of Murray and Morton and shows that both had learned their lines by rote. There are at least fifteen places in their testimony where their evidence is virtually identical. For example:

Morton: Proceeded down the Lander to the spot where I was attacked. (Murray: Proceeded down the Lander to the spot where Morton had been attacked.)
Morton: Keep well behind with the pack horses … I rode down the bed of … (Murray: Keep the pack horses well behind … Morton rode down the bed of …)

The Coniston killings quickly became an international scandal that acutely embarrassed the Commonwealth government of Stanley Bruce. The alarm was originally raised by a lay missionary, Athol McGregor, the sole representative of the Methodist Church in the Northern Territory. Cribbin calls McGregor “God’s messenger”, which indeed he was. During a visit to Alice Springs in September, McGregor heard about the killings on Murray’s first expedition. He did not write any reports of his own. Instead, he went to Darwin and persuaded the editor of the Northern Territory Times of the importance of covering the murder trial of the two Aborigines Murray had captured. Murray gave the trial his own forthright evidence about his actions, and this was enough. The story quickly found its way into the southern newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial expressing shock and dismay. The churches in Sydney and Melbourne denounced the events as “wanton slaughter”. The Times of London and the Manchester Guardian both took up the case. It was this publicity and public disquiet that persuaded the Prime Minister to order a formal investigation.

Despite the obvious collusion in the evidence before him, and despite the national and international political pressure, the chairman of the Commonwealth Board of Enquiry, the Queensland police magistrate, A. H. O’Kelly, was unmoved. He found that Murray’s actions were lawful and justified. In every case on both expeditions, he decided, it was the natives who were the aggressors. Constable Murray and his accomplices were justified in taking every one of the 31 lives they had admitted to. “It was necessary, in order to save their own lives,” O’Kelly found, “that the blacks be shot.”

Some of the evidence Cribbin uses to reconstruct his account of the second expedition comes from Aboriginal oral history recorded forty to fifty years later by him and other, unconnected, researchers. Normally, events recalled at this distance would be highly suspect, no matter whether the informant was Aboriginal or European, and would be too unreliable for the historic record. At Forrest River, for instance, Rod Moran shows that some historians have accepted the most incredible tales from recent oral testimony given by alleged eyewitnesses and descendants of the locals. However, there were five sets of interviews about Coniston made in 1971, 1977, 1980, 1981 and 1983. Each of them questioned different members of the remaining Aboriginal clans, as well as one of the half-caste Aborigines who accompanied Murray and Morton. In each case, the interviewees, some of whom were children who witnessed their fathers being shot, reported the names, locations and sequence of the major events accurately. Since the interviews confirm each other and are also consistent with the published evidence, there is no reason, in this case, to doubt they are true. This means that, in addition to the 31 Aborigines Murray admitted shooting, Cribbin’s evidence establishes that at least another 21 should be added to those killed during his two expeditions. Hence at least 52 Aboriginal people were massacred at Coniston station in 1928.

There was only one positive result of this affair. Because of the publicity initiated by Athol McGregor, men like Murray and Morton knew that in future their actions would be under public surveillance. Since 1928, there have been no reports of whites killing bush Aborigines under the kind of pretence used at Coniston station.

* * *

As terrible as the Coniston case is, however, it does amount to the scale of indictment that Phillip Knightley has made against Australian history. My intention in the first part of this essay has been to examine the four specific examples Knightley offers as typical of frontier violence. In particular, I wanted to refute his charge that the British colonisation of this country was a process comparable to the Nazi destruction of the Jews in Europe. In demonstrating that three of the four events he discusses were not massacres, I have tried to show that his evidence does not warrant his conclusion. But, obviously, this discussion still leaves an open question about all the other killings in Australian history and about the total number of Aborigines left dead by frontier conflict.

The broad historical framework about these matters was established in 1970 by Charles Rowley in his book The Destruction of Aboriginal Society. Rowley was the first historian to demonstrate that the Aborigines had endured a long, unbroken arch, stretching from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, of violence, dispossession and incarceration. Nothing I have read for this essay has persuaded me that his overall assessment is fundamentally wrong, even though Rowley is plainly mistaken about some of the events he discusses, such as those at Forrest River where he accepts the royal commission findings without question. It is important to note, though, that Rowley was careful not to exaggerate, especially when it came to calculating how many violent deaths there had been on the pastoral frontier. Compared to the impact on indigenous peoples other colonising powers have had throughout history, Rowley said the Australian story amounted to “comparatively small-scale homicide”.

It was not until the publication in 1981 of Henry Reynolds’ book, The Other Side of the Frontier, that historians came to revise this judgement. After Reynolds, historians agreed that the conflict had actually been much more widespread and bloody than anyone had previously imagined. Part II of this essay will examine the credibility of the estimates made by these more recent historians of the Aboriginal death toll.

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