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An Execution in God's Name

Massacres of Aborigines in Colonial Australia

Is reconciliation served by defining massacres as part of a war ?

In 1883, colonialists Frank Hann and Jack Watson nailed 40 pairs of Aboriginals ears on the walls of a cattle station in the gulf country of northern Australia. The men’s souvenirs of their kills were recorded in the diary of newly arrived English migrant Emily Creaghe. (1) The diary also recorded other colonials, a Mr Shadforth & Ernest Shadforth, tying a rope around an Aboriginal girl's neck and dragging her along on foot while they rode on horses. The girl remained tied up until she “calmed down.”

For contemporary Australians, the question is whether the actions of Hann, Watson and others who murdered Aborigines were a reflection of cultural norms and inside public morality, or instead like those of serial killer Ivan Milat and simply the rogue actions of psychopaths. How the question is answered has significant implications for contemporary cultural identities and the possibilities for reconciliation.

University of Newcastle historian Lyndall Ryan has spearheaded a movement that aimed to portray actions by the likes of Hann and Watson as part of a broader “war” between whites against blacks. In 2017, Ryan was funded by the Australian Research Council to create a digital map of massacres. (*It should be noted that Ryan has a history of sexing up body counts. Specifically, in 2002 she was challenged as to why a citation she used to justify 100 deaths at the hands of colonists only mentioned four deaths. Her response was, “Historians are always making up figures.”)

In 2019, the Guardian used some of Ryan’s findings, methodology and idea for a digital map as it ran a public awareness campaign to influence public opinion titled, “The Killing Times.” (2) Among other things, the campaign stated that there

“were at least 270 frontier massacres over 140 years, as part of a state-sanctioned and organised attempt to eradicate Aboriginal people.”

At times the Guardian’s campaign appeared contradictory. On one had it said that the massacres were “state sanctioned”. In others, it said that massacres were kept secret because they would be severely punished by the state if they came to public attention. For example, it quoted from a letter by colonist Henry Meyrick, which stated:  

“I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging”.

Another contradiction was the Guardian’s use of written sources. On one hand, it said it was reliant upon the sources to decide if the massacre had occurred but on the other hand, it was dismissive of the sources if they didn’t support the killing times narrative. In its own words,

“We have relied on the written record of the time but acknowledge that, for example, a settler’s journal is not necessarily a reliable or definitive account of what took place. There can be a tendency to understate the severity of the attacks, the toll they took and the actions of those present.”

This was the same rationalisation that Lyndall Ryan used when she made up figures about Aboriginal deaths but then used citations to written records to conceal her creative use of statistics.

Perhaps the Guardian issued the disclaimer because it was very "creative" in its digital map where the citations used to justify the massacres did not actually support what the Guardian was saying. For example, it used a citation to a 1857 newspaper when explaining that the massacre of 11 members of the Fraser family in the Hornet Bank Massacre was " reprisal for Fraser sons' sexual abuse of Aboriginal women." (6) Most readers would not check the 1857 article but if they did they would find it actually made no mention of allegations of sexual abuse. Admittedly, the Guardian also linked to a 1982 University thesis written by Gordan Reid that speculated on many possible reasons for the attack. One of these reasons was the Fraser sons possibly having sex with Aboriginal women, a possibility that was documented in a letter by someone who visited the homestead 4 years after the massacre. Nevertheless, out of all the possible reasons chosen to explain the massacre, the retaliation-for-sexual-abuse is the one that has the least credible evidence in support yet is also the one that the Guardian treated as most factual. To be precise, considering that the newspaper said that five of the victims were female, they were raped and the farm's stores were robbed after the murders, reprisal-for-sexual-abuse was not the logical interpretation to be derived from the primary sources.

Although most of the Guardian's sources were written, the journalists also included some pictures. One visual source was an 1888 drawing of a massacre by Queensland’s native police. It was drawn by scientist Carl Lumholtz after he was shown skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police several years earlier. (See below.)

Art can be a very good representation of public morality because it is an individual interpretation usually intended for public sharing. Like the skulls themselves, Lumholtz’s drawing provided evidence of a massacre but the Guardian’s use of it was devoid of an interpretation of its moral purpose. Specifically, the drawing didn’t show any honour as it depicted unarmed victims crawling for their lives while being shot in the back. That depiction reflected Lumholtz’s moral distaste for the massacre. The fact that the drawing was signed indicated it was also a distaste that he wanted to publicly share and be known for.  

Lumholtze Massacre at Mistake Creek

Lumholtz's 1888 drawing shows a massacre but also his moral viewpoint towards it.

Although there are other examples of art that likewise depicted the honourless murder of Aborigines, propaganda style art that glorified the killing of Aborigines (as would be expected to be seen if a war was going on) does not exist in Australia. To the contrary, most colonial art depicting Aborigines shows a kind of idyllic existence in harmony with the landscape. A typical example is a painting by Eugene von Guerard which shows nobel Aborigines on the rise of a hill before a golden sky.

ABORIGINES MET ON THE ROAD TO THE DIGGINGS,

Eugene von Guerard – Aborigines Met on the Road to the Diggings, 1854

In contrast to Australia, other colonial countries have extensive artwork that visualises battles between the Indigenous people and colonials.

Battle of Blood River

In South Africa The Battle of Blood River was said to be a battle between 500 Afrikaneers and 20,000 Zulus in 1838. Legends developed that only 3 Afrikaneer fell for the 3,000 Zulus that were killed. The Afrikaneers celebrated their victory as an example of divine intervention. For most of the 20th century, the date of the battle had been observed as a public and religious holiday by the white South African government.

Capture & Death of Sitting Bull

Capture & Death of Sitting Bull (1890) Kurz & Allison. Published shortly after the event, the lithograph dramatizes the capture and death of Sitting Bull (1831–1890) after a full-scale battle between the Lakota followers of the Chief and white soldiers.

THE 1863 ASSAULT ON RANGIRIRI BY THOMAS REDMAYNE

Redmayne, Thomas, Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863] The Battle of Rangiriri involved 1500 British soldiers supported by canons and gunboats attacking around 500 Maori.

Although the Guardian’s campaign didn’t quote any newspaper commentary of the times, newspaper commentary offers a useful insight into public morality. In 1909, Perth’s Western Mail published a letter written by Hann (the man who made souvenirs out of ears). In the letter, Hann wrote about one of his expeditions where he claimed to have killed Aborigines in self-defence but then souvenired their skulls as gifts for his friends. The fact that he talked about killing indicated that he believed that saying “self-defence” would give him immunity from prosecution and the fact that he wrote the letter indicated that he wanted some notoriety. Even though no prosecution was forthcoming, the newspaper responded with a highly critical editorial and published angry letters that denounced “Head Hunter Hann”. The reaction to the letter revealed more about public morality than did the actions of Hann and his letter.

Place names offer more finger prints of cultural values as they reveal where a community wanted to allocate their respect. Often the respect was to European dignitaries or European places. More common though was a demonstration of respect to the local Aborigines by using the names already in existence. In World War 1, a particularly interesting transition of values occurred when Australia found itself at war with Germany. This became problematic for South Australia as many of its regions were named by German migrants.  A parliamentary campaign subsequently proposed that the German names,

“should be replaced with Aboriginal names, names of war heroes and the names of places of great battles.” (3)

If a war had also been occurring with Aborigines in the state, then it is unlikely that Aboriginal names would have been used and proposed as alternatives to German names.

Beyond the written sources?

In the absence of a consistent message in written sources, along with doubts about their objectivity, some historians have used a naïve application of social science theories to build their case for the war narrative. The most common application has been that war occurred due to competition over resources. This creates a sense that war was inevitable and must have occurred even if the written sources didn’t support it. For example, The Guardian’s campaign mentioned Aborigines spearing cattle as colonialists and Aborigines fought over farming land. Likewise, Australia’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities explained the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838 in similar terms:

"conflict was the result of competition for land which settlers required for crops and the grazing of sheep and cattle; Aboriginal people relied upon the same land for food and water (Kidd 1997:14). (4)

Benjamin Madley from Yale University used a kind of universal colonial experience to justify the inevitability of conflict:

“Conflict between indigenous people and settlers often revolves around two interlocking economic issues: access to natural resources and control of territory. Both groups need natural resources and land to achieve their definition of economic success. The loss of their food supply and land threatened both Aboriginal society and their physical survival.” (5)

The prejudice-flows-from-competition perspective is loosely derived from Realistic Group Theory (1954, Sherif and Sherif.) In their 1954 study, the social psychologists found that prejudice and discrimination flowed when randomly assigned groups competed for the one prize. The study also found that conflict and prejudice could be reduced when the previously competing groups gained a shared identity with united and co-operative actions.

When historians have applied the theory to Australia, they have done so like Madley without any real consideration of the unique environmental and social considerations at play. For example, over 90% of Australia is dry, flat and arid and almost three-quarters of the land cannot support agriculture in any form. In these areas, it was only possible to live off the land as hunter gatherers. In short, 3/4s of Australia has never had farmers wanting the land thus the Aborigines on the land never had colonists competing with them for resources. Furthermore, animals like kangaroos could not be slaughtered in the thousands because they run in different directions when scared. The land's unsuitability for agriculture is the chief reason why Australia has almost no significant inland cities aside from its capital and why Australia never developed American-style pioneering stories of colonists heading west and founding new towns. It is also why Australia's farming regions have very low density populations. Admittedly, the likes of Hann and Watson used Aboriginal attacks on their cattle as justification to kill Aborigines but there is scope to scrutinize whether the alleged attacks on cattle really occurred or were just being used as an excuse. Specifically, cows are not easy animals to butcher using stone tools and grazing land is not ideal land for hunter gatherers who need firewood and bushes to make shelter. Perhaps as a reflection of this fact, in 1788 two bulls and five cows brought out on the First Fleet wandered off from Sydney Cove and were lost. In 1801, they were found to have grown into a herd of between 500 and 600. This growth occurred in a region with some of the highest Aboriginal population densities in Australia and where there were no colonists protecting the cattle from Aboriginal predation.

 Rather than being forced into conflict with Aborigines over resources, many farming communities actually evolved to be dependent upon Aborigines for labour. During the transportation years, Convicts had been assigned to land owners to do farm labouring work. Once transportation came to an end, farm work had a negative Convict stigma. Combined with the unappealing environmental conditions, land owners struggled to get workers. They then turned to Aborigines already living in country regions as they were prepared to work in exchange for some European items like blankets, axes and flour. In short, both colonials and Aborigines had some mutual interests.

A pathway to reconciliation?

The likes of Lyndall Ryan have used the pursuit of “reconciliation” as a justification to “raise awareness” of massacres and the "black war." Their arguments tend to be an incomplete application of restorative practices used in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have reduced the cyclic nature of violence in countries like Rwanda and South Africa.  Specifically, the reconciliation commissions give both perpetrators and victims the chance to tell their stories. One aim of this story telling is to humanise the victims and perpetrators alike. The victims are humanised as they tell how they have suffered, which evokes empathy in those who hear their stories. The perpetrators are humanised as they speak about what made them do it, which may reveal the futility of retribution and conflict. A second aim of the story telling is to individualise the actions so that the groups that the perpetrators are from are not seen as responsible for the pepertrator's actions. This prevents group-based retribution that goes on and on.

 Although the Reconciliation Commissions have been effective in stopping the cyclic nature of violence, they have come at the cost of justice. After telling their story or raping, murdering and maiming, the perpetrator walks free.

The reconciliation process pushed by the likes of Ryan is very different to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions because their use of history actually allows perpetrators to gain anonymity in the collective, which preserves the honour in their obituaries. For example, in the main text of the Guardian's campaign, there was mention of 270 massacres but only one perpetrator was named; police Constable George Murray who was cleared by an inquiry. (Murray's name was only mentioned in order to make a case to claim ownership over him.) Arguably, this lack of naming perpetrators does justice a disservice and potentially risks their crimes being seen in group terms. Furthermore, it reduces murders to nothing more than statistics that historians can easily just "make up." For this ideological position, history is not human stories; it is a number and the higher the higher the victim number the better. In fact, the use of history is so removed from restorative practices that it has to be questioned whether reconciliation is an aim. Instead, it can be suspected that the intention is to build a public belief in the war narrative in order to preserve the reputations of the academics and ensure the continuation of funding from the Australian Research Council.

Even if the Australian reconciliation process was implemented using the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, it is debateable as to whether it would be the most appropriate action for contemporary Australia building a modern identity anchored in history. Under the restorative principles, the likes of Hann and Watson could be humanised in death by explaining their actions as revenge for Aborigines spearing cattle or to protect colonists who were being attacked by Aborigines. If the war narrative were accepted, maybe they could even be seen as "soldiers" in the war. This could  then alleviate the condemnation which is more warranted and which more truly reflects the monsters they were.

Likewise, the Convicts who were used in the massacre of Aborigines at Myall Creek in 1838 could be humanised as merely following orders of the free settlers they were assigned to. They could also be humanised as "soldiers" in an unofficial war for survival, victims of their own mistreatment at the hands of authorities, or their actions could be explained as an attempt to escape their own subhuman category by accepting the chance to ride alongside a freeman in a position of power.  Although the Convicts could be humanised, the fact remains they descended into a sub-human category when they murdered Aborigines and spared one woman for the sole purpose of gang raping her.

Keeping in mind the inhumanity of Myall Creek murders is perhaps the better memory to hold onto. Specifically, when 7 of the 12 men were sentenced to hang, the state sent a powerful message about community standards which seemed to change public morality. So much so, Richard Windeyer ( the lawyer who defended the men) had somewhat of a moral conversion. Windeyer had defended the men using an inhuman and racist argument that since the prosecution couldn’t prove the names of the victims, the men should walk free. It was an effective argument in the men’s first trial and almost worked in the second. Some years later, Windeyer had a key role in the establishment of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Society and he gave speeches that suggested that he wanted to be seen as a man with compassion for Aborigines. After his death, historians wanting to give him respect either omitted mention of Myall Creek or wrote in a way that implied that he had been on the side of the justice system. Although punitive justice can’t undo the past or heal the hurt, it can make a public statement about values and build an identity that shapes behaviour. That statement seemed to have changed Windeyer's public demeanour as well as the identities of others in the district.

It has been estimated that around five per cent of any population are sociopaths or psychopaths. Their behaviour is characterised by narcissism, impaired empathy, lacking feelings of remorse and disinhibition from expressing behaviour that they have been taught is wrong. Little can be done to change what is essentially their genetic programming. Experiments such as Milgrim's Obedience Studies (1963) and the Standford Prison Experiment (1971) have showed that normal people can start expressing these psychopathic and sociopathetic traits when culture has made it seem appropriate - such as in wars, prisons, gangs or cults. In colonial Australia, psychopaths like Hann and Watson built cultural norms that proposed that murdering, torturing and raping Aborigines was justified in self-defence and in the defence of cattle. This made the psychopaths prototypical examples of the culture. It is the same process that has allowed psychopaths to gain leadership positions through history and subsequently go on to commit murder and genocide in the name of culture.

Although the psychopaths' ethics were partially assimilated by the likes of Emily Creaghe and others around them, they were also resisted by many others, and this resistance prevented the culture from emerging from beyond the hidden fringes. These people looked at the Hanns of Australia and said, their behaviour is abhorrent; they are not one of us.

Rather than claim ownership over the Hanns and Watsons of colonial Australia, or legitimise them as "soldiers" in a war, it is their rejection that needs to be held onto. Just like others from the past, contemporary Australia needs to say, they are not one of us, and never were.

1) Candice Sutton - Grisly Secret of Cattlemen who kep '40 pairs of ears' as Trophies in Outback Horror House https://www.news.com.au/news/grisly-secret-of-cattlemen-who-kept-40-pairs-of-ears-as-trophies-in-outback-horror-house/news-story/17022ba7691314b4cff5aadbf8511936 Accessed June 2019

2) Lorena Allan and Nick Evershed The Killing Times https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/04/the-killing-times-the-massacres-of-aboriginal-people-australia-must-confront Accessed June 2019

3) Australian War Diary Random House Australia Sydney 2001

4) Australian Heritage Database http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=105869 Accessed March 2013

5) BENJAMIN MADLEY Journal of Genocide Research (2004), 6(2), June, 167–192 - Patterns of frontier genocide 1803–1910: the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia

6) Sources: Age,  HORRIBLE MASSACRE BY THE BLACKS ON THE DAWSONNovember 20,1857 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/18215858; 

 

Rebellion

John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Federation
Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Gallipoli
Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders

 

 

 

"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)