In the words of journalist and author, Peter FitzSimons “The Myall Creek Massacre’s importance lies in the fact that it provides the prism through which we Australians may view the truth about our history”. This is such an appropriate explanation of its importance because it is in only in thoroughly investigating the Myall Creek Massacre that we can come to a full understanding of how the colony of New South Wales was established and how it expanded into the modern Australia we know today. The simple fact is that, that growth and expansion was at the huge cost of so much Aboriginal life, culture and identity.

The Myall Creek Massacre provides such clear irrefutable evidence of this because it was so thoroughly investigated at the time and the perpetrators put on trial not once but twice with seven of them ultimately being hanged. We therefore have access to the evidence provided in Police Magistrate, Edward Denny Day’s investigation and at the two trials in the Supreme Court. The countless other massacres that took place right across the country for the first one hundred and thirty years of Australia’s “White” history have varying amounts of evidence but generally as most of it consist of verbal accounts and traditions, it is easy for the sceptics to dismiss them as rumour and hearsay.

Those same sceptics dismiss talk of widespread massacres as the “black arm band view” of Australian history and even go so far as to say that the Myall Creek Massacre is the exception saying that if such massacres were widespread there would have been more investigations, trials and hangings. In professing such a view though the sceptics are ignoring that their view collapses totally under even the slightest scrutiny.

Firstly these massacres occurred in remote locations often hundreds of miles from any British authorities, where the only witnesses were the “White” perpetrators and the Indigenous victims. Obviously the perpetrators were not going to hand themselves into the authorities and those Indigenous people who weren’t killed were obviously not aware of the existence of any such “White” authorities, couldn’t reach them if they wanted to, couldn’t communicate with them even if they could reach them and, as non Christians, could not give evidence in court if they ever managed to overcome the first three barriers.

Secondly, it ignores the fact that often these massacres were undertaken either under direct orders from the Government of the day or at least with their tacit approval. Governors Phillip, Macquarie and Acting Governor Snodgrass, to name just a few, all ordered the killing of Aboriginal people. Clearly then, even if all the other obstacles could be overcome there was little interest in investigating these countless massacres.

Two questions remain then:

1.If these other massacres were not properly investigated, how do we know with reasonable certainty that they occurred and

2.If there were all these obstacles to reporting and investigating these massacres, why was the Myall Creek Massacre reported and investigated?

1.This is where the story of the Myall Creek Massacre provides the evidence not only of the massacre of the twenty eight Aborigines killed at Myall Creek but also of countless other massacres. Following his inquiry which he conducted in the Big (Gwydir) River district around Myall Creek, Police Magistrate Edward Denny Day reported to Governor George Gipps, “There is a war of extermination against the blacks in that part of the colony.” Additionally on 18th December 1838 on the morning seven of the perpetrators of the Myall Creek Massacre were to hang, the Head Gaoler, Henry Keck reported to Governor Gipps that all the men had confessed but they had said they “didn’t know it was against the law to kill blacks because it had happened so often throughout the colony.” Quite clearly those two quotes provide irrefutable evidence of just how common and widespread massacres of Aboriginal people were at that time so much so that any sceptics who choose to deny it are simply “burying their heads in the sand.”

2.The Myall Creek Massacre was investigated and the perpetrators tried and hung because of a unique combination of circumstances and individuals.

i)There was an idealistic new Governor, George Gipps in power who had been appointed by a Whig Government in Britain who wanted to protect the Aborigines. Gipps was supported by a very dedicated and diligent Attorney General, John Plunkett.

ii)Gipps appointed an excellent “hard nosed” Police Magistrate, Edward Denny Day to investigate.

iii)Two people, William Hobbs and Frederick Foote were horrified by the masscre and were prepared to report it to the authorities.

iv)And finally and most importantly there was a “white” witness, George Anderson who saw the Aborigines tied up and taken away, but did not take part and was courageous enough to give evidence and identify the perpetrators. Anderson remains the only person ever to do this and his place in Australia’s history should therefore never be underestimated.

The Annual Memorial Ceremony showing local indigenous and non-indigenous school children with descendants of both the perpetrators and descendants of the massacre.

European Impact on Indigenous Australians

The following is an edited version of a speech given by author Peter Stewart at Port Stephens Council on the occasion of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Indigenous Australians on 13th Feb 2008.

The Apology

Thank you so much for being here. I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak to you this evening particularly given the momentous events in Canberra today.

I'd like to start however by firstly acknowledging the Worimi people as the traditional owners of the land we are on.

Today is a very special day in the history of this nation. It will go down as the day we, as represented by our parliament, said "sorry" to indigenous Australians for the racist policy which saw them removed from their families and in making this apology we have taken a large step forward in terms of achieving genuine reconciliation between indigenous and non indigenous people. We still, of course, have a very long way to go.

And yes, today was largely symbolic but symbolism is vitally important in this whole issue of reconciliation. One of the crucial things about the symbolism of today's apology is the fact that it shows respect for Indigenous Australians and it has been our cultural arrogance, our belief in our total cultural superiority and our lack of respect for Aboriginal people and their culture which has been the root cause of so many of the massive problems we have inflicted on the indigenous community since we arrived here 220 years ago.

We now have to back up the symbolism of today’s apology with action.

Over recent years while the whole issue of  the "Sorry" debate has being going on, we have all heard those who don't believe we should have said sorry use the argument about the policy of the forced removal of Indigenous children being "well intentioned".

I don't believe that being well intentioned is any excuse for "ignorance".

The way our Government's have operated over the 220 years we have been here is like a doctor who hasn't learnt what the vital organs of the human body are. As we all know some organs can be safely removed, some can't but our governments have cut the hearts out of the Aboriginal people and said we were well intentioned, we didn't know that it would kill the patient, that our well intentioned policies would destroy the self respect of so many individuals and destroy the fabric of so much of Aboriginal society and culture.


1788: Governor Phillip and Arabanoo

We can trace our well intentioned ignorance and cultural arrogance, and the destructive effect it has had on Aboriginal people, right back to the start of the colony here.

When Arthur Phillip landed in Sydney Cove in 1788, he had many tasks confronting him. 

One of those tasks outlined amongst the various orders he received from the British Crown included the following:

“You are to endeavour by every means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections, and all our subjects (are) to live in …. kindness with them.” 

These orders were of course very well intentioned but as Phillip soon discovered this was a rather difficult task because after some initial communication, the Aborigines generally kept their distance from the British newcomers. When there was contact between the two groups, too often it was centred on the theft of the other party’s property or animals.

Any Aboriginal items such as spears, woomeras, etc were extremely valuable back in England and were therefore very attractive to the British. Then, of course, there was the whole issue of ownership of land and animals etc which we all know, led to conflict.

Frustrated by the worsening relationship with the Aborigines, Phillip decided to try to resolve it. He decided to do so by kidnapping and holding in chains one or more natives to act as hostages, language teachers and diplomats.

The first to be captured was the gentle Arabanoo who was stolen from his people on 31st December 1788.

After Arabanoo died of smallpox while nursing other small pox infected Aborigines in the colony’s hospital, two more Aborigines were kidnapped in order to continue Phillip’s experiment.

Benelong, Colby and Yemmerrwanne

These two were Colby and the famous Bennelong.

A few months later Bennelong escaped but in 1793 Bennelong and one of his young kinsmen Yemmerrawanne were convinced to sail to England with Phillip when he left the colony. Once again Phillip was well intentioned in taking his two young Aboriginal friends on the journey of a lifetime. They were, of course, initially of great interest and fascination to the British but that fascination soon wore off and exposed to the bitterness of an English winter, Yemmerrawanne died of pneumonia about eight months after their arrival and was buried in a cemetery in England rather than in his own tribal soil.

Bennelong returned to Sydney two years after his departure and was unable to fit in properly with his own people or with the British with whom he had now spent so much time. He turned to alcohol to which he had been introduced at Government House on the first night of his captivity by Phillip.

It is interesting to note that Arabanoo had always refused to take alcohol despite it being offered to him on countless occasions during his captivity.

By the time Bennelong died in 1813 he was a disdained drunkard of whom the Sydney Gazette wrote:

“Of this veteran champion of the native tribe little favourable can be said,” before describing him as “barbarous and ferocious” despite his “benevolent” treatment by the British.

I mention the stories of these young Aboriginal men because they were the very first to be removed from their people “for benevolent reasons” and to have significant contact with the Government of this country. The tragedy was, of course, despite being well intentioned and “benevolent” the Government was ultimately ignorant.

And basically since then we have been charging around the country like elephants in a china shop destroying everything Aboriginal. Sometimes our intentions have been malevolent, sometimes we have been well intentioned but through our ignorance and arrogance we have almost always been destructive.

The great tragedy of the last 220 years is that we have learnt so little. Throughout that time well intentioned Governments, politicians and public servants have formulated and implemented policy after policy regarding Aboriginal people based on ignorance.

Now we have made today’s symbolic step in the right direction, we have to back it up with action because if we don’t we will go down in the history of this nation as yet another generation that allowed the problems to continue to get worse for Aboriginal Australians.

I learnt many things while researching and writing "Demons at Dusk". One of the most important though was the fact that we believe we live in an enlightened age but history shows that people have always believed that the time at which they lived was enlightened. They certainly believed that in 1838. But history subsequently judges the past, particularly certain periods and certain aspects of the past, very harshly.

As I have just outlined, it is clear that we as a country and as a society have been making a complete mess of Aboriginal policy for the 220 years we have been here.

Because while we have people in this country who are treated as second class citizens with second class rights, we are diminished as individuals, we are diminished as a society and we are diminished as a nation.

And I wonder how history will judge us as a people and as a society unless we make a decision to do something about it by backing up today’s positive symbolism with action.

We can either be viewed by history as part of a society and a generation that continued to exacerbate the problem, or we can be viewed as part of the generation that said "enough is enough", we simply must do everything we can to resolve this issue so we can face the world together as a truly reconciled, mature and independent nation.

Educating Ourselves about the impact of British Invasion /  Settlement on Aboriginal Culture

May I suggest an excellent starting point in trying to overcome our ignorance is a book which was recommended to me up at Myall Creek a few years ago by an Aboriginal elder, the late Rev Merv Blacklock. I should explain at this point that Rev Blacklock's wife Sue Blacklock is a direct descendant of one of the survivors of the Myall Creek Massacre.  Nathan Blacklock the former St George winger is their son and therefore a direct descendant of one of the massacre survivors.

Anyway, after reading a very early draft of my book, Rev Blacklock recommended I read "Why Warriors Lie Down and Die". It was written by Richard Trudgen, a non-indigenous Australian who had spent over twenty years living and working with the Yolnju people in Arnhem Land and is still there today. Trudgen was asked to write this book by one of the Yolnju leaders as they watched together the lot of the Yolnju people deteriorating before their eyes through the seventies, eighties and nineties. This was of course despite large amounts of money being spent on countless, well intentioned Government programs - Government programs which were only making life worse for the people they were supposed to be helping.

I won’t demean the complexity of the issues by trying to give you a summary of the reasons for the problems or the solutions only to say that just like Phillip and the British Government “ignorance” has remained the problem up until now.

Whether or not we are now finally making some progress on putting enlightened programs into place I don’t really know, but one would doubt that the "Intervention" in the Northern Territory is an enlightened policy in that it certainly does not appear to show respect for Aboriginal people. The apology today was at least a step in the right direction in that it showed respect for Aboriginal people but I think we would all agree we still have a very long way to go.

For those interested I can only urge those of you who have not already done so to read Trudgen’s book. It provides wonderful insights into Aboriginal Culture and the reasons that that culture has been so badly impacted on by European contact and most importantly it provides solutions for the way forward.