Myall Creek Massacre
Causes and Consequences of Colonial Conflict
Why was there conflict between colonists and Aborigines and how did it shape the type of values that developed in Australia?
The Myall Creek Massacre of 1838 provides an insight into such questions. Contrary to popular myth, the massacre showed that conflict did not occur due to competition over scarce resources. If anything, the co-operative conduct between Aborigines and some landowners in the lead-up to the massacre showed that colonisation had the potential to realise mutually beneficial outcomes.
Just as the reasons for the conflict undermine some populist myths, so did the public reaction and long term consequences. Specifically, when news that the murderers would be punished hit the papers, initially a large section of the public was on the side of the murderers; however, after they were found guilty and sentenced to death, public opinion seemed to turn. Reflecting the change in public opinion, four years after the executions, the lawyer that had defended the murderers knowing that they were guilty, Richard Windeyer, had a key role in the establishment of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Society. In short, Windeyer's personal story showed that status became associated with those who portrayed themselves as the Aborigines' champion rather than an Aborginal exterminator.
Contemporary obituaries usually define Richard Windeyer as a humanitarian who saw the disadvantage that Aborigines suffered in the Myall Creek trials and decided to help them. In truth, he took money from landowners who wanted Aborigines dead to defend the Myall Creek murderers. Ironically, the white washing of his biography perhaps indicates how the trial of the Myall Creek murderers changed attitudes to Aborigines. Specifically, he went from someone who was celebrated for defending colonists who killed Aborigines to someone who portrayed himself as the great Aboriginal protector.
What happened - the basic facts
In 1838, a free settler named John Fleming rustled up a group 11 Convicts who had been assigned to settlers of the district. He then took the Convicts to the Myall Creek station with the intention of killing all the Aborigines of the Wirrayaraay group that were camping there.
Other than gratification in killing, Fleming had no reason to harm the Aborigines. Those at the Myall Creek Station had English nick names and the children could speak a degree of English (which indicated that they had formed relations with other settlers in the area.) Furthermore, they were employed by a neighbouring property and had been specifically invited to Myall Creek by a Convict stockmen, Charles Kilmeister, who was friends with them.
When the Wirrayaraay men were away from the camp for work, Fleming and his Convicts arrived at Myall Creek. 10 of the Convicts were of European extraction and one was of African extraction. The group tied up 28 women, children and elderly men by the neck and then led them 800 meters away into a gully. Perhaps out of fear or perhaps due to a desire to experience a position of power, Charles Kilmeister joined the other Convicts. Using swords, the Convicts then beheaded the Wirrayaraay. The severed heads were often thrown a significant way from the bodies, which indicated a callous disrespect for the victims. One woman was spared and was repeatedly gang raped over the subsequent days. The massacre was witnessed by an Aboriginal man named Davy, who was employed by the Myall Creek station.
The station hut keeper, George Anderson, was another assigned Convict. He refused to join the massacre and was able to save a couple of Wirrayaraay boys.
When the men of the Wirrayaraay heard that the Flemming's gang was in the area, they rushed back to Myall Creek to defend the group but they arrived too late. Anderson told them to flee in case the gang came back. They did return. Reports indicate that they managed to catch the Aboriginal men and probably slaughtered them.
When the manager of the station, William Hobbs, returned several days later, he discovered the headless bodies. Hobbs discussed the massacre with a neighbouring station overseer, Thomas Foster, who told squatter Frederick Foot, who then rode to Sydney to report it to the new Governor, George Gipps. Supported by the Attorney General, Gipps ordered the Police Magistrate to investigate the massacre. By the time the investigation commenced, the bodies had been cremated and only fragments of teeth and bone remained.
Landowners of the area created an organisation called the 'Black Association' and contributed funds for the defence of Flemming and the Convicts. The owner of the Myall Creek station, Henry Dangar, told Anderson and Hobbs not to testify. When Hobbs refused, he was fired. Anderson was a Convict on a life sentence so he had no job to be fired from. He only asked for protection in return for testifying.
Because there were no bodies and the only eye witnesses couldn't be found, the case against the men was circumstantial. The 11 Convicts were put on trial for the murder of an Aboriginal man named Daddy. A warrant was issued for John Fleming but it was not acted on and he was not tried. The defence rested soley on an argument that it could not be proved that any of the bodies was Daddy. The 11 Convicts were found not guilty.
The following day, the Australian newspaper criticised the landowners that had funded the defence. It said they had intended
'to protect the stockkeepers and shepherds in the elimination of the blacks’. It also said that they should be denied any Convict labour in the future.'
Another paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, took a different view. In one article, it said,
'The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time"
After the not guilty verdict, the Attorney-General requested that the judge remand the prisoners in custody so they could face trial for the murder of an Aboriginal boy named Charley. 7 of the men were put on trial and found guilty.
After the verdict was announced, Judge Burton specifically made mention of the defendants' Convict background. In words that were later published in the Sydney Gazette, the judge stated:
"Prisoners of the bar, you have been found guilty of the crime of murder by a jury of your countrymen…you have been sent to this colony for some crime committed at home; you have all lost your liberty for some cause or other, through some of you have since regained that liberty by service; you are well acquainted with the law which says, that whoever is guilty of murder shall suffer death. The law is no conventional law, no common rule of life formed for human purposes; it is founded on the law of God." (4)
The seven men were then executed. Their names were Charles Kilmaister, James Oates, Edward Foley, John Johnson, John Russell, William Hawkins and James Parry.
The other four men were John Blake, Charles Toulouse, George Palliser and James Lamb. The four men had been remanded until Davy, who witnessed the attack, could be found to testify against them. Davy was never found and according to a missionary, Henry Dangar had arranged for him to be killed.
After gaining power by owning land, Henry Dangar became magistrate and politician. Contemporary biographies usually omit any mention of Myall Creek.
Why did it happen? Competition for resources or the contagious nature of psychopathy?
The massacre has been explained as stemming from competition for resources. According to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (1):
"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). The initial response by the Administration was to dispatch troops to police the frontier, but the expanding area of land to be covered made this an increasingly difficult task. A lawless frontier environment soon existed where it was impossible to control the conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. In response to this challenge the Administration ordered settlers to defend themselves and ordered Aboriginal people to stay away from European habitation. There is no evidence that Aboriginal people understood and agreed with these orders to stay away from European settlement as the conflict on the frontier continued."
There are numerous problems with the explanation that the massacre stemmed from competition for resources. Firstly, the court found that the attack had no mitigating circumstances. It was not a revenge attack nor in response to Aborigines allegedly spearing cattle. To the contrary, the Aborigines that were killed had formed friendly relations with some colonists and the Aboriginal men were working for a landowner that respected them. At the trial, the judge made a point of stressing
"this tribe had been represented as peaceable; they were in constant contact with the whites, and were peaceably encamped for the night, when they were led away to slaughter." (4)
Secondly, while the massacre was led by a landowner, most of the killing was done by Convicts who were not landowners and personally had no vested interest in eliminating Aborigines from the land. Thirdly, Aborigines and colonists largely ate different foods. Many of the Aboriginal foods, such as kangaroos, actually increased after colonialism because farmers increased the amount of grazing land and built dams that helped kangaroos survive drought. Finally, the extent of Aborigines spearing livestock may have been overstated. In 1788, 4 cows and 2 bulls wandered off into the Australian bush and were lost. Seven years later they were found to have grown into a herd of 40 and living happily on a large open plain south of Sydney. The fact that Aborigines didn't spear them was probably an indication that they didn't spend that much time on grasslands or that they preferred other types of food and other types of landscapes. The story of lost cows was repeated with goats, sheep, camels and rabbits all over Australia as feral animals multiplied with few Aborigines killing them.
Rather than stemming from competition for resources, the massacre is best explained as an example of psychopathic behaviour that proliferated as a result of Convicts being assigned to landowners. The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) helps explain the type of psychology that may have been going on. The experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard and it found that the creation of certain social dynamics affected the behaviour of the individuals within those dynamics. In the experiment, 24 undergraduates were randomly divided into the categories of guards and prisoners and proceeded to act out their roles. Although it had been planned to last for 14 days, the experiment had to be cancelled after 6 days because one third of the "guards" exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies that had caused extreme emotional distress in the "prisoners." In the first few decades of settlement in Australia, similar patterns of behaviour were a feature of the social dynamic where guards and free settlers exhibited sadistic behaviour towards Convicts. When Convicts were assigned to free landowners on the frontiers; however, a different kind of social dynamic was created. By following sadistic freeman like John Fleming, the Convicts were able to escape their 'prisoner' status and instead become like the guards. Ironically, it was by becoming sadists like a free settler that they were able to be treated as equal to the free settlers. Until the massacre, newspapers were never on the side of Convicts or emancipists, but during the trial, newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald gave the Convicts public support. In the eyes of some newspaper readers, by killing Aborigines, the Convicts had become humans. (The judge probably made special mention of the mens' Convict background in order to dehumanise them once more and break the solidarity that they had formed with free settlers.)
While the Stanford Prison Experiment helps explain why the Convicts would be involved in the killing, it doesn't explain why the Convicts would receive public support for the killing. Perhaps Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) provides the answer. Social Identity Theory explains how two groups in competition develop values that give their group status over a rival group. The most influential individual in the group is the individual that is the most prototypical (extreme.) In the initial decades of the colony, the two groups in conflict were free settlers and emancipists (freed Convicts) and each developed values that made their group superior to the other. According to one report from the 1810s,
"Deep divisions exist within New South Wales, greatly adding to the burden of being a people isolated at the bottom of the world, and therefore needing more than ever to live together in harmony.
Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights."
On the frontier, a social dynamic of Convicts and freemen would have been dangerous as the Convicts might have just killed the freemen. To lessen this threat, a dynamic of colonists and Aborigines was created. With human life having little value in the colony, the most prototypical member of the colonial group was the psychopath like John Fleming that was able to affirm colonial values by slaughtering Aborigines. Because the authorities had previously been sadistic in their treatment of Convicts, people had become desensitized to the loss of life thus killing Aborigines probably had little emotional impact on them.
This pattern of elevating psychopaths to leadership positions has been seen countless times whenever genocide has occurred and human life has been devalued. Instead of being seen as deviants, the psychopaths are seen as the prototypical members of the group. By sadistically slaughtering members of other groups, the psychopaths help define the group's identity and their leadership of the group. In Australia, their desires were aided by the system of assigning Convicts to the psychopaths' commands.
Ironically, by executing the murderers of the Aborigines, the state exhibited a kind of psychopathy that also defined community values. In short, it said Aborigines were also human and decent members of the community must respect their humanity. Furthermore, whe the trial judge specifically mentioned the Convicts previous criminal history, he was reaffirming that they were inferior Convicts to be seen as such.
Reflective of this message, the lawyer for the Myall Creek murderers was a man named Richard Windeyer. His salary had been paid by wealthy landowners of the district; however, after the verdict redefined public morality, Windeyer had a role in the establishment of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Society. In short, the executions communicated to the public (in a paradoxical way) that human life should be respected and that Aborigines were in need of protection from the immoral Convicts. Windeyer heard the message and publicly changed.
Plaque at the Myall Creek Memorial
Legacy of Myall Creek in Australian Culture Today
What was the legacy of the Myall Creek Massacre? Of the diverse values expressed at the time, which ones survived to be passed down the generations? Was it the values of Anderson and Hobbs who risked their very lives to see that justice was done? Was it the justice system that wanted to protect Aborigines? Was it the racist and sadistic values of the likes of Flemming and other landowners that wanted to slaughter Aborigines and the Sydney Morning Herald that supported them? Was it the values of the Wirrayaraay who had put their trust in colonists and had been trying to live harmoniously? Was it the lawyer Windeyer who would defend the indefensible because there was money to be made and applause to be won?
Many contemporary secondary sources assert that it was the sadistic values of the landowners that survived across the generations. The sources state that the trial pushed the murder of Aborigines underground so that instead of roaming gangs shooting Aborigines openly, landowners started leaving poisoned food or contaminating waterholes. For example, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities stated:
"The Myall Creek massacre, the subsequent court cases and the hanging of the seven settlers for their role in the massacre was pivotal in the development of the relationship between settlers and Aboriginal people. It was the last attempt by the colonial administration to use the law to control frontier conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. Instead of setting a precedent that Aboriginal people could be protected under the law, it hardened settlers' resolve to use whatever means were available to clear Aboriginal people from the land on the frontier." (1)
Likewise, the website Friends of Myall Creek states:
"The Government hoped that the lesson was ‘Don’t kill Aborigines’. The message received on the frontier was translated as ‘if you kill Aborigines don’t, under any circumstances, let the authorities know’. And so it was that arsenic-laced flour was distributed to Aborigines and waterholes were poisoned. The mode of murder and massacre may have changed but still many thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children continued to be slaughtered well into the twentieth century." (2)
The claims are perhaps more of an example of a perverse form of wishful thinking rather than an objective examination of the evidence. While it is possible that landowners secretly continued to kill Aborigines with things such as poisoned flour and poisoned water holes, because they did it in secret they didn’t leave evidence for historians to later deduce their actions. Likewise, while it is possible that the execution of the murderers "hardened" the landowners' resolve, because they kept their resolve secret, historians can only guess what their resolve was.
While there is little evidence of the sadistic values of Flemming and landowners surviving across the generations, there is evidence of the values of Hobbs and Anderson gaining more currency. At the most basic level, prior to the executions, it was socially acceptable for newspapers to run articles that referred to Aborigines as subhuman. After the executions; however, such viewpoints became taboo and there was status associated with anyone who stood up for Aborigines.
Aside from being reflected in newspaper coverage, the change in public morality was reflected in much of the naming of rural Australia. For example, prior to the massacre, colonists named Slaughterhouse Creek, and Gravesend in tribute to themselves for killing Aborigines in those locations. After the massacre, colonists ceased naming areas in tribute to themselves for murdering Aborigines. Instead, they started using pre-existing Aboriginal names or Aboriginal words in tribute to Aborigines.
More evidence of change came from the establishment of "Aboriginal protectors." In fact, the lawyer that had defended the murderers, Richard 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 the fact that he defended the Myall Creek Murderers or wrote in a way that implied that he had been on the side of the justice system in bringing the murderers to justice. For example, the Australian Dictionary of Biography states:
“Windeyer was a member of the Aborigines Protection Society. His attention had been attracted to their legal disadvantages in the trial of an Aborigine, Murrell, and the trials arising out of the Myall Creek 'massacre' in which he had appeared.” (5)
The Parliament of NSW also states that he “appeared” at the Myall Creek trials while neglecting to mention that he defended the accused:
“Member of the Aborigines Protection Society and appeared in the trials arising from the ‘Myall Creek Massacre’ and supported proposals that aboriginal people should be allowed to make unsworn statements in court rather than take an oath.” (7)
Windeyer’s Wikipedia page omits Myall Creek completely and instead portrays him as a man concerned about Aborigines being killed off and a combatant with Governor Gibbs over the use of land:
"In 1845 Windeyer, though almost overwhelmed with work, took up the cause of the already fast-dwindling aborigines and obtained a select committee to inquire into the question. He was also in the forefront of the struggle with Gipps concerning generally the powers of the council and the governor on the land question, and in 1846 moved and carried an address to the governor acquainting him that the council could not entertain a Bill he had originated." (8)
Ironically, it is that paternal tradition that seems to have been assimilated by workers in the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities as well as other historians that write of massacres of Aborigines in the belief they are helping Aborigines by doing so.
As for the landowners, history indicates that after Convict transportation came to an end in the 1850s, Aborigines began being seen as a labour source in areas where labour was in short supply. Specifically, replacing Convicts with free labour was difficult because farm work had the negative stigma of being Convict work. To compound matters, gold rushes around the country attracted freemen who either wanted to prospect on their own or gain employment in a mining company. Struggling to find whites to employ, more landowners looked upon Aborigines as the solution to their labour shortages. Subsequently, Aborigines became droving hands, cooks, cleaners, fruit pickers, stockmen and fencing contractors. In short, rather than seeing advantages in eliminating Aborigines, landowners saw advantages in befriending them. While the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities may believe that landowners had a resolve to "clear Aboriginal people from the land", birth records indicate that tens of thousands of Aborigines were born on rural properties to parents that were employed on them.
1) Australian Heritage Database http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=105869 Accessed March 2013
2)Myall Creek Massacre", Parliament of New South Wales Hansard, 8 June 2000
3)Freinds of Myall Creek http://www.myallcreek.info/resources/article/story-of-myall-creek/ Accessed March 2013
4) R. v. Kilmeister (No. 2)  NSWSupC 110
http://www.law.mq.edu.au/research/colonial_case_law/nsw/cases/case_index/1838/r_v_kilmeister2/ Accessed September 2013
5)Australian Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/windeyer-richard-1060 Accessed November 2013
6) Oxford Dictionary of Nationary Biography http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803124127395 Accessed November 2013
7) Parliament of NSW http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/web/common.nsf/v3home Accessed November 2013
8)Wikipedia entry on Richard Windeyer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Windeyer Accessed November 2013
9) No pride in feeling no shame http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/phillipadams/index.php/theaustralian/comments/no_pride_in_feeling_no_shame Accessed November 2013 /