My family connection to Aboriginal genocide

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'Myall Creek Bystanders' by Chris Johnston. Man with gyn stands over massacre victims while settler family looks onIn 2012, I began to write a memoir of my active involvement in support of the rights of Indigenous Australians and I have been seeking information about the Kamilaroi people who were part of my growing up in the NSW country towns of Werris Creek and Walgett.

Kamilaroi traditional country roughly covers the New England district where many of my forebears lived and I sought information on massacres that have been documented regarding Kamilaroi people.

These include the Waterloo Creek massacre on the Gwydir River in January 1838 where troops and stockmen under the command of Major James Nunn massacred up to 200 Kamilaroi people over a number of days.

In June 1838 a party of convicts and former convicts led by a settler murdered over 40 Kamilaroi people camped peaceably on Myall Creek Station. They were executed by gun and sabre and most victims were beheaded.

An account by historian Lyndall Ryan of Newcastle University, 'A Very Bad Business': Henry Dangar and the Myall Creek Massacre 1838 reveals that those responsible returned the next day to murder 12 people absent on the first occasion. Seven of the 12 men charged with the crime were hanged.

In my research into the New England area, I came across Bluff Rock: Autobiography of a Massacre written by Katrina Schlunke (Curtin University Books 2005). Schlunke is unknown to me but she is my cousin by birth. She discusses two books of the local history genre written by her aunt Genevieve Newbury, Mother of Ducks and Echoes on the Wind. The books make a number of references to my father, grandfather and great grandparents.

Under the heading 'The Pioneering Families of New England', Schlunke reveals that the children of John Eckersley Newbury and Bridget Newbury owned 18 pastoral leases in New England with names like Snowflake, Ward's Mistake and Deepwater. I was gobsmacked to learn that my great-grandfather was a convict and a squatter.

I wondered how he had progressed so well from his convict beginnings. So, I sought to gain a profile of his life.

John Eckersley Newbury (1820–1900) was born in Manchester, England, and he worked as an errand boy. In 1838, he stole a pair of boots and lead from a roof. He was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.

He arrived in Sydney on the John Berry on 22 March 1839. He had one attribute that many did not — he could read and write. By 1850, he had gained his freedom. He married Bridget Kennedy at Yarrabin near Mudgee on 24 April 1857 which is where her parents moved after arriving in Australia as immigrants in 1841. They raised 15 children, the first of whom was my grandfather, William Henry Newbury (1858–1931).

By 1850, land-hungry squatters were overlanding their herds through the Hunter Valley, New England and on to the Darling Downs in Queensland. They formed a self-interested group who dominated the politics of the colony. 'Squatting' became so widespread by the mid-1830s that government policy in NSW towards the practice shifted from opposition to regulation and control. Newfound respectability earned many squatters seats in parliament.

John Eckersley Newbury became wealthy through a generous land policy and because the Kennedy family helped set him up as a squatter. In 1866, he drove 12,000 sheep from Mudgee to Inverell where he established himself. Returns on squatter activities were considerable from the 1850s with great demand for mutton and beef on the goldfields as well as the rapidly expanding British market for fleece and tallow.

During this period, the Kamilaroi fought a guerilla war of resistance against the British. The conflict is known as the Frontier Wars where the natives lived off speared cattle and sheep because British land practices had a negative effect on marsupial numbers. Eventually, the tide of war favoured the well armed and mounted British.

The Myall Creek Memorial of the infamous massacre has seven plaques dedicated to the lives and the experiences of the Wirrayararaay people who were a tribal clan of the Kamilaroi nation. The bronze plaque on the main memorial stone reads, in Kamilaroi and English:

In memory of the Wirrayararaay people who were murdered on the slopes of this ridge in an unprovoked but premeditated act in the late afternoon of 10 June 1838.

Erected on 10 June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in an act of reconciliation and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history

We remember them — Ngiyani winagay ganunga.

The most significant outcome of my discovery of my New England ancestry is that I acknowledge the role my forebears played in the genocide and dispossession of the Kamilaroi. Many Australians hesitate to associate settlers with genocide in the dispossession of Australia's Indigenous peoples but the evidence is overwhelming.

The UN Convention on Genocide 1948 defines genocide as the 'systematic attempt to destroy a defined group's essential foundations'. Australian genocide expert Colin Tatz believes Australia is guilty of at least two specific acts of genocide, namely the massacres of Aboriginal people committed by settlers in the 18th and 19th century while colonial governments stood silently by; and the Australian practice of forcibly transferring Aboriginal children from one group to another with the express intention that 'they cease to be Aboriginal'. 

The UN Convention recognises three parties to genocide — perpetrators, victims and bystanders. The category of bystander includes those who condone what is happening, those who are indifferent to what is going on, and those who fail to do everything in their power to stop what is going on.

The promising feature of the Myall Creek Memorial is that people have turned it around, making commemoration of the massacre the foundation of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. 


Paul Newbury headshotPaul Newbury writes on indigenous, environmental and sustainability issues. In 1999, he was editor and principal author of Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance from Pemulwuy to Mabo published by the social justice organisation Action for World Development. 


Topic tags: Paul Newbury, Aboriginal, Indigenous, Myall Creek, massacre


 

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Delving through layers of history to uncover the story of dispossession and genocide of Indigenous Australians would, I guess, be painful and debilitating work. I would also guess in some respects cathartic. I wouldn't presume to hazard a guess as to the reactions or emotions of Indigenous Australians on visiting memorials or reading of the past.
Pam | 29 April 2013


An excellent article, Paul. Having come here with my parents as a boy of 9 I have no long Anglo-Saxon ancestry in this country. However, having worked with Aboriginal colleagues in WA in the 1970s and 1980s, I know of their sufferings directly from them. It is good both ATSI and other Australians, whose families were involved in these extremely painful incidents, are coming together and reconciling. I see this as part of a great movement of all Australians coming together as a nation; acknowledging all histories and stories; reconciling & moving on from there to a less racist & more cosmopolitan future. To some extent I think this has already happened. The atrocious neo-Darwinian pseudo-anthropological view of Aboriginals as a "backward" people doomed to either total absorption in the general populace or extinction has, thank God, been consigned to the dustbin of history. Likewise White Australia which denied Australia's Asian history. There are, sadly, still racial & religious (one mustn't forget the extremist Muslim fringe, a thoroughly unrepresentative & divisive rump) separatists but I hope they will be unsuccessful.
Edward F | 30 April 2013


Another article that indicates that Australia was at war with Indigenous Australia. The historian Henry Reynolds has estimated that that 2000 whites and 20000 blacks died in conflicts that both sides saw as war. The Australian War Memorial does not consider that specific memorial remembering these wars, the only wars fought on Australian soil and with significant loss of life, warrants a specific memorial. I have written to them. The response was that as no war was officially declared and therefore no memorial is warranted. I don't recall that we ever declared war on Vietnam, but there is (deservedly) a memorial. We never declared war on Iraq or Afghanistan but we all know we fought and continue to fight wars in these places - there will nevertheless be memorials. It is time to recognise our history.
Digby Habel | 30 April 2013


There is today no good historical case that a "Massacre" of up to 200 men, women and children Kamilaroi at Waterloo Creek in 1838, even though there was undoubtedly a serious & fatal conflict between armed troopers and Kamilaroi men with weapons(spears). I believe Keith Windschuttle has shown that the Waterloo Creek incident was no indiscriminate massacre, let alone part of some "genocidal" master plan, but the tragic upshot of a legitimate attempt to apprehend specific persons reasonably suspected of murdering stockmen and killing and stealing sheep and cattle. Moreover, troopers opened fire only after themselves being attacked. While the precise number of Kamilaroi killed will probably never be known, it is most unlikely to have amounted to 200. This was a figure based on third hand oral reports uncorroborated anywhere in the documentary record and flying in the face of all circumstantial evidence. (The source, Rev. Threkeld, lived 500 ks away at Lake Macquarie, originally reported 120 deaths nine months after the event, bumped the figure up to between 200 and 300 a few months later on no new evidence, later admitted this could have been an exaggeration, and concluded that only those at the scene knew the true figure. Shamelessly, the "Oxford Companion to Australian History" (ODTAH) announces with certainty that "over 300" were killed, without any evidence apart from the figure in Threkeld's report, which, as noted, he later rejected as too high.) The death toll could possibly have been as high as 40 or 50, but one can on the evidence reasonably conclude that less than 10 male warriors were killed.
HH | 30 April 2013


Thank you Paul for this truthful article. I still cringe at the memory of 1910-30s stories by my uncle and father 'complaining' about the aboriginal stockmen engaged without pay to assist on the property (also Darling Downs area). They were to work with stock from daylight to dark seven days a week 365 days per year for which they received bags of tea, sugar and flour. The complaint was that they were unreliable as they, at intervals, went walkabout for days at a time. The settlers also had to lock up their domestic help, the women and girls as they also were unsettled and would join the men if they could get away. Discipline of the men was to cut back on the rations and top up the bags with'floor sweepings' or other rubbish as "they wouldn't know any better anyway". My stomach still churns at the memories. So HH I am sorry, in fact offended, to hear that you still believe the romantic ramblings of such as Keith Windschuttle whose stories were so resoundingly discounted. Proof exists in Government files of the outrageous treatment of the aboriginals from mid 19th into 20th century and most adults today know well the disparagement of the first australians.
Michelle | 30 April 2013


So the proof, Michelle, that 200 Kamilaroi were in fact killed at Waterloo Creek is that aborigines were (doubtlessly) exploited in various ways at different times in other parts of Australia? That may pass muster with the Oxford Companion to Australian History. But not with me. If you are so confident Windschuttle is wrong about this, produce evidence, not ad hominems.
HH | 30 April 2013


Paul W Newbury in reply to HH 01/05/2013 My source for the Waterloo Creek massacre is Waterloo Creek: The Australia Day Massacre of 1838, George Gipps and the British Conquest of New South Wales by historian Roger Milliss. A secondary source is the The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838, UNSW Press 2005 by historian John Connor. The Waterloo Creek Massacre also goes by the name of Slaughterhouse Creek. Certainly, the missionary Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld put the count of the dead at 200 - 300 Kamilaroi men, women and children. Milliss and Connor share the view that Major Nunn’s report of the massacre lacked detail because he wanted to conceal the number of Kamilaroi his force slaughtered. Later, Nunn was often heard to boast at dinner parties held by squatters in his honour that his force of troopers and stockmen had killed a large number of Kamilaroi - many times the official figure. I invite readers who are interested in these issues to read my previous articles in Eureka Street on these issues: Why Wattle day should be our national day, Forgotten Aboriginal War Heroes and Why Mabo deserves a holiday.
Paul W Newbury | 01 May 2013


Thanks, Paul. It is precisely Millis' work that Windschuttle pulls apart. But not before mentioning that Millis himself, at the end of his 1000 page tome, states: "The total tally -- 40, 70, 120 or 300 according to various sources -- will never be known.", which underlines the irresponsibility of the of the OCTAH pontification. Millis' picture is built up largely from rumours circulating decades, and even 150 years later. Plus the assumption that, because Nunn's expedition took longer to get from one pastoral settlement to another than it should have according to he, Millis, at a distance of 150 years, then it must have taken time off to massacre aborigines! It might be worth mentioning that Millis was a journalist for the Communist Party Tribune in the 1960's and an actor in the CP's New Theatre in Sydney. This of course does not prove any proposition he makes false, but it should put the reader on notice that in Millis we may not be dealing with a totally disinterested spectator. By the way, I can't see any connection between your ancestors and "genocide". And I think it's unfair to lay this incredibly serious charge against them when they are unable to defend themselves from the grave. But in their cause I'll have a go. Even if we use the Tatz criterion, the Myall Creek genuine massacre and the Waterloo Creek alleged "massacre" occurred some 20 years BEFORE your ancestors had even touched foot in northern NSW! Moreover, no more massacres, real or alleged, are located in Northern NSW from that time on. How can your ancestors in any way whatsoever be blamed for acts of "genocide" of aborigines in this area when none occurred in their lifetime?
HH | 01 May 2013


Hi Paul - very powerful article - well done. Was thrilled to come across you again. I rememebr all the great conversations we had in AWD and it's great that your passion and social justice convictions are still as strong as ever. The world needs more Paul Newburys.
Maria Bohan | 02 May 2013


Following the execution of seven of the twelve men for the Myall Creek massacre, a conspiracy of silence descended over the Australian frontier. After that time, brutal murders were committed with impunity as long as the perpetrators and bystanders were not candid about what happened. History confirms the ‘good sense’ of this approach because there were no further convictions for the murder or massacre of Aboriginal people across Australia. I believe my forebears were party to this conspiracy and it continued well into the twentieth century. The notion to erect a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Myall Creek massacre was first raised by Bingara resident, Len Payne in 1964. Local graziers were said to have been irate at the proposal and they accused Payne of digging up an unsavoury story. So, support for the proposal waned. However in time, denial waned and the memorial was opened on June 10 2000.
Paul W Newbury | 02 May 2013


Paul, even granted arguendo that there may have been a successful nation-wide conspiracy to keep quiet about aboriginal massacres after Myall, the facts are these: you don't actually know if there were any massacres at all in Northern NSW subsequent to 1838. And, unless you're keeping something from us, you certainly don't know if your ancestors became aware of massacres in that region in their time there. All you do know is that you have no evidence of your ancestors reporting massacres, or not being "bystanders" in some other way. Yet, solely on that basis, a complete argument from silence, you are prepared to brand your ancestors as parties to genocide! Paul, don't you think that could be just a tiny bit unfair?
HH | 02 May 2013


My dear Grandmother was often heard to say, "your grandfather used to own all of Bangalow". And one of my Uncles was the first to alert a young child to the enormities of dispossession when he replied, "Yes Mum, after he chased all the aboriginal people off their land".
Ivy Elizabeth | 03 May 2013


Thanks Paul. I wonder similarly as I recently found that my mum's family traces back to the region in the period you mention. I have travelled the country frequently so my imaginings were also of the cold, mist and wet leaves as well.
Sally Fitzpatrick | 03 May 2013


Paul, Thanks for an excellent article and especially for relating the background of your family forbears to the conflicts. My path to a clearer understanding of the fate of our aborigines went through what was probably a familiar story of total ignorance, to denial, to realisation, but only after a long period of education as an adult. In 2005 I sent the following letter to The Age. Though it was not published (I get a reasonably good strike rate) it still summarizes some ideas I have on the issue: The “one day of the year” that has some significant emotional pull for most Australians – Anzac Day - will soon be here. Recognizing the gallantry of our servicemen and women who served in all conflicts will always been the traditional focus, but a welcome change in recent years has been the presence in the march of a Turkish contingent representing those who fought and died in defending their country from invasion. The meaning of Anzac Day is widening towards reconciliation. Many of our own native people died in attempts to defend their land and way of life, and I hope that one day their sacrifice will also be remembered and honoured. If the masses of people who marched across the Harbor Bridge as well as in Melbourne and other cities can embrace Aboriginal reconciliation, and even organizations like the AFL take up the challenge, why not the RSL too? What a march there could be on Anzac Day.
Peter McCarthy | 05 May 2013


The use of the term "genocide" and "massacre" does reasoned debate on the bloody frontier wars fought for possession of this country, no service. The traditional owners fought a brutal guerilla war in many places but were outgunned by often brutal Europeans.. As simple as that.
John Thompson | 06 May 2013


No, John, not as simple as that. One side were the defenders of their country; the other side were the invading takers.
Gavan | 06 May 2013


Genocide? Let the tenured, objective, Aussie historian decide, at one time ... or another: "In my opinion, genocide is neither a necessary nor a useful concept for the task of understanding the nature of the white colonisation of this country." Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, 2005, p 92 "the concept of genocide, I am suggesting, might still be useful to us in the historical task of imagining and so understanding the past of our forbears (and therefore, in time, it might have beneficial political outcomes)." Bain Attwood, Aboriginal History, 2001, p 171 [his emphasis] "Falsely accusing Australian historians of exaggerating claims of genocide and Holocaust in Australia in order to paint them as ideologically-driven is now common among history warriors." Dirk Moses, Online Opinion, 11 April 2005 "Australia had many genocides, perhaps more than any other country." Dirk Moses, Journal of Genocide Research, 2000, p 93 "I don't want to call it genocidal, but I'm not going to tidy it up either." Cassandra Pybus on the Tasmanian Aborigines, Sunday, Channel 9, May 25 2003 "In the early nineteenth century, the Aboriginal people of Tasmania were all but wiped out, I mean it was one of the clearest cases of genocide that we know of and recognised as such at the time." Cassandra Pybus, Four Corners, ABC-TV, August 26 2002
HH | 06 May 2013


Thank you for this testimony based on humility and Truth! Your concrete commitment and efforts will be rewarded one day This is the only way towards Reconciliation and building Unity. keep to it
Joceline Minerve | 08 May 2013


Hello, I have just found out that my Great Great Grandmother was full blooded Kamilario woman and was fostered at birth to an English couple. All the information I have is that she was born on a Aboriginal settlement at Werris Creek Do you know how I could find out more information about her? Thank you...even if it is something to read...thank you
Geeta Carroll | 10 December 2014


A wonderful website, as I am researching aboriginal family history. My great grandmother - who was an aboriginal from the Kamilaroi tribe born on a aboriginal station Werris creek N.S.W. about 1857 an adopted by an English couple John and Eliza Bull from Maitland- desperately trying to locate the names of her original parents or the name of the aboriginal station that she was born on. I do hope that someone can help.
Helen McCormac | 17 May 2015


Hi Paul, I read your article with much interest. I recently discovered my husbands family descended from the Kamilaroi tribe. I was hoping you could steer me in the right direction to continuing my family research. Kind regards. Christine Miller (Lismore NSW)
Christine Miller | 07 October 2015


Hi Paul, Thanks for your book "Aboriginal Heroes Of the resistance. I only just started reading it. It was in my book case but I never started. "Blood on the Wattle" Bruce Elder is a fantastic book and I really appreciate your effort to bring to the public what has occurred. Your Introduction on page 25 says it all. Thanks for your writings.
Robert Stephen | 29 January 2016


Good on you Mr. Newbury, It's a very emotional and difficult issue for many to come to grips with. Congratulations. Jayne Waterford
Jayne Waterford | 14 June 2016


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