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Our killing fields


Books on frontier conflict in Australia must now be written with an eye to the charges Keith Windschuttle has made about the deliberate ‘fabrication’, or at least exaggeration, of Aboriginal deaths. There is no harm in this: unusual care must be taken in an area of such politicised sensibilities. At the same time, the paucity of hard evidence creates serious problems for historians genuinely ­convinced by a ­combination of circumstantial evidence and tutored instinct that large-scale killings of Aborigines took place. Patrick Collins’ book, is amongst other things a case study of these problems. It also tends to support the argument pursued by Henry Reynolds, Noel Loos and Raymond Evans that Queensland witnessed what was probably the most extensive and intensive racial violence in Australian history.

The dusty files of the Queensland Native Police that I happened upon in 1964 in search of an MA thesis topic, evoked the bitter frontier violence in central northern New South Wales and what is now central southern Queensland in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Behind the euphemistic formalese of ‘insurgent blacks’, ‘serious depredations’, ‘collisions’, ‘dispersals’ and ‘punitive measures’ was the story of how a squatter-dominated colonial government set up and supported a highly mobile and well-armed paramilitary force designed to ‘pacify’ the Indigenous peoples of the area and ‘settle’ it for permanent pastoral occupancy. Never mind the explicit instructions from the Secretary of State for Colonies, Earl Grey, that pastoral leaseholds were ‘not intended to deprive the Natives of their former right to hunt over these districts, or to wander over them in search of subsistence’. The rush of squatters and their servants from the Liverpool Plains and the Darling Downs after 1847 quickly dispossessed and depopulated the Bigambul, Mandandanji and other Indigenous groups by sheer force of arms and with great bloodshed.

What was being played out in the late 1840s, was a last-ditch Colonial Office attempt to enforce the policy of safeguarding native interests introduced by Lord Glenelg ten years earlier to the dismay of the squatting fraternity. For them, the prospect of self-government meant an end to the ‘canting hypocrisy’ of Exeter Hall (the influential Evangelical humanitarian lobby in Britain) and colonial control over native policy as well as land. My response was to see how things had reached this sorry state, to explain why the last intervention before self-government was to deploy squads of Aboriginal troopers, led by Eureopean officers, in an officially sanctioned war against Indigenous land-holders on the pastoral frontier. Inevitably, I had to confront the earlier events at Myall Creek and other remote out-stations on the River Gwydir in the late 1830s and their repercussions.

There was stiff resistance to pastoral settlement in this area and northwards. Whatever may have been the case in other parts of Australia, the Liverpool Plains and then the Maranoa became one big battleground. Collins has provided plenty of evidence to show that Europeans were tolerated as travellers in the Maranoa (as Major Mitchell was in 1846) but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. Just how disruptive that permanent presence was for the Aborigines in economic terms can be gauged by the description of Alan MacPherson’s newly-introduced sheep and cattle grazing 50 kilometres of water frontage on Muckadilla Creek, a northern tributary of the Balonne River. And it was the deaths of eight of MacPherson’s white workers that helped to trigger what must have been one of Australia’s bloodiest frontier wars. There were no official body-count to satisfy today’s forensic historian.

Nor is the official documentation very revealing. Native Police ­Commandant Frederick Walker tempered his official despatches to the Colonial Secretary in Sydney after an incautious remark about his force’s pitched battle with some hundreds of Bigambul warriors at ‘Carbucky’ station following the deaths of a number of white hands on the Wallan and the Lower Condamine in July 1849. In a moment of frankness he had written: ‘I much regretted not having one hour more [of] daylight and I would have annihilated the lot, among which were six murderers and all the rest living solely on cattle …’. According to William
Telfer, a drover who later worked in the area, ‘nearly one hundred perished under the sword and bullet of the white man’ on that occasion.

Telfer’s accounts of this and other pitched battles with ‘myalls’, as well as massacres of ‘tame’ or ‘station blacks’, in what is now known as the Wallabadah Manuscript might be dismissed by the sceptic as unsupported hearsay. However, there is a significant congruence (allowing for some slight chronological error) between his descriptions and events which are only briefly sketched in the official record. Incidents of this kind would have been campfire talk for many years afterwards and the numbers of Aborigines killed may well have been inflated. Nevertheless, the Wallabadah Manuscript was written by a disinterested party only ten years after the events. The narrative is impressive in its unadorned and dispassionate simplicity. If the sceptic insists that Telfer’s accounts fail the eyewitness test that is now applied to events which few were prepared to record, there is the graphic account by Margaret Young, a squatter’s wife, of two massacres at their ‘Umbercollie’ station near ‘Carbucky’. Both were in retaliation for the killing by Aborigines of the two sons of James Mark, an evident psychopath who had earlier killed an Aboriginal messenger. Mark and his men shot ‘every native in sight, even our station aboriginals. Even my house gins, one of which was my faithful Maime, my loyal friend’. The second massacre was conducted by the Native Police:

Some weeks later the police came back shooting still more natives whether guilty or not—we lost twelve more of our station blacks. Two young gins ran to me for protection. I hid them up … in our roof ... they were there to stay for two days and nights without food and water. The police were still in and out of our house … after the police had gone from the last shooting, we faced the terrible sight of so many dead natives and this time wild dogs had joined the [wild] pigs tearing the bodies to pieces. Once again Jonathan had the job of burying them.

So unrestrained and notorious was Mark’s continued killing spree that Walker himself intervened to remove him from the district. Nevertheless, Crown Land Commissioner Richard Bligh, whose responsibility it was to investigate every killing of an Aborigine, found it impossible to prosecute Mark and others widely known as having committed similar crimes against ‘tame blacks’. Aborigines (even the Aboriginal troopers) could not give proper evidence in court, and amongst the white settlers there was a conspiracy of silence. The lessons of the Myall Creek murderers’ trials in late 1838 had been well learned: no white man would swing again for killing blacks. It is significant that so many of the squatters and white workers in the Maranoa were from the Liverpool Plains: ‘Old Hands’ or veterans of an earlier and no less bitter frontier war. Joseph Fleming, for example, was the brother of John Fleming, the principal ringleader of the Myall Creek and other likely massacres on the Gwydir.

It is difficult to balk at ‘warfare’ as the appropriate term for what was happening as the pastoral frontier moved rapidly from the Gwydir to the Balonne and the Maranoa in the late 1840s. Despite the subtitle of his book, Collins settles somewhat cautiously in his introduction for ‘ruthless competition’. However, he has no doubts about the military leadership of a Mandandanji elder variously referred to as ‘Possum Murray’, ‘Eaglehawk’, ‘Old Billy’ and (probably authentically) Bussamarai.

In this redoubtable figure he has discovered one of the ‘missing’ ­Aboriginal leaders referred to by W.E.H. Stanner as ‘of outstanding, even of commanding, character and personality … [who] having no office or title or rank, nevertheless had sway over large regions and numbers …’. Some of Collins’ ‘sightings’ of ­Bussamarai in the written evidence seem to be guesswork and he may well be attributing to him more generalship than he was ever capable of exerting. Indeed, Collins admits that another significant leader, Oorumunde, may sometimes have been confused with him. To say that ­Bussamarai was an influential figure in an area the size of England—from the lower Condamine to the upper Warrego—may be straining credibility somewhat. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that he was able to unite the Bigambul and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji in concerted efforts to drive out the whites, sometimes involving pitched battles with the Native Police. ‘The Great Fear’ felt by the squatters and their servants was of just this demonstrated unity against them. To give him his due, Walker’s policy was to insist that once a group of Aborigines was ‘pacified’ they should be allowed on the stations to find their livelihood. ­However, there were many station hands who ­preferred to shoot them on sight rather than take a risk.

The second half of Collins’ book is more difficult to follow than the first and one or two chapters might well have been omitted. The story of the Native Police and its complicated politics, together with long disquisitions on Gideon Scott Lang and Roderick Mitchell, serve to obscure the relatively clear narrative line maintained earlier. The focus on frontier warfare is sometimes almost lost. At the same time, the geographical area of study expands beyond the reader’s easy grasp.

Collins is a psychologist by training, not an historian, and his professional interest has been in group dynamics. He says that he avoided contact with historians and anthropologists and preferred to come to his subject via the writings of people like Eric Berne and Claude Steiner on the links between history and ‘effective psychology’. The significance of this is not clear, but he certainly immersed himself in the primary resources for what seems to have been a long labour of love. The empirical basis of his work is sound and it would be churlish to complain of the absence of any over-arching theory. However, he tells us nothing about the group dynamics that made Bussamarai’s leadership possible and very little about the psychology of the squatters and their often n’er-do-well servants. It would have been useful to be told more about the ­original size of the Indigenous population and what latter-day anthropology can suggest about its economy and social organisation. Instead, there is a wealth of narrative detail which sometimes leaves the reader reeling. This is a local history, but it is the history of a very large area, upon which is superimposed the history of the Native Police. And the maps provided are not clear enough to be very useful.

That there were significant ­massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and ­Yamboucal in May 1852 is fairly clear to this reader, but the evidence is largely ­circumstantial. On the other hand, there are indications of official cover-ups and careful ‘weeding’ of the Native Police records at the time to avoid higher ­scrutiny and to protect reputations. The context carefully developed by Collins strongly suggests that the massacres took place and that they were well known in the area. A determined sceptic (Windschuttle inevitably comes to mind) is unlikely to be satisfied unless eyewitness accounts of massacres can be produced, but what was the likelihood of white observers putting pen to paper about bloody events in which they were likely to have been complicit? Margaret Young’s testimony is a rare window into a lost reality. Another is Gideon Scott Lang’s second-hand description of the corroboree near Surat in late 1849 that he called Eaglehawk’s ‘Opera’. Designed to intimidate the white audience in its depiction of their imminent defeat and expulsion (no doubt to some effect), it was fated to be no more than wishful thinking on Bussamarai’s part. One of the worst massacres of ‘station blacks’ was to take place nearby just three years later.

An interesting conceit which ­Collins raises in his introduction is the ­congruence in experience of the Irish and the Aborigines and their consequent affinities in colonial Australia. The story of Paddy McEnroe, the 1798 United Irish rebel, and his Aboriginal ménage at Mount Abundance is a fascinating one. He seems to have found a unique rapport with the Mandandanji at a time when the entire district was on the verge of desertion by the whites in the face of their hostility. Almost certainly, this flowed from his long-term relationship with an unnamed Aboriginal woman and ­acceptance of the associated kin obligations.

However, it also seems likely that he took part in the vendetta waged earlier by his employer Alan MacPherson and the policeman Jack Durbin, after the killing of the former’s servants by Mandandanji. At a broader level, Collins’ suggestion that inaction over the Great Famine in Ireland and ­failure to protect Aborigines from the squatters of New South Wales both ­exemplified British government ­‘frugality’ is not very convincing, but there can be little argument with his statement that ‘different British governments allowed British citizens to take over and to ­profiteer from Aboriginal and Irish land’.

Collins attempts to find a poetic ­reconciliation for the actors in his tragic and at times devastating narrative, expressing the hope that ‘somewhere they [McEnroe and Bussamarai] may have living common descendants’. Writing as an optimistic group psychologist and ­passionate Irish-Australian rather than sceptical historian, this is his notion of how it might all be viewed in the future:
From another perspective, sometime in the distant future, the regional conflicts will almost certainly form the core of consensually shared Australian legends. Heroes from both sides will be warmly remembered and their deeds will be as celebrated as those of Brian Boru and Robert Bruce. If this should be so, the regional struggles between Indigenous Australians and the settlers can validly be compared with events such as the Anglo-Norman invasions of the ancient Celtic kingdoms.

What would the descendants of the Mandandanji have to say about that, I wonder? The absence of their voices is part of the deafening silence historians have to deal with. It is reassuring that Collins has subsequently been able to tell his story to descendants in the Roma area and find that they were just as interested in their white ancestors as their black forebears. One claimed descent from Bussamarai and was intrigued by the thought that he might also be descended from Paddy McEnroe, transported appropriately enough in the Friendship. 

Goodbye Bussamarai: The Mandandanji Land War, Southern Queensland 1842-1852,
Patrick Collins. University of Queensland Press, 2002. isbn 0 7022 3293 9, rrp $34.00

Bob Reece is Associate Professor in ­History at Murdoch Univeristy. His book Aborigines and Colonists (1974) ­Sydney University Press provided the first detailed account of the Myall Creek  Massacre of 1838.



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Existing comments

Hi i found this article interisting as iam a mandandanji desended i did not know this info i thank from my heart and i will follow this up to teach my chrildren. Thank you Richard Manns (MANDANDANJI)

Richard Manns | 02 December 2009  

Hi my Great great great Grandfather is Bassamurri my family's linage is very strong Mandandanji

Kevin duncan | 30 April 2016  

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