by Ted Stubbins
This is a place of mourning, of learning, of healing and of hope.
The memorial honours those Wirrayaraay people who were cruelly murdered nearby, on the late afternoon of Sunday June 10th 1838.
The memorial was erected by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians and dedicated on June 10th 2000. This was an act of acknowledgement of our shared history. From acknowledgement and education, the search for reconciliation is strengthened.
Indeed, I believe it is in the interest of all of the people of our nation, that our true history is more widely known.
Not an isolated event.
When I was a school boy in the 1950s and 1960s, the Myall Creek massacre was described in the history books as a horrible event during the settlement of Australia by the British. I was left with the impression that it was an isolated event. Whilst studying to become a teacher, I cannot recall learning much about Aboriginal people and how they came to be dispossessed.
In fact, it was not until I became a high school teacher and led the students of my school on a visit to another school, that I actually saw and met any Aboriginal people.
As a high school teacher of history, I taught about the explorers and the diggers and pioneers and the development of trade unionism and democracy and so on.
As a high school teacher of English, I introduced the poem The Conquest by Les Murray to my classes. It traces the rapid deterioration in the attitudes of the newcomers towards Aboriginal people, which occurred in the first decades of settlement. Later, when I learned more about the Myall Creek massacre, I remembered this poem. It helps to explain the ferocity of the attacks on Aborigines.
The ancient ways of life and attachment to country of the Aborigines were not understood or much valued by most newcomers. Aborigines were demonized in public opinion and spoken of as savages.
It was not until I met Mr Len Payne of Bingara in about 1989, that I heard that the Myall Creek massacre was not an isolated event. I learned more from the book Waterloo Creek – The Australia Day massacre of 1838 by Roger Milliss.
I heard from Len, that the Aborigines at Myall Creek station had settled there some weeks before the massacre and were seeking refuge from the attacks that were occurring in the area. There had been a series of massacres leading up to Myall Creek.
On Sunday, June 10th 1838, the overseer was absent from the station, and most of the Aboriginal menfolk were helping a settler strip bark. There were convivial relations between the group of Aborigines and the overseer and convict workmen.The group of murderers, who arrived mounted on horseback, in the late afternoon, were probably some of those who had been hunting and killing Aborigines for months. They were a group of young convict assigned servants and a young free man from a station further west.
I think this group had developed a lust for extreme violence and killing and saw the people at Myall Creek as easy prey. Perhaps they felt justified in attacking Aborigines because public opinion was generally against Aborigines.
The convict members of this group seem to have been able to be away from their assigned masters and places of servitude, with few questions asked as to what they had been doing.
The importance of Frederick Foot
However, not all settlers condoned the actions of this group. One man who was appalled by the atrocity at Myall Creek, was Frederick Foot a landholder, south of what is now Bingara. I have great respect for Mr Foot. Two weeks after the massacre and against the tenor of the times, he set out to take word to the authorities. He went to Sydney and the recently arrived Governor Gipps acted on the information. Gipps had been given instructions by the British government to stop the attacks on Aborigines.
There were other people who acted conscientiously and honourably in investigating and bringing some of the murderers to justice; and in withstanding the pressure and intimidation of those who tried to prevent the facts being discovered.
However, it was Mr Foot who was the whistle blower. If he had not travelled to Sydney with his information, the Myall Creek massacre might never have been revealed. If there had been more people like Mr Foot, there may have been fewer massacres in Australia.
For, unfortunately, the massacres continued for decades after Myall Creek. Indeed, it is likely that the Myall Creek trial and subsequent executions actually led to more massacres in the short term. Aboriginal people, having heard of the trials and executions and thinking they were protected by the law, may have become more assertive in taking livestock. The owners of the livestock resorted to violence to stop this. However, there were no more whistle blowers. A code of silence became established practice of those who attacked and killed Aborigines.
As the pastoral industry expanded throughout Australia, so did the dispossession of the Aboriginal people. Sometimes this dispossession was accompanied by killings. It seems that sometimes killings occurred even when newcomers and Aborigines had been living in close proximity for extended periods. This aspect of Australian history is not widely known and acknowledged.
The Myall Creek memorial has great national significance. At the site of this one massacre that was investigated and the perpetrators brought to trial, it is fitting that we acknowledge that there were many more massacres that were never investigated.
I believe this will form part of the Education and Cultural Centre which the committee hopes to erect. I also think the road from Myall Creek to Maitland should be called The Foot Way.
Hope for the Future
At the opening of the memorial in 2000, descendants of one of the boys who escaped the massacre and descendants of some of the perpetrators, embraced. The photo of their embrace received nation-wide media coverage.
These descendants of both sides have continued to support the annual gathering for the 12 years since. One man brings his grandchildren each year. They participate in the annual ceremony as do students from most local high schools.
We are indebted to Reverend Doctor John Brown of the Uniting Church and Mr Lyall Munro for their continuing leadership of the Myall Creek Memorial Committee.
We hope the work of the committee continues past our time.
can contact Ted Stubbins
Colin Isaacs © Copyright 2012