167 p. & notes, 2018
The name should have been a give-away. “Myall” was an old term for “aboriginal” and it was to be expected that any outback station called “Myall Creek” would have – or used to have- a noticeable indigenous presence. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 1838, eleven armed stockmen, most of whom were expired or convict labourers, rode into Henry Danger’s Myall Creek station near Invernell in north-east New South Wales. Henry Dangar himself was absent; as were the overseer and senior stockmen. The stockmen dismounted and entered a hut where they brought out about thirty Wirrayaraay old people, women and children who had sought refuge there on hearing the stockmen ride in. They led them out, tied with a leather strap, and took them away. Shots rang out; then the stockmen rode away. They returned the next day to burn twenty-eight bodies.
It was an appalling crime, and we know about it because the perpetrators actually faced court, and seven white men were hanged. The massacre itself was not exceptional: massacres had occurred prior to Myall Creek, and they continued afterwards. But the case was marked with controversy, both from observers appalled by it, and squatters and settlers outraged by its legal consequences. It was the last time in the nineteenth century that white perpetrators of frontier massacres were convicted and hanged.
In 2000 a permanent memorial was erected at Myall Creek. Eight years later the Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site were added to the National Heritage List. This book, comprising a number of essays by both indigenous and non-indigenous authors, was published for the 180th anniversary. The academic historians represented here – Lyndall Ryan, Jane Lydon, Anna Johnston and John Maynard – are all well-respected within the academy. The earlier chapters focus on the massacre event itself. The final three chapters focus on Myall Creek within the songlines and trading networks of indigenous groups the length of the east coast of Australia and tease out issues of memorialization and reconciliation. The book evokes the harshness of distance and the impunity it confers in Warwick Thornton’s film Sweet Country, even though that was set in a different place some eighty years later.
If you’re not familiar with the Myall Creek massacre, you will be by the time you finish this book, which gives a clear account of the event and the men involved. I did know about it – my own Judge Willis was bobbing around in the background as one of the members of the NSW Supreme Court, but I have been guilty of the “failure of imagination” that Paul Keating spoke of in his Redfern Speech. This book shows that it was all there: unarmed, defenseless, frightened old women and children; white onlookers too intimidated to intervene; wide distances adding a sense of menace, and averted eyes that cloaked these stockmen with the arrogance of impunity.
In Chapter 1 Lyndall Ryan focuses on Henry Dangar, the absentee owner of the Myall Creek station, who chose not to support his employees who reported the crime. In Chapter 2, Patsy Withycombe points out that the ringleader, John Fleming, was the only one of the eleven stockmen who was not a serving or former convict, and he escaped punishment altogether, protected by local squatters. In Chapter 3, Jane Lydon places the international and humanitarian response within the anti-slavery context of the 1830s, focussing particularly on the widely circulated engraving of the prologue to the massacre titled ‘Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts’ by ‘Phiz’, better known for his illustrations of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Chapter 4 looks at the more local response where Anna Johnston examines Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ published in December 1838 and later put to music by Isaac Nathan in 1842. In Chapter 5 Lyndall Ryan asks of the massacre “Was it typical of the time?”. Building on her work on the Massacre Map, she points out that it was. All the perpetrators had been involved in other massacres. It was not unusual for incidents to take place in daylight, or be led by a settler. It was not unusual to tie the victims together and lead them to the site where they would be slaughtered, or burn their bodies afterwards. Such atrocities have their own sickening rhythm and recurrences. Chapter 5, which has multiple authors, links the Myall Creek massacre with another massacre at the Wonomo waterhole, and argues that trade networks and songlines made it possible for different aboriginal groups along the eastern coast of Australia to be forewarned of the struggle which would soon extend to their area too. Chapter 6 ‘Myall Creek Memories’ is a reflection by John Maynard on being asked to give the commemorative address- the first by a non-indigenous historian – in 2015. Chapter 8 co-written by Jessica Neath and Brook Andrew is a compilation of interviews with advisors, architects, academics and scholars of cultural memory, over the question of how Myall Creek should be memorialized (if, indeed it should be) and its relation with other memory-sites related the Holocaust and Genocide. The book is framed by a prologue by Sue Blacklock and John Brown who worked on a reconciliation and covenant relationship between the Uniting Church and ATSI people in 1992. It closes with Mark Tedeschi’s QC’s address delivered in 2017, both as Chief Crown Prosecutor for NSW and the author of his own more legally-oriented account of the massacre and its legal aftermath.
This is an excellent book. The chapters are engagingly written, and if the chapter by Jessica Neath was perhaps a bit tedious in its format, it raised some interesting questions. It makes me wonder: will I live long enough for Australians and their governments to have the maturity and humility to look at the white settler past, and actually do something about an honest recognition and reconciliation that must come one day?
I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.