The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 15

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The outbreak mentioned in the foregoing chapters of this book was but the climax to a state of things which had continued, in a mitigated degree, for some years previously. The event which is now to be described was, in fact, an occurrence in what may be termed a previous outbreak of the whites. For a considerable period the settlers in the remote districts had suffered to some extent from the depredations occasionally committed by the blacks, when the latter, driven by necessity, assailed the flocks and herds of the former, for the purpose of obtaining the ordinary means of subsistence. In the encounters which resulted from these depredations lives were sometimes sacrificed, and not unfrequently shepherds, hutkeepers, and stockmen paid with their existence their fidelity to the interests of their employers or masters. This course of events could not long continue to progress unchecked. The evils which the settlers suffered, and which every resident in the interior more or less felt, were too severe for endurance, much less were the men who at that period formed the bulk of the country population likely to remain passive spectators while their companions and neighbours were slaughtered and their property destroyed, no matter under what circumstances. The instinct of self-preservation gave rise to a general feeling on the part of the Europeans that something must be done to show the aborigines that they acted at once contrary to good policy and contrary to European law in assailing the lives and properties of the colonists—that they were assailing those who possessed the power to retaliate in a fearful manner. Accordingly, after the settlers had recovered from the panic into which they had been thrown by the first attacks which they sustained, a general system of armed defence, which sometimes proceeded as far as retaliation and aggression, was adopted.

It may be mentioned here that, in pursuance of the requirements of the Protectorate established in 1839, many of the settlers and squatters deprived their men of all firearms and other weapons which might be used in an offensive manner against the aborigines. Nothing, it was alleged by the partizans of the settlers, could have been more unwise than this course. The shepherd and others, finding themselves completely at the mercy of their enemies the blacks, became more fearful of them, and, as a natural consequence of their fear, contracted an inveterate hatred towards the entire race. On the other hand, the knowledge of the disarmament of the men at the stations, which soon spread throughout the interior, rendered the aborigines more audacious in their depredations. The result was that the Europeans, deprived of the ordinary means of resistance, had recourse even to extraordinary means of retaliation and resentment. Some poisonous drugs, used in the treatment of diseases among sheep and cattle, were mixed in the floor of "dampers," and these being divided among the more troublesome or more ferocious of the hostile or suspected tribes, produced in a more quiet manner the same fatal results as powder and ball. This latter mode of proceeding has been strongly denied on the part of the settlers and their men, and as strongly re-asserted on behalf of the aborigines. To an unbiassed mind, however, the charge does not appear by any means unfounded or improbable, when it is considered to what a height the evil passions of the whites had been excited by the aggressions of the aborigines and by the deprivation of those arms by which alone they could hope to defend themselves in open and fair fight.

Be the truth of these matters as it may, it is certain that the settlers and their servants, at length driven to extreme courses by the dread under which they lived, and by the sanguinary attacks which they sometimes had to sustain, resolved to take the most effectual course for putting an end to the evils which they endured, and, arming themselves as best they could, formed parties of offence and defence. An expedition made by one of these parties, which ended in the "Myall Creek massacre," it is which is now to be described. Myall Creek is situated in the Hunter River district, and the transaction in question took place in 1839. The circumstances of the case are briefly these: A number of stockmen and shepherds in the district, being enraged at some depredations committed among the cattle and sheep for which they were held responsible, sallied out in force, and coming on an obnoxious tribe at their camping place, on a squatter's station, seized the entire body, and marching them to a lonely spot, put them all to death, under circumstances of most appalling atrocity. The magistrates in the district, being made aware of the circumstances, had the men supposed to be implicated arrested and sent to Sydney, where, on a second trial, having been previously acquitted, they were, seven in number, found guilty of murder, and executed. The following evidence, adduced on one of the trials which took place in Sydney, contains the chief particulars of the transaction, which was marked by such terrible consequences:—

"George A——— deposed: I am assigned servant to Mr. D———; I was at his station at Myall Creek as hutkeeper in June; Mr. H———, who lives there as superintendent, left home to go to the Big River in the beginning of June; when he left there were some native blacks there; I have said there were twenty, and I am sure there were that number and upwards; I would not swear there were not forty. While master was away, some men came on a Saturday, about ten; I cannot say how many days after master left; they came on horseback, all armed with muskets, swords, and pistols; I was at home when they came, with the stock-keeper; I was sitting with Kilmeister, the stockkeeper, in the hut; I saw them coming up; they came up galloping, with guns and pistols pointing towards the hut; I did not attend to what they said; they were talking to Kilmeister outside. I know Russell, Salouse, Foley, Johnstone, Hawkins, Kilmeister, Palliser, Lamb, and Oates; Blake and Parry I do not know; about ten came up to the hut, as near as I could tell; I will not swear Parry was not of the number, but I did not see him; I never saw any of them before then except Kilmeister; I cannot say which came up first; they were all spread about. The blacks were all encamped, ready for the night; they were not more than two yards from the hut; this was about an hour and a half before sundown; there were plenty of women and children amongst the blacks. The blacks, when they saw the men coming, ran into our hut, and the men then, all of them, got off their horses, and Russell had a rope which goes round a horse's neck, and began to undo it, whilst the blacks were in the hut. While he was undoing it, I asked what they were going to do with the blacks, and Russell said, 'We are going to take them over the back of the range, to frighten them;' Russell and some one or two went in; I only took notice of Russell going in while the blacks were in; I remained outside; one of them remained in; I heard the crying of the blacks for relief or assistance to me and Kilmeister; they were moaning, the same as a mother and children would cry; there were small things that could not walk; there were a good many small boys and girls; after they were tied, I saw Russell bring the end of the rope out they were tied with, and give it to one of the men on horseback; the party then went away with the blacks; the man who took the rope from Russell went in front, and the others behind; all the blacks were tied fast together with the rope; they were tied by the hands, and one blackfellow had on a pair of handcuffs; the rope with which they were fastened was a very long tether rope for horses in a field; they brought out the whole, except two, who made their escape when the men were coming up; they were two little boys, and they jumped into the creek close to the hut; there was no water in it, and they escaped at a dry part; one black gin they left with me in the hut; they left her because she was good-looking; they said so; another black gin they left that was with Davy, another blackfellow who was with me; there was a little child at the back of the hut, when they were tying the party, and when the blacks and party were going away, this little child, as I thought, was going to follow the party with its mother, but I took hold of it, and put it into the hut, and stopped it from going; I had two little boys, the small child, two gins, and Davy and Billy; they all went away except these; the child was going after its mother. There was an old man named Daddy, the oldest of the lot; he was called Old Daddy; he was an old, big, tall man; this Daddy, and another old man named Joey, they never tied along with the rest; they were crying, and did not want to go; they made no resistance. Some of the children were not tied; others were; they followed the rest that were tied; the small ones, two or three, were not able to walk; the women carried them on their backs in opossum skins; the small children were not tied that followed the mob; they were all crying in and out of the hut till they got out of my hearing; they went up towards the west from the hut, the road way. Kilmeister got his horse ready, after he had done talking to them, and just before they were going to start; he went with them on horseback, and took the pistol with him; he was talking to them five or ten minutes; I did not take notice what he said; I was frightened; I did not pay any attention to what they were talking about. Oates had a pistol; I know Foley; he had a pistol in his hand, standing at the door, while the blacks were inside; I did not take any notice of swords and pistols at first; at a distance, when they were galloping up, I saw swords and pistols; they were not in sight above a minute or so after they went away; in about a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes at the outside, I heard the report of two pieces, one after the other; the reports came from the same direction they went; the second was quite plain for anyone to hear; I only heard two; I did not hear anything else but these two shots; it was just before sundown. Next night after the same men came back to the hut where they took the blacks from; they were all together of a lump, except Kilmeister, who was left behind; one of the party gave me Kilmeister's saddle off his horse, and I asked him where Kilmeister was; he came in about twenty minutes after; they stopped all night; I and Kilmeister slept together in one berth; the rest all slept in the hut; they were talking; I cannot recollect what they said; next morning three of them, after they had breakfast, took firesticks out of the hut—Russell, Fleming, and Kilmeister; before they took the firesticks Fleming told Kilmeister to bring the leg-rope with him that ropes the cows; Kilmeister asked me for the leg-rope, and I gave it to him, and they went in the direction that they took the blacks; one of the men was left behind, and all the rest went with those who had the firesticks; one was left with me as guard, named Foley; while they were away Foley and I were in the hut together and the rest away; during the time they were away I asked Foley if any of the blacks had made their escape; he said none that he saw; he said all were killed except one black gin; before the party came back Foley drew one of the swords out of the case and showed it to me; it was all over blood; during that time Davy and Billy came to the hut; in about an hour the other man came back to the hut; I saw smoke in the same direction they went; this was soon after they went with the firesticks; I do not recollect what they said when they came back; they got upon their horses, and Fleming told Kilmeister to go up by-and-by and put the logs of wood together, and be sure that all were consumed; I do not recollect his saying anything; some of them were in the hut and must have heard it. Kilmeister, directly after the party went from the station, went in the same direction, and brought back the horse he had left behind. The smoke was up from the creek—up the ranges; never went to the place; I did not like to go; Davy went, and he came back; Kilmeister was away in the middle of the day; he said the horse was knocked up and not able to walk; I saw him; he could catch him anywhere. I saw the smoke pretty well all day; at first there was a great smoke; in the after part of the day there was not much. I was there when Mr. D——— came. Kilmeister was at home when the police were coming; in the morning after they went away a piece of a broken sword was found; I saw no blood on it; it did not belong to my station. When the police came Kilmeister was at home, and said, 'For God's sake mind what you say, and not say I went with them, but in a quarter of an hour after them.' They brought back no black gin they saved; the gins they left, and the two boys and the child, I sent away with ten blackfellows who went away in the morning; the same evening the ten blackfellows came back, whom Foster had taken away in the morning, and I turned them (five) away along with those ten; I sent them away as I did not like to keep them, as the men might come back and kill them."

Whatever cause of complaint the settlers may have had, and however much may be conceded to them on the ground of provocation, here is a circumstance, described with a most painful certainty, which puts the Europeans completely "out of court" in respect of their treatment of the aborigines at the period in question. Why, the destruction of all the pastoral wealth of the entire colony would not afford sufficient justification for the unparalleled, the unnatural act of inhumanity detailed above by a Christian witness on his oath! The histories of conquests and of warfares—the wars of sects and the wars of races—furnish instances of atrocity and of cruelty in abundance; but it would be very difficult indeed to find any deed in the history of warfare surpassing in atrocity the Myall Creek massacre. "I heard the crying of the blacks for relief or assistance; they were moaning the same as a mother and children would cry; there were small things that could not walk. . . . There was an old man named Daddy, the oldest of the lot; he was an old, big, tall man; this Daddy, and another old man named Joey, they never tied along with the rest; they were crying and did not want to go; they made no resistance. . . . The small ones, two or three, were not able to walk; the women carried them on their backs in opossum skins." Such are a few of the expressions occurring throughout this dismal detail, which suggest the frightful nature of the entire transaction, and the fiendish spirit of the times. Again, "I saw smoke in the same direction they went." That smoke contained the "voice of a brother's blood, which cried to heaven from the earth," and it is a glorious consolation to know that even then it did not cry in vain—that even when such a fratricide was committed there, there was a power which could and dared avenge it. It is consoling, in fine, to know that this country has not now to atone for such an atrocious deed.

It has been said that the execution of the culprits had the effect of making the aborigines throughout the colony more audacious. But should it not rather be inferred that the hostility on their part which followed was the result of the supposed inadequacy of the punishment—allowing that the legal proceedings and their consequence were understood by the aboriginal tribes? Is it not more probable that the aborigines throughout the colony, learning from various sources the nature and extent of the terrible onslaught made on their brethren, were, in their subsequent hostility, rather actuated by a desire to revenge their death than encouraged by the punishment of their slayers to aggravated deeds of violence?

It was alleged, on the part of the settlers, at the period in question, that the police protection of the colony was insufficient, and that, therefore, the Europeans were entitled to take the law into their own hands. Indeed, the doctrine was seriously laid down by the most influential journal in the colony, in 1839, that, as matters then stood, the slayers of the blacks could not be held responsible. "If," said the Sydney Gazette in December of the above year, "the police force may be insufficient for the due protection of property necessarily exposed to the incursions of the savages, the Government may expect that the law of nature will supersede the statute law; and if lives are sacrificed in the collision, we cannot see by what principle of justice the slayer of his assailant can be held accountable." It can readily be conceived that such sentiments as these, circulating throughout the country, and misconstrued, or imperfectly understood, by those who were ready to seize on the slightest pretext for committing violence, must have been productive of the worst consequences. Whatever of justice or reason, moreover, may appear at first sight to be contained in such doctrines, at once disappears when the other side of the question is glanced at. In an official report on the police of the colony, published also in December, 1839, a gentleman holding a high official appointment states, in evidence, that for a considerable time previously the blacks had been "hunted and fired at like native dogs" by the Europeans at the distant stations. The report further shows that not only were the aboriginal tribes reduced to extreme famine by the encroachments of the colonists on their hunting grounds, and by the extinction of those animals on which they had previously subsisted, but they were utterly debarred from the only other source of subsistence to which they could resort without infringing on the property of the whites—namely, the fish to be found in the rivers and lagoons. For it appears it had become a settled understanding that whenever the aboriginals appeared in the neighbourhood of a river or creek, they were to be fired at as though they were beasts of prey, the obvious reason being that these places were the favourite resorts of the flocks and herds of the settlers. So much had the blacks felt the hardship of this exclusion that, when by the regulations of the Protectorate the right to frequent the localities where fresh water was to be found was restored to them, their joy and gratitude knew no bounds. Thus the conclusion forces itself on every unbiassed mind that, whatever of natural right the aborigines might have had on their side in their occasional acts of aggression, the Europeans were justified by no law in resorting in retaliation to a war of extermination, or to those extreme acts of vengeance which appear to have been of frequent occurrence.

In a discussion which took place in the Legislative Council on the 23rd August, 1840, in which the right of the blacks to frequent the water-holes and rivers was discussed, the late Bishop of Sydney, Dr Broughton, not only maintained that the blacks had a superior claim to the possession of those natural reservoirs, which were so necessary to their sustenance, but held that they were justified in defending them against the inroads of the whites and their flocks and herds. And no one can deny that the arguments of the Bishop were founded on the immutable principles of right and justice. The following were his words:— "The aboriginal natives of the colony, as far as they choose to use it, have an equal, nay, a superior, right to the white men, to subdue and replenish the soil; and anyone who goes among the aborigines and interferes with their natural right of procuring the necessaries of existence is an aggressor, and whatever proceedings may arise out of those acts are chargeable upon him who first gave the provocation. I entertain a hope that one benefit resulting from this discussion will be that we shall never again hear a whisper of the question whether men or animals are to be preserved."