Explainer: What was the Myall Creek Massacre?

One of the most well known examples of frontier war violence, the Myall Creek Massacre is often remembered as the first case where the European perpetrators were brought to trial and eventually hanged for the murders of Aboriginal people. 

This photograph is taken from the ridge where the massacre occurred, looking down towards the old station. 

Background
01
5

The Myall Creek massacre occurred 50 years after Europeans arrived in Sydney Harbour. As the colony grew and the Blue Mountains were crossed, the vast plains beyond were quickly divided up into stations. Squatters also began to set up sheep and cattle stations beyond the official land grants of the colony, using convict labour ‘assigned’ to them by the Government. The Myall Creek station, about 550km north of Sydney, was owned by Henry Dangar, a government surveyor on the Liverpool Plains. 

The arrival of the First Fleet brought European colonisers into conflict with the Aboriginal people already living on the land. The expansion of the colonies and competition for land and resources amplified conflict on the frontiers and the Colonial Administration ordered settlers to defend themselves. As Aboriginal people were increasingly viewed as a threat, some settlers took the law into their own hand and by 1838, a number of battles and massacres had already taken place.

After four settlers were killed at stations on the Liverpool Plains in 1837 the acting Governor dispatched troops to ‘suppress these outrages’. Though the troops returned to Sydney, groups of local stock-men continued to drive Aboriginal people off the land. 

What are the Frontier Wars?
The Frontier Wars refer to conflicts between Europeans and Aboriginal people including battles, acts of resistance and open massacres.

The Massacre
02
5

On the 10 June 1838, eleven stockmen lead by squatter John Fleming arrived at the Myall Creck station. Near the station huts, approximately 35 Wirrayaraay people of the Kamilaroi nation were camping. Many of them were well-known on the local stations and had been given English names such as ‘Sandy’ and ‘Daddy’. They had been invited there by Charles Kilmeister, a convict stockman, after they were forced to move away from another station for their safety. 

When the stockmen arrived the Aboriginal people rushed into the station hut and asked for protection. The station keeper George Anderson, in the absence of the manager William Hobbs, spoke to the stockmen about what they wanted with the Aboriginal people.

They replied that they were going to "take them over the back of the range and frighten them.” The stockmen, joined by Charles Kilmeister, then tied the Wirrayaraay people up and led them away to a gully where they were killed.

Approximately 28 were murdered including men, women and children. George Anderson, who did not take part, reported hearing two shots being fired and when the stockmen returned, saw their swords red with blood.

Ten young Wirrayaraay men who had been cutting bark on a neighbouring station escaped harm, however they returned to Myall Creek station that night and were told the news. The stockmen initially pursued the young men but after being unable to find them they returned to the site of the massacre and burned the bodies of their kin before leaving.

When the station manager William Hobbs returned days later he discovered the 28 bodies. The local Police Magistrate Edward Day was informed and conducted an investigation, arresting 11 of the 12 stockmen, with leader John Fleming escaping.

 

Advertisement
The Trials
03
5

The first trial began on 15 November 1838 and was heard before the Chief Justice of New South Wales. The prosecution was led by the New South Wales Attorney-General John Plunkett and the eleven accused were represented by three of the best barristers, paid for at the expense of landowners on the Liverpool Plains including Henry Dangar, the owner of Myall Creek.

George Anderson was the key witness and his testimony was supported by Williams Hobbes and Police Investigator Magistrate Day. The judge took care to remind the jury that there was no distinction in the law between the murder of an Aboriginal person or a European. However, the defence relied on the fact that the bodies could not be accurately identified and the jury returned a verdict of 'not guilty'.

Seven of the men were tried again under a new judge were found guilty. All seven, including Charles Kilmeister, were sentenced to death after their petitions for clemency were refused. The hanging was carried out in December 1838 and caused controversy across the colony. 

Petition calls for official Frontier Wars Remembrance Day
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy launches petition to recognise and remember 'those Sovereign Tribal Original People who were slaughtered during the colonisation of Australia'.

Significance
04
5

While the massacre was by no means unique and the deaths of Aboriginal Australians continued on the frontiers of the colony, the case reaffirmed that in principle Aboriginal people were to be held equal before the law. 

What are the Frontier Wars?
The Frontier Wars refer to conflicts between Europeans and Aboriginal people including battles, acts of resistance and open massacres.

The event heightened racial tensions in the colony and in discussions about whether Europeans should be hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the hangings were ‘judicial murder’ and ‘the whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly [court] documents.’ However, The Australian newspaper wrote that ‘the interests of humanity, the character of the colony and the honour of the British are outraged… whoever be the perpetrator, the murder is most foul and unnatural.’

The public prosecution of these men also led to some attacks against Aboriginal people being driven 'underground'. Massacres were committed using poisoned flour or water, making it harder to trace, and bodies were better concealed after violence. Some stations on the frontiers also choose to protect their fellow stockmen, so many massacres are believed to have never been reported. 

Advertisement
Memorial
05
5

In 2000, the Myall Creek Memorial Committee Committee opened a rock memorial and plaque, 162 years after the original massacre. The site was included on the National Heritage List in June, 2008. 

Every year a service is held at the memorial and brings together the descendants of the victims, survivors and perpetrators of the massacre.

How can we achieve reconciliation? Myall Creek offers valuable answers
COMMENT: This weekend, hundreds of people will make the pilgrimage to the small town of Bingara on the NSW North West slopes and plains, for the annual commemoration of the Myall Creek Massacre.

The bronze plaque at the Memorial Site reads:

In memory of the Wirrayaraay 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 acknowledgment of the truth of our shared history. We Remember them (Ngiyani winangay ganunga).