Myall Creek: A massacre and a reconciliation

On the 175th anniversary of a ghastly massacre of Aboriginal people, a survivor's descendants have found hope -- from a surprising source.

Sometimes, even in real life, the most horrific stories can have an uplifting -- if not exactly happy -- ending.


In this case, it's taken most of two centuries to get there, but it's happened.


The story is set about 20 minutes' drive these days outside the north-eastern New South Wales town of Inverell.


Ron Sutton has the story.


There were the massacres at aptly named Slaughterhouse Creek, at historic-sounding Waterloo Creek.


There were the massacres at places like Cataract Gorge, Convincing Ground, Murdering Gully, Blackfella's Creek.


In all, from the early 1800s until as late as the 1940s, white settlers massacred tens of thousands of Aboriginal people across Australia.


But there was only one Myall Creek.


"(What) makes Myall Creek stand out is that it's the only place where perpetrators have been tried and convicted and hanged. Seven out of eight were hanged. That makes it a special place."


Lyall Munro would know all about it.


Friendly stockmen hid his great-great-grandfather, John Munro, and his brother, sparing them from the slaughter that killed 28 people that day in north-eastern New South Wales.


175 years ago, on June 10, a gang of stockmen led by a squatter rode into Myall Creek station and took an unarmed group of women, children and old men.


The group had been invited to stay at the station weeks earlier to protect them from marauding stockmen roaming the region, killing any Aboriginal people they could find.


But that day, while the younger Aboriginal men were cutting bark at a neighbouring station, the gang attacked.


They tied their captives to a long tether rope, led them to a gully less than a kilometre away, then slaughtered them, mostly by sword, and set the bodies alight.


A trial later revealed the gruesome details: the children were beheaded, the men and women forced to run through a line of sword-swinging stockmen slashing them as they passed.


But the trial, Lyall Munro repeats, is the only thing that made the Myall Creek massacre different.


"First place white man's justice done some good. Right across Australia, there were massacres. What makes Myall Creek real is that people were hanged, see. That was the difference."


Newspaper coverage at the time provides a hint of why Myall Creek stands alone.


After a neighbouring landholder heard about the massacre and rode 600 kilometres to Sydney to tell the governor, a trial was convened in Sydney.


The Sydney Morning Herald was not impressed.


"The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly (court) documents."


With no bodies, no witnesses besides the 11 men themselves, and intense community support, the jury took just 15 minutes to find them not guilty.


One juror was quoted later in The Australian.


"I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and, the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better ... I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black."


But the attorney-general requested the prisoners be held on further charges over the matter, and a second trial convicted the seven men who were tried again.


Hence, they were hanged.


The massacres did not stop with Myall Creek -- they just grew more secretive, less documented, to avoid such legal consequences ever again.


But the Myall Creek story does not stop with the massacre either.


Enter another descendant of John Munro, Sue Blacklock, who first heard the story from her parents around the campfire when she was six or seven years old.


She broke down in tears when she heard it, thinking of the babies, and says she and her siblings grew up unable to shake a deep-seated fear.


"We were always taught not to trust anyone, especially white people. And we just had that fear embedded in us that they were going to do the same to us as kids that they did to our ancestors."


Sue Blacklock grew up to become matriarch of a prominent family, though, and, several years ago, approached a Uniting Church reconciliation group about commemorating Myall Creek.


Into the story comes another descendant from the massacre, Des Blake.


Des Blake was working as a bank manager about four hours' drive from Myall Creek when a customer asked him one day if he was any relation to John Blake.


That is, John Blake, one of those 11 assigned convicts and former convicts riding with the squatter who escaped justice, John Fleming, on that fateful day in 1838.


Des Blake had no idea if he was related, no idea John Blake was a convict, no idea something called the Myall Creek massacre even happened.


But a cousin's research would soon show it was all true, and he decided to approach the group that, by then, was planning the dedication of a memorial at the site.


He wanted to meet the Aboriginal descendants.


Unimaginably, Des Blake, whose ancestor did not face the second trial but later slit his own throat, and Beulah Adams, whose great-uncle did hang, would become key parts of the story.


Both have spoken out, both have regularly attended the remembrances.


Sue Blacklock remembers the tears the first time she and Beulah Adams talked -- and embraced.


"When Beulah Adams asked me to forgive them, and I said yes, well, it was just like, um ... I just wanted to cry. Because it was so emotional, you know? Just to know that somebody would come back to ask me to forgive them. It's always the other way around. We had to forgive and say that they were sorry for what they'd done, you know? It's really touched me. I was touched by that."


Des Blake has been deeply moved, too, both by the idyllic valley that beheld such violence and by what he has heard.


Or, more particularly, what others had heard.


"The Aboriginal people always maintained, when we first started, that they could hear their people talking all the time and they were very disturbed. But, now, they say that they're quite happy and they've calmed down. And one of the people who organised it, the secretary of it, she told me before she'd gone overseas that she could hear ... hear the message sort of thing up there. So it's a very spiritual place."


Des Blake has taken six different grandchildren to the commemorations over the years, trying to pass the understanding on to further generations.


He, too, has experienced a deeply emotional reaction when he apologised for what was done all those years ago.


And, yet, one moment he remembers most clearly happened away from Myall Creek.


It happened at the launch of a book on reconciliation that he was attending in New South Wales' Blue Mountains.


A woman approached him, asked if he was Des Blake and said she had heard him talking in the past.


"And she said, 'Well, I heard you say anyone whose people were on the land in those days who think that their people weren't guilty, either by carrying out massacres or by hushing them up, hiding it, well, they're kidding themselves.' And she said, 'When you said that,' -- she said, 'And my people were on the land in those days' -- 'we were quite upset about it. But, since then, we've gone into our family history, and we realise, well, you were right, that we did do that.' And she said, 'I have now joined an Aboriginal reconciliation group.' So I thought, 'Well, there's someone that I've been able to ... you know ... show something.'"


Lyall Munro says what has taken place at Myall Creek is the best form of reconciliation he has ever seen.


And he says the rest of Australia needs to have a good look at it.


"Australia has got to have a long, hard look at itself now that the word racism seems to be raising its ugly head right across Australia, especially in sport. That never existed before in my days of sport. They'd call you one or two names, but it wasn't the names that cause as much problems as they're causing now and racism."


Sue Blacklock, whose son Nathan went on to achieve fame in rugby league, can attest to what reconciliation can mean for a person.


"It lifted a burden off of my heart and off of my shoulders to know that we can come together in unity, come together and talk in reconciliation to one another and show that it can work, that we can live together and that we can forgive. And it really just makes me feel light. I have found I have no more heaviness on my soul."


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