Remembering the Coniston Massacre

A plaque commemorating the Coniston Massacre.

The Coniston Massacre is Australia's most recent and best documented mass killing of Aboriginal people.

Recently, descendants of victims and of murderers came together in a quiet stretch of northeastern New South Wales to remember a massacre.

 

It was known as the Myall Creek Massacre, one of a series of killings of Australia's Aboriginal people by white settlers in predominantly the 19th Century.

 

The descendants were marking the 175th anniversary of the tragedy.

 

Now, in another part of the country, it's the anniversary of another Aboriginal massacre -- but this one happened not even half as long ago.

 

Ron Sutton has the story.

 

 

William Brown is a Warlpiri man living on the quiet banks of the Lander River in the bush 250 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.

 

But there is a disquieting blood in that river that has been there all his life, and it defines much of Mr Brown's life.

 

It is the blood of The Coniston Massacre.

 

"It's about like a Port Arthur Massacre. And the Trade Centre in New York. A Bali bombing. That's the history, you know? This was going back, way back, in 1928. It didn't happen (just) anywhere. It just happened where we stand, on the river, the bank of the river."

 

It is a massacre that changed the contour of Aboriginal life in the centre of Australia, ended a murderous era in Australian history, and, yet, is little-known across Australia today.

 

And it happened just 85 years ago.

 

In August 1928 -- a decade after World War One ended, just before the Great Depression -- the last recorded massacre of the Aboriginal people started with two men and one's wife.

 

When it finished in October, official records show 31 people had died, though some historians suggest the real toll was at least twice as many and possibly well over a hundred.

 

There were Anmatyerre and Kaytetye people, but, mostly, there were Warlpiri, and William Brown says it devastated the Warlpiri nation.

 

"All the Warlpiri now live around Australia, because they ran away. Like, remember the rabbit. Rabbits went everywhere in South Australia. We are the people like them."

 

An anthropologist based in Alice Springs, Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, has collected oral histories from the Warlpiri women, including survivors of the massacre.

 

She lived in the town of Willowra, on traditional Warlpiri land, as a young schoolteacher and later translated their tales into English in the book Warlpiri Women's Voices.

 

At one massacre site, she says, the young men had been involved in initiation ceremonies when the riders -- the punitive party, as she terms it -- turned up and just attacked.

 

It spread terror, and it left behind terror.

 

"People had to hide well after the Coniston killings. They were in terror of these people coming onto their land, killing them. And some of the women who were very young at the time have told me how, a number of years afterwards, they hid away from the white men in these areas that had bullets. And they would cover themselves up with sand during the day when their mothers went out hunting, afraid in case whitefellas came. And, you know, immediately afterwards, they wouldn't make fires to cook food, they had to be very careful. They lived in ... in terror that ... that this would happen again."

 

Two months ago, on the 175th anniversary of the Myall Creek massacre in New South Wales, a descendant of a survivor there, Sue Blacklock, had told a similar tale.

 

"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."

 

But that was the fear of a girl removed by generations.

 

At Coniston, the fear is the fear of the survivors and those who have grown up around them.

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Massacres of Aboriginal people by European migrants to Australia began shortly after white settlement began, at the end of the 18th Century.

 

Coniston, then, marks the endpoint of an era covering more than 125 years.

 

The massacre -- or, technically, massacres -- at Coniston came after a local Aboriginal man known simply as Bullfrog murdered a white dingo hunter named Fred Brooks.

 

The background to it all was a deep drought that engulfed Central Australia at the time, driving desperate Aboriginal people and desperate cattle owners to the same waterholes.

 

Fred Brooks, a Coniston station hand, had finally set out with two camels to hunt and collect dingo bounties.

 

He camped at a waterhole near a group of Ngalia-Warlpiri people, and, when Bullfrog, with his wife, asked to trade for food, the hunter made a deal for her to wash his clothes.

 

But he did not return Bullfrog's wife at the end of the day and, historians believe, took liberties with her.

 

In the documentary film 'Coniston', by David Batty and Francis Jupurrurula Kelly, Bullfrog's grandson Jack Cook described the next morning, as he has long understood it.

 

"I think that old man's been humbugging around. And that old Bullfrog went along with a spear, speared him right through, from the back to the ... The spear came out through the heart."

 

Some other accounts suggest the weapon was an axe, the death by bludgeoning, and that other men helped kill Fred Brooks.

 

Regardless, with the murder, the pent-up tension in the area exploded.

 

Police constable William George Murray organised a posse of civilians and police officers and, with Aboriginal trackers, began searching for Bullfrog -- and exacting revenge.

 

At the first camp they found, Bullfrog's wife is believed to have been among those killed as the posse rode in and at least one rider opened fire.

 

Bullfrog would hide in a cave and, indeed, live to an old age, but, over the two months, the massacres spread across at least six sites, killing men, women and children.

 

As Jack Cook told the film, the scenes were chaos.

 

"They saw him, and bang-bang all around, all over the place. And they come back, at the camp where they're living around, shot all them people as well. And they climb up the hill -- you know, frightened."

 

Two-and-a-half thousand kilometres southeast of Coniston, Liza Dale-Hallett is a curator at a museum in Victoria, specialising in sustainable futures.

 

Ten years ago, she received an invitation that staggered her, an invitation to a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the killings at the waterhole now known as Brooks Soak.

 

Liza Dale-Hallett was staggered because she is a great-niece of Constable William George Murray.

 

She accepted.

 

"There I was, meeting with people who had been directly affected over generations, but there were also people there who were present during the massacre, who survived and witnessed the most terrible things. So, as children, they experienced that trauma. Now I met those people, and I was so impressed with their capacity to ... you know ... acknowledge me in a way that expressed love, rather than hatred, or, you know, some sort of anger. It was an extraordinary level of forgiveness, if I use that word."

 

Ms Dale-Hallett acknowledges Constable Murray's descendants vary widely in how they feel, both about what happened and how they choose to deal with it -- or not.

 

But she feels it is vitally important that the truth be revealed.

 

"Look, I think the most important thing, for me, is that the story's being told and not forgotten, not pushed around underneath some sort of excuse that, 'Oh, that's what happened then.' You know, that's really not adequate. I think our history's complicated, it's bloody, it's messy, it's ugly, and that's just how life is. Life is full of mess and gore and, also, some amazing things, as well. And it's part of the spectrum, and I think, just because it makes people feel uncomfortable, I don't think that's adequate (to avoid it). I think we need to know and understand ourselves, about where we live, and the context within which we've established this nation, and some of the context is really ugly."

 

A federal inquiry, brought on by public pressure around the country, even internationally, decided the Coniston Massacre was not so ugly that any action was required.

 

It ruled Constable Murray and his party had acted in self-defence.

 

The inquiry established that death toll of 31, but it could not take into account, for example, those who fled into the desert in the midst of a drought, never to be seen again.

 

All these years later, Petronella Vaarzon-Morel says, just this past month, she joined some women hunting for food in the desert and one began talking about hiding there as a child.

 

They were hiding from a different man, a feared pastoralist named Jimmy Wickham.

 

"It was almost sort of like guerilla warfare going on at the time. You know, she explained how she used to hide in this area as a girl and how they wouldn't go to the soakages, to the places that they really depended on for water, that had permanent water, because Wickham was there with his cattle. And she explained how they would avoid the white man's camp at Sanford and Mud Hut, and where they walked, and the different sites they went to to avoid ... you know. And this is sort of walking over long areas. Of course, these people depended on hunting and gathering for their food, so it wasn't as though they could just hide out in one area and stay there."

 

For Liza Dale-Hallett, the whole story is one she, like most Australians, grew up knowing nothing about.

 

She heard not a word of it in school, only to learn from a documentary one night as her family sat around watching it.

 

"Oh, yes", her father said, "That's ... that's Uncle George."

 

She was shocked.

 

"With a lot of these traumas, you know, everyone says, 'Oh, that was such a long time ago,' you know, '(they) should be over it now.' And that's so easy to say for people who weren't impacted by it. But, you know, why do we have Anzac Day commemorations? Because people are still living with the outcome of that. And, first of all, the bulk of the activity has been to deny that (Coniston) story and not even to acknowledge the trauma and the reality of what occurred. Well, that's ... that's another trauma on top of trauma, isn't it."

 

But out in the desert now, a lone marker is marking its own 10th anniversary.

 

Put up at Brooks Soak on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, it stands as a sentinel to a truth that can no longer be denied.

 

"In 1928, near this place, the murder of Frederick Brooks led to the killing of many innocent Aboriginal people across the region. We will remember them always ... (Warlpiri:) Nganimparlu kapurnalu-jana manngu-nyanyirni taarnngangku-juku ... (Anmatyerre:) Nwern inenhenh kweteth iterl-arerlanetyenh ... (Kaytetye:) Aynanthe atewanthepe etelarerrantye intemaperte."

 

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