It is said that history is written by the victor and history itself tells us that’s true. But history can also be covered up by the victor or not written at all.
I grew up in north-east Victoria, in a place called Euroa. It means ‘joyful’ in Taunarong.
What always struck me about the north-east was that there were no clear remnants of the traditional owners, who once inhabited its lush and abundant valleys. The memory of these people was evident in the place names that stare resolutely out, as you enter the townships. Yackandandah, Milawa, Wangaratta, Boho and Gooram to name just a few. These place names were once words spoken by the Bangerang, Way Wurru and Taunarong people. The names remained, but the culture was nowhere to be seen.
The teachings I received about my mob came from my family, not from the system.
I grew up knowing that I was part of a proud lineage of activists, from William Cooper down. My family was tightly intertwined with what in itself could be described as a people’s renaissance. This knowledge was passed down to me with passion, resilience and good humour.
The education system taught us more about British and European history than our own.
But as a kid I was confronted with racism on daily basis. Knowing more about the people whose footsteps I followed, in whose creeks and rivers I swam, would have been of some strength back in those days. Knowing they existed at all would have been comforting. The education system taught us more about British and European history than our own.
What happened to the traditional owners in a part of the world, which my dad described as God’s own country?
Recently, the University of Newcastle released a map that illustrates the number of massacre sites across Australia during the invasion. Each site is symbolised by a yellow dot, blue squares denote the massacre of Europeans.
There is only one blue square in Victoria, it symbolises the Faithfull Massacre, where the township of Benalla is now situated. It is the town my father and his five brothers called home in the 50s and 60s. They grew up a few streets over from where the massacre is speculated to have occurred on the 12th of April 1838.
George Faithfull and his men, a combination of convicts and ex-convicts, were droving thousands of sheep and hundreds of head of cattle south into Victoria. The men, in their ignorance had chosen a kangaroo ground to camp alongside the main watering hole in Benalla, which doubled as a sacred site and where clans from the three tribes would meet.
After a number of days convalescing by the river, Faithfull’s men were ambushed by between 100 to 300 Aboriginal men, eight of the Europeans were killed by a combination of spearing and blunt force trauma. Ten escaped to tell the story.
The Melbourne Herald in 1958 published a two page spread on the massacre, entitled, The worst of our early massacres. “Our” meaning European of course.
You have to look carefully to gain a hint of the devastation and terror that was to follow for the people of the Bangerang, Taunarong and Way Wurru.
You have to look carefully to gain a hint of the devastation and terror that was to follow for the people of the Bangerang, Taunarong and Way Wurru. In two paragraphs the article states: “The Faithfull massacre touched off a fierce warfare of raids and reprisals that made the settlement of north-eastern Victoria the most dramatic episodes in colonising history”.
It continues: “Not until years later, after a day-long battle along the Ovens River, could George Faithfull declare the aboriginal (sic) tribes were finally crushed and his name ‘made a terror to them forever”.
In 1852, George Faithfull himself wrote, after a period of protracted raids and counter-raids, “people formed themselves into bands…and then it was that the destruction of the natives really did take place”.
The north-east Aboriginal populations had been decimated by a combination of murder, brutality and disease, which in itself could be used as a weapon.
By 1908 it was reckoned by the Protector of Aborigines, that there were no more than 72 natives (“full bloods”) left in the Colony of Victoria. The north-east Aboriginal populations had been decimated by a combination of murder, brutality and disease, which in itself could be used as a weapon.
Within an 80-year period a culture that had thrived in the area for over 20,000 years had been wiped out. There were no two-page spreads in the metropolitan newspapers about that tragedy.
Only by exploring, searching for and knowing our true history can one find the peace the 14-year-old me needed. Knowing could have also enlightened others in the same classrooms, who thought it was acceptable to shoot an Aboriginal for stealing a sheep. It would have helped the teacher, who asked if I could ‘speak any Aborigine’.
It would have helped me explain to the teacher, “No sir, those languages are extinct now, the people gone, their culture with them and sir, your loss is as great as mine”.
Daniel James is Yorta Yorta man living on Wurrundjeri land. He is a writer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter - @mrdtjames