Explainer: The Appin Massacre

In the late evening of April 17, 1816, Captain Wallis, a British Naval Officer, and his troops fired upon a camp of Aboriginal people before driving them towards the cliff edge at Broughton Pass near Appin, NSW. The official death toll of the massacre was fourteen however, many others are believed to have perished. The regiment had been sent by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to, according to his diary at the time, ‘rid the land of troublesome blacks’. 

All quotations are from the diary and correspondence of Governor Lachlan Macquarie unless otherwise stated. The above image is the cliff where the victims of the massacre are believed to have fallen to their deaths (courtesy of Mark Tobin/ABC News). 


The Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie and his wife first visited the Appin region southwest of Sydney in 1810 and were met by ‘two or three small parties of the Cowpastures natives’ who performed ‘an extraordinary sort of dance’. The local people of the area were the Dharawal people whose territory spanned from Port Hacking and the Illawarra Escarpment west towards the Macarthur region and Campbelltown.

While the Indigenous people of the mountains, probably the Gandangara, had been active in defending their land, there was no recorded history of aggression from the Dharawal people in the southwest region. In fact, some Dharawal men had accompanied Europeans, Charles Throsby and Hamilton Hume, on their early explorations in the area.

When a drought occurred in 1816, the Gandangarra people came down from the mountains in search of food. After some Europeans were killed in conflict, farmers began to arm themselves and a request was made to Governor Macquarie to settle the issue. 

The military expedition

On April 9, 1816, Macquarie ordered three regiments to lead a military expedition ‘with secrecy and despatch’ against the ‘hostile natives’ in the Nepean Region. A list of those who were wanted in relation to violence was provided to each, however all Aboriginal people encountered were to be made ‘prisoners of war’.

‘On any occasion of seeing or falling in with the Natives, either in bodies or singly, they are to be called on, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compell them to surrender, breaking and destroying the spears, clubs, and waddies of all those you take Prisoners. Such Natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on trees in conspicuous situations, to strike the Survivors with the greater terror. On all occasions of your being obliged to have recourse to offensive and coercive measures, you will use every possible precaution to save the lives of the Native Women and Children, but taking as many of them as you can Prisoners.’

Governor Macquarie’s instructions to Captain Schaw of the 46th Regiment

Captain Wallis lead his regiment from Liverpool towards Appin, with the unwilling aid of two Dharawal guides Budbury and Bundle who later escaped and another guide, ex-convict John Warby.  

The massacre

On April 16, word came to Captain Wallis that a group of Aboriginal people were camped near Broughton’s farm, close to Appin. Late in the evening they came upon the empty camp, ‘the fires were burning but deserted’.

‘A few of my men heard a child cry. I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek. The dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs. It was moonlight. I regret to say some [were] shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions.’

Excerpt from the diary of Captain James Wallis

Both Dharawal and Gandangara people are believed to have been killed in the massacre. 

Dharawal man and local historian Gavin Andrews and his wife, Frances Bodkin, a descendent of one of the men killed that night claim the men’s camp was first attacked however there were also women and children nearby. A report for the NSW Heritage Council declares that ‘among the 14 known dead were old men, women and children’.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many people were killed however Wallis’s account suggests that the death toll may indeed have been much higher than fourteen. At least five prisoners were also taken including Doual who had been a guide to explorer Hamilton Hume. 

The impact

The aggression between Europeans and the local people, as well as the introduced diseases brought by settlers, are thought to have killed large population numbers of the Dharawal nation. However, many Dharawal people still live in the region today, and the Appin massacre is commemorated annually in the Appin area.

The massacre also points to changing relations between Governor Macquarie who was initially keen to avoid aggression between the European settlers and Indigenous Australians. As Gavin Andrews suggests ‘as far as I know it was the first, formally government sanctioned military engagement of Aboriginal people in this country.’ 

As the site of the massacre is on state-owned land, the ABC reports there have been calls for the site to be returned to the descendants of the Dharawal people. A commemorative plaque has been placed at the site by Wollondilly Council and Winga Myamly Reconciliation Group.

The Macarthur Chronicle also reports that here have been calls for the repatriation of the remains of three Aboriginal people believed to have been killed at the massacre which are currently in the possession of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.