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Jul 7, 2017

Online map of Aboriginal massacres evinces the shocking truth of colonial violence

Perhaps this time, finally, we can make the link between indigenous dispossession and the position of Aboriginal people today, writes secretary of the Honest History coalition David Stephens.

The painstaking work of Professor Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle has produced an online map of massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia over the years 1788-1872 (with more years to come). Ryan’s work has provoked considerable interest from the ABC, NITV, Fairfax and The Guardian — though not, so far, the Murdoch press. Some of the coverage, notably Calla Wahlquist in The Guardian, refers to overall estimates of the number of deaths, which may be as high as 65,000 in Queensland alone (according to research by Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen).

This level of interest may be partly because this is NAIDOC week, partly because Ryan is an articulate spokesperson, partly because her map is interactive, and partly because some of this history is so recent. Those who work in the field mostly mention Coniston, Northern Territory, 1928, as the most recent massacre, but Ryan hints that others may have occurred as late as the 1960s.

We can anticipate mixed reactions to Ryan’s excellent work. Some people will say “the massacres were not our fault, we weren’t there, we need to move on”. This was the approach of then-prime minister John Howard, who complained about “the black armband view of history”. It is, of course, ironic that many of the people who take this approach are also likely to utter the words “lest we forget” about deaths of soldiers in uniform decades ago. Deaths overseas are fine to remember and regret, it seems, even where the connection to the safety of Australia is tenuous; deaths at home, including those of warriors defending their country on their country, can be glossed over.

A second group might say of Ryan’s research, “this is horrible, why weren’t we told?” Yet we have been told by many authors for at least 50 years, and they all drew upon 19th and 20th century accounts in newspapers, private papers, diaries, or the reports of officials and anthropologists. Much of the evidence has been “hidden in plain sight”, but there has been discomfort — and shame, for settler Australians who were prepared to feel it — in getting our heads around the stories.

In 1968, the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner referred to the “great Australian silence”, including the failure of books, like the standard school text, Gordon Greenwood’s Australia: a Social and Political History (1955) to even refer to conflict on the frontier. “What may well have begun,” said Stanner, “as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”

The silence began to be filled, though. In 1973, the radical historian, Humphrey McQueen, found a card index trove of information about massacres and wrote it up for his lectures at ANU. In 1981, Henry Reynolds, encouraged by McQueen, published The Other Side of the Frontier, the first of his books on the Frontier Wars, culminating in Forgotten War (2013). (One of Reynolds’ books, published in 2000, was called Why Weren’t We Told?) John Connor wrote The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838 (2002).

Lyndall Ryan herself explored the Tasmanian stories. Tim Bottoms trenchantly chronicled massacres in Queensland — his major book was called Conspiracy of Silence. Mark Tedeschi just last year forensically examined the Myall Creek massacre trial. Paul Daley returned to the subject regularly in his Guardian column and in his chapter of The Honest History Book, published earlier this year. There have been massacre maps before Ryan’s, such as Judith Monticone’s in Healing the Land in 1999 (here at page 37) and even Wikipedia has a list of massacres, with copious references.

Why then did this work not sink in? Maybe because the discipline of history, being evidence-based, is cautious and its practitioners are often polite and easily resisted by the peddlers of myths. Here the myth said “empty country”, “not many of them in the first place”, “lacked resistance to white man’s diseases”, “lazy and couldn’t help themselves”, “primitive culture”, “died out”, and, contradicting all of the previous cliches, “benefitted from white civilisation”. That myth, plus the embarrassment and shame of having to admit that our ancestors did these things to other members of the human race, was more than enough to keep whitefellers from confronting the evidence

A third group of readers, though, might point to efforts to restore Indigenous Australian servicemen to the historical record. They would cite the work at ANU and elsewhere uncovering the stories of indigenous men who served in our overseas wars from the Boer War on. There is even an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, For country, For Nation, which admits that indigenous warriors fought for country before federation but fudges who they fought against. Recognition of indigenous warriors in uniform misses the more important point of recognising indigenous warriors not in uniform (and the deaths of non-combatants) and might well work against it. But it is great for recruitment of indigenous Australians to the Australian Defence Force.

Yet, there are signs of progress. Just outside the For country, For Nation gallery, there is a wall panel acknowledging the deaths of 20,000 indigenous Australians in “violent, tragic confrontations in the course of Indigenous dispossession”. Next to the panel is a painting by Kukatja-Wangkajunga artist Rover Thomas (Joolama). The painting, Ruby Plains Massacre 1, depicts a massacre in the Kimberley in the early 20th century. The painting cost $366,000.

The final “Ryan-responder” group, perhaps the smallest, might say “the massacres are at the root of the position of indigenous Australians today, beneath alcoholism, domestic violence, drug-taking, incarceration and all of the other attributes that some settler Australians regard as inherent in Aboriginal people”. The dispossession, the trampling of culture, the ripping apart of families, all of that history since 1788 — “the invasion moment”, as Larissa Behrendt calls it in The Honest History Book — are not easily overcome.

Aboriginal people who rise above this legacy, though, are the heirs of the indigenous warriors who fought for their country and of their families who died on it. We — settler Australians and, respectfully (too many whitefellers have given gratuitous advice to blackfellers already), indigenous Australians — need to recognise this and need to ensure that government policy starts from this recognition. Meanwhile, we are in Lyndall Ryan’s debt.

David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History coalition, editor of its website, and co-editor of The Honest History Book. The Honest History website has a collection of resources on Australia’s First Peoples.

*This article was originally published at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations

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53 thoughts on “Online map of Aboriginal massacres evinces the shocking truth of colonial violence

  1. Barbara Haan

    Yes, it’s well and truly time we whities of “refugee status” Australians, stood up to be counted. If only this continent’s inhabitants had had the means to send us back to where we came from – as ScoMo and Muttonhead and Lab. airheads before them – have done to more recent refugees. What we did to the native inhabitants of this country was unacceptable. Time to recognise it and not attempt to sweep it under the carpet as inconsequential as Howard tried to do. Terra Nullius indeed?

    1. Roslyn Ross

      ‘Whities’ is surely a racist term. Many Indigenous are much paler of skin than a lot of non-Indigenous and very much ‘whities’ for most of their ancestry. How are they held accountable?

      And why should anyone be held accountable for past actions by others, long, long ago, if indeed the actions ever happened, simply because of the amount of Melanin in their skin?

      The question surely is why could the British survive and thrive despite a dozen vastly more brutal colonisations and yet the argument today is Aborigines could not and some cannot, even when their Aboriginal ancestry is minimal? Is the argument that any Aboriginal ancestry has the power to render inferior function in regard to resilience and adaptability? That sounds very racist.

      No-one alive today experienced or executed any of the claimed wrongs. It would be delusional to consider one’s self a murderer if one’s parent, grandparent, great or even great-great grandparent committed murder, so why take on the sort of guilt sold today in regard to Aborigines?

      Our responsibility is to the wellbeing of Australians today. Most Indigenous are not crippled and dysfunctional. The few who are live in particular circumstances which clearly are crippling and dysfunctional in themselves.

      All cultures are not equal even though all human beings are. The worst of primitive Aboriginal culture festers in remote communities and destroys lives, particularly children’s lives.

      Time to treat Indigenous the same as everyone else. If they do not care for their children take them away. The current generations may be lost but the children should have a future.

      1. Barbara Haan

        What a load of patronising tosh!

  2. zut alors

    A pity about the graphic cutting off Tasmania – a place where eradication was particularly ruthless.

    1. Peter Hamish

      Yeah, Tasmania .”we blazed the track and shot the black.”

      1. Woopwoop

        Tasmania is in the original map; just Crikey seems to have dropped it off, as often happens.

  3. mikeb

    Do any sensible people not know there were massacres? That being said what positives does this research bring with it? There is no comparable and definitive record of massacres by invaders on American Indians, or by Maoris on the original Kiwis, or by the Huns in Europe, or by ……..

    1. Peter Hamish

      “or by Maoris on the original Kiwis”
      Wuh?…the Maoris were the original Kiwis.

      1. old greybearded one

        Not so. Sorry.

        1. Peter Hamish

          Enlighten me.

          1. AR

            I think it is garbled reference to the Maori caste system, royal & slave. See Alan Duff’s “Once Were Warriors”.

      2. mikeb

        It’s a taboo subject in NZ due to racist overtones however this link is interesting (& does not contain racist bias).
        It’s a pity that proper scientific study of this subject is not encouraged.

        1. AR

          Thanks for that link – very interesting. Noting the author’s name (celtic/Cornish) and his own comments, one can’t help noticing the similarity with invasion myths from every land, always someone there previously who doesn’t quite vanish, just goes elsewhere.

        2. Roslyn Ross

          Since Homo Sapiens all began in the same place, pretty clearly all of us, including Aborigines, are descended from colonisers. There is evidence of the pygmies, killed off or driven out in Australia, questions raised by Mungo Man, and racial mixing in Aborigines which indicate that the favoured story of them being here alone on the continent for tens of thousands of years, is more fantasy than fact.

          Not that it matters. Indeed, if Aborigines have been around, albeit of mixed race, for 50,000 years before the British arrived, it gives them no greater rights than someone who became a citizen last week. Or it should not. To have a ladder of Australianess would be discrimination of the worst kind.

          And most Indigenous would not qualify since their Aboriginal ancestry is minimal and that would require amongst Indigenous, another ladder effect of superiority.

          There is only one race, the human race, and all Australians should be equally Australian. As indeed we are for the moment anyway.

    2. old greybearded one

      A good many liars deny them. There are plenty of records of massacres in the US by the way. The Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, the Greasy Grass prelude to Little Bighorn, Rolling Thunder and the Nez Perce.

  4. Desmond Graham

    Is all the other history – dishonest history ?
    What a load of nonsense –

    1. David Stephens

      Honest history is simply interpretation robustly supported by evidence (The Honest History Book, page 1). In that light, interested to hear your evidence as to why this is a load of nonsense/

  5. Peter Hamish

    “beneath alcoholism, domestic violence, drug-taking, incarceration and all of the other attributes that some settler Australians regard as inherent in Aboriginal people”
    Suicide must be inherent in Aboriginal people too. The Kimberley area in the north of Western Australia has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world.
    Thank you so much, David, for bringing this to light once again lest we ever forget it. I just wish the Aboriginal people could reconnect with the land and their ancient culture and shed the shackles of the white man’s disease – materialism, greed, envy and I hope the closing of desert communities is not a final nail in their coffin. We need a new radical solution that encompasses social and cultural independence. Farming business communities would be a good place to start but I am just one of those useless onlookers.

    1. David Stephens

      Yes indeed regarding suicide.

    2. Roslyn Ross

      Suicide rates for Indigenous Australians living in remote communities are similar to those for Indigenous Canadians living in the same sorts of communities.

      Most Indigenous Australians are integrated into the broader community, most are in mixed marriages and they do not have this rate of suicide.

      It is the circumstance in which indigenous live in many countries which creates the misery and the problem.

      And many programmes have been tried to help Indigenous to make the most of their circumstance and failure is the most common result. One of the problems is that like all such cultures, there is a system of sharing, in other words, what is yours is mine, and so even when young people train and take up jobs, they soon give them up because a horde of family members will be waiting for them on payday and take most of what they have earned.

      This backward cultural practice, once common to everyone at less developed stages, is why many Indigenous in essence ‘run away’ and hide their whereabouts from family and community.

      And Aborigines or rather, those with Aboriginal ancestry, often minimal, have no more connection with the land than anyone else. If they did then remote communities, where they have more involvement, would not be the filthy cesspits they generally are. Even in Africa and India where there are no Government benefits and monies, people manage to burn or bury their rubbish and wash their children.

  6. David Stephens

    Reply to Desmond Graham. Interested to read your evidence for this being ‘a load of nonsense’. Honest history (see page 1 of The Honest History Book) is simply interpretation robustly supported by evidence. The evidence for these massacres has been around for 200 years – for those who want to take it in. David Stephens

  7. klewso

    Eastern states only?

    1. Duncan Gilbey

      A work in progress I understand.

  8. old greybearded one

    Could I suggest you lay off the War Memorial? You have no concept of how hard they worked to find the indigenous servicemen where no records were kept and little direct links were to be had. Their remit clearly does not include memorialising those fighting against Australia. The idea originally was to be a place of remembrance for those who could never go to visit their relatives’ graves. By all means lobby the pollies, including the show pony director. Understand that the everyday people are powerless in this regard, have done a bloody good job of what they are meant to and find it aggravating and unfair t0 be harassed over it by people ignorant of the facts.

    1. David Stephens

      Not sure who this is directed at but the problem with the Memorial in relation to Indigenous warriors is that it is trying to be too cute. See Admitting Indigenous warriors fought frontier wars but not being explicit about who they fought them against. You may well be right that this is the constraint about not memorialising the enemies of the crown – but that needs to change.

  9. Tom Jones

    The stories of WA are still to be told in this interactive map but a recent national touring art show told the stories of Aboriginal people on stations who once they were recognised as people in the Australian Constitution were hunted off their land in the Kimberleys and if they resisted local people state that they were hunted with guns and are still threatened today.

    1. Roslyn Ross

      There is a rich tradition, albeit new, of fantastic stories regarding Aborigines.

      First of all, Aborigines have never been recognised in the Constitution because the Constitution recognises all Australians equally and does not divide by race or culture.

      Secondly, Aborigines were English subjects like everyone else from 1788, and when everyone else became Australian citizens in 1949, when we were no longer English subjects.

      Thirdly, Aborigines had the vote, were never classified as Flora and Fauna, no such classification existed, and were always counted in the Census. The 67 Referendum was based on lies and its goal was to transfer responsibility for Aborigines who needed such support, from the State to the Federal Government.

      To be fair, schools have long taught the lies of 1967 and most teachers also believe this fantasy. It is however, not true and never was.

      1. Roslyn Ross

        Secondly, Aborigines were English subjects like everyone else from 1788, and when everyone else became Australian citizens in 1949, when we were no longer English subjects, so too did Australians with Aboriginal ancestry, become citizens in exactly the same way.

        1. David Stephens

          Roslyn: ‘Aborigine’ is an offensive term. Acceptable terms are ‘Aboriginal people’, ‘Indigenous Australians’ or use mob identification eg Kamilaroi, Arrernte, if known.

      2. Roslyn Ross

        So, it is okay to say white, or ‘white’ or whitefella, but not Aborigine? How odd.

        Fact is that there are very few real Aborigines left and most Indigenous are so minimally Aboriginal in ancestry they are not Aboriginal in any coherent sense.

        Aborigine is no different to European, Asian, African, Pacific Islander, Maori – are they all offensive terms?

        And since there never was an Aboriginal people per se: then that term cannot be used. Aborigines in 1788 were divided into a few hundred tribes, mostly without a common language and of mixed race because of Indian, Macassan, New Guinean, Pacific Islander interbreeding.

        Today there are very few full-blood Aborigines of any kind, not many half, and even in the 19th century the British were concerned about the fact that most were a quarter or an eighth Aboriginal and since the view was that any half-Aboriginal should have a choice of culture, the quarter, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second we see today, are not even Indigenous let alone Aboriginal.

        If we divide Indigenous up by their tribal Aboriginal ancestry names, no matter how minimal, do you think we should be doing the same with all Australians? Those with some German ancestry are German, those with some Chinese are Chinese, or should we just do hyphenated Australians like the Americans?

        Maybe drop Australian all together. Just let people select a part of their ancestry and that is who they are? How do you think that would work?

  10. AR

    David – thanks for this reading list. I was aware of a couple but shall now embark on a chronological reading of those many other others you mentioned.
    We cannot say we didn’t know therefore it can only lead to the presumption that we didn’t care enough.
    We really do have a black history.

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