Violence at the frontier
Frontier violence, common from the earliest days of settlement, greatly increased in the 1830s as the colony rapidly expanded, pushing settlers, their workers and stock further onto Aboriginal lands
Convicts, often led by free settlers or troopers, were involved in confrontations with and atrocities against Aboriginal groups. One such event occurred at Myall Creek Station in northern New South Wales, instigated by Australian-born settler John Fleming and involving convicts assigned from the Hyde Park Barracks.
In 1838, Myall Creek Station had only two makeshift wooden huts in a cleared area near the creek and some basic cattle yards. The wealthy landowner Henry Dangar did not live there himself but staffed it with a small number of men, including three convicts. In May, a group of more than 40 Wirrayaraay people of the Gamilaraay nation came to Myall Creek Station seeking protection from roving groups of white stockmen, who had killed hundreds of Aboriginal people over several months.
On Sunday 10 June, Fleming led a vigilante group of six convict and five ex-convict workers to Myall Creek. On that day, only two convicts, hutkeeper George Anderson and stockman Charles Kilmeister, and two young Aboriginal men, Davy and Billy, were working at the station. As soon as Fleming and his men arrived, the Aboriginal group fled to the huts for safety. Anderson tried to protect them, but Kilmeister joined the vigilantes. At least 28 Wirrayaraay women, children and elderly people were roped together, taken some distance away and slaughtered. The bodies were then dismembered and set on fire. Two young boys escaped the massacre by diving into a nearby creek. Davy and Billy, as employees of Dangar, were spared.
A neighbouring settler, Frederick Foote, travelled to Sydney to notify newly appointed Governor Gipps of the massacre. Gipps, acting on recent instructions from the British government to treat Indigenous people equally before the law, sent local police magistrate Denny Day to investigate. Day arrested 11 of the men and brought them to Sydney for trial. The ringleader, John Fleming, was the only man not arrested and was never held accountable.
Two trials arose from the massacre. Both took place in the Supreme Court, across the road from the Hyde Park Barracks, and provoked enormous public hostility. Convict witnesses, including George Anderson, were brought to Sydney and initially held at the barracks.
‘The main thing is that the story is told about what really happened that day … to tell the truth and get the truth out there … [and then] our ancestors are at peace.’
Aunty Sue Blacklock AM, 2019
At the first trial, the jury – reflecting public opinion – took just 15 minutes to acquit the men, despite the evidence of witnesses. The attorney general remanded seven of the men on new charges. At the second trial, in November 1838, all seven men were convicted. To great public outcry, they were hanged the following month. It is the only time in Australia’s history that white men were executed for the massacre of Aboriginal people.
Tragically, the hanging of seven of the Myall Creek murderers did not end the violence against and killings of Aboriginal people. However, unlike so many other atrocities, the Myall Creek massacre is remembered today. Each June a commemoration is held at a special memorial site set up by the descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators. This event preserves the memory of this tragedy and the many more that took place across the country. The Myall Creek massacre is a stark illustration of the brutality of the colonial frontier; its commemoration is now part of a national process of healing and remembrance.