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'A VERY BAD BUSINESS'
Henry Dangar and the Myall Creek massacre 1838
In early July 1838, Henry Dangar, a well-respected settler on the Hunter River, received a letter from William Hobbs, his overseer at Myall Creek station, his pastoral leasehold run on the upper Gwydir River. It contained details of a massacre of 28 unarmed Aboriginal men, women and children that had taken place at the station during Hobbs' absence on Sunday 10 June. The letter was probably delivered by settler Frederick Foot, who was en route to Sydney to report the crime to Governor George Gipps.
If Dangar was surprised by the news, he did not say so. Nor did he rush to Myall Creek to enquire after the welfare of his employees. Rather he waited until Magistrate Day and a detachment of eight mounted police troopers completed their exhaustive investigation into the incident. In late August, he heard that Day had arrested and charged eleven stockmen, including his assigned convict servant Charles Kilmeister, with the awful crime and that they were now in custody in Sydney awaiting trial. He also heard that Day had largely relied on the evidence of two of his employees at Myall Creek, hut-keeper George Anderson and the Aboriginal youth, Yintayintin, to make the arrests and that Anderson was in protective custody in Sydney. He also heard that Yintayintin had witnessed the massacre, and against normal practice which prevented Aboriginal people from presenting evidence in court, in this case he might be called to do so.
In early September Dangar set out on the 320-kilometre journey to Myall Creek station to find out for himself the details of the massacre. He would then decide what to do about the forthcoming trial. The decision he would make would have a profound effect on the trial's outcome.
Then aged 42, Henry Dangar, a surveyor by profession, was one of the most prominent landholders in New South Wales. He had arrived in the colony with his young family from Cornwall 17 years earlier and quickly found employment with the Survey Department. After surveying the town of Newcastle and the Hunter River region, both of which were at the brink of opening up to free settlers, he was sacked by Governor Darling for misappropriating land. Undeterred, he returned to England, where he published a widely acclaimed map of the new region. He then returned to New South Wales to survey the huge land grants made to the Australian Agricultural Company, from which he published another widely acclaimed map. By 1833 he had accumulated enough experience and sufficient capital to strike out on his own. He settled with his ever-increasing family on his land grant near Singleton, which he called Neotsfield after his birthplace St Neots in Cornwall, and began looking for suitable grazing land beyond the Peel River on the Liverpool Plains to pasture his herds of cattle and sheep. By the end of 1836, along with other wealthy settlers from the Hawkesbury and Hunter, he held a cluster of grazing leases, one of which was at Myall Creek, a tributary of the Gwydir River, and employed William Hobbs, a free man, to manage it.
Hobbs appears to have commenced employment with Dangar in October 1836 at one of the Peel River leases. We know very little about him, except that he was in his twenties, a young, single male, free immigrant and sufficiently reliable for Dangar to appoint him as overseer at the new station at Myall Creek. Dangar possibly told him to select some workers from his assigned convict male servants at the Peel River. They too were all in their twenties. The first was George Anderson, who found life as a shepherd too lonely and readily accepted Hobbs's offer to work as a hut-keeper. The others were stockmen Andrew Burrows, Charles Reid and Charles Kilmeister. He may also have arranged for two Aboriginal brothers from the Peel River, Yintayintin, aged 18, and Kuimunga, aged 14, who had been associated with Dangar since the early 1830s, to join him. They were known as 'naturalised' Aborigines, in that they could speak English, were good stockmen and often acted as intermediaries with 'myalls' or 'tribal' people on whose lands new cattle runs were formed. Hobbs's responsibilities as superintendent at the new Myall Creek station were to manage the men and to regularly move the cattle between Myall Creek and the other Dangar station at Ponds Creek, further down the river. He was determined to preserve the grazing pasture which had become scarce on both stations, following the onset of drought. Just as Dangar placed considerable trust in Hobbs, so Hobbs placed considerable trust in the men he selected to work with him. He relied on Anderson to look after the huts and food supplies, Kilmeister to attend to the cattle at Myall Creek, Burrows and Reid to assist him in moving the cattle from one station to the other and for Yintayintin and Kuimunga to help Kilmeister with the remaining cattle at Myall Creek. From all accounts, Hobbs had the confidence of his employer and maintained a very good working relationship with the men at Myall Creek station.
By June 1838 the men had built at least three wooden huts, one for Hobbs, another for themselves and the two Aboriginal youths, and the other for a store. They had also completed a well and a fence around the home paddock and the stockyard. In this more familiar environment, they could engage more confidently with the Aboriginal people in the region.
The Gwydir River lay in the country of the Gamilaraay and Wirrayaraay Aboriginal nations. While the Gamilaraay were associated with the lower Gwydir and Namoi Rivers, the Wirrayaraay were associated with the upper Gwydir River, Myall Creek and the Macintyre River to the east. The Gamilaraay had already contested the land on which lay many stations in their region between 1835 and 1837 and, according to evidence given to a Select Committee of the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1839, they had been 'repeatedly pursued by parties of mounted and armed stockmen, assembled for the purpose, and that great numbers of them had been killed at various spots, particularly at Vinegar Hill, Slaughterhouse Creek, and Gravesend, places so called by the stockmen, in commemoration of the deeds they had done'.
The government had also deployed detachments of mounted police to the region to 'pacify' the Indigenous landowners, first in June 1836 when they 'cleared out' about 80 Gamilaraay from the area between Barraba and the Gwydir River and then in the summer of 1837–38, when, after a six-week search and destroy campaign, they slaughtered at least 40 others on 26 January 1838 at Waterloo Creek, between the Namoi and the lower Gwydir Rivers.
Dangar, along with other absentee station owners, Robert Scott and James Glennie, firmly supported the operations. But unlike them, he preferred to avoid this kind of violence byemploying experienced free men like Hobbs as superintendents on his stations and relying on 'naturalised Aborigines' like Yintayintin and Kuimunga to operate as intermediaries between the Aboriginal people and his own men. The policy approach appeared to work. Unlike most other stations along the Gwydir, where former convicts and ticket-of-leave men were usually employed as overseers and attacks from the Gamilaraay were frequent occurrences, at Myall Creek station the men enjoyed peaceful relations with the main Aboriginal group in the region, the Wirrayaraay.
For the Wirrayaraay the upper Gwydir was their country, with important ceremonial grounds near Myall Creek. They usually hunted in the area in summer, accompanied by some of the Gamilaraay people, but in winter, they moved further east in the Macintyre river area. Daniel Eaton, overseer at Peter Macintyre's run at Byron Plains near present-day Inverell, was a good friend to the Wirrayaraay, sometimes sharing his hut with them. He had given their most senior man, 'King Sandy', a breastplate to wear, declaring him friendly and trustworthy. He had previously brought the Wirrayaraay to Myall Creek, 'for the purpose of making them friends with Mr Dangar's men'. They had also camped at other nearby stations at Keriengobeldie, Keera and Tainoga.
But the drought along the Macintyre River had changed all that. In mid-May 1838 a group of about 40 Wirrayaraay people arrived at Myall Creek station, possibly at the invitation of Yintayintin, or more likely Kilmeister. At first Hobbs had wanted to move them on, but Kilmeister, whom Hobbs considered a 'quiet, friendly humane man', persuaded him to let them stay. Yintayintin negotiated a reciprocal relationship with the leading warriors, who permitted him to have a Wirrayaraay woman in return for arranging for the Wirrayaraay men to cut bark for the station in exchange for rations and for another young woman, 'Impeta', to 'visit' hut-keeper George Anderson. Kilmeister also encouraged 'the children to dance and some of the women to sing'. The Wirrayaraay appeared well used to the colonial culture of the frontier and many were known by English names conferred by friendly stockmen such as Eaton. King Sandy's three-year-old son, Charley, was already fluent in frontier lingua franca and soon became a general favourite.
On Tuesday 5 June William Hobbs despatched Andrew Burrows and Charles Reid with a mob of bullocks to Ponds Creek, four days journey down river. Two days later, he followed them, chasing for stray cattle. He expected to return to Myall Creek the following Wednesday, and left George Anderson in charge of the huts and Charles Kilmeister, assisted by Yintayintin and Kuimunga, in charge of the remaining cattle.
On Saturday afternoon, 9 June, William Mace and Thomas Foster, overseers of Keriengobeldie and Tainoga stations about 30 kilometres to the west, arrived at Myall Creek hoping to hire some Wirrayaraay men to cut bark. Foster, the only other free overseer in the region, admired the Wirrayaraay and with Mace, contracted ten of the men, led by King Sandy, to do the work. The party set off for Tainoga at ten o'clock the following morning, Sunday 10 June.
About three o'clock that afternoon, the remaining Wirrayaraay, including 'Big Daddy', probably the oldest in the group, were already camped for the night and Anderson, Kilmeister, Yintayintin and Kuimunga were in their hut a few metres away, sharing a smoke. Suddenly they heard the thud of horses' hooves from the south and then men's shouts. Eleven heavily armed men on horseback swung into view and then divided and galloped towards the camp from different directions. As they approached, most of the Wirrayaraay ran for protection into Anderson's hut. Everyone knew why the horsemen had come.
As they dismounted, Anderson immediately recognised the leader, settler John Fleming, overseer at Mungie Bundie station, further west down the Gwydir, and his offsider, former convict John Russell, overseer at Archibald Bell's station, Bengari. When Russell began to uncoil a long tether rope from his horse's neck, Anderson asked him what they were going to do with 'the blacks' and he replied, 'We are going to take them over the back of the range, to frighten them'. Fleming and Russell went inside the hut and shut the door and Fleming's young assistant, Ned Foley, stood on guard outside with his pistol drawn. Inside the hut, the Wirrayaraay men, women and children called out to Anderson and Kilmeister for help. But they knew they were outnumbered. Kilmeister stood outside talking to the other stockmen and Fleming called to Anderson to fetch his men a drink of milk from the storehouse some distance away. When he returned he saw that most of the Wirrayaraay women and children were outside the hut and tied together by their wrists to Russell's long tether rope.
Fleming ordered the stockmen to remount and drive the victims towards the road. At this point Kilmeister saddled his horse and joined the killers. Apart from Fleming, Russell, Foley and Kilmeister, the other stockmen were George Palliser from Bengari, who like Russell, was free by servitude; James Lamb, a ticket-of-leave man, who was overseer at James Cobb's run, Gravesend; John Johnstone, a black African from Liverpool, free by servitude, who was overseer at George Bowman's run at Moree; John Blake and Charles Toulouse, who were convict stockmen at James Glennie's run, Gineroi; William Hawkins, ticket-of-leave man and a stockman at Andrew Blake's run, Mosquito Creek; James Oates, who was a convict stockman at Thomas Simpson Hall's run, Bingara; James Parry, who was a convict stockman for Daniel Eaton at Binguy; and Ned Foley, who was a convict stockman and assistant to John Fleming.
Most of the men were in their late 20s or early 30s and resident in the colony for at least five years working as stockmen on remote cattle stations for absentee landholders. At least one of them, James Lamb, had joined the mounted police parties in their recent punitive expeditions along the Gwydir River.
As the stockmen drove the Wirrayaraay before them, two very old men, Joey and Daddy, remained untied because they made no resistance and followed the others, tears streaming down their faces. According to Anderson, the Wirrayaraay were 'moaning the same as a mother and children would cry'. The children upset Anderson most. He would later recall that there were two or three little ones not able to walk, and 'the women carried them on their backs in opossum skins'. Toddlers who were not tied followed their mothers; 'they were crying, in and out of the hut, till they got out of my hearing'. He saved one little child by stopping it at the hut door. To appease Anderson, and perhaps also to compromise him, one of the confederates untied 'a good-looking gin' and gave her to him; it was not Impeta. To keep Yintayintin quiet they allowed him to keep the woman of his choice. These two women, the small child, and two young boys who had hidden in the creek when the party arrived were the only Aboriginal people to escape the roundup.
The stockmen drove the Wirrayaraay from front and behind towards the setting sun, leaving footprints and hoofprints in the mud. About 15 minutes later Anderson heard two shots in rapid succession and then saw smoke. Yintayintin followed the party at a safe distance and remained hidden behind a tree until dusk when the killers, including Kilmeister, rode off, taking a Wirrayaraay woman with them. Yintayintin then approached the site and saw piles of bodies lying in pools of blood with many of them decapitated, including most of the children. Some heads were thrown far from the bodies and all were dreadfully slashed by sword and cutlass. One man was killed by being held down on a log fire. Yintayintin then returned to the Myall Creek huts and told Anderson all he had seen.
Too 'sick with dread' even to fetch wood for the fire, Anderson, Yintayintin, Kuimunga and the remaining Wirrayaraay locked themselves up for the night inside the hut. Two or three hours later, they heard coo-ees and upon opening the door, Anderson was confronted by the Wirrayaraay warriors, 'frightened, out of breath with running'. On their arrival at Tainoga they were told that the killers were at Myall Creek, and hurried back as fast as they could, taking a short cut over the ranges. When Yintayintin told them what had happened, they wanted to stay and bury their dead, but Anderson knew that the killers would return and persuaded them to leave at once, taking the remaining women and children with them, and seek refuge with their friend Daniel Eaton at Macintyre's run, 40 kilometres to the east. By midnight, Yintayintin, Kuiminga and Anderson were anxiously awaiting the killers' return.
That night the killers camped on the creek between Myall Creek and Tainoga stations, where they took it in turns to rape the Wirrayaraay woman. A little after sunrise, they galloped into Tainoga looking for the Wirrayaraay warriors. The overseer, Thomas Foster, received them stonily, refusing Fleming any information. He refused to allow him to leave the woman at Tainoga and the party rode on to Keriengobeldie station, five kilometres down the river. There they had breakfast and told John Bates the hut-keeper that 'they had settled the blacks' but were looking for others and asked him to keep the woman until they returned.
Late that Monday afternoon the killers returned to Myall Creek in search of the Wirrayaraay warriors. Having missed them, the killers decided to stay the night in Anderson's hut and search for the men the next day. Anderson later recalled that 'they were talking about the blacks all night, about a black gin they had in the camp with them the night before'.
The following morning, Tuesday 12 June, Anderson asked Russell whether he was going to bury the bodies and he replied that 'he would bury them with a good fire'. Fleming, Russell and Kilmeister then took firesticks from the hut and rode to the site with the others, leaving Ned Foley to stop Anderson from seeing them at work. While Foley 'entertained' him by exhibiting his bloodied sword, Yintayintin again crept behind a tree and saw the others drag great logs down to the site. Once the fire was lit they returned to the hut and after a while Fleming ordered Kilmeister to go back to the site and 'put the logs together, and to be sure that all was consumed'. Kilmeister remained there all day trying to burn the rotting flesh. When he returned to the hut he told Anderson that he had been trying to catch his horse. Once again the killers stayed in Anderson's hut overnight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
A note on the word clouds Ross Gibson vi
Foreword Sue Blacklock John Brown xi
Introduction: Remembering Myall Creek Lyndall Ryan Jane Lydon 1
Chapter 1 'A very bad business': Henry Dangar and the Myall Creek massacre 1838 Lyndall Ryan 15
Chapter 2 The twelfth man: John Henry Fleming and the Myall Creek massacre Patsy Withycombe 38
Chapter 3 Witnessing Myall Creek Jane Lydon 52
Chapter 4 'The Aboriginal Mother': Poetry and politics Anna Johnston 68
Chapter 5 The Myall Creek massacre: Was it typical of the time? Lyndall Ryan 85
Chapter 6 Connecting Myall Creek and the Wonomo Iain Davidson Heather Burke Lynley A Wallis Bryce Barker Elizabeth Hatte Noelene Cole 100
Chapter 7 Myall Creek memories John Maynard 111
Chapter 8 Walking on bones Jessica Neath Brook Andrew 130
Afterword Mark Tedeschi 161