‘A powerful remembrance of the Myall Creek massacre and of all that is reprehensible about the colonisation of Australia’, Honest History, 16 October 2018
Tjanara Goreng Goreng reviews Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre, edited by Jane Lydon & Lyndall Ryan
This book is a powerful remembrance of Myall Creek and of all that is reprehensible about the colonisation of Australia and the buried memories and denial of the Frontier Wars. Aboriginal people across Australia suffered much trauma, and now we know of the atrocities from the invasion and the subsequent settlement of their lands, lands they did not give up lightly.
The editors say in their introduction that the Myall Creek massacre of innocent Aboriginal old men, women and children ‘has become the most well-known symbol of the Australian frontier wars’. What is particularly poignant in this book is the detailed hidden history that has been uncovered by intrepid historians, to provide us with the full story and history of the denial, of the injustices, and of the feelings of people of the time on both sides of the contest, those who wanted to hide it and those who came to understand its emotional impact on the colony.
The editors have brought together writers of both cultures, Indigenous and settler, presenting imagery, artistic expression (the colonial poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop), and the memories of both cultures, passed on through the generations. Historians and legal experts have given us a deeply felt picture of the horror that spreads to all of us from the acts that occurred.
The stories in the book examine how the ringleader of this horrific massacre managed, through the colonial culture of the time and his own status as a free man and settler, to escape punishment for his planning and execution of the massacre. Yet, after Myall Creek, white men were brought to justice by their peers and the legal system that ensured at least some of them were punished. Many in similar events across the country were not brought to justice.
The whisperings of our people remember these events across the generational divide. The trauma of these events, the covering-up by authorities, the lack of justice for Aboriginal people, and the deep depression of knowing that no-one cared has been passed on to each generation as we share and talk of these stories. In my own family, my great-grandfather escaped a massacre in Central Queensland as a young boy.
Aboriginal people have had to wait more than 200 years to have the walls of silence in the general community gradually dismantled, as archaeologists and historians investigate the details of these events in our shared Australian colonial history. That such events were denied and hidden is a testament to the shame, the degradation and the complete dysfunction of Australia’s white history.
Ryan and Lydon discuss the culture of silence as a ‘critical feature of colonial frontier massacre’. This ‘is the way events were shaped by social structures of class and privilege’. That is precisely why the ringleader of Myall Creek escaped judgement, because of his position and his privilege. That Lyndall Ryan in her historical explorations of frontier violence has discovered that the Myall Creek atrocity was ‘not unusual for the time period’ is an indication of the lack of humanity and feeling that white settlers had for the local Aboriginal people; we were just standing in the way of ‘progress’.
But the wholesale killing of old men, women and children surely is beyond the pale. While killing warriors defending country in war was the order of the time, as England colonised and expanded its empire across the world, in today’s language the killing of innocents would have been considered ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘genocide’. In our time, this entire part of Australia’s history would be considered repugnant and judged so in international criminal courts, but in the 1800s in Australia it was commonplace.
My own uncle was killed on a ‘nigger hunt’ in the northern part of Queensland in the early 1970s, so we know that the killing went on for a very long time, with no-one being brought to justice. Lydon and Ryan and the many contributors to this book have brought to our attention the hidden shame, the lies and betrayals – and the beauty – of Aboriginal communities reconciling with the descendants of those that inflicted such wounds on their kin. The graciousness of that forgiveness, of the sharing of memory in the process of reconciliation, says a lot about Aboriginal people and the white people involved, and it has been well presented in this beautiful book.
Myall Creek plaque (Bingara.com.au)
The editors have picked their contributors wisely, to give the reader a wide and deep understanding of the complexity of frontier massacres, of their history and their denial, of colonial society and morals at the time, of how people saw and felt about Aboriginal people, and of the expressions of grief and suffering from both sides, but particularly from the Aboriginal side. The book does justice to this difficult history and allows us to understand at a much more satisfying level what massacres are and what they do to all who know and hear of them. Even now, generations later, we can feel the wrong of them, the deep woundedness of Aboriginal people, alongside their capacity to bring people together for healing and reconciliation. This book is an important addition to truth telling and to our shared Australian history.
* Tjanara Goreng Goreng is a Wakka Wakka Wulli Wulli Traditional Owner from Central Queensland. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor, Indigenous Studies, University of Canberra, and Research Scholar, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University. Her memoir (with Julie Szego) A Long Way from No Go was recently published by Wild Dingo Press. For Honest History she has reviewed Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming and Rebe Taylor’s Into the Heart of Tasmania.