Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Murder at Myall Creek, by Mark Tedeschi

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Mark Tedeschi has written a compelling history of the Myall Creek Massacre, shining a light on a dark passage of Australia’s past. 

Readers of historian Henry Reynolds’ work on frontier violence will know how bloody the early history of Australia really was, tantamount to a full blown war between first Australians and invading European settlers. As Australia’s first peoples were pushed off their traditional lands, their livelihood was destroyed. In the desperate search of food, they were often forced to kill and eat the cattle of European squatters. The squatters in turn saw the ‘blacks’ as savages and a menace, to be got rid off. This was a common sentiment shared by the early Australian community, often voiced in strident terms by politicians, leading businessmen and newspapers such as The Sydney Herald. Massacres of Aborigines were not uncommon. Sympathy overwhelmingly was with the perpetrators of these crimes.

What makes the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre so unique is the fact that the case was brought to trial. It was extensively covered by Australia’s newspapers and hence we have a detailed record of the whole horrible story. We also have a vivid portrait of contemporary attitudes to Australia’s indigenous people. Eleven stockmen were tried for the murder of between 20 to 30 members of the Wirrayaraay tribe in central New South Wales. Many of the victims were women and children, some still too young to walk. The Wirrayaraay people had been living peacefully at the Myall Creek station with the knowledge of the station owner. A group of eleven stockmen who had had their livestock speared went on a rampage, determined to kill. The Wirrayaraay tribe weren’t in any way responsible for killing cattle. They were entirely innocent.

The details of the mass murder are horrific. The Wirrayaraay people were tied up with rope, taken to a stockyard, then butchered with knives and stampeded on by the stockmen’s horses. Blood remained on stock yard’s wooden fence for decades thereafter. Two young Wirrayaraay boys managed to flee. Their descendants are alive today, as are the descendants of some of the killers. There was one witness to the murder. The manager of the station, William Hobbs, had been away when the massacre occurred. Upon his return, learning of the horrific events, he visited the scene of the crime and found bodily remains. He tried to count the number of bodies, but they were so disfigured and burnt (the killers had tried to incinerate all the remains) that this was difficult.

The case was brought to court and the eleven stockmen were tried for murder (the leader of the party, John Henry Fleming, managed to escape and go into hiding). New South Wales’ Attorney General, John Hubert Plunkett, acted as prosecutor. Plunkett is an interesting character. Irish Catholic, he had experienced prejudice in his own country. He came to Australia hoping to advance himself. He believed in many progressive causes and fought for legal and educational reform. He was especially interested in the better treatment of Indigenous Australians. The job of prosecuting the Myall Creek killers was an extremely difficult one. Virtually the whole colony was against the white men going to trial. It was seen as a travesty of justice to have European men sentenced to hang for killing ‘barbaric savages’. This wasn’t just the opinion of the man in the street, it also formed much elite opinion. When the first trial of the men failed to get a conviction, Plunkett controversially insisted on a second trial. It was at this second trial that seven men were found guilty and sentenced to death. The men, when they confessed the crime to their religious counsellors, said they had no idea it was a crime to kill the Aborigines.

Murder at Myall Creek reads almost as a biography of John Hubert Plunkett and a history of a terrible crime. Author Mark Tedeschi QC writes in a simple and elegant manner, explaining the legal twists and turns of the Myall Creek case with considerable ease. He also shows how deep the antipathy to Indigenous Australians was in the early colony, leading to widespread violence.

A brilliant and evocative book that brings to light a dark passage in the nation’s history.

Murder at Myall Creek, by Mark Tedeschi. Published by Simon and Schuster. ISBN: 9781925456264 RRP: $32.99

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