Aboriginal massacre now supported by scientific evidence

Frontier massacre

Euphemisms for frontier massacre

(Genocide:the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.)

While some frontier massacres were widely publicised, in most cases a code of silence was imposed in colonial communities in the immediate aftermath. Frontier massacres were only referred to indirectly. According to The Queenslander, 1 May 1880, p.560, the ‘bush slang’ word ‘dispersal’ was often used as a convenient euphemism for ‘wholesale massacre’. Other euphemisms such as ‘clear the area’, ‘pacify’, ‘teach them a lesson’, ‘affray’, ‘collision’, or ‘fell upon’ were also used.

Frontier massacres are sometimes alluded to in placenames, such as Skull Creek, Waterloo Plains, or Blackfellows Bones Bore, and in others, the word ‘murdering’ such as ‘Murdering Gully’ appears. Places are also sometimes named after colonists who have committed frontier massacres. They include the town, ‘Bunbury’ in Western Australia, named after Lieutenant William Bunbury who was the key perpetrator in several frontier massacres in 1836-7. ‘Coutts Crossing’ in New South Wales, is named after settler Thomas Coutts who poisoned 14 Aboriginal people in the 1840s.

Unlike ‘genocide’, there is no legal definition of massacre, or a ‘frontier massacre’. Most international scholars of massacre appear to agree that the minimum number of people killed to constitute a massacre is between three and ten people (Dwyer and Ryan 2012: xiv-xv).

In this project, a colonial frontier massacre is defined as the deliberate and unlawful killing of six or more undefended people in one operation.

The definition applies to the frontier massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Colonists. The number, six, has been selected because of the devastating impact on these people.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as Barbara A. Mann points out, most hunter/forager people operate in groups of about twenty people. The killing of an undefended group of six or more of them in one operation, comprises 30% of the group, which Mann terms a ‘fractal massacre’. The impact is immediate and devastating. The survivors are immediately vulnerable to further attack, such as the kidnapping of women and children. They are impeded in their ability to hunt and forage for food, reproduce the next generation and carry out ceremonial obligations to ‘Country’. They are also vulnerable to introduced disease. (Mann 2013: 167-183) In the longer term they are often forced to join other Aboriginal groups, or surrender to Colonists.

For Colonists and other non-Aboriginal people, a frontier massacre of six or more undefended people can also have immediate and devastating impact. Frontier colonist communities were isolated, mostly male, and usually consisted of only a few families. Of the thirteen frontier massacres of colonists included on the digital map, four of them include the survivors of shipwrecks on the Australian coast. Two others involve the slaughter of colonial men alone and the remainder include the killing of colonial families. In all but two cases, the frontier massacres of non-Aboriginal people generated reprisal massacres of extraordinary scale and impact.
Euphemisms for frontier massacre

While some frontier massacres were widely publicised, in most cases a code of silence was imposed in colonial communities in the immediate aftermath. Frontier massacres were only referred to indirectly. According to The Queenslander, 1 May 1880, p.560, the ‘bush slang’ word ‘dispersal’ was often used as a convenient euphemism for ‘wholesale massacre’. Other euphemisms such as ‘clear the area’, ‘pacify’, ‘teach them a lesson’, ‘affray’, ‘collision’, or ‘fell upon’ were also used.

Frontier massacres are sometimes alluded to in placenames, such as Skull Creek, Waterloo Plains, or Blackfellows Bones Bore, and in others, the word ‘murdering’ such as ‘Murdering Gully’ appears. Places are also sometimes named after colonists who have committed frontier massacres. They include the town, ‘Bunbury’ in Western Australia, named after Lieutenant William Bunbury who was the key perpetrator in several frontier massacres in 1836-7. ‘Coutts Crossing’ in New South Wales, is named after settler Thomas Coutts who poisoned 14 Aboriginal people in the 1840s.

Massacre

For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.

Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.

But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.


Read more: DNA reveals a new history of the First Australians


We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.

 

The massacre at Sturt Creek

Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.

This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.

It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.

These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.

We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.

Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.

The search for evidence

Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.

The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.

But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.

Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.

For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.

Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.

But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.


Read more: DNA reveals a new history of the First Australians


We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.

The Sturt Creek Massacre: the full undated painting by artists Launa Yoomarri and Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. The Aboriginal prisoners are chained between two trees. The four figures (two left and two right) hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goat yard, and both contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones on either side of the creek, Sturt Creek, represent the ‘milky’ coloured water of Sturt Creek and the black stone along the banks are what Daisy Kungah described as purrkuji, the jupilkarn (cormorants) in the dreamtime. Kuningarra School, Billiluna Aboriginal Community, Western Australia., Author provided

The massacre at Sturt Creek

Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.

This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.

Map showing the location of Sturt Creek Station and the study area on Sturt Creek, southeast Kimberley Region, Western Australia. Robert Keane, Spatial Systems Analyst, Flinders University, Author provided

It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.

These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.

Dr Keryn Walshe (right) talking to members of the descent group at the massacre site. Pam Smith, Author provided

We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.

Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.

The search for evidence

Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.

The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.

But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.

One of ten scrapes made in the dry stone wall enclosure. Scrapes into the loose top soil revealed burnt bone, all highly fragmented and embedded in burnt soil. Pam Smith

Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.

Bone fragment No 2 from the Sturt Creek site. Author provided

Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.

This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.

Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.

This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.

An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.

Recognition of a massacre

Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.

Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.


Read more: Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago


This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.

Memorial erected at the Sturt Creek massacre site by the descendants in 2011. John Griffiths, Author provided

They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.

We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.

Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.

We ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.

Transforming Lives: First Nations Job Opportunities Flourish with Solar Farm Project

0
Driving past the sprawling 600-hectare solar farm in Narrandera, Bel Atkinson proudly tells her children, "I built that out there." The high-tech marvel of...

Nine key lies told about the Voice to Parliament

0
“No” campaigners Kerrynne Liddle, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Nyunggai Warren Mundine and Michaelia Cash. The ‘disinformation’ (read: lies and bullshit) being propagated about the indigenous...

The astonishing lies of the no campaign burn like lurid rockets...

0
I can’t believe this old line is running wild again. We have had land rights decisions (“They’re gonna take your house and barbecue pit,...

Colonists upended Aboriginal farming, growing grain and running sheep on rich...

0
Yam daisies on the left, cattle on the right. Cutting out the cattle, Kangatong/Eugene Von Guerard, 1856 , CC BY-SA Bill Gammage, Australian National University First Nations...

Why The Voice will lead to better government decision-making

0
Olympic champion Cathy Freeman has called on “all Australians” to vote Yes for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament while declaring her support.The Aboriginal and...