Macquarie’s proclamation and its significance

4 May 2020

Why are Australians so desperate to cling to a sense of nobility in the foundations of so called Australia when the truth is far from it? Because we continue to romanticise the colonial experience as a pioneering event rather than the event of invasion it was.

On 4 May 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued a proclamation which declared that no Aboriginal person could carry ‘offensive weapons’ within a mile of a white settlement.

“And although it is to be apprehended that some few innocent Men, Women, and Children may have fallen in these Conflicts, yet it is earnestly to be hoped that this unavoidable Result, and the Severity which has attended it, will eventually strike Terror amongst the surviving Tribes, and deter them from the further Commission of such sanguinary Outrages and Barbarities.”

There had been several of these conflicts by 1816, but the most recent at the time was the Appin massacre, the month prior.

The Sydney-basin area was an area of resistance, a resistance that Governor Macquarie grew tired of. So he then resorted to a more organised violence and ordered a military raid comprising three separate detachments of soldiers with orders to capture or kill any Aboriginal people they encountered.

Macquarie’s personal reflections were recorded in his diary entry for April 10, 1816 in which he states that his principal aim was to strike fear and terror into survivors so that the resistance was ceased. He wanted those killed to be hung in trees and also wanted his men to “procure” twelve “fine, healthy and good looking” Aboriginal boys and six girls for his “native institution.”

A first-hand account from the diary of James Wallis reveals that under orders from Governor Macquarie, he along with Captain WBG Schaw and Lieutenant Charles Dawe of the 46th Regiment led expeditions against Aboriginal people in the Nepean, Hawkesbury and Grose valleys and the Liverpool district. He recounted that they crept up on the Aboriginal people camped near Appin in the early hours of the morning and fired upon them.

It was recorded that fourteen Aboriginal people were killed which included women, children and elderly and there were five women and children captured.

Following this massacre, Macquarie issued the proclamation that said Aboriginal people could not gather in groups of six or more near white settlement, peaceful Aboriginal persons should be issued with passports, and all Aboriginal ‘brawling’ in Sydney was prohibited.

Following the issue of the proclamation in the Government Gazette, Macquarie wrote to Earl Bathurst who was his superior officer based in England and seems to be purposely vague in how he articulated the events of the evening of the massacre to the Earl. Whether he was proud of the outcome or attempting to appear in control and cover up for appearances sake to his superior is not apparent but, in any event, largely irrelevant given he was ultimately responsible. We do know from historical records that no-one involved in the massacre was brought to account after the fact. He said that there was “some resistance” and that among the dead were “two of the most ferocious and Sanguinary of the Natives” and concluded that his men has acted “perfectly in conformity to the instructions I had furnished them.”

The archival records of his men reveal that there was no resistance and this was a massacre – mandated by Macquarie who wished to force European dominance. This violence as a strategy was used widely, the decimation of the Sydney Aboriginal communities was followed by killings in the Bathurst region. On the north coast, in the New England ranges, along the Darling, in Queensland and in Victoria. This set the tone for what would follow for the next one hundred plus years.

Why then do we have contemporary Australian historians (or journalists who purport to be historians) and academics seeking to glorify Macquarie?

There is this seeming penchant for making heroes out of villains and the motive for this is lost on me. We know that the motives of the Windschuttles and Bolts seek to justify the violence and downplay the truth of the massacres, rapes and genocidal policies and practices – but the others that blindly accept that Governor Macquarie was a figure in history to be revered confuse me.

I cannot tell whether it is willful ignorance, whether there is a vehement maintenance of the narrative or a need to be deferential to title and with it – apparent dignity. Whatever the motive is, it undermines the credibility of historical writing if it fails to draw the appropriate links between not only the contemporaneous sources as evidence of what occurred but the links between events and subsequent events.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie may have had a title and he may have been a talented politician by the standards of Europeans at the time (which is not saying much), but he was also an invader that strategised to suppress and oppress Aboriginal people. He did this through violence that he mandated and then framed publicly as a justifiable occurrence that was in response to Aboriginal violence. Aboriginal violence that was viewed through the lens of the coloniser, not Aboriginal resistance viewed through the eyes of the dispersed and oppressed Aboriginal people. The distinction is an important one and goes to the white supremacist origins of invasion and subsequent discourse of historical events post-1788.

We – as people – are aware of the behaviour of political figures and the motivations that sit behind it. We know how to examine evidence and draw the appropriate lines between evidence in order to credibly assess the truth of moments and events in history.

Are we so bereft of figures of decency throughout the colonial history of this country that we seek to glorify those that mandated massacres? We know this is not true as there are many remarkable people throughout history, far more deserving than Macquarie to be remembered, so why does he have the monument and they do not?

Why are Australians so desperate to cling to a sense of nobility in the foundations of so called Australia when the truth is far from it?

Because we continue to romanticise the colonial experience as a pioneering event rather than the event of invasion it was. It remains a part of this country’s make up to erase the truth and experience of Indigenous people in favour of the inspiring narrative of ‘fair go’ and ‘opportunity.’

Australia is and remains far too immature to grapple with its truth. Australia has and continues to erase our experiences from the realm of relevance when judging history. Until truth and inclusive critical analysis of history takes place will we have a chance to learn from it as a country.

If Australia was mature and ready to face its truth – it would tear down the monuments of these reprehensible figures in our history, rename streets, parks and universities and tell the truth to our children in our history books.

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