The last several months has seen a renewed focus on Aboriginal history: the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for ‘truth telling about our history’ and this year’s National Reconciliation week theme emphasised ‘Don’t Keep History A Mystery’; the theme for NAIDOC week – Because of Her, We Can– draws attention to the particular role Indigenous women have played in the past and their influence in the present.
These themes reveal an ongoing concern about the role of history and historians in not just remembering the past, but how history informs government and citizenry to engage in remedy.
In settler societies, such as Australia, differences between historians about the past have become the site for major political contestation, debate and anxiety as the very foundation of the nation is called into question. In Australia, we have seen a general pattern of increasing marginalization of Aboriginal people from the nation’s story in the twentieth century, a rapid uptake and revision commencing from the 1970s as part of wider social and cultural movements for change, and conservative backlash to the new history from the 1990s.
The ‘history wars’ debated historical truth, the relationship between the historian and the past, and questions of fact, value and interpretation carried more interest and harm than mere intellectual jousting.
These are the stories of Aboriginal lives, communities and country that provide a framework to understand the world around us and imagine a shared identity rooted in place. Ironically, the omission of Aboriginal people from the history books in the 20thcenturywas less likelyin the 19thcentury when historians were more likely to include Aboriginal people and an awareness of frontier conflict, however racist and patronizing the context.
A new series of essays titled ‘Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre’ (2018) edited by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan, that marks the 180-year anniversary of the massacre on the grasslands country of the Gomeroi people, contributes useful new work about early 19thCentury frontier violence and ways of commemorating and remembering. The place of the Myall Creek massacre in the history of frontier violence was remarkable in only a few ways. Foremost, was that it was the first and only episode during the colonial period, or even after the federation of the Australian states in 1901, as Mark Tedeschi, former Crown Prosecutor and legal scholar reminds us (2018), where white men were prosecuted for the murder of Aboriginal people. The prosecution of those perpetrators occurred in the face of almost universal hostility. There are rare instances, as in the 1838 published poem by Elizabeth Hamilton Dunlopabout the Myall Creek massacre titled ‘The Aboriginal Mother’, as Anna Johnston argues in her chapter (2018), where Aboriginal women’s views and emotions were considered by the settlers.
In the aftermath of the massacre and subsequent first ever trial of perpetrators, a shocking collusion among the new land owners emerged in defence of their assumed property – all without agreement or settlement and secured by violence. their settler position. The slaughtering of women, children and elderly occurred in circumstances where younger Gomeroi men who away working; and the sexual violence against selected surviving Gomeroi women defies human morality.
The outrage over the prosecution of perpetrators saw the white land-holders in the Liverpool Plains organise in defence of their new property – they secured more land and exercised greater political power in the colony. The leading figure in the massacre escaped incarceration and subsequent trial and penalty reveal collusion on the part of government and its police. The trial and international concerns over slavery are rare glimmers of hope in otherwise horror filled decades on grasslands country.
The Myall Creek massacre and the many others that took place across NSW in the opening decades of the colony intended to erase, exterminate and annihilate Aboriginal people; for women, where life was not swiftly taken, sexual violence and torment followed. For every generation I can count and for thousands more, my mother’s, mother’s, mother and so on, were born, and raised their own families, on this country. My great great grandmother, Emma Ruttley, is buried in Narrabri, her mother, Maryann, on a station near Bogabri and my grandmother in Inverell. They lived on the stations and properties in Narrabri, Wee Waa and the Pilliga. Their survival of those killing times over their land, where they witnessed as many as 90% of their people perish, and resilience and adaptability as they negotiated dramatic shifts in their lives is little understood.
In the year 2000 a car load of us family and friends set off from Sydney to attend the opening of the Myall Creek massacre memorial. I still recall the sadness and pain that whispered amongst the grass and trees as we made our way around the site, yet the most enduring feeling from that day was gratitude and sense of relief. Before the memorial, the pastoral station and creek occupied haunted ground in my imagination; driving from the city to visit family always met a heavy silence at that place, Myall Creek. Attending the opening of the memorial at the height of the peoples’ movement for reconciliation was transformative and for the first time, opened up the possibility of a ‘shared sense of history’.
I have never seen or known an event in Australia that deals with frontier violence where descendants of both perpetrators and victims share the story of their enduring, entangled lives. Descendants of perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre who lived in the nearby village towns stood alongside Gomeroi and Wirrayaraaysurvivors of the Myall Creek massacre. To witness those Australians owning their history was truly amazing. I thought them courageous and kind.
The 180-year anniversary of this particular massacre, with its unique body of evidence, serves to highlight the entanglement of empire, class, gender and race in authorizing the violent dispossession of Gomeroi people from their land, and many other groups.
The current debate over recognition of Indigenous Australians is the opportunity to consider how the past, in all its complexity, is remembered and remedied.