We’re only human. We hang on to lies that comfort us. A big consoling lie that still hangs around this history of slaughter and dispossession is that we can’t apply the outlook of the 21st century to killings on the frontier.
Tell that to those who denounced the crimes as they were being committed. Theirs was real time rage. “It is a fitful war of extermination waged upon the blacks, something after the fashion which other settlers wage war upon noxious wild beasts,” wrote Carl Feilberg, editor of the Queenslander in 1880.
“The savages, hunted from the places where they have been accustomed to find food, driven into barren ranges, shot like wild dogs at sight … ”
As war raged in the bush, a parallel campaign was fought in the newspapers of the country. Those outraged by the killings called on Christ more than we would these days. Their language was at times pompous and arch. They could be fiercely longwinded. But their verdict was absolutely 21st century: this was murder.
Lieutenant John O’Connell Bligh led his native troopers on a killing spree in Maryborough in February 1860. In gratitude, the citizens of the town got up a fund to present him with a ceremonial sword inscribed with suitable words of thanks. The result was a newspaper war that ran for a year.
The presentation of the sword was condemned in the Maryborough Chronicle as “one of the most disgraceful acts ever perpetrated by any community, a blot so foul and deep-stained as will leave on this otherwise fair portion of God’s earth the brand of eternal infamy”.
The Moreton Bay Courier gave the details: “Mr. Bligh … charged a camp near Mr. Melville’s, drove the poor creatures from it – some through the town, some into the river – and commenced butchering them forthwith. ‘Darkey,’ who had been constantly employed in the town – who could have been apprehended at any moment, had there been any desire, or occasion, was shot down opposite Mr, Palmer’s, where his body was left, and subsequently roasted.
“‘Young Snatchem’, an excellent and industrious black, was driven into the river, near the public wharf, – scores of men, women, and children stood by, and Lieut. John O’Connell Bligh stationed himself in the bow of a boat, which was in readiness, and forty or fifty shots were actually fired, five or six by Mr. Bligh himself. The boat overtook him (the black) in an exhausted state, and the ‘gallant hero’ – the deserver of a sword – lowered his carbine, and shot the defenceless, tired, unresisting wretch, in the back.”
I was up in Maryborough recently. It’s a town that commemorates everything about itself. Olympians’ names are set in the footpaths. Even old journalists like Margo Kingston and Quentin Dempster are honoured for being born in the town. Witty pedestrian lights celebrate PL Travers’s childhood years in Maryborough: GO is a green Mary Poppins in flight.
The new Anzac memorial in the park must have cost millions. A soundtrack of marching feet plays night and day. And in the museum down by the wharf is a fine memorial to the South Sea Islanders brought to cut cane in this stretch of Queensland. It reads: “The grim trade was, in reality, little better than slavery.”
But the men Bligh killed are uncommemorated. Nor could I find a memorial anywhere in Maryborough to the dead – white and black – in the battles fought up and down the river in the early years of the town. I asked around. No one knew of anything. Too soon, perhaps.
The frontier massacres would be so much easier to face if we hadn’t realised back then what they meant. But we did
We don’t need plaques. Newspapers are evidence we knew exactly what was going on back then. The papers fought both sides of the war. The slaughters were denounced and defended. Writers urged pastoralists on to further acts of savagery. Others said: we must never forget that this is their land.
Few put their names to these opinions. In these furious exchanges they signed themselves “A Squatter” and “Bunya Bunya” and “Quelque Chose” and “Outis”. Scholars are still trying to untangle their identities.
The sweep of the rhetoric was imperial. In 1868 Freeman’s Journal compared the work of the native police with the destruction of the Aztecs and Incas.
“Those who have read English histories of the conquest of South America by the Spaniards must have been greatly edified by the indignant denunciations of the cruelties practiced upon the natives by the invaders.
“We have little doubt that we should surprise many of our readers, even among those who do not believe in Anglo-Saxon impeccability, if we were to plainly tell them that atrocities, fully as bad as were attributed to the Spaniards of two hundred years ago, are committed at the present day with the consent and approbation of an Australian Government.”
Also with an undeniable 21st century ring is the abuse of the defenders as pious and out of touch with reality. Between then and now only the language has changed. Virtue signalling would be the accusation today, followed by some pithy insults about inner city life and a taste for coffee.
The night the citizens of Maryborough met at the courthouse to offer him a sword, Bligh’s critics were denounced as “croakers”. The Moreton Bay Courier reported Mr Howard in full flight: “Some of those gentlemen should have been in Maryborough as long as he had, should have heard, seen, and felt the merciless outrages the wretches, called by the croakers ‘the poor blacks’, had committed, and he had little hesitation in saying their tone would be changed.”
Newspaper reports of massacres in Queensland made their way around the world. In the winter of 1867, after the theft of tea and sugar from a store, the native police raided a camp on the edge of the Morinish goldfield. One of the miners wrote to the Rockhampton Bulletin. He didn’t need a century or so to work out what had happened here. He could see it with his own eyes.
“At the fire nearest to the Creek, which separates the camp from the township, and around which a number of blacks apparently had been sleeping, two pools of blood and brains showed where foul murder had been perpetrated, and a gin’s clothing, all stained with blood, was also found, exactly as if the unfortunate blacks had just left the articles on finding herself wounded.
“A little further on, close to a fire, where one person, probably an old man, had passed the night, another puddle of blood and brains were found, and the surrounding ground bore all the traces of the flight of wounded men, and of dead bleeding bodies having been dragged over it. The first body discovered was that of a black boy called Tommy … a well-known character in the district.
“The poor fellow was found lying in a water hole with three wounds, one through the arm, another through the chest, and a third through the brain. The next corpse found was a little lubra, stiff and stark, concealed under a bush.”
Henry Reynolds reports the miner’s account landed on the desk of the secretary of state for the colonies in London who promised to draw the matter to the attention of Queensland’s governor.
Nothing much happened. The commander of the troopers that day was sacked – one of the few who met such a fate in the history of the native police. Bligh was untouched. He went on to command the force and ended up a magistrate in the town where he committed his very public murders.
The frontier massacres would be so much easier to face if we hadn’t realised back then what they meant. But we did. There were voices back then speaking in newspapers, in pulpits and in parliaments with great clarity, responding to the killings exactly as we would expect good people to respond today.
But those voices didn’t carry the day. The killings went on.
• The Killing Times is based on data from the Colonial Frontier Massacre Digital Map Project led by Prof Lyndall Ryan at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for the 21st Century Humanities.