The Myall Creek massacre involved the killing of up to 30 unarmed Indigenous Australians by ten white Europeans and one black African on 10 June 1838 at the Myall Creek near Bingara in northern New South Wales. After two trials, seven of the 11 colonists involved in the killings were found guilty of murder and hanged.
A group of eleven stockmen, consisting of assigned convicts and former convicts, ten of them men of European extraction and one African (John Johnstone), led by a squatter, John Fleming from Mungie Bundie Run near Moree, arrived at Henry Dangar’s Myall Creek station on 10 June 1838. They rode up to the station huts beside which were camped a group of approximately thirty-five Aboriginal people. They were part of the Wirrayaraay (alternative spelling: Weraerai) group who belonged to the Kamilaroi people. They had been camped at the station for a few weeks after being invited by one of the convict stockmen, Charles Kilmeister (or Kilminister), to come to their station for their safety and protection from the gangs of marauding stockmen who were roaming the district slaughtering any Aboriginal people they could find. These Aboriginal people had previously been camped peacefully at McIntyre’s station for a few months. They were therefore well known to the whites. Most of them had been given European names such as Daddy, King Sandy, Joey, Martha and Charley. Some of the children spoke a certain amount of English. When the stockmen rode into their camp they fled into the convict’s hut pleading for protection.
When asked by the station hut keeper, George Anderson, what they were going to do with the Aboriginal people, John Russell said they were going to “take them over the back of the range and frighten them.” The stockmen then entered the hut, tied them to a long tether rope and led them away. They took them to a gully on the side of the ridge about 800 metres to the west of the station huts. There they slaughtered them all except for one woman who they kept with them for the next couple of days. The approximately 28 people they murdered were largely women, children and old men. Ten younger men were away on a neighbouring station cutting bark. Most of the people were slaughtered with swords as George Anderson, who refused to join the massacre, clearly heard there were just two shots. Unlike Anderson, Charles Kilmeister joined the slaughter.
Testimony was later given at trial that the children had been beheaded while the men and women were forced to run as far as they could between the stockyard fence and a line of sword-wielding stockmen who hacked at them as they passed. After the massacre, Fleming and his gang rode off looking to kill the remainder of the group, who they knew had gone to the neighbouring station. They failed to find the other Aboriginal people as they had returned to Myall that night and left after being warned the killers would be returning. On the party’s return to Myall two days later, they dismembered and burnt the bodies before resuming the search for the remaining people. The ten people had gone to MacIntyre’s station near Inverell, 40 kilometres to the east, where between 30 and 40 Aboriginal people were reportedly murdered with their bodies being cast onto a large fire. Many suspect this massacre was also committed by the same stockmen. After several days of heavy drinking the party dispersed.
When the manager of the station, William Hobbs, returned several days later and discovered the bodies, counting up to twenty eight of them (as they were beheaded and dismembered he had difficulty determining the exact number) he decided to report the incident but Kilmeister initially talked him out of it. Hobbs discussed it with a neighbouring station overseer, Thomas Foster, who told squatter Frederick Foot who rode to Sydney to report it to the new Governor, George Gipps. Supported by the Attorney General, John Plunkett, Gipps ordered Police Magistrate Edward Denny Day at Muswellbrook to investigate the massacre.
Day carried out a thorough investigation despite the bodies having been removed from the massacre site where only a few bone fragments remained. He arrested eleven of the twelve perpetrators. The only one to escape was the only free man involved, the leader, John Fleming. Anderson was crucial in identifying the arrested men. He had initially refused to name the men involved but after finding out that the massacre had been planned more than a week earlier to coincide with the absence of Hobbs he agreed to identify the killers to the magistrate.
Beginning on 15 November 1838, the case was heard before the Chief Justice of New South Wales, James Dowling. The accused were represented by three of the colony’s foremost barristers, Foster, a’Beckett and Windeyer, paid for by an association of landowners and stockmen from the Hunter Valley and Liverpool Plains region including Henry Dangar, the owner of the Myall Creek station. The Black Association, as they called themselves, were led by a local magistrate, who apparently used the influence of his office to gain access to the prisoners in Sydney, where he told them to “stick together and say nothing.” Not one of the eleven accused gave evidence against their co-accused at the trial, something that Gipps attributes to the magistrate’s role.
The station hutkeeper, George Anderson, the only white witness, was the key witness for the prosecution. He told the court how the twelve men had tied the victims together, and led them away. He also said that Edward Foley, one of the perpetrators, had shown him a sword covered with blood. Anderson’s testimony was supported by William Hobbs and Magistrate Day, who had conducted the police investigation. The defence’s case solely rested on the argument that the bodies could not be identified accurately.
Justice Dowling took care to remind the jury that the law made no distinction between the murder of an Aboriginal person and the murder of a European person. The jury, after deliberating for just twenty minutes, found all eleven men not guilty. One of the jurors was alleged in a letter to the editor of The Australian on 8 December 1838 to have said privately that although he considered the men guilty of murder, he could not convict a white man of killing an Aboriginal person:
“I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black.” The letter writer who had reported this outrage went on to say, “I leave you, Sir, and the community to determine on the fitness of this white savage to perform the office of a juryman under any circumstance…”
Attorney-General Plunkett however requested the judge to remand the prisoners in custody awaiting further charges from the same incident. Although all eleven were remanded in custody only seven were to face a second trial. The second trial was held on 27 November but only 28 of the 48 called up for jury service turned up, it later came to light that the Black Association had intimidated many into staying away. The trial restarted on 29 November under a different judge. Anderson, who had been the key witness at the first trial, gave an even more lucid account of the massacre at the second trial. He told the court that:
“While Master was away, some men came on a Saturday, about 10; I cannot say how many days after master left; they came on horseback, armed with muskets and swords and pistols; all were armed… the blacks, when they saw the men coming, ran into our hut, and the men then, all of them, got off their horses; I asked what they were going to do with the blacks, and Russel said ‘We are going to take them over the back of the range, to frighten them’.”
Anderson then gave evidence that the Aboriginal people in the hut had cried out to him for assistance. He said two women were left behind at the huts, one “because she was good-looking, they said so,” and that there was a young child who had been left behind, who attempted to follow its mother (who was tied up with the others), before Anderson carried it back to the hut. There were also two other young boys who had escaped by hiding in the creek.
Anderson also gave evidence about the perpetrators’ return and the burning of the bodies.
“I [Anderson] saw smoke in the same direction they went; this was soon after they went with the firesticks… Fleming told Kilmeister to go up by-and-by and put the logs of wood together, and be sure that all [of the remains] was consumed… the girls they left, and the two boys, and the child I sent away with 10 black fellows that went away in the morning… I did not like to keep them, as the men might come back and kill them.”
Anderson said that he wanted to speak the whole truth at the second trial. He also said that he did not seek to be rewarded for testifying, rather he asked “only for protection.” The trial continued until 2 am on 30 November, when the seven men were found guilty. On 5 December they were sentenced to execution by hanging. The sentence was ratified by the Executive Council of New South Wales on 7 December, with Gipps later saying in a report that no mitigating circumstances could be shown for any of the defendants, and it could not be said that any of the men were more or less guilty than the rest. The seven men, Charles Kilmeister, James Oates, Edward Foley, John Russell, John Johnstone, William Hawkins and James Parry, were executed early on the morning of 18 December 1838. The four remaining accused, Blake, Toulouse, Palliser and Lamb, were remanded until the next session to allow time for the main witness against them, an Aboriginal boy named Davey, to be prepared in order to take a Bible oath. According to the missionary, Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, Dangar had arranged for Davey to be put out of the way and he was never seen again. With Davey unable to be located, the four were discharged in February 1839.
Recent research has shown that Europeans had been hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people on at least two occasions prior to Myall Creek. In 1820, two convicts, John Kirby and John Thompson, attempted to escape from the colony but were captured by local Aborigines and returned to Newcastle. A military party accompanied by two constables set out to meet them and Kirby was seen by the party to stab Burragong (alias King Jack) whereupon he was felled by a waddy. Burragong initially appeared to recover, stating that he was murry bujjery (much recovered) and collected his reward of a “suit of clothing”, however, he later complained of illness and died from his wound 10 days after being injured and Kirby and Thompson were both tried for “willful murder”. All the European witnesses testified that “no blow was struck by any native” before Kirby attacked Burragong, Thompson was acquitted while Kirby was found guilty and sentenced to death with his body to be “dissected and anatomized.”
The Myall Creek massacre was the first and only time in Australia’s history that Europeans were executed for the massacre of Australian Aborigines.
The case led to significant uproar among sections of the population and the media, sometimes voiced in favour of the perpetrators. For example, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald declared that “the whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time”.
John Fleming, the leader of the massacre, was never captured, and was allegedly responsible for further massacres throughout the Liverpool Plains and New England regions. His brother, Joseph Fleming, was also linked to massacres in the Maranoa region of south-western Queensland.
John Blake, one of the four men acquitted at the first trial and not subsequently charged, committed suicide by cutting his throat in 1852. His descendants say that they like to think he did so out of a guilty conscience.
Those executed, on 18 December 1838, were: Charles Kilmeister, James Oates, Edward Foley, John Russell, John Johnstone, William Hawkins and James Parry.
The Myall Creek massacre was just one of many massacres that took place in that district (the Liverpool Plains) around that time. There were many other massacres that took place right across the colony as it expanded across more and more Aboriginal land. As elsewhere in the colony, the Aborigines at times put up resistance to the invasion of their land by spearing sheep and cattle for food and sometimes attacking the stockmen’s huts and killing the white men. In the Liverpool Plains district there had been some cattle speared and huts attacked and two whites murdered (allegedly by Aborigines). The squatters complained to the acting Governor Snodgrass who sent Major James Nunn and about twenty-two troopers up to the district. Nunn enlisted the assistance of up to twenty-five local stockmen and together they rode around the district rounding up and slaughtering any Aborigines they came across. Nunn’s campaign culminated in the Australia Day Massacre of 1838 at Waterloo Creek. As there are no definitive historical records available it is impossible to accurately determine the exact number of Aborigines who were slaughtered there but estimates range from forty to over one hundred.
When Nunn returned to Sydney, many of the local squatters and stockmen continued the “drive” against the Aborigines. The perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre were some who continued that relentless slaughter. The Aborigines killed at Myall Creek were not involved in any of the spearing of cattle or the attacks on stockmen’s huts that were occurring elsewhere as they had been living peacefully on McIntyre’s and Wiseman’s stations for many months prior to moving to Myall Creek. They simply got caught up with the colonist’s desires to drive them off their land so they could continue with the expansion of the colony.
In his book, Blood on the Wattle, journalist Bruce Elder says that the successful prosecutions resulted in pacts of silence becoming a common practice to avoid sufficient evidence becoming available for future prosecutions. Another effect, as one contemporary Sydney newspaper reported, was that poisoning Aborigines became more common as “a safer practice”. Many massacres were to go unpunished due to these practices, as what is variously called a ‘conspiracy’ or ‘pact’ or ‘code’ of silence fell over the killings of Aborigines.
A memorial to the victims of the massacre was unveiled on 10 June 2000, consisting of a granite rock and plaque overlooking the site of the massacre. A ceremony is held each year on 10 June commemorating the victims. The memorial was vandalised in January 2005, with the words “murder”, “women” and “children” chiselled off, in an attempt to make it unreadable. The location is described as 23 km north east of Bingara at the junction of Bingara-Delungra and Whitlow Roads.
The Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site was included on the Australian National Heritage List 7 June 2008.