Wardandi Massacre

John Molloy

The Wardandi are the language group within the Noongars whose home territory in south western Western Australia encompasses the coastal land from Bunbury south to Cape Leeuwin (map). The region was most famously settled (ie. commandeered) by the Bussell family, in 1839, but among the original white settlers were John Molloy and his now well-known wife Georgiana.

Jessica White, who is writing an ecobiography of Georgiana Molloy (here), wrote in her end of year (2017) mailout:

I had an essay published in the Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature on my research on John Molloy’s role in a massacre in 1841. This involved painstakingly piecing together accounts in the archives and newspapers, and attending to the language that was used.

and it is this essay and her account of the massacre and its subsequent denial that I wish to review.

The events leading to the massacre(s) began on 22 Feb, 1841. Some Noongars were employed in threshing wheat on the farm of Molloy’s neighbour George Layman, and some Noongar women were employed in the house. A dispute arose over payment (in damper) and Noongar man Gayware approached Layman. Layman grabbed Gayware by the beard and shook him, Gayware speared him and Layman struggled inside and died.

Molloy, as local magistrate, raised a party of settlers and workers (one account says ‘soldiers’), pursued and surrounded the Noongars, killing seven, and then subsequently pursued a larger body of Noongar north towards Bunbury where many more were killed around ‘Lake Mininup’. (Wonnerup, Layman’s property, is a few kilometres north of present-day Busselton and Minninup another 15 km or so up the coast.)

White has put together her account from newspapers, diaries, official records and Noongar oral histories. She writes:

As I pieced together these documents and attended to their language, I realised that the massacre had been depicted in such a way as to obfuscate John Molloy’s role. I also came to understand that this role had been covered, uncovered and contested over the ensuing years.

The earliest contemporary ‘account’ is the diary of Frances Bussell which records on the evening of 27 Feb, “Captain Molloy drank tea here. 7 natives killed.” Any further information is lost as the pages from 5 to 25 Feb have been torn out.

A newspaper account, in the Inquirer of 10 Mar 1841 (here), of the initial reprisals following the death of Layman states that “five or six natives were shot to death. Unfortunately the actual murderer was not amongst the killed.” And interestingly, “It is certainly to be regretted that any native, not being the actual murderer, should have been slain in the encounter; but supposing all that we hear to be correct, the result is at least excusable if even not justifiable.” This account follows Molloy’s official report that he acted after hearing threats against himself by Gayware while he was observing a Noongar campfire from a position of hiding.

The most graphic account of the second part of the massacre is in Warren Bert Kimberley’s History of Western Australia (1897):

Colonel (sic) Molloy ordered his soldiers to prepare to march, and he took command of them and the chief settlers in the south-western districts. He gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men. A strong and final lesson must be taught to the blacks. All were well armed. Into the remote places this party went, bent on killing without mercy…  Isolated natives were killed during the first few days, and, so it is said, some women among them, but the main body had hidden from the terrible white men. A few parties fled from the threatened districts to the southern coast, and escaped. The majority hid in the thick bush around Lake Mininup. Although several natives were killed, the settlers and soldiers were not satisfied… Here and there a native was killed, and the others seeing that their hiding place was discovered fled before the determined force. They rushed to a sand patch beyond Lake Mininup…  The soldiers pushed on, and surrounded the black men on the sand patch. There was now no escape for the fugitives, and their vacuous cries of terror mingled with the reports of the white men’s guns. Native after native was shot, and the survivors, knowing that orders had been given not to shoot the women, crouched on their knees, covered their bodies with their bokas, and cried, ‘Me yokah’ (woman). The white men had no mercy. The black men were killed by dozens, and their corpses lined the route of march of the avengers.

James Battye (after whom our principal library is named) in Western Australia: A History (1924) attempts to excuse all the bones at Lake Mininup:

In 1841 there occurred an incident which, if true, can only be described as an act of atrocious cruelty and savagery on the part of some of the settlers in the south west … An avenging party under Captain Molloy set out and, it is said, ultimately succeeded in surrounding the whole body of natives on an open sand patch …

No records of the encounter exist, and it is more than likely that it has been built up to account for the collection of bones, which in all probability represents an aboriginal burial-ground…

White’s is an excellent account of how Molloy in particular but officialdom in general used weasel words and indirect language to obscure what even the newspapers called “not justifiable” killings. Let us leave the last word to an oral history collected by Whadjuk/Barladong scholar Len Collard in A Nyungar Interpretation of Ellensbrook and Wonnerup Homesteads (1994):

“The first mob was caught, was just the other side of the Capel River (Mollakup). When I was a little boy we found some skulls up there. One of them had a bullet in it, it had gone through the forehead and just sticking out the back. There was quite a few with holes knocked in them in the skulls and the next mob they caught was at Muddy Lake (Mininup) that’s this side of Bunbury and then they chased the other right through Australind somewhere around Australind area they caught up they killed some more there and the rest got away.”

Molloy of course was never brought to account for the murders that occurred under his command, and over time his role was ‘forgotten’, not least by Georgiana Molloy’s biographers. Happy Black Armband Day.

Jessica White, ‘Paper Talk’, Testimony and Forgetting in South-West Western Australia, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2017/1 here

I’m not sure this massacre has an ‘official name, though it appears in at least some (recent) accounts as Wonnerup Massacre. Googling “Wardandi Massacre” brings up a lot of information on this and other massacres.

see also:
Report in Western Mail of 26 June 1914 (here)
Nov. 2019: Massacre Map updated to include WA (here)
My posts:
Australian Genocide, Sydney NSW, 1779 (here)
The ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra, Pinjarra WA, 1834 (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Cocanarup (Kukenarup) Massacre, Cocanarup Station, Ravensthorpe WA, 1880s (here)
Kimberley Massacres, 1886-1924 (here)
also in WA:
Flying Foam Massacre, in the Pilbara, 1868 (here)
Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)

29 thoughts on “Wardandi Massacre

      • But I am starting to think with #ChangeTheDate Australia Day, that really what is needed is a new celebration, that we can build up to be a really beaut day for everyone, so that instead of the current conflict which is going to nowhere and just entrenching positions, we would have an alternative that everyone enjoys and it would just naturally displace what we have (which is really a Sydney day anyway).


      • The problem with Australia Day (for us) is that it so perfectly marks the end of the summer holidays. And Aust politics is so Sydney centric these days – since Keating and Howard – that being Sydney’s foundation day is probably a plus. I think that as society becomes.more aware that the Aborigines didn’t just fade away, they were actively hunted and killed, then CTD will develop the same.momentum as gay marriage. In our lifetimes? Maybe not.


  1. Very good post, I hope more accounts like this actually go into the history books- with more truth about the past, we will be able to better move forward as a nation


  2. My take on the Wonnerup massacre is that the British felt threatened by the Dutch ancestry
    ( Riddercschap van Holland survivors) of some of the aboriginals, due to the illegal claiming of Australia after the 1642 Dutch claim. The unpatriotic to Australia historians should be deported back to their motherland for vandalizing our history.


  3. Lisa Hill, changing the date and naming Wattle Day would benefit the some taking the building focus away from injustice toward Aboriginals and pre Cook European residents.


    • Changing the date is at least an acknowledgement that white settlement was contested. It will be a while though before mealy mouthed politicians acknowledge the scale of the killings, not to mention other oppressions, such as slave labour and indefinite imprisonment.


  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Bill! Glad that you were able to use this piece to bring up convos about #ChangetheDate (esp., as you mention, our asinine politicians are not champing at the bit to do anything about it).


  5. Only a matter of time before Molloy, Layman, Peel, Stirling, DeBurgh and rest of their henchmen are outed for their orchestrated genocidal solution towards the Nyoongar Nation.


  6. Loved reading about my ancestors even though it is all so tragic & sad, and should never have happened, thank you so much Wadholloway…


  7. Have been awhere of this story since my teenage years from Wadandi friends of mine and i know for them that area has a terrible effect on them and its very sad to see you see it runs deep inside them and it makes me feel a terrible shame as a Wogila and im sorry. Thanks for putting it out there needs to be told.


    • Thanks for commenting Mick. When we as a society are ready to acknowledge just how violent white settlement was, it will be an important first step towards reconciliation, I think.


  8. Suggest you carry out more research – W.B. Kimberly (whom you quote) was only a compiler of other people’s opinions, he was not an Historian. There are many newspaper articles of the era (some at the time of Western Australia’s Centenary 1929) which provide wider insight. For example, the Minimup sandpatch is described as a likely aboriginal burial ground and where women fought with wombas. Many authors colour their writings including Kimberly. These important historical events of our pioneering history should not be based on conjecture – there is minimal documentation on the Layman murder and subsequent events so guesses should not be presented as fact. Bottom line is today we enjoy Western Australia thanks to our pioneers. Lucky the British colonised and not a country with a more harsh attitude.


    • I am not a researcher, but attempt to accurately report on the research of others, in this case Jess White (whom I wholeheartedly support).
      I find over and over in writing these accounts that the newspapers of the day, in the C19th anyway, were quite open about reporting, and sometimes encouraging, settler attacks on Indigenous communities.


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