Mt Catherine Massacre

Buried in Print and I are read-alonging Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy in which, Nathan Hobby in his recent biography of Prichard says, KSP made a serious attempt to tell the Aboriginal side of the story, as well as that of all the white (mainly) men who rushed out to Southern Cross, Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and beyond, into the dry, mostly scrub country east of Perth, in search of gold.

Interestingly, her POV in book 1, The Roaring Nineties, at least, is a woman, Sally Gough who insists on accompanying her husband, Morrie. Sally, while camped at Hannan’s (Kalgoorlie) in 1895, makes friends with an Aboriginal girl who is the mistress of Morrie’s then partner, Frisco [the young woman, Maritana, is left with Frisco, off and on, by her older husband in return for food]; and she is later rescued while suffering typhoid on a trek north (to the new Darlot discovery), by Maritana’s mother Kalgoorla and is returned to Kalgoorlie in the care of Kalgoorla’s tribal group.

Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields is Wangkatja country, of the Western Desert peoples, though immediately to the south (and east) was/is the smaller Ngadjunmaya nation (map).

Prichard, who researched this work in the 1940s, explains that men prospecting as far north as present-day Laverton had antagonised the locals by polluting their waterholes and stealing their women, and that isolated prospectors would quite often come under attack.

In Chapter XXVI, Sally hears of a prospector, ‘Mick Gerald’ who has discovered ‘a mountain of gold’ a couple of hundred miles north east

He and Bill and Syd Parry struck a big quartz hill … and called the place Mt Catherine… further on [they] discovered another reef which they intended to register as Daisy Bell.

While they were out prospecting, natives raided the camp, and speared the pack horses. They went out after the natives and met Ned Robbins who had struck the far end of the Daisy Bell reef and pegged a lease there. Ned went with them to settle with the natives.

[Back in Kalgoorlie ‘Gerald’ and the Parry’s register their claim to Daisy Bell, cutting Robbins out]. Robbins swore to get even with them.

He gave information to the police about that massacre of the blacks. [Mick] Gerald and Bill Parry were arrested. Syd Parry [subsequently] gave himself up.

The Coolgardie Miner came out with an article drawing attention to the ill-treatment of natives by certain unscrupulous prospectors. “Blacks had been killed wholesale”, it declared, “without regard to age or sex. Infants had been taken from their mothers and the brains battered out of their tiny bodies with rocks, innumerable outrages were perpetrated on the women and the unfortunate savages slaughtered ruthlessly.”

It was easy enough to find that story again, in Trove, in The Coolgardie Miner of 12 Feb 1895, and days following. Interestingly though, there is no massacre at that time/location on the Newcastle University ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres’ map (here).

Prichard had changed the names of the miners just slighty, so that ‘Mick Gerald’ was actually Michael Fitzgerald and ‘Ned Robbins’ was ___ Robinson. The words Prichard used above, “without regards to age or sex etc.” are Robinson’s (“The Mount Catherine find”, The Coolgardie Miner, 16 Feb 1895, p.6).

The Mount Catherine find was made on 7 Jan 1895. But a couple of weeks earlier, according to the Miner

a raid by blacks took place at the camp at Eucalyptus, where a part of the party was stationed. The natives stole a great quantity of provisions, clothes, ammunition etc. and speared a horse. On the return of the prospectors (who here consisted of Fitzgerald and the two Parrys) they started in pursuit of the n*ggers and tracked them to where their trail joined that of a big tribe. It was deemed prudent to go on to the Pendinni camp, find reinforcements and horses, and then proceed in pursuit of the thieves. [Robinson joins them]

The pursuit was continued until after New Years Day and what occurred in that time is not clearly stated. The party however, recovered none of the stolen goods.

When Robinson returns to the site of the massacre with the police, they are only able to find two bodies, of two young men who have been shot. The police charge Fitzgerald and the two Parrys with murder, with the case being heard by the Resident Magistrate at Coolgardie on Mon 25 Feb., 1895. Only Robinson gives evidence as to the events leading to the deaths, and the defendants are discharged. Robinson is arrested and held overnight, before he too is discharged.

It is interesting that Prichard would include this story in her work. And sad too that its publication in 1895, and its republication by Prichard, had so little effect on the Australian public, who even today are largely happy to accept the myth of ‘peaceful settlement’.

By the 1940s there was some sympathetic writing about ‘Aborigines’ – Prichard was clearly angry about the taking and rape of Aboriginal women, which she approaches first in Coonardoo (1928) then again here; Daisy Bates was in the newspapers from the early 1900s on, with her anthology, The Passing of the Aborigines coming out in 1938; then there’s Ion Idriess – Drums of Mer, Man Tracks, Nermaluk; Xavier Herbert, Capricornia (1938); and Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land (1941).

Ernestine Hill brings up Aboriginal slavery in The Great Australian Loneliness (1940), but Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties seems to be the first – outside of actual newspaper accounts, of which there are plenty – to include a massacre.


Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Roaring Nineties, first pub. 1946
Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911) –
Tue 12 Feb 1895, Page 3, ‘THE LATEST FIND’ (here)
Sat 2 Mar 1895, Page 6, ‘RESIDENT MAGISTRATES COURT/ALLEGED MURDER’ (here) – a full transcript of the evidence from the trial.

see also 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)

26 thoughts on “Mt Catherine Massacre

  1. KSP was certainly ahead of her time. Nathan Hobby’s bio discusses the character Saul’s awareness of violent frontier confrontations in Coonardoo (1929) and his efforts to educate his listener Mollie, see The Red Witch p.202, (and his source (note 60) in the Index on p.408.)
    I suspect that that passage in Coonardoo is the first mention in fiction of ‘punishing expeditions’ and the murder of pearlers at sea. I don’t think this was just an example of KSP’s fearlessness as a writer, (and the courage of her publisher) it also shows that KSP was actively interrogating the silence around frontier violence. Her research led her to people who knew about it and by reproducing their stories, she was refusing to keep quiet about it herself.


    • I don’t know what to say about the disconnect between what was reported quite openly in the newspapers, and what novelists said about the same situation. Some northern newspapers were quite open about encouraging punitive expeditions, including “don’t bother bringing back prisoners”. And yet this is rarely mentioned in fiction, in fact it is notable that KSP wrote about Indigenous people at all, let alone their mistreatment (of women in particular). The earliest instance I can think of is The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn where there is a battle out on the plains between settlers and (I’m guessing) Wiradjuri men.

      For all that, KSP has Sally Gough keep Kalgoorla more or less as a house slave, though she presents it as a voluntary arrangement. And she (KSP) sides with the white workers against the “Afghans” – muslim men from northern India, who were without their wives, without permanent residency and were banned from taking up gold mining leases.


  2. I’ve got The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn somewhere, and it’s fearsomely thick so finding that part of it would take some doing. (Actually, I don’t know why I bought it, I’ve never really wanted to read it so it just languishes on the TBR).
    But yes, KSP certainly did not have our sensibilities. Her grasp of the situation was flawed. I doubt if she saw herself as dispossessing the traditional owners and I don’t remember anything that suggests that she was bothered by a federation that denied them the vote. or that she was even aware that returned Indigenous soldiers were denied the benefits that other soldiers had. She had no understanding of the attachment to land or its religious significance, and — Nathan would be the one to tell us if this is the case — I suspect that what she knew came from white reports, not from any deep engagement with Indigenous people.
    Henry Reynolds tells us that there was significant white objection to the massacres, mainly from clerics and women, plus there were colonial office demands that the violence stop, and that these were ignored or put in the too-hard basket. She may have read newspaper reports on both sides, but she also spent many research hours yarning with old-timers who may have witnessed the violence themselves, or known other people who had.
    Notwithstanding these shortcomings which were certainly not untypical of her era, I think she deserves credit for publicising the frontier violence and for acknowledging the support that Indigenous women gave to isolated white women in childbirth and illness. And while she would not have recognised that black/white relationships were inherently unequal, the fact that she includes such a friendship in the trilogy (and in Coonardoo, black/white love and affection) is notable for the time too.
    So, not perfect, but much better than her contemporaries.


    • Thanks for taking the trouble to give that long response, Lisa. The Recollections isn’t a particularly bad book but it’s only worth reading for historical interest (so don’t bother. I’ll put up a review one day).
      KSP was certainly trying, but I think Dark, just the following year, did a better job.
      Coonardoo I’ve always been ambivalent about – about how others read it, I guess. I don’t think the love was two way. My impression was always that the station owner/son (Hugh?) used and abandoned Coonardoo.


      • Yes, yes he (Hugh) did. And I think that was KSP’s metaphor for the way Indigenous peoples were used, abused and abandoned in other situations too.


  3. After reading your post, I’m fixating on smashing babies heads so their brains fall out. I can only think of how some people would treat animals/pests that way, and that even an innocent baby can’t be seen for its humanity. You say Eleanor Dark wrote about the topic of white violence against Indigenous people better/more fairly? Which book(s)? I’m curious, and I know my library has Dark’s novels.


    • The newspaper reports of Aboriginal ‘hunts’ and massacres are astonishing for their bloodthirstyness, and for their openness, yet we’ve spent the last 70 years pretending all that didn’t happen.

      I included Dark under ‘sympathetic writing’, I wondered if that paragraph was ambiguous. She wrote a trilogy beginning with The Timeless Land, about first settlement at Sydney, in which she writes alternately from a white and then Aboriginal POV – making her almost certainly the first person to attempt to portray colonisation from an Aboriginal perspective.


      • I do enjoy books that look at the same situation from different perspectives like that. T.C. Boyle’s book Tortilla Curtain does a great job of capturing liberal white people in California and two undocumented Mexicans who crossed into the U.S. near the liberals’ backyards.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That comment struck me too as I have just come across a similar story in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. One of the oral stories she relates is from a family fleeing the war in Tajikistan between the Pamiri and Kulobi Tajiks. She was a maternity nurse working in a big hospital, soldiers arrived in the ward asking if the newborn baby was Pamiri or Kulobi, they refused to say…so the soldiers threw the baby out the window! This was only in the early 1990’s. I’m not sure what it proves or shows, except that during times of crisis, chaos and war, some men become dehumanised and it’s the women and children who suffer this kind of violence at their hands – in all ages and all times.


      • Thanks for pointing out this book, Brona. I’m sure there is a 9/11 equivalent out there, and there will likely be a COVID version in the future. I’m going to see if I can get a copy. I recently read Roadside Picnic, and that book (later made into the film Stalker and a videogame called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) has influenced people to see themselves as tourist guides through Chernobyl.

        Liked by 1 person

      • War is certainly dehumanising, and we try desperately to keep that covered up. Think for instance about the Great War Christmas fraternising stories compared with the horrible reality of life in the trenches.
        I think people, but men especially, tell themself stories which enable them to commit atrocities. So it’s always spearings and thefts which lead to reprisal raids (and quite often mass murder) and the taking of women and girls which give rise to the spearings, and the occupation of country and particularly waterholes in the desert which leads to thefts of food, are underplayed or more often not mentioned at all. KSP is here making a start and I know most of my readers think I am not giving her enough credit. Communists in general were very slow to begin analysing colonisation (and women!) so I will give her some credit for being ahead of the Party.


  4. How brave of her to write about these issues when no one else was, and taking the women’s perspective, too. Do you think things are finally changing now and people are accepting this was not some “hey, here’s some beads” – “OK, have the land with our blessing” thing?


    • I suspect in the case of Australia, it’s less a case of beads for trade, and more of a case of the incoming Brits believing that the land was not being used (in the way they thought it should be or could be) and therefore ripe for the taking by someone who would and could, which is where the idea of ‘terra nullius’ came from – their belief (or desire to believe) that the land belonged to no-one. It’s an idea that still influences the thinking of some Australians today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hadn’t grasped there wasn’t any form of exchange in most places, just an annexing of land, that does explain why that concept has lingered. Thank you for explaining.


    • Liz, I think the people in the middle – to the extent they think about this at all – still believe in the myth of peaceful settlement, and when (if) they see a report like this they think it is a one-off and go back to kidding themselves.

      The Greens have argued that we need a Truth & Reconciliation commission immediately whereas Indigenous organisations are arguing that constitutional recognition and a treaty should come first, and they are a bit cranky with the Greens for not supporting them on this. I agree with the Greens. A referendum for constitutional change won’t get through until the white majority are on board with how bloody and unfair our past has been, and how bloody and unfair it continues to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Although I know the Greens have their own First Nations advisors/network, I’m uncomfortable with the way this discussion us framed as the Greens versus Indigenous people/groups. Do the Greens represent the majority of Indigenous groups? Because I don’t know I don’t like to take sides. I really don’t know why truth and voice, at least, can’t be worked on concurrently anyhow.


    • Thanks Brona for responding to Liz. As you know, I’ve been busy. As for ‘brave’ I don’t know if she copped any flak for writing about/taking the part of Aboriginal women. I would have thought the people at Turee where she wrote Coonardoo might be annoyed, but I’ve seen no evidence of it.
      I don’t think anyone thinks or ever thought that we tricked Indigenous people into letting us settle, though we clearly took advantage of their generosity. I hope you might read one day Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance which is by far the best re-imagining of white settlement from an Indigenous perspective to date (July 2023 maybe!).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I apologise for the gap in my knowledge there. In fact, I’ve gone and researched and I’m not sure where I got my assertion that “we” did that, beads for land, there is a myth about Manhattan but I can’t find where that came from. Probably a novel somewhere. Anyway of course my criticism was for the trickers not the tricked, and however it was done it was dreadful and wrong; I can completely see how people don’t accept it as people here can’t even cope with the idea that in the 50s Britain *invited* people from the lands we colonised to come here and work in shitty jobs Brits didn’t want, and that’s why they and their descendents are here in great part (“We’re here because you were there”). So I can see people could really manage to ignore what’s longer ago than that. I’ve added That Deadman Dance to my wishlist, thank you for the recc.


  5. Hey Bron, I’ve been relying on your good nature while I cross the continent. Having breakfast with my son in Tennant Creek right now, should be free to open my laptop in Mt Isa this evening.


  6. Sorry I didn’t comment on this earlier Bill. Having had our own discussion re massacre reporting I kept letting this slip. Grest, meaty post with some good discussion. I tend to agree with Lisa about KSP and others who write against or ahead of their times. Their sensibilities are limited, as indeed are our own by our own times except we can’t see it of course, but at least they try to question the status quo.

    I have Geoffrey Hamlyn in my TBR pile and gave often wondered about reading it. Sounds like it doesn’t need priority and that maybe I should move it on.


    • Geoffrey has some merit in being ‘first’ but of course you and I know that was really Gertrude the Emigrant (for station life). It is a quite pleasant read but with a very British perspective. Move it on.

      This is a post about evidence of an Aboriginal massacre. Chris Owen was kind enough to write to me to say that the criteria for inclusion on the map included ‘6 or more confirmed deaths’, and here only two were confirmed, though I’m interested the police went out at all – there was some talk in the paper about preserving the good name of the Goldfields.

      So I’m pleased that KSP saw the account (she says the Kalgoorlie Miner gave her full access to their archives) and saw fit to include it. And that she was willing to accept Robinson’s account.


      • Thanks Bill re Geoffrey! I think I will. And interesting re the map. I guess they had to define “massacre” so understandable. As you say, great that KSP saw the account and gave it air.


  7. I’ve seen this map before, so I don’t know how it is that I didn’t leave a comment here previously! Coincidentally, just last week I also re-discovered my own photocopied/enlarged map that I had tucked inside of KSP (not half as useful as yours heheh). [Yes, I just recently finished filing seven or eight months worth of papers as I slowly catch up.] Also coincidentally, I just moved that Eleanor Dark volume this afternoon, out of one place and onto a prominent shelf (which miiiight be a step towards reading it at long last, or it might just be moving it to a new shelf).


    • I put books beside me on my bed (yes I know, partners are warmer) but it’s nearly always just good intentions, they rarely get read any quicker for all their proximity.
      The Eleanor Dark ‘Timeless Land’ trilogy would make a good read-along, though it’s a big commitment.
      The map is a photo of the map on my study wall on which I recorded maybe 20 years ago all my road-train and longer B-double and single trailer trips. I may have sent you a copy while you were reading KSP.


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