The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, with an area of 425,000 sq.km, about the same as California, and the population of a small Californian town, 30-40,000 depending on the season, approx. 40% Indigenous (Wikipedia). White settlement began in the 1880s, mostly for cattle grazing, and there were a couple of gold rushes soon after. The climate is tropical, and the terrain, although nowhere greater than 1,000m above sea level, is mountainous, rocky and cut through with gorges, but flattens out to the south where it meets up with the Great Sandy Desert (see for instance my review of Two Sisters, Ngarta and Jukuna).
The Kimberley and the neighbouring northern Northern Territory encompass many distinct Aboriginal languages which are of a different family from those of the rest of Australia, but I think the main WA ones are:
Nyulnyulan – Broome to Derby
Worrorran – Derby to Wyndham
Jarrakan – Wyndham to the NT border and down towards Halls Creek
Bunuban – around Fitzroy Crossing (map)
My starting point for this post is Chris Owen’s Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905 (2016) which I made a start on reviewing earlier (here). Under ‘massacres’ in the index Owen lists:
Pinjarra massacre, 1834, in southern WA (previous post here)
Flying Foam massacre, 1868, in the Pilbara (story here)
Fred Marriot massacre, 1886
Big John Durack massacre, 1886
George Barnett massacre, 1888
Goose Hill massacre, 1888
Jail Creek/Turkey Creek Massacre, 1890s
Mistake Creek massacre, 1915 (Guardian here)
Mowla Bluff massacre, 1916
Bedford Downs massacre, 1924
Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)
According to Owen these are only the most notorious. The Indigenous population fought back against the encroachments of the white settler, the settlers retaliated disproportionately and often burnt the bodies to conceal the evidence. Graziers in the East Kimberley, who had come from Queensland and the Northern Territory, already had a history of murder to protect their properties. The editor of the Northern Territory Times (18 Aug 1888)* wrote that police in the Kimberley should disregard any laws and “simply admonish them and disperse them in the Queensland fashion” ie. kill them. “It is the only way to make the natives respect the lives and property of white men.”
Fred Marriot, Halls Creek, 1886. Marriot was one of a number of men speared on or around the Halls Creek gold fields at that time. ‘Typically reports would attribute the killing to Aboriginal aggression’ but the reason for Marriot’s death was his abduction of an Aboriginal woman, though there were other reports that he gave the Aborigines poisoned flour (Owen says ‘oral’ reports by which I think he means Aboriginal). As was the case with every spearing, prospectors organised a reprisal party. Police records say one Aborigine was killed. A colonist, GH Lamond said “four blacks were killed and several wounded”. Oral accounts suggest ‘as many as 100 Jaru or Kija’ were killed. [Moola Bulla: In the shadow of the mountain, Kimberley Language Resource Centre, 1996]. This is corroborated by the private correspondence of prospector George Hale:
A number of diggers went out to take revenge. Having bailed up a large number of blacks in a gully who showed fight, they proceeded to slaughter them with repeating rifles. It is certain that a great many were killed, some say at least a hundred. [quoted in The Forrest River Massacres, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995]
‘Big’ John Durack, Ord River Station, 1886. (Big John was cousin to John Wallace Durack who was brother of Michael Durack who was father to writer Mary and artist Elizabeth Durack). Big John while riding round the Durack station came on a party of Aborigines whom he immediately fired on. He was speared and died. A reprisal party was mounted and the police reported two men ‘who appeared to be the ringleaders’ were shot and killed. However, a local solicitor wrote to the West Australian six years later, “100 or 150 natives were slaughtered in cold blood.” A subsequent note in the police file identified the solicitor’s eyewitness as William Collins, squatter. “He with others … rounded about 120 natives up and shot a large number consisting of men, women and children.” Mary Durack wrote that these reprisals were known as “nigger hunts” and that the silence surrounding them made it impossible to know how many were killed.
George Barnett, a teamster, was speared and died, in July 1888 while working alone north of Halls Creek (Newspaper report). There are various accounts of the punitive expedition that ensued. August Lucanus, a special constable in the expedition wrote in his 1929 memoirs that there “must have been at least 200 blacks … they put up a fight … we dispersed them at last”; A paper down south reported “the party found and dispersed over 600 adult male natives” and some women and children; Colonel Angelo, the government resident at Roebourne at the time, later wrote “it is almost certain that sixty to seventy natives there and then paid the extreme penalty”, and that the murderers were “enraged diggers” (gold miners) ; and Mary Durack claimed the colonists “turned out almost to a man to participate in a massacre that is regarded as one of the most sweeping in local history.”
Note: Colonel Angelo, who tried to end slavery in the Pilbara pearling fleet, was removed from office because he upset the locals (West Australian).
Goose Hill, 1888 is relatively unusual because the police and colonists involved were charged with murder. A party of “six men and three native trackers” pursued, they said, “20 natives” following the spearing of a horse. Most of the Aboriginal people escaped into the swamp along the Ord River, but three were caught up with, two of them shot dead and a third, a boy, having climbed into a tree was seemingly used for target practice and left dead in a fork. As was usual, a minimal statement was filed, but a Police Sergeant Troy investigated further and discovered evidence of the deaths above and at least two others. Owen writes that a newspaper report twenty years later suggested that the death toll may have been as high as 80. Native Assistant Banjo, who was among those charged, made a comprehensive statement, including the detail that all the party were drinking heavily before and during the pursuit. The judge in the Supreme Court made a damning summation for over an hour, but it took the jury just 15 minutes to return ‘not guilty’.
Jail Creek/Turkey Creek, 1890s. Owen speculates that police sometimes found it more expedient to murder prisoners than to walk them for weeks to the nearest justice. Hector Chunda, a Kija and Miriuwung man says,
Some Kartiya [white men] round em up all the blackfella longa bush, put em chains around their necks … Right, all the kartiya get their guns, line em up, every girl and boy, and shoot em down … Whang em all the children on the rocks … chuck em all them dead bodies in the firewood place, put em kerosene and chuck em matches. Burn em up them, finished, they all there. [P. Marshall ed. Raparapa Kularr Martuwarra: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Magabala, 1988]
I can’t find any other reference to Jail Creek or Turkey Creek.
Mistake Creek, 1915. Mick Rhatigan, a former police constable working at Mistake Creek, near Turkey Creek station (half-way between Halls Creek and Wyndham) killed seven Aboriginal people in reprisal for the killing of a cow. A policeman found two charred bodies near Mistake Creek and five others some distance away. In Keith Willey’s Boss Drover (1971) the unnamed ‘cold heartless bloke’ who killed plenty of Aboriginal people is clearly Rhatigan.
Geegully Creek, Mowla Bluff, 1916. Nyikina Elder John Watson said that a punitive expedition by police and other colonists took place after station manager George Why was assaulted by Mangala people over “a small dispute”. Nyikina Mangala men, women and children were rounded up, ordered to collect firewood, and then shot and their remains burnt. Watson says he was told that three or four hundred were killed and only three escaped. [P. Marshall ed. Raparapa Kularr Martuwarra: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Magabala, 1988. There’s also a film, Whispering in our Hearts: The Mowla Bluff Massacre, 2002]
Bedford Downs, 1924. Kija Elder Dottie Watby says that after a bullock was killed, Kija and Worla people were forced to cut wood and were then given poisoned damper. Managers and stockmen from adjacent stations, including the notorious Jack Carey, started shooting, finally stacking the bodies with the wood and setting them alight with kerosene. Jack Carey, between 1919 and 1924 is said to have ‘threatened most Aboriginal people he met’; to have shot an Aboriginal man to take his wife, Mary Karraworla; and three stockmen for leaving a gate open. [From Digging Sticks to Writing Sticks: Stories of Kija Women, Catholic Education Office, Perth, 2001]
Forrest River or Oombulgurri massacres, 1926. The conclusion of the Forrest River Royal Commission was that twenty Aboriginals were killed and their bodies burnt in reprisal for the killing of pastoralist Frederick Hay, though one participant said ‘hundreds’ were killed. Police constables James St Jack and Dennis Regan were charged with murder but were never tried, due to “insufficient evidence”. Hay’s killer, Lumbia was tried and convicted. Lumbia had confronted Hay after the pastoralist had raped one or both of his wives, one of whom was a child. Hay flogged Lumbia 20-30 times with his stock whip and was speared as he rode off.
In the 1880s Catholic clergy in the Kimberley were clear that the rapid decline in the Indigenous population was the result of killings rather than illness (I couldn’t locate Owen’s newspaper reference). Almost all the 450 pages of text have references to the unpunished killing of Aboriginal people by white colonists. Black deaths in custody and hugely disproportionate imprisonment rates demonstrate that racism remains endemic in the WA Police Force and in WA society generally.
I hope this “Australia” Day we will all reflect on what misery and injustice our prosperity is built.
Chris Owen, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905, UWAP, Perth, 2016
Sturt massacre 1922 (ABC)