Australia Is Finally Confronting Its Violent Colonial Past
White settlers massacred Aboriginal people throughout the 1800s. The details are shocking, but they’re important.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
What would you do if your ancestors were responsible for one of the country's worst Aboriginal massacres? The Feed met the family confronting its history head on.
Not many people like to think about the massacres of Indigenous people that took place throughout Australia during our long and fraught period of colonisation––historians included. In fact, aside from slightly more well-known incidents like the Myall Creek massacre of 1838, many mass killings are forgotten or disputed outside of the communities in which they occurred.
That’s slowly changing. Increasingly, the ancestors of those who perpetrated violence against Aboriginal people are seeking to atone for what occurred. And recent projects by historians like those at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for the History of Violence are making an easily-neglected aspect of our colonisation story more accessible to both academics and everyday Australians.
“Most Australians were brought up knowing some massacres like Myall Creek happened, but didn’t consider massacre as a major issue on the colonial frontier,” says Lyndall Ryan, who has spent the past four years creating an interactive map of colonial frontier massacres that occurred in central and eastern Australia between 1788 and 1930. “The math is changing our views on that.”
The math is definitely confronting. Ryan and her team have detailed 150 massacres, but believe they’re just scratching the surface. Spend some time with the map and you’ll likely uncover mass killing events that occurred in familiar regional locations throughout New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory. Near Warrnambool in 1839, 35 Aboriginal people were killed in retaliation for stealing livestock; an altercation at Launceston’s Cataract Gorge in 1829 saw six Aboriginal deaths and three settler deaths.
The first obstacle historians must overcome when collating information about colonial massacres is defining the word “massacre”. There’s no real international academic consensus on the topic, but Ryan and her colleagues used careful methodology to arrive at a number. “We’re looking at a minimum of six people killed,” she says. “We found that many massacres of Aboriginal people took place at campsites, and a group of Aboriginal people at a campsite is about 20. So killing 30 percent of people in one operation makes a devastating impact on the ability of the remainder to survive.”
Massacres of Aboriginal people happened in different ways, according to time period and geographical location. The characteristics and weapons change over time, she notes, and become more sophisticated: “By the end of the 1800s they were able to kill a couple of hundred people in one massacre, whereas in the early periods, 40 people would be considered a very great number.”
Why is it that Australia has taken so long to acknowledge the violence in our past? Perhaps because it was hidden from us to a certain extent. What has shocked Ryan the most is how premeditated the frontier killings usually were, and how much secrecy tended to surround them. Evidence was typically hushed up or destroyed afterwards, and a code of silence rigorously enforced among settlers. This is what makes the mapping project so ambitious––it’s why she and her team have spent four years collecting information about frontier massacres but the map isn’t even halfway finished. What they’re looking for has been deliberately obscured.
“It’s obvious I’ll never have them all,” she says. But historical newspaper reports, and written and oral histories––particularly by Aboriginal people who survived massacres as children and eventually spoke of them decades later––have helped the mission.
“I’ve found so many more massacres than I expected,” she adds. “It’s been a big shock and I’ve had to be very careful in putting them up on the map and making sure I have the evidence to support them. You have to get a little bit of distance and be quite critical of the information you’re reading.”
With the help of projects like this, Australians are slowly beginning to acknowledge our violent past. Can we handle it? Can we learn from it? Ryan thinks so. She says that the response she received when going public with the map last year has been overwhelmingly positive, and many citizens have reached out to help.
“It’s been a new direction for Australian history, I think. We’re moving on, we’re growing up, and we’re able to look back on the past now in a more open way. That’s very important.”
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