Tag Archives: massacre
In 1846 Melbourne was gripped by a panic: a story had spread that a white woman had been shipwrecked off the coast of Gippsland and was living with Aboriginal people. “Expeditions” were sent to “rescue” her. Messages were left for her printed on handkerchiefs, and because some believed she was Scottish, some of these were written in Gaelic.
The expeditions sent to Gippsland resulted in the massacre of large numbers of Indigenous people from the Gunai/Kurnai community.
For generations, people have argued over whether the “white woman” really existed and if so, what happened to her. In her 2001 book The Captive White Woman of Gipps Land author Julie Carr recounted a story written in 1897 by Mary Howitt, the daughter of A.W. Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate, which told how the white woman later had children with an Aboriginal husband and drowned in McLennan’s strait. Carr came to the conclusion that evidence for the existence of the woman was inconclusive; government searches in 1846 and 1847 having failed to find her.
But we have recently identified two short songs in the Aboriginal language of Gippsland (Gunai/Kurnai) about the white woman’s story that provide some clues. These were in the papers of Howitt at the State Library of Victoria.
A gift of possum skin
At the top of one page of Howitt’s notes headed August 23 1868, per J.C. Macleod (the son of an early pastoralist), Howitt wrote the following note:
Blacks told him [Macleod] in the early days the white woman was wrecked in the coast with some men who were killed – the woman being saved. She was a tall woman, young with very long black hair in ringlets (some said the hair was fair). … She was the Miss Howard who was about 16 years of age when the vessel in which she was going to Melbourne was lost. Daughter of Commissary Howard. Part of the vessel was after picked up in the ninety mile beach
Two Gunai/Kurnai songs are written on the same page. Howitt notes that these songs were composed by a “Dinni Birraark”, a senior songster and ritual specialist, where dinni is the word for “old” and the birraark is the name of an expert who was skilled in songs and magic. These men were said to fly and see beyond the physical world.
In the 1840s there were seven surviving men who held the title of Dinni Birraark. The composer of this song was likely to have been a man also known as Bunjil Bamarang from near Bairnsdale. Bunjil Bamarang was not his personal name, but indicated that he was an expert (Bunjil) in something. We do not know what Bamarang refers to, but it may indicate expertise in the use of the “spear shield”, which was called bammarook in Gunai/Kurnai.
One of these songs, written down by Howitt, directly mentions the “white woman”:
We have transcribed this as:
U-auda kai-ū Lohan-tŭkan móka kat-teir nŭ́rrau-un-gŭl mūndū wánganna
Underneath the song, Howitt gives translations for many of the words. For instance, he translates Lohan-tŭkan as “white woman”. The overall meaning of the song seems to be, “Give the white woman from over the sea the possum skin skirt, and that blanket there.”
This genre of song, gunyeru, was traditionally sung with dancing at public gatherings, what might be otherwise commonly referred to as a “corroboree” (although the word “corroboree” originates from the Dharuk language spoken in the Sydney area). The Dinni Birraark was certainly an acknowledged expert in composing this style of song.
On the same page, is a second song that seems to give more information about the Lohan-Tuka, or white woman’s, story:
This we have transcribed as:
Blaung-a-requa drūraua kŭllŭngŭka
Wŭrūng-tūnkū bŭdda-tūnkū pŭtta-ngaiu
tūka-pŭnta kŭrnŭng-ŭka ma-kŭrnung-ita
In the first line of the song there are three words that Howitt translates as “burn”, “ladder” and “whitefellow”. This would appear to be a sentence meaning, “The whitefellow’s ladder is burning”.
When we remember that ships in the 1840s were sailing ships, we can imagine that the Dinni Birraark used a word that he knew – “ladder” – to represent the rigging on a sailing ship. As Gunai/Kurnai elder, Russell Mullett, pointed out to us, “As a senior man, the Dinni Birraark would have used a ladder in his ritual life.”
The remaining portions of this second song are harder to interpret. It seems that the Dinni Birraark was watching the burning of this ship from the narrow strip of land along the Ninety Mile Beach between the sea and the freshwater of the Gippsland Lakes.
In this place, perhaps a musk duck (Tuka) had a nest, there was a hollow place near to water. Intriguingly the word for white woman, Lohan Tuka, is a compound including the word for musk duck. Perhaps, as Mullett has suggested, the place where the Dinni Birraark watched this had an association with an ancestral musk duck.
These songs are composed as if witnessing real events: the wreck of a ship and the rescue of a young woman. Nothing is more naturally human than offering a young shipwreck victim a “skirt and a blanket”, and the description of the shipwreck as a “burning ladder” is fully plausible.
These two songs seem to suggest that there was a White Woman, the Lohan Tuka. There is much tragedy in this story – shipwreck, massacre, possible drowning. This history needs to be told and re-told.
What these songs reveal is an Indigenous perspective on it and a glimpse into the rich artistic culture of the Gunai/Kurnai. In the words of Mullett, “taken together these two songs are like an opera composed by the Dinni Birraark”.
For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.
Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.
But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.
We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.
The massacre at Sturt Creek
Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.
This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.
It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.
These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.
We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.
Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.
The search for evidence
Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.
The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.
But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.
Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.
Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.
This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.
Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.
This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.
An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.
Recognition of a massacre
Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.
Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.
This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.
They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.
We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.
Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.
We ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.
The 20th anniversary of the massacre at Port Arthur again raises pressing questions – for surviving victims, their families and the Australian community more broadly – about ways of remembering the tragedy.
The relationship between trauma, tourism, commemoration and the nature of the place itself is a complicated one.
From the time it was established, the settlement at Port Arthur was associated with trauma. It was meant to be.
The isolated prison, housing the worst convicts, was intended to instil fear to deter others. And the authorities played up the horror of punishment there.
Here convicts – already languishing as far from their homes as possible – were now subjected to unknown terrors in an alien wilderness. Though the actual administration was relatively “enlightened”, the image was unrelentingly negative.
Everyone, it seemed, had an interest in playing up the horror.
The full circle
In 1877, the prison was closed. The government sought to obliterate its dark history and the shame of a convict past by changing the township’s name to Carnarvon. And by selling off the prison buildings on condition they were demolished.
Yet almost immediately tourists began to flock to the place, creating an important local industry. Souvenirs, guidebooks and postcards appeared; convict buildings were turned into guesthouses.
Fishing and hunting were popular but many tourists were drawn by morbid curiosity and a taste for the macabre.
Those early tourists could be a raucous mob. Reports spoke of “merry crowds” who danced in the mess rooms; pilfered “relics”; enjoyed the “thrill” of being shut up in a cell; and shrieked at the tales of horror told by the guides.
Some were ex-convicts: one would, for an extra shilling, remove his shirt and display the scars left by the lash.
Some tourists might reflect on the past’s brutality or British perfidy, but generally, a good time was had by all. The violence and gruesomeness were an entertainment.
The horror was in stark contrast to the landscape itself. Though at first seen as gloomy, alien and oppressive, the natural setting soon came to be regarded as romantically wild, awe-inspiring and picturesque.
Tastes were changing. As romanticism seeped into popular consciousness, the idea of wilderness took on new meaning, something to be sought out rather than avoided.
The site’s neo-Gothic church, badly damaged by fire and covered with ivy, came to be seen as a romantically picturesque ruin.
Visitors drew attention to the irony of somewhere so beautiful being the scene of horror. Trauma amid beauty would become a common theme, revisited following the events of 1996.
A fine balance
Successive governments could not ignore the fact that Port Arthur was a money-spinner. In 1916, the site received some minimal protection. And, in 1928, the name was changed back to Port Arthur – Carnarvon had never caught on.
By 1937, the Tasmanian treasurer commended Port Arthur as:
The Stone Henge of Australia and one of the greatest tourist assets which this state possesses.
A more middlebrow and respectable class of tourist began to take an interest, admiring the site’s “Englishness” and the beauty of its historic ruins.
As one visitor put it in 1918, “bitter memories are fading into romantic interest”: the “beautiful workmanship” of the carved stone conjured up an English monastery rather than an Australian gaol.
A new management authority in 1987 treated the convict past with more sensitivity and respect, contrasting with some of the tackier commercial exploitation. But it still introduced a ghost tour that, on Viator’s tourism website, promises “ghoulish stories”, “terrifying tales”, “harrowing history” and a generally “spine-chilling” and “spooky” experience.
The melancholy and reflective were still jostled by people having a good time. For some reason, convict suffering is fun.
This touristic enjoyment of trauma poses a problem.
At places as diverse as Auschwitz, Ghana’s “slave castles”, the Tower of London, Gallipoli and Aboriginal massacre sites, this “dark tourism” is an important way of respecting the memory of past atrocity.
But often the response can verge on voyeurism and emotional indulgence; melancholy, pity and sorrow can be perversely pleasurable emotions.
What marks out convict tourism is the way that, while some tourists are moved, others are simply entertained. This lies at the core of the dilemma facing Port Arthur managers on the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
The tragedy that unfolded 20 years ago added another layer of horror to a site already scarred by atrocity, but one where heartbreak jostled awkwardly with holiday making.
The management’s immediate response was purposely low key, with a sensitively understated memorial to the massacre – off the beaten tourist track. It allowed tourists and workers to quietly remember the dead, who were also tourists and workers.
The switch to a more public commemoration for the 20th anniversary shows the dilemma remains: how to commemorate Port Arthur as a tourist site.
In truth, the best memorial to the victims of Martin Bryant, his Colt AR-15 and his FN FAL, will always be effective gun control.
This article is part of a package marking the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Myall Creek Massacre that occurred on the 10th June 1838, in which some 30 unarmed Aborigines were killed.
The link below is to an article that takes a fresh look at the Mistake Creek Massacre that occurred in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1915.
Uzbekistan: The Andijan Massacre
On this day in 2005, the Andijan Massacre occured in Uzbekistan when Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service personnel fired into protesters in Andijan. The death toll could have been anything between 187 and 1500 people killed.
For more, visit:
The Indian Massacre of 1622 in Jamestown, Virginia
On this day in 1622, Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy carried out what was known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. A quarter of the English population were wiped out by the Indians who carried out a series of raids along the James River in Virginia.
For more, visit:
Jamestown by Edward Hagaman Hall
USA: War of Independence – Boston Massacre
On this day in 1770, the Boston Massacre took place and became an important incident in the lead up to the American War of Independence. The massacre was really something of a ‘beat up,’ with five men being killed when British troops fired into a crowd that was harassing them and throwing objects at them.
Also of major interest in this incident, was the court case in the trial of the British troops, as John Adams (second president of the USA) defended the British troops in their trial.
For more, visit:
Also, a newspaper report: