The most cruel and atrocious of our species
In December 1838 the hanging of seven stockmen found guilty of the murder of at least 28 Aboriginal men, women and children in the massacre at Myall Creek Station sent a shockwave through colonial society. This was the first time white men were hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people and it remained an anomaly in the long history of frontier conflict. The massacre was investigated under instruction of the New South Wales governor George Gipps, described as a “model of evangelical masculinity”. The prosecution was successful primarily because two white stockmen gave evidence in court.
Governor Arthur’s picture board proclamation (above) claimed the equality of all royal subjects before the law. The reality, however, was different: colonists were reluctant to give evidence against fellow colonists and Aboriginal evidence was inadmissible. As early as 1805, Judge Advocate Richard Atkins expressed the view regarding Aboriginal people that “the evidence of persons not bound by any moral or religious tye can never be considered or construed as legal evidence.”
The Aboriginal Protection Society had taken up this problem in July 1839;
“… the rejection of the evidence of these natives renders them virtually outlaws in their native land, which they have never alienated or forfeited. It seems to me a moral impossibility that their existence can be maintained when in the state of weakness and degradation which their want of civilization necessarily implies, they have to cope with some of the most cruel and atrocious of our species, who carry on their system or profession with almost perfect impunity so long as the evidence of native witnesses is excluded from our courts.”
Before, during and after the Myall Creek massacre court proceedings, powerful squatting interests unleashed a counter campaign through the Sydney Herald. This was the most widely read newspaper at the time and it went on to whip up its readers in what can only be described as an attempt to intimidate witnesses, juries and court officials.
By contrast ‘The Colonist’, a mouthpiece of Presbyterian firebrand John Dunmore Lang, a founding member of the Australian Aboriginal Protection Society, concluded:
“the murders… are, to a serious extent, chargeable to us as a nation. We have not done our duty as a civilised and Christian people. We have invaded the territory of the New Hollanders – have taken forcible possession of their rightful property, have amassed immense wealth by the pasturage and tillage of their soil – and yet have kept back the only price at which the right to do all this could be purchased.”
Ignorant of a God or a future state
Meanwhile Parker was following up several incidents that had occurred before his arrival in Dja Dja Wurrung country, also at the instigation of Governor Gipps. Public outrage against the killing of white men over the murder of Aboriginals and a code of silence now collided with his task. Parker’s report to Chief Protector Robinson, dated 20 June 1839, claimed that squatter Bowman of Sutton Grange near present day Castlemaine was in the habit of shooting every black man, woman or child whom he met on his run. His investigation however proved unsuccessful: “The persons who could give such evidence are now widely scattered over the colony.”
In the final week of January 1840. Parker was called to investigate “outrages” on the squatting run of Henry Munro between Mount Alexander and the Campaspe River. Munro had the previous year been speared, and publicly demanded protection for the squatters and their flocks. He also complained that “they [Aboriginal people] are still lurking about the creeks and seem determined to act as lords of the soil.” Munro took matters into his own hands with the help of militia stationed on the Campaspe. The result was two dead tribesmen and several wounded in two separate incidents. Further deaths were only prevented through Parker’s intervention. Parker questioned the legality of the squatters’ and militia’s actions and wrote to the Crown Prosecutor for an opinion. The answer was finally received after five months and was not encouraging, even though the Crown Prosecutor found: “The aggression of the blacks… did not render this attack on them either justifiable or excusable.”
In 1839 the NSW government, whose jurisdiction included the Port Phillip District, attempted to legislate for Aboriginal evidence to be admitted under an affirmation or declaration that they would tell the truth. The bill was however rejected by the British parliament because:
“to admit, in a criminal case, the evidence of a witness acknowledged to be ignorant of the existence of a God, or a future state, would be contrary to the principles of British jurisprudence.”
A decade of reformist zeal was waning and the killings continued. In March 1841 Parker was in the Pyrenees investigating the murder of six Aboriginal people by a squatter named Francis. Parker reported, “owing to the legal disabilities of the Aborigines, this case must be added to the many others which have passed without judicial notice”
Harding, Anna et al. Uncovering the truth of our legal history. The Legal Services Journal Oct, 2023
Fifield, Kyle Richard. Second Wave Evangelicalism and the Myall Creek Massacre. The Reformed Evangelical Review, April 2018
National Museum of Australia. Defining moments: Myall Creek Massacre
The Colonist (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Wednesday 12 December 1838, page 2
Next week, final: The blessings of Christianity and advantages of civilised life
Arie Baelde is a local resident and agronomist who has an interest in local history.