Massacres: The frontier violence that’s hard to accept

Hundreds of massacres left thousands of Aboriginal people dead, a history many Australians struggle to accept. A brave few started documenting what happened.

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Selected statistics

Number of Aboriginal Australians historians estimate were killed in Queensland from the 1820s until the early 1900s [2].
Estimated number of massacres by settlers of Aboriginal people in Australia [9].
Estimated number of massacres by Aboriginal people of settlers in Australia [9].
Ratio at which Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory were killed compared to white settlers from 1870s to 1900 [1].
Ratio at which Aboriginal people of Victoria were killed compared to white settlers from the 1800s [1].
Ratio suggested by collaborative academic research [2].
Number of "very small, physical memorials to Aboriginal massacre sites across Australia" [9].

Massacres: The horrors of frontier violence

Any invasion of a country with an existing indigenous population seems to be inevitably linked with a long list of massacres on its indigenous peoples, and Australia is no exception. Almost all Aboriginal nations experienced massacres. [8]

Definition: What’s a ‘massacre’?
According to historians, a massacre is the “indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people” over a limited period of time and with careful planning. [9]

Academics say the massacres of Aboriginal people were conducted in secrecy and few perpetrators were brought to justice (the Myall Creek massacre is a notable exception). And they were planned in advance, “designed to eradicate the opposition”. [8]

The number of Aboriginal people killed in retaliation of European deaths are off the scale. Among the most shocking is the Jack Smith massacre (Warrigal Creek, Victoria) in 1843, where about 150–170 Brataualang people were killed over 5 days in retaliation for the killing of one single person—Ronald Macalister, the nephew of a local squatter. [8] It’s an atrocity which historians found fitting the criteria of ‘genocidal massacre.’ [9]

Aboriginal people had little chance of surviving. Their spears, clubs and hatchets had to fight swords, pistols, muskets and bayonets, among other items.

Jack Watson, head stockman at Lawn Hill station in the Gulf country, in 1885 had 40 pairs of human ears nailed to the walls of his hut.—The Age [1]

Settlers killed Aboriginal people for many reasons [1]:

  • Struggle for land. Stockmen often led cattle to graze well beyond the limits of a station as areas needed time to recover.
  • Reprisals for attacks. After Aboriginal people attacked European people, their cattle or horses, search parties retaliated ferociously.
  • Lack of communication. Because the colonists didn’t speak Aboriginal languages, and very few tried, they couldn’t learn about Aboriginal people’s culture or settle disputes.
  • No reason. Sometimes colonists attacked for no rational reason. It could just be cheekiness, e.g. for being “found standing in the moonlight in the doorway of [a squatter’s] hut”. [1]
  • Fear of attacks. The invaders were afraid that Aboriginal people who were painted for important ceremonies were in fact performing war dances and would later attack.
  • Sexual gratification. Initially there was an over-population of male Europeans. Some sought to remove all Aboriginal males so that they could sexually abuse their women and girls.

White settlers often found no reason to spare Aboriginal men and boys. Aboriginal girls and women, however, were often kept for sexual pleasure. Research uncovered “stories of girls as young as eight who were kidnapped and raped and infected with syphilis. Teenage girls were kept for sex and chained up at night to stop them running away. One group of girls was held in a chicken wire enclosure”. [1]

No wonder that Aboriginal people refer to massacre sites as “taboo site[s] of trauma”. [9]

The legacy of massacres still impacts Aboriginal people today. With missing parts of family trees due to massacres many don’t know who they are or where they’re from. [9]

There’s certain roads people won’t drive along. It’s not just felt by Aboriginal people but by non-Aboriginal people as well.—Aleshia Lonsdale, Wiradjuri artist [9]

Black massacre memories

“My mother would sit and cry and tell me this; they buried our babies in the ground with only their heads above the ground. All in a row they were. Then they had tests to see who could kick the babies’ head off the furthest. One man clubbed a baby’s head off from horseback.

They then spent the rest of the day raping the women, most of whom were then tortured to death by sticking sharp things like spears up their vaginas till they died.

They tied the men’s hands behind their backs, then cut off their penis and testicles and watched them run around screaming until they died. They killed in other bad ways too.” [5]

Where did the massacres occur?

There are hundreds of sites all over Australia, but finding them usually takes a lot of detective work. Massacres might have been mentioned in the media only in passing, by the boisterous perpetrators in the pub, or not at all. Researchers rely on settler diaries, newspaper reports, and Aboriginal evidence to create a list.

The University of Newcastle’s online mapping project aims to document as many massacres as possible. After 4 years, in July 2017, it had captured 150 massacres resulting in at least 6,000 deaths, [8] reflecting how difficult it is to find and verify each incident.

By the time the project is completed researches expect to find that nearly 15,000 people were killed in massacres (defined as where 6 people or more died). This doesn’t include smaller attacks, which have been estimated by some academics to bring the death toll to more than 30,000 from 1788 until the 1940s. [8]

Some better known massacre sites include Myall Creek, Waterloo Creek, Coniston, Appin, Bluff Rock, Slaughterhouse Creek, Pinjarra and Woodford Bay.

Today sites are on private land, or mining properties; others are at the bottom of reservoirs, because so many of the massacres happened at campsites close to creeks. [9]

Australia’s place names are also giveaway evidence of frontier massacres: Murderers Flat, Massacre Inlet, Murdering Gully, Haunted Creek, Slaughterhouse Gully.

Tip For a comprehensive listing of massacre sites check out the Australian Frontier Conflicts website and Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia, a research project of the University of Newcastle. Culture Victoria offers a map with massacre locations between 1836 and 1853.

When I visit Aboriginal communities today the first thing they do is take you to the massacre site.—Prof Lyndall Ryan, historian, University of Newcastle [8]

The Waterloo massacre

Sketch of the Waterloo Massacre. Contemporary sketch of the Waterloo massacre. Note the firecrackers exploding in the background while white men shoot Aboriginal people.

The Waterloo massacre occurred 50 kilometres south-west of Moree (380 kilometres south-west of Brisbane), on Waterloo Creek (what is known today as Millie Creek [3]) on Australia Day (26 January) 1838, a few months before the massacre at Myall Creek.

Five white men were killed, but between 120 and 300 Aboriginal people of the Kamilaroi nation were shot by Major James Nunn [4], making it the maybe the largest single massacre in Australia.

The Coniston Massacre

The Coniston Massacre happened in 1928 at Baxters Well, about 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, after the murder of dingo scalper Frederick Brookes at Yurrkuru (formerly known as Coniston Station or Brooks Creek) [7].

Brookes was killed by an Aboriginal man named Bullfrog (traditional name Japanangka), who it is believed was angry that his wife was staying with Brookes.

Constable George Murray led reprisal parties against Aboriginal people over a wide area between August and October 1928. During attacks more than 30 Aboriginal people were killed, but unofficial estimates, for example by the the National Museum of Australia, put the number at more than 60.

Many more Aboriginal people fled the area, never to return. Bullfrog hid in a cave and was never captured by Murray’s party [7].

80 years later a memorial commemorates the massacre, built by Aboriginal volunteers. The Coniston massacre is often referred to as Australia’s last state-sanctioned mass killing.

In August 2018, NT Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw laid at wreath and apologised for what happened. “There was no excuse or justification for what occurred here 90 years ago,” he said in a speech at Yurrkuru. “As a police officer and commissioner I’m sorry for what has occurred.” [10]

We're not bitter. We just want everybody to know and to acknowledge this black spot in Australian history. This is what they call hallowed ground, like Gallipoli is for white fellas.—Geoff Shaw, Kaytetye man, during the opening of the memorial [7]

Video: Coniston Massacre

View a short student assignment video about the massacre:

A list of massacres on Aboriginal people. Aboriginal massacres in Australia. [6] Many more massacres occurred than those listed. The website Australian Frontier Conflicts shows them by state or territory and on a map.

Calling for information on Pilbara massacres

The Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre in South Hedland seeks information, stories or recollections about Pilbara massacres.

Please contact the centre on (08) 9172 2344.


View article sources (10)

[1] 'Skeletons are out', The Age, 2/7/2005 ('Frontier Justice' by Tony Roberts)
[2] 'Why the number of Indigenous deaths in the frontier wars matters', The Guardian 15/7/2014
[3] 'The Encyclopedia of Australia's Battles', Chris Coulthard-Clark, 2001, p.12 (books.google.com.au/books?id=DLz6LJBgYHcC&pg=PA12&lpg=PA12&dq=waterloo+creek+moree&source=web&ots=s848SwS_4m&sig=O-btdKH877bBMkoRHVfrx0xCcNM&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result)
[4] 'Australia Day massacre swept under the mat', SMH, 25/1/1988
[5] 'Massacres to Mining: The Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia', Jan Roberts, 1981, p.19
[6] Aboriginal News, http://www.facebook.com/AboriginalNewsAustralia/photos/a.135977603238992.27790.134554043381348/422006967969386/, retrieved 21/4/2015
[7] 'Memorial unveiled', Koori Mail 433 p.34
[8] 'Mapping Aboriginal massacres makes it time to recognise the colonial wars, say leading historians', Latrobe Valley Express, 6/7/2017
[9] 'The Mapping of Massacres', The New Yorker, 6/12/2017, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/mapping-massacres, retrieved 29/1/2018
[10] 'Coniston Massacre: NT police apologise for state-sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people', ABC News 24/8/2018

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

Aboriginal culture - History - Massacres: The frontier violence that’s hard to accept, retrieved 11 December 2018