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Posted on 15 Jan 2019 in Non-Fiction |

JANE LYDON and LYNDALL RYAN (Eds) Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre. Reviewed by Alexander Wells

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The scholarly essays and personal reflections collected in Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre probe the broader meanings of one episode of shocking violence while also demonstrating the restorative power of historical truth-telling.

In 1838, a group of armed stockmen led by the young settler John Fleming burst into Henry Dangar’s cattle station near Myall Creek and murdered 30 Wirrayaraay people who were camping there. The assassins knew the station manager, William Hobbs, was off droving. When Hobbs returned, he was led to a pile of burned and decapitated bodies, some of whom he could recognise. The victims were old men, women and children. This was no act of retribution for cattle theft – it was an act of racial terror, carried out by men who thought they would get away with it.

But most of them didn’t. What is unusual about Myall Creek is the fact that the perpetrators did end up going to the courts. Of the all-too-numerous examples of settler-led violence against Indigenous Australians, only two saw the perpetrators arrested and tried – and only one, the massacre at Myall Creek, led to a guilty verdict and eventual punishment. This trial captured the public imagination before disappearing from view for over a century; only in the last few decades has the massacre become the subject of historical research and public memorial.

The ten essays collected in Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre take this ghastly event as a starting point, probing its wider significance as well as its afterlives in Australian culture. This is a powerful, thoughtful, and sensitive collection, one that reflects the power of analytical thinking in a subject area that often attracts much more heat than light. The perceptiveness of the diverse contributors – which include Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, members of the Friends of Myall Creek community group, and the QC Mark Tedeschi – is reinforced, not clouded, by their sense of moral clarity.

By marking the massacre’s 180th anniversary, the book demands that we face up to the present with one eye on the past. The editors, Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan, are both Australian historians focused on colonial history and its legacy; Ryan is well known for her work documenting and presenting, via an interactive online map, colonial frontier massacres across the country. Using a limited documentary record, Ryan, Lydon and the other contributors show both artfulness and restraint in developing a plausible record of what went on at Myall Creek and elsewhere in colonial Australia. Their work, in this book and beyond, resists the veil of silence that has long obscured frontier violence. As the editors explain:

Evidence of any frontier massacre before or after 1838 is always difficult to find. This is not surprising. Massacre is an illegal act and the assassins usually take great precautions to cover up their dreadful deed. In other cases it is known that the policing authorities turned a ‘blind eye’ to the practice. Whatever the process of detection, the culture of silence is a critical feature of colonial frontier massacre.

Now that the truth is being told about what happened, the question that follows is: What does it mean? Where does one event stand in the long arc of history? These essays scrutinise and contextualise the massacre, relating it to the immediate context of colonial settler violence but also far more broadly – to arguments about racial violence in Sydney and London, to the lasting tragedy of Indigenous dispossession, and to the long campaign to see frontier massacres memorialised and acknowledged in public history.

So, was the Myall Creek massacre typical of its time? To some extent it was. According to Ryan, the perpetrators ‘were clearly well experienced in the practice’, and the atrocity fits into a pattern of violence across the region and beyond. Myall Creek also reflected the class politics of its context, as illustrated in a chapter that details how Fleming, the ringleader, escaped punishment thanks to his status as a prominent free settler.

Still, in breaking the prevailing culture of silence, Myall Creek was absolutely exceptional. Much is owed to the bravery of key witness William Hobbs and of Attorney General John Plunkett, who defied his milieu in pressing for the convictions. In his contribution Mark Tedeschi argues that the frontier was a site of systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ and that such violence, despite being illegal, was essentially state-sanctioned because it almost always went unpunished. In this context, Tedeschi writes:

John Plunkett did not just prosecute 11 men for murder. He prosecuted his entire society for its connivance in the attempted annihilation of the Aboriginal people and their culture … It was a testament to his persistence and tactical skills that he convinced 12 jurors to convict seven of the perpetrators, because they were not only condemning those men to their deaths, but also giving a stinging rebuke to their own society.

Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre insists on both the power of individuals and the influence of broader contextual factors. Alongside the research implicating John Fleming and Tedeschi’s praise for John Plunkett, there are essays connecting the event to a range of other contemporary narratives – the growing use of non-Indigenous sources in colonial history, for example, and the global study of memorials to traumatic cultural events. Jane Lydon’s chapter analyses artistic portrayals of the massacre in terms of the humanitarian response within the British Empire, while Anna Johnston contributes a chapter on the contemporary poetry of Elizabeth Dunlop, who based her protest poem ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ on Myall Creek. The book circles around the question of what it means to bear witness, both at the time and in retrospect, and what such acts of witness can do for reconciliation.

At the same time as being about history, the book is a part of history itself – it, and the movement it accompanies, from Ryan’s mapping to the diverse grassroots campaign that saw a monument erected at Myall Creek in 2000. Historian John Maynard describes the ‘remarkable healing process involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members’ that takes place in the yearly memorial services held there. The foreword to the book is written by Aunty Sue Blacklock and John Brown, who were heavily involved in establishing the memorial; perhaps fittingly, the final chapter is a series of interviews that explore the possibilities for future commemorations at the site.

With all these different conversations at play, what does Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre add up to? It is certainly more of a collection of academic essays than it is a piece of narrative history: the various elements are not tightly synthesised, and the writing can sometimes be detailed and dense. This is not a rollicking pop-history read. But therein also lies its strength – it demonstrates historians’ ability to broaden the picture, to try out ideas, to make unexpected connections. The book shows how a single event can be many things at once, how its resonance can change over time, and how the world itself is changed by beholding it.

Myall Creek has transformed – following decades of silence – from a one-off flashpoint of renegade violence into what Jane Lydon now calls ‘a symbol of a wider system of invasion and dispossession’. Perhaps it will also stand for the vital work of truth-telling and reconciliation led by Blacklock, Brown, Ryan, and others.

Such work is timely. As Bruce Pascoe has written:

Until Australia embraces our entire history we are doomed to a dwarfed understanding of our land and ourselves. No republic, no anthem, no flag can hide us from our past.

Or in the words of the Friends of Myall Creek, the grassroots group behind the memorial:

If we and our descendants are to live in peace in Australia, then we have to tell and acknowledge the truth of our history. It is not that all of our history is bad, but the bad must be acknowledged with the good, if we are to have any integrity.

Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (Eds) Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre NewSouth 2018 PB 248pp $34.99.

Alexander Wells is a freelance writer and historian based in Sydney. His work has also appeared in Homer, Overland and the Harvard Advocate.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

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