They kill us off wherever they go… who are the real savages?
Researchers behind the Colonial Frontier Massacres project, documenting the slaying of at least 8,400 mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by colonists between 1788 and 1930, have added 53 new sites to its map.
The additions — 41 in Western Australia and nine in the Northern Territory — bring to 311 the number of mass killings documented in the online map maintained by the project team.
A Kija woman’s harrowing account described the 1888 massacre at Lightman Creek in WA’s far north.
“They came galloping on horses. A big mob of people came from Halls Creek to the ceremony place,” Biddy Malingal said.
The memories of Ms Malingal set the scene for one of the darkest episodes in Australia’s history.
“[The colonists] shot all the babies, kids and teenage girls, and all the old ladies, their mothers and grandmothers, and all the old men,” she said.
“They got all the wood, and piled it up. They pulled all the people and put them on top of the wood, put kerosene on it and lit the fire.”
The project’s map, led by the University of Newcastle, places markers at the locations of massacres of six or more people and includes the deaths of white settlers at the hands of Aboriginal tribes.
The project is an attempt to uncover the true extent of massacres on the colonial frontier and address denials that violence took place.
Researchers have compiled the map using settler diaries, testimonies from survivors, and newspaper articles from the time.
According to researcher Dr Chris Owen, these acts — known locally as ‘the killing times’ — were supported by governments to “pacify Aboriginal people into subservience”.
“Essentially it was a battle for land,” Dr Owen said.
As the colony expanded across the continent, tensions between white settlers and Indigenous people erupted into violence along the frontiers.
Raiding parties comprised of police and civilians were formed to quell the resistance.
“The settlers used to call them punitive expeditions, where they would go out for weeks on end and shoot anyone in the vicinity,” Dr Owen said.
Those not killed were often enslaved.PHOTO: After a massacre, those Aboriginal people who were not killed were often enslaved, similar to these men photographed near Wyndham, WA. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria)
For more than 20 years, Dr Owen has tracked the eyewitness accounts of survivors through unpublished testimonies and oral histories passed down by descendants.
“There’s no other way to say it, they are just horrifying accounts,” he said.
“There are accounts of entire family groups killed and in the colonist community it became an accepted way of dealing with ‘the native problem’.”
Continuing chilling accounts
During the killing times, deaths occurred on both sides.
But Indigenous people overwhelmingly suffered, with 97 per cent of those killed in the frontier massacres Aboriginal.
After the 1916 Mowla Bluff massacre, where between 6 and 200 Aboriginal people were killed by police, an Aboriginal eyewitness described the chilling way officers disposed of the bodies.
“After the shooting stopped I saw all the bodies lying in a heap,” the eyewitness recalled.
“[Officers placed] six bodies on top … [and] lighted the fire. When it was burned down they raked all the ashes, bones.
“We then left, came back to the camp, and had dinner.”
There were calls to investigate when several survivors were found with bullets still embedded in their bodies years later. But nothing eventuated.
In 2001, WA Police denied the incident took place and have not publicly addressed it since.
But Dr Owen found three eyewitness accounts to verify the events.
Jury gave the key to Nutbun and Gunner to take the chain off the bodies which he did, and put the chain in the pack bag.
First they made a heap of small sticks and put a lot of large wood on top of it.
Then Nutbun and Gunner and Currangurra placed the six bodies on top of it and put more wood on top of the bodies.
The heap of wood was higher than my head. Jury lighted the fire.
Chance for ‘truth telling’
Indigenous researcher and Miriuwung man Steve Kinnane has a connection to massacres in the Kimberley through his grandmother Jessie Argyle.
In 1906, she was chained at the neck with a group of other Aboriginal people and taken from Wild Dog Police Station to Wyndham.
Mr Kinnane said mapping these sites will allow Australians to confront the nation’s colonial past and move towards reconciliation.
“It’s not history that you necessarily want to embrace but it’s a really important chance between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people for truth telling,” he said.
“If we’re able to talk about it, we’re able to feel empathy and understand the legacy for family members.
“My hope is that these harrowing histories are understood so that we can move forward together across the nation.”PHOTO: Researcher Steve Kinnane’s grandmother Jessie Argyle was chained by the neck when transported from a police station in 1906. (Supplied)
Recognition ‘continues to grow’
Western Australia’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt said his State Government is continuing to come to terms with its role in these events.
“The recognition of the truthful telling and commemorating of our state’s history continues to grow,” he said.
“Commemorating known massacre sites is part of that collective process of owning our state’s history.”
Mr Wyatt also paid tribute to the descendants of those killed.
“Aboriginal people’s resilience in survival are the enduring qualities which should be recognised in the context of our violent history,” he said.
More sites are expected to be added to the map in 2020.