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Ballina Massacre

Credit: TBC

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 28th September 2023

An East Ballina Massacre

Shot Down Like Dogs

In 1853 or ’54, when Queensland was still under the jurisdiction of N.S.W., it was the custom (occasionally) to patrol distant territories with black trackers in charge of white troopers. These were trained horsemen and musket shots but were possessed very often with only a cramped conception of their duty.

Credit: TBC

It had been alleged in Brisbane that the blacks to the north of the Tweed had murdered some white men and that the murderers had fled south towards the Richmond.

In due course one afternoon one of these patrols – a small one – rode into East Ballina and put at Ainsworth’s public house, ‘The Sailor’s Home.’ That is to say, the white troopers stayed at the hotel while the black trackers camped outside.

The object of the mission to Ballina was not disclosed to the settlement and no inquiries were made by the patrol, but at 3 0’clock the next morning they turned out and ascended the hill in the direction of the present reservoir. The blacks had a camping ground on the clear slope of the hill facing the valley reaching over towards Black Head. At the time between 200 and 300 of them lay asleep in the camp.

The troopers and trackers stealthily surrounded the slumbering blacks, and when sufficiently close at a given signal opened fire. Men, women and children were slaughtered without mercy, and their screams and cries during the onslaught were heart-rending. Between 30 and 40 of the poor wretches were killed outright, and many who go away were badly wounded. Their graves may still be found on the fatal ridges.

Credit: By Samuel Calvert (1828-1913)

The patrol, after its bloody work, returned north, and the white settlers at East Ballina reported the unprovoked massacre to the N.S.W. Government. The authorities, however, gave no satisfaction, and when pressed to take action against the troopers the settlers were peremptorily told to mind their own business and were warned that persistence in the matter might lead to trouble for them.

In their flight from the camp the blacks took refuge in the scrub and did not return for quite a period. They sought no reprisals and took no revenge; and to the credit of the whites, in the meantime, be it added, they were shown every sympathy and every assistance.

Credit: National Library of Australia :Seventy-Five Years on the Richmond.1847-1922.James Ainsworth’s Reminiscences (No. 5) (From Ballina “Beacon.”)

Credit: TBC

Massacres like the one at Ballina were not uncommon. Another massacre occurred at South Ballina, where whites gave the Aboriginal people flour laced with arsenic and another occurred in Evans Head at Goanna Headland.

There were two main reasons why the massacres occurred: one, was that the British settlers wanted the land; and two, the Aboriginal people could not comprehend how another human could murder without conscience like this. Aboriginal people had strict rules around warfare. Their ‘wars’ stopped at the first casualty. They were too naïve to understand the greed, barbarity and brutality of the British colonisers.

To recreate the massacre at Black Head in Ballina in my book, ‘Savage’, I walked the massacre trail. It was a very unsettling and haunting experience that left me feeling drained and ‘off’. The only time I have felt something similar was when I visited a shrine in Berlin that had been built to remember the Jewish holocaust.

Execution during the Holocaust.           Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica.

I did not really want to walk the trail but I had writer’s block. Something wouldn’t let me go any further without walking the trail. So, with permission from Nyangbal Elders, I walked it.

I started at North Creek, wandered up to the water tower, down into the tracks behind old Southern Cross School and along the sand tracks weaving across the old golf course. From there, I went up to the hill above the cemetery and looked down across the valley where the clearing would have been and then went on towards Black Head.

I was guided along the trail by a combination of research, local knowledge and, for want of a better word, intuition.

Initially I thought the ridgeline that Ainsworth talked about was the hill where the old reservoir was, looking down over the old Southern Cross school, where there used to be evidence of a campsite.

Credit: Steve Trotter

A teacher showed us a hollowed-out tree with a small midden inside it there when I was about 7, when I was a student there. There were so many worn tracks around the school and off into the old golf course that some of the Nyangbal people probably based themselves there at some point. There was even a native beehive there. Whether they just visited the site from the clearing closer to the beach or camped there before or after the massacre is unclear; but, judging by the small mound of shells I remember seeing, if they did camp there, they probably didn’t stay there long.­

I walked along some of the tracks in the old golf course. The tracks joined each other everywhere. There must have been a lot of tucker in there that the women got. 

‘In 1853-4, at an area close to the present-day East [[Ballina]] Golf Course, the Native Police slaughtered at least 30 – 40 Bundjalung Nation Arakwal Aboriginal men, women and children while they slept’. Copied from an archived Wikipedia entry.

It was in there that the dots joined a bit for me. While the Native Police stood on the ridge shooting down into the campsite, I saw the men standing their ground buying time for the women, children and old people to escape towards Angels and Flat Rock where they could lose them in the scrub. 

I have read somewhere before that the police chased the Bullinaa mob over the golf course and herded them, like cattle, towards Black Head.

Credit: Steve Trotter

Looking at the map I drew for myself, there’s a clear path to the Angels Beach estate (where I was told by a firsthand witness that Aboriginal remains were dug up and disposed of so as not to delay the subdivision); and there’s another path that leads straight to Black Head. 

When I was walking the tracks, I sensed that some of the black trackers had anticipated the move and blocked the Nyangbal people’s escape and funneled them towards Black Head.

credit: TBC

One question that did arise for me on the walk was did the Nyangbal people go willingly to the cliff top in the hope that they might be able to escape off it into the water below, like the mob in Evans had hoped to do at Goanna Headland?

In the 1850s Black Head was much bigger than it is today. It was basically cut in half, when the white settlers mined it to build the two break walls on the Richmond River, and Aboriginal people were expert swimmers. Having surfed at Trestles at the end of Black Head, I know that the water can be quite deep; but looking at this picture, there still may have been rocks at the base of the cliff and it may not have been possible to leap off the cliff and swim to safety.

Credit: RVTrips

The Black Head leg of the trail was the one I wasn’t looking forward to because of an Aboriginal spirit I saw there at dawn over 25 years ago. He was very angry and really didn’t want me to be there. I apologized and left respectfully, but I didn’t want to return there again.

But there I was, back there again. I followed the instructions of the Nyangbal Elder and was able to complete the trail safely.

It was spooky experience and one that I won’t be rushing to do again. 

There’s a whole lot of stuff like this out there that we weren’t taught about in schools. It’s worth checking out.

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, the environment, and their culture. 


Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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