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Reconciliation Week and the anniversary of the Myall Creek Massacre

Credit: TBC

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 1st June 2024

Reconciliation Week.

Yeah, but what does it really mean?

While young Australians participated in Reconciliation Week this year, and it was wonderful to see them celebrating the rich culture of Aboriginal Australians in schools across the country, I still feel like there is a long way to go.

I was privileged to be asked to read from my novel ‘Savages’ at St Joseph’s College Woodlawn in Lismore as part of this immersion in Aboriginal culture. Normally I’d read a chapter from ‘The Magpie and the Snake’, the first book in the Australia’s Black History series, which celebrates the depth and width of Aboriginal culture prior to colonisation; but not this time. ‘Savages’ was published that week so I horrified students with the gruesome events of frontier conflict history instead.

‘Savages: a truth telling’

Okay, maybe some of my choices for texts were verging on the sadistic side, when I was teaching English, and like some of my past choices ‘Savages’ doesn’t pull any punches.

‘Savages’ by Steve Trotter. Cover art courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Much of the history surrounding ‘frontier conflict’, especially in Ballina, has been buried, lost or destroyed. But it happened. All I’ve done is flip the usual telling of these accounts by retelling them through the eyes of the victims rather than the perpetrators. ‘Savages’ fuses oral history and local history to piece together the terrible events that occurred at Black Head.

Where a piece was missing, I turned to accounts elsewhere in the country. After all, the massacres were not limited to any one area of Australia. They were widespread. As June 10th draws closer, it marks the 186th anniversary of the Myall Creek Masssacre, a day of huge significance and sadness for the Wirrayaraay people of the Northern Tablelands.


The Myall Creek Massacre

On June 10, 1838, a group of 10 convict stockmen, led by a squatter, rode into Myall Creek Station near present-day Bingara in Northern New South Wales. In a brutal and premeditated act, they massacred approximately 28 Aboriginal people – old men, women, and children – with the intention of forcibly removing them from that had been claimed by setters and turned into farm lands. This tragic event is known as the Myall Creek Massacre and is significant because it marked the first time in Australia that white men were held accountable by the Australian legal system. Following a second trial, seven men were executed.


CREDIT: Clipping from Governor Davey’s [sic – actually Governor Arthur’s] Proclamation to the Aborigines, 1816 [sic – actually c. 1828-30] courtesy of the NSW State Library

While seven white men were brought to justice, it did not deter other opportunistic colonists who had the wealth and power to get away with murder if they needed to speed up the establishment of their farms and other land holdings stolen from the Aboriginal people. The massacring of Aboriginal people for their land, and the resources they had cultivated, continued across Australia. 

Remembering the Past is the Way Forward

CREDIT: Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts, Phiz, in The Book of Remarkable Trials, 1840; Chronicles of Crime V. II, 1841 Courtesy National Museum of Australia.

The Myall Creek Massacre was not the first massacre, nor the worst massacre; it is remembered because seven white men were hung for the murder of Aboriginal people. While it’s a wonderful gesture, nationally, that the wider community around Myall Creek has acknowledged the need for a day and place of mourning, I’m reminded that most mobs across Australia are not even this ‘lucky’. Many Aboriginal people from areas where similar (and worse) massacres occurred were so successfully wiped out (or forcibly removed) that there is no-one left who knows the whole story.

When I began writing ‘Savages’, 30 years ago, it was partly for this reason. I was still in Uni when I read about the Myall Creek Massacre. It was the first account of our bloody past that I uncovered. I was horrified and stunned at what I was reading. Did this stuff really happen in Australia? We were never taught this in school.I decided then and there that I would do my best to ensure that part of our history would be taught in my classes.

I started to research in earnest then, and that’s when it suddenly dawned on me: I knew nothing of the Aboriginal people in my home town of Ballina. It was like their culture and history had been erased. From what I remembered about the race relations in the town during the 1980s when I was growing up, there was a definite undertone, an unspoken something, that suggested there was a reason why they weren’t very good. That was when I decided to dig into the history of Ballina. And that was when I first heard rumblings about the horrendous massacre at Black Head.

credit: TBC

Learning about Black Head made me curious. I was a first year out teacher at the time, in ’94, and I wanted to know more about who the local mob. Who were they? What were they like? Why is there nothing left of their presence here? I got talking to the Gurii kids at school hoping they could tell me. That was when I discovered a terrible truth: the Indig kids didn’t know much about their culture or their history. That wasn’t right and it shocked me.

 I was still big into Midnight Oil back then and suddenly realised here was a living example of historical events that Australians had let slip into the ‘forgotten years’, that the Oils sang about in ‘Diesel and Dust’. The truth had to be remembered if Ballina was to heal and I thought maybe with my skill set I could help; and thus, the seed for ‘Savages’ was sown.

The Ballina Massacres

‘Savages’ is not a pretty story. It is a truth telling about two horrific massacres that occurred in Ballina, NSW in the 1800s and while the Myall Creek Massacre is better known, these massacres were infinitely worse because one of them was sanctioned by the government of the time and the evidence was destroyed to escape punishment.

CREDIT: TBA Native Police employed by the government at the time.

The story of what happened to the Nyangbal people is a national tragedy that occurred throughout Australia. While the Massacre at Black Head has been acknowledged with signage, until it gains a more prominent standing in the community amongst all of us with its own day of commemoration and we can feel it as deeply as any other NATIONAL day of mourning like ANZAC Day, I doubt we can achieve any true reconciliation in this country.

Reconciliation Australia sets out five dimensions for achieving reconciliation:

  • historical acceptance
  • race relations
  • equality and equity
  • institutional integrity
  • and unity.

These dimensions are not isolated; they are inextricably intertwined.

‘These five dimensions do not exist in isolation, but are interrelated. Reconciliation cannot be seen as a single issue or agenda; the contemporary definition of reconciliation must weave all of these threads together. For example, greater historical acceptance of the wrongs done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can lead to improved race relations, which in turn leads to greater equality and equity.”

Credit: TBC

While the ‘No’ result from the Voice Referendum showed us that some Australians are reluctant to delve into the difficult truths and are happy to live with the inherited ignorance of our past, it will not extinguish the vision that many Australians have of creating a true acknowledgement of past wrongs to create true reconciliation in Australia in the future.

The massacres have left a dark stain on Australian history and while we Australians continue to deny the reality of our past, as uncomfortable as it is, there can be no reconciliation with Indigenous Australians until we are prepared to face that truth.

The five dimensions set out by Reconciliation Australia will achieve true reconciliation, if we are willing to embrace them. With 700,000 international visitors who come to Australia EVERY year to learn about Aboriginal culture and history, now more than ever, we have a massive opportunity to come together to acknowledge past wrongs and to right them so that we can all walk into a better and brighter future for ALL Australians.

CREDIT: Herald Sun

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 2024

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