Murder at Myall Creek: The trial that defined a nation.
Author: Mark Tedeschi
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, Sydney, NSW, 2016
Paperback, 319 pages
Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre
Editors: Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (Eds):
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing, June 2018
Paperback, 248 pages
It is often asserted--all too frequently by people who should know better--that European Australia 'Most its innocence" in the early days of the Gallipoli campaign. This is false, because that "innocence" (if it ever existed) was lost at the moment when the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. While the Commission to Arthur Phillip from George III specified that the settlers should "conciliate [the natives'] affections" and enjoined "all of our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them", that lofty ideal was hardly congruent with the reality of a colonising expedition which would, necessarily, steal the lands of those "natives" and compete with them for food.
And so it went on, especially when the more daring (and lawless) colonists ventured far beyond the harbour-side nucleus of the colony. Mostly, there were few or no police where they went, so they created their own law, confident that, as they committed atrocities against the native people, they would never (contrary to the words of the King's Commission) "be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence". And until the appalling and savage atrocity which we now know as the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, their confidence was, regrettably, justified. It was the great Irish emigre, NSW Attorney-General and first Catholic to hold high office in the colony, John Hubert Plunkett, who courageously changed that.
Manning Clark gave a good account of that massacre in which a freeman and squatter's son, John Fleming (who escaped entirely, by the way), led 10 others (five ex-convicts and five current convicts) in a punitive raid on a party of about 30 Wirrayaraay people (old men, women and children) who were taking refuge on Henry Dangar's property near the Gwydir River (A History of Australia, 3, 143-146). The bloodthirsty mob compelled the co-operation of two of Dangar's staff and ferociously slaughtered those aboriginal people then, the following day, created a huge blaze and burned the bodies.
A concatenation of unlikely events, but principally the courage of Dangar's manager, William Hobbs, who (though absent at the time of the massacre) reported it to the authorities as soon as he learned about it, eventually led to the trial of eleven which began in Sydney on 15 November 1938. The costs of their defence were, largely met by funds which had been raised by a "Black Association" which was founded by an unscrupulous Magistrate, Robert Scott; Henry Dangar was a member. The possibility of white men being tried for the killing of blacks was, overwhelmingly, considered an absurdity. This prejudice was supported by the Sydney Herald which Clark quoted as writing that "white men had been driven to the extremity of murder because of the supine government in Sydney, whose 'sympathies and charities were exclusively excited by the possessors of an Ethiopian visage'". That paper's hostility to indigenous people faded only a few decades ago. On the second day of the trial, after a mere 15 minutes' deliberation, the jury delivered "Not Guilty" verdicts on every charge (though Tedeschi quotes one of them as saying later, "I knew well they were guilty of the murder, but I for one would never see a white man suffer for shooting a black").
When the presiding Judge asked Plunkett (as prosecuting Counsel) if there were any reason why the accused could not be released to return to their usual lives, the Attorney had to make a snap decision: he said to the Judge, "Yes, Your Honour... I intend to present another indictment... for murder". That time he succeeded--proving his point that aboriginal lives are as valuable as white ones--and, to immense public outrage, seven of the prisoners were hanged.
Tedeschi tells this sordid story well: after all, a barrister must tell stories in court. In particular, he writes with a deep and lucid legal insight. Did the trial "define" our nation? Subsequent history--whether the "Mabo Trial", the "Stolen Generation" Royal Commission, or the current government's summary rejection of the "Uluru Statement"--suggests that this "definition" is unedifying. That is given some personal context (as well as a sober retelling of the central story) in the book which Lydon and Ryan have edited. None of us can hear and reflect upon this wretched narrative too often.
Reviewed by John Carmody (*)
(*) John Carmody is President of the Australian Catholic Historical Society.
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|Title Annotation:||Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre|
|Publication:||Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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