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Turning fact into fiction: the 1857 Hornet Bank massacre.

In November 2004 I was driving back to Canberra with Victor Crittenden after both of us had given papers at a commemoration of the noted naturalist and pioneer novelist, Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872), at the Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens in the Blue Mountains. Victor's friends and acquaintances will not be surprised to read that talk turned to nineteenth-century literature. In particular we talked about a Mulini Press publication, Fifty Years Ago: An Australian Tale by Charles de Boos (1). I knew only vaguely of the existence of this book so Victor told me the story. At first I was only mildly interested as he recounted the plot of the novel, published in 1867, in which the author looks back, as the title states, to colonial life in former days. But then Victor came to a sudden, startling incident in which three Aborigines attack an isolated homestead while the husband is away, kill the mother and three youngest children and maim the eldest son and leave him for dead. The father, George Maxwell, returns to find his massacred family. After recovering his wounded but still breathing son from the shallow grave where the Aborigines had buried him, he and his son vow vengeance on the murderers. Not only will he kill them but, in a ritualistic response to the dreadful deed, he will kill one on each anniversary of the massacre. This gruesome vow shapes the rest of this long novel as Maxwell saves each of the Aborigines from death several times so that the killings tan take place on an anniversary. Each ritualistic killing involves severing the right hand of the victim and nailing it to a tree. Each of the three books that follows: 'The First Black Hand', 'The Second Black Hand', 'The Third Black Hand', culminates in the death of one of the three assassins (2).

As I listened to this fictional story I was struck by similarities to the massacre of the Fraser family at Hornet Bank station in 1857. I had written about this event and had studied it in some detail when I was researching my biography of Rosa Praed (1851-1935)(3), the nineteenth-century Queensland-born novelist who had not only written about Hornet Bank in her factual and fictional writing but whose father, Queensland pioneer squatter and politician, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior, was a major organiser of the subsequent retaliation.

The Hornet Bank massacre of eleven Europeans, including eight members of the Fraser family, took place about dawn on 27 October 1857 at a station on the upper Dawson River in central Queensland. Squatters had begun to occupy this country from 1847 following Ludwig Leichhardt's 1844-45 journey through the area on his expedition to find an overland route to Port Essington on the north coast of Australia. The first European occupant of Hornet Bank station, Andrew Scott, arrived in the early 1850s. In 1854 he leased the station to Scottish-born John Fraser who took his wife, Martha, and a large family ranging in age from young children to the early twenties, to live in this isolated area near the edge of European settlement. Two years later John Fraser died of dysentery while on a droving trip to Ipswich and his eldest son, William, then aged 23, took over management of the station in collaboration with the lessee, Andrew Scott(4).

The stations on the Dawson River were on the land of the Yiman people who bitterly resented the invasion of the European settlers with their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle while, to the Europeans, the Yiman were an impediment to the expansion of their pastoral empires. Stories circulated of Aboriginal people murdered by poisoning--on one station they were given a Christmas pudding laced with strychnine--and of the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women. Cruelty towards the Yiman people inflamed their already overwhelming sense of injustice at being forced off the land that had been theirs back to the broken, scrubby gorge country and they made the country dangerous for the European invaders. Shepherds in boundary huts were attacked and killed and settlers feared leaving their wives and children unprotected. At Isla station on the Dawson, north of Hornet Bank, a woman discovered the body of her overdue husband speared by Aborigines; at Palm Tree Creek station, also to the north of Hornet Bank, Mrs. John Scott always put a double-barrelled pistol in her belt before she walked from the main hut to her nearby kitchen; other squatters locked their families inside their huts, with a supply of food, water and firearms to withstand a siege, before riding out on their runs(5).

The worst fears of the white squatters on the Dawson were realised when the Fraser family was attacked while the eldest son, William Fraser, was away collecting stores from Ipswich. In the early morning hours a large number of Yiman people attacked the sleeping household, after enlisting an Aboriginal servant to kill all the station dogs so they could not warn of their approach. The eleven people killed were Mrs Martha Fraser, her four daughters, Elizabeth, 19, Mary, 11, Jane, 9, and Charlotte, 3, three of her sons, John, 22, David, 16, and James, 6, the tutor James Neagle and a shepherd and a hutkeeper who were sleeping in a hut nearby as they were due to be paid off the next day. During the ferocious attack, Martha Fraser and her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, were raped and Neagle was castrated before they were clubbed to death. The only survivor, one of the Fraser sons, 14-year-old Sylvester, was clubbed unconscious but when he recovered was able to hid under his bed and was assumed to be dead. The attackers ransacked the home taking clothing, household articles and weapons and leaving behind a hideous scene of mutilated bodies and rampage. Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior of Hawkwood station on the Auburn River, a tributary of the Burnett, over the Auburn Range east of Hornet Bank, described what he heard of the murder scene: '... the murderers had placed them all in a row all the females had been horribly abused and the males mutilated. It is better to draw a veil over a scene which cannot be described'(6). After the attackers left, Sylvester Fraser, although suffering from a gash to the head, managed to walk 22 kilometres to Eurombah, the nearest station, to raise the alarm.

Opinions vary on the reason for the attack on Hornet Bank. Thomas Murray-Prior believed this was only the first of what was planned to be a series of attacks on isolated stations to eliminate whites from the district. But the major reason for the brutality of the attack, including the rapes and mutilation of the victims, appeared to be retaliation for the taking of Aboriginal women by the older Fraser sons, hutkeepers and others.

The Aboriginal Attack in Fifty Years Ago

Before considering the squatters' retaliation against the Yiman people following the Hornet Bank attack, here is de Boos's account of the massacre of the Maxwell family in Fifty Years Ago when their station is attacked while the father is absent and the son out on the run:

She [Mrs. Maxwell] had barely taken three steps towards Atare, when the tomahawk of Macomo was buffed in her brain. With a wild ringing shriek she fell, and the last sight that her dying eyes encountered as she was falling was one that had called forth that shriek of agony more than any bodily pang of her own. She saw, and still had the consciousness to be agonised by the action, her beloved babe dashed savagely down upon the earth by the now furious barbarian who had temporarily made it his protection. She saw this, and then heaven, in its mercy, called her away. The two little ones who were crying with fright in the chimney comer, were despatched almost before they were exactly aware of what it was that had happened, or why their mother had fallen. The poor babe had had all its little life crushed out of it by that one violent cast.

And now the savages dispersed over the hut, admiring, breaking, and destroying; collecting together all such articles as, according to their notions, were the most valuable, and wantonly smashing up all that they could not remove. Already they had gathered three heaps of goods somewhat larger than the dignity of the black warrior usually allows him to carry; yet still they were engaged in adding to these heaps, as in ransacking the hut they came upon articles which they considered useful.

They were thus employed when the sound of hurried footsteps, though still at a distance, was caught up by their ready ears. Opara at once sprang forward, looking out in the direction when the sound came, but keeping himself concealed. A short observation satisfied him, and he grinned gaily at his companions as he told them that it was only the boy, and that if they would keep themselves quiet, the lad would run into the trap, and be very quickly disposed of.

Poor Jamie! He had heard whilst at work at the lower end of the clearing that piercing shriek, the last cry of his dying mother; and changed as it was, and in a tune that he had never heard before, he knew his mother's voice. Stupefied for the moment by the thrill of horror that it caused to pass through his frame, he stood aghast and irresolute(7). Jamie Maxwell is speared by one of the Aborigines and his thigh broken but he manages to aim a stone at Opara who is approaching with his tomahawk raised. Maxwell is felled by the tomahawk and drops senseless as does his assailant. Although still alive, the Aborigines decide to bury Jamie 'in order to propitiate Opara's spirit in the event of a serious termination to his wound', covering him with soil, stones, leaves and twigs. When the father, George Maxwell, returns to the station he rescues his son from his shallow grave. He then takes him to see the appalling sight of the dead bodies of the rest of the family and asks what he is prepared to do to those who have slain his mother and siblings.

The boy's eyes opened to their full width as this question was asked, and as they met those of his father one would have said that the savage vengeful spirit of the one had been transmitted by that look to the other, for there in the one was the same wild gleam of revenge that was in the other. Clenching his uninjured hand he groaned out between his teeth the one word "Kill!"

George laughed that frantic laugh that we have heard before. "Yes, yes, you would kill--kill! Good, good; you would kill! My own son, my own brave boy! I recognise you now. Yes, kill, kill!" and he laughed again that wild discordant laugh of frenzy. "You shall have your wish! Now listen! I am about to swear an oath, and if when I have finished it you agree with it, and are content to take it also, and to be bound by it, hold up your hand--your uninjured hand--in token that you do so; but if your heart fail--if you experience even the slightest qualm of disinclination to join yourself with me in what I shall undertake, let your hand remain quiescent, and I will work alone! You understand?"

"Yes," Jamie replied.

And then George knelt down upon that newly filled grave, and raising his hands to Heaven in solemn tones--tones better suited for holier and more Christian work--took a deep and fearful oath of vengeance. The boy looked on not more than half conscious of what was going on, but still understanding enough of the dreadful words to know that there was vengeance in the midst of them, and that a share of it had been promised to him(8).

Retribution after Hornet Bank

News of the massacre at Hornet Bank spread rapidly once Sylvester Fraser reached Eurombah. Men from the neighbouring stations, Eurombah and Kinnoul, went to Hornet Bank to find an appalling scene with blood-covered nulla-nullas and tomahawks lying near the naked or semi-naked bodies of the victims. No inquest was held, the nearest magistrate, William Yaldwyn of Taroom, claiming he could not leave his station for fear of an attack on it. The bodies were buried the following day, the five female victims in one grave, the three Fraser brothers and the tutor and station hands in another. After the burial Sylvester Fraser left Hornet Bank for Ipswich, a ride of at least three days, to tell his eldest brother of the tragedy. Already news of the massacre was spreading through the Moreton Bay District and newspaper reports began appearing. William Fraser rode back to Hornet Bank with Sylvester reaching the station after another marathon three days' ride, squatters along the way providing fresh horses at each stop. There, William Fraser, in what became an iconic picture etched in nineteen-century outback legend, stood with uplifted tomahawk in his hand over the graves of his mother, sisters and brothers and vowed that he would sink it into the skulls of the Aboriginal people who had killed his family(9).

On his station at Hawkwood over the Auburn Range to the east, Murray-Prior and squatters on the Auburn River decided to take matters into their own hands. From stations up to two days' ride away men gathered at Hawkwood to plan retaliation, giving themselves the para-military name of 'the Browns'. Over the following weeks the Browns left Hawkwood on forays that escalated from retaliation to revenge to extermination. A large number of Yiman people were chased towards Redbank station on Cheltenham Creek, north of Hawkwood, and killed there. Others were shot on the western side of Mount Narayan and those captured alive were handcuffed around a bottle tree and shot. After six weeks of this warfare the Native Police, already active on the Dawson, took over the chase(10). For a long time afterwards, the surviving Fraser brothers, particularly William Fraser, pursued the remainder of the tribe. Stories abounded of Fraser's immunity from the law. Several referred to his alleged shooting of an Aboriginal woman--in the main street of Rockhampton, or, in another version, in Drayton--who, he claimed, was wearing a dress that had been his mother's but he was never charged(11). Murray-Prior wrote of the Fraser brothers long after the event: '[William] & his brother Sylvester devoted a great part of their time to hunting the blacks. There is little doubt that many fell to their rifles that were never officially heard, but who could blame them?'(12).

Similarities between Fraser and Maxwell Stories

The resemblances between these two stories of the Frasers and the Maxwells, one fact, the other fiction, are striking: the massacre on an isolated station; the number of female and child victims; the absence of the main male figure; the unlikely survival of one young male in each case; the return of the father/brother; and the importance of the vows of vengeance. The major difference occurs in the retaliation. After Hornet Bank, revenge killings extended far beyond the perpetrators to the Yiman people in general who were 'dispersed' to the point of elimination. In Fifty Years After, George Maxwell's vow of vengeance concerns only the three perpetrators although his son, Jamie, is portrayed as an indiscriminate hater. 'It's the colour', he says, 'I feel as if when I strike I must drive the tomahawk through and through everything black'(13). There is also a difference in the portrayal of the massacre. In Fifty Years After, although the young children are killed violently and cruelly, the manner of their deaths does not approach the ferocity of the rapes and mutilation that occurred at Hornet Bank. These details do not appear to have been published at the time and were known only through official reports, private memoirs and word of mouth. Newspaper reports of Hornet Bank were strong in vengeful rhetoric but vague about details of the atrocities.

Charles de Boos had opportunities to read about the Hornet Bank tragedy, which, although it occurred in the remote Moreton Bay district, was a sensational event, one of the worst massacres of whites since the beginning of European settlement. At the time of the tragedy he was working as a parliamentary reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald which published a lengthy report of the Hornet Bank attack copied from the Moreton Bay Free Press. The story was placed at the top of a column under a prominent heading: HORRIBLE MASSACRE BY THE BLACKS ON THE DAWSON. ELEVEN PERSONS KILLED. It referred to the whole household with one exception being 'cruelly and foully massacred' and described the attack as 'one of the most diabolical outrages upon the part of the aborigines'. The report also referred to 'appalling atrocities' but did not specify what these were (14). The story included the deposition of the survivor, Sylvester Fraser, taken before the Ipswich Bench on 6 November 1857 in which he gave details of the attack and his subsequent actions.

Editorial opinion commonly called for retribution. While the Morton Bay Courier advocated that 'the blow of retributive justice should fall with discrimination, and on the guilty only' (15), the Moreton Bay Free Press stated: 'The blood of the innocent and virtuous shed at Hornet Bank calls aloud for revenge, and we hope that it will not be long before the revenge is gratified' (16). This theme was repeated in Sydney. On 20 November 1857, quoting their Moreton Bay correspondent, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote:
 It makes one's blood boil to read of such atrocities and to think
 that there is little chance of punishment.' Bell's Life in Sydney
 reported: 'A blow must be struck which will carry terror into the
 hearts of the tribe. A signal act of vengeance must follow this
 fearful sacrifice of women and children; the barbarian must be
 taught that the powers which have slumbered so long are still in
 existence, and that the shedding of a white man's blood is an act
 which is to be invariably followed by the more severe and speedy
 retribution' (17).

On 30 November the Sydney Morning Herald, published a letter from George Serocold of Cockatoo station, east of Hornet Bank on a tributary of the Dawson, advocating revenge and warning that if the Government did not act, there would be a squatters' crusade. George Serocold was a member of 'the Browns' organised by Murray-Prior which carried out their own revenge' (18).

Hornet Bank in Rosa Praed's Writing

If de Boos drew on the story of Hornet Bank for his Fifty Years Ago, he was a forerunner of Rosa Praed who began using Hornet Bank material in her autobiographical and fictional writing in the 1880s. She had been a child of six living at Hawkwood station when Hornet Bank was attacked. A quarter of a century later and some six or seven years after she had left Queensland to live in England, she asked her father, Thomas Murray-Prior, to write his reminiscences of his squatting life. His extensive recollections of Hornet Bank became a rich source for her autobiographical and fictional writing. They jogged her memory and provided her with new information. At first, particularly in her semi-autobiographical Australian Life Black and White and in My Australian Girlhood, she used this information uncritically accepting her father's attitudes. In both of these works she writes herself into her father's accounts as a participant in events. She conflates his reports of woollas and corroborees before and after Hornet Bank, moves the scene to Hawkwood and portrays herself as a child observer of a corroboree that she describes as a forerunner of Hornet Bank, dramatically declaring that perhaps if she had told her parents what she had seen at the corroboree she could have prevented the attack. In his reminiscences, her father described this event as occurring after the Hornet Bank attack as a derisive portrayal of the tragedy (19). Rosa Praed also portrays herself accompanying her father after the Hornet Bank tragedy when he rode over the Auburn Range to Palm Tree Creek station on the Dawson in an effort to persuade John Scott and his wife to take refuge at Hawkwood. It is incredible that Murray-Prior would have taken a young child on such a dangerous journey during which he witnessed the sight and stench of the rotting corpses of Aboriginal victims of the Native Police at Taroom station (20).

In her fictional treatment of Hornet Bank Rosa Praed presents a deeper understanding of the event by introducing opposing views, in part reflecting her changing perception of Aboriginal/European conflicts. In Fugitive Anne a white woman, Anne Bedo, escaping from a violent, abusive husband with the help of an Aboriginal young man, Kombo, seeks the sanctuary of her uncle's northern station but instead comes upon a scene similar to Hornet Bank:
 At her very feet, the head towards her, the legs caught in a tangle
 of vine, lay the body of a man clad only in a shirt, with the top of
 the head battered in, the eyes staring, the mouth wide open, a swarm
 of flies upon the blue lips; while, as she stood, her shoes were
 almost wetted by the little stream of coagulating blood. Beneath her
 outstretched arms, a loathsome carrion bird spread its wings, and
 fluttered out over the lagoon. The girl gave another shriek, and
 fled back through the thicket. She understood now. God of mercy!
 That this thing should be! Had the Blacks massacred every white man
 and woman on Kooloola station?


 'Kombo, do you know what has happened? Do you know that he's
 dead--the man out there? Do you know that the Blacks have killed

 ... 'I believe black fellow come last night kill everybody, take-im
 store, find-im grog, mumkull altogether with spear and
 nulla-nulla--ole Missus, young fellow white Mary belonging to her;
 young Massa Jim--Chinaman long-a kitchen--altogether bong. I creep
 close-up humpey. I see long-a verandah ole Missus--I believe black
 fellow kill that one first with waddy. Inside, I see two young
 Missee--I believe black fellow take-im that fellow--no kill
 altogether quick like ole Missus. Then I go outside long-a store.
 Young Massa he have-im spear like it back, and Chinaman he lie dead
 little way off. Mine no see young Massa Tom. Mine think-it that
 fellow run away and look out--find Captain Cunningham and black
 police' (21).

This scene with almost the entire family killed, the father mutilated and the young daughters raped, is very similar to Hornet Bank, but Rosa Praed's character, Anne Bedo, reacts very differently from her father and 'the Browns'. Although Anne weeps bitterly for her 'kind old aunt [and] her young cousins' she thinks, too, of dispossessed tribes and the treachery of pioneering Europeans. She recalls the story told to he by Kombo of the squatter who had given a Christmas pudding laced with poison to the Aborigines who had camped near 'his water-hol'. 'Was it any wonder, she thought, that afterwards, white men were speared from behind gum-trees, and that there were murders on the lonely stations?' (22).

In Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land, another Hornet Bank-like event had left its its mark on the main male character, Colin McKeith, the only family member who survived the massacre. Like the surviving Fraser brothers, the fictional McKeith 'made it his purpose to pursue the wild black with relentless animosity'. His role as avenger is accepted to the extent that the Premier of this fictional Colony describes him as the 'terror of the natives' and mentions, without condemnation, that McKeith's gun is marked with 'a great many notches' representing 'blackfellows' he had killed(23). His justification is the avenging of his family:
 'Every living soul was murdered ... surprised in their sleep ... My
 father ... my mother ... my sisters ... God! ... I can't speak of
 it ...'.

 'And you ... you ... where were you?' she stammered.

 'Me! I was with the drays, you know. We got back about noon that
 day ... If we'd been twelve hours sooner! Well, I suppose I should
 have been murdered with the rest ... The blacks had gone off with
 their loot ... We ... we buried our dead ... And then we ran up our
 best horses and never drew rein for forty miles till we'd got to
 where a band of Native Police were camped ... And then ... we took
 what vengeance we could ... It wasn't complete till a long time

His listener, Lady Bridget O'Hara, challenges his view.

'But you were taking their land,' Lady Bridget exclaimed impetuously, 'you had come as an invader, into their territory. What right had you to do that? You were the aggressor'.

If Charles de Boos, as appears likely, fictionalised elements of the Hornet Bank massacre in Fifty Year Ago, he was a distinguished forerunner of Rosa Praed's extensive and, ultimately discerning, use of the same material that was part of her family's history.

(1) Charles de Boos, Fifty Years Ago: An Australian Tale, Introduction by Laurie Clancy, Mulini Press, Canbarra, ACT, 1999; first published in parts 1866-7; first published in book form, Gordon and Gotch, Sydney, 1867.

(2) Fifty Years Ago, Introduction, p. 4.

(3) Patricia Clarke, Rosa! Rosa! A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 1999.

(4) Gordon Reid, A Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1837, and Related Events, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1982, pp. 30-1, 34.

(5) Clarke, p. 16; Herbert S. Bloxsome, Discovery, Exploration and Settlement of the Burnett River, National Library of Australia, MS7414; Praed Papers, John Oxley Library, OM64-1, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior Reminiscences, 3/1/1, pp. 58-9.

(6) Praed Papers, 3/1/1, pp. 28-9.

(7) Fifty Years Ago, p. 24.

(8) Fifty Years Ago, p. 34.

(9) Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788, 3rd ed., New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2003, p. 159.

(10) Clarke, p. 18; Herbert Bloxsome, 'The Discovery, Exploration and Early Settlement of the Upper Burnett', Historical Society of Queensland Journal, Vol. III, No. 5, 1945-6, p. 349; Praed Papers, 3/1/1, pp. 31-41.

(11) Reid, pp. 100-1.

(12) Praed Papers, 3/1/1, pp. 41-2.

(13) Fifty Years Ago, quoted in Introduction, p. 4.

(14) Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1857.

(15) Moreton Bay Courier, 14 November 1857, editorial 'The Blacks'.

(16) Moreton Bay Free Press, 18 November 1857, quoted in Reid, p. 73.

(17) Bell's Life in Sydney, 5 December 1857.

(18) Praed Papers, 3/1/1, p. 32.

(19) Praed Papers, 3/1/1, p. 31.

(20) Mrs Campbell Praed, Australian Life Black and White: Sketches of Australian Life, Chapman & Hall, London, 1885, pp. 67-70; My Australian Girlhood: Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1902, pp. 90-2.

(21) Mrs Campbell Praed, Fugitive Anne: A Romance of the Unexplored Bush, John Long, London, 1902, pp. 56-9.

(22) Fugitive Anne, p. 66-7.

(23) Mrs Campbell Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land, Hutchinson, London, 1915, p. 68.

(24) Lady Bridget, p. 73.

(25) Lady Bridget, p. 68.
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Author:Clarke, Patricia
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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