Visitors file past a cleansing fire tended by a Kamilaroi man at the 2009 Myall Creek massacre memorial. (M. da Silva).

Aboriginal massacre site commemorated

  • BY Matthew da Silva |
  • November 15, 2010

An infamous massacre of Aboriginal people at Myall Creek is gaining the prominence it deserves.

A NEAR-NAKED MAN, with red and white earth adorning his body, and orange clay flattening his hair, squats in the winter sun. He wafts smoke onto visitors filing past a fire of green leaves and twigs at the top of the trail leading to the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial. He is tending a cleansing fire that prepares visitors for a ceremony commemorating an Aboriginal massacre. Not just any massacre, but the only one for which any European was punished.

There are thousands of WWI memorials, but few sites mark where Aborigines fell at the hands of armed retainers of squatters, and colonial police tasked with protecting pastoral interests.

The site has, this week, received the strongest level of heritage protection in New South Wales.

It took over 160 years to memorialise the Myall Creek Massacre, as it's known, which unfolded on 10 June 1838, when 28 Wirrayaraay women, children and old men were hacked to death by a mob of stockmen at Myall Creek, a run 50 km west of what is now the NSW town of Inverell. Subsequent arrests led to public trials. 

The reasons for the delay in commemorating the event are complicated, but perhaps not hard to understand in light of the public outcry over the seven European men who were hanged in Sydney that December. In fact, a memorial was first proposed in 1965 by the Bingara Apex Club, with the aim of "reminding people of their lack of feeling for the Australian Aborigine", according to a story that appeared in the Inverell Times in January of that year.

Persistence

Apex member Len Payne, who had come to Bingara in 1937 and worked as projectionist at the Roxy cinema, was one resident who was set on establishing a monument, until his death in 1994. But he found resistance to the idea among some parts of the community.

"The whole idea is ill-conceived, unconsidered and mischievous and an insult to the Bingara people," roared T.J. Wearne, the owner of local property Beaufort, in a page-long rebuttal that appeared in the Bingara Advocate. The plan for a memorial was abandoned, but not forgotten.

"Len Payne used to ring me up in the '60s and '70s and say 'What are you going to do about Myall Creek?'," says Lyall Munro Snr, a Kamilaroi elder and former executive member of the now-dissolved National Aboriginal Conference of Australia. "He was dedicated. He put up with a lot of racism, a lot of abuse," says Lyall. "But he continued to speak out about the Myall Creek Massacre."

Local grazier and former Warialda High School teacher Ted Stubbins says Len helped raise awareness of serious crimes perpetrated by early settlers by collecting the oral histories of people such as Cecil and Bill Wall, workers at the Myall Creek station who were descended from an early Myall Creek station hand. Historian Roger Milliss used the knowledge in his 1992 book, Waterloo Creek, which he dedicated to Len.

Reconciliation

The seeds for a fresh attempt at establishing a memorial were planted that year in far-flung Canberra when the Reverend John Brown began working full-time on behalf of the Uniting Church to promote reconciliation.

"I sensed, in travelling around the country, that there were many places of painful memory for Aboriginal people ... particularly massacre sites," John says. "And in talking with Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people I said 'I think that we need at some point, to go back to some of the painful places in our shared history'."

Uniting Church parishioner and Tingha resident Sue Blacklock invited John to Myall Creek, and a conference was advertised locally and held over a weekend in late 1998. Cousins Sue and Lyall, descendents of a boy who escaped the massacre, helped garner crucial support for a memorial among Aboriginal elders who John visited in such places as Tamworth, Narrabri, Moree, Inverell and Armidale.

A series of six meetings was held throughout 1999 and into early 2000 for the purpose of discussing the erection of a memorial. "The Uniting Church took that initiative but we called together a group of people composed of ... Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people [in] equal numbers," says John. "I tried to reach consensus," he says.

Those who knew the history, such as Ted and Peter Stewart - a Sydney businessman and author of Demons at Dusk, a novel about the massacre - wrote the story that is etched in English and Kamilaroi on seven plaques - designed by Colin Isaacs, an Aboriginal elder at Inverell - placed along the trail to the memorial rock.

Lyall says that 300-400 people sign the visitor's book every month. "People come there just to meditate," he says.

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