Multuggerah and the Battle of One Tree Hill

By JJ Rose 10 September 2022
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The story of indigenous resistance warrior, Multuggerah, fills an important gap in Australian history.

If you look to your right while driving west from Brisbane along the Lockyer Way, just before the steep incline into Toowoomba, you’ll see a vast structure set against the deep green of the bush. It’s in the distance, but it’s hard to miss. White vertical pillars like a giant insect’s legs, a backbone across it. This is the Multuggerah Viaduct. Its presence is both deeply significant and ironic, as we shall see. But, as a structure designed to connect, it is entirely appropriate as it is a bridge across one of the deepest chasms in Australia’s historic narrative. 

Noted Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner argued that the Frontier Wars, fought between settlers and indigenous people up until the 1930s, represented, in historical terms, “the great Australian silence.”

Multuggerah’s place in this hidden area of Australia’s backstory is central. 

According to Dr. Ray Kerkhove, author and historian from the University of Southern Queensland, Multuggerah fronted what became perhaps the most significant defeat of settlers during the Frontier War period. 

“It was just there”, says Ray, pointing to a twin set of small mountains, each around the 550m mark and perhaps a kilometre away. We are standing on the balcony of Toowoomba’s Picnic Point Cafe, taking in the vast view to the north and east, flat and abundant, back to Brisbane and the coast. 

Ray picks out a spur between the hills, and tells me about the Battle of One Tree Hill. 

View of Meewah/One Tree Hill (located between the two mountains) from the balcony of Toowoomba’s Picnic Point Cafe. Image credit: Ray Kerkhove

In September 1843 a bullock wagon rumbled through the crisp spring air, on the track between the hills, where it was ambushed by Multuggerah and around 100 men and women. 

Multuggerah’s warriors stalled the heavily-armed jackaroos (a local Jagerra/Yagerra word meaning ghost or stranger), drew fire and fled up the side of One Tree Hill, or Meewah. From here they pelted the hapless settlers with boulders and stones and drove them back. 

It sounds like another mundane, if chaotic, moment from the annals of colonial history. But the significance of this battle is that it disproves, as Ray Kerkhove puts it, “the narrative of victimhood” of indigenous people that dominates Australia’s post-settlement story. 

According to Dr. Kerkhove, this seemingly minor victory is set apart not only because the bullocks were turned back, but so was the attempted retaliation. This was undoubtedly a military victory.

Ray says there is evidence many settlers actually respected Multuggerah. A bush ballad, and a poem, popular mediums of vernacular story-telling, were even penned in honour of the battle.

William Wilkes’ poem on the incident, (circa. 1845), while something of a Boys Own take on the skirmish, admitted with rare candour for the time that;

“In short it was as plain as the nose on your face’

That the whites would be found to retreat in disgrace.”

The battle was actually part of a highly-organised campaign, founded on a coalition of indigenous groups and a guerilla army of up to 1200 men and women, across a huge area. 

“This was a resistance movement that continued for decades,” says Ray.

And Multuggerah was key to this achievement. 

According to Uncle Wayne Fossey, who is Elder-in-Residence at the University of Southern Queensland, it’s important to understand the depths of Multuggerah’s genius, not only in his resistance to white settlement, but also in bringing together local tribal groups for a common cause. 

“He was able to unite people, which was pretty challenging at the time. Given the blackfella ways then, crossing into someone else’s territory could get you killed.” 

He argues that the tussles among local indigenous people over just which tribal group Multuggerah belonged to continue today, and the efforts that generations of non-indigenous officials have taken to suppress Multuggerah’s legacy only reinforce his significance to both communities.

After the murder of his father ‘Old Moppy,’ also a notable resistance warrior, by settlers in 1842, Multuggerah was able to gather at least seven neighbouring clans to resist the waves of settlers arriving from the coast. 

He understood that the supply lines from the coastal settlements around Moreton Bay were vital to the survival of the Europeans, and so he and his coalition decided to cut those lines. 

They ambushed and attacked armed bullock convoys carrying food and tools, and managed to isolate the settlements in and around the Lockyer Valley so effectively that distant colonial authorities became alarmed. 

The Battle of One Tree Hill was thus a failed attempt by settlers to bust the blockade.

Uncle Wayne Fossey says “this was the first ‘stand up’ on a large scale in Queensland.”

It created a sense among the settlers that “blackfellas could stand up (and that) we have to take this blackfella stuff more seriously.”

This modest pass in the bush near Toowoomba thus shapes as a significant theatre of the Frontier War. Here, Multuggerah and his fellow leaders displayed an understanding of the alien European systems of ownership and settlement, and worked out how to evade their highly-advanced weapons, as well as how to use them when they could get their hands on them. They also developed savvy guerilla techniques designed to disrupt the settlers at their most vulnerable point: supply lines. 

Multuggerah and his allies successfully applied an innate curiosity in an alien culture, albeit a necessary one, which was unmatched in the reverse by the settlers. 

According to Dr Kerkhove, “they used tactics (during raids on settlements) to keep the people in huts so they had time to take the sheep away, which could take days.”

“They built brush yards to keep them, picking up the techniques from the whites. He’s definitely a hero. A tragic hero, someone who set out to do something impossible.”

It was indeed impossible, as we know. 

Even though the resistance campaign continued after Multuggerah was shot and killed in 1846, the settlers’ numbers, technology and persistence won the day. 

A group of indigenous warriors at a river in the Darling Downs region. Image credit: John Oxley Library

But a victory of sorts may yet come. 

Historian Mark Copland is a member of the Battle of Meewah Commemoration Committee. For almost a decade, he has spearheaded a campaign for greater recognition of Multuggerah in the local community.

He took me to a dishevelled spot overlooking Meewah, no more than a small clearing and a wooden picnic table, to show me a battered plaque. The picture on it has almost disappeared under the weathered cracks in the paint. Words explaining Multuggerah’s efforts are obliterated by age. 

Until recently, this was all that existed to signify Multuggerah and his band was even here. 

As part of his work, Copland visits schools to tell them of the resistance campaign and of Multuggerah. 

“The kids were amazed no-one knew the story (of Multuggerah),” he says. 

“They wrote to the Council and asked for this plaque.” 

The modest efforts of the kids from Year 4 at Middle Ridge Primary have led to more plaques – two at least and in better condition to the first one – and now an annual commemoration event on the Battle of Meewah, held each September 13th, has become a highlight on the local calendar. 

With the efforts of Mark Copland and his committee, Multuggerah’s profile has just kept growing. 

He recalls, many who knew of Multuggerah saw the signs for Darren Lockyer Way leading into Toowoomba and figured “If we can get a road named after a footballer, then why not something after Multuggerah?” 

They didn’t get a Multuggerah Way, but they, and Multuggerah, ended up with a viaduct, which was opened in 2019. 

Of course there is the irony of marking the efforts of a resistance leader with the kind of infrastructure he probably would have fought against. 

Uncle Wayne says, “We shouldn’t be riding a Multuggerah Viaduct over anything. 

But, he accepts, “it’s a bit of a compromise.”

Either way, such a recognition of Multuggerah is valuable, if only because it acknowledges the remarkable efforts of a courageous and intelligent indigenous warrior, politician and defender of his people and constructs, quite literally, an enduring place for him, and his story, in our national narrative. 

His efforts deserve nothing less.

Related: Digital map records 250 Indigenous massacres, more predicted