The Untold History of Australia, Painted in Blood

July 9, 2017

Research based on colonial or settler accounts and Indigenous oral history mark the thousands of first nations people killed by Europeans in frontier wars

The first recorded killing happened on 1 September 1794, six years after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove and declared Australia a British colony.

It was not the first murder of Aboriginal people by Europeans but it is the earliest to have enough evidence to meet the strict criteria of University of Newcastle researchers, who have mapped the sites of more than 150 massacres in one of the most significant pieces of work ever undertaken on the frontier wars.

The detail is scant. A group of settlers on the Hawkesbury river, reportedly in reprisal for an attack on a settler and his servant and the theft of their clothes some days prior, armed themselves and killed seven or eight members of the Bediagal clan.

The massacre occurred on a bend in the river at Cornwallis, about 4km from what is now Richmond. According to a 2011 book by the historian Peter Turbet, one of the sources cited by the University of Newcastle researchers, it was the largest massacre committed by settlers to date.

Another seven or eight Bediagal were killed nine months later, just over 6km away on what is now a thoroughbred stud. Their murderers were two officers and 66 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, dispatched by Captain William Paterson, who would later be promoted to colonel, serve as the lieutenant governor of NSW, be celebrated by history as an explorer, and have a river in the Hunter Valley named after him.

According to a temporary account, Paterson ordered his men to “drive the natives to a distance; ’and, in the hope of striking terror, to erect gibbets in different places, whereon the bodies of all they might kill were to be hung”.

They came upon the sleeping group of Bediagal people at night and shot them with muskets but were denied the chance to string them up; the survivors had taken away their dead in the night.

The list ticks on. Thirty to 50 members of the Leenowwine and Pangerninghe Big River tribes killed by 15 armed soldiers, supported by 15 armed convicts and magistrate Jacob Mountgarret at Risdon Cove on the River Derwent in 1804. Seven more Bediagal and Darung people killed on the Hawkesbury River in 1805. In 1806, a retaliation: nine sealers killed at Twofold Bay on the NSW south coast by a group of 11 Aboriginal men, clan unknown, in response to sealers abducting Aboriginal women.

It is the untold history of Australia, painted in blood.

The numbers are staggering, but lead researcher Lyndall Ryan said they were conservative estimates.

Only events where six or more relatively defenceless people were killed have been counted as a massacre. Skirmishes and other violence were not.

To be included in the map, the massacre also needed to be verified by several sources, which usually meant it had to be mentioned in colonial or settler accounts. Indigenous oral histories were included, but the very nature of the frontier wars mean they are often incomplete or have not been catalogued.

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