(Australien) Lest we forget: The Coniston massacre

Warning: This story includes names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Ask yourself and others a quick quiz. What was the Coniston massacre? Who boasted of having killed 31 people in Australia? What is William George Murray, also known as George William Murray, remembered for? The appalling truth is that for most of us Murray isn’t remembered for anything, yet it was he who boasted of killing 31 people and the true figure is probably much higher.


Many people reading this will never have heard of the Coniston Massacre. I hadn’t until I met someone who had been affected by it, Rhubee Neale, who comes from Alice Springs and describes herself as a beautiful mixture of Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Kaytetye and Irish stock. “It wasn’t centuries ago,” she said. “It was in 1928.”


In 1928, the area around Coniston station was the most western outpost of pastoral expansion in Central Australia. There had been a terrible four-year drought with white men and thirsty cattle competing for resources with Indigenous people. In 1928 George William Murray, also known as William George Murray, was in charge of the Barrow Creek police station and ironically had the title of Chief Protector of Aborigines.


Gallipoli is seared on our psyche and part of our national brand and we like to think of our Gallipoli veterans as national heroes but the little-known reality is that one veteran, Murray, returned and used the techniques he’d learned with the Light Horse brigade against the first Australians. This became the largely forgotten Coniston massacre.

We think of a massacre as being a single terrible event but actually the Coniston massacre is a collective name for a series of killings that took place at different locations, scattered over a wide area of inland Australia, over a period of weeks. In the company of other men armed with rifles and pistols, he rode into camps, dismounted from his horse and started shooting. Murray used a Lee-Enfield .303 which held a magazine of ten rounds and had a rapid fire rate. The Aboriginal people, defending their camps and their lives with spears and boomerangs, had no chance.


“It was not that long ago that my people were shot as a pest,” Neale said. “The effects of the massacres are still being felt. My aunties still talk about it and my people are in a state of shock.”


The National Museum of Australia places the number of dead as more than 60 and its exhibition on Coniston states, “For many Aboriginal people today, the events of 1928 are as much about the present as about the past”.


It was at the time of the massacres that a lot of Indigenous people, fleeing in terror, left their lands. “Many people were killed, of all ages,” Neale states. “Many fled into the bush to hide and stay alive. Many moved to stations and places where they would not be killed. The massacre affected people then and still does because it instilled fear, confusion and loss of family and land.”


Coniston is well-documented. On the subject of massacres, historian Keith Windschuttle comforted the comfortable by denying many massacres really happened. He did this by taking a forensic approach, looking for evidence that would stand up in a court of law. Few massacres passed his tests and there has been much debate that lack of official records may mean just that - lack of official records - rather than evidence that massacres didn’t happen. But Coniston was well documented and Windschuttle found plenty of evidence and stated in Quadrant that a significant number of innocent Aborigines lost their lives and that Coniston deserves to be known as a genuine massacre.


So why don’t we know about it? It is unlikely that Australians will ever forget Gallipoli and every year it is commemorated across the nation on Anzac Day. Gallipoli, and its meaning or interpretation, is also taught in schools and each year Australians, including many young people, travel to Gallipoli to remember the Australians who fought there.


There’s a sense that Gallipoli helped shape the nation but other events that shaped the nation have been forgotten. There have been times when Australians have been mown down and left to die and instead of being mourned by the nation, they have been forgotten. One difference is that these were the first Australians. For them Lest We Forget became Best We Forget as Australia developed amnesia.


Ironically we lost at Gallipoli and “won” at Coniston. With the original inhabitants subdued the way was clear for the new settlers, yet we commemorate our defeat and are deafeningly quiet about our win.


No one will ever know the true figure of the dead, although it is indisputably high. Aboriginal people who weren’t killed outright, but were injured, had no access to hospitals, and their own medicine didn’t equip them to deal with bullet wounds. Most likely they died. Murray shot to kill. At the enquiry he said, “What use is a wounded black feller a hundred miles from civilisation”.


We don’t teach our children about Coniston, we don’t have a minute’s silence to reflect on its meaning, and in fact as a nation we haven’t given it a minute at all. Perhaps we like to remember our heroic moments and forget our ugly past but we are talking about the recent past here, something that happened in the life times of people still alive today. According to Neale, “we are talking about two or three generations of oppression, segregation and dispossession”.


Murray surely must be one of the worst mass murderers this country has ever known but his name doesn’t come up on lists of Australia’s serial killers. Perhaps it is because although he admitted to 31 killings he was never convicted. It’s another shameful event in Australia’s history that he was exonerated.


An enquiry was held. Murray had ridden into camps shouting, "Drop your weapons in the name of the King". The Aborigines, who had had little contact with whites, spoke little or no English. Murray shot them if they didn’t immediately lay down their wooden weapons, shot them if they tried to fight back and shot them if they tried to run away.


Incredibly an enquiry concluded Murray killed in self-defence. The Tasmanian Mercury newspaper of January 31, 1929, reported that “the Board found that no provocation had been given to the aborigines that could account for their attacks on white men”. The enquiry would have us believe that Murray rode into one camp, was attacked and shot the attackers; then rode into a second camp, was attacked and shot the attackers; then rode into a third camp; then a fourth; then a fifth.


The spark for the massacre was the reported killing of a white man called Fred Brooks by an indigenous man known as Bullfrog. Mr. J.C. Cawood, Government Resident of Central Australia sent Mounted Constable George Murray to investigate. Bullfrog fled and lived until the 1970s but the official count was 17 dead. Innocence or guilt didn’t seem to have anything to do with it.


With further attacks the rationale wasn’t the death of a human; it was the death of cattle. In a place where life was hard at any time the drought and the pressure cattle put on resources meant food shortages for the local people. The Sydney Morning Herald in September 1928 reported that “marauding natives” were killing cattle and settlers were appealing for help. Help arrived in the form of Murray and his posse.


1928 is not that long ago, but the punishment for killing cattle was death, and the punishment for killing Aboriginal people was non-existent. Even worse than that, it wasn’t just the cattle killers who were killed. It was anyone, from a number of different tribal groups, whose camps were found by the posse.

Whether we want to face the massacres or not as a nation these things shape us. At present we are somewhat like the episode in Fawlty Towers when John Cleese says “Don’t mention the war”. We don’t mention the massacres. Perhaps partly this is due to the difficulty of finding out what really happened. But not with Coniston. There’s plenty of information. Google, goggle and gag at the details. The only dispute seems to be about how many were killed. Windschuttle estimates 50, the National Museum of Australia say 60, Indigenous sources think at least twice that and everyone seems to think that’s possible.


Isn’t it time we acknowledged it and acknowledged it was wrong.


The enquiry into the Coniston massacres was a police enquiry into mass shootings by a policeman. On the board sat Cawood who had sent Murray out to Coniston in the first place; Mr. A.H. O'Kelly, Police Magistrate, the chairman and Mr. P.A. Giles, Police Inspector of South Australia. They decided that the shootings had been justified.


There has never been another enquiry.


How safe would we feel if the police had shot our grandparents dead, plus dozens of other people of our ethnic origin, and an official enquiry concluded it was justified?


It is to our shame that this has never been redressed. We need a new enquiry. As yet we don’t even have the concepts and words to come to grips with what happened. Was this a war? If so it was undeclared and peace has never been declared either. There has never been a treaty. The people killed were not military but neither were they civilians as the word civil is defined as of or consisting of citizens. Aboriginal people didn’t get citizenship until 1967. Neale, born in Alice Springs in 1964, didn’t become a citizen until she was three.


White Australia has largely forgotten the massacres but Indigenous people are still affected. Social and health problems among the Indigenous people in and around Alice Springs are well known and there seems to be a collective wish among white Australians that they’d get over it - but we don’t really want to know what “it” is. It is too uncomfortable. Some people wonder why “throwing money at the problem” doesn’t work, but maybe it’s a case of whole communities having communal post traumatic stress disorder. As a nation we are pretending massacres didn’t happen while Australians are still reeling from the effect.


When Kevin Rudd took office as Prime Minister one of his first acts was to apologise to Indigenous people, especially for the Stolen Generations, but his speech didn’t mention the massacres. At the last election, neither major party seemed to think Indigenous issues were important; it was as if that had been ticked off. The nation needs to make another apology, this time for the massacres. Many Australians, black and white, want reconciliation but we are living in two realities, one in which Coniston exists and the other in which it doesn’t. Don’t we have to bridge that difference before we can have reconciliation?


We have a long way to go and one of the impediments may be that some of us may have to face the fact that members of our families were perpetrators of massacres. One person who has already done so is Rhubee Neale. Billy Briscoe, who accompanied Murray on the shooting rampage, was her great grandfather. “He was fluent in Anmatyerre and other Aboriginal languages and had a couple of Aboriginal wives that I know about,” she said.


“If I can reconcile my Aboriginal and Irish sides - I reckon that’s true reconciliation,” she added. “He fathered my grandmother Ruby and I’ve found out that he has family living in Adelaide. I personally would love to meet them and also my relatives in Ireland.”


Neale performs a song, “Kangaroo Irish Stew” that she co-wrote with Kenneth Smith and Nathan Scott. “This song talks about my Aboriginal and Irish blood, Australian history and the treatment of my Aboriginal people and my personal embracement of my Irish and Aboriginal heritage, even if my Irish family doesn’t want to know me.”


“Kangaroo Irish Stew” has a recurring line which reflects her heritage, “Drawn to the tin whistle and didgeridoo”. One verse is about her grandfather coming home from hunting and finding his small children chained to a tree, an event many of us can’t imagine. Neale is resolute. “This song is not about blaming but about my identity of being Indigenous Australian and Irish.”


The Coniston Massacre is something we should deal with because many people are still hurting, because there is a lot of evidence and because this is the heart of our nation.


According to Rhubee Neale, “The perpetrators should be held accountable and the stories of both sides told and shared. It is the past that should be addressed because how can we move forward united if it is not addressed?”


It’s a good question. Isn’t it time we held a new enquiry and as a nation accept what happened and absorb it into our reality?


About the Author

Amanda Midlam has been a writer for over 30 years - books, TV, film, video and radio. Currently she is working towards a degree in Indigenous Stories and is writing a documentary about an Indigenous man in Eden.