As Melbourne plans a memorial to Aboriginal resistance fighters, momentum is growing for official recognition that the brutal colonial frontier wars were pivotal in this nation’s history.
THE two Aboriginal men were dressed wholly in white, including white caps and capes, for their public hanging. It was early in the morning on January 20, 1842. Maulboyheenner refused the outfit at first, but Tunnerminnerwait laughed as he was helped with the long white socks.
A gaoler asked why he wasn’t worried about dying. Tunnerminnerwait answered – so the story goes – that he had three heads: one for the noose, one for the grave, and one for Van Diemen’s Land.
The two men were drawn in a cart to Gallows Hill, the site now occupied by RMIT University next to the city baths. A quarter of Victoria’s white population at the time – 5,000 people – attended the execution. The atmosphere was like a “race-course”, the Port Phillip Herald reported, “… with spectators as anxiously awaiting the awful scene as if it were a bull-bait or prize-ring”.
The pair had been condemned to death for the murder of two whalers at Cape Paterson, during several weeks of raids conducted with three women – Truganini, Planobeena (Tunnerminnerwait’s wife) and Pyterruner. Theirs was likely an act of resistance on the violent frontier of newly settled Victoria.
Last December, the Melbourne City Council voted unanimously to establish a permanent marker to the men. It will vote again in late April to decide on the form of the memorial, after consulting with Aboriginal leaders here and in Tasmania.
“These young men died for our country, for our people,” Boon Wurrung elder Aunty Carolyn Briggs said at this year’s commemoration. “They were put up on show.”
The new memorial will be established amidst renewed questioning of the way Australia commemorates the violence that occurred on the colonial frontier. They are questions that challenge the official military history marked by the Australian War Memorial, and even the sovereignty of the nation itself.
Adding to this debate is a new book, Forgotten War, by historian Henry Reynolds. In it, he lays out evidence that colonial authorities and settlers regarded the conflict as war, and argues that this history must be acknowledged.
If these seem difficult questions now, it is no surprise; they were such from the earliest days of the colony.
Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner stood trial a month before they were executed. The three women were tried and found not guilty as accessories.
All five were from Tasmania; they’d been brought to Melbourne by George Augustus Robinson, the newly appointed Protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip, two years earlier. He had argued they would be “most useful auxiliaries in conciliating the natives of Australia”. None were permitted to give evidence in court.
For six weeks, in October and November 1841, they raided stations in the forest from Dandenong to Cape Paterson, stealing guns and supplies, and eluded the large parties sent to catch them – once, by stealing a boat. Finally, a group of 29, including seven Aboriginal trackers, captured them at dawn near Venus Bay.
In research prepared for the council, historian Clare Land describes the five’s exploits, capture and trial as “the biggest story” in the newspapers of the day. The Port Phillip Herald reported they had committed “numerous depredations” and “unmentionable atrocities”.
Their defence counsel was Redmond Barry, the man who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang nearly four decades later. He argued, unsuccessfully, for a jury partially comprised of people who, like his clients, were not subjects of the Queen. Barry referred to the “destruction” of their nation during “the war” in Tasmania as motivation for their raids: “revenge in minds like theirs was not easily forgotten, and particularly for wrongs like theirs”, he said.
Yet in only half an hour, the jury reached its verdict. They recommended mercy on the death penalty, but Judge John Walpole Willis denied it. He told the men their punishment was designed to inspire “terror… to deter similar transgressions”.
In that respect it failed, explains Land. “There was guerrilla war and frontier violence in every district of Victoria at the time,” she says. “It went on from the late 1830s until the gold rush of the early 1850s.”
In his 2005 book, Aboriginal Victorians, Richard Broome concluded it was likely that 1,000 Aborigines and 80 Europeans were killed on the state’s frontier.
One squatter in western Victoria at the time, Nial Black, wrote in his diary that it was “universally and distinctly understood” that settlers needed to kill Aborigines to gain control over their properties.
The best way to get land, he wrote, was to “take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left”.
On January 26, thousands of people gathered in a shady park in Belgrave to celebrate Survival Day. It is the seventh time the event has been held, and the theme this year was the frontier wars.
The Yarra Ranges regional museum set up its marquee with a display on the “Battle of Yering”, near Yarra Glen in January 1840. A small memorial stands near the Melba Highway, marking the location of the clash between dozens of Wurundjeri men and troopers of the Border Police.
The Wurundjeri men attacked a homestead where their leader, Jaga Jaga, was imprisoned. While the troopers were distracted in a counterattack, others of the clan broke him free.
Wurundjeri elder Uncle Bill Nicholson says it began with a dispute over a potato crop – a sign that people were going hungry. “The Battle of Yering was a great symbol that Aboriginal people did not just sit back and let people take over their land. They fought for it, and fought hard,” he says.
“People in this city have to know how the Indigenous people were treated in that era, because only then can we move forward in reconciliation.”
The memorial is one of very few recognising frontier conflict throughout the state.
This imbalance in our official history – between our domestic and overseas conflicts – is the subject of Forgotten War, which last week won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction. As he announced the prize, Premier Denis Napthine described it as “a very important book for Victorians and Australians”.
Reynolds says Aboriginal organisations around the nation should be given the opportunity to consider whether or not they want memorials, and if so, funding for their establishment.
“We’ve raised war to be absolutely central to the national story,” he says. “But what about the most important war in our history, the one about fundamental Australian political issues – sovereignty and property?”
He contrasts the earliest campaign recognised by the Australian War Memorial – in Sudan, in 1885 – with the intense fighting that was occurring on home soil at the time.
The New South Wales government sent 770 men to assist the British to quell an uprising. The soldiers saw little or no fighting, but six died of disease.
“The 1880s was possibly the most intense period of conflict and mass killing, because miners, cattlemen and pearl shellers were penetrating right across north Australia,” Reynolds says.
“So you have this extraordinary juxtaposition: the Sudan campaign is treated reverentially, but the much more serious conflict is simply ignored.”
Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year in 2007, recently expressed his “personal sense of outrage” that Aboriginal warriors who fought and died defending their lands and people against white settlers are ignored by the Australian War Memorial.
The memorial’s director, former Liberal Party leader Dr Brendan Nelson, says the story of frontier conflict needs to be told, but not at his institution.
“Our mission is to tell the stories of Australians in the service of the nation in the defence of our country. [It] is not an institution which presents a story of armed conflict within Australia amongst Australians,” he says.
“It’s questionable whether there was a declared war in Australia. After the British garrisons left, the violence, where it did occur, was from police militia, colonial militia and Indigenous militia.”
For two decades, until 2007, Peter Stanley was the principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. Now a research professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Stanley says it is not only historians of our Indigenous past who regard the nation’s colonisation as war.
“Australia’s military historians have long accepted that frontier conflict was a part of Australia’s military history. No military historians I know take the opposite view,” he says.
“An armed conflict occurred across the pastoral frontier for about a century: don’t tell me that that’s not an actual military conflict. It resulted in more than 30,000 deaths and involved the British army.”
Stanley says the question of whether the Australian War Memorial should recognise frontier conflict was first raised by Geoffrey Blainey in an internal report in 1979, and Stanley himself presented a paper on it in 1981.
“I gave the same advice as principal historian, but it was declined,” he says.
“It has come up repeatedly during the terms of successive directors and governments, but has been either outright rejected or avoided as too hard,” he says. “I think the war memorial’s council fears that acknowledging the truth of frontier war will somehow bring Anzac into disrepute. But the two are completely separate.
“It is not an aspect of Australia’s military history that Australians take pride in, but you can’t always cheer your history – sometimes you just have to accept it,” he says.
On the anniversary of the Melbourne hangings, Tasmanian writer and filmmaker Jim Everett said the council’s memorial would “be a very big step towards white and black Australia coming together and hopefully [to] a recognition that Aboriginal people are indeed their own people”.
“I’m a Plangerrmairreenner man,” Everett said to the crowd. “I hold my sovereignty as my shield.”
For his part, Everett doesn’t covet a place for Indigenous resistance fighters in the Canberra memorial. “If they asked me, I’d say ‘no we don’t want to be stuck alongside you mob – we had to fight you’,” he says. “If we want to remember our heroes, then we should be doing it ourselves.”
But wrangling over the appropriate place to recognise the wars doesn’t undermine the need for it. “I think this is the most important thing that Australia needs to think about,” Everett says. “You can’t have your roots in Gallipoli.”
When the five Tasmanian Aborigines began their raids, in October 1841, they had been in Port Phillip for nearly two years.
Clare Land says researchers have long debated their motives for fighting, but the remaining written documents are not definitive. Historians have speculated that they may have been driven by hostility towards whalers, disillusionment with their “protectors”, or by the overarching desire to resist colonisation.
All had been alienated from their land, witnessed the deaths of their families, and had direct or indirect experience of sexual violence by whalers and sealers.
Immediately before quitting Melbourne, Tunnerminnerwait had toured the western districts for several months with George Augustus Robinson, collecting testimony about frontier violence. On that journey, Robinson recorded evidence of the Convincing Ground massacre, near Portland in 1833-34, in which whalers killed between 60 and 200 members of one Gunditjmara clan.
The group’s reasons may have been many, Land says, but “it is likely they saw themselves as part of the colonial resistance of their countrymen in Tasmania and in Victoria”. Given their experiences, the question isn’t just “why they did what they did”, but rather, “why not?”
She argues the story is important not only for the past, but the future, because it illustrates the conflict over land and the legal status of Aboriginal people.
“It tells us about what Aboriginal people suffered in Tasmania and Victoria and about their resistance, and it stretches forward to the struggle for land rights today.”
The three women – Truganini, Planobeena and Pyterruner – left Melbourne within months of the executions. They returned to Flinders Island, where in 1846, their community petitioned Queen Victoria for the removal of their white superintendent.
The hanging of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner was botched: the trap did not fall fully at first. The newspapers reported it “a gross insult to public decency”.
Robinson, the Protector of Aborigines, did not attend. He waited beside two open graves, outside the boundary of the cemetery. The location is thought to be between sheds E and F of the Victoria Market. So far, it goes unmarked.
Memorials to frontier conflict in Victoria
Port Fairy: a stone monument to “the thousands of aboriginal people who were massacred between 1837 and 1844 in this area”.
Sorrento: a plaque in memory of “Aborigines who were killed or wounded during the first British visits to Port Phillip Bay” in 1803.
Yarra Glen: a plaque commemorating the “Battle of Yering”, which took place on January 13, 1840, between 50 Wurundjeri clansmen and troopers of the Border Police.
Orbost: a stone commemorating Dan (The Cook) Dempsey who was speared by Aborigines in 1851.
Benalla: a memorial at the site of an attack on settlers William and George Faithfull and their men in 1838. Eight of the settlers and one Aborigine died.
Peterborough: a memorial on “Massacre Hill”, five kilometres west of town along the Great Ocean Road, to Aborigines killed at that location.
Mt Dispersion: a cairn commemorating the naming of the area by explorer Major Thomas Mitchell in May 1836 after he ambushed and shot at a large group of Aborigines between Robinvale and Mildura. There is also a plaque to this incident in Shepparton, at the Bangerang Cultural Centre.