Last Sunday a large crowd gathered near Bingara in New South Wales to mark the 180th anniversary of the Myall Creek Massacre.
On the 10th of June 1838 at Myall Creek Station, twelve white stockmen rounded up a group of defenceless 28 local Wirrayaraay women, children and elderly men. In an unprovoked attack they bound their victims with rope, marched them to a clearing and brutally murdered them.
Thousands of indigenous people were massacred over a period of more than 100 years after the First Fleet landed. Myall Creek was not the first nor the last of these massacres. What makes the Myall Creek Massacre such a powerful part of our legal history, is that the perpetrators were brought to justice.
In the face of open hostility from white colonial society, John Plunkett, the Attorney General of New South Wales, prosecuted eleven of the stockmen for their murderous actions. Most of white society at the time were united in their view that indigenous people were ‘lawless savages’. Wealthy landowners, free settlers and convicts were united in their opposition to the trial. A leading newspaper at the time, the Sydney Herald, reported ‘The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time’.
Still, Plunkett managed to convince the jury in the second trial to convict seven of the stockmen of murder. Justice Burton sentenced them all to death. This was the first time that white men were hanged for massacring indigenous people.
In 1838 Myall Creek Station stood on the north-western frontier of colonial New South Wales, and this trial tested the boundaries of British colonial law.
The trial, the convictions and the subsequent punishment did not stop the massacres; many more murders went unpunished. It did however provide a moment in the history and development of Australian law that, as Mark Tedeschi points out in his book Murder at Myall Creek, ‘illuminated the way for Australia to develop as a civilised nation many years later’.
Last Sunday the 10th of June at the Myall Creek Memorial Ceremony, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians stood together overlooking the valley where the murders occurred acknowledging this dark part of our history. Descendants of the victims and of the perpetrators stood side-by-side. The ceremony inspired quiet reflection as thousands of massacred indigenous people were remembered, but importantly it also provided a great sense of hope that reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is achievable.
For more information about the Myall Creek Memorial Ceremony https://www.myallcreek.org