December 18, 2018, 13:26

The Mapping of Massacres in Australia |

The Mapping of Massacres in Australia |

From New York to Cape Town to Sydney, the bronze body doubles of the
white men of empire—Columbus, Rhodes, Cook—have lately been pelted with
feces, sprayed with graffiti, had their hands painted red. Some have
been toppled. The fate of these statues—and those representing white men
of a different era, in Charlottesville and
ignited debate about the political act of publicly memorializing
historical figures responsible for atrocities. But when the statues come
down, how might the atrocities themselves be publicly commemorated,
rather than repressed?

In the course of her long career, the historian Lyndall Ryan has
thought about little else. In the late nineties and early aughts, Ryan
found herself on the front lines of what came to be known, in Australia,
as the History Wars: skirmishes fought with words, source by disputed
source, often in the national media. At stake was whether the evidence
existed to prove—as Ryan and others had argued, and conservative
historians and politicians refused to accept—that Indigenous Australians
had been massacred in enormous numbers during colonization, from late in
the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Even among those
who grudgingly accepted that there had been widespread killings, there
were still bitter, and, in some cases, ongoing, fights over the exact
number of Indigenous people killed, the strength of their resistance to
British settlement, and the reliability of oral versus written history.
A truce has never been reached in what the Indigenous writer Alexis
Wright calls Australia’s entrenched “storytelling war.” (In October,
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the core recommendations of
the government-appointed Referendum
which, after six months of deliberative dialogue across Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander communities, had called for establishing an
Indigenous voice to Parliament, and a process of “truth-telling about
our history.”)

In 2005, in the midst of the public disputes over Australia’s history,
Ryan came across the work of the French sociologist Jacques
After the Srebrenica massacre, in 1995, there was renewed interest from
European scholars in understanding massacre as a phenomenon. Sémelin
defined a massacre as the indiscriminate killing of innocent, unarmed
people over a limited period of time, and he characterized massacres as
being carefully planned—i.e., not done in the heat of the moment or the
fog of war—and deliberately shrouded in secrecy by the systematic
disposal of bodies and the intimidation of witnesses. Sémelin’s typology
prompted Ryan to reconsider her own earlier scholarship on the Tasmanian
War, which was waged between British colonists and Aboriginal people
early in the nineteenth century. This time, Ryan concluded that there
were not four massacres of Indigenous people but, in fact, more than

“Most historians of my generation were brought up with the idea that
Aboriginal people were killed in ones or twos, similar to how settlers
were killed when there’d been a dispute over stock, or women,” Ryan told
me recently, at an art gallery in Sydney’s vibrant neighborhood of Kings
Cross, where she was about to give a talk. Ryan, who is seventy-four,
has short-cropped white hair and a slow, deliberate way of speaking that
belies a very quick mind. She realized, once she’d started researching
massacres, how many of her peers were still deeply in denial about the
past. “People would say to me, ‘We will never know how many massacres
there were, or how many Aboriginal people were killed, so what’s the
point in trying to find out?’ But they would never say that about World
War One or Two.”

Ryan is based at the Centre for the History of Violence at Newcastle
University, up the coast from Sydney. A few years ago, she applied for a
research grant to embark on a hugely ambitious undertaking: to map the
site of every Australian colonial frontier massacre on an interactive
Web site. Ryan defines a massacre, in this context, as the indiscriminate
killing of six or more undefended people. Since Aboriginal communities
tended to live together in camps of about twenty people, losing six or
more people in one killing—a “fractal” massacre—usually led to the whole
community collapsing.

Four years of painstaking research later, with the grant depleted,
Ryan’s map is nowhere near finished. So far, it includes more than a hundred
and seventy massacres of Indigenous people in eastern Australia, as well
as six recorded massacres of settlers, from the period of 1788 to 1872. She
estimates that there were more than five hundred massacres of Indigenous
people over all, and that massacres of settlers numbered fewer than ten.
(Ryan has not yet researched any massacres of Torres Strait Islander
people, who are culturally distinct from mainland Aboriginal groups but
share their history of colonization.) In July, Ryan and her tiny team
decided it was time to release the partially completed map
online. Since
its launch, the site has had more than sixty thousand visitors. Contrary
to Ryan’s fears, it was widely and mostly respectfully covered in the
Australian media, and, at least for now, there has been no public
response from conservative figures.

At the gallery in Kings Cross, the lights were turned off, and a map
appeared, projected onto a large screen, showing Australia’s
unmistakable outline—the continent declared by the British on their
arrival to be terra nullius, land considered to belong to nobody, and
thus ripe for the taking. Spread across the eastern states were dozens
of yellow dots, often clustered together. Each one represented the site of a massacre of Aboriginal people.

The map’s data management still needs improvement—a consequence, in
part, of limited funding, and also of Ryan’s admitted mistake in
thinking she should do all the research first, before getting input from
the project’s digital cartographer, Mark Brown, and digital-humanities
specialist, Bill Pascoe. Even so, its power is undeniable. Ryan clicked
on the yellow dot representing one of five massacres in the region of
Jack Smith Lake, in eastern Victoria. On a fresh page, an aerial
snapshot from ArcGIS, the geographic-information system, showed a slice
of green and brown farmland and bush bordering a long, thin line of sand
beside the ocean. A small square section was shaded yellow, delineating
a five-kilometre radius around the site of the killings. The exact
coördinates of the massacres are not identified, Ryan explained. “For
many Aboriginal communities, the preference is not to pinpoint the
actual site, out of respect for what is considered a taboo site of
trauma. But also because sites tend to be desecrated if identified very
specifically.” Some sites are on private land, or mining properties;
others are at the bottom of reservoirs, because so many of the massacres
happened at campsites close to creeks.

On the left of the screen was a graph, cataloguing the details of this
series of massacres carried out in 1843. Aboriginal Language Group:
Brataualang. Aboriginal people killed: sixty (at each of the five
sites). Colonists killed: zero. Weapons used: Double-barrelled Purdey.
Attacker details: twenty horsemen, known as the “Highland Brigade,”
organized by Angus McMillan. In a box titled “Narrative,” these
fragments form a horrific tale. McMillan, a local settler, and his group
of armed horsemen, all Scots, had, for years, been attacking Aboriginal
camps with impunity. In this instance, they attacked five campsites over
five days. At one camp, people jumped into the waterhole but were shot
as soon as they resurfaced to breathe. One of the survivors, a young boy
who’d been shot in the eye, was captured by the Brigade and forced to
lead them to other camps. “Human bones have been found at each of these
sites on several occasions,” the text notes. “The rampage would fit the
criteria of ‘genocidal massacre.’ ”

Bruised by the History Wars, Ryan set herself strict criteria for
including a massacre on the map. A key signals the strength of the
evidence: three stars means that there is high-quality evidence drawn
from disparate sources, while one or two stars indicates that there are
only one or two reliable sources, respectively, with more corroboration
welcome. Most of the evidence used for the map, she told the gathering,
is from contemporaneous “white people’s sources”—newspaper articles,
official reports—rather than Indigenous sources, such as oral histories
or social memory. (Some Aboriginal testimony is captured in those white
textual sources, in the rare cases where survivors gave statements to
officials or to missionaries. But Aboriginal people were for a long time
prohibited from being called as witnesses in legal proceedings.) Many
existing place names around the country are themselves a form of damning
evidence, as the historian Ian Clark has noted in his own pioneering
work on frontier massacres: Murderers Flat, Massacre Inlet, Murdering
Gully, Haunted Creek, Slaughterhouse Gully.

The yellow dots on Lyndall Ryan’s map show where Indigenous people were massacred. The blue dots stand for colonists who were massacred.

Map by Lyndall Ryan, Jennifer Debenham, Mark Brown & William Pascoe. Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788 – 1872, v1.2 Newcastle: University of Newcastle, 2017. This project has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Earlier this year, Ryan presented a draft version of the map at the
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies,
in Canberra. The feedback was largely positive, though she was advised
to use a different color for the dots than red, which is considered
sacred for many communities and shouldn’t be associated only with death.
As Ryan moves on to more recent massacres, she will increasingly draw on
Aboriginal sources. She hopes the map will eventually be expanded to
include massacres that aren’t represented in written evidence but have
been known about and passed down through memory and story by descendants
of victims, survivors, and perpetrators. Since the map was released,
she’s heard from more than five hundred people, black and white, many
from rural areas, many with details of massacres not on the map. Pascoe
told me that viewers, on first seeing the map, are sometimes so
overwhelmed they have to look away, but to him this is the point of
mapping this kind of trauma. “People whose ancestors were involved
already know what happened. But it becomes personal for everyone,
because you can see what happened in a place near you, or where you grew

Ryan’s decision to focus, for now, on archival research rather than
community consultations was driven by funding and time constraints, but
she also believes that white Australians who are skeptical about
widespread frontier massacres need to be confronted with the gruesome
truths recorded by their own ancestors—the magistrates and crown-lands
commissioners, the settlers who wrote about killing sprees in their
journals or correspondence. In the History Wars, she noted, the
denialists figured out ways of discounting all evidence of massacre, no
matter its provenance. “They’d say things like, well, you can’t trust
evidence from a convict, they’re born liars. Same with the Native
Police. Women don’t tell the truth. Soldiers who weren’t officers
clearly didn’t know what was going on.” This sort of thinking would
leave only sources from the two categories of whites with the most to gain from covering up massacres: the officers who gave the orders, and the male settlers who often carried them out.

Ryan is also working with historians in South Africa, Canada, and the
United States to consider massacres from a comparative perspective. The same men who were brutalized by mass warfare in Europe—during the
Napoleonic wars, for example—became the brutal colonizers of the new
world. (Angus McMillan fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances,
when Highlander tenants were forcibly removed from their land.) In the
eighteen-twenties, massacres in Tasmania and Victoria were usually
carried out at dawn, to give the perpetrators—who used unreliable
weapons, such as muskets, which often misfired—the advantage of
surprise. When more sophisticated weapons, like the repeating rifles
which were first manufactured around the time of the American Civil War,
spread across the globe, the nature of frontier violence changed. By the
eighteen-seventies, massacres were more often done in broad daylight.
The awful intimacy of the violence is another shared feature of
massacre, as is the divide-and-conquer strategy of recruiting Indigenous
people into Native Police forces commanded by white officers and
compelled to carry out killings.

While people milled around after Ryan’s talk, I spoke to Aleshia
Lonsdale, a young Wiradjuri artist from the country town of Mudgee, who
was showing work in the gallery. Lonsdale, who has curly red hair and a
gap-toothed smile, had created an assemblage of stone tools tightly
bound in cling wrap. She told me about visiting her local museum, where
stone tools were massed together, and feeling as if she were in a
morgue. “There was nothing saying where the tools had come from, only
who had donated them to the collection—you know, ‘a stone tool donated
by Mrs. Brown,’ ” she said. Mudgee is now a tourist town, but the
massacres and forced removals that occurred there almost destroyed the
Aboriginal community. “It’s not just something in the history book, or
dots on a map, it still impacts on people today,” she said. “Even in
terms of Aboriginal identity, and people not knowing who they are or
where they’re from—sometimes that can stem back to the massacres.”

I asked her what she thought of Ryan’s approach. “When I first heard
about the map, I went online and had a look,” she said. “I told people
in my community about it. Some were taken aback. They wanted to know why
their massacre wasn’t on there. So, for me, it was helpful to hear
from Lyndall today. Because there are a lot of massacre places that the
community knows about that wouldn’t fit those criteria.” Lonsdale paused
to greet a well-wisher. “Where some of the massacres happened, in my own
country, there’s still a bad feeling,” she said to me. “There’s certain
roads people won’t drive along. It’s not just felt by Aboriginal people
but by non-Aboriginal people as well. We need a place to go, to mourn or
say sorry, but Aboriginal people need to determine what form that
recognition takes.”

Recently, the Indigenous Australian artist Judy Watson, who lives in
Brisbane, débuted a different kind of massacres map. Watson, who is
fifty-eight, is a descendant of the Waanyi people, of northwest
Queensland; her great-great-grandmother Rosie hid under a windbreak to
survive a massacre carried out by the Native Police at Lawn Hill. Watson
has been researching and making art about the massacres for decades.
Earlier this year, her multimedia, research-based art work “the names
places” was shown in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, in
Canberra. Superimposed on the shaky, ever-moving boundaries of a map of
Australia is a scrolling, alphabetized list of hundreds of massacre
sites and images of other work by Watson on the same theme—such as “pale
slaughter,” which lists weapons used (bayonets, revolvers), and “the
names of men,” which lists perpetrators. Next to this video, Watson set
up a touch-screen map that people could use to bring up historical
documents associated with different massacres. The map is now online for
anybody to explore, and visitors can share information—including
“hearsay”—about massacres in their own communities.

In many Indigenous communities, art works have long had dual functions
as historical sources, as repositories of cultural or spiritual
knowledge, and as maps of territory. There is an established tradition
of mapping massacre sites through art, as in the acclaimed paintings by
the Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, and Rusty Peters,
among others. Watson wanted viewers of her video to be aware that any
map is a slippery, contested artifact, and also to have a bodily
response to the work. She told me the story of one of her relatives,
who, after viewing the video, turned to her in anguish, saying, “Where
wasn’t there a massacre?”

Jonathan Richards, a historian based at the University of Queensland and
an expert on the history of the Native Police, worked on both Watson’s
and Ryan’s maps. The biggest technical challenge, he told me, was
matching historical data with actual G.P.S. coördinates. “I am conscious
of the fact that we might identify a massacre site that nowadays is
somebody’s home or backyard, and they have no connection with the
violence,” he said. “So a little caution was crucial.” The online
version of Watson’s map is somewhat unwieldy—again a function of limited
funding, and of the enormous amount of time that both the historical and
technical work of mapping requires. (She, too, has a very small
team.) But, taken together, the two maps allow for “a welling up of this
aspect of our shared history,” as Watson put it when I spoke with her
over the phone. If the funding allows, she hopes to hire a historian to
travel with “the names of places” video as it tours around Australia,
and meet with communities at each location to gather massacre stories.
Richards told me that his research has permanently changed the way he
sees the landscape. “In fact, the drive from Brisbane to Cairns these
days is really, for me, just a linked pathway of brutal massacre sites.”

There are about twenty, mostly very small, physical memorials to
Aboriginal massacre sites across Australia, according to Genevieve
Grieves, an Indigenous artist who is writing a Ph.D. on the
memorialization of frontier violence. The majority, Grieves says, are
community-created and landscape-based: a sculpture trail or a plaque on
a single boulder, for instance. Watson and Ryan hope that their maps
might act as digital memorials, which can circulate fluidly and are not
as vulnerable to desecration. For, while the statues of white men have
been targeted lately, the few public memorials commemorating Aboriginal
history have been vandalized repeatedly for years. In Perth, there is a
bronze statue of the Noongar resistance fighter Yagan, whose head was
sent to England after he was killed by white settlers, in 1833. In 1997,
his head was repatriated to Australia; soon after, a vandal used an
angle grinder to behead the statue. It was repaired, but later beheaded
again. (The 1997 beheading inspired Archie Weller to write a short
story, later turned into a film, “Confessions of a Headhunter,” in which
two Noongar men travel across the country, taking off the heads of every
bronze colonial statue they find, and finally melting them down to
create a sculpture of an Aboriginal mother and her children looking out
to sea at Botany Bay, where Captain Cook landed.)

One of the memorials often held up as exemplary is the Myall Creek
Massacre and Memorial Site, at the top of a bluff in northern New South
Wales. It was established, in 2000, after years of advocacy work by Sue
Blacklock, a descendant of one of the survivors, in collaboration with
both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members of the local community. In
1838, on the farmland visible below the hill, thirty Wirrayaraay people
were massacred, and their bodies burned, in what Ryan calls an
“opportunity massacre.” It’s an extremely unusual case: afterward, some
of the white perpetrators were arrested and tried in
and seven of them were hanged. As the site’s heritage listing notes, it
was “the first and last attempt by the colonial administration to use
the law to control frontier conflict.” This memorial, too, has been
subject to vandalism: in 2005, the words “murder” and “women and
children” were hammered out of the metal plaques.

Each June, a ceremony is held at the site, bringing together the
descendants of victims, survivors, and perpetrators. Watson attended
this year. When she told me about the experience, her voice broke with
emotion. She filmed the descendants’ interactions, and Greg Hooper, her
technical collaborator and sound designer, put a contact microphone
(similar to a stethoscope) “against one of the ancient trees that had
stood witness to the events in the valley below, and captured a sound
like gurgling water deep within it.” School children stood at each of
the plaques on the path up the hill, reading aloud. The descendant of a
perpetrator got up with his grandson to speak, saying how sorry he was
for what had happened. “It was like watching history slowly
unravelling,” Watson said. “We all take a thread and pull it, and, as it
tightens, we start to see what is there.”


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