Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre, edited by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan

NewSouth Books, 215 pp., ISBN: 9781742235752, p/bk, RRP AUS$34.99

On 10 June 1838 twelve men, “in an unprovoked act of violent terror” (p. xi), committed an atrocity known today as the Myall Creek Massacre. The massacre — which saw the brutal and senseless murder of Aboriginal men, women and children in northern New South Wales — has left deep scars upon many communities. To mark the 180th anniversary of this crime, scholars Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan have brought together Remembering The Myall Creek Massacre.

The foreword by Sue Blacklock and John Brown notes a hope that “this ongoing focus on the massacre, and the trial that followed, may drag us towards a more honest understanding of our history, and the possibility of more just and open acknowledgement of our tangled journey in Australian over the past two centuries” (p xiii).

Some of the essays in the book consider individuals connected with the crime. Lyndall Ryan looks critically at Henry Dangar, a wealthy landowner with holdings that included the Myall Creek area, and his actions during the aftermath, which included attempts to discredit a key witness and providing financial support to secure counsel for the defence. Patsy Withycombe takes on the difficult task of investigating John Henry Fleming, the ringleader of the Myall Creek massacre (p 38).

Other contributors have looked at some of the responses to the massacre in the media at the time. Jane Lydon explores depictions of the events at Myall Creek and how “a handful of visual images gave form to debates around violence on the colonial frontier, arousing emotions and directing viewers how to see this distant tragedy” (p 52) while Anna Johnston elegantly unpacks Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poignant response to the massacre in the poem “The Aboriginal Mother” which was published in the Australian on 13 December 1838, “only days before the public execution” of the men found guilty of murder (p 68).

Lyndall Ryan works to contextualise the massacre by looking at some of the many other examples of frontier violence in the nineteenth century. Iain Davidson, Heather Burke, Lynley A. Wallis, Bryce Barker, Elizabeth Hatte and Noelene Cole, in a collaborative effort, connect the massacre at Myall Creek and the people of Wonomo, suggesting it was likely that other Aboriginal communities “were forewarned by oral testimony of the impending struggle and met it with active and passive resistance” (p 110).

John Maynard offers a powerful personal reflection and memoir of his “own journey to Myall Creek in 2015” (p 111). Jessica Neath and Brook Andrew talk about how in “Australia, we walk on bones” reminding us that “the Myall Creek massacre was only one of the countless massacres of the Frontier Wars right across Australia” (p 131). Their work, presented through conversations, highlights the importance of memorials and argues for the “greater visibility” of the Frontier Wars and their ongoing legacy in Australia.

An afterword comes from the always elegant pen of Mark Tedeschi.

The text includes maps, examples of visual culture, a bibliography, extensive endnotes and an index.

This volume is a work about trauma and the deep pain that continues to be felt by so many today. Remembering The Myall Creek Massacre is difficult but essential reading. It offers accounts of a crime that has become one of the symbols of so many crimes that have been committed against Aboriginal Australians. For non-Indigenous Australians this work offers an important opportunity for reflection and, by extension, a level of understanding that can assist in facilitating a more reconciled future.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, June 2018

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