The Faithfull Massacre of 1838

Having read the Australian history textbook The Colonial Experience: The Port Phillip District/Victoria 1834–1860 by Richard Broome (2016), I really must take issue with the account of the Faithfull Massacre in the section on “Violence and Resistance”, pages 76 to 82. The Faithfull Massacre, in which a band of Aborigines killed eight white shepherds, occurred on April 11, 1838, at the Broken River, where the town of Benalla now stands.

There are three main considerations. First, I reject absolutely the statement in The Colonial Experience that I believe that “the attack was in revenge for the illicit use of Aboriginal women by the same party several weeks before”. I have always maintained that the Faithfull Massacre was a punitive attack conducted by twenty Aboriginal avengers in response to some of Faithfull’s men having shot at Aborigines at the Ovens River a week earlier.

Second, I reject the claim “that the Aboriginal attackers numbered 200–300 warriors”. I will demonstrate that there were twenty attackers; that the exaggerated numbers were used as a cover-up to prevent the Europeans from being indicted for murder; and that neither the survivors nor the inquiring Police Magistrate, George Stewart, described the attackers as “Aboriginal warriors”.

Third, I will argue that neither the Faithfull Massacre nor any of the other raids mentioned in The Colonial Experience were intended to resist the encroaching settlement by Europeans, who adhered to a different political system.

The Colonial Experience depends for its version of the events surrounding the Faithfull Massacre on an extract from the report made by Police Magistrate George Stewart. Stewart provided scant information: Faithfull’s party arrived at the Broken River on the night of April 7 and camped there for four days. On April 8 some of the blacks came to the drays. The Aborigines kept up a friendly intercourse until the morning of April 10 when all the blacks left. On the morning of April 11 they were seen again when the attack was made.

However, a far more detailed impression of the events surrounding the massacre may be gleaned from the records of six of the survivors and of George Faithfull.

In 1838, when drought set in in the Goulburn area of New South Wales, the brothers George and William Faithfull decided to send men with stock to the western part of the Port Phillip District. William Faithfull remained on their station at Goulburn and George pushed south in charge of some of their assigned convicts and some of their cattle and sheep.

When Faithfull’s party reached the Ovens River, George determined to stay there in order to investigate the surrounding country. Almost straight away he decided to send eighteen men further south to the Broken River with cattle and sheep while he remained with others at the Ovens River. His reason for this change in plan was to avoid a retaliatory attack from Aborigines after some of his men shot at some Aborigines on April 4. Fifteen years after the massacre, one of the survivors, William Mackay, confessed to his then employer, John Bon of Wappin Station, that:

In the early part of 1838 my two mates … myself and fifteen other men, left the Murrumbidgee river with a mob of cattle for Mr Faithfull … We had no trouble until we reached the Ovens River, when a party attacked us and speared two of the cattle. We fired at them and they disappeared into the scrub. They followed us at a considerable distance for two days afterwards. We then came to the Broken River.

Normally Europeans deterred Aborigines by firing into logs, but in this instance they fired at the Aborigines. Had the Europeans only frightened the Aborigines there would not have been a reason for Faithfull to send some men away from the Ovens area. It may be presumed therefore that some Aborigines were killed or injured.

Aborigines had learned that their traditional mode of avengement could be adapted well for use against Europeans who offended their codes of practice. Traditionally, Aborigines supposed that if a person died from no obvious cause, then he had been killed by someone. They determined who the supposed killer was and informed him he would be killed by a party of avengers. He was given several days headway before they set out. As a group was responsible, no single person could be identified as the killer of the supposed murderer and no further retaliation would be required.

Faithfull sent eighteen men south to the Broken River, supposing they would be sufficiently distant to avoid retaliation; they were not instructed to establish a new station. Nine stockmen with cattle set off first and, as Mackay said, they arrived at the Broken River two days later, on April 6. It is at this point that the account of the Faithfull Massacre begins in Stewart’s report and, therefore, in The Colonial Experience.

As the Police Magistrate at Yass was not available, Stewart was organised from Sydney to inquire into the massacre. However, Stewart was stationed at Goulburn, the hometown of the squatters George and William Faithfull. But George Faithfull and eighteen of their men were involved in the events surrounding the massacre. Clearly Stewart had to present a coherent report to Sydney, but without incriminating the Europeans on a number of offences—including murder and false detention. He therefore omitted certain events from his report and equivocated, couching important findings in vague language, thereby creating an alibi for the Europeans.

It would seem that Stewart knew about the Ovens incident, but was protecting the Europeans. It was illegal to kill anyone, Aborigines and Europeans alike, and anyone found guilty of murder was hanged. The relevant passage in Stewart’s report is included in the extract presented as Document 3.10, but no attention is drawn to it in The Colonial Experience:

I have not been able to learn that any of these or the neighbouring tribes have in any way been molested by Europeans but the information I have been able to get on this point is not altogether to be depended upon.

Stewart also did not report that the next morning, April 7, the nine shepherds with the sheep reached the Broken River. He thereby created the false impression that the whole of Faithfull’s party reached the Broken River on April 6. This impression is picked up in The Colonial Experience, which then depicts Faithfull as having come south to the Broken River, having made a station there, having been frightened away by the attack at the Broken River, and having retreated to the Ovens River. Consequently, part of a letter presented as Document 3.12 purportedly provides an “account of William’s brother George Faithfull, outlining his continuing trouble with Aborigines after moving to the Ovens River”. However, in other parts of the letter, George Faithfull made it clear that he remained at the Ovens and merely sent some men south temporarily to the Broken River.

(A compounding problem is that in a footnote to the extract, the letter is wrongly attributed to William Faithfull, not to George. George was responding to a circular letter sent from Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe to all early settlers requesting information for his proposed history of the early days of the colony.)

Stewart also omitted from his report other happenings forming part of the crucial evidence that the attack was carried out by twenty Aborigines. Stewart did not report that on April 9 Thomas Bentley found twenty spears or twenty bundles of spears in the reeds at the bank of the river. He did not describe how William Walker mounted guard over twenty-one Aborigines that night. Here again Stewart was clearly protecting the Europeans involved from being charged with a crime, that of falsely detaining someone against their wishes. Further, he did not relate that the Aborigines were released on the morning of Tuesday April 10, went straight to the river, but not finding their twenty spears or twenty bundles of spears, let out terrible shouts and fled. Stewart simply said, without offering an explanation, that on the Tuesday they left.

Stewart also did not record that some of the survivors deposed that the same Aborigines returned on the Wednesday morning, or that William Read said that there were twenty attackers. Neither did Stewart mention that the number of Aborigines had to be about the same of those of the Europeans as the Aborigines did not have enough men to plunder the drays and to pursue the fleeing Europeans. Nor did he indicate that the overseer James Crossley had ordered his men to move on again as he hoped to avoid an imminent attack.

Stewart did, however, describe a guerrilla-type attack typically conducted by a small number of Aborigines. Had a large number been involved a frontal attack would have been mounted and the Europeans would have been annihilated. Instead, the Aborigines attacked first the few Europeans who had set out and were furthest from the camp, next the other Europeans who, running to the assistance of the stricken shepherds, were spread out and presented the small number of Aborigines with ideal opportunities to spear them:

On that morning Mr Crossley had given directions to his party to move on … when the shepherds were heard to call out that the blacks were upon them Mr Crossley and the other men took all the firearms from the drays (consisting only of four muskets) and ran to their assistance … the blacks were by this time close upon the party, and all of them fled with the exception of one man [who] was killed where he stood. Six others were killed while running away … The blacks then plundered the drays.

Despite the efforts to cover up the retaliatory nature of the attack, word spread. For instance, one of the Faithfulls’ assigned convicts, Patrick Drain, who was not involved in the massacre, reported seeing “blacks at the Murray River on the way down, about twenty of them, I don’t know if these were the same who murdered the shepherds”.

Had Stewart indicated that twenty Aborigines mounted the attack, other authorities would have understood that the nature of the attack was retaliatory. Take, for example, the representation in The Colonial Experience of a large extract (Document 3.13) from a letter written by George Mackay, another of the Ovens River squatters. It is given as an example of Mackay’s “experience in the post-Massacre period”. Mackay described how “The blacks were not very numerous, but … In May 1840, 21 of them … attacked my Station in my absence. They murdered one of my servants and burned my huts and stores.” That the attack was perpetrated by twenty-one Aborigines and a convict was killed suggests that the attackers were a traditional punitive party seeking vengeance, but this information passes without comment in The Colonial Experience. Yet, this is certainly how it was viewed by George Robinson (right) , the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Robinson said that the principal cause of the attack was because one of the shepherds there “had several collisions with the natives and many were found to have been fatal”.

What the outcome would have been for the Europeans had Stewart divulged the retaliatory nature of the attack was nowhere more clearly stated than in the same letter from George Faithfull to La Trobe. Significantly Faithfull wrote, desperately endeavouring to forestall any charge of murder in relation to this and other occurrences (of which more later):

The Government … threatened to hang anyone who dared to shoot a black even in protection of his property, and appointed Protectors to search about the country for information as to the destruction of the natives. These gentlemen resorted to the most contemptible means to gain information against individuals, whom the trumpet-tongue of falsehood had branded as having destroyed many of these savages.

All the above evidence notwithstanding, in The Colonial Experience is it claimed that “the survivors and Stewart reported that the Aboriginal attackers numbered 200–300 warriors”. The impression is that all the survivors specified both the large number and the description of the attackers as warriors. The questions which arise, therefore, are obviously: How many survivors were there, how many made depositions, how many attackers did they number, why did they give the numbers they did, and did they describe the Aborigines as “warriors”?

Stewart reported that there were seven deaths, and this number is accepted implicitly in The Colonial Experience. However, Stewart’s report was made on June 20, but some days later on a return journey to his Yackandandah Station, the squatter David Reid came across the eighth body. The eight killed were John Hargrave, John Fannon, John Smith, Thomas Bentley, James McCann, Edward Laycock, Thomas Nicholls and John Bass. The ten who survived were William Read, William McKay, William Walker, John Brown, John Clay, John Hackett, Thomas Thatcher, Michael Welsh, Daniel Balmain and James Crossley.

Of the ten survivors only five made depositions. The depositions were not taken by Stewart and he did not have access to them. There were two magisterial inquiries into the Faithfull Massacre, but only the second, which was organised from Sydney, is mentioned in The Colonial Experience.

The first inquiry was ordered by the Superintendent of Police in Melbourne, William Lonsdale, who sent Lieutenant G.B. Smyth, accompanied by policemen, north to investigate the affair. Smyth reported back to Lonsdale (left) on April 22, close to four weeks before Stewart made his report for Sydney. He informed Lonsdale that he had taken all the evidence he deemed necessary and that the depositions were being carried back to him in Melbourne by two policemen. He had collected only three statements, made by William Read, John Clay and William Walker. These are held in the Melbourne Court Register of April 22 along with two earlier depositions dated April 14.

The earlier depositions were made by Crossley and Balmain, who went to Melbourne soon after the massacre. All five depositions are faithfully recorded in Michael Cannon’s Historical Records of Victoria, vol. 2A. Therefore the implication on page 77 of The Colonial Experience, that all the survivors made depositions, is quite wrong; only half of them did.

Four out of ten survivors deposed variously that they were attacked by 120 to 200 Aborigines (not 200 to 300 as stated in The Colonial Experience). One survivor, William Read, deposed that they were attacked by twenty Aborigines. The five testifiers did not in any way suggest that the Faithfull Massacre was a battle or part of a war; nor did they describe their attackers as warriors, but in The Colonial Experience they are credited with saying exactly that.

Four of the survivors had salient reasons for exaggerating the attack. First, in the mayhem of the fracas they may well have imagined there were a larger number of attackers. Second, some of them may have been prone to exaggerate. Third, as they were convicts and had to continue to work under the overseer Crossley, they probably deemed it prudent to depose virtually the same as he had. They would have been aware of Crossley’s activities in Melbourne because he returned north to them with Smyth and the accompanying policemen.

Fourth, the over-riding reason for exaggerating was to protect themselves from the gallows. Had they deposed that there were only twenty attackers, the number associated with other retaliatory attacks, Lonsdale would have immediately suspected them of having committed a significant outrage against Aborigines. The outcome of further inquiries, particularly among Aborigines who spoke English, would be that Faithfull’s men would be indicted and hanged for murder. In other words, the exaggerated numbers were a cover-up.

In the extract given from Stewart’s report in The Colonial Experience no mention is made of the number of attackers or of “warriors”. In part of his report not published in The Colonial Experience, Stewart merely stated that the shepherds were running towards the drays and “the blacks, it is supposed to the numbers of between 200 and 300 were pursuing”. Stewart’s whole report was ambivalent—nowhere more so than when he gave a large number of attackers (deflecting the possibility of portraying a small revenge party). Significantly, he indicated that he was actually uncertain of the number, he merely “supposed” that there were 200 to 300 attackers. Yet again, Stewart was not going to be responsible for giving incriminating evidence against the Europeans, particularly against George Faithfull’s party from his home area of Goulburn.

Finally, another event has been misrepresented in The Colonial Experience. Certainly, after the Faithfull Massacre there were a number of retaliatory attacks in Tuangurong areas south of the Broken River and in Waveroo areas north of the Broken River, including along the Ovens and King rivers, where survivors of the Faithfull Massacre were employed.

Perhaps the European deaths at the Broken River were insufficient to appease the Aborigines for the shootings at the Ovens River on April 4. Certainly the shooting of two more Aborigines at the Broken River on April 11 would have required avengement. In part of his report not mentioned in The Colonial Experience, Stewart declared equivocally that “three [Europeans] fired upon [the Aborigines] and one fell, but it had not been ascertained whether this man was killed. His body was not afterwards seen. The other shot, it is supposed, did not take effect.”

In The Colonial Experience, however, a certain event is erroneously accepted as the “ambushing” of George Faithfull and two of his men by Aborigines. The evidence given is Document 3.12, part of the letter attributed in The Colonial Experience to William Faithfull but actually written by George Faithfull.

Briefly, the given paragraph purports to describe an attack on George Faithfull and two of his men by hundreds of spear-throwing Aborigines; the three men responded with their muzzle-loading firearms, and fired sixty rounds in the course of the attack, which lasted six hours. After the attack Faithfull took home a small Aboriginal boy who had hidden under a log and, he said, he did not have any further trouble with the Aborigines.

In the ensuing paragraph, not published in The Colonial Experience, it becomes apparent that the incident was, in reality, an indescribably horrific slaughter by a large, well-equipped party of Europeans, of hundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children who were attending a feasting ceremony. It then becomes apparent that the reason Faithfull had no more trouble with Aborigines was because he had annihilated them, except for the boy he took home with him.

When Aboriginal men attack, no women or children are present (as Crossley knew, anticipating the attack at the Broken River). But Faithfull related in the paragraph not included in Document 3.12 that Aboriginal women and children had so little fear that they boldly ran forward, even under the horses’ legs, to retrieve spears for the men. Therefore it may be concluded, quite categorically, that the Aboriginal men did not initiate the attack.

In addition, Faithfull described an impossible attack. Three Europeans alone would not have been able to fire sixty rounds of ammunition, which had to be prepared on the spot for muzzle-loading firearms, while under attack from 200 spear-throwing Aborigines. Moreover, it would not have been possible for such an affray to last for six hours, as recorded by Faithfull, unless a large party of well-equipped Europeans was there.

Faithfull and his men had got away with murder before by exaggerating the number of Aborigines involved in the Faithfull Massacre at the Broken River. So, they invented another story about being ambushed by a large number of Aborigines, whom they shot in self-defence. This invention also neatly accounted blamelessly for the huge reduction of Aborigines in the Ovens and King rivers area.

It emerges, in yet another paragraph of the same letter not included in The Colonial Experience, that Faithfull was trying to defend himself from accusations being made by whites who wanted to buy agricultural land. In order to force squatters off the land, some whites were branding the squatters as murderers of the blacks. Faithfull clearly panicked. As he put it to La Trobe, the government was giving “too willing an ear to them”.

(The whole question of the sale of agricultural lands and the reduction of squatting stations adjacent to towns, actual and proposed, in the 1850s is not included in The Colonial Experience. I devoted a chapter of my MA thesis to this matter.)

The second-last problem associated with representations in The Colonial Experience is the significance it places on raids. It is argued, by implication, that because Aboriginal raids caused some squatters to retreat, the intention of the raids was to cause them to retreat, therefore the raids constituted Aboriginal resistance. However, that a certain action causes a particular result does not signify that the intention was to achieve that result; it may or may not have been so. Consequently it does not follow necessarily that the raids by Aborigines were intended to repel the Europeans, to resist their arrival.

Certainly Stewart said of the Faithfull Massacre, “It would appear … that the outrage was committed solely for the purposes of plunder.” However, again he expressed uncertainty; he simply said “it would appear” to be so—and he had again bypassed the overwhelming amount of evidence that the Faithfull Massacre was an act of avengement for shootings at the Ovens River.

Furthermore, it would seem that Stewart expected the authorities in Sydney to accept implicitly that it required 200 to 300 Aborigines to attack eighteen Europeans, killing only eight of them, in order to raid drays and stock. Moreover, this interpretation of the affair is accepted unquestioningly in The Colonial Experience, and extended, without evidence, to support a hypothesis that the raid comprised resistance to the arrival of the Europeans.

Undoubtedly a reason for the raids was that Aborigines, belonging to a materially-deprived tribal society, coveted Europeans’ belongings—their food, their clothing, their bedding, their implements, their stock—and it was these items they “appropriated”.

Did the survivor of the Faithfull Massacre, William Read—who reported that at the Broken River some Aborigines kept taking and returning his blanket—consider that they were pitting “the principle[s] of reciprocity” and “material egalitarianism” against the “possessive individualism, hierarchy and inequality” of the Europeans’ political system, as alleged of raiders in The Colonial Experience?

Finally, how justifiable is the claim in The Colonial Experience that tribal organisation can be designated as a political system?

Judith Bassett lives in Benalla. Unless otherwise stated, references in this article are available in the footnotes of her article, “The Faithful Massacre at the Broken River 1838”, Journal of Australian Studies, 1989, vol. 13, no. 24.


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