The Shoddy Research Behind the Massacre Maps

The massacre maps are two impressive and closely imitative digital map representations: the Colonial Frontiers Massacre Map from the University of Newcastle and a slick and highly publicised offshoot The Killing Times from the Guardian (Australia). Both interactive maps of Australia are pockmarked with coloured dots, each of which represents a violent event at a specific location. Click a dot and information appears about the killing of “Victims” (black) by “Attackers” (white), click elsewhere and animated violence against Aborigines spreads across the continent from 1788.

This article appears in October’s Quadrant.
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The history both projects use comes from the same source, the Australian Research Council-funded Colonial Frontiers Massacre Project, which is based at the University of Newcastle and led by Professor Lyndall Ryan. The Killing Times is the centrepiece for the Guardian’s indigenous coverage and last year won, for both Guardian staff and University of Newcastle researchers, a Walkley Award and the Digital History Prize, part of the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards. This coronavirus year, Professor Ryan introduced the results of her team’s research at the Parliamentary Library and the National Library of Australia—with good reason it is sometimes called Ryan’s Map.

The two maps presently draw attention to about 300 massacres. Fifty-four are located in Victoria and from these I selected thirty Western District events. Research which The Killing Times and the university academics are praised for is based on a single, shoddy secondary source. Twenty-six of the thirty texts I looked at include plagiarisms and at least one massacre is a fabrication. Ryan’s academic team also claim credit for research not done.

On The Killing Times and Massacre Map each massacre has a narrative, an explanation of the event and a list of sources and other details including numbers of Aborigines killed. The information originates with the Newcastle group, is featured on their own digital map and then repackaged by the Guardian for The Killing Times. Thus plagiarisms and errors infect the two sites, although both mention truth in their publicity. The authorship of the problem texts is clear, for on The Killing Times each massacre narrative has a precise credit: “Written by the Colonial Frontier Massacres Project.”

In the texts I looked at, the newspaper appears to have done no checking even for the claim they print that a brutal attack on Aborigines was carried out with a novel weapon: “and those stockmen that had the firearms were found with a pole at the end of which a one-half of a sheep was placed, and some unfortunate mothers, with infants in arms, crying for mercy, were perforated through”. Why didn’t the Guardian query such stupidity? Had they bothered to do so, the evidence, easily obtained, makes far more sense when read correctly: “and those stockmen that had no firearms were found with a pole at the end of which a one-half of a sheep shears was placed”. And were they also not curious about the man who originally made these interesting claims and the investigation that was held into them?

In the following discussion “Massacre Map” refers to the University of Newcastle map. The thirty narratives I chose came from their website—the Guardian may have lightly copy-edited some of these source texts. In this list of plagiarisms the names of the massacres, sometimes followed by bracketed numbers, are the identifying names on the Massacre Map and The Killing Times.

Scars in the Landscape by Ian D. Clark has been plagiarised in Campaspe (2), Campaspe Plains, Connell’s Ford, Darlington Station, Fighting Waterholes, Lake Bolac, Maiden Hills, Mount Eccles, Mount Napier, Mount Sturgeon Station, Murderers Flat, Murdering Flat, Murdering Gully, Mustons, Reservoir (1), Tarrone (2), Victoria Valley and Wannon River. There are also comparatively minor instances of plagiarism in Crawford River, Fighting Hills, Mount Rouse, Tahara and Waterloo Plains. Who Killed the Koories? by Michael Cannon has been plagiarised in Barmah Lake, Beveridge Island and Loddon Junction massacres.

Within the list of plagiarisms are four double-plagiarisms—text plagiarised from Scars in the Landscape which already contains plagiarisms. The Mount Eccles narrative uses text without acknowledgment from Scars in the Landscape, which includes text used without acknowledgment from The Mills Brothers of Port Fairy by Alan Broughton. The Fighting Waterholes narrative is plagiarised from Clark’s book, which includes plagiarised text from Aldo Massola’s Journey to Aboriginal Victoria. In Tarrone (2) and Wannon River the plagiarised text from Clark contains unacknowledged text from Michael Christie’s Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835–86. Neither The Mills Brothers of Port Fairy nor Aborigines in Colonial Victoria is listed in the Massacre Map footnotes or bibliography.

There are also suggestions not of plagiarism but laziness and lack of curiosity in that some texts, correctly acknowledged, have simply been cut and pasted from Scars in the Landscape. For example, Blood Hole has an eight-word introduction plagiarised from Ian Clark before a long quote from a single source—which also appears in Scars in the Landscape. The text, which is correctly acknowledged, appears to have been copied from Clark, for it has the same two-word changes and a short phrase he added to the original. Absolutely no real research and a single questionable, unsourced citation adds sixty-nine Aborigines to Ryan’s death tally. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into this project, and this is the result.

Where plagiarising occurs, text from another author is not placed within inverted commas and there are no bracketed credits following their words acknowledging source or authorship. Words in an original text are sometimes mixed with the plagiariser’s words and have been changed or explanatory text has been added. While over half the material for Barmah Lake has been lifted from Michael Cannon’s Who Killed the Koories? there is a textual insertion towards the end of the plagiarised words which reads “According to Michael Cannon”—he is mispresented as an extra commentator rather than the author of what has gone before. A generous gesture, perhaps.

Entries with plagiarised material from Scars in the Landscape are usually supported with the original footnotes from the book as if they were sources identified and consulted by the university research team. In Clark’s book his references are often cited without page numbers. When re-used for the Massacre Map the missing page numbers have often, but not always, been added. So, if Lyndall Ryan’s researchers have checked as they plagiarised, they must know that many of his sources are poor, yet these sources now support their own project. Where Clark has been plagiarised, his own book has been added to the footnotes and appears as a further reference consulted by the academic researchers. In the Massacre Map footnotes Scars in the Landscape appears as “Clark ID 1995” with an appropriate page number—there is no indication that any text above the footnote has been robbed from its pages.

The method of referencing, author name plus year of publication and page number, means readers of the Massacre Map need to download and search a PDF bibliography to find what exactly has been used. There is no bibliography on the Guardian site. Without it their footnotes are completely meaningless and without it the seriousness of The Killing Times is an expensively decorative facade. A credit like this for the Convincing Ground is incomprehensible without a bibliography: “Sources: Clark ID 1995:17–22; Anderson 2006:137–147; Clark ID 2011:79–109”. Readers would be better served with clear bibliographic information below each entry—though even then they would not realise how uncertain some of the texts being relied on really are. The judges for the Walkley and New South Wales Premier’s history prize praised The Killing Times but never noticed the absence of a bibliography—perhaps the prizes weren’t being given for history at all.

Plagiarisms from Scars in the Landscape reveal even more problems from the Colonial Frontier Massacres Project team. Two examples show a tainted text being used to fabricate a massacre, and academic deceit.

A fake massacre was fabricated by plagiarising Ian Clark and not examining the source he used. The massacre which never happened was given a name, Campaspe (2)— not to be confused with the Campaspe Plains massacre. These bureaucrats of death also invented a specific location at latitude –37.621, longitude 141.582, and their website offers an image of the not-guilty landscape. The fabrication is built from the following narrative; the italicised text is plagiarised from Scars in the Landscape, the misspelt name in the first line has been added by the plagiarists, and, as I say, this never happened:

John Coppock, W.H. Yaldwin’s [sic] overseer, said in a sworn statement that on 9 June 1840, about 50 Aborigines who had stolen sheep from Dr Bowman and Mr Yaldwyn’s runs, had been tracked down by a party of eight white men. A “pitched battle” took place for three quarters of an hour, in which seven or eight Aborigines were shot dead but no white men were wounded or killed after which the sheep were recovered.

The reason it is untrue is very simple, Ian Clark made a mistake. John Coppock gave his sworn evidence in 1838, not 1840: the fighting he described refers to an event on June 9, 1838, in Waterloo Plains. The faux-historians, using exactly the same evidence for their Campaspe (2) and Waterloo Plains massacres, have placed the same event in two different locations. The source Clark used is easily available and the matter covers several pages and also includes further sworn information from a farm labourer who took part in the violence. Clark’s error should have been noted when (or if) this source material was checked. Even so, the Ryan researchers could have noted the problem because they, and Clark, use John Coppock and his statement twice in their work. Clark, the Newcastle academics, and the Guardian are claiming that the same man took part in two different massacres on the same day, of the same month, in two different years. Using a single piece of evidence the Massacre Map produces two massacres at two different locations—and the death toll changes, upwards. Campaspe (2) supposedly claimed seven dead Aborigines (the Guardian suggests 7.5 dead) while the Waterloo Plains event is credited with twenty-three dead and two dead “attackers”—a murdered shepherd and a watchman. More Aborigines died at Waterloo Plains because Lyndall Ryan’s team Trove-found a newspaper account written forty-seven years later which gave the higher number of deaths—and made some erroneous statements which could have been checked.

The second case begins with plagiarisms from Scars in the Landscape and ends with modern deceit. Misappropriated words in the Massacre Map narrative for Murdering Flat (which never happened) include a seventy-five-word quotation credited to Aldo Massola’s Journey to Aboriginal Victoria—but it isn’t. Again Clark made a mistake—the cited lines actually come from The Aborigines of Far Western Victoria: A Short Talk by E.R. Trangmar. Some of Trangmar’s words do occur in Massola and he may have been drawing on the earlier writer or they were both taking material from an unnamed source. It is an interesting problem. The misattributed citation is the essential evidence presented for a claim that forty Aborigines were murdered. In their footnote the Massacre Map academics cite Massola as the source they have used, which is impossible: this is unquestionably academic deceit—there is no mention of Trangmar. There are other cases, like Campaspe (2), where I wondered if the sources being referenced had actually been checked, for there are some that should never have found their way into a serious study, but in this case it is absolutely clear they are claiming credit for research that was never done, and is false. Ian Clark made a simple mistake in handling his research; they didn’t.

This last error in attribution was one of the problems I listed when I wrote about Scars in the Landscape in my book The Invention of Terra Nullius (2005). I thought I was dealing with something very special, one of the worst academic history books ever printed. Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803–1859 was published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1995, and is now spreading its errors in PDF. Then I recorded, with amazement, the unjustified praise Ian Clark received from academics, who never checked. I said, not unfairly: “The work is a mess of primary sources, secondary sources and tip-shop junk. Some of the text has been plagiarised from the books he used.” I added three pages listing some of the problems I had noted. My view had not changed when I reminded Quadrant readers of its existence in an essay, “History on Fire”, noting, almost unbelievably, that in 2010 Clark’s book was still being used as a valid reference by approved historians, including Lyndall Ryan.

Plagiarising Scars in the Landscape is almost the only research of Western District violence carried out by Lyndall Ryan and her associates—apart from some not always well digested Trove searches. When The Killing Times and Massacres Project teams collected their award and prize money from the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards the judges’ congratulatory statement was a libel on the truth:

They [the massacres] have been painstakingly identified and corroborated from a wide range of sources including settler diaries, explorers’ journals, newspaper reports, Aboriginal testimony, Parliamentary papers, government archival sources and much more.

In the thirty massacres I chose, Ian Clark’s Scars in the Landscape is cited as a source twenty-seven times. In the three Clark-free narratives two are plagiarised from Michael Cannon’s Who Killed the Koories? (a secondary history without footnoted references but with an excellent bibliography for the period when it was published) and the third is a dim and doubtful new massacre based on unfounded suppositions by a local historian and credited by the academics to a “typescript in possession of the author”. The newspaper evidence on which this latter theorising is based has been edited on the Massacre Map to make it seem a first-person narrative, which it isn’t.

The reliance of Lyndall Ryan’s researchers on a single text draws attention to the promised work not done in the archives. The colonial government records preserved in the Victorian Public Record Series (VPRS) held in the Public Record Office of Victoria are an essential resource for researching and writing. For an historian these are fundamental and exhilarating primary source materials which hold riches still to be discovered. Here are carefully preserved government documents, court and trial records, the Native Police files, correspondence to and from settlers, and utterly essential references for writing Aboriginal history. The Massacre Map presently lists fifty-four events in Victoria, but of the thirty I looked at in the Western District only three of these referenced VPRS files—and they were all part of the original footnotes in Scars in the Landscape. The Massacre Map bibliography lists only three VPRS files: for context, the bibliography of Who Killed the Koories? lists thirty-seven files, and Scars in the Landscape thirteen. These latter two books are histories of the Western District while the Massacre Map covers the whole state. Though it hardly seems possible that such archival negligence has taken place, the proof is in the footnotes.

The Killing Times states, “Research and verification of all available evidence is done carefully and takes time.” It doesn’t if you dump research and simply copy and plagiarise a single text. They also say, “Only events for which sufficient information remains from the past and can be verified are included.” That is a lie. The truth is that the Guardian and Lyndall Ryan’s researchers have won undeserved awards for faked massacres, plagiarism and deceit.

10 thoughts on “The Shoddy Research Behind the Massacre Maps

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Michael, what a great article and thank you for your meticulous research.
    I found the same thing in my own research for Bitter Harvest. I also noted the technique to count murdered settlers (the object of reprisals) to be counted among the ‘attackers’ dead. I also noted that Peter Gardner is the main source for Gippsland massacres, rather than original sources.

  • MungoMann says:

    Michael, you rightly point out the laziness of these ‘researchers’ when compiling their maps, but when they want to manipulate the narrative they often put a lot of effort into their ‘lying’. For example, a woeful technique employed by the Guardian ‘screen-jockeys’ is to grossly inflate the deaths from massacres by fiddling with the numbers. A perfect example is the Mt Cottrell ‘massacre’ in Victoria, which occurred after two settlers were killed by the Aborigines and where the exact number of Aboriginal deaths in ‘reprisal’ is not exactly proven, but is generally accepted as being about 10. Even Lyndall ‘historians are always making up figures’ Ryan lists the Aboriginal dead on her map at 10. But since the Guardian claim that there were 50-100 Aborigines present and no one really know the exact figure of deaths, they have decided to take the mean between the minimum of 10 and maximum of 100 which is 55 as the figure for those killed!! – see here https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2019/mar/04/massacre-map-australia-the-killing-times-frontier-wars. Unbelievable. Lucky they are not running Dan’s COVID stats – “we think there are 800 deaths in Vic but not exactly sure so lets say it is the mean of 800 and 6.6 Million the max population of Vic – so Dan has killed 3.3M Victorians?

  • MungoMann says:

    yes Peter, I see that now. One thing I have been plugging away on, as time permits, is to included inter-tribal Aboriginal massacres in Wikipedia’s List of Massacres of Indigenous Australians. The Left originally set this topic up to list all the Settler massacres of Aborigines , but their loose definition has allowed me to start adding massacres of Aborigines by other Aborigines. See “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians . One reason why us on the Centre Right are losing the cultural wars is that we have real lives and don’t spend enough of our time fighting back in the day to day battles with the Left- many of us have given up on Wikipedia, but we shouldn’t. It offers a great place to hold the tide against the Left. If the young read on Wikipedia that Aborigines slaughtered other Aborigines they will come to believe this fact – it may take time, but if we concede all the ground to the Left , the young will only ever think that Settlers were the only murderous party. So I would encourage you and any other Quadrant readers to look at this Wiki page and see where you can slot in examples of inter-tribal massacres to try and bring some balance into the database. Over time we are working on getting these Aboriginal massacres their own Wiki page. I have done one for the Warrowen Massacre and have just submitted one for the Massacre of Running Waters. Overtime I think we can build a good public database to say our colonial history was not just violent one way.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    MungoMann, a great initiative and congratulations. I will look at the article toute de suite. In my research I discovered that Aboriginal Protector GA Robinson reported an intertribal massacre of 70 odd natives at Tambo Crossing in eastern Victoria. ‘Historian’ Peter Gardner decided that this couldn’t be right, that Robinson was probably covering up for settlers and rewrote the narrative as a white massacre and that is how it appears in the Uni of Newcastle website.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    MungoMann, well what do you know! Robinson also reported the Warrowen massacre.

  • restt says:

    Great article. And we are supposed to be involved the truth telling for reconciliation.

    A website or wiki of aboriginal on aboriginal violence would be fantastic. Include Battle of Figtree in the Illawarra.

    The site should include an extrapolation of the deaths that would have occurred in the 100 years before settlement from tribal conflict which has been considered as over 100,000 deaths based on a population of 300,000..

    This compared with the often quoted 20,000 deaths of Aboriginals post settlement by Europeans .largely the result of securing safety …. or an incredibly LOW 200 deaths/murders per year in the acquisition of a country.

  • pgang says:

    Nice work MungoMann. You mention how loose the definition of massacre is – many of them would be better described as murders, and in some of them nobody dies at all!
    Perhaps a paragraph at the beginning noting the somewhat cavalier use of sources might be worth adding. Also I note that the subsequent penalties for some of these actions are conveniently missing.
    The 1790’s section is telling for its almost complete absence of violence in the early years of the colony.

  • NFriar says:

    Michael I believe you wrote an article on CHristophe’s expose of “Dark Emu’.
    Have you overlaid his black on black tribal fights?

    He did leave some out but members of my research group were able to point out the ommissions.

    Mungo Mann I believe I emailed this to you.
    ‘he following database intends to survey all the collective fights among Australian Aborigines that were reported in the litterature. The sources may be professional ethnographies, as well as newspapers articles or personal memories. The events cover whatever form of fight, from a feud to a pitched battle or a raid, given that it opposed two collectivies in Australia (Torres Strait islands and Tasmania excluded).

    Whenever possible, the database records the presumed date and location of the fight, number of people involved, the number of casualties (dead and injured), the type and the alleged motivation of the confrontation. Each item is sourced, and the corresponding extract is included.

    In addition of being listed in the table view of the database, all the events are located on the interactive map. Main characteristics are summerized in the synthesis, with one table showing the repartition according to the type and confrontation and its lethality, and another one according to the causes of conflicts.

    Currently, the database includes 214 events. Everyone may submit others by sending me an email.

    Christophe DARMANGEAT
    Lecturer in Economics and Social anthropology
    Université de Paris

  • NFriar says:

    Has anyone had a look at this exercise started two years ago by a fellow researcher.
    Propelled by Ryan’s map.
    australianhistory972829073 Uncategorized


    Massacres only happened to blacks – according to some.

    A woman named Professor Lyndall Ryan has created a map showing massacres of Aborigines, at the hands of the whites, in Australia. It is called “Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia, 1788-1930”. Ms Ryan and her team of helpers were given government funding to compile her biased compilation. The link is here – https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres

    Now strangely, there are very few white victims on her map. Of the 250 so called massacres, only 10 involved whites. Her idea of a massacre is a bit unusual too. If 6 people were killed in the same area over the course of a year, she calls it a massacre. That equates to one victim every 2 months for a year. Go figure.

    I couldn’t find any listings anywhere on the internet of non Aboriginal victims who died at the hands of the natives. Although there is no end of readily available information on the blacks that died. How odd. Another curious phenomenon is that most academics and people of Aboriginal descent deny that Australian Aborigines were involved in cannibalism. Clearly this is not the case. The kidney fat especially, was highly prized, and often taken from the murder victims. In fact, it was even taken before the victim died, leaving the poor unfortunate to suffer a slow agonising death.

    To try to balance the records, I have set about listing the details of everybody I can find who were murdered by the blacks. What I haven’t included, is all of those people who were seriously wounded, but didn’t die. I have assumed that these victims survived. Many of these people were never the same again, due to head injuries, damaged lungs and spinal injuries, and limbs chopped off. I also haven’t included the many Australian natives and half-castes who were working with the whites and who were also murdered, as that is not the intention of this data, but some do get a mention in passing.

    I should also say here, that there would have been even more white deaths had many of the natives, especially the women, not warned the whites of impending trouble. There are countless examples of that happening, and quite often the women were speared and killed because they spoke out. There were also quite a few examples of some men wanting to attack the whites, and some of their fellow tribesmen trying to stop them. Possibly this was because they didn’t want the repercussions of killing the whites, but I also think it indicates that not everybody agreed with the killings. There are good and bad people everywhere. I also found cases where some natives were attacking the whites, while others, from different tribes probably, were trying to rescue the whites.

    This list is a job in progress. I am constantly adding to it, as I find more victims, so am adding names as I find them. The “Details” are a reference as to how the victims died, and also for my own use, as it helps to avoid doubling up and adding people in twice. More often than not, lowly shepherds were not named, although their employer often was, which helps to eliminate putting victims in twice. My information has all been found on trove.nla, so all should be verifiable through searching that site, but I am slowly adding the source notes to the list, to make the victims easier to find. I usually only add one source, although there are often multiple articles on the one event. If the source column is not visible, you should be able to see it by scrolling to the right. The deaths are arranged by date.

    The deaths are grouped according to the state or territory in which they were committed. Or where I think they were committed. I make no guarantees that the locations mentioned are actually in the state that I have quoted though. Some were right near the border, and some have names that no longer exist. My knowledge of places is limited, so if you see errors – and I have no doubt there will be many – please let me know. The same applies to any other details that you may know are incorrect, or to victims that have not yet been mentioned.

    Clearly, Aborigines were not the only victims in the conflict. A common saying is that many black deaths went unrecorded, and of course they did, but a squatter at the time also wrote that for every white death recorded, another 50 white deaths went unrecorded.

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