How the Massacre Maps are Killing Aborigines

Years in preparation, rich with Australian Research Council dollars, the Colonial Frontier Massacre Project’s Massacre Map was publicly introduced at the Australian Historical Association conference in 2017. The assembled historians never referred to its duplications, plagiarisms, reliance on shoddy secondary sources, misuse of historic newspapers and inaccuracies: in fact they said it was rather good. The ABC willingly supported the travesty: “After years of painstaking research, an online map marking the massacre of Aboriginal clans across Australia’s colonial frontier has launched.” When historian David Stephens of the Honest History website published an appreciation of the Massacre Map he called it “painstaking” and “excellent”, and he even had room to make a ritual denunciation of ex-prime minister John Howard, and then his praise was reprinted on Crikey. If the Guardian had checked they might have found plagiarism and reliance on doubtful secondary works, but instead they approvingly quoted project leader Lyndall Ryan  from the University of Newcastle: “You have got to put the evidence together bit by bit. It’s painstaking work.”

At this first stage of its public life the large-scale map of Australia already showed Victoria’s Western District as a brightly sparkling land with shining dots marking massacre sites. The Map’s faults should have been exposed in 2017, for the Western District massacres are based not on careful research of multiple sources but on a single book, Scars in the Landscape (1995) by Ian D. Clark. Two years later the Guardian co-operated with Newcastle’s massacre academics and produced their own version of the internet map, called The Killing Times, which simply reproduced the problems in a glossy new marketing format coated with self-flattering praise.

Michael Connor: The Massacre Maps’ Shoddy Research

Since 2000 Ryan has obtained twenty-one research grants, totalling $2,080,404, from various sources, for projects administered by the University of Newcastle. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into the Massacre Map, and in considering the following cases the question should be asked of what the money was spent on, for plagiarism comes cheap, and is quickly done. What follows are considerations of seven Western District massacres from the Massacre Map. Here are plagiarisms, the use of inappropriate secondary sources, and one example where the historical evidence has been cut to support a faulty argument. These first two massacres could have been plagiarised before morning tea on the very first day the project began. The Massacre Map presently has over 300 marked sites; the shoddiness and untruths being spread around the country may be imagined.

One: Fake massacre, Lake Bolac. The Massacre Map narrative is plagiarised from Ian Clark’s Scars in the Landscape. His words are in italics:

According to local historian, M. Green, this “clash” took place on D.M. Macnab’s station where the colonists took refuge in a hut, which had loop holes through which they fired their guns. Eleven Aborigines including the “chief” were reported to have been shot. Green’s source for this was her late uncle, Harry Beardsley, whose parents worked on the station in 1859.

The academic plagiarists did no further checking yet, as they themselves claimed, verification was held to be absolutely central to their project: “Only events for which sufficient information remains from the past and can be verified are included.” Clark’s unsubstantiated massacre story is based on a forty-page publication Mary Green compiled for the centenary of the Lake Bolac State School in 1966. Her uncle Harry may have been Henry William Beardsley, who died, aged seventy-five, in 1945—if so, he was born at least ten years after the supposed event. When Clark had referred to this text in his earlier book Aboriginal Languages and Clans (1990) he added a final observation: “I have not been able to verify it took place.” Five years later, Scars in the Landscape was published, and he had included it in his text without any reservations expressed and now it appears on The Killing Times and the Massacre Map. Contributing their own absurdity, on the table of facts accompanying this narrative the University of Newcastle academics classify the (white) people sheltering in the hut to protect themselves as “Attackers”, and the (black) people attempting to kill them as “Victims”.

Two: Fake massacre, Mount Eccles. Again a brief massacre narrative is plagiarised from Scars in the Landscape and again the source has not even been looked at, for as is also the case of Mary Green’s book, it is not listed in the Massacre Map bibliography. This massacre only exists in an unverified half-paragraph of unsourced text in a forty-five-page brochure self-published by its author in 1980. The words plagiarised by the Massacre team from Clark are in italics and those he had plagiarised from The Mills Brothers of Port Fairy by Alan Broughton are underscored:

According to A. Broughton, the historian of the Mills Family in the Western District, in 1847 a group of settlers guided by a “half-civilised” Aborigine are purported to have launched a surprise attack at Mount Eccles, a favourite Aboriginal “guerrilla base”, and killed more than 30 people and sparing not even babies.

The Massacre Map footnote cites Clark’s book as one of their sources, though it is their only source, but gives the wrong page. A second reference supposedly consulted, to another work by Clark, is to a page of Aboriginal vocabulary which seems to have nothing to do with this account. Even as this story adds thirty people to the Massacre Map body count it has already found an additional home on a non-academic site which has attributed the fake massacre to another Mount Eccles in Gippsland.

In 2019 the Guardian introduced The Killing Times to their readers: “Research and verification of the evidence takes time and care. It involves locating primary sources such as letters, journals, newspaper articles, books, photographs and oral histories.” And then they won a Walkley for plagiarism.

Three: Fabricated massacre site, Murdering Flat. The name does not record a massacre site but marks the place where a shepherd was murdered by Aborigines. This is verified in two serious primary sources—contemporary statements made by George Robinson and Francis Henty. On June 21, 1842, Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines, was travelling through the area and noted in his journal: “It was at this spot the shepherd was killed. The hut at that time stood a few yards further back. The white men of this establishment have designated the place ‘Murdering Plain [sic]’.” This evidence is not cited by the Massacre Map. Then, in 1885, Francis Henty, who had been the original station owner, wrote a newspaper letter in which he pointed out that a previous article in the Argus had confused the Fighting Waterholes, where Aborigines had been killed, and Murdering Flat:

The plain mentioned derived its name of the “Murdering Flat” from the fact that one of the first shepherds I had with me was cruelly murdered there, doubtless by the natives, though his death was not avenged in the manner described.

Making a confused and inaccurate case for a bloody origin, the Massacre Map prefers confusion to archival relevance and chronology. In Scars in the Landscape Clark names the dead shepherd as William Heath. On the Massacre Map Heath is no longer the dead shepherd but confusingly is both a witness to what had happened and then is also listed in their facts list as the single dead “Attacker”. Building on this resurrectionist base, the university academics claim an “oral tradition that 40 Aborigines were slain in retaliation” for the death of the shepherd—an unsupported claim plagiarised from Clark. Naturally, they give the event a death toll of forty dead “Victims”.

In this confused presentation the letter from Henty clarifying the origin of the place name is mentioned, then ignored, even though two further writers who support his claims are mentioned, but they are not listed in the bibliography and their names have simply been lifted from Clark’s text. Further “evidence” is offered from a 1969 book by Aldo Massola, which is actually the wrong author and another Clark mistake discussed previously in Quadrant, and which the academics have cited as their own source, which is completely untrue. Finally offering some original research, the Massacre team present a red herring of violence and death mischievously created by Dr G.C. Collier in 1839 which was investigated and dismissed at the time. Where they could have provided clarity they prefer invented dead bodies.

Four: How a mutilated man became a dead “Attacker” at Loddon Junction. In the New Yorker Lyndall Ryan was praised for her “painstaking research”. Gammon. This event is plagiarised from Michael Cannon’s Who Killed the Koories? Even if correctly used it should be unacceptable evidence because Cannon gives no sources for his words. At the same time it should have been the basis for real research because Cannon is a careful historian and the sources he used could be tracked through his bibliography. This surely is simply normal academic procedure.

What the Massacre Map describes as the Loddon Junction massacre appears to be built from two different events in Cannon’s book, the murder of two shepherds in October 1845 and then the killing of Aborigines in a fight with the Native Police in February 1846—which the academics assert was carried out in “reprisal”. Cannon was examining conflicts on the Murray between settlers and Aborigines, and he records the deaths of these two shepherds amongst other conflicts, and then refers to the later violence which occurred when fourteen Native Policemen, on an assignment to “pacify” the region, were themselves attacked by a group of “perhaps 200 warriors”. The history of what was happening around the Murray was far more complex than this simplistic pursuit of Aboriginal bodies.

Excluded from the gaze of the Massacre Map are the two murdered shepherds. The plagiarists don’t bother citing the description of William Britton’s body given by Cannon: “naked with spear wounds, opened, and his entrails taken out and beaten about his face and head apparently with a tomahawk, and his ears cut off”. Or that poor Tom Henning (or Heaney as he was named in a newspaper letter) was likewise found in a similar condition. And even though these two shepherds were killed, only one of them is counted on the Map details—under “Attackers Killed”.

Five: Misusing Trove, Waterloo Plains. The Massacre Map relies heavily on newspaper reports found on Trove—often with misleading results. Usually historians seek the most contemporary evidence for an event before memories play their games or accounts get exaggerated and further distorted. Lyndall Ryan has put forward a quite different, and easier, methodology:

What I’ve learned through massacre, it’s usually the later evidence that gives you a better idea of what happened … So the most reliable evidence [of] a massacre is often provided by the witnesses, perpetrators long after the event when they’re no longer threatened by arrest or reprisal.

When that misleading theory is acted on, as in this example, the academics completely distort the events being discussed.

Waterloo Plains is the other side of the non-existent Campaspe (2) massacre described in my October Quadrant essay on the Massacre Maps. Station overseer John Coppock gave sworn evidence of a violent conflict with Aborigines. The fighting he described occurred when he attempted to recapture stolen sheep, and it involved eight stockmen and about fifty Aborigines of whom, he said, seven or eight died. When the Massacre team found a very different newspaper account on Trove, written by Coppock’s nephew in 1885, forty-seven years later, the story became very different. The violence, said the nephew, was provoked by the murder of two dead station workers, the number of stockmen involved rose to nineteen, and they were out for vengeance, not sheep. In this later version Coppock handles his men like a military commander and the death toll rises to twenty-three. Surely fantasy has entered the story, but this is the account preferred by the Massacre Map.

The historians have also taken from this newspaper story a quite new element which can be checked against contemporary accounts:

Coppock was called to Sydney to confirm his report but the ship on which he was believed to be a passenger, disappeared and Coppock was reported missing. Ten years later he reappeared at Lake Albacutya, Wimmera District, and gave details of the massacre to his nephew who published the account in the Mount Alexander Mail, 20 years after Coppock’s death.

Coppock’s nephew named the vanished ship as the Sarah and in 1838 a vessel of that name did disappear. However, it was travelling from Sydney to Port Phillip and had sailed and disappeared before Coppock gave his evidence in Melbourne.

Was the event itself a fight or a massacre? When Sir George Gipps reported the violence to Lord Glenelg in London he said, “On this occasion the blacks are said to have defended themselves with great bravery.”

Six: Changing the evidence, Chimney Pots. This complicated story is based on an uncomplicated error. Peter Gardner, a local historian in Gippsland, has taken an unreliable newspaper article, probably based on a well-known confrontation at Fighting Hills, and has transferred it in time and place to create a brand new massacre at the Chimney Pots, in the Grampians. The historians of the Massacre Map have further violated any trust we might have in them by cutting an essential part of the newspaper text to support his fantasy.

Gardner’s unpublished speculation is introduced by the Newcastle academics as “a major investigation”. Elsewhere on the Massacre Map the killing of Aborigines in Gippsland by other Aborigines has been changed, in response to an absurd re-reading of the evidence by Gardner, into a massacre of Aborigines by Europeans. The Chimney Pots massacre is an equally doubtful re-reading of a newspaper article he found in an 1860 edition of the Gippsland Guardian. This, in my transcription of the opening section, is how the text is presented there:

SHOOTING BLACKFELLOWS:- In the seventh chapter of a tale of colonial life in early times, published in the Ararat Advertiser, a foot note asserts that the following horrifying scene is a fact:- “Why,” said one of them, the eldest of the two, “I can remember when they used to shoot down the blacks in this colony as you would do kangaroos, all because they sometimes killed a few sheep. I remember, down in the Portland District, when the four Parkes and three other men, I was one of them, shot sixty-nine in one afternoon.”

It is probably correctly assumed that the four Parkes are actually the Whyte brothers, who were involved in two violent and fairly well documented events at Fighting Hills and Fighting Waterholes in March and April 1840. In Scars in the Landscape Ian Clark took this newspaper story to be an account of the Fighting Hills event. Gardner disagrees and, while accepting it is talking of the Whytes, pushes it back a year to 1839 and moves the setting to the Grampians. He treats it as a primary source written by a “Participant”, which it clearly is not. An unknown author is simply adopting a first-person persona, presumably one of two brothers, to tell his story—which may be more or less based on a specific, factual event.

The newspaper introduction explicitly states that this comes from a larger work and before speculating on its authorship, as the historians have done, it would be necessary to look at the original publication in the Ararat Advertiser and explore the other published chapters in the “tale of colonial life”. Although this text has been used by historians for over thirty-five years it does not seem this basic task has been carried out—and it is not available on Trove.

When bringing this evidence into the Massacre Map the academics have misleadingly edited the document. Cutting away the introduction and the opening sentence, they give the false impression that this is an account of a personal experience, so that their text commences like this (the square brackets are their insertions): “I remember down in the Port[land] District, when the four Parkes [Whytes] and three other men, I was one of them, shot sixty-nine one afternoon.” That is clear and unjustifiable manipulation of an historical source.

Within the story is at least one element which can be checked against existing primary sources. This is how a central event in the narrative is presented by the Massacre Map:

We were expecting to cook the lot of them, when Mr George [Whyte] … fired a shot too high and sent a bullet through one of his brothers face … we all knocked off firing and ran to him. In an instant the blacks were off, and we were too much engaged over Tom Park [Whyte] to think of following them … We counted sixty-nine victims, including some half dozen or so that were not quite dead, but these we put out of their misery with the butt-end.

Restoring the cuts, originally made by Gardner and copied by Clark and the Massacre Map, the text reads like this, and you could wonder why he excised these words and why they were not restored on the Massacre Map:

We were expecting to cook the lot of them, when Mr George, who had been pulling away at a brandy flask all the time, fired a shot too high and sent a bullet through one of his brother’s face; it caught him on the cheek bone and dragged out one eye, he gave a shriek and of course we all knocked off firing and ran to him. In an instant the blacks were off, and we were too much engaged over Tom Parke to think of following them. We thought it was a case with him, but he got over it. We counted sixty-nine victims, including some half dozen or so that were not quite dead, but these we put out of their misery with the butt-end.

Dealing with this information Gardner is particularly confusing. Although the newspaper story states that George fired his rifle and his brother Tom was wounded, Gardner turns this about and states that George Whyte “appears to have lost the sight in one eye soon afterwards”. He also reports that months later at the Fighting Hills attack “one of the brothers receiving a light facial wound or graze from a richochet [sic]”. In Gardner’s account two of the Whyte brothers were wounded in the face, in identical accidents, in two separate confrontations with Aborigines within the space of a year: George Whyte in the invented Chimney Pots massacre and a brother he does not name at Fighting Hills.

The identity of the brother wounded at Fighting Hills is well known. It was George Whyte and it was definitely not “a light facial wound or graze”. Crown Prosecutor, James Croke, in his report on the events of 1840, named him as the victim and said he had been “badly wounded”. Accept Gardner’s narrative trail and George Whyte was twice wounded in the face in both the fake and the real incident.

Treating the tale with some scepticism, it is probably fiction based on an account from an unknown source of what happened at Fighting Hills. It is not witness evidence and the author of this “tale of colonial life” has confused the brothers’ names and does not mention another man who was wounded that day. It is interesting but certainly not the basis for placing a hitherto unknown massacre in the Grampians unless of course any shoddy secondary sources are acceptable if they can inflate the body count of dead Aborigines.

Seven: The unconvincing massacre, Convincing Ground. I originally became aware of Scars in the Landscape when I found a copy in a library display of new books. I borrowed it and immediately disagreed with Clark’s reading of a supposed slaughter at Convincing Ground near Portland. I thought then, as I do now, that this massacre story is a textbook case of how not to read historical sources.

The basic source, the only source for this event at Portland, tells of fighting between Aborigines and whalers, at the end of which “the natives did not go away but got behind trees and threw spears and stones”. If deaths did occur, there is absolutely no evidence for how many people died, yet the invented death toll climbs and climbs—the Massacre Map modestly suggests twenty and The Killing Times, after suggesting “anywhere from 60 to 200”, gives a meaningless mortuary calculation: “Aboriginal dead men: 110 (min estimate: 20, max estimate: 200)”. In its background description of the event the Massacre Map narrative is strangely reticent: “Attack by whalers on Kilcarer gundidj (Dhauwurd wurrung speakers?) for taking a whale.” They have relied on three secondary texts: Clark’s Scars in the Landscape, an essay by Ross Anderson, “The Convincing Ground: A Case Study in Frontier and Modern Conflict” (2006), and another essay by Clark, “The Convincing Aboriginal Massacre at Portland Bay, Victoria: Fact or Fiction?” (2011). Anderson’s text is not listed in the bibliography and though I feature (unfavourably) in both the Clark and Anderson essays my own writings on the event are not noted by the Massacre academics.

Clark’s essay wasn’t entirely about historiography though it had grand aims and familiar confusions:

By identifying his [he’s talking about me] key tactics and showing how he has deliberately set out to manipulate and misread the evidence, the paper deconstructs Connor’s approach as a massacre denier.

He also called me an “eisgete”. I’ve been very good for Clark’s career and in 2012 this particular piece of payback won him the Faculty Research Award for Best Paper. The prize came from the University of Ballarat, now Federation University, which had never investigated the examples of plagiarism and errors I had indicated in their staff member’s book. It is typical of the Massacre Map that while this anti-me essay is given as a source document they have not listed or consulted the primary sources they should have used.

Part of the modern controversy is whether the Convincing Ground near Portland was named because of the conflict. I make a simple argument that the fighting occurred after the location was named which I base on Robinson’s own dating when, in 1841, he wrote that it happened “some time ago, I suppose two or three years” and which he then repeated in his later report as “a few years previous”: therefore well after the Convincing Ground had been named. Massacre name enthusiasts place their faith in another note he wrote which placed the conflict some eight or nine years earlier but which he ignored when he wrote his full report. There is no evidence that the fight took place at the Convincing Ground, surely a cleared space, not a wooded one from where sheltering Aborigines could launch stones and spears. Unfortunately the joining of the place name and “massacre” has become an essential mantra in the modern telling of the event.

For making and defending these evidence-based arguments Professor Ian Clark set upon me in a further academic essay in 2014 in which he discussed the “onomastic history” of the Convincing Ground. Finding me both “superficial” and “superficial and inadequate” he also cursed me for having “failed to consider the possibility that the phrase ‘convincing ground’ is polysemous … he also failed to discuss the real possibility that the Convincing Ground may be an onomastic palimpsest”. Having actually dined with a witch doctor in the New Guinea highlands I didn’t find the academic incantations anywhere near as impressive and, naturally, I did Google to see if they were plagiarised.

Of the seven “massacres” discussed here, perhaps two are solid, but uncertain in detail. Massacres at Lake Bolac and Mount Eccles are entirely without supporting evidence; Murdering Flat is a murder site, not a place where a massacre occurred; Loddon Junction and Waterloo Plains both saw violence, but were they sites of fighting or massacre?; Chimney Pots is a fabrication based on the misuse of historical evidence; Convincing Ground is, I think, not a massacre site though a fight of unknown seriousness did take place between Aborigines and whalers near Portland and an attitude of respect towards what really happened should deter the invention of a death toll.

Though arguments questioning massacre narratives are vehemently opposed or cancelled by massacre academics it is obvious that much has been invented by abusing academic standards and accepting shoddy and unverified material. But, after all, if I am correct I have just saved the historical lives of a number of Aborigines. How many? Using exactly the same evidence, the Massacre Map suggests 170 and The Killing Times 275.5.

Michael Connor’s previous article on the Massacre Maps appeared in Quadrant‘s October issue.


3 thoughts on “How the Massacre Maps are Killing Aborigines

  • whitelaughter says:

    this is going to keep happening until the slanderers are sued for defamation. A class action on behalf of Old Australians with a decent lawyer would end these libels for good.

  • Lo says:

    So this is academia today. Helping to rewrite history. Whatever happened to truth?

  • Tricone says:

    I don’t see that anyone can be called to account for inventing or inflating Aboriginal massacres. They can only be ratcheted upwards. There is no downside for the inventors and inflaters, so why not just crank the numbers up? There is no Aboriginal memorial organisation with the rigor of Yad Vashem, scrupulously investigating claims and ruthlessly dismissing the fabrications. (and they are dealing with living memory)

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