The Loddon Massacre That Never Happened

In Quadrant in October 2020, Michael Connor was highly critical of the credentials of the Massacre Map[1]. He examined ten massacres and found that credible evidence for them is wanting: one of these is the so-called Loddon Junction massacre.

According to Aboriginal evidence, this massacre did not happen. There was no local Aboriginal memory of it, and that is unusual in the case of a massacre. Two Melbourne newspapers received reports three weeks after it happened[2]. It is not mentioned in Alexander M. Campbell’s account of the early days of his run, Gannewarra, in the takeover of this part of the Murray country[3]; it was treated in a ho-hum fashion by the Chief Protector, George Augustus Robinson. It was investigated by Assistant Protector Edward Stone Parker, who interviewed the Aborigines alleged to have been massacred, and they insisted that “none” (which Parker underlined) of the Aborigines had been killed. They acknowledged that there had been spears thrown and shots fired, but no casualties.

This essay appears in April’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe and avoid the paywall

There definitely was a collision on February 1, 1846, between Murray Aborigines and William Augustus Pulteney Dana’s 2nd Division of the Native Police Corps.

The story starts in the first half of 1844, when squatters first took over the land along the Lower Murray, plus the tracts of useable land south and north of the river which had water for stock—Lake Boga, Lake Bael Bael, Reedy Lake, Pine Hill and Loddon, Gannewarra and Gunbower: they bypassed the country around the Avoca River because it was dry for seven miles.

Swan Hill is a good reference point with which to envisage the location of the squatters and the string of properties involved in the collision: they were all on the south side of the Murray. South of Swan Hill was the country claimed by G.C. Curlewis and Robert Campbell, a vast area of 370,000 acres held under multiple names then, and subsequent to the new leasing rules of 1847, multiple licences— Murrabit, Reedy Lakes and Bael Bael, Quambatook, Swan Hill, Lake Boga.

Adjacent on the Murray upriver was Pine Hill and Loddon run, taken up by James Cowper; contiguous with Cowper upriver was Gannewarra of 103,680 acres licensed to Alexander Campbell, and in turn his neighbour upriver was Gunbower, 103,000 acres licensed to James Rowan. Lake Boga was on the extreme left of the string, downriver from Bael Bael. The collision occurred between Cowper’s run, Pine Hill and Loddon, and Rowan’s run, Gunbower.

There were two languages spoken along this stretch of the Murray. Baraba Baraba was spoken from Koondrook to Lake Boga, and Wemba Wemba from Lake Boga to Swan Hill. These languages were “practically identical”[4].

The Wimmera district had not yet been proclaimed a separate district (the proclamation came later in November 1846), and the whole of this country was still under the remit of the Commissioner for Crown Lands Western Port, Frederick Armand Powlett. Powlett had as his escort five members seconded from the Native Police, including Moonie Moonie and Mumbo[5].

In February 1846, Powlett informed La Trobe that Cowper’s station was at the junction of the Loddon and Murray rivers, but that Cowper himself lived 100 miles away at his other station on the Goulburn River (Challicum)[6]. When Cowper’s men first went there, Powlett (right) continued, they encouraged the natives for women, and they actually fed the natives during the early months of winter 1845, but the reciprocity apparently ceased, and they shot a native named Bimbite as he was attempting to steal a sheep: two shepherds, William Britton and Thomas Combie Henning, were killed in revenge. There was poor superintendence by Cowper and he would lose his licence if he didn’t do better, wrote Powlett[7].

Curlewis wrote to La Trobe on December 1, 1845, that since the killing of the blacks by Mr Cowper’s shepherds, the blacks had killed cattle belonging to Cowper, Campbell, MacCallum, McMillan and himself. Powlett left two of his Border Police at Bael Bael, but they confessed themselves inadequate to the task of compelling the blacks to discontinue their depredations because they couldn’t track the perpetrators: he requested La Trobe to send the Native Police, who could follow the blacks through the morasses[8].

Just in passing, Curlewis received a very terse response from La Trobe. How many stations do you hold? When were they formed? By what authority? Did you obtain a licence first? “I have informed His Excellency [Governor Sir George Gipps] and he informed me that no station ought to have been formed in a country in which atrocities such as those described by you are perpetrated.”[9] So much for complaining.

There is an apparent disparity between Powlett’s report of no trouble in the district since June, and Curlewis’s complaint, but the disparity is easily reconciled. Richard Broome speaks of “the prevailing worship of private property”[10]. The squatters’ main concern was their capital investment on four legs. Whereas Powlett, under the terms of the Crown Lands Occupation Act, was concerned with conflict between Aborigines and Europeans, preventing it if possible, but if it occurred, then inquiring, and bringing to trial the perpetrators, black or white. Both summary statements were true.

In this reason given for requesting the Native Police, Curlewis showed that he was aware of the success of the Native Police in the Western District in the winter of 1843. The lesson they taught the blacks was not that they would be slaughtered en masse, but that the Native Police could, and would, track and capture the perpetrators of sheep theft, and send them to Melbourne for trial. If the perpetrators, when eventually tracked to their safe hiding place, chose to offer resistance, the Native Police under Standing Orders were permitted to fight back—and they were permitted at all times to return fire if attacked. But their basic task was to patrol and prevent merely by their presence in the district. It worked. The winter of 1843 was the worst year for Aboriginal casualties: on six separate occasions in the Western District where they tracked perpetrators of murder or sheep theft all the way to their safe hides, the Native Police met determined resistance, and a total of seventeen Aborigines were killed in these six actions, mostly in close combat—hand-to-hand struggles with swords and muskets used as clubs. From 1844 on, there was no trouble in the inner Portland Bay districts that the Native Police patrolled, though trouble continued on the outskirts of the district in the Mallee country and the Lower Murray (the far north-west Tattiera country, not the Lower Murray around Swan Hill). This was the policing that Curlewis wanted for his district—patrolling to prevent, but in the event of theft or killing of animals, dogged pursuit till capture, accepting of the fact that there could be casualties.

William Dana’s 2nd Division of the Native Police Corps, comprising eleven Aboriginal troopers, but most unusually no white NCOs, set off from HQ at Nerre Nerre Warren on January 16, 1846. They were attacked on February 1. Dana said that he did not know what caused the attack, as they had only just arrived in the district. In this he is credible, as it is 210 miles to Swan Hill, and for fully laden troop horses to travel that distance in fifteen days was good going considering there were no roads. A cavalry unit travelling this distance would walk the horses for part of the day, but the limiting factors were water for the horses, and a stopping place at day’s end where there is at least some grazing for the horses overnight. Standing orders stipulated that at the end of each day’s journey, the men had to clean their saddles and bridles, place their arms and ammunition in a safe place, and erect a temporary shed to encamp in overnight, and only after all that would rations be issued. Then, during the night, some troopers were detailed to get up and move all the horses on the tether, in order that they got some grazing during the night, and the number and times of re-tethering had to be recorded. It all took time at the end of the day’s travel.

Dana might not have known the cause of the attack, but memories might provide a clue. The place where it happened is in the vicinity of the region of reeds of Major Mitchell’s expedition, where the local owners expressed their anger with Mitchell’s guide Piper (a Wiradjuri man) for bring the whitefellows onto their country. They speared Piper but missed, and he fired back wounding a man; the tribe fled and Piper shot the wounded man dead[11]. They would not have forgotten. Nor would they have forgotten the breakdown of reciprocal arrangements with shepherds about women, because they killed the shepherds who breached the arrangement, as Powlett recorded[12].

But the simple fact is that we will never know the cause. It could have been just an instinctive response. Assistant Protector William Thomas (right) recorded that it was well known that an Aboriginal group when taken by surprise would throw spears first and ask questions later. Mitchell made a similar observation:

The acquatic [sic] tribes as I have elsewhere observed, invariably take to the water in times of alarm, and from the reeds of their little island, these people could easily throw their spears at any assailant without themselves being exposed or even seen[13].

Subsequent behaviour actually suggests no hard feelings. Weeks after the collision, when the Native Police were still stationed in the district, some on Gunbower station, fifty to sixty Murray men visited the Native Police with a gift of spears, while other Murray men went to the river to tell the rest of the tribe[14]. Two days later, Robinson recorded that the Native Police reciprocated the Murray natives’ gift with their own gift of spears[15]. They had reconciled in accordance with traditional custom.

Dana wrote his initial report to his CO two days after the event, brief and to the point, no detail, but complying with Standing Orders which stipulated that any collision with the natives must be reported immediately. He wrote that he was patrolling in the reed beds on the south side of the Murray between the stations of Mr Cowper and Mr Rowan, that is between Pine Hill and Gunbower runs. He was attacked by upwards of 150 Murray blacks: “Several of the natives being shot, the rest dispersed in the reeds.”[16] Dana added that they had only fought in defence of their lives and property, and only after two horses were speared. That is all he said in his first account. He retreated with his injured horses and trooper to Bael Bael homestead on the southern shore of Lake Bael Bael. This station functioned as an administrative hub in the district—it was large and prosperous, owned by George Curlewis JP and Robert Campbell, “respectable” as the language of the day described them. Albert Alexander Le Souef was overseer: he finished his distinguished subsequent career as Director of the Zoological Gardens[17].

There is no record of despatch riders bringing down William Dana’s report from Bael Bael to HQ at Nerre Nerre Warren, and the presumption is that it was brought down by the Commissioner for Crown Lands Westernport, Frederick Armand Powlett, on  March 2. The Commandant could not have regarded it as an urgent matter, for he took a fortnight before sending a copy to La Trobe, and when he did, he sent it from Powlett’s office. La Trobe received it on March 16 and, following his usual procedure in response to reports of a collision, he told the Crown Prosecutor and Governor Gipps in Sydney, and sent a copy to the Chief Protector, minuted that he was to make inquiries forthwith.

It was not until Troopers Poligerry and Cobra Boll arrived down from the Murray with more despatches from Dana on March 25 that the Commandant paid serious attention to the collision[18]. He left for the Murray a week later[19] with a party of four— his orderly O’Brien, Corporal Yupton and Troopers Poligerry and Tolboy—and they remained at the Murray for a month.

The Chief Protector, the Assistant Protector Edward Stone Parker, and the Commandant Henry Dana all converged on Lake Bael Bael. Initially, William Dana refused to recognise the authority of the Protectorate and would not speak of the collision to Robinson and Parker, but he did in the end, though there is no record of his conversation with Parker, only Robinson’s account. He made a sworn statement before his brother, a JP, on April 16, giving more details about the collision.


William Dana’s sworn second statement

Dana swore to the following record of events:

# The collision occurred about one o’clock in the afternoon of February 1

# he was passing through a bed of reeds with his fourteen men (upped from the eleven he set off with)

# he was met by a large body of natives 200 strong (upped from the 150 of his first account)

# he attempted to proceed without coming into contact

# but they, on perceiving the troopers apparently going away from them, threw spears, wounding two horses and one trooper

# he ordered his men to fire

# the natives continued to press on him

# he and the troopers fell back, being at that time in high reeds and swampy ground

# the natives thought that the Native Police were afraid of them and pursued them with dreadful yells and menaces, wounding another man

# upon reaching high ground half a mile away, he ordered the troops to wheel and charge

# not till 100 rounds of ball cartridge had been fired at them did they “retire and leave us masters of the ground”.

Dana concluded his account with statements that read like a justification. His party was in great danger; they had the greatest difficulty in avoiding the spears and other missiles; he didn’t know what caused them to attack as he had never irritated them and had not been long in the district. He praised his men, who had behaved with the greatest coolness and “intrepidy” considering the number of attackers. He saw “several dead bodies and estimated that there must have been a great many wounded”. He ended his statement with a final explanation—that he could not retreat from them owing to the nature of the ground, and if he had attempted to do so, the whole party would have been destroyed[20].


The forensics of the collision

Both William Dana’s immediate report and his sworn statement are frustratingly brief and seemingly omit details of what must have been a sustained engagement. The fact that his sworn statement was before the Commandant suggests that the ammunition expended, 100 balls, was likely to be true. And while some ten weeks had passed since the collision, the wounds suffered by the two horses and the trooper would have been evident: in fact neither of the horses could travel all the way back to HQ in May—one was left up country on Simson’s station and the other made it as far as Mount Macedon and was left there with the border police.

Dana did not specifically state that it was an all-male party but it is implied by his language—“attacked … by upwards of 150 of the Murray blacks”. This raises two questions. How likely is it that a group of 150 to 200 Aboriginal males, let us call them warriors, would be travelling as a group? And what were they doing?

Archibald Campbell’s Gannewarra station on the Murray near Koondrook took in most of the clan estates of the Baraba Baraba people. Examination of the Pastoral Run Plans for all the stations involved, which show boundaries for some, [21] indicate that the event took place between Benjeroop and Koondrook, on the south side of the Murray.

Campbell mentions thirty-five Gunbower blacks and thirty-two Mially Water (his own) blacks in his account in Letters from Victorian Pioneers, and on another occasion of being surrounded by “about 30 natives, naked and armed with spears”[22], whom he believed were involved in the revenge killing of Cowper’s two shepherds. Later, in October 1848, Parker met with 100 to 120 Mallee and Loddon natives at two locations, Campbell’s station and Bear’s station at Boort[23]. These relatively low numbers may suggest that Dana’s 150 to 200 warriors was overstated, especially given the stressful circumstances and the reduced visibility in the tall reeds.

It is generally accepted however, that the Murray-Darling Basin once supported Australia’s densest population[24], and Major Mitchell and Robinson both record from this period evidence from meetings, and estimates from fireplaces seen, of 300, 400 and 500 persons gathered together (the rule of thumb that they used was four persons per fireplace). Archaeological evidence from Pollack Swamp, or Pullitj in the Baraba Baraba language, revealed 153 oven mounds or occupation sites, indicating a population of 250 to 500 people in residence for up to five months of the year[25].

So 150 to 200 warriors is at least possible, though such a large number would represent several clans, if not tribes or language groups. Why though were 150 to 200 warriors gathered together? The simple, time-honoured explanation for something about which archaeologists have no information is ritual or ceremonial purposes. That may be the case here, but there is no evidence. The numbers 150 to 200 are too great for economic activity to be a causal factor. It is possible that the Native Police accidentally intercepted a party of warriors en route to conflict with neighbours, and the standard response for Aboriginal groups to throw spears first when alarmed has already been mentioned.

Peter Beveridge describes five types of spears in use on the Murray; a large, heavily barbed, jagged spear that was more decorative than functional, a similar jagged spear with a more functional barbed head that was used for hunting large game, a reed spear with a wooden head and reed shaft that was most often used, a light wooden spear with a grass-tree flower-stalk acting as a flight, and a short fishing spear. The two barbed spears were cast as javelins and were thrown accurately at distances of up to twenty-five metres. The reed spear and light wooden spears were used with a woomera or spear thrower and were accurate at up to fifty metres. The fishing spear was not thrown but was thrust as a lance.[26]

The following year John Kelly, a witness at the trial of Ptolemy, Bulleteye and Bobby for the murder of Andrew Beveridge, testified that he saw “Bobby with a jagged spear and Ptolemy with a reed one … Ptolemy had his spear shipped” (mounted on his woomera).[27] Both types of spear were effective against large game or human targets.

Had Dana noted the types of spears carried by the warriors, we might have a better understanding of their intentions. However, it is reasonable to assume that they had a combination of barbed spears, with an effective range similar to that of the pistols carried by Dana and the troop corporal, and lighter reed or wooden spears, with an effective range slightly less than that of the smooth-bore carbines carried by the troopers.

William Strutt’s illustrations of the Native Police[28] show the troopers armed with a curved cavalry sword or sabre and a carbine. Officers were armed with a pistol and non-commissioned officers, including Aboriginal corporals, had a pistol in addition to their carbines. The carbines illustrated by Strutt appear to be percussion cap weapons and the troopers’ equipment includes cartouches or cartridge boxes and percussion cap pouches attached to belts. Cartridge boxes held around twenty-four cartridges and percussion cap pouches could hold twelve to twenty-four caps.

The issue of stores in January 1846[29] indicates that both flintlock and percussion cap carbines and pistols were in use at the time of Dana’s “collision”. Percussion cap firearms were simpler to use than flintlocks but, in 1846 all firearms used by the Native Police were single-shot muzzle loaders. To fire a flintlock firearm, one has to bite open the cartridge, pour some of the gunpowder onto the pan, close the frizzen, pour the rest of the gunpowder down the barrel, then ram the ball home, cock the hammer and pull the trigger. The flint has to be checked and the edge cleaned after five shots. Percussion cap firearms require the percussion cap to be fitted to the nipple in place of pouring gunpowder onto the pan and closing the frizzen; a slightly less cumbersome process. A cartridge has to be taken from the cartouche or cartridge box. The percussion cap has to be removed from a small pouch and, for flintlocks, the flint edge has to be checked and cleaned after five shots. Loading both flintlock and percussion cap firearms requires dexterity with the ramrod, precision, plus the ability to remain calm under fire, and a stable platform as well.

The Native Police were greatly outnumbered, and the firepower of 150 to 200 warriors with spears and throwing clubs was significantly more lethal than that of fourteen troopers and their officer armed with muzzle-loaded carbines and pistols, at short range. The troopers were armed with muzzle-loading carbines and pistols and it is impractical, if not impossible, to reload such weapons when mounted on a horse: the carbines were four feet long. The troopers must therefore have dismounted to reload, and with some police having to hold the horses, and one trooper injured, perhaps ten troopers and Dana with his less effective pistol, did the damage. The standard rate of fire for nineteenth-century line infantry armed with muzzle-loading muskets was three rounds per minute, and the Native Police were well trained, though they would not have been trained for this specific type of rapid-fire engagement because it went against the whole aim and purpose of their work. It is reasonable to assume that those not holding the horses could have fired off eighty rounds in five minutes.

The problem is that they were fighting in an extensive reed bed, and once dismounted, would have been unable to see the warriors and fire aimed shots. In that situation it is likely that they would have fired in the general direction of the warriors, to discourage spear throwing and encourage their withdrawal. The warriors would have been in a similar predicament, unable to see the dismounted troopers, and, with a finite supply of spears and throwing clubs, getting out of harm’s way would have been their best option.

Dana did not stay around to make a count of dead and wounded. Subsequently he gave three versions. To the Chief Protector he stated that “could not count” how many; “some” and “several” appeared in his two written statements.


The Chief Protector’s view

In response to La Trobe’s instruction to pay “serious attention”[30] to the circumstance, Chief Protector Robinson and Assistant Protector Parker conducted a series of interviews with William Dana. Robinson recorded his views in four places—twice in his journal, as well as in his annual report, and in his journal of his expedition of 1000 miles to the north-west of Port Phillip. His records demonstrate that his inquiry was anything but superficial, and they raise the doubt that he didn’t think the event itself was serious.

His journal entry for the date of his first interview with William Dana is simply astonishing—in a two-line journal entry, he quotes Dana as cracking a joke about it being better that he and Robinson could have a drink together rather than talking about the collision: “Spoke Dana about affray, said he had finished his education in lawyer’s office. Said him and I would do better to have a venobler.”

That is all he wrote: his next sentence is about the weather. A nobler is mid-nineteenth-century slang for a drink[31], and noblerism is drunkenness. Ian Clark’s transcription has “venobler?”. We contacted him about the uncertainty, and the original text might have been vinobler, wine, or it might have been vin noble, noble red. Either way it is a drink[32].

Next day Robinson and Parker spoke again with William Dana who said:

It happened on the Marrabut or Gunbowero, no white person but himself, could not count natives killed or shot. There was a cause for the affray. Natives attack them first. He had been ordered to patrol the banks of the river[33].

It is a curious record. There was no love lost between the Native Police and the Protectorate (because in the view of the Protectorate, Dana was not civilising or Christianising the Native Police, and worse, everybody in the Native Police Corps drank—troopers as well as officers), and one would expect the Chief Protector to be critical if he suspected that the Native Police had massacred a tribe. But possibly the most significant fact Robinson recorded was that William Dana “could not count” the natives killed or shot. This might be the literal truth. In reeds seven to eight feet tall, how could he?

In his third mention of the event in his expedition report[34], Robinson wrote:

he (Dana) and his party were attacked by natives whilst patrolling the reeds,

They fired and some of the Aborigines being shot the rest dispersed among the reeds. In justice to the natives however it should be observed that they are legally disqualified from giving evidence, and any enquiry in the absence of native testimony is considered exparte [sic]. There was cause for the affray. He had been ordered to patrol the banks of the river. Dana left and I left Parker.

In this account too, Robinson is hardly paying serious attention: he is merely repeating William Dana’s statement.

He does make some interesting comments though of a general nature that are contextual to this collision. It was April 1846, and he records a great number of natives located at Campbell’s and Beveridge’s (illegal unlicensed squatter at Tyntynder, twenty miles downriver from Swan Hill), and in particular, on Campbell’s station, the Aborigines were “regularly and usefully employed in shepherding, stock-keeping, bullock driving and domestic labour”. What is interesting is that all of these workers on Gannewarra, male and female, must have had at least some skills in English in order to work successfully. These are the people to whom Parker spoke (see below).

His fourth account[35], his official report to La Trobe, is so meagre that it can be quoted in full:

I beg to report that in compliance with Your Honour’s minute of March 19 on the subject of a collision between the native mounted police under Mr W A P Dana and the Murray blacks that having made enquiry I found that the only white present was Mr Dana and although unusual in such cases had no alternative but to interrogate that officer on the subject. Mr Dana states that in pursuance with orders he was patrolling with his party the banks of the Murray when he was attacked by natives, he defended himself and several natives being shot the rest dispersed among the reeds, no further information was obtained at that time. I have the honour to be Sir your most obedient Servant. PS. I beg to add that further enquiry was to have been made by Mr Assistant Protector Parker and reported upon accordingly.

This is a pathetic report, a report for form’s sake, certainly not serious in itself, and certainly not the end result of a serious inquiry. It is almost as if Robinson judged for himself and decided “nothing to see here”, to use a modern idiom.


Edward Stone Parker’s view

The assistant protector’s report states that having interviewed William Dana, he proceeded to the pastoral run Lake Boga, true native name Goorm, leaving the Chief Protector on April 23. This run was on the extreme left of the string of stations recently taken up on the Murray. He went on:

I proceeded up the river, visiting every station in my way. I placed myself in communication with several tribes of natives at and near Mr Campbell’s station [Gannewarra] and they all concurred in stating that none [Parker’s underlining] had been either killed or wounded on the occasion referred to. They admitted that spears had been thrown, and shots fired, but no injury ensued. I have therefore come to no other conclusion than that Mr Dana’s report was founded on mistake or exaggeration.

Parker (left) continued:

With reference to the alleged depredations I have to state as the result of my enquiries, that since the murder of Mr Cooper’s shepherd in June last year, and the destruction of some of Mr Curlewis’ cattle in the latter part of the winter, no outrage of any kind has occurred at any of the stations. I have the honour to be your Honour’s most obedient humble servant[36].

Parker’s report was minimal, giving no details. Had he bothered with detail, he might have written a report along the lines which Assistant Protector William Thomas had written a year before about a collision on the Murray eighty miles away to the east at the Moira, near Echuca. A rumour reached La Trobe that CCL Smythe and his border police went down one side of the Murray, and Captain Dana and his Native Police went up the other, “shooting blacks”. The rumour was partly true. Smythe and Dana were attempting to capture a known perpetrator, and they split their force to surround the group, one half crossing the river to get behind the group, the other half remaining in front of the group. For this collision, it was Assistant Protector William Thomas who was sent up to make the inquiry. He interviewed two men, Narrickbubbel of the Murray tribe, and Gunnabarranay of the Pangerang tribe. Both were present at the collision, both had been wounded, both had relatives wounded: they said that two men and two children were killed. The Aboriginal evidence was accepted by all as accurate[37].

But Parker did not provide that amount of detail in his report of his own inquiry. He was certain of his information—the underlining proves that—but he provided only a summary of what he learned.


The Commandant’s report on the Murray district

On his return to HQ at the beginning of May, Dana wrote a report[38] on the district which did not mention the actual collision or his brother. He made the following points:

# on arrival (mid-April) he found the Aborigines perfectly quiet and they had been so for two months

# the various reports of depredations forwarded to Melbourne were much exaggerated and in many instances unfounded

# it is true that there are large numbers of Aborigines on the Murray between the Goulburn and the Darling, a distance of more than 200 miles

# thousands of acres of reeds almost impenetrable to Europeans

# afford ample food and shelter to the Natives

# reed beds are skirted by immense plains now occupied by settlers both sides of river

# there are some unlicensed occupiers especially down opposite Murrumbidgee junction

# loss of stock by the Natives in this newly occupied part is comparatively trifling

# at the station of Mr Curlewis where the Native Police have been stationed during the period they were in the district, about seven head of cattle were killed out of 3000, and of 30,000 sheep, no loss has been sustained whatever

# Mr Curlewis Superintendent informed me that previous to the Police being there, about twenty head had been killed

# at the other stations, with the exception of Mr Cowper, the blacks were upon friendly terms

# from all I can learn the occasion of Mr Cowper’s two men being killed was a quarrel between them and the Natives about women and some dogs that were shot[39].

Dana’s report accuses Curlewis of exaggeration, and seems to single out Cowper as the bad egg in the district, confirming Powlett’s report, mentioned above, of lack of superintendence over his station because he lived 100 miles away, and confirming Parker’s report mentioned above, that since the killing of Mr Cowper’s shepherds the district had been quiet.


Commandant’s view on his brother’s account

Henry Dana did not express a written view on the actual collision, but that is neither surprising nor sinister. He was required to make weekly reports on the station to La Trobe, and every Monday morning that he was at HQ at Nerre Nerre Warren, he rode to Melbourne for a personal interview. If he was absent on duty, the next senior officer rode to Melbourne to report, and if all officers were out on duty, the senior NCO made the report. La Trobe knew the Corps intimately, and it is highly likely that he would have questioned Dana, but we simply do not have any evidence.

But when La Trobe (right) sent the Commandant a copy of Parker’s report suggesting “either a mistake or an exaggeration”[40], either William or Henry, or both, were stung. Henry wrote in reply that William Dana was “prepared to verify on oath before a bench of magistrates if required, that the statement he made before me on 16th April was true”[41].

It scarcely needs to be pointed out that a statement sworn on oath before a bench of magistrates carries no more weight in logic or in law than the same statement sworn on oath before a single magistrate (Henry Dana was a magistrate). The Commandant’s reply reads like bluster, and it is keeping with La Trobe’s comments on Dana’s temperament and foibles in the obituary which La Trobe sent to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies after Henry died in November 1852[42].



Parker believed the evidence of the local tribes that he interviewed. His emphasis in underlining that “none had been either killed or wounded” indicates his degree of certainty. La Trobe, however, didn’t know whom to believe and gave his reason:

I am not aware what means Mr Parker possessed of communicating with the tribes to whose language he must have been to then, an utter stranger, and I am quite at a loss to know whom to believe[43].

La Trobe didn’t know Parker’s language skills; he speculated. But La Trobe was wrong in this speculation. Parker was no stranger to Baraba and Wemba language. Baraba country adjoined Djadjawurrung country, Djadja being the language of the Loddon valley people at his Loddon station. The Djadjawurrung language had a 64 per cent correspondence with Baraba, and Baraba and Wemba were practically identical. As early as 1843, Parker had listed more than seventy “Burapper” persons by name in his census of the population of his district; they had stayed at his station. Parker published as an appendix to his census, a comparative language table of 100 common words in six languages—English, Witouro, Jajawrong, Knenkobenwurro, Burapper and Taoungurong[44]. Robinson saw Baraba people staying at Parker’s station in 1842 and again in 1843. In his public lecture delivered at the Mechanics Hall in Melbourne in 1854, Parker told a story which mocks Major Mitchell’s account of his meeting with Baraba people just south of Mount Pyramid on June 8, 1836[45]. This is what he said:

I have long been in communication with most of these natives [Burapper], and related to them what the gallant colonel has published respecting them. Their version was totally and ludicrously at variance with the account given by him[46].

Of all this circumstantial evidence suggesting that Parker possessed sufficient language skills to hear and report accurately the Aboriginal evidence, the most significant is his seven-year residence with Djadjawurrung speakers and the more than 60 per cent correspondence of Djadja with Baraba and Wemba.

Robinson’s evidence from Campbell’s station that the locals, both male and female, were working in a variety of skilled jobs cautions us not to underestimate the degree of understanding which they brought to Parker’s interview. It is universally acknowledged that Aboriginal people in general were skilled linguists: it is possible, even likely, that they communicated in a mixture of Djadja, Barabara and English.

It is, by the way, not surprising that La Trobe would not know this. By 1846 La Trobe was thoroughly fed up with the Protectorate, his main criticisms being their uselessness and their verbosity. An apocryphal story told by nineteenth-century historians was that La Trobe was so disenchanted that he sent their reports on unopened to Sydney. That cannot be true because it is unthinkable that La Trobe would be so disrespectful as to forward reports to the Governor without a covering letter. But so many of the protectors’ reports (quarterly, half-yearly, annual) are missing in Victoria in the Records of the Protectorate, only to be found in the Port Phillip boxes in the New South Wales state archives, that it is evident that La Trobe ceased to abide by standard nineteenth-century bureaucratic practice of keeping locally, official reports sent on to higher authority. He didn’t bother to have them copied, so perhaps he really did not read them.

Gipps’s view was conveyed to La Trobe by the Colonial Secretary: “Though His Excellency would be happy to think that no natives were killed on the occasion of the collision, he cannot but regard Mr Parker’s report as carrying a charge of exaggeration against Mr Dana who [says] that several were killed.”[47]



It is easy to see how William Dana could be mistaken. In the tall reeds, seven to eight feet high, how would he see bodies? If the attackers dropped to the ground on the firing of the guns, then William Dana could have been mistaken. The young George Henry Haydon, a well-known friend of Aborigines, found himself once in the unusual position (for him) of being attacked by a group of Aborigines: he “fired both barrels, but all the savages dropped. That’s three too many said I as I loaded again[48].”

The possibility of exaggeration calls for an appreciation of William Dana’s temperament. And William Dana was indeed both rash and intemperate, flamboyant even, as well as being only twenty-one years old[49]. Some of his responses to particular circumstances include the following:

# He rode to death one of the best horses, Porcupine, not out in the field, but at home on the station. For a cavalry officer, this is beyond the pale[50].

# On one occasion he was so drunk on returning to Nerre Nerre Warren that he was incapable of sitting on his horse, which “spilt him on the road and galloped away in disgust”[51].

# He wrote this in the Daybook, the formal journal of record of daily activity at HD: “WAP Dana evacuated the officers quarters in consequence of the extraordinary efforts of the blowflies to eat him, combined with the incessant annoyance the Commandant’s geese gave him.”[52]

# He threatened to refuse to write any more reports because he considered his brother to have insulted him in not answering promptly a request for more pay.

# He was bound over to keep the peace in 1845, brought before the courts because he threatened to blow the brains out of Patrick Madden, who spread gossip about the Dana family[53].

# In Paul de Serville’s Appendix of Duels, Challenges, Horsewhippings and Courts of Honour, he lists William Dana as being engaged in a horsewhipping affair with Gideon Manton in June 1845[54].

# He was subsequently shot and seriously wounded by his brother-in-law, the second officer of the Corps, William Hamilton Walsh. Though this was dealt with circumspectly in the courts—it was said that William was unduly gallant towards his sister-in-law Sophia Dana, who was Henry’s wife and William Walsh’s sister. The real facts are preserved in the petition for clemency submitted by Walsh’s mother and wife. William Dana was sleeping with Henry’s wife[55]. She was left destitute by Henry Dana’s death, and his will made no mention of her. She was even prevented by the people who would be his executors from visiting him before his death at the Melbourne Club. Four years after Henry Dana’s death, William married her in the Wesleyan Church in Launceston on November 21, 1856[56].

# He was the subject of a lengthy debate in the Victorian Parliament in 1858, regarding his fitness for his duty as a police officer. Captain Anderson led the debate:

My pockets are filled with paper that I can bring forward in reference to Mr Dana’s conduct, and if any honourable member chooses to call for them in the course of the evening I will produce them. There are references to complaints about Mr Dana’s eccentricities and peculiarities of conduct. I have been as tender as I could of Mr Dana’s character, but if any further proofs of his insubordination are required I shall be glad to produce these papers[57].

So he was an extravagant personality, at the very least an intemperate man. Could he exaggerate? Yes, we can readily believe that he could exaggerate. Did he? is simply unknown.


Michael Cannon’s view

Finally, a word about the only source that the Massacre Map cites—a secondary source, the distinguished historian Michael Cannon. He had read all the primary sources in Box 84, including Parker’s report. Summing up Parker’s report, Cannon wrote: “Parker left Robinson at Lake Boga and proceeded to visit every station up the Murray, but could learn nothing from either whites or blacks[58].” For Cannon, it seems, Aboriginal evidence is “nothing”.

It is not his finest moment in historiography, and he is the only source that the Massacre Map cites. If you believe the Aboriginal evidence, there were no casualties and therefore no massacre. If William Dana’s unguarded remark to Robinson that he couldn’t count the casualties is literally true, then his written reports of some, or several, are only guesses. If you believe any one of William Dana’s three estimates—could not count, some or several—the so-called Loddon massacre still does not satisfy the Massacre Map’s own criteria for inclusion.

The Massacre Map has different information if you click on the yellow dot for the Loddon Junction event, to that offered if you click on full details. The yellow dot version asserts that six Aboriginal people were killed (whereas could not count, some and several are the evidence), and one coloniser/attacker was killed (no Native Police were killed), and that the language group was Wemba Wemba (the collision happened in Baraba country). The full-details version asserts that there were six males killed and several females (no females are ever mentioned in the evidence), that the motive was reprisal (it was a chance encounter), that transport was on foot (the Native Police were mounted) and that Dana’s troops were sent to pacify the district (incorrect).

These flat assertions are in some cases false. The map needs six persons to be killed because that number is part of the definition of a massacre, but to assert that six were killed in this particular collision is simply going beyond the evidence.

Nor does this so-called massacre meet the other characteristics defined in the list of “Characteristics of a Frontier Massacre”. It is not a reprisal—it was a routine patrol; it was not planned—it was a chance encounter; it did not take place in secret—it was reported to the proper authority within two days; it wasn’t a case of the assassins and the victims knowing each other—both sides were taken by surprise; it was not a one-sided affair in which the victims had no means of defence—it was a real battle; its purpose was not to eradicate the victims or force them into submission—it didn’t have a purpose other than survival; there was no code of silence afterwards—there was an inquiry. And there was a reconciliation marked by the exchange of spears.

The Massacre Map is a brilliant idea and a useful tool: the project is internationally known and praised. But it should be underpinned by rigour in research, and rigour is absent in this listing. The creators of the Massacre Map have been misled by their reliance on a single secondary source, Cannon, and have made two mistakes—they have had no knowledge of the Aboriginal evidence, and they have made a guess at interpreting William Dana’s don’t know, some and several. Now that all the available evidence has been examined, it is abundantly clear that this event is not a massacre at all, and should be taken off the map. Not to do so detracts from an important tool for learning about our shared history.

Marie Hansen Fels is a research historian whose major works include I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula (2011). David Clark is a former Manager of Heritage Operations, Aboriginal Affairs Victoria



[1] Website for the Massacre Map is Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930, Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle.

[2] Port Phillip Patriot, Tuesday, 24 February 1846; Port Phillip Gazette and Settler’s Journal, Saturday 28 February 1846: 2

[3] Campbell’s letter in T.F.Bride Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Currey O’Neil, 1983: 347

[4] Clark, Ian D Aboriginal Languages and clans, Monash, 1990: 389 and maps 388 and 407.

[5] Dandenong Daybook, VPRS 90, PROV. It is impossible at the time of writing to read Powlett’s itinerary on microfilm at SLV because of restrictions. And in another blow to scholarship, his reports for 1845 and 1846 have not survived in Victoria. PROV has his reports for 1841,2,3, 8,9, and 1850 but not the crucial years for this enquiry – 1845 and 1846. They may be in Archives NSW.

[6] Cowper died in 1849 and the auction notice for Challicum described it as a “good property”, Argus, 3 April 1849: 2

[7] F A Powlett to Superintendent, 28 February 1846, ADD Dixon Gallery, ML. (Now catalogued in Governor’s Despatches)

[8] Curlewis to Superintendent, 8 December 1845, ADD Dixon Gallery, ML.

[9] La Trobe to Curlewis, 26 March 1846, 46/ 417 in VPRS 16, vol. 16: 87, PROV

[10] Aboriginal Victorians, 2005: 83

[11] Mitchell, Major T.L. Three expeditions into the interior of Eastern Australia, Boone, London. 1838.  Project Gutenberg, online., 3.7. and 3.8. There is no pagination – navigation is by date and headings. This heading is entitled “Unfortunate result of Piper’s interview with the natives of the Lake”.

[12]F A Powlett to Superintendent, 28 February 1846, ADD Dixon Gallery, ML. This can now be found in Governor’s Despatches to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.

[13] Mitchell, recorded on 21 June 1836 at Lake Boga under the heading “Swan Hill”.

[14] Robinson Journal, Saturday 18 April 1846.

[15] Robinson Journal, Monday 20 April 1846. Robinson’s journal is slightly ambiguous, and the exchange of spears may well have happened on the same day.

[16] WAP Dana to Commandant HEP Dana from Bael Bael, 3 February 1846, enc. with 46/ 459, itself an enclosure with 46/1260, Chief Protector to Superintendent,  19 August 1846, VPRS 19, Box 84, PROV.

[17] Australian Dictionary of Biography  Online

[18] Dandenong Daybook, VPRS 90, PROV

[19] Dandenong Daybook, VPRS 90, PROV.

[20] Statement of WAP Dana, enclosed now within Chief Protector to Superintendent, 19 August 1846, 46/ 1260 in VPRS 19, Box 84, PROV.

[21] Lake Boga, run 171: Aboriginal Reserve at Lake Boga, Murray 2; County of Gunbower, run 1375; Reedy Lake, 25: Composite run 351A; Murrabit, run 175; and Bael Bael, run 170, all at VPRS 8168, P0005, PROV.

[22] Bride, T.F. Letters from Victorian Pioneers,

[23] Billis, R.V. and Kenyon, A.S Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, North Melbourne, 1974: 24

[24] Pardoe, Colin “Bioscapes: The evolutionary Landscape of Australia”, in Archaeology in Oceania, 29: 182-190

[25] Pardoe, Colin and Dan Hutton, “Aboriginal heritage as ecological proxy in south-eastern Australia: a Barapa wetland village”, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 2002: 14

[26] Beveridge, Peter, The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina, Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1889: 63-68

[27] Port Phillip Gazette, 27 February 1847, p 2

[28] Tipping, Marjorie (ed) Victoria the Golden: Scenes, sketches and jottings from nature by William Strutt, 1850-1862, Library Committee, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, 1980

[29] VPRS 90

[30] La Trobe to Col. Sec., 20 March 1846, VPRS 16, vol.16, Letters to Sydney, 46/ 298, PROV

[31] A nobler in mid 18th century slang was a drink and  nobblerism was drunkenness, see Bendigo Advertiser, Tuesday 11 November 1856: 2, for a listing of the court cases for drunkenness under the heading “Effect of sixpenny nobblers”.

[32]Tuesday 21 April 1846   Ian Clark could not be certain of the spelling (pers. com. 6 January 2021). A nobler in mid 18th century slang was a drink, nobblerism was drunkenness, see Bendigo Advertiser, Tuesday 11 November 1856: 2, for a listing of the court cases for drunkenness under the heading “Effect of sixpenny nobblers”.

[33] Wednesday 22 April 1846, in Clark, Ian D. (ed) The journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, vol.6: 671, 2014.

[34] Robinson, GA Brief Report of an expedition to the Aboriginal tribes of the Interior over more than 2000 miles of country during the five months commencing March to August 1846,  page 495.

[35] Robinson to La Trobe, 19 August 1846, VPRS 19, Box 84, 46/1260 in PROV

[36] Parker to La Trobe from the Loddon Protectorate, 14 May 1846,  46/ 763, enc. now with 46/1260, Chief Protector to La Trobe, 19 August 1846, VPRS 19, Box 84, PROV

[37] Fels, MH Good Men and True, MUP, 1988: 169.

[38] Commandant to Superintendent, 11 May 1846, 46/721, VPRS 19, downloaded, failed to note consignment number, probably P0,  PROV

[39] It was known all over the Port Phillip district how attached Aboriginal men and women were to their dogs. At one stage there were hundreds of Wurundjeri and Bunurong people at Merri creek with 800 dogs, and La Trobe wanted them out of Melbourne. He threatened to shoot their dogs and they all decamped immediately.

[40] Col Sec to Superintendent, 1 June 1846,  enc within, Robinson to Superintendent, 31 August 1846, 46/ 1260 in VPRS 19, Box 84, PROV

[41] Commandant to Superintendent, 1 June 1846, 46/ 819 in VPRS 19, Box 84, PROV

[42] T.F.Bride Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Currey O’Neil, 1983: 438.

[43] La Trobe to Gipps, 6 June 1846, VPRS 16, vol. 16, 46/572, PROV

[44] NSW Leg Co Votes and Proceedings, 1843.

[45] [45] Mitchell, Major T.L. Three expeditions into the interior of Eastern Australia, Boone, London.  Project Gutenberg, online., 3.7. and 3.8. There is no pagination – navigation is by date and headings.

[46] Parker’s Lecture, 10 May 1854, was originally published in London by Hugh McColl. A facsimile reproduction, by courtesy of NLA is to be found in Edgar Morrison’s Frontier Life in the Loddon Protectorate, privately printed, limited edition, no date.

[47] Col Sec to La Trobe, 18 June 1846, VPRS 19, Box 84, 46/ 975, PROV.

[48] Haydon, G.H. The Australian Emigrant, Arthur Hall and Virtue, London, 1854: 71

[49] ADB ONLINE – Henry Dana’s entry.

[50] Dandenong Daybook check 1848

[51] Dandenong Daybook 10 April 1849

[52] Dandenong Daybook 14 April 1851

[53] Port Phillip Herald, 17 June 1845

[54] Port Phillip Gentlemen, OUP, 1980: 215

[55] Petition of William Hamilton Walsh and others”, 51/ 104, enc. with VPRS 1189, Box 4, 51/ 1287, PROV. The trial papers are in Criminal Trial Briefs, VPRS 30, unit 11, item 1-102-10.

[56] Marriage Certificate

[57] Victorian Hansard Online, November 10, 1858: 279, vol. IV,  2-15 November, page 279.

[58] Cannon, Michael Who killed the Koories?,  Heinemann, 1990, Melbourne: 222

One thought on “The Loddon Massacre That Never Happened

  • Harry Lee says:

    Start here:
    Whose interests, conceived within what deluded frameworks of superstition mixed with resentment and hatred for one’s benefactors, and shame regarding one’s inadequacies to deal successfully with the challenges of life-on-Earth in flourishing ways, and lust for power over, and enslavement of, the striving, productive Ordinary people-
    -are served by the lies, distortions, fantasies, and diversions-
    -that are now dominating the policies regarding the use of tax-payer funds on Aborigines and such misguided moves as “Sorry” and promoting “Voice” for Aborigines-
    -and in which no recognition is given to the terrible facts of extreme rates of Aboriginal violence exerted upon Aboriginal children, women, and men by other Aborigines-
    -at rates that far, far exceed the incidence of violence that Aboriginal leaders and their non-Aboriginal advisors, supporters and spox falsely claim against non-Aborigines regarding “deaths in custody”-
    -and indeed, exceed the alleged rates/incidence of all deaths/violence committed by non-Aborigines against Aborigines, now or in any period since 1788.
    True, we live in times when BS rules supreme.
    But this particular kind of malicious, even evil, BS will not save a single Aboriginal child from neglect, abuse, or violence.
    And indeed, the current dominant BS about the challenges faced by Aborigines and the current and proposed remedies will have the inevitable consequence of keeping Aborigines in infantilised states of agency, and will condemn most Aboriginal children to life-long misery.

Leave a Reply