I have some book knowledge of the [Forrest River massacres]—so called—subject of the Royal Commission conducted by Magistrate Wood in 1927. It was, for many reasons, for which Wood was not entirely responsible, a very unsatisfactory enquiry. It would seem to have been the case that no finding of fact, which could be accepted with any confidence, was made and this sad to say has created a situation in which the imagination can run unrestrained … under the guise of historical truth and that, I agree, does nothing to promote reconciliation between black and white Australians. —Sir Francis Burt, former Chief Justice of Western Australia
Ninety-seven years ago, on May 20, 1926, a police patrol, led by Constable James St Jack, set out from Wyndham in Western Australia’s far north-west Kimberley frontier. On June 1, St Jack’s group was joined by Constable Denis Regan and assistants. They were to be involved in a fateful expedition.
This review appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Including the two constables, the combined patrol consisted of thirteen members, among them Leopold Overheu, a local pastoralist, sworn special constables Bernard O’Leary and Richard Jolly, and others, including Aboriginal trackers. Its task was to arrest Lumbia, an Aborigine who had murdered a pastoralist, William Hay, owner of Nulla Nulla Station.
On July 4, after arduous and dangerous weeks in the wild hinterland of Forrest River Mission, the patrol returned safely with Lumbia in custody. However, soon after, sensational rumours began circulating that, during the pursuit of Lumbia, the patrol had committed mass murder of other natives they encountered, and burnt their remains.
Taking the bush gossip at face value, on July 30, Reverend Ernest Gribble (right), head of Forrest River Mission, wrote the first of a series of alarming letters to A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, police Inspector Douglas and others, accusing the patrol of atrocities. Between August and November 1926, and January the following year, Gribble, his son Jack, and Gribble’s ecclesiastical associate at Forrest River Mission, Aboriginal prelate James Noble, Wyndham police sergeant A.H. Buckland and Inspector William Douglas of Broome police, examined three sites: Gotegotemerrie, Mowerie and Dala. They were supposedly connected with the alleged atrocities and cremation of the Aboriginal victims. At each site forensic traces of alleged human bones and teeth were collected.
The shocking claims of mass murder by the patrol led to sensational publicity in Perth, as well as nationally, and as far afield as London. As a result of Gribble’s agitations, a Royal Commission was called. Stipendiary Magistrate G.T. Wood was appointed as commissioner.
Over several months, Wood took evidence at Forrest River Mission, Wyndham, Darwin, Derby and Perth. The police party was represented by W.M. Nairn from the Perth legal firm Nairn and Mac Donald. (He later became Speaker in federal parliament.)
On May 21, 1927, Commissioner Wood tabled his findings which were, in essence, that the police patrol had killed eleven Aborigines while in pursuit of Lumbia. As a result, constables Regan and St Jack were arrested and charged with the murder of a single Aborigine, Boondung. Their committal proceedings started on July 17 before a magistrate, A.B. Kidson.
After carefully weighing the evidence over a three-week trial, Kidson summed up: “I feel I would be failing in my duty if I sent this case to trial because I think the evidence insufficient to justify a reasonable jury in finding the men guilty. Further, the offence with which these men are charged is the most serious in the calendar, and I feel bound to discharge them.” That is, the “evidence” failed on all indices, including the central forensic traces of supposed human teeth and bones. Kidson described them as “valueless”.
Until now, the two main historians of the Forrest River affair to produce book-length studies have been Dr Neville Green and myself. Dr Green’s The Forrest River Massacres (1995) was largely based on the Royal Commission. After many years of research I wrote Massacre Myth (1999) and Sex, Maiming and Murder (2002). (The latter was short-listed in the Margaret Medcalf Award for excellence in research using the West Australian State Records Office archives.)
Massacre Myth is a major disassembly of the testimony at the Royal Commission. I concluded that there was no substantive evidence that there were murders by the police patrol. I also imputed a motive for Gribble’s accusations. Sex, Maiming and Murder investigated the previous history of the chief accuser in the case, Ernest Gribble. Between 1915 and 1926 he had raised serious allegations concerning violence against Aborigines in the Kimberley, including murder. When investigated they all proved to be false.
The latest contribution to the historiography of the Forrest River allegations is Professor Kate Auty’s O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre. In essence, Professor Auty has reinvented the narrative of the 1926 police patrol. It becomes a function of the biography of one member of that expedition, Bernard O’Leary. “Underworld” in the title was the name given to the region of the northern Kimberley where historically killings of Aborigines had allegedly taken place. O’Leary had a pastoral station there.
Auty is candid concerning her book as partly a work of political propaganda. On the first page she announces: “This book tells the story of that man and the lies that he and others told about the Forrest River murders in 1926. It … has intense contemporary relevance as we work on truth-telling and charting the route to Indigenous constitutional recognition.” That is, the book is a plug for the Voice referendum.
However, what Auty has produced is not a work of historical scholarship in the academic sense. It is a strange amalgam of extended and at times extreme polemic, taking the argumentum ad hominem fallacy to new heights. While the volume does employ conventional archival research in places, it is melded with strident pulp-fiction literary flourishes. There is also a persistent sneering cadence throughout.
The narrative also employs a recurring “Secret Voice” that reflects on proceedings from time to time as the story unfolds. But whose voice is it? O’Leary’s? The author’s? In places, the commentary is pure fiction. In my opinion the book is not history. It reads at times like a novel with footnotes. Overall, it is an unfortunate historic, intellectual and stylistic mess.
On Auty’s telling, Bernard O’Leary seems to have been a proverbial colourful character of the mining and pastoral frontier in Western Australia, and beyond. Apparently, as a youth he was a pimp, and then a runner for Kalgoorlie’s brothels. Later, he served at Gallipoli with the Queensland 5th Light Horse Regiment and was wounded. Apparently, he was an undisciplined soldier. In addition, he was a mining claim-jumper, and “a spiv who liked the company of other spivs”.
Auty says her research found him variously to be a “skilled brute”, “a capable thug”, one who liked “violent and disreputable company”, a “killer and a primitive … enforcer”. “O’Leary liked blood. Anybody’s.” “He … dripped poison.” I do not think O’Leary was any plaster saint, but Auty presents very little substantive evidence for any of these accusations, though she makes copious assertions.
The closest Auty gets to establishing O’Leary as a mindless mass murderer is her reference to his participation in a 1922 police patrol to apprehend the Aboriginal killers of station worker Harry Annear. Gribble reported that many Aborigines had been massacred during the pursuit. But the connection fails her purpose dismally.
The patrol’s activities were investigated by the most senior police officer of the Kimberley, Inspector Spedding-Smith. He was assisted by Bishop Gerard Trower, the first bishop of north-west Australia. It was found that no Aborigines had been killed. Ultimately, Gribble conceded he was mistaken, but felt he had to report rumours he heard. The Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, also agreed that no Aborigines had been killed. Nothing detrimental to O’Leary was raised by anyone in the matter. Annear’s murderers were apprehended and safely brought in. However, they were later freed. A nolle prosequi was entered on their behalf, given the provocative actions of Annear in abducting their Aboriginal women.
SO WHAT is the allegedly untold story of the Forrest River “massacres” that has escaped the attention of previous historians? In essence, Professor Auty argues that the 1926 patrol to capture the Aboriginal murderer Lumbia was led, not by the police, but by the maniac O’Leary. Further, it was not a lawful expedition to apprehend a murderer. Rather, it morphed into an unaccountable mob bent on revenge for the murder of Frederick Hay, who was a fellow war-veteran of patrol members Daniel Murnane, Leo Overheu and Bernard O’Leary. Their agenda was bloody reprisal.
Auty casts O’Leary as an evil Svengali figure, a sinister magus, who was able to suborn the rest of the patrol, including the police, and university-educated Daniel Murnane, into his murderous intent. “O’Leary was menacingly in charge,” she writes. He was “the leader of the pack … O’Leary is the key to deciphering what really did happen … O’Leary was absolutely central.” She offers no substantive evidence for any of these claims.
In private correspondence during my research for Massacre Myth, the former Chief Justice of Western Australia, Sir Francis Burt, made an observation presciently relevant to Auty’s approach:
The historian and the judge is each engaged in essentially the same operation. And each is bound by the same discipline and by the same moral restraints which are directed to justice and the finding of the true facts.
Neither has any moral authority to publish any finding adverse to the reputation of a person living or dead unless that finding is supported by first-hand objective evidence, which in reason and with confidence, can be accepted as being the truth.
Too often these days we find “historians” who to make a point, as they say, are prepared to publish what they assert to be a fact which upon further enquiry can be seen to be based, not on primary fact, but upon what the publisher feels and upon what he would like to be the truth.
In short, Auty does not produce any further primary factual evidence concerning either O’Leary being murderously pathological, or for his role as the real leader of the police patrol. Instead of moral restraint and a quest for objective evidence, she offers vitriol aplenty, variegated accusations and unsupported assertion. That is not history.
Auty is also involved in some untold stories herself concerning the case. One of them has to do with Gribble’s lists of the “missing”, presumed murdered. Her readers would have no idea as to their unreliability. The evidence for that proposition is in the archives. Auty does not seem to have researched the issue. If she has, for some reason she has withheld the data from her readers.
Early on, James Noble compiled a list of eight individuals who were said to be missing, presumed murdered. This was based on the tracking his party had undertaken. No historian of the case has previously pointed out that this list of eight names was altered, under the direction of Gribble, in the presence of Inspector Douglas. The document is available in the archives. James Noble’s initials confirming the changes are clear, as is Inspector Douglas’s signature as witness to the alterations.
Two individuals who were supposed to be missing, presumably murdered (Laurambayne, also spelt Loorabane, and Mow), were removed and replaced by another name (Warrawoola). Neither of those removed is mentioned again in relation to the allegations. So why were they on the list in the first instance? A reasonable inference for their deletion is that they turned up safe and well.
Gribble finally listed twenty-nine Aboriginal individuals as missing. One individual on the list (Minniewalla) was indeed murdered—in a tribal dispute, and three months before the police patrol left Wyndham. Another is listed twice under alternative names (Marga and Warrawalla). Another eight are claimed to be missing by no one but Gribble. But there is no indication anywhere as to who informed him of their status.
In sum, a detailed analysis of Gribble’s list reveals it to be of highly suspect veracity. No other historian of the case, as far as I am aware, has ever audited the names—Auty certainly hasn’t—even though such material is central to the allegations.
Another anomaly in this aspect of the matter is that, though asked on a number of occasions at the Royal Commission to identify his informants concerning the claims of killings, Gribble was unable to name anyone. It seems improbable that a Protector of Aborigines would not have recorded such data. The Commissioner was also surprised that such important information had not been noted.
Overall, despite all the inquiries made—by Gribble, James and Angelina Noble, Aborigines Inspector Mitchell, Detective Sergeant Harry Manning, Commissioner Wood and Inspector Douglas—no first-hand testimony of any type could be found. However, Auty invokes the testimony of Sulieman, an Aboriginal tracker with the police party, as a source of such evidence. But as I demonstrated in Massacre Myth (pages 154 to 160), Sulieman’s testimony is riddled with errors of fact and chronology of various kinds, as well as uncorroborated claims.
It is also absurdly contradictory on a central matter. At one point Sulieman asserted to Inspector Douglas that the Aboriginal police tracker Joe shot and cremated an individual. Presumably, he was present as a witness. However, in his statement to Detective Sergeant Harry Manning, which was read in court, he said:
While we were out I did not see police kill any native. I did not see them burn any blackfellow … I did not see any trackers shoot any natives or burn them when they were out. I never heard any of them talk about having done so.
Another oversight in Auty’s version of the case concerns the influenza epidemic that was rampant in the district at the time. Any rational explanation for why some Aborigines might be missing must surely consider its effects. Scores of individuals no doubt perished anonymously in the bush over a large area of the Forrest River Mission’s hinterland. Inspector Douglas reported to the Royal Commission that Aborigines at Hall’s Creek “were dying wholesale”. Police assistant Mulga Jim MacDonald testified that many Aborigines had died in the bush, “being sick with colds”. Evidence of the severity of the influenza is found in the journals of constables Regan and St Jack, too.
Another serious problem with the lists of those “missing” is that some individuals—Boondung, Boondung2, Delagai, Dumunda, Jumbarie, Wearie, Kangooloo, Juberoo and Gumbool—had not been recorded as having been at the mission, or in the vicinity, for anything from three months to two years before being reported as “missing”, presumed murdered. It is astonishing that historians, including Auty, have overlooked this fact and its various implications.
However, the most glaring problem with the list is that five individuals listed as missing and murdered—Marga, Mareo, Yowan, Goorlie and Goolay—appear in mission records as alive and well, either in 1926, immediately after the police patrol (Yowan), or in 1928 as visitors to the mission (Marga, Mareo, Goorlie and Goolay). Overall, my audit of the names indicates that twenty-four of the twenty-nine individuals cited by Gribble as missing should not have been on his list, or have attached to them suspicious anomalies of one kind or another.
Another aspect of the Forrest River narrative Professor Auty decided to leave untold concerns the forensic dimensions of the tale. They are central to the allegations against the police patrol. Material supposed to be human bones and teeth was collected at the three alleged cremation sites. Dr W.S. McGillivray submitted three forensic reports to the Royal Commission. On balance, he found the material overwhelmingly to be not of human origin.
Dr McGillivray was a highly qualified medical man. Chief Medical Officer of the West Australian Department of Health, he graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1903 with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery. He also received a Licentiate in medicine from the University of Dublin, was a member of the Indian Medical Service during the First World War, serving in East Africa, had a Diploma in Public Health, and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Dr McGillivray was also a pathologist and bacteriologist, and therefore skilled in the microscopic examination of blood and bone material. In short, he was probably the most experienced medical man in the state at the time. However, Auty has excluded any mention of his negative reports to the Royal Commission concerning the forensic traces.
When writing Massacre Myth I tested the proposition that outdoor cremations, using the light timber of the Forrest River region, could totally destroy human remains. Professor John Clement, a forensic odontologist at the University of Melbourne, was entirely sceptical when I outlined the circumstances to him. The reason? “It would be hard to get a fire without a lot of accelerants or a pressurised supply of oxygen to get anything like a temperature up to 1500 or 1600 degrees centigrade. And it is not until you get to temperatures like that that skeletal tissues are destroyed.” At the time I interviewed him, Professor Clement had just completed an Australia Research Council project concerning the destruction of human bone tissue at high temperatures.
His colleague Dr Stephen Knott, also a forensic odontologist, agrees:
The question is can you get that temperature with wood? In a lot of cases I’ve seen, it’s very hard to get that temperature … I would think if they are going to have a wood fire, without any accelerants in it, [it is going to be] very difficult to destroy the teeth … and to destroy the remains [entirely] is extremely unlikely … A timber fire I think would not be hot enough.
Stephen James, who oversees cremations at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth, also doubts the proposition that human remains, including teeth, could be completely destroyed beyond recognition in the open air:
I wouldn’t have thought they’d reach high enough temperatures to do that. To me, there would have had to be skeletal remains. Even with our furnaces, which reach over 1000 C, we still have skeletal remains … If we are going to have skeletal remains in our furnaces, then if it is done in the open air there would have to be skeletal remains that would be easily identifiable as being human … In the North-West in the 1920s? Something doesn’t gel there.
Sydney historian Lynette Silver, a former member of the Australian and New Zealand Forensic Society, who has done extensive research on the cremation process, and witnessed about two dozen cremations, says completely destroying a human corpse in an open-air cremation is not possible:
Even at 1100 degrees Celsius, with super-heated gas … the tops of the arms, the tops of the legs and the skull remain, though it would be broken. What’s left is recognisable as human bones, though they’re very friable. If you had a bush cremation, you would know when you found the bones that they were human. You couldn’t possibly mistake them for an animal. The skull would be a dead give-away for a start. But you’d need an enormous amount of wood. If it was that easy to destroy a body in the bush by fire, no murderer would ever be caught.
Dr Robert Nicol, formerly of the History Department at the University of Adelaide, has been researching Australian funeral and burial customs, including cremation, for the last quarter of a century. When the advice I’d received on the possibility of destroying human skeletal remains beyond recognition in an open-air cremation was outlined, he commented:
Your forensic experts are quite right. I would normally expect bone fragments and teeth to survive. I have a new history of cremation coming out … and have documented a number of open-air cremations in the period between 1890 and 1940. They were mostly Indian cultural ceremonies, but there were also several Europeans cremated on funeral pyres.
Large quantities of wood were required … more, I suspect, than would have been available to your subjects—and destruction of the body usually required keeping the fire burning all day and longer … In traditional Indian cremation rites … remaining bones are collected and disposed of in the Ganges or other sacred water … I’m not sure what conditions are like today, but certainly in the past there were numerous reports and complaints about [“cremated”] bodies in various states of decay floating down the river. [emphasis added]
In short, the most probable reason why almost all the cremated material collected around Forrest River could not be identified by the Government Pathologist of the day as of human origin is because it was not of human origin. The implications for the massacre theory are obvious and surely have to be treated seriously by historians trying to get to the truth.
The only point where Auty seriously engages with the forensic aspects of the case is when she claims that a “police-issue” bullet was found in a tree at Dala, one of the alleged massacre sites. Inspector Douglas identified it as a .44 bullet. Kimberley police were armed with .44 Winchester rifles. Douglas noted that it was a common weapon in the Kimberley and used by “most persons”. But he told the commissioner he would not swear it was of police issue.
What Auty has left out in the matter is that the bullet was weighed. Its mass was 187 grains. The police .44 round weighed between 200 and 202 grains. That is, it weighed substantially less than a police issue bullet. The police were also issued with Webley pistols. The Webley bullet weighed 204 grains, also heavier than the Dala bullet. In short, the bullet was not of police issue.
It is astonishing, given all of the lethal mayhem that supposedly occurred, that not a single spent cartridge case escaped the scrutiny of the police party as they tidied up after their alleged lethal work at the three locations involved. Nor was any melted lead found when the so-called cremation sites were sifted, and not a single bullet fell from the bags in which they were carried loose. In short, the ballistics evidence in the case—meagre as it is—is negative.
There are broader issues to which Professor Auty’s volume gives rise. Written by a senior academic, it seems to be part of a pattern of the hegemonic rise of a dominant caste of redemptive intellectuals in the academy.
In the area of indigenous history its aim appears to be to conjure as many murdered Aborigines as possible from the Australian frontier. That Auty’s book could be given the imprimatur of a university press as a work of history is also suggestive evidence for that depressing proposition.
The gradual fading from the Humanities of the liberal-humanist mind dedicated to the rational evaluation of society and its history, or what Professor Geoffrey Bolton eloquently termed, in our debate on the Forrest River matter, the “Western canons of objective scholarship”, has opened the way for a whole generation of card-carrying ideologists. And they are turning out mirror images in their graduate students. Agitprop, of one degree of sophistication or another, appears to be increasingly shaping the tertiary curriculum. At least, that is how it looks to an outsider.
I have no doubt that O’Leary of the Underworld will be welcomed with acclaim by Professor Auty’s colleagues. I am sure it will win many prestigious literary prizes.
O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre
by Kate Auty
La Trobe University Press, 2023, 288 pages, $34.99
In addition to his books on the Forrest River affair, Rod Moran is also the author of the biography Icon of the North: The Legend of Tom Gray (1995). Tom Gray was a highly regarded Aboriginal identity of the Pilbara region, killed in action with the all-West Australian 2/16th Battalion during the Syrian campaign of the Second World War.