History Wars

Inventing massacre stories

This is an extract from Chapter Five “Historical Scholarship and the Invention of Massacre Stories”, in Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847, Macleay Press, 2002, (third printing 2005)

The death toll of the roving parties

In the first three months of 1828, there were twenty-seven separate assaults on British settlers by the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land. They killed eleven white stock­men.[1] In April, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur responded with a policy to expel all Aborigines from the settled districts. ‘I am at length con­vinced,’ he said, ‘of the absolute necessity of separating the Aborigines from the white inhabitants, and of removing the former entirely from the settled districts, until their habits shall become more civilized.’[2] In April 1828 he issued a general proclamation authorising the military to capture and remove Aborigines from the areas of settlement. He also ordered all magistrates and their deputies to conform to his directions for ‘the retirement or expulsion of the Aborigines from the settled districts’. They were to ‘resort to whatever means a severe and inevitable necessity may dictate and require’.[3] However, he empha­sized that no civilians had the right to use force against the natives unless in self-defence or under the directions of the military or a magistrate.

Arthur’s proclamation said he would set up a line of military posts along the borders of settlement to enforce the policy. There were already a total of eleven military stations throughout the settled dis­tricts whose main job was supervising the convicts. They were at Launceston, Oyster Bay, Brighton, Clyde, New Norfolk, Punt South Esk, St Paul’s Plains, Isis, Norfolk Plains, Oatlands and Macquarie Harbour. Rather than establish any new posts, the orders to the mili­tary at the existing posts were to actively patrol throughout the dis­tricts where they were stationed.[4] The strategy, in practice, was to make the military presence visibly known. Instead of remaining sta­tionary at their garrisons, these military posts were to demonstrate their mobility by sending armed and red-coated detachments on long, sweeping patrols. The sight of these soldiers would intimidate the Aborigines and keep them out of the settled districts.

The new policy, however, made little impact. Between May and the end of October 1828, there were another forty-one assaults in which fifteen settlers were killed. Among those killed in October were Esther Gough, her four-year-old daughter and her neighbour, Anne Geary, who all lived near the apparently well-garrisoned town of Oatlands. These assaults spread what the Hobart Town Courier called ‘the greatest consternation and alarm’.[5]

On 1 November 1828 Arthur responded by declaring martial law in the settled districts.[6] He did not take this decision with any satisfac­tion. ‘I cannot divest myself of the consideration that all aggression originated with the white inhabitants,’ he had written in January 1828, ‘and that therefore much ought to be endured in return before the blacks are treated as an open and accredited enemy by the government.’[7] But the alarm felt by the settlers led him to define them precisely this way. Although martial law represented the ultimate fail­ure of the policy of conciliation, Arthur told his superiors in London that his aim was not to annihilate the Aborigines but to force them out of the settled districts. He had instructed his magistrates and mili­tary officers to resort to arms only as a last resort. But he acknowl­edged the ultimate intent behind his proclamation: ‘Terror may have the effect which no proferred measures of conciliation have been capable of inducing.’[8]

The main tactic Arthur devised to implement this ‘terror’ was to establish bands of what were called ‘roving parties’ to traverse the settled districts and capture any Aborigines they could and to shoot any who resisted arrest. Between November 1828 and May 1829, six official roving parties were formed, each headed by a constable supported by between five and ten trusted convicts plus an Aboriginal tracker or guide. Three roving parties were headed by the chief dis­trict constable of Richmond, Gilbert Robertson, and three by the former convict, explorer and adventurer Jorgen Jorgenson. If the convicts performed satisfactorily for a twelve-month period, they received a ticket-of-leave. There was also a roving party established later in 1829 by the settler John Batman, which patrolled the territory between his property near Ben Lomond and Oyster Bay. Initially, all these parties were under the general command of Thomas Anstey, police magistrate for the Oatlands district.

The tactic of the roving party met with an early success when one group, led by Robertson and guided by the previously apprehended Black Tom, captured five Aborigines, including two chiefs of the Stoney Creek tribe, Umarrah and Jemmie, in November 1828.[9] According to Lyndall Ryan, however, the roving parties killed many more Aborigines than they captured. Here are the details she provides of the carnage they wreaked:

Between November 1828 and November 1830 the roving parties cap­tured about twenty Aborigines and killed about sixty.

The settlers also began to exploit their knowledge of the Aborigines’ sea­sonal patterns of movement. When a band of the Oyster Bay tribe visited Moulting Lagoon in January 1829, they found the settlers waiting for them. Ten were shot dead and three taken prisoner. When a band of Big River people reached the Eastern Marshes in March en route to the east coast, Gilbert Robertson’s party was waiting and killed five and captured another.[10]

This death toll has now entered the international literature. In his book indicting Western imperialism for its slaughter of tribal people, Guardian journalist Mark Cocker says the ‘roving parties were known to have killed sixty Aborigines and taken about another twenty alive’.[11] He cites Ryan as his authority. The Canberra military histo­rian John Connor has perpetuated the same story. His book on Aus­tralian ‘frontier wars’, which is little more than a summary of the sec­ondary sources of the orthodox school, also cites Ryan’s claim that the roving parties killed sixty Aborigines.[12] However, just like Ryan’s account of the conflict in the north of the colony in 1827, every claim in the above passage is fictitious. Her tally of killings by the roving parties is completely false. So is her story that Robertson’s party killed five of them. It is true that Robertson’s men did succeed in capturing one Aborigine in this period but this was not under the circumstances Ryan describes nor anywhere near the Eastern Marshes. Nor did any settlers lie in wait for Aborigines at Moulting Lagoon and kill ten of them.

Ryan backs her claim that sixty Aborigines were killed with a foot­note that contains three references. The first is a letter from Governor Arthur to the Colonial Secretary on 27 May 1829. Arthur did write a letter on this date and it was about the roving parties. It is in the ar­chive location where Ryan indicates: volume 1/317, file 7578, of the Colonial Secretary’s Office papers, on pages 15–18. Its subject matter, however, is the number of men that should comprise Gilbert Robertson’s parties, whether they should all be due for a ticket-of-leave as a result of their service, and about the rations that should be provided for them. It does not mention any Aborigines being killed, let alone sixty. Her second reference is a page of commentary by Brian Plomley in Friendly Mission, his edition of the journals of George Augustus Robinson. This page does discuss the actions of the roving parties and the information available about them, but about Aboriginal deaths it only has this to say: ‘How many natives were killed in all these operations is hardly mentioned.’[13] Ryan’s third refer­ence is a very long footnote by Plomley from the same edition of Robinson’s journals, dealing mainly with the personal background of the Sydney Aborigines brought to Van Diemen’s Land to act as police guides. It does not mention any Aborigines killed by the roving par­ties but at one stage it does say that Batman’s party captured eleven natives in September 1829.[14]  In short, none of Ryan’s footnotes sup­port her assertion.

Apart from Ryan, no other historian has ever claimed the roving parties killed sixty Aborigines, or anything like this number, at this time. It is revealing that the PhD thesis from which this claim derives is more circumspect. In 1975, Ryan’s thesis summarized the situation this way:

Between November 1828 and November 1830 the roving parties dis­posed of about sixty Aborigines in the settled districts either by capture or murder.[15]

Now, this is quite a different claim. It gives no precise number of those killed, and the total ‘disposed of’ is about sixty. In the thesis, there is no footnote to this sentence. However, in 1981, for its publication as a book and for a more public audience, Ryan inflated the total to eighty, of whom she was now confident that about sixty had been killed. She added the footnoted references discussed above, thus dressing up her conclusion as a finding based on scholarly research, when it was nothing of the kind.

The truth is that the roving parties were widely regarded at the time as ineffectual, either in capturing Aborigines or in removing them from the scene. The report of the Aborigines Committee of 1830 declared them ‘worse than useless’.[16] Arthur himself confessed they ‘had proved quite unavailing as a general security’. He said the Aborigines completely outwitted the roving parties:

The total want of information as to the situation of the tribes at any par­ticular time; the facility and rapidity with which they moved to some secret hiding place, after committing any atrocity, which they had only attempted when sure of success, rendered pursuit on such occasions in most instances fruitless, for the rugged and woody nature of the country in which they took refuge was sure to baffle any attempt to trace them in their course.[17]

He might have added three further reasons given by Jorgen Jorgenson:

1. Want of a plan for combined operations.

2. A total lack of discipline.

3. Inveterate laziness which induces the parties to proceed over the best ground they can find from one place to another, and the natives thus knowing their customary tracks can easily avoid them.[18]

It was this ineptitude and almost complete lack of results that by February 1830 led Arthur to resort to offering a bounty for the cap­ture of Aborigines of five pounds an adult and two pounds a child.

Ryan’s claim that Robertson’s party killed five at the Eastern Marshes in March is yet another piece of invention. The diaries of the parties Robertson commanded from November 1828 until February 1830 are held by the Archives Office of Tasmania.[19] Nowhere do they mention any killings at Eastern Marshes or, indeed, anywhere else. The most intense period of their activity was from 1 January to 13 March 1829, when the diary gives a daily account of a sixty-five-day trek from Richmond up most of the east coast and return. The party did not have any violent confrontation with Aborigines at this time. In March, instead of lying in wait to shoot the blacks, the typi­cal diary entries record the following:

5th: Rained all day spoiled our provisions, and put out our fire We remained at Kearney’s bog in a miserable plight — Saw Number of Old Native Huts — but no fresh Traces

6th: … saw no fresh trace of Natives

7th: … heard nothing of the blacks

8th: Remained at Rofs all day Baking and Washing it being afternoon before we could get our Rations.[20]

The only Aborigine they came across was one old, unarmed man and his dog living on their own in the bush near George River in the north-east of the island. When he was brought to Hobart on 27 February, the Hobart Town Courier reported that he had been one of a party of six and that the other five had been ‘shot in the pursuit’.[21] The roving party’s diary, however, makes it clear this otherwise un­corroborated press report was false, for the old man was captured completely on his own.

When we approached within thirty yards of the Fire a dog barked and we saw a black man dart off into the scrub and instantly gave chase … we succeeded in catching him — We then went to see where his Fire was, but could see nothing to indicate that more than one had been there — he is an old man he had no spears and only one old dog. [22]

For all of 1829 and 1830, he was their sole captive.

For the most part, the journals portray a company with all the expertise of a platoon led by Sergeant Ernie Bilko. They got lost so often they suspected their Aboriginal guides, Black Tom and the captured chief Umarrah, were deliberately leading them astray. They mistimed their marches so badly that several times they ran out of rations and were forced to exist for days on damper and water. At one stage, Robertson himself was separated from the rest and was lost so long in the forest that the others gave him up and went home. From May until December 1829, Robertson’s journals contain extended periods with no entries. This was not because the parties were out shooting blacks. Instead, his convict troops had become disenchanted with trekking through the bush and so they willingly accepted an invita­tion by Robertson to work for him, unauthorized, on his property ‘Woodburn’ near Richmond.[23]

By September 1829, the two main leaders of the roving parties, Robertson and Jorgenson, were at loggerheads. Each wrote reports ridiculing the other’s knowledge of the Aborigines’ whereabouts. They accused one another of doing nothing and of writing exagger­ated reports about their pursuit of the natives.[24] There was a good deal of truth in this. In June 1829, the Aborigines attacked the huts of sev­eral settlers in the Pitt Water district. At Carlton, they killed four settlers and wounded a fifth. These events all took place within the dis­trict for which Robertson was responsible. Some settlers set out, unsuccessfully, in pursuit of the culprits but none of Robertson’s three roving parties were among them. At the time, Robertson’s journal recorded that he was on patrol in the unsettled areas, some­where between the Eastern Marshes and Brushy Plains.[25] He later excused himself for not visiting Carlton or the other back settlements of Pitt Water where the murders occurred, because ‘no parties had been raised in the Richmond district’ at the time.[26] It was not surpris­ing, then, that other settlers came to regard his efforts with disdain and saw him more interested in pursuing his own interests than in pursuing the natives. James Hobbs complained:

Mr Gilbert Robertson has never exerted himself in pursuit of the Natives; he has done much mischief in not following them up; he has been more employed in looking for grants of land than the Natives.[27]

Apart from the original capture of Umarrah and his band, the clos­est that any of Robertson’s parties came to genuine conflict with the Aborigines was on 14 November 1829 at Green Ponds. After some Aborigines had attacked a hut at nearby Constitution Hill, the local police and settlers, together with Robertson and some of his men, devised a plan to trap them. Robertson and four men sat in a hut, inviting attack, while the others hid themselves nearby. The natives duly appeared on a nearby hill but the concealed men charged too soon. ‘All the natives escaped,’ Robertson wrote in his journal, ‘and no one could tell how, though they were in a manner surrounded by upwards of thirty people each one more anxious than another to capture or destroy them’.[28]

The only Aborigines reliably recorded killed by the roving parties were two men shot by John Batman’s group in early September 1829. Batman reported to his commander, Thomas Anstey, that his party of three men and two black trackers had followed a group of sixty or seventy Aborigines on the east side of Ben Lomond. They came upon their camp and waited until night to rush them. The black camp contained forty dogs, who detected the intruders and gave the alarm. ‘The natives arose from the ground and were in the act of running away into a thick scrub when I ordered the men to fire upon them.’ That night, Batman’s men captured a woman and a two-year-old boy. Next morning, they found an Aboriginal man badly wounded in the ankle and knee and another man wounded in the body. For ammunition, Batman’s men had used buckshot, which at a distance would wound rather than kill. They saw traces of blood on the ground and were told by their captives they had wounded several other men and two women who escaped.[29] They followed the tracks of the tribe all the next day but found no one, dead or alive. The following day they headed back to Batman’s farm, taking the two wounded Aboriginal men, the woman and the child. The wounded men, however, could not walk. ‘After trying every means in my power, for some time, found I could not get them on,’ Batman reported. ‘I was obliged therefore to shoot them.’ [30]

Two weeks later, however, during a formal interview with Anstey and the police magistrate James Simpson, Batman changed his story about the two deaths. One of the Aborigines had died of his wounds on the track, he claimed, and the other had struck one of his men, Thomas York, who then killed him in self-defence.[31] It is fairly clear that this revised version was a concoction by Batman to spare himself the dishonour of having murdered unarmed prisoners in what was plainly cold blood. In a technical sense, the declaration of martial law and their commission as officers of the Crown gave Batman and his men the legal authority to shoot any Aborigines they came across in the settled districts. However, in a moral sense, this shooting had no justification at all. It is likely that the low opinion his supervising offi­cers, Thomas Anstey and James Simpson, came to have of him origi­nated in this incident and that Batman changed his story when he realized this.

Batman’s reputation among the colonial authorities was diminished further by the lack of dedication he brought to his task. He eventually turned out to be as reluctant as the other roving party leaders. He had been offered the generous incentive of a 2000-acre land grant if he zealously undertook the role for twelve months.[32] In the first three weeks of September 1829 he certainly fulfilled this undertaking. As well as the rush on the tribe at Ben Lomond, he made a trek to the east coast where, between Break o’Day Plains and Oyster Bay, he captured another eleven Aborigines — four women, three boys and four small children — and brought them back to Campbell Town jail.[33] However, after the initial enthusiasm of these forays, Anstey reported that Batman had largely abandoned actions against the Abo­rigines. Batman blamed the government for the quality of its supplies and the legal risk he ran if he shot any Aborigines outside the areas covered by martial law.[34] Like Robertson, he was soon regarded as pursuing his own interests rather than the colony’s, and was suspected of employing the members of his roving party on his own farm.[35]

It was very unlikely that the lack of publicly recorded success of the roving parties masked a cover-up of their deeds. Given their incom­petence in the bush and their preference for the comforts of town life, it is not surprising they had so little to show for their efforts. The fact that Batman reported his assault at Ben Lomond and his killing of the wounded men in such a matter-of-fact manner indicates the atti­tude the roving parties had to their task. It is most unlikely that any of the roving parties would have killed Aborigines and kept this infor­mation a secret. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to prevent their convict members, who were offered a ticket-of-leave[36] for their service, from boasting of such exploits. They had no reason to conceal their actions and every reason to publicize them. In the prevailing atmosphere of anxiety among the settlers about Aboriginal atrocities, stories about their retaliations would have made the men of the roving parties popular heroes. If any of the roving party leaders had success stories to report they would have done so. The fact that they reported so little meant they had little to report.

In other words, the public record of their activities is most likely to be the accurate one. Instead of Lyndall Ryan’s fictitious total of sixty Aborigines killed and twenty captured, native casualties at the hands of the roving parties were two killed, several wounded[37] and thirteen captured by Batman, plus six captured by Robertson. This hardly amounted to what Arthur initially said would be a campaign of ‘terror’. Of the nineteen Aborigines captured, only three were adult male warriors. The rest were one old man, six women and nine chil­dren. This was not a haul to seriously deplete the ranks of the enemy.

This is an extract from Chapter Five “Historical Scholarship and the Invention of Massacre Stories”, in Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847, Macleay Press, 2002, (third printing 2005)


[1] Plomley, Aboriginal/Settler Clash, pp 66–8

[2] Arthur to Huskisson, 17 April 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, p 177

[3] Arthur, Proclamation, 15 April 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, pp 194–6

[4] Brigade major to officers on detachments, 21 April 1828; Brigade major to Captain Walpole, 30 September 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, pp 196–8

[5] Hobart Town Courier, 25 October 1828, p 1

[6] Proclamation by Arthur, 1 November 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, pp 183–4

[7] Arthur to Goderich, 10 January 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies Australia, 4, p 176

[8] Arthur to Murray, 4 November 1828, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies Australia, 4, p 181

[9] Robertson to Arthur, 17 November 1828, AOT CSO 1/331/7578 pp 168–177. Umarrah’s name was also spelt Eumarrah and Yumarra.

[10] Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 102

[11] Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe’s Conflict with Tribal Peoples, Jonathan Cape, London, 1998, p 149

[12] John Connor, The Australian Frontier Wars 1788–1838, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2002, p 145 n 48

[13] Plomley, Friendly Mission, p 30

[14] Plomley, Friendly Mission, pp 472–4

[15] Lyndall Ryan, The Aborigines in Tasmania, 1800–1974, and their problems with the Europeans, p 98

[16] Report of the Aborigines Committee 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies Australia, 4, p 217

[17] Memorandum by Arthur, 20 November 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies Australia, 4, p 244

[18] N. J. B. Plomley (ed.) Jorgen Jorgenson and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land, Blubber Head Press, Hobart, 1991, p 25, citing a letter by Jorgenson to Anstey, 29 July 1829

[19] Journal of the proceedings of a party employed under the direction of Gilbert Robertson, 1 January 1829–13 March 1829, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 114–31; Journal of a party under the immediate orders of Gilbert Robertson, 2 February 1829–27 February 1829, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 132–44; Memorandum for a journal of the proceedings of a party under my charge in pursuit of the Aborigines, 27 February 1829–13 February 1830, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 79–92

[20] Robertson, Journal of the proceedings, 5–8 March 1829, p 130

[21] Hobart Town Courier, 7 March 1829, p 1

[22] Robertson, Journal of the proceedings, 13 February 1829, p 126

[23] Robertson to Burnett, 18 January 1831, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 154–7; Robertson to Gordon, 20 February 1830, AOT CSO 1/331/7578 pp 197–202; Gordon to Parramore, 20 February 1830, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 203–4

[24] Jorgenson to Anstey, 7 September 1829, AOT CSO, 1/331/7578, pp 146–52. See also Plomley, Jorgen Jorgenson, pp 25–7

[25] Robertson, Memorandum for a journal, 24 May 1829, p 81

[26] Robertson, Memorandum for a journal, 14 August 1829, p 82

[27] James Hobbs, evidence to Aborigines’ Committee, 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies Australia, 4, p 223

[28] Robertson, Memorandum for a journal, 14 November 1829, p 89

[29] Batman says the captured natives told him ten men were wounded but since Tasmanian natives could not count to ten this figure is too precise. For native numerical ability see the discussion in Chapter Eight, p 262

[30] Batman to Anstey, 7 September 1829, AOT CSO 1/320/7578 pp 142–5

[31] Statement on oath by Batman to Anstey and Simpson, 23 September 1829, AOT CSO 1/330/7578, pp 35–38

[32] Batman to Burnett, 8 July 1829, AOT CSO 1/321/7578, pp 88–9

[33] Hobart Town Courier, 26 September 1829, p 2; Plomley, Friendly Mission, p 105 n 50

[34] Batman to Anstey, 7 September 1829, AOT CSO 1/320/7578, pp 144; Anstey to Burnett, 4 May 1830, AOT CSO 1/320/7578, p 70

[35] Plomley, Jorgen Jorgenson, p 29; Robertson to Gordon, 20 February 1830, AOT CSO 1/331/7578, pp 197–204

[36] A ticket-of-leave was a certificate granting exemption from compulsory labour, allowing convicts employment of their choice: A. G. L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, Faber and Faber, London, 1966, p 73

[37] As well as those Batman shot and wounded, a roving party pursued a band of Aborigines near Blackman’s River in March 1830 and fired upon them. They found no bodies but blood on the ground indicated some had been wounded. They also shot dead a dog. Hobart Town Courier, 13 March 1830, p 3

One thought on “Inventing massacre stories

  • Mark A says:

    I’m attempting to put together the facts regarding the murder and cannibalism of some of the survivors of the Brig Maria that struck Bramble Reef and sunk–of Cardwell in 1872–and the SV Riser that struck and sunk on Kings Reef at present day Kurrimine Beach in 1878. Of the few mentions of either event are a few books but none widely read. There is a mention of the Maria incident in a display in the Cardwell Post Office Museum–which was in existence at the time of the sinking–and was from where Sydney was notified of the tragedy.

    My issue with the mention in the museum is that it reads as such, “Brutal deeds: Stories of violence persist from the early days of relations between Europeans and Aborigines. One involves the consequences of the shipwreck of the Maria. Two survivors reported that the others from the wreck were killed by a group of Aborigines. Reprisals, amounting to massacres, were organised under Sub-Inspectors Crompton and Johnstone. Official records of these types of activities are scarce”.

    As can be seen it is simply stated that survivors reported others were killed my Aborigines. It makes no mention of the manner of their death or the fact they were eaten by their murders. If the reader of this display had no knowledge of the event they would form the opinion that it was the Aboriginals that were the unfortunate victims.

    It seems it is not only a matter of massacres of Aboriginal peoples being invented but massacres of Europeans by Aboriginals being erased from our history. These are just two examples you could include the Cullen-la-Ringo massacre of 19 settlers near Springsure Qld in 1961. Cullen-la-Ringo is a good example of another massacre kept quiet because–unlike the Myall Creek massacre–it is not sign posted at all so if you don’t have any knowledge of the murders there is nothing to advise you otherwise.


    Mark Wiggins

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