Warning: This story includes names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Ask yourself and others a quick quiz. What was the Coniston massacre? Who boasted of having killed 31 people in Australia? What is William George Murray, also known as George William Murray, remembered for? The appalling truth is that for most of us Murray isn’t remembered for anything, yet it was he who boasted of killing 31 people and the true figure is probably much higher.
Many people reading this will never have heard of the Coniston Massacre. I hadn’t until I met someone who had been affected by it, Rhubee Neale, who comes from Alice Springs and describes herself as a beautiful mixture of Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Kaytetye and Irish stock. “It wasn’t centuries ago,” she said. “It was in 1928.”
In 1928, the area around Coniston station was the most western outpost of pastoral expansion in Central Australia. There had been a terrible four-year drought with white men and thirsty cattle competing for resources with Indigenous people. In 1928 George William Murray, also known as William George Murray, was in charge of the Barrow Creek police station and ironically had the title of Chief Protector of Aborigines.
Gallipoli is seared on our psyche and part of our national brand and we like to think of our Gallipoli veterans as national heroes but the little-known reality is that one veteran, Murray, returned and used the techniques he’d learned with the Light Horse brigade against the first Australians. This became the largely forgotten Coniston massacre.
We think of a massacre as being a single terrible event but actually the Coniston massacre is a collective name for a series of killings that took place at different locations, scattered over a wide area of inland Australia, over a period of weeks. In the company of other men armed with rifles and pistols, he rode into camps, dismounted from his horse and started shooting. Murray used a Lee-Enfield .303 which held a magazine of ten rounds and had a rapid fire rate. The Aboriginal people, defending their camps and their lives with spears and boomerangs, had no chance.
“It was not that long ago that my people were shot as a pest,” Neale said. “The effects of the massacres are still being felt. My aunties still talk about it and my people are in a state of shock.”
The National Museum of Australia places the number of dead as more than 60 and its exhibition on Coniston states, “For many Aboriginal people today, the events of 1928 are as much about the present as about the past”.
It was at the time of the massacres that a lot of Indigenous people, fleeing in terror, left their lands. “Many people were killed, of all ages,” Neale states. “Many fled into the bush to hide and stay alive. Many moved to stations and places where they would not be killed. The massacre affected people then and still does because it instilled fear, confusion and loss of family and land.”
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