Thursday, September 27, 2007

Black Armband 3: Aftermath of the Maria massacre

(Moogie Sumner, right, a proud descendent of the Coorong people, in traditional body ochre designs as leader of the Coorong mob dancers.)

Most South Australians, if they bothered to think about it at all today, would probably say that, compared to the other Australian colonies, SA was settled relatively peacefully.

Actually, it was unsettled very violently.

So much so that, four years after the birth of the colony in 1836, senior administrators were referring to international law in an effort to prove that Aborigines along the frontier were nations at war with Britain and deserving of extermination.

The particular frontier that prompted this search for a justification for genocide was the coastal stretch known today as the Coorong where the Salt Creek, or Milmenrura, people had killed two whalers in 1839, following possible involvement in the killing of explorer Captain Collett Barker at the Murray Mouth in 1831.

Murder of the Maria survivors

In June 1840, the brig Maria was wrecked at the bottom end of the Coorong en route from Hobart to Adelaide. Twenty-six crew and passengers survived, but confused as to their whereabouts, apparently negotiated with the Milmenrura to be taken to the nearest township of Victor Harbor on the other side of the Mouth.

Perhaps because some of the crew made sexual advances to Milmenrura women, or perhaps because the Milmenrura wanted the clothing and other possessions of the survivors, or perhaps because the survivors tried to force the Milmenrura to enter land which was not theirs to enter, or perhaps because the Milmenrura simply saw a chance to kill a part of the invasion population, the rescued party never made it further than present-day Meningie. They were all killed. (For more information, see here.)

Punishment by hanging

A punitive force under Major O’Halloran (below), the Commissioner of Police, was despatched under orders from the colonial Governor, George Gawler to “make prisoners the whole

number congregated with the murderers…(if) you are really compelled to abandon temperate measures, and to resort to those of extreme force, you will not be held blamable…your warfare is not with any but the tribe by which the murder was committed…Should your mind become satisfied of the guilt as to actual participation in the murder of any number not exceeding three, you will, if possible, move the whole tribe in your power to the spot at which the murder was committed. You will there explain to the blacks the nature of your conduct, and the orders you have received from the Governor, and you will deliberately and formally cause sentence of death to be executed by shooting or hanging…”

The following account of the expedition comes from the reminiscences of Inspector Tolmer of the Mounted Police:

“The result of that day’s proceedings was the capture by the land and boat party of thirteen men, two lads, and about fifty women and children. Without exception, they all wore articles of European clothing, belonging to the murdered people, more or less stained with blood…

“(The following morning) we descried a couple of natives who wore European clothing…As they had already gained some distance into the lake, and it was evident they would escape, Major O’Halloran then ordered the police…to fire…Bonney had the first shot at them, which evidently told, by the sound of the thud that followed…

“…sword in hand, I followed the tracks of the fugitives which were marked with blood, and discovered them behind a thicket. One was lying down, supported by the other, and as I approached they commenced a series of lamentations….Upon examining them, I found that one had received a shot in the cheek, another in the shoulder, and a third in the neck, and that the other was also wounded in the shoulder. They were bleeding profusely, and, naturally, thinking they must soon die from the effects, I left them…

“During the day, the captives pointed out one of their number as the actual murderer of a whaler named Roach…and further made known to Major O’Halloran that one of the murderers of the crew of the Maria was on the mainland opposite our camp, and could be secured…Both these men, voluntarily given up by their tribe, were powerfully made, and stood nearly six feet high, with countenances the most ferocious and demon-like I ever beheld.

“…early on the 25th August…the two condemned men were handcuffed together, marched in front under special charge of two police troopers and myself; and the other prisoners followed, escorted by Major O’Halloran and the rest of the police.

“On arrival at the place of execution, which was about fifteen miles from our camp, we halted; but as the whole strip of land between the Coorong and the sea is destitute of trees of any size, Captain Pullen was despatched to the mainland to cut down the tallest Shea oaks he could find, with which to erect the gallows…

“Whilst the foregoing preparations were going on, the whole of the prisoners (men, women and children) formed a semi-circle in front of the gallows…

“When everything was reported ready, the culprits were made to stand on a box, expressly brought for that purpose. The nooses were then passed over their heads, and the slip-knots having been properly adjusted, the box was suddenly withdrawn at a given signal, but unfortunately the fall was not sufficient to cause the dislocation of the neck, besides which the ropes stretched to such an extent, with the immense weight of the condemned men’s bodies, that they remained simply suspended, their toes touching the sand, and their eyes glaring upwards at the cross-beam.

“Horrified at the failure of the execution, the Major sat on his horse almost paralysed, and knew not what to do, when one of Captain Pullen’s crew, named Barber, quickly stepped forward, and saluting the Major, said –

‘I beg pardon, Major, but I’ll soon hang them if you’ll let me.’

‘Do, Barber, anything; but be quick!’

“In a few moments, a couple of lines were procured from the whale-boat; the ends were then thrown over the cross-beam and securely fastened behind the men’s pinioned arms, and then pulled up some height from the ground. Barber then said ‘Now, Major, when you drop your handkerchief we’ll let go,’ which was no sooner said than done, and thus the unfortunate wretches were launched into eternity, dying instantaneously. Some of the sand, however, had to be removed from under their feet, so as to allow the bodies to swing freely without touching.” (Alexander Tolmer, Reminiscences of an Adventurous and Chequered Career.)

The Aftermath

This extra-judicial execution of the two Milmenrura men (Mongarawata and Pilgarie) was not without controversy, both within the colony, and in Britain.

Gawler (right) asserted that “The natives as being practical atheists, unacquainted with the obligation of an oath, or solemn declaration, are not in British law valid witnesses.” He also believed that it was “imperative that retribution should be inflicted.”

But how to inflict the retribution “beyond the limits of ordinary British justice”? He decided to consider the Coorong as “a disturbed state” and to proceed “on the basis of martial law.” However, this would be seen as “injurious” to the good name of the colony, so with the connivance of the governing Council of the colony, he refrained from issuing a decree for martial law.

“I know of no other mode than that of martial law by which the Aborigines can be dealt with in similar cases of ferocious aggression…” he said.

Aware of criticisms of what had happened, he added: “I consider it my duty to have no share in that unhealthy sentiment, by some persons miscalled philanthropy, which…would allow impunity to wanton crimes.”

Gawler would have made a good shock-jock in today’s world, assailing the “bleeding hearts” for supporting criminals and being soft on Laura Norder!

Enter Vattel, stage right.

Following Gawler’s retrospective justification for undeclared martial law against the Aborigines, Robert Burnard, the colony’s new Advocate-General weighed in and quoted 18th Century Emerich de Vattel, a Swiss philosopher, diplomat and legal expert whose theories are still credited with having laid the foundation of modern international law and political philosophy.

Burnard sought to prove that the Aborigines of the colony, particularly those beyond the confines of European “settlement”, were not required to be accorded the rights of British citizens, and that their extermination was quite justified.

“…it may be necessary,” he said, “to view such tribes…as a separate state or nation, not acknowledging, but acting independently of, and in opposition to British interests and authority.”

He went on: “The rights of the Aboriginal proprietors of the soil are thus described by Vattel:- ‘Those nations (such as the ancient Germans or some modern Tartars) who inhabit fertile countries, but disdain to cultivate their lands, and choose rather to live by plunder, are wanting to themselves, are injurious to their neighbours, and deserve to be extirpated as savage and pernicious beasts. There are others who, to avoid labour, choose to live only by hunting and their flocks. This might, doubtless, be applied in the first ages of the world, when the earth, without cultivation, produced more than was sufficient to feed its small number of inhabitants. But at present, when the human race is so greatly multiplied, it could not subsist if all nations were disposed to live in that matter. Those who still pursue this idle mode of life, usurp more extensive territories than with a reasonable share of labour they would have occasion for; and have, therefore, no reason to complain, if other nations, more industrious, and too closely confined, come to take possession of a part of their lands…’

“This passage,” the Adocate-General concludes, “establishes that savage erratic tribes are to be considered as nations…(that) deserve to be extirpated as savage and pernicious beasts.”

Burnard reviewed his arguments and then, referring to the Maria massacre, concludes: “The crime therefore was to be regarded, not as that of individual British subjects, but of a whole hostile tribe, that is, of a nation at enmity with her Majesty’s subjects.”

So spoke the respectable gentlemen who comprised the ruling elite of the young colony.

There was no doubt in their minds that a frontier war existed between the settler regime and the Aboriginal nations, the latter deserving to be “extirpated”.

We would call this genocide today.

Let those among the Howardites who would bury the past and disparage the so-called “black armband” view of history tremble.

The facts will out!

And they will play their part in smashing the racist apartheid laws that Howard, with Labor support, has introduced in the Northern Territory.

(Pellampellamwallah, an Aboriginal woman of the Coorong. She has all her food gathering equipment with her: a net bag, a sedge basket and digging stick. She is wearing a sedge cloak and is carrying live coals between to pieces of bark. Artist : GF Angas, 1844 (AA8).


Margaret Wise said...

The 'Maria' was no lost on a voyage from Hobart to Adelaide. It was on it's return voyage from Port Adelaide to Hobart from when it departed on 26 June, 1840 when it was shipwrecked on the Coorong. Passengers who were subsequently murdered had intentions of re-settling in Hobart Town.

womblepeter said...

You state that "A punitive force under Major O’Halloran, the Commissioner of Police, was despatched under orders from the colonial Governor, George Gawler to “make prisoners the whole"

The history sites refer to many authorities that clearly state: ..."that before the Major reached the site he was recalled due to Gawler's replacement on the 10/4/1841". - - He did return under the instructions of the new governor Grey much later. I think you have cast Gawler in the role of villian for the dreadful act perpitrated by Major O'Halloran when under the command of Grey.
Peter Tyler U.K. A student of South Australian history