It was on this day in 1838 that the Myall Creek Massacre took place, when eleven convict and ex-convict stockmen led by a squatter, brutally slaughtered a group of at least twenty eight Aboriginal men, women and children who were camped peacefully at Myall Creek cattle station in northern New South Wales.
(For those readers who are not aware of what happened at Myall Creek, I encourage you to look at the websites listed below, where, the details are given the space and time that a blog like this does not permit.)
On the one hand, Australian historians agree that the Myall Creek Massacre is just one example of many, many similar acts of brutality and murder perpetrated by white settlers and convicts against Aboriginal peoples.
On the other hand though, the Myall Creek massacre was a unique event in Australia’s history, as one of the few accounts where there is irrefutable, detailed evidence of the atrocity committed and the only time in Australia’s history that white men were arrested, charged and hanged for the massacre of Aboriginal peoples.
The reason for this thorough account is itself fraught with complexity. To summarise, the massacre at Myall Creek was only thoroughly investigated and documented because non-Aboriginal people pursued justice as their various roles allowed them to. And whilst it is appropriate that we recognise the way these men used their power and privilege to seek justice for Aboriginal peoples, we can not ignore the fact that, had they not, there would have been absolutely no earthly pathway for Aboriginal people to pursue these outcomes.
It’s a familiar tension, isn’t it? A tension that must be continually grappled with as we work towards justice. At best, this tension compels us to take any privilege we have and use it to change systems so that equality increases and our privilege decreases. At worst, it sees us standing on platforms, speaking on issues that we have no lived experience of, and recounting other peoples stories.
Reflecting on Myall Creek, none of us can really know whether those non-Aboriginal people who pursued justice – as witnesses, police, prosecutors and judge – were doing the best that they could do to work towards justice at a time where injustice had such a foothold.
But we can wrestle with the tension and determine to do our best today. We can look at the systems and structures that maintain inequality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and others, and work to reform them. We can endeavour to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and understand their perspective. We can give them our own platforms and opportunities to speak from. And we can ask ourselves the hard questions, and humbly revise our efforts when we realise that our best intentions are paternalistic and disempowering.