The Guardian • Issue #1946

Frontier war stories – The great lawman, Dundalli

Boe Spearim, a Gamilaraay, Kooma, and Marrawarri radio host has brought out a groundbreaking podcast series, Frontier Wars Stories, which is dedicated to truth-telling about the side of Australia which has been left out of the history books. The series focuses on events between the 19th and the early 20th century which shaped the initial colonialist period and sheds light on the courageous and influential First Nations people of this time. One of the discussed resistance leaders is Dundalli, a First Nations lawman, who is celebrated for his achievements in South East Queensland on 5th January marking the day of his unjust execution.

While the knowledge and insight from the range of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal guests on this show provides a wealth of historical information, it also provides an opportunity to reshape ignorant perceptions. The tactics used to oppress and subjugate First Nations people are eye-opening and disturbing, and carry many parallels to today. It is clear that colonisation is not only historical, but ongoing, with the continued celebration of Australia Day on 26th January, the Cashless Welfare Cards disproportionate effect on First Nations people, the continued destruction of Aboriginal land by mining companies and governments alike, and bla(c)k deaths in custody.

Dundalli, a tall young man, first comes into the colonialist history books in 1841 as a negotiator with white missionaries. He is thought to have come from the Dalambara clan, but was adopted by the Djindubari (Bribie Island) people after he spent extensive time in the area.

His diplomacy with white settlers is short-lived however, after he hears of several deplorable crimes, such as the mass poisoning of Aboriginal people in Kilcoy in 1842. It is suspected that in 1843, a white shepherd connected to the mass poisoning at Kilcoy was wounded by a spear by one of Dundalli’s mob. This points to evidence that Dundalli was only responding to violence from white settlers by means of democratic First Nations law and order. This system was used to restore justice and equality, so in essence, many attacks were executions by trial.

Another example of this justice was after the murder the great leader Moppy’s son, Multuggerah, who was also a great Yugerra leader and warrior. In 1846, Dundalli sent six warriors to Mount Mee to capture and execute three whites who had connection to Multuggerah’s death.

In 1847, following the rape and sexual assault of Quandamooka (Stradbroke Island) girls and women by white men, Dundalli ordered warriors to Whiteside station, where these men worked, after they had been found not guilty by the British court. Two of the men were executed by Dundalli’s mob, and one was wounded.

There are other later instances where Dundalli was blamed for the murder of white settlers; however, all accounts have either poor evidence or look obvious motive, in terms of justice for crimes by the colonialists. Dundalli was only acting in accordance with agreements reached through wide intertribal negotiations.

By the early 1850s, Dundalli had a huge price on his head for his capture, but he was only found in 1854 when he came back to Brisbane. It is said he possibly came back to help settle a dispute between tribes. Unfortunately, an Aboriginal traitor identified him, and he was arrested and sent to jail. As Dundalli was a large man with notable fighting skills, the jailers kept him chained and isolated for about six months until his trial. The all-white jury found him guilty of the murder of two men, with very shonky evidence, and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

At this time, execution by hanging had already been outlawed in Great Britain, and most whites agreed it was a barbaric act. Regardless of this, in Australia, it was still legal, but most hangings were conducted behind closed doors. Dundalli however, was one of the last people to be hanged publicly, as a warning to First Nations resistance leaders.

On 5th January, 1855, Dundalli spoke his final words, firstly demanding the whites to stop the unfair execution, but finishing by speaking to his mob in Gubbi Gubbi something to the effect of “My country – my law. Avenge me according to our law.” It could be argued Dundalli’s hanging is the equivalent to sentencing a judge to death for convicting criminals.

First Nations people at this year’s Dundalli Day made these demands regarding the historical figure.

To erect a statue of Dundalli in Brisbane’s Post Office Square – the place where he lost his life, and to move the plaque about him to it;

To rename Post Office Square to Dundalli Square; and

To overturn his convictions to correct the record and clear his name, as he was not a murderous criminal, but a lawman and warrior who fought to preserve the laws and sovereignty of his country and his people.

It should be noted that the story of Dundalli dispels many myths and propaganda which have been pushed on First Nations people to further rob them of their history and culture in the continued act of colonisation. For example, as Boe mentions on the podcast, it has been assumed that First Nations people were placid and surrendered easily. The reality is, there is a strong and detailed history of warrior resistance from indigenous people, by which First Nations people can be proud – and find encouragement in the continued struggle for sovereignty and recognition.

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