The Guardian October 22, 2003


Massacre history "should be taught"

Aboriginal leaders and politicians have called on the Federal 
Government to ensure schoolchildren are taught the "true" history 
of the nation's shameful past. The call came at an emotional 
ceremony deep in the remote Australian outback to mark the 75th 
anniversary of one of the nation's most recent Aboriginal 
massacres.

The massacre took place at Coniston, about 300 km north-west of 
Alice Springs in 1928, following the murder of a white man. 
Police killed between 31 and 100 Aboriginal men, women and 
children.

A flawed and widely criticised inquiry, which did not hear from 
Aboriginal witnesses, later found police acted in self-defence.

In a remarkable act of reconciliation, descendants of those 
killed last month met and embraced relatives of the police 
officer who led the punitive killings.

"It's not about payback", ATSIC acting Chairman Lionel 
Quartermaine said. "It's about acknowledging what took place and 
how best we can go forward".

The Coniston massacre of 1928 has been told and retold among 
generations of Aborigines in Central Australia, but many other 
Australians are still unaware of the brutal events.

Mr Quartermaine said Australia needs to face up to its "shameful 
history" for true reconciliation to occur. "Australian children 
need to be taught about the history so this country can move on 
and be at peace with itself. Only the truth can set this country 
free", he said.

"In this country we talk about wars at a far distance and we 
always say 'lest we forget', yet we say to Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander people 'forget it, forget what took place'."

Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion described the day as a 
true act of reconciliation. He said he would speak to the Federal 
Government to ensure children in the mainstream education were 
taught about past massacres like Coniston.

"We can't change history but we can make sure it's written 
according to what actually happened. Reconciliation is genuinely 
in the hands of our children" , Senator Scullion said.

For 64-year-old Marita Ah Chee, a member of the Stolen 
Generations, the day was vital to the healing process. "I never 
thought this would happen", Mrs Ah Chee said. "It's so positive 
to see this happen today. I can tell my grandchildren we made 
peace with the policeman's niece. I gave her a hug".

The Coniston massacre occurred during a series of raids around 
Coniston Station as payback for the death of a white dingo 
trapper, Frederick Brooks.

Mrs Ah Chee remembers her mother telling her how she survived 
being hunted down by a police officer by running at night as his 
party slept. "Everything that moved he was shooting".

According to legend, Brooks was killed by an Aboriginal man named 
Bullfrog at the place now called Brooks Soak, a soak on a dried 
up riverbed about 20km south of Coniston Station.

Bullfrog was either angry about his wife sleeping with Brooks, or 
that the white man had failed to honour his side of a deal for 
tobacco and sugar rations.

Before long the bush telegraph had exaggerated the murder into an 
incident where 30-40 Aboriginal people had apparently murdered 
and chopped up Brooks and shoved his remains down a rabbit hole.

Constable William George Murray arrived on the scene around the 
same time, to investigate reports of cattle-killing in the area.

Determined to teach the locals a lesson, and failing to 
investigate the murder properly, Murray set out on a campaign of 
violence that was to leave dozens of Aboriginal men, women and 
children dead over the next few weeks.

Murray's grand-nephew Chas Dale said he felt "deep heartfelt 
sorrow" for the victims. Like Mrs Ah Chee, Dr Dale said he grew 
up hearing stories of his Uncle George.

But it was not until later in life that he realised the 
devastating impact of his great-uncle's actions. "My father told 
me Uncle George was a legend  naturally enough I grew up proud 
of Uncle George", Mr Dale said in a letter to the local 
Aboriginal people.

"His values and attitudes were proudly passed on from Uncle 
George to my father, and from my father to me.

"But my lack of feeling, my lack of compassion, became a terrible 
burden for me. I have come to realise how very terrible the 
killing times were to all involved.

"I'm two generations removed yet these times have been 
devastating to me. I can barely imagine the impact of these 
killing times on those directly involved.

"I'm slowly healing from my past and I hope that my sorrow 
expressed to you today can help you heal . your wounds of our 
tragic past."

Now the ghosts of Brooks Soak have finally been acknowledged and 
laid to rest, Aboriginal leaders and politicians are looking to 
the future.

They want to ensure the lessons of the past are never forgotten.

* * *
Acknowledgements to Koori Mail

Back to index page