World News

Were Killings at an Australian Cliff a ‘Massacre’? And Who Gets to Decide?

Posted December 4, 2018 10:47 a.m. EST

ELLISTON, Australia — Jack Johncock, a local leader of the Wirangu people, pointed toward the spot near Waterloo Bay where a group of Aboriginal Australians were pushed to their deaths from rocky cliffs above a ferocious sea. Some say a few were killed; others put the number at a few hundred.

“My body crawls just looking at it,” Johncock said.

He didn’t want to get too close.

He wouldn’t even be here in Elliston at all, a town he and other Wirangu had avoided for generations, if not for the presence of a new monument declaring that “a number of Aboriginal Australians were killed near this site in May, 1849 by a party of settlers.”

What happened at the cliffs was a massacre, in Johncock’s mind. And that’s what the monument commemorated: “an incident referred to by the traditional owners of this land as ‘The Massacre of Waterloo Bay.'”

But getting to that brief affirmation took more than a year of conflict.

“A lot of people didn’t want to accept the truth,” Johncock said.

In a remote town of a few hundred people — mostly farmers, small business owners and itinerant surfers — the debate over the monument’s message turned neighbors into enemies, shifted power in the local government and poisoned even the most routine interactions.

At the local pub, signs announcing Elliston Council meetings about the memorial were torn down. Petitions created by a small group of residents opposing the use of the word “massacre” on the monument led to shouting matches, combative Facebook posts, racist insults and tension that persists two months after the monument’s opening ceremony.

“It’s war,” said Kym Callaghan, who was the chairman of the Council when the monument vote was held. “Some of these people just can’t move forward.”

The vitriol and raw feelings reflect the grip Australia’s past still holds on this country, which has yet to fully grapple with its often ugly colonial history, even as long-buried atrocities continue to resurface and Aboriginal Australians press for their version of events to be recognized.

But the dispute caught many people in Elliston by surprise because the process to erect the monument had initially looked straightforward.

A few years ago, local officials proposed building a walking trail along the coast. The government funding agreement required that the town also build a monument of reconciliation with the area’s traditional owners.

By early last year, all the town needed to agree on were the words to be inscribed on the monument to describe what happened at Waterloo Bay.

“For me, it wasn’t a hard decision,” said Callaghan, a retired sheep farmer whose roots in the area run deep. “As a little bloke, my nana and my mum told me the blacks were driven off the cliff for the murder of Hamp.”

Robberies, Killings and Reprisals

John Hamp was a settler killed on a cattle station in June of 1848. The story Callaghan heard was that after Hamp’s murder, there were a string of violent events around Elliston that culminated with the deaths off the cliff.

But official histories and oral histories offered different details of precisely what happened.

According to a published history of the area and other official records, “Hamp’s death was followed in August 1848 by an ‘affray,’ the shooting of at least one Aborigine.” Then followed a succession of robberies, deaths and reprisals.

Five Aboriginal Australians died after stealing grain that white settlers appeared to have intentionally poisoned with arsenic. Next, a white woman was killed, leading two Aboriginal men to be hanged.

Finally, a settler’s hut was robbed, causing cattle hands to chase a group of Aboriginal suspects to the cliffs of Waterloo Bay.

At least two of the suspects were shot and killed there; a third died later, the official records say.

But according to the research of Dr. Tim Haines, an anthropologist hired by Elliston to advise it on the monument, there may well have been over 20 Aboriginal people killed.

And Wirangu oral history puts the number of dead much higher, in the hundreds.

The oral accounts also include harrowing details, absent from the written record.

Veda Betts, 76, a Wirangu elder, said that when her grandmother was a girl, she met a woman who told how she had survived the 1849 attack as a child by hanging onto a branch on the side of the cliffs.

“Our story is right,” Johncock said. “It’s the same one we’ve been passing down for years.”

These sorts of frontier conflicts played a major role in Australia’s settlement.

The most up-to-date map of the country’s colonial violence, from the University of Newcastle, shows 250 massacres occurring from 1788 to 1930. The map includes Waterloo Bay, where it says a “settler posse” shot and killed “at least 10 as they sought refuge in the bushes.”

Most of the map’s locations lack any monument or form of public recognition, which is why Elliston’s monument resonates so powerfully among Australia’s indigenous minority; it is one of the few places where their story has become the official narrative.

Written Records vs. Oral History

The people in town who opposed relying on oral history argued that they were adhering to established facts.

Caroline Gillett, a leader of the opposition who did not respond to requests for comment, told an early Council meeting that there was not sufficient written evidence to prove the massacre even took place, according to news reports.

“To recognize this falsehood is erroneous and terribly wrong,” she said, according to the reports.

At the meeting, she circulated a petition opposing the monument’s language. It ended up with around 60 names.

A follow-up petition gathered no more than 85, officials said, in a district of 1,300 people.

“This small group was just so scared of saying the word ‘massacre,'” Callaghan said.

The final vote in September 2017 was 7-1 in favor of the monument as it now stands.

On Nov. 6, Callaghan was re-elected to another term on the Council but was stripped of his position as chairman.

At his farm, a sprawling patch of bush, Callaghan said he felt more hurt by the way some of his neighbors responded during the feud than by losing the chairmanship.

And over the course of the monthslong debate, the issue became personal for him. He discovered that despite his searing blue eyes and light skin, his family has a measure of Aboriginal ancestry. He said his grandchildren, who look darker, have endured racist taunts at school.

There have been benefits, too, from the whole, painful process. He and Johncock have become close friends.

Many of the people who support the monument said the fight over the Elliston monument ultimately helped create an open, transparent model for other communities wrestling with the past.

“There are a lot of people who learned something,” said Ian Dudley, 38, a teacher at the local primary school. “We’ve got a complicated history. It hasn’t unfolded as some people want it to have unfolded.”

The monument sits on the edge of town, with a view of the cliffs. The sound of the loud, grinding surf, which defines this stretch of the South Australia coast, is constant. It is a solemn place, inviting silence.

For the Wirangu and the other local Aboriginal clans, the mere existence of the monument brings peace.

“The spirits will be at rest knowing this is taken care of,” said Veda Betts’ daughter, Sharon Betts, 47, an educator who works with local schools on Aboriginal issues.

Her mother, sitting across the kitchen table, nodded.

“It’s progress,” she said. “But we need for more of this to happen. Everywhere.”