Remembering the Coniston Massacre 85 years on

“It was not so long in the history of the Australian nation that this terrible thing happened. It is a part of Australian history we cannot ignore, let alone forget and for the Warlpiri people it is a history of irreplaceable loss” – John Ah Kit, NT parliament 2003

Yurrkuru Soakage, NT. Photo: George Serras.
Yurrkuru Soakage, NT. Photo: George Serras.

Around now, we should be commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory, the last major act in the 140 year war of occupation for Australia. I say “around now” because the killing went on for over six weeks between August and October 1928 and “should” because it received scant media exposure, with SBS the honourable exception. While we remember overseas wars in intimate detail, there is little appetite to commemorate a massacre of 100 deaths on Australian soil across many sites that happened well into the 20th century. The trigger was a black on white murder, because, as native bush worker Paddy Tucker said matter-of-factly, “no Aboriginal could be allowed to get away with shooting a white man on the frontier, whatever the circumstances.”

Aboriginals have lived in Central Australia for millennia but it had only been a frontier for the last 70 years. The first white man in the region was explorer John McDouall Stuart who launched expeditions from Adelaide in the 1850s and 60s. On his fourth journey in April 15, 1860 he described the valleys of the MacDonnell Ranges “as fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess”. The Overland Telegraph Line brought more whites in the 1870s and the first cattle. Native tribes resisted the invasion, but they kept coming. The trickle became a flood inspired by gold finds at Halls Creek in 1909 and the federal push to develop the Northern Territory after taking it over from South Australia in 1911.

Coniston cattle station was founded after World War I and stocked with cattle in 1923. It remains a working station on the edge of the Tanami Desert, 300km northwest of Alice Springs. Its advantage in a dry area is a sustainable natural water supply fed by a huge underground basin. Founding pastoralist Randal Stafford named Coniston for his native town in the English Lake District. The Australian Coniston was a much harsher environment and the last frontier between British and Aboriginal law.

Today the nearest Aboriginal town to Coniston is Yuendumu established in 1946 by the Australian Government Native Affairs Branch for Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people. Before Yuendumu, the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people lived scattered lives through the region as did the Kaytetye. They watched uneasily as properties like Coniston used waterholes for stock. The Warlpiri saw the prospectors, pastoralists and other travellers as ruthless trespassers who damaged sacred sites and stole their waterholes, and sometimes, like Stafford, stole their women.

At Broadmeadows Stafford’s neighbour William John (“Nugget”) Morton held the Aborigines in disdain always sitting back to them in camp. He was vicious and sadistic, and thought nothing of stealing the wives of hands working for him. Morton ruled by fear and the whip he dealt out to whites and blacks.

Problems with difficult cattlemen were worsened by a drought that crippled central Australia from 1924. Aboriginals gravitated to the few remaining good waterholes at Coniston and Broadmeadows, spearing cattle to supplement their meagre diet. In August 1928, Cockatoo Creek pastoralist Charles Young reported things were bad at Coniston and “the niggers seemed to be out of control”. Young said they came to his camp demanding food and tobacco. “They all had spears and boomerangs and were semi-civilised blacks,” Young said. “We were armed with Winchester rifles all the time. I fired over the heads of the blacks several times, they cleared out.” With settlers and locals competing for resources, central Australia was a tinderbox ready to ignite.

The spark was veteran Coniston cattle hand, Fred Brooks, aged 67 in 1928. Brooks had known Stafford for years and helped him establish Coniston. There was no money for wages during the drought so he supplemented income by dingo trapping. He bought two camels and took two Aboriginal boys on an expedition. Brooks knew the local tribes and was not worried by growing tensions. The party set up camp at Yurrkuru Soakage near Warlpiri families that Fred probably knew from seasonal work at Coniston.

Bullfrog Japanangka was one of a group of Warlpiri at Yurrkuru and he had three wives. At gunpoint, Brooks demanded he loan him two wives to gather firewood and act as camp assistants. Brooks promised Bullfrog food and tobacco in return. A few days later, Bullfrog was still waiting for payment while his third wife also ended up in Brooks’ camp. Enraged he attacked Brooks’ camp with other warriors. He commanded his wives to hold Fred’s hand behind his back. One warrior hit Brooks on the head with a yamstick, while Bullfrog hit him several times on the head with an axe. Other men hit him with boomerangs and axes. Brooks died and was hastily buried with one foot sticking out of a shallow grave. His Aboriginal helpers raced to Coniston to raise the alarm. Bullfrog and his family escaped to the mountains and played no further part in the following events.

Once Stafford found out about Brooks’ murder, he rang Police Commissioner John Cawood in Alice Springs. Cawood said mounted constable and “Protector of Aborigines” George Murray was heading to the region to investigate cattle killings in Pine Hill and Coniston. Murray drove to Stafford’s property to borrow horses for patrols. Murray was a war veteran and Cawood’s formal instructions were to arrest the culprits and avoid violence where possible. But it was tacitly understood Murray would “teach them a lesson”. Murray arrived at Coniston on August 12 and interviewed Brooks’ black accomplices. He was there three days later when two warriors arrived. After a scuffle Murray shot and wounded one and chained them to a tree overnight. The two men were on a list of 20 people Murray believed were involved in the murder. The following day Murray led a patrol of seven including Stafford and his two prisoners to a Warlpiri camp 18km west of Coniston.

Though Murray told the posse not to shoot unless necessary, he rushed in ahead causing consternation in the camp. When he tried to make arrests, they fought back. Murray fired two shots and several of the posse including Stafford also fired their guns. One of them, Jack Saxby, later said, “You cannot arrest these bush blacks.” At least five Aborigines died in this first act of reprisal, according to the whites’ testimony at the later Board of Inquiry. Further west, the posse picked up more Warlpiri tracks and surrounded a party of blacks. At least eight, possibly 14, warriors were shot dead. Two more were shot dead as they tried to escape at Cockatoo Spring with Murray proud of his revolver shot “at least 150 yards distant”. The patrol returned to Coniston and Stafford took no further part in the remaining killing.

The next encounter was at Six Mile Soak where Saxby said they surrounded a camp. He was stationed at the back to see none escaped. “I could tell the blacks were showing fight, by their talk and the rattle of their weapons,” Saxby said. He heard Murray telling them to put down their weapons then heard shots. “The blacks saw me coming and threw a couple of spears,” he said. “I jumped off my horse and fired four or five shots with my rifle. I do not know whether I hit them or not. I certainly tried.” At least six more were dead. The killing party moved towards the WA border where the spree continued. When asked by the Board of Inquiry, “Did you shoot to kill Mr Murray?” he responded, “Every time…Well, what could I do with wounded blackfellows?”

Missionary Annie Lock was horrified by tales natives told her. It was, “the story of one surprise visit after another to native camps by the police, each time resulting in the shooting and killing of natives.” Some told her there were 80 killed, others had a smaller total. “At the official inquiry the number given was 17, but 70 was the number generally believed in the bush,” she said.

An Aboriginal war party attacked Nugget Morton thinking he was about to start a massacre (this may have been based on a misunderstanding as he was about to kill a beast). Morton escaped by horse. Murray’s party went to Pine Hill to investigate cattle thefts. They met a sizeable group of Kaytetye warriors in three encounters and although no record survives, it is likely there were considerable Aboriginal casualties. While there was acceptance in frontier society of “an eye for an eye”, unease was growing over Murray’s bloodthirsty rampage. On September 11, the first account of the slaughter appeared in an Adelaide newspaper.

Commissioner Cawood needed to investigate Morton’s attackers but Murray had gone too far. Yet because of a manpower shortage, Murray was instructed to prepare for a third patrol to Morton’s Broadmeadows station. The killings continued wherever Murray’s party encountered Aborigines. In one incident, Murray reported “even after several shots were fired it did not steady them. When order was restored it was found there were eight killed.” At the end of the patrol Murray and Morton estimated they had killed 14 warriors. The killing ended when Murray had to go to Darwin for the trial of two men accused of Brooks’ murder.

The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra was brief. It started on November 7, 1928, three months after Brooks’ death. Murray summarised the first patrol where Padygar was arrested at the start and Arkirka at the end. But the one white who had seen Brooks’ body, Bruce Chapman, was himself dead. Murray admitted he shot to kill in reprisal. The jury acquitted the pair in 15 minutes. The Adelaide newspaper wrote “Press, pulpit, and the general public unanimously agree with the jury’s verdict in the aboriginal trial, and are shocked by the candid admissions of the police they shot to kill natives who showed fight when overtaken.”

A key figure in raising awareness was Methodist lay minister Athol McGregor of Katherine. McGregor heard 17 Aboriginals were shot dead in one punitive raid at Stuart Town. He confronted Commissioner Cawood who defended the killing. Cawood became worried when McGregor wanted a Board of Inquiry. McGregor encouraged journalists to cover the Darwin trial and Murray’s testimony gave them their headlines. A League of Nations representative made negative comments. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Cabinet Ministers were inundated with letters and petitions demanding an inquiry though most Stuart Town residents thought they were “do-gooders” who did not understand frontier conditions.

Bruce chose the Board with a whitewash in mind, over the considerable protests of McGregor and others. The chairman was a Cairns police magistrate, the second a SA police inspector and the third was Commissioner Cawood. The inquiry went from December 30, 1928 to January 16, 1929, with a closure summary February 7. It called 30 witnesses but skimmed over the issue of settlers taking Aboriginal wives apart from a few bushman denials. They blamed Missionaries for preaching a doctrine of equality, even though none were at Coniston before the attacks. Cawood instructed Murray to keep quiet about the second patrol in which he admitted 14 had died, to add to the 17 officially admitted in the first patrol. Murray never conceded the combined 31 deaths constituted a massacre. He was a policeman doing his job. Policeman Paddy from Murray’s party was the only Aboriginal witness called. He lied about seeing Brooks’ body and was never cross-examined.

The findings were inevitable. Murray accepted responsibility for most deaths. The board accepted Murray’s evidence he had always called upon Aboriginal men to put down their weapons and that he only shot in self-defence. The Board concluded the shootings were justified and they blamed “cheeky” Aborigines intent on driving whites from their country. Though the Board accepted there was a drought, it agreed with Murray’s comment: “There was no such thing as starvation in any part of the country I have travelled to.” The whitewash concluded.

A friend of historian Dick Kimber asked Murray, “Did you really kill 31 blackfellows?” Murray’s response was “that’s all they investigated.” The Central Land Council’s booklet, “Making Peace With The Past” (2003) said the toll was likely double that. Missionary Annie Luck heard from eye-witnesses it was at least 70. Douglas Lockwood’s 1964 book, “Up The Track” discussed the shootings with 70-year-old Anmatjira man George Japaljari. “All of old George’s friends and relatives were shot. The only survivor was George. They were bad … bad … times”.

Mervyn Hartwig’s “The Coniston Killings” (1960) had access to Murray as well as Luck and other pastors. He said 70 to 105 is “the more correct number”. Kimber thinks it was 70 to 80 but “a further 100 or more people, mostly men, were shot in the station country under consideration, and in a wider general area from Central Mount Wedge in a western arc through Mount Farewell to Tanami.” For the Warlpiri spread far from their lands, Coniston’s consequences continue. For most whites on the frontier, the war was over and the bloodbath was justified to “teach the blacks a lesson”. Over the years that conviction became unease and eventually descended into silence. Even today Coniston is peripheral, because it does not make us “feel comfortable and relaxed about our history.”

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