Three lives Part 2 – Bussamarai’s opera

Forty years after Bennelong’s death (see Part 1), equal terms between black and white were forgotten as white Australia pushed out from the coast. Pastoralism provided the impetus for territorial expansion, encouraged by British demand for Australian wool. Legally the justification was terra nullius. Chief Justice Forbes called Australia an ‘uninhabited country’ but it was the settlers making it uninhabitable for the blacks. Squatters, blinded by profits, simply stole the land and when Aborigines fought back they were killed. Their mere presence was enough for them to be shot or poisoned – men, women and children. This was true in southern Queensland’s Maranoa as elsewhere, but there a Mandandanji resistance leader would put on a show as elaborate as Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip and just as meaningful.

In April 1850 white settlers near Surat were invited to a corroboree, what Gideon Lang would later call an ‘opera’. The conductor said Lang, was ‘Eaglehawk’ (Bussamarai) who sat behind a choir of black women while men on stage acted out an elaborate play. With astonishing mimicry the actors played cattle grazing in the fields. Next they became black warriors sneaking up to spear cattle. Then others playing ‘manufactured whites’ starting shooting the ‘blacks’. To the great joy of the mainly non-white audience, the ‘blacks’ overwhelmed the ‘whites’ at the end of the opera. Bussamarai’s message was he could combine five local tribes to drive the whites from the country. The lessons the whites drew was equally clear: bring in the native police.

The history is scant on Bussamarai/Eaglehawk, two of his four names along with Old Billy and Possum Murray (Bussamarai may be a backward formation from Possum Murray). The first squatters searched Mandandanji lands around 1842 when Finney Eldershaw and others scouted the Maranoa and Balonne Rivers. Thomas Mitchell came through in 1846 and he was a close friend of NSW parliamentary secretary and fellow Scot William Macpherson. William’s son Allan had a property in New England and Macpherson junior was excited by Mitchell’s diary entry for the Maranoa: ‘fine open country, and from the abundance of good pasturage around it, I named it Mt Abundance’.

Armed with Mitchell’s maps, Macpherson capitalised on a March 1847 Order in Council possibly drafted by his father which granted frontier squatters 14-year leases. Macpherson claimed 400,000 acres of ‘the most beautiful land that ever sheep’s eyes travelled over’. Within a week the blacks appeared, frightening his men ‘into convulsions’. The fear was mutual, the natives dreading Macpherson’s double-barrelled carbine and horse. While Macpherson was away, they killed two shepherds and stole a thousand sheep. Macpherson was forced out after two years of ‘sundry conflicts with the hostile blacks’ and while he believed the grass was no use to them, he admitted ‘they no doubt thought they had a better right to the land than we did’.

While Macpherson showed some conscience, other quieter settlers who followed did not. Men like Thomas Hall, Henry Dangar, Robert Fitzgerald and Joseph Fleming were a ‘social destructive group’ from the Gwydir wars with a ‘single-minded quest for wealth and status’. Hardened by the Myall Creek massacre and subsequent hanging of seven whites, they had a new unwritten law: ‘death by stealth’. In 1859 drover William Telfer heard about the slaughter that occurred after Macpherson’s time. Telfer was a witness to the Waterloo Creek killings and Telfer’s Wallabadah manuscript describes several massacres in the Maranoa including a ‘fight’ on Fleming’s property with a ‘Cheif [sic] who was shot with about fifty others’.

Bussamarai was also active, killing settlers at Dulacca until a posse tracked his mob down to the Grafton Ranges. There they captured “a powerful man”. Though later released, Bussamarai did not forget his humiliation and forced Blyth to evacuate his station in October 1848. The absentee Gwydir landlords allowed 20 or so ‘insubordinate and lawless white workers’ to kill 80 Mandandanji in two years. The elusive Bussamarai’s talents got grudging tribute. Hovenden Hely, in the Maranoa in 1852 to search for Leichhardt, described Bussamarai as ‘the head and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there’ but admitted he was a ‘chief of great repute’. With squatters agitating for native troopers, his time was up. Native Police Sergeant Skelton recounted the end after a fight in November 1852 “they [Bussamarai and another] were both shot in the attempt to apprehend them”.

Bussamarai’s death was one of hundreds in the violent Maranoa frontier war from 1846 to 1856. The war moved up from the Gwydir and across from the Darling Downs and later moved north towards the Dawson River. The ruthless competition for land that led to Bussamarai’s death was forgotten and buried under pioneer legends. Through storytelling, the frontier was transformed into a battle between (white) humans and nature. But until it is accepted the frontier was a war zone, reconciliation of the past with present will remain an elusive goal.

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