Major Mitchell and the Maranoa

The Maranoa is far from Scotland but it was the fertile woody lands west of Roma that most appealed to the Stirlingshire-born surveyor-general of NSW, Thomas Mitchell.

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army who earned his stripes with Wellington in the 1811 Iberian Campaign against Napoleon. The Duke was so impressed by the young Scot, barely 19, he commissioned him to survey the battlefields. After 16 years of military service the Crown asked him to perform the same duties for the young colony of New South Wales as Deputy Surveyor-General.

Mitchell’s boss was John Oxley who had opened up several areas to white settlers including the Lachlan, Macquarie and Tweed Rivers. With botanist Allan Cunningham, Oxley beat an inland path to what would become Queensland via the Brisbane River. But the difficulties of explorations led to Oxley’s death in 1828 aged 45. Oxley’s ill-health was always in Mitchell’s mind and suddenly he was promoted into the role he would keep for the next 27 years and four major explorations. The first in 1831 took Mitchell directly north of Sydney towards Tamworth. He found the Gwydir River and turned inland till he found the Darling. After natives killed two of three helpers, Mitchell returned to Sydney to plan his next sortie. It took four years to return to the Darling but he was determined to find out where this long meandering river emptied into the sea. His botanist Richard Cunningham was killed by the Aborigines and Mitchell was forced to withdraw again after a skirmish.

Undaunted, he was back a year later to try again. There was more battles with natives and he killed seven of a large posse of 200 that attacked him. He followed the Darling until it joined the Murray near Wentworth. Mitchell saw the Grampians and he followed the Glenelg River to the Bass Strait coast (where Nelson is now). Mitchell returned to Sydney a hero after opening up this vast stretch of Australia Felix to Europeans.

Having mapped much of what would become Victoria, he would do the same for what would become Queensland. With fellow explorer Edmund Kennedy he set off north on December 15, 1845, aged 54. Mitchell called on familiar routines striking out north-west for the Darling, as he had done three times before. This time he continued north to the Narran River, the Balonne and the Culgoa. Near the junction of the Maranoa and Balonne rivers, Mitchell found a natural bridge on April 23, 1846. He named the bridge for the auspicious saint’s day, St George’s Bridge.

Mitchell followed the Cogoon Creek which he renamed what he thought the natives called it: Muckadilla Creek. This took him into great pastoral country west of what is now Roma. He named a hill in the region Mt Abundance and from its top, marvelled over what he called a “a champaign region, spotted with wood, stretching as far as human vision or even the telescope would reach.” Mitchell would continue west to find the Warrego and Barcoo Rivers but it was his description of Mt Abundance that resonated. By champaign, Mitchell meant undulating country, but many who followed in his path were made drunk by his vision.

Back in Sydney, he told his friend and fellow Scot William Macpherson about his discoveries. His son Allan Macpherson held lands at Keera in New England and Mitchell encouraged him to try his luck at Mount Abundance. Heading north-west and crossing St George’s Bridge in the path of Mitchell, Macpherson was the first white settler of the Maranoa in 1847 just a year after his mentor, bringing with him his workers, cattle and sheep.

Watched closely by the Mandandanji whose lands he craved, Macpherson was fearless and carried guns to enforce his law. Ultimately he was not successful but he laid open the path for others to follow both from the south and from the east to the Darling Downs.

Thanks to Mitchell, Macpherson had changed the region forever.

Goodbye Bussamarai: The Mandandanji Land Wars in the Maranoa

I have just finished reading Goodbye Bussamarai, about how Europeans displaced the Aborigines in the part of Australia I live in. Subtitled less evocatively “The Mandandanji Land War Southern Queensland 1842-1852”, the book is simultaneously a work of great research, and a difficult, dense and sometimes dull read. Author Patrick Collins laments the fact that most Australians have heard of the Apaches heroes like Cochise and Geronimo but few have heard of tribes such as the Mandandanji and their leaders such as Bussamarai.

However the record is patchy, written by whites and with the most awkward bits left out and unfortunately a sense of Bussamarai the man does not emerge from Collins’s book. What does emerge is that early Europeans were tolerated as adventurers but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. When explorers Mitchell and Leichhardt drifted into what Collins calls East Maranoa in the colony of NSW (the current Queensland local government region of Maranoa plus all of the Balonne shire north of St George), they were followed by a handful of whites determined to take advantage of the fertile lands suggested by Mitchell’s descriptions of “mount abundance” and a “champagne region”.

Mitchell and Leichhardt described their meetings with “the blacks” so the settlers knew the land weren’t empty. But they were not occupied in a way Europeans understood. So with a sense of entitlement allied to superior firepower, it led to mass murder as the competition for territory expanded. The whites had brought with them “too many dreams and two many cows”. After NSW surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell came to East Maranoa in 1846, he recounted his adventures in Sydney to William Macpherson, secretary to the NSW parliament and his son the grazier Allan. Mitchell gave Allan maps and encouraged him to set up a land claim there. Macpherson Junior would be the first farmer in the Roma region setting off with men and livestock from his headstation in the Gwydir in 1847.

Without an inspection of the land, Macpherson was taking a large leap of faith with Mount Abundance near Muckadilla 200km from the nearest white settlement at Moonie. Mitchell and Macpherson weren’t the first whites in the area. Clarence River area squatter Finney Eldershaw described his search in 1842 for suitable land after he heard of “luxurious downs” in the region. But economic conditions weren’t right for Eldershaw. Australia was in depression and East Maranoa’s remoteness from white settlement made it a difficult financial prospect.

Five years later, conditions were better. While Macpherson was setting off, Mitchell’s deputy Edmund Kennedy was back in the region to do more exploration. He was joined by Archer, Blyth and Chauvel who explored the region from the north. Macpherson started his run in October 1847 with 20 men working the property. While we know a lot about the early whites, the Aborigines are more inscrutable. The character of “Bussamarai” is particularly problematic.

Collins claims a tribal leader called variously as old Billy, Eaglehawk, Possum Murray and Bussamarai was the one and the same person but the evidence is not always convincing. Collins said the elder who helped Mitchell find Muckadilla Creek and the Maranoa River was “probably” Bussamarai but offers no proof. All Mitchell said was the natives were not covetous and asked for nothing. By the time Kennedy returned, relations had gone downhill and he had to use “one or two shots in the air” to frighten 200 Aborigines away from his camp. As the decade went by the Mandandanji lands became untenable as more whites entered the East Maranoa motivated less by fame and discovery then by land acquisition.

Macpherson recorded the first cattle killing at Warroo station near Surat in late 1847. By December 1848 there was war between the blacks and the settlers affecting every station between Roma and Chinchilla. Station hands working for absentee landholders dispensed rough justice in retaliation for attacks on their livestock while authorities in Sydney and London turned a blind eye.

Finally a new force gradually restored “order” by 1851. This was NSW’s northern division of the Native Police, which served the economic ends of the pastoralists. Pastoral superintendent Frederick Walker led a team of 20 Aborigines up from the Macintyre River district dispensing rough justice wherever they went. Walker was renowned for his good relations with Aborigines but he showed no mercy in East Maranoa.

Scanty evidence exists of the genocide that followed. Gideon Lang testified to an 1854 parliamentary select committee on the native police he wanted them to protect his Darling River runs. Lang also knew of the “wholesale and indiscriminate killing” and “cold blooded cruelty on the part of the whites quite unparalleled in the history of these colonies”. Walker’s men used “fair means or foul” to bring about a lopsided peace in East Maranoa. There were significant massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and Yamboucal station near Surat in May 1852.

Collins said Bussamarai united the Bigambul people and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji to drive out the whites. They engaged in battles with the Native Police with inevitable conclusions. On November 1852 a Sergeant Skelton noted a skirmish at Ukabulla between the Aboriginals led by Bussamarai and armed troops in daylight. Two Aboriginals were “shot in the attempt to apprehend them,” Skelton said. “Likewise four more of the Blacks were shot before I could drive them to the station.” Bussamarai was dead, the Maranoa front was “tamed” and the war moved on to other areas of Queensland.

The surviving Mandandanji became fringe dwellers in their own territory. Many were forcibly removed to settlements at Taroom and later at Woorabinda and Cherbourg, scattering the memory of their sacred link to the land. Goodbye to Bussamarai is a farewell to a warrior but also to a way of life that stood no chance against European weapons.