Social Commentator

Aborigines Massacre White Settlers. Three Celebrated Attacks: Hornet Bank, Cullin-la-Ringo & the Maria Wreck By Paul Dillon

Chapter Two ― Hornet Bank, Henry Reynolds

In 1974, Henry Reynolds published Settlers and Aborigines on the Pastoral Frontier, I quote:

Some of the dangers and complexities of frontier contact can be illustrated by reference to the fate of the Frazer and Wills families who died in Aboriginal attacks at Hornet Bank in 1858 and Cullinlaringoe in 1861. At Hornet Bank the Frazers initially had good relations with the local Aborigines who had been ‘let in’ and who assisted in the work of establishing the station. Suddenly violence erupted. In a well-planned attack most of the family were killed. To Europeans this was an example of senseless and motiveless savagery perpetrated for the sheer joy of killing. On the frontier Hornet Bank came to symbolize the dangers of ever trusting the blacks. But from the Aboriginal side things looked very different. By piecing together scattered pieces of information it is possible to partially recreate the course of events. The principal cause of conflict was the behaviour of European men towards Aboriginal women who were taken by force and raped. Opinions conflict as to whether the men were members of the Frazer family or their employees. Such behaviour merited dire punishment in tribal society. When no action of appeasement or retribution came from the Europeans the blacks took matters into their own hands and carried out the vengeance which traditional custom demanded. The whole Frazer affair then looks very different indeed when seen from the other side of the frontier.

The reader is asked to note that Reynolds does not give any authorities or footnotes for his categorical statement: “The principal cause of conflict was the behaviour of European men towards Aboriginal women who were taken by force and raped. Opinions conflict as to whether the men were members of the Fraser family or their employees.”
In his introduction to his above paper Settlers and Aborigines on the Pastoral Frontier, Reynolds appears to be saying, the aboriginal version of events must be put and since there is no aboriginal version, white commentators are to be used only after a thorough vetting as to possible bias:
Yet many problems confront the historian wishing to reassess this aspect of our past. Perhaps the most difficult is the task of trying to look at early race relations from the other side of the frontier, to see the encroaching tide of settlement as far as possible through the eyes of the Aborigines themselves. Clearly no easy endeavour! The historian – perhaps rather the ethno-historian – has to piece together innumerable fragments of information provided by European informants while rejecting much that can be assumed to be inaccurate, or hearsay or excessively biased. Fortunately a small number of explorers, officials or squatters were remarkably intelligent and perceptive observers of Aboriginal life despite the lack of sophisticated anthropological knowledge. Information gathered has to be weighed and tested against modern studies of traditional life and acculturation in Central and Northern Australia. What eventually emerges can hopefully be built up into a meaningful mosaic of the Aboriginal response to settlement.

Reynolds makes no reference to his own bias and how it might be filtered out or supressed. In 1976, Reynolds published in the journal of Historical Studies, the following article, The Other Side of the Frontier: Early Aboriginal Reactions to the Pastoral Settlement in Queensland and Northern New South Wales. He made the following observations:

Considerable problems confront the Australian scholar who seeks new perspectives. Evidence is scarce, widely scattered and comes overwhelmingly from European settlers and travellers, missionaries and officials. Oral history can still yield valuable material about early contact in the north and centre of the continent where settlement was recent and will be essential for the study of 20th century race relations, but it is probably already too late to gain detailed information from Aboriginal sources about the first years of contact in the greater part of south-eastern Australia. Modern anthropological studies of acculturation provide the historian with valuable insights but they need to be used cautiously when investigating the 19th century. Traditional Aboriginal society was so fragmented that any generalisation about a particular clan or tribe may be inappropriate if applied elsewhere. It seems probable that the Aboriginal response to Europeans was far more complex and diverse than our limited stockpile of evidence will ever suggest.

The above statement outlining his approach to writing about ‘the other side of the frontier’ is a fair assessment of the problems one would face in attempting to produce a credible version of the motives and reasons for Aboriginal destructive behaviour towards white settlers on the frontier, without the added burden of trying to justify it. Since the Aborigines never came forward as a group and approached government regarding their possible grievances, their actions have remained reactionary and troublesome, without justification or reason. The above article appears to be an attempt to deal with a lot of historical information from white sources detailing depredations by Aborigines on livestock and station plant and stores in the pastoral settlements across northern New South Wales and Queensland. Depredation means the act of attacking or plundering. Reynolds faithfully details the acts of robbery and the killing of livestock and white settlers as a kind of rite of passage, an acculturation into:

In some places the Aborigines appear to have become effective herdsmen on their own account before they had come in to European settlements. This helps explain why Aborigines often became effective workers in the pastoral industry in a very short time, for they had learnt about the exotic animals before coming in, while as first generation stockmen they continued to utilise many traditional skills.

Then he goes on to say:

I turn now to consider the violent conflict which dominated relations between white and black in practically the whole of Queensland. My concern is not with European brutality towards the blacks but with Aboriginal violence—perhaps their counter-violence—towards the settlers and with the motivation for attacks which resulted in about 500 deaths on the pastoral frontier between 1840 and 1890.32
Revenge killing for the death or serious injury of kin was a common feature of traditional society.33 Clearly many Europeans died in such culturally sanctioned executions. Settlers often understood this.
32 With N. A. Loos I carried out a survey of frontier deaths in Queensland consulting a wide range of source material. We estimated that 800-850 Europeans and their ‘allies’ i.e., Chinese, Melanesians and so called ‘civilised’ blacks, were killed between 1840 and 1897. Precision is impossible, but somewhat more than a half of those killed were employed in the pastoral industry.
33 See R. M. Berndt, ‘Law and order in Aboriginal Australia’, in R. M. and C. H. Berndt Aboriginal Man in Australia, Sydney 1965, pp. 167-206.

These statements or conclusions from his research are in reality absurd, and fall into the category of apologetics. It is similar to a legal representative submitting during a plea in mitigation that the victim deserved it and the perpetrator had benefited by acquiring new criminal skills. Reynolds has not provided an historical analysis of, but a defence of, Aboriginal violence towards white settlers. He is simply saying, Aborigines were violent people who killed each other as part of their cultural make-up, therefore, it is not unreasonable to argue that they adopted a similar practice towards white settlers but he tacks on the Eurocentric concept of political resistance. This line of reasoning lacks academic gravitas.
In 1981, Reynolds published his seminal work, The Other Side of the Frontier. In his introduction to the book, he says:

This book presents an interpretation of the Aboriginal response to the invasion and settlement of Australia during the hundred or so years between the late C18th and the early C20th. It is a white man’s interpretation, aimed primarily at white Australians … It is based on extensive research among a vast array of historical records. Yet the book was not conceived, researched or written in a mood of detached scholarship. It is inescapably political, dealing as it must with issues that have aroused deep passions since 1788 … I sought to put down as clearly as I could my vision of how the Aborigines reacted (Emphasis added) to the invading Europeans and to include as much detail as possible without needlessly clogging the flow of the text.

The following is Reynolds’ considered opinion on the Hornet Bank massacre:

The events at Hornet Bank are fairly well known. The Frasers were managing the property and had close, if not always amicable, relations with the neighbouring Aboriginal clans camped on or near the station. An apparently well planned and unexpected attack was made late at night and all but one member of the household were killed. It appears that the women were raped before death an unusual accompanyment (sic) of Aboriginal attack. Various attempts were made at the time to explain Aboriginal motivation but none could compete with the insistent references to the savagery and treachery. However there are scattered pieces of evidence which enable the historian to advance beyond the folk-wisdom of the frontier. The Honourable M.C. O’Connell told the 1861 Select Committee on the Native Police that the killings were a consequence of the young men ‘having been in the habit of allowing their black boys to rush the gins’ in neighbouring camps. Archibald Meston, the Queensland ‘expert’ on Aborigines, heard from a friend of the surviving Fraser son that the white employees of the family had whipped and raped two local Aboriginal girls. This story was confirmed by W. Robertson who claimed to have discussed the events of 1857 with old Aborigines who as youths had been present at the time. They reported that after the women were raped the local clans attempted to use sorcery against the offending Europeans. When that appeared to have no effect they sent an old woman to the Fraser’s to explain the circumstances and seek redress. When no action was taken by the whites the clans determined on revenge. So the evidence concurs on the importance of sexual attacks on Aboriginal girls but attributes blame variously to black and white employees of the family. But one account directly implicates the young Fraser men. J.D. Wood explained in a memo to the Colonial Secretary that when arriving in Queensland he made enquiries about Hornet Bank. He was told by a Mr Nicol who had been in the Native Police in 1857 that Mrs Fraser had repeatedly asked him to reprove her sons ‘for forcibly taking the young maidens’ and that in consequence she ‘expected harm would come of it, that they were in the habit of doing so, notwithstanding her entreaties to the contrary’. Several other informants told Wood that the Frasers were ‘famous for the young Gins’ and all agreed ‘that those acts were the cause of the atrocity’.52
52 W. Robertson: Cooee Talks, pp.129-131.; J.D. Wood: Remarks on the Aborigines; Magistrates, Upper Dawson to Col. Sec., 3 December 1857, Qld. Col. Sec. 4995 of 1857; W. Wiseman to Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands, 16 November 1857, Qld. Col. Sec., 4319 of 1857; M.C. O’Connell evidence to Select Committee on Native Police, p.87: A.L. Meston, Courier Mail cutting in Oxley Library Scrap Book Queensland Towns, Districts, Stations, pp.81-82.

Reynolds then sums up as follows:

At Hornet Bank and Cullinlaringoe Aboriginal action was carefully planned and thoroughly considered and followed months of provocation – harassment by the Native Police on the one hand, sexual molestation by some, if not all, the young men on the station on the other. Even the raping of the Fraser women appears in retrospect to have been a deliberate, political act.

In the introduction to the 2006 edition, The Other Side of the Frontier, Reynolds’ said inter alia:

The intellectual criticism of the book has long been overshadowed by attacks that are political in motivation. In fact many of them come from people who give the impression of not having actually read the text, yet don’t like the idea of it. Some of the antagonism stems from my open avowal that the book could not escape the fate that awaits a political document. In the opening paragraph of both editions I nailed my colours to the mast observing that it was not conceived, researched or written in a mood of detached scholarship.

Perhaps the question that faces anyone who dares to offer a critique of Mr Reynolds’ work is, will they be zapped by the force field that he says protects his body of work from scrutiny. He has, if you consider his above statements regarding his methodology in writing the ‘other side of the frontier’, issued many warnings, disclaimers, clauses of limited liability and even exclusion clauses regarding his work. Mr Reynolds, however, was a professional academic at the time he authored The Other Side of the Frontier in 1981 and appears to have enjoyed governments grants to carry out his research. The book was published by James Cook University and bears the university’s imprimatur. The consumer, therefore, could expect the book to conform to best practice standards regarding academic research methodology, and professional integrity in the ethical and honest presentation of that research data in his academic papers, articles and publications.
Although the Fraser family were murdered by Aborigines, no person either, white or black, ever stood trial for their murder. Therefore, no official record exists which authoritatively states what happened and why it may have happened. The consensus is that the perpetrators were from the Iman tribe but no contemporaneous statements were taken from them for obvious reasons and, indeed, there were no claims of responsibility for the attack made by the Iman or indeed, any black group. The Blacks simply made off with sheep and loot from the station after killing and raping the whites. What I am trying to suggest is that freedom fighters or resistance movements normally claim responsibility for their military acts of violent resistance against their tormentor. In the case of the first terrorist attack in modern times, the King David Hotel bombing, 1946, the Zionist paramilitary organization, Irgun, claimed responsibility for the bombing shortly after the event. Be that as it may, many statements were made about the Hornet Bank massacre by all sorts of people with varying degrees of direct and relevant knowledge of the incident. The reader will recall from Chapter One that TR Boulton had given a lengthy description of events leading up to the massacre. However, Reynolds doesn’t rely on TR Boulton as a witness, presumably, because Reynolds considered Boulton ‘to be inaccurate, or hearsay or excessively biased’ rather than telling the truth. Reynolds relied on the following: MC O’Connell, I Downes Wood, W Robertson, and A Meston. None of these people were involved in the Hornet Bank incident as Boulton was. Reynolds called them ‘scattered pieces of evidence‘. They cannot be described as witnesses because the only information they have is hearsay, what someone told them. In the 1930s, there was a popular song that went like this:

I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. He said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”.

That is about the strength of Reynolds’ sources for his conclusions about the Hornet Bank massacre of white settlers. The striking dimension to Reynolds’ assessment is the rather casual construction he put on the rape of the Fraser women, calling it a legitimate weapon of war by the Aborigines.
This was MC O’Connell’s evidence before the Queensland 1861 Select Committee on the Native Police Force:

102. I know nothing of the circumstances of the Hornet Bank murders, (Emphasis added) having been at Port Curtis at the time, but I have heard something from an officer of the Native Police—Lieutenant Sweet—who told me himself that he had been informed by a trooper then in the Native Police, that the murder of the unfortunate women at Hornet Bank was in consequence of the young men who owned the station having been in the habit of allowing their black boys to rush the gins on the camps of the aborigines in the neighbourhood.

Take I Downes Wood who is the authority for Reynolds defaming the Fraser men as cads, gin jockeys, criminals, and white trash by alleging they systematically raped the local female Aborigines. There is no greater insult than to accuse the dominate white race of hypocrisy, double standards, with allegations of sexual exploitation of black women. On 12 March 1862, over 6 years after the event, I Downes Wood wrote an epistle to the Chief Secretary of Queensland on the conflict between the Native Police and the Aboriginals of Australia. He was not present at the Hornet Bank killings. His submission is a long rambling piece of cracker-barrel thinking on Aborigines by an uneducated rustic. Now Downes Wood probably was unaware that Mr Nichol aka Nicoll was a disgraced officer of the Native Police and had a motive to lie about the Fraser brothers. But Henry Reynolds should have known the facts and he should have warned the reader that Nicoll was not a credible source for defaming the Fraser men in the first place, nor a reliable source on which to base a considered academic conclusion about the causes and effect of the Hornet Bank massacre of white settlers. Wood’s statement has been effectively dealt with in Chapter One.
Reynolds next witness is Willian Robertson who again was not present at Hornet Bank. He arrived in Australia circa 1870 as a child. Robertson was a homespun expert on Aborigines having been brought up on Caithness Park cattle station at Boulia amongst station blacks and seems to have been initiated into the Myall Murri tribe and given the tribal name, Brin-ga. Robertson was a radio journalist with 2BL, who differentiated his market by giving talks about Aborigines, known as Coo-ee Talks. In 1928, he published a book called Coo-ee Talks, in which he gives a version of the events that led up to the massacre at Hornet Bank and the cause of the massacre. He said he heard it from the offending tribesmen himself. The version bears no similarity to the original version and it can only be treated as apocrypha or an urban myth. Robertson is said to been au fait with Aboriginal culture but he says the following:

It was perpetrated by a number of young warriors of the Coongarrie tribe in central Queensland, at Hornet station, on the Dawson River, one of the tributaries of the Fitzroy. The story was told me by some of the natives who were present at the massacre. … Twenty years afterwards I myself met some of them among the Fitzroy tribe.

Robertson appears to be suggesting he spoke with the Coongarrie tribesmen some time in 1877 which is highly unlikely having only recently arrived in Australia as a child in 1870. Moreover, calling the perpetrators, the Coongarie tribe, rather than the Iman and further alleging that the majority escaped to the Fitzroy tribe, which is presumably the Fitzroy River mob (Rockhampton), when the official view is that white reprisal parties completely exterminated the Iman from the face of the earth, appears to suggest that Robertson had no idea of the actual events at Hornet Bank station in 1857. Robertson cannot be regarded as an accurate, reliable and credible source for the Hornet Bank incident. He can only be regarded as a doubtful source, bordering on invention.
Reynolds’ final witness is:

Archibald Meston, the Queensland ‘expert’ on Aborigines, heard from a friend of the surviving Fraser son that the white employees of the family had whipped and raped two local Aboriginal girls.

I am afraid the material cited in the footnote does not support this statement. Meston kept a scrapbook of press clippings. The cited pages of the scrapbook contain press clipping on the Hornet Bank massacre but were not authored by Meston. They are a rehash of the incident for the 1938 anniversary of the Hornet Bank massacre, journalistic hype. Reynolds appears to have lost concentration and misunderstood the material. A Meston is not a credible source because he was not a party to the material cited. The material is set out at Appendix B.
So much for the grand principle of letting the Aborigines give their version of the events. Reynolds’ selection of white sources is superficial. It lacks a rigorous and critical appraisal of the material and his narrative and summation is, therefore, a tawdry little piece of cherry-picking worthy of a place in Pravda as a feature article.

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