Yaama ganu, says the sign. Welcome to Country. Here, where Country was bathed in blood. Here at Myall Creek, where in 1838 a group of men, most of them no freer than their victims, showed no mercy and in cold blood took twenty-eight lives: old men, women and children of the Wirrayaraay people. I won’t go into the gruesome details here—it’s more than enough to say that the state of the bodies meant that investigators had to estimate the number of victims.
Many massacres occurred in the frontier wars, and many thousands died, but the Myall Creek massacre is one of the very few that were documented and for which justice was meted out. Seven men were hanged for their crimes, although the ringleader escaped and was never charged.
There is a memorial near the massacre site in northern New South Wales, about 50 kilometres west of Inverell. The site covers a couple of acres, with interpretive signs and plaques detailing the story of the massacre and what led up to it. The sadness that rises from the stones along the path is tempered by the heartwarming acts of reconciliation that have happened more recently. At the memorial’s opening in 2000, descendants of the killers and the killed embraced.
When I arrive a number of other visitors are just leaving. Alone, I follow the winding path, its gravel rusty-red to symbolise the blood spilt here, plaques spaced along the way, letting the story unfold and take hold. Eventually I reach the end of the path, a circular space with a large stone and plaque standing in its centre. The ground here is covered in crushed white granite. White, I learn, is the Aboriginal colour of mourning.
The place is fittingly silent. There are two marble benches in front of the granite memorial stone. I sit down on one and try to comprehend the massacre—but I fail. It’s difficult to imagine killings on such a scale. Not just the visible, the visceral, but the hate required to fall to those depths of depravity. And it’s too peaceful here. There’s not a whisper of sound in the surrounding scrub, no clouds to cast a pall of shadow over the scene. All is light and quiet.
I try not to force my thoughts, and slowly, when I still my mind and let the energy of the place seep in, insights take shape. In the immovability of the 14-tonne stone, I see the descendants of both sides embracing, reconciled, as one. In the tattered ribbons of a gum tree, I see the murderers hanged, justice done.
Then I almost jump as a sulphur-crested cockatoo tears the silence in two with a screech, flies behind the memorial stone and dives out of sight below to the creek. Its brief appearance shocks my senses and my imagination. It is the colour of mourning, its cry sounds like a keen and the way it tumbles down to the creek strikes me with the thought that it is a roused spirit.
I get up and walk behind the boulder to where the cockatoo disappeared. Trodden into the waist-high grass there is evidence of a path, leading down to Myall Creek. I want to walk down, to see the place below the ridge where the massacre took place, to feel it if I can, but something holds me back—something we have become accustomed to consider more sacred than even a memorial to a massacre, something etched into our cultural psychogeography: private property.
From what I can tell, the creek itself and the land on the other side belong to Myall Creek Station, a large holding that already existed at the time of the massacre. Between the creek and the imposing two-storey homestead, the land is clothed in a verdant green absent at the site of the memorial, and dotted across that land I can see many other smaller buildings. Goaded by the realisation that little has changed in 183 years in terms of the land, I feel that the scene before me is ugly and wrong.
It took determined locals and descendants many years just to get a memorial approved. Just to place some rocks and gravel and signs along a path on scrubby, non-arable land. Yet the land that matters, the land that’s fertile, and the creek that runs below it—that land is still in the hands of wealthy graziers who benefited from the dispossession, removal and murder of the Wirrayaraay people. While people have reconciled, the system hasn’t changed.
Land lay at the heart of the conflict that led to the Myall Creek massacre, as it does in most wars. When one stands at this memorial, one should be able to look beyond the sacred space, beyond the granite boulder, to land that honours the original inhabitants, land that welcomes all, land teeming with native wildlife instead of introduced cattle and sheep. Isn’t that the ultimate memorial, the ultimate act of reconciliation?
Lives were taken, but so was land. Doesn’t it make a mockery of the memorial to place it on a dry crumb of land with a view over extensive, fecund fields that can’t be accessed? Can’t more concessions be made to show that the system respects reconciliation as much as the people do?
Sadly, with experience as our guide, I think we’ll sooner see the release of fertile lands not by the weight of public feeling but by the greater weight of Mother Earth’s climate-change-induced indignation. And by then Country won’t be fit for anyone anymore.
We were out in Gudanji country, a place some of us older people know well. But we didn’t know where we were. The river had gone, huge mountains of waste rock were piled high in the sky, blocking our view of The Barramundi Dreaming… We were lost in our own country.