Myall Creek massacre apology: Australia’s darkest chaper retold

Truth is an essential force for reconciliation and, on the 185th anniversary of the Myall Creek massacre, we offer an apology for our historical coverage.See all 5 stories.

Over the years I’ve written many books and told stories of triumph and tragedy but never have I told a story as haunting as this one. I have recounted this terrible tale based primarily on court transcripts of the time and other newspaper accounts.

Roger Millis’s Waterloo Creek: The Australia Day Massacre, Mark Tedeschi’s Murder at Myall Creek, and Peter Stewart’s Demons At Dusk were a great resource, and Stewart accompanied me and the Indigenous activist Thomas Mayo to the massacre site in mid-May – where we were honoured to be guided by local Indigenous expert Uncle Kelvin Brown, who added fresh detail. – Peter FitzSimons

Ever and always, it is like this. Behind the breast-beating of empire lies the tragic reality of the violent dispossession that empires are built on.

In Sydney Town on January 26, 1838, the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the colony at Sydney Cove are joyous. The bands play endless renditions of God Save the Queen, the flags flutter furiously, and the toasts to the young Queen Victoria are as reverential as they are enthusiastic. The crowds are enormous for this auspicious occasion also marks the first time that Founder’s Day is a public holiday. The highlights for the young colony are “a regatta for the masses and a dinner for the classes”.

Ten days’ ride to the north on this same day, the frontier of white settlement being established on Aboriginal lands for cattle and sheep runs is being pushed ever further out in what has become the traditional manner. At Waterloo Creek, in the upper reaches of the Gwydir River in north-eastern NSW, a detachment of mounted police led by the merciless Major James Nunn, are in train to fulfil the mission set for them by acting governor Sir Kenneth Snodgrass to “suppress outrages in the Namoi Gwydir region”.

Nunn and his men – a couple of dozen troopers, joined by as many local stockmen, making for a formidable force of horsemen – are closing in on their quarry: a large group of the Kamilaroi people who have been actively resisting white settlement in the area. There they are, down by the creek, and with no place to run. Nunn barks orders and in the bright sunshine of mid-afternoon, the group are surrounded by the men on horseback and slaughtered with shot and sword. Not a single prisoner is taken, and most reliable estimates of how many are killed vary from 40 to 70, though others claim as many as 300 are slaughtered, their bodies left to rot by the creek, which has briefly run red. The pastoralists can be well pleased that there will be little more problem from the blacks in this immediate area, and the frontier has been satisfactorily expanded.

Major James Nunn led an attack on Indigenous Australians at Waterloo Creek on January 26, 1838.

Major James Nunn led an attack on Indigenous Australians at Waterloo Creek on January 26, 1838.Credit: State Library of NSW

Some six weeks later, on March 5, 1838, a report of what has happened at Waterloo Creek lands on the desk of the new governor George Gipps and – despite the lack of documentation and likely severe underestimation of how many blacks have been killed – he is appalled, as is his attorney-general, John Plunkett. Both men are conscious of the need for British law to extend to all, to protect the natives from such slaughter. It is decided that henceforth coronial inquiries will be held for the death of any blacks at the hands of colonists. Before that can be announced, however, the most infamous atrocity of the frontier wars takes place – in part because Major Nunn has encouraged the squatters to take matters into their own hands.

Seeking sanctuary

Myall Creek lies to the direct east of Waterloo Creek, in the same region, and by early June, its Aboriginal people are reeling from the white push from the south. As the systematic killings of natives by Nunn and his men come ever closer to the Wirrayaraay people, a clan of the Kamilaroi, a group of them seek refuge on a pastoral lease at Myall Creek, which had been established just the year before as part of squatter Henry Dangar’s ever-expanding cattle interests. They have been told by one of the convict stockmen on station, Charles Kilmeister – who is serving a life sentence for house breaking – that they will be safe there, and so it has proved for a fortnight.

Like salt to deep wounds, the white squatters not only steal the Wirrayaraay’s tribal lands, take their weaponry and disrupt their hunting grounds, but they force the Wirrayaraay men into labour – in return for food – effectively hastening the demise of their ancestral home by having them help the new stations in the area take root.

On the morning of Sunday, June 10, 1838, nearly all of the Wirrayaraay men are sent away for three days to cut bark on a nearby station being run by free man overseer Thomas Foster, leaving the women and children on their own. As sundown approaches that day, those women and children are settling for the evening by Myall Creek, the women preparing a meal while the children gambol about. The smoke from the Wirrayaraay fires hangs low in the chilly dusk. But now from the west, a heavy flock of yellow crested white cockatoos suddenly take flight, their cries making the women turn.

Henry Dangar owned the property where the massacre took place.

Henry Dangar owned the property where the massacre took place.

Seconds later come the thundering of hooves and the snort of horses as 11 stockmen come over the scrubby ridge. Led by a local third-generation squatter originally from the Hawkesbury, John Fleming, they are hard men of grim countenance – convicts and former convicts – and are armed with sawn-off muskets, pistols and swords. With easy expertise, the riders diverge on approach to come at the camp from different directions, and it is quickly surrounded – the horsemen shouting and pointing their weaponry at the Wirrayaraay.

The women grab their crying children and flee into the hut of Charles Kilmeister and George Anderson, the convicts looking after this part of the station, begging for protection. In the absence of the station overseer, William Hobbs, Kilmeister is in charge, while Anderson – who has been transported to the colony for life for “robbing his master” and been here five years – is his offsider. The two had been sitting, chatting and smoking with two young Aboriginal stockmen, Black Davy and his brother Billy, when cries and shouts of alarm engulfed the quiet of the twilight.

Shouting at Anderson and Kilmeister to come out, the armed men barge in as soon as they do. While Fleming barks orders and his convict servant holds a pistol on them all, his henchmen quickly bind the Wirrayaraay women to a long tether, “their hands all tied, with the palms to each other”. Two old Wirrayaraay men, Old Daddy and Joey, are too infirm to worry about tying up – while two lads who had been playing by the creek have been able to jump in to the water and hide behind the reeds on the horsemen’s approach. They watch fearfully before slipping away.

Women and children are bound and led away at Myall Creek.

Women and children are bound and led away at Myall Creek.Credit: National Museum Australia

Anderson, highly agitated – beyond his general affection for the blacks, he has recently taken up with one of the young Wirrayaraay women, Ipeta – nervously asks the now dismounted horsemen what is their intention. “Take them to the back of the range,” one of them replies, “to frighten

Anderson fears much worse, but knows his own life might be in the balance. He recognises most of these men and knows both their purpose and their mercilessness. He does not protest beyond trying, and failing, to save Ipeta. The marauders will not listen to his desperate if muted pleas, and he must stop and beat a shattered retreat – even obeying an order from John Fleming to get him some milk from Hobbs’ nearby hut.

Kilmeister, however, who to this point has been on friendly terms with the whole Wirrayaraay group – “dancing and singing with them” every evening after work – buckles in the face of the massed menace of the mounted men. He will later claim that he was told he had to make a choice between being with the whites or the blacks and if he chose the latter, he would share their fate. In a snap decision, he joins their band and takes up a proffered sword.

Initially, just two young teenage girls are set aside, one, as Anderson will say, “because she was good-looking, they said so”.

The other Wirrayaraay girl is spared at the request of Black Davy, the young black stockman. Another child who tries to follow her mother is swept up by Anderson and carried back to the hut.

Cut down with swords

Weeping, the other women and the children clinging to them are led away, joined by the rope with the horsemen on either side. One of the horsemen ties one end of the rope to his saddle, and leads. Behind them come the two old Wirrayaraay men, Old Daddy and Joey, both weeping. From the whole of them comes a keening. There are several babies, Anderson will recall, “the women carried them on their backs in opossum skins”.

The 10 Wirrayaraay men working on Thomas Foster’s station look up. It is one of the station workers. Come quickly! White men on horses have come and rounded up your women and children. In an instant the Wirrayaraay men are running back to Myall Creek station, desperate to get there in time to do something.

The rest of the Wirrayaraay must shuffle along the muddy track into the setting sun, still weeping and moaning. They continue for half a mile over a rise before on the flat they come to a gully. Here, another “good-looking gin” has her hands untied and is spared. But now, after a savage nod from Fleming, two shots are fired into the mass of the rest of them.

As the women and children try to flee, screaming, the rope restrains them and they are cut down with swords, and most are beheaded by the stockmen, including Kilmeister. Watching closely, albeit from a distance and from behind a tree, is Black Davy, who has followed them and now bears witness to the savagery. Babies are torn from their mothers’ breasts to be swung around and have their heads smashed against the trunks of gumtrees. Screams fill the night, until at last, all falls silent once more.

When the men return to the hut, Kilmeister “produced a bloody sword which he had in his hand when he left before the shots were heard, but which was not then bloody”.

The murderers make camp nearby and pass the night raping the “good-looking gin”. The two teenage girls left at the hut, it will be later alleged by Sydney’s Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, were initially spared, only to later be raped by Fleming’s gang, after first “being cut for lascivious purposes”.

Anderson, Black Davy and Billy lock themselves in their hut, only to soon hear frantic coo-ees and pounding on the door. It is the Wirrayaraay men, “frightened, out of breath with running” who are now faced with the horror of what has happened, the realisation that they are too late. And there is no time to find their fallen. Anderson convinces them that their only hope is to flee for their lives. Go, now! They go, a mix of fearful phantoms and wraiths of rage in the night.

The next morning, the white marauders head off to look for more Wirrayaraay to kill before returning to Anderson’s hut for the night, all of them talking about the killing and the raping the night before. The next morning, they return to the Myall Creek massacre site and throw the bodies and severed heads onto a roaring fire. On the orders of the squatter John Fleming, Kilmeister is left to stoke the fires throughout the day, burning the bodies down. The stockmen now go after the Wirrayaraay men who had got away. Most of them are found and killed.

The “good-looking gin” who had initially been spared the slaughter in the gully continues to be raped. She is spotted several days later in a totally emaciated state at another station, tied behind the horse of one of the marauders but now disappears, never to be seen again.

‘Duty to report it’

The Myall Creek station overseer, William Hobbs, a decent free man who had consented for the Wirrayaraay to stay there before heading off on a cattle droving trip, returns to the station five days after the massacre, shocked to have heard many garbled stories on the way from neighbouring stations of a … massacre? Told that Kilmeister knows the truth of what had happened, he sends for him.

“What has become of the blacks?”

“I do not know.”

“I heard they were murdered, and you know all about it.”

“I know nothing about it and had no hand in it.”

Hobbs dismisses him, but is uneasy. He so trusts Kilmeister he has allowed him to carry a brace of pistols, despite being a convict. For Myall Creek, as he will explain, “is beyond the boundary of the colony”. It can be dangerous for a white man in these parts, and Kilmeister is one who he had known he could count on to be in the frontline. “I question,” Hobbs will later say, “if there is a better servant in NSW than Kilmeister and a more quiet, peaceable disposition. From his general quiet peaceful disposition I would not think he was a man likely to be concerned with the murder.”


So yes, of course, Hobbs believes his denials, but it is certain that something terrible has happened, and he must get to the bottom of it. Anderson is little help, “afraid to say anything knowing that so many men on the different stations were leagued together for the destruction of the natives”.
But Hobbs must try. With Black Davy by his side, Hobbs now follows the trail: “Foot-tracks with horse-tracks on each side.”

As they approach, it is the time of day when the massacre happened. The darkness of eventide envelops, the chill goes right to their very hearts.

Even in the twilight, he can see blood stains around and about. And there are no bare foot-tracks leaving here, only the imprint in the mud of horse-shoes departing. With so many beheadings, and such mutilated remains in the ashes, it is hard to be certain as to how many murdered mortal souls lie before him. And, as he will recount, “the stench was so great that I was not able to be accurate in counting them. I endeavoured to count them and made more of them sometimes than others, the most I made was 28.” Among them, “I saw the children’s heads quite distinctly. There were 10 or 12 small heads, also some children’s bodies.” The superintendent returns to his homestead in stunned, sickened silence, sure of one thing. “I considered it my duty to report it.”

First, however, he must write a letter to the station owner, Henry Dangar, telling him of what he has seen and what he suspects has happened. The letter completed, the next day Hobbs reads it to the assembled hands on the station. Kilmeister – who has already told Anderson “for God’s sake, mind what you say, do not say I went with them, it was not true” – suddenly rises in agitation. “I hope, Sir,” he says to Hobbs, “you won’t report. For Jesus Christ’s sake, don’t report it.”

The letter from William Hobbs to the authorities reporting the massacre.

The letter from William Hobbs to the authorities reporting the massacre.Credit: State Archive NSW

Kilmeister even goes on his knees to beg his master to say nothing, but the overseer insists. He now consults his fellow free man overseer of the nearby station, Thomas Foster – who comes to inspect the massacre site with Hobbs, which now has hawks and eagles circling overhead. Arriving, Foster has to leave after just 90 seconds because he cannot bear the horror, and is equally appalled. For his part, Hobbs in the better light can now see that some of the body parts appear to have been dragged away by native dogs, but he is fairly sure that he can recognise the torso of the old man they called “Old Daddy” in the ashes. “I saw the large body. There was no head, but the body was pretty whole; the legs and arms were gone.”

Unable to leave their own stations for fear the killers will return, Hobbs and Foster approach local landholder Frederick Foote, who shares their shock and outrage and undertakes to call on Police Magistrate Edward Denny Day at his Invermein base near Muswellbrook and officially report to the colonial administration what has happened.

For his part, the owner of Myall Creek Station, Henry Dangar is also outraged when he hears the whole story – but for a different reason. His own man, Hobbs, is making trouble simply because some whites have killed some blacks? Why, it is traitorous behaviour! But it is too late.

The investigation

Governor Gipps, apprised of the atrocity, commands Police Magistrate Day – who views the events of Waterloo Creek and Myall Creek as part of “a war of extermination” – to investigate. Day rides north in the company of his cohort of constables, and in the company of Hobbs, goes to the site. “I pointed out the place where the fire had been,” Hobbs will recount, of the burnt spot two-thirds of a cricket pitch in circumference. “The bodies had disappeared. There were some remains – ribs and children’s jaw bones. I helped to pick them up. The heads had all been removed. I do not know by whom.” Of particular interest to Denny Day is the intact rib bone of a child, which he carefully preserves as evidence. It will later prove crucial.

A sketch of Police Magistrate Captain Edward Denny Day.

A sketch of Police Magistrate Captain Edward Denny Day.Credit: Australian Town and Country Journal

Over the next five weeks, Magistrate Day takes depositions from 19 witnesses, and on the strength of it, all of the marauders bar the squatter who had led the attack – John Fleming, who has fled – are arrested. One of the first placed in handcuffs is Kilmeister, and he is soon chained to the other accused men. Summoned from his bed at one point, George Anderson is asked if he recognises the men that Denny Day has in custody. Are they the men who came to Myall Creek that fateful sundown?

“I was frightened and confused,” Anderson would later recount. “I knew them all by sight immediately when they were in custody, and I said [so] at once.” The accused stare back in shock. They have been betrayed by a fellow white man, something previously unthinkable. It is for good reason that as Magistrate Day will later testify, “I took Anderson under my protection, in consequence of the important information he had given me, and his being in an unprotected state.”

Tied together and shuffling along with mounted horsemen either side, the accused men walk all the way to Muswellbrook before they are taken to Sydney Gaol.

The temper of the times

The grisly affair is the talk of NSW. Despite the horrifying details that emerge, the accused men enjoy widespread public support, with the owner of the Myall Creek station, Dangar, one of many local landowners who form a “Black Association” to raise the money to represent the accused and secure the three best barristers in Sydney to free them. Dangar has already made moves to dismiss Hobbs for making the report and is refusing to settle up for past wages, probably to make him too poor to travel to Sydney to give testimony. For Dangar and his fellow landholders of the Black Association are insistent – the right of whites to kill blacks must be kept sacrosanct.

The Sydney Herald – soon to become The Sydney Morning Herald – agrees. It runs editorials imploring the courts to let the men go and in favour of vigilante justice. It rails against Aborigines and moves to protect them: “The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly documents on which we have already wasted too much time.”


For, after all, the Herald says, it is important to “protect the white settler, his wife, and children, in remote places, from the filthy, brutal cannibals of New Holland. We say to the colonists, since the government makes no adequate exertion to protect you, protect yourselves; and if the ferocious savages endeavour to plunder or destroy your property, or to murder yourselves, your families, or your servants, do to them as you would do to any white robbers or murderers – SHOOT THEM DEAD, if you can”.

Such editorials are not the universal temper of the times in these parts. For other journals do not so debase their pages. Edward Smith Hall, the editor of The Sydney Monitor, writes of the Myall Creek massacre that it was “a deed for which we cannot find a parallel for cold-blooded ferocity, even in the history of Cortez and the Mexicans or of Pizzaro and the Peruvians”.

Courtroom rollercoaster

The first trial begins on November 15, 1838, in the NSW Supreme Court with chief justice Sir James Dowling presiding in the packed courtroom over a jury of 12 white men. The charge is that the 11 accused had murdered a particularly old and infirm Wirrayaraay man, known as “Old Daddy” and if that could not be proven, two other natives of unknown names.

None of the accused testify during the trial, relying on their counsel’s advice to stay united and silent. As Black Davy, an eyewitness, is a heathen who cannot swear on the Bible, it will be a very difficult case for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

George Anderson at least will bear witness to what he saw in the lead-up to the massacre, and most importantly identifies the stockmen. Alas, the case for the prosecution is not helped when Henry Dangar gives his own testimony, much of which is aimed at discrediting his lowly convict employee, Anderson.

“I would not believe him on his oath,” Dangar says, himself under oath. “He has been very troublesome, and on the most trifling occasion he is addicted to lying.”

As to William Hobbs, his testimony is strong but slightly ambivalent on the key issue. “I could not swear that Daddy is dead,” he tells the court, “[but] I have not seen him since. I never saw a female so large as that frame. I never saw any of those persons who were on the station since.”

As the trial continues, the case of the defence proves to be thin. They maintain that as the victims cannot be positively identified, the case is void. The defence counsel William à Beckett, puts it concisely: “No proof has [even] been adduced that Daddy was not alive, or that a dead male black has been found.”

His Honour agrees that whether or not the jury is satisfied that Daddy was definitely among the dead is crucial to them finding a guilty verdict, but reminds them: “In order to fulfil my duty, I must tell you that the fate of a black is as precious and valuable in the eye of the law, as that of the highest noble in the land.”

Attorney-General John Plunkett was determined to pursue justice.

Attorney-General John Plunkett was determined to pursue justice.Credit: State Library

The jury has to retire for only 20 minutes before coming back with the verdict: “Not guilty.”

Cheers ring out around the courtroom. It had been unbelievable to see the government of the day supporting blacks at the expense of white people but now, the feeling runs, justice has been done.

But Plunket – knowing the desire of Governor Gipps – is not done. To the astonishment of the gallery, he immediately charges the men with new murders: a six-year-old Wirrayaraay child called Charley, and if that could not be proven, another child of name unknown.

(Plunkett also turns the group of defendants against each other by this time only prosecuting the seven murderers for which there is most proof, that number including Charles Kilmeister. He plans to deal with the other four at a later trial, and they are kept in custody.)

The second trial starts on November 29, 1838 – presided over by Justice Sir William Westbrooke Burton – and George Anderson gives particularly compelling testimony, detailing again the gruesome and barbaric acts that have been committed. So, too, does William Hobbs once more tell all that he knows, despite the pressure he has been under to not even turn up. (The jury came under the same pressure. No fewer than 48 are called – at one point the court is reduced to grabbing men off the street – before 12 good men and true had been found willing to serve on it.)

Magistrate Edward Denny Day is called to give an account of his investigations and among the evidence he presents is the rib bone of the deceased child. There is silence in the court, and not one imposed by the judge. The charred rib of a murdered child imposes a solemnity all its own.

For the defence, the barrister à Beckett does his best. Yes, circumstantially, it might appear that these men had done the murders. But can the jury be sure it was the accused who did it?

“This tribe might have gone, as was stated, in company with the whites; had been met and attacked by another body of blacks, and left in the way described … And were these men, merely because they happened to be in their company some time before, to be put on their trial for murder?”

The trial proceeds through the day into the evening and finally into the early morning before it is done. All rise.

At two in the morning of November 30, 1838 – after a gruelling day and night of testimony – Justice Burton comes back to the courtroom after a brief adjournment, having been advised that the jury has returned.

Mr Foreman have you reached a verdict? We have, Your Honour. The gallery, which includes some of the leading landowners of the day, and the press lean in close to hear his words.

“Not guilty.”

Uproar. Confusion. Cheers and outrage. It goes on for some time before one of the other jury members speaks up and corrects him. The jury foreman has mis-spoken.

In fact, the verdict is that the seven stockmen have been found guilty of “the murder of an Aboriginal child whose name was unknown”.

Governor George Gipps ordered an investigation into the massacre.

Governor George Gipps ordered an investigation into the massacre.Credit: Fairfax Media

At 9am on December 18, 1838, those seven men are hanged at the Sydney Gaol. It is the first time that white men have been executed for murdering Indigenous people. There have, tragically, been many Indigenous massacres before this, and there will be many to come. But this is the first to go to trial at a time when there was political will to bring the murderers to justice.

The next day, Governor Gipps writes a full report to Lord Glenelg, secretary of state for war and the colonies in London, so that the home authorities can understand his actions, and insistence on justice: “A determination seems to have been formed by the white men to put the whole of the blacks to death.”

The British home authorities endorse Gipps’ actions. Plunkett now goes after the remaining four stockmen, convinced he can get a conviction with them, too, and moves are made for Black Davy to undertake a course of bible study so that he will be able to take an oath and get in the witness box to testify against them. Alas, though there will be claims that Black Davy is “put out of the way” by Dangar to prevent this very testimony, the more prosaic reason that the pursuit of the final four is abandoned, is that attorney-general Plunkett is dissatisfied with the progress made with the Bible by Black Davy, and so calls it off. And so only seven stockmen in all are brought to justice.

That breakthrough notwithstanding, as late as 1861 a speech would be made to wide acclaim in the Queensland Legislative Assembly by government spokesman Robert Mackenzie to the effect that the Myall Creek trial of 1838 had represented nothing less than the “judicial murder of white men in Sydney”. It would be a widely held view for decades to come.

John Fleming, organiser of the massacre, lived for another 56 years, earning a warm obituary in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette in 1894, for his service as farmer in the Hawkesbury, church warden and … Justice of the Peace.


Henry Dangar died in 1861 as one of the richest men in the colony. Major Nunn was never held to account for his role in the frontier wars, including the massacre at Waterloo Creek.

Indigenous massacres continued for most of the next century, the last being recorded in the Northern Territory in 1928, some 90 years after the horror at Myall Creek.

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Justin Scaccy

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