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Aboriginal family probably in front of the house of Dr Charles Throsby, at Casula, Augustus Earle, National Library of Australia

Aboriginal family probably in front of the house of Dr Charles Throsby, at Casula, Augustus Earle, National Library of Australia

This Sunday 17 April 2016 marks 200 years since the Appin massacre, when at least 14 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed by soldiers under the command of Captain James Wallis, as part of a military reprisal raid ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. I spoke about this dark moment in our history with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast.

Associate Professor Grace Karskens describes where the massacre occurred as the section of land between the Georges and Nepean Rivers toward the deep end of the Cataract River in the country of the Muringong people of the Camden area. The onset of the Appin massacre can be traced back to 1814, when three veteran soldiers shot and killed a Gandangara boy who was with a group taking maize from a field on a settler’s farmland. A soldier was speared in return, who then died and was mutilated.

A chain of revenge attacks followed: settlers attacked a camp of sleeping people, killing and mutilating an Aboriginal woman and three children who were the family of two Gandangara warriors. In revenge for this killing, a stock keeper and his wife and the children of another settler were killed at Bringelly.

Governor Macquarie intervened, visiting the area and deciding that Aboriginal payback justice had been undertaken and ordered both sides to cease further reprisals. But the violence continued, with incidents of farms being robbed, people being ambushed and speared and settlers responding armed with muskets, pistols and pitchforks.

Macquarie ordered three groups of military personnel to comb the countryside to track down, capture or kill Aboriginal people, with no distinction between ‘friendly’ and ‘hostile’, women and children. The bodies of those slain would be hung up in the trees ‘in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors’.

One party combed the Hawkesbury, while another group went through Camden and killed two Aboriginal warriors and took a boy prisoner. Captain James Wallis’ group marched to Appin. In the early hours of the morning of 17 April 1816 they encountered a camp of Aboriginal men, women and children and immediately opened fire. Some ‘fled over the cliffs’ and died as they fell in the gorge of the Cataract River. Others were wounded or shot dead. Among the 14 dead was an old man, women and children. Two warriors, Durelle and Cannabayagal, were also killed and were strung up in trees.

Reports about the massacre published in the Sydney Gazette quote Macquarie, who said: ‘several Natives have been unavoidably killed and wounded’ because they had not ‘surrendered themselves on being called to do so’. One Aboriginal man, William Byrne, would recall almost 90 years later what he witnessed as a boy that day – that three bodies, not two, had been strung up in the trees and the heads were cut off and brought to Sydney ‘where the government paid 30 shillings and a gallon of rum for each of them’.

In 1991, the National Museum of Australia received three skulls which had been at the University of Edinburgh for 175 years. One of the skulls belonged to Cannabayagal, and the other two possibly to Durelle and an unnamed woman. Karskens quotes National Museum curator, Mike Pickering, who said the skulls serve ‘as a reminder that the events of the past echo to the present’, and they do so today, almost exactly 200 years on.

There will be a memorial service conducted by the Winga Myamly Reconciliation Group at Cataract Dam picnic area, Appin this Sunday, 17 April 2016 at 11am. The exhibition With Secrecy and Despatch, which was assembled by Aboriginal curators, Tess Allas and Steven Loft, and includes works by Australian and Canadian artists will be open at Campbelltown Arts Centre until 12 June.

Listen to my segment at 2SER radio and read the original article at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.