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When murderers faced the law

1838: Myall Creek massacre and the execution of seven of the perpetrators

National Museum of Australia
1800 1900

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. ‘The colonial community of New South Wales was more outraged by the execution of British citizens than they were by the massacre of the Wirrayaraay people.’ What does this statement tell you about colonial society at that time?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Myall Creek massacre is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p><em>Myall Creek Massacre</em> by Vincent Serico, 2003</p>
Vincent Serico

WARNING: This page contains some difficult and potentially distressing content.

In a snapshot

In June 1838 at least 28 unarmed Aboriginal people were massacred by colonists at Myall Creek in New South Wales. In December of the same year seven of those colonists were publicly hanged at Sydney Gaol. They were the first British subjects to be executed for massacring Aboriginal people. It wasn’t the first or last massacre — there were many more — but the trial of the accused men helped to change the way the law was put into practice in Australia. 

Myall Creek Massacre by Vincent Serico, 2003

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Where is Myall Creek?

2. How many people were murdered during the Myall Creek massacre?

3. What happened to the colonists that massacred the Wirrayaraay people?

What was frontier violence?

From the start of European colonisation in 1788, people had moved into Aboriginal lands. Europeans wanted to grow food and graze cattle and sheep. This often led to conflict as some Aboriginal people resisted this settlement by burning farms, destroying crops, killing animals and sometimes attacking and killing the colonisers. Many convicts, farmers and stock workers responded by attacking and killing Aboriginal people. These events often took place a long way from police and courts, so those who committed the crimes were usually not punished.

<p><em>Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts</em>,&nbsp;1840s, by Phiz</p>

State Library of New South Wales a928300

<p><em>Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts</em>,&nbsp;1840s, by Phiz</p>

What happened at Myall Creek in 1838?

In May 1838 a group of Wirrayaraay people, a clan of the Gamilaraay nation, camped on a property at Myall Creek Station in north-east New South Wales. The Wirrayaraay men helped stockmen with their work on nearby stations. The stockmen and the Wirrayaraay people spent time together in the evenings, often dancing and singing by the campfire.

Just before sunset on 10 June 1838, while the Wirrayaraay people were preparing for their evening meal, a group of convicts, former convicts and one free settler arrived at the station with guns and other weapons. The group tied up the frightened Wirrayaraay people and led them away from their campsite. They then killed them and burned their bodies. At least 28 people were killed, although the final number of people massacred has never been confirmed.

‘[The trials had] created an extraordinary sensation in the Colony and will be the subject of gossip for many a long day yet.’

British Settler, JH Bannatye

What did the Supreme Court decide in this case?

Three local people reported the crime, including the Myall Creek Station manager William Hobbs, who had encouraged the Aboriginal men to work at the station. As a result 11 men were arrested and one ran away. The men were put on trial but the jury, which believed the Aboriginal people were a menace to settlers, found them not guilty.

But there was a second trial, and this time seven men were found guilty of murder. The main witness to the crime, Aboriginal man Yintayintin, mysteriously disappeared before the trial of the last four men, so they were never tried. People knew where the twelfth man (the free settler) lived but he was never arrested.

The colonial community of New South Wales was more outraged by the execution of British citizens than they were by the massacre of the Wirrayaraay people. After the seven colonists were executed many colonists felt even more hostile towards Aboriginal people. Violence against Aboriginal people continued, but colonists more carefully covered up their crimes to avoid arrest.

Research task

 

Research another massacre that took place in colonial Australia. How many people were killed? Who were they? Why were they killed? Hint: You might want to use this map from the University of Newcastle

University of Newcastle

How is the Myall Creek massacre remembered today?

In June 2000 a memorial site was opened at Myall Creek to remember the people who were murdered there. The memorial is important because it reminds people about a terrible massacre. It is also important because it has been set up by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to recognise our difficult, shared history.

Every year in June hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gather at the memorial site to attend an annual memorial service.

‘[The Myall Creek massacre Supreme Court trials were] the first place white man’s justice done some good. Right across Australia, there were massacres. What makes Myall Creek real is that people were hanged, see. That was the difference.’

Gamilaraay Elder, Uncle Lyall Munro, 2013

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Where is Myall Creek?

2. How many people were murdered during the Myall Creek massacre?

3. What happened to the colonists that massacred the Wirrayaraay people?