Massacre by Moonlight

Massacre by Moonlight

          Marshall soon found that in becoming Commandant of the Native Police he had won himself an unenviable position. Facts brought out in the Walker inquiry had added strength to the arguments of a group of squatters who were opposed to the Native Police from the start.

          These were mainly men who had treated the aborigines as fairly as possible in the circumstances, and who, in return, had been left unmolested while their neighbours’ stock was slaughtered. One squatter on the Maranoa had made a treaty with the local Aborigines, engaging the tribesmen to do his shepherding in return for meat and stores, and promising mutual aid against the ferocious Jiman tribes over the hills to the north-east. Both sides kept this treaty for years.

          Thomas Archer and his brothers John and David, who took up Gracemere station on the Fitzroy River near the present site of Rockhampton, in 1855, also managed to keep on fairly good terms with the Aborigines though it was said that the main thing that made this possible was a ship’s swivel-gun mounted on a stump at the front of the station’s homestead in order to command the approaches to it.

          There were others who claimed that the blacks had been beaten, and sought a lifting of the levies that were made to maintain the Native Police. The Government in Sydney was in a mood to agree. The northern areas were soon to become part of a separate colony, and the southern legislators saw no reason to waste money on them.

          The Native Police force was reduced in strength from one hundred and thirty-six to seventy-two men. Marshall resigned in disgust. To save expense and trouble, the disbanded troopers, instead of being sent back to the southern districts where they had been recruited, were released on the spot. The immediate result was a crop of murders and brutal assaults of a type far worse than any that had been attributed to Aborigines before. In most cases the tribesmen who committed them were led by former police boys.

          Frederick Walker, seeing a chance to profit by the situation, organised a private army of his own from disbanded troopers, and hired out his services to squatters who needed them. Whether he quelled more trouble than he stirred up is doubtful, but his discipline at this stage was certainly lax, and many of the brutal acts for which Native Police and squatters were blamed during this period, were probably committed by Walker’s men.

          Growing discontent with the Native Police led to a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry, and in May 1857, E. V. Morisset was appointed to take charge of a re-organised force. He promptly clashed with Walker who, he said, was deliberately making things difficult for the force he himself had once commanded. The Government ordered Walker to disband his army and leave the job of controlling the Aborigines to the officially recognised Native Police.

          Morisset’s men had hardly time to shake down before they were called on to deal with the worst massacre by Aborigines in the history of the Colony.

          The Dawson River valley, to the north-east of the Maranoa, was good country, well watered, and teeming with native game. The Aborigines, whose hunting ground it was- the Jimans- were a virile, warlike race, feared by their neighbours and not used to being pushed away from good hunting grounds by invaders like Andrew Scott, a Scottish migrant who took up land on the Dawson in 1853, near the site of the present town of Taroom, named it Hornet Bank, and stocked it with sheep. The Jimans promptly speared his shepherd to death and drove off fourteen hundred sheep.

          Scott called in the Native Police, rode out with them, and surprised the raiders in the middle of a mutton feast. They rescued most of the sheep and “dispersed” the Jimans with considerable carnage.

          After that, Scott marked a ring of trees at a good distance from the homestead and warned the Jimans that any of them found inside the ring would be shot.

          In March 1854, Scott leased the run to a former Darling Downs settler named John Fraser, showed him the marked tree line, and advised him to keep the Jimans at their distance. Fraser, whose knowledge of the Aborigines came from the comparatively easy-going Gooneeburras, did not take the warning very seriously.

          Before the year was out Fraser died of pneumonia, leaving his widow Martha, aged forty-three, and family of five sons and four daughters, and the children’s European tutor, to carry on the run. One of their most trusted station-hands was a partly-civilised Aboriginal named Boney, who had worked on a number of stations before.

          The Frasers treated the Jimans kindly and believed that they were on friendly terms with them. They did not know that living with the tribe were two former Native Police boys who had been released in the district and were looking for trouble.

          They found it on the night of 26 October 1857 while the Fraser’s eldest son, William, was away bringing the bullock drays up from Ipswich with stores and other things for the station, including a dress in which his eldest sister planned shortly to be married to a squatter from the Wide Bay district. No one at the station expected trouble that moonlit night, and the dog, which might have given a warning, had already been clubbed to death by Boney.

          Towards dawn, the Jimans, led by the two former police boys, silently closed in on the homestead. When close enough, they rushed it. The elder Fraser boy, John, twenty-three, and the tutor, Henry Neagle, twenty-seven, slept in a skillion off the veranda. Both were brained with nulla-nullas before they could jump from their beds.

          The noise woke Sylvester, generally called West Fraser, a boy of fourteen, who, with his brothers, David, sixteen, and James, nearly seven, had their bunks in the store. Yelling a warning to the others, Wet grabbed a gun, but at the same moment the door carshed in and a pack of painted warriors pressed into the room. West was felled by a blow from a nulla-nulla across the side of his head. It stunned him and rolled him across the bunk so that he fell down between it and the wall where he could not be seen.

          The other two boys were felled with nulla-nullas and as they lay on the floor, were battered beyond recognition.

          Mrs. Fraser, awakened by the din, and trying to quieten the screaming girls, had barricaded the door of the bedroom where they all slept. The half-conscious boy, West, could hear the attackers hammering on it, but it was of heavy, hewn timber and they could not break it down. At last, during a lull in the noise, West heard a voice that he recognised as Boney’s, saying, “Suppose you come out, Missus; this feller no hurt.”

          The next thing West remembered was hearing his mother and sisters taking the barricade away from the door. As the women came into the open they were seized by the yelling horde. The girls were thrown to the ground and immediately became the centre of a yelling, wildly jostling mob. Mrs. Fraser’s frantic eyes were glimpsed, amid the sea of hostile, painted features, one familiar face- Boney’s. “Save us, Boney! Save us!” she screamed. Boney made no move to interfere. “Never mind Missus,” he said. “Soon you be dead,” and even as he spoke, Mrs. Fraser herself was thrown to the ground.

          Tired at last of their sport with the half-dead women, the Jimans clubbed them to death. Not satisfied even then, and egged on by the former police boys, they fell on the bodies with their tomahawks. The eldest girl, Elizabeth- the one who was getting ready for her wedding- was nineteen years of age. The others were Mary, eleven, Jane, nine, and Charlotte, three.

          By now it was nearly daybreak and the Jimans retired to wait in ambush by the woolshed about half a mile from the homestead for two shepherds who were camped there. They speared the men as they came out in the open. They plundered the homestead for food, rounded up a flock of sheep, and scattered leaving the bodies where they lay. West Fraser, the boy of fourteen, found them when he crawled from behind his bunk.

          News of the massacre spread like a blaze. All the squatters on the Dawson turned out, Native Police were called from neighbouring districts, and in a tense, silent fury the punitive party rode out. All the Jimans of the Upper Dawson River had a distinctive, boomerang-shaped tribal marking on their chests. No man with that marking was going to be elft alive.

          On the second day out the trackers picked up the trail of their quarry and they followed it until nearly sunset when, from a high ridge, they sighted smoke rising from a patch of scrub. It being too late to attack that night, the pursuers retreated about a mile to the nearest billabong, hobbled their horses and made camp.

          They were up at the crack of dawn and, after a breakfast of tea, damper, and salt beef, were advancing again to the ridge where the trackers had been left to keep watch. The Jimans would come out of the scrub to hunt, and it was in the open, where the horses would have room to maneuver, that the pursuers wanted to catch them.

          At last came the signal that the quarry was out in the open. Quietly the horsemen moved up to cut off their retreat to the scrub. But the Jimans had left their women to keep watch, and soon their high-pitched warning cries rang out across the valley. The horsemen spurred their mounts to a gallop and charged down the slope, firing as they came. But the Jimans beat them to the scrub and slipped away among the trees faster than the horses could follow.

          The camp was found- well hidden in the undergrowth- and in it, loot which included Bibles and prayer books with names of members of the Fraser family written in them, and also women’s dresses, hats and work-boxes and a quantity of blankets. In addition, there were hundreds of spears and other weapons, possum rugs, stone tomahawks, and all the usual equipment of an Aboriginal camp.

          A few personal belongings were kept for return to surviving members of the Fraser family, and everything else was burnt. The tomahawks were collected into three or four dilly bags and thrown far out into the nearest waterhole.

          For more than six weeks the pursuit went on. One large group of Jimans was surrounded by Native Police, mustered like a mob of cattle, and its members shot down from horseback. Others, who were caught alive, were handcuffed around a big bottle tree, shot, and left there to rot.

          Mr. Pearce-Seroccold, owner of Cockatoo station, wrote in his diary of the fate of another group:

“About a dozen blacks were taken into the open country and shot. They were complete savages and never wore any clothes and were so much alike that no evidence could be procured to enable them to be tried by our laws. These men were allowed to run and they were shot at about thirty or forty yards distance.”

          It was generally believed at the time that William Fraser received immunity from the Government for twelve months to avenge the deaths of members of his family. One day in Toowoomba, he saw a black woman wearing a dress that had belonged to his mother. He drew his revolver and shot her dead. No action was taken against him. He later became a Native Police officer and was stationed on the Dawson where he made his name such a terror among the tribes that the mere rumour that he was in some particular area was enough to send every Aboriginal out of sight until he was gone.

          West Fraser, either from the head injuries he had received or from shock, periodically went out of his mind. During these attacks the Aborigines were terrified of him, even though, unlike his brother William, he was quite harmless.

          Though few Aborigines remained on the Dawson with the Jiman boomerang across their chests, the black war continued with increased ruthlessness. On the Nogoa River in the latter part of 1861 a squatter missed some sheep, and, assuming that they had been taken by Aborigines, collected his men, surrounded a nearby native camp, and shot every man, woman, and child in sight. On his way back to the homestead he found the missing sheep grazing in a clump of timber.

          Soon after this, early in October 1861, squatter Horatio Wills arrived from Victoria with a party of twenty-five persons, put his 10,000 sheep out to pasture, and began building the first huts for his new homestead, Cullen-la-Ringo.

          Wills’ experience of Aborigines was gained from southern tribes, and he apparently believed that as long as he treated the northerners reasonably well, they would let him have their land without unpleasantness. As the local tribesmen clustered about his workmen, those of whom who had picked up a smattering of English asked question about everything they saw, and Wills explained that he could not interfere with them, but they were not to come into his camp.

          But the ban came too late. The Aborigines had already seen among the freshly loaded stores riches and plunder beyond their dreams. They hung around and refused to leave. Wills told them they must “Yan” (go away). Some of the old men had turned to go and the rest seemed about to follow, when one of the women stopped stubbornly in her tracks. “What for yan?” she asked. Wills was at a loss for an answer and he allowed them to remain.

          During the morning of 17 October, about a fortnight after the Wills parties’ arrival, about sixty Aborigines came into the camp but left before dinner-time, apparently on the best of terms with everybody. They were, as it turned out, simply scouting out the land. Exactly what happened next is unknown. None who saw it lived to tell the tale.

          The day was hot, and after dinner, John Moore, one of the hands, went to his hut for a sleep but finding it too stuffy came outside and found himself a cool patch of shade in the nearby scrub. He fell asleep and was wakened by a great shouting from the main camp. Raising himself cautiously to peer through the bushes, he saw Aborigines running about everywhere. He saw one of them push Mrs. Baker, the overseer’s wife, to the ground, heard her scream “murder!” and then the thud of a nulla-nulla descending on her skull. During the whole time he heard only one shot fired.

          Unarmed as he was, there was nothing Moore could do to help, and he was still crouching in his hiding place when a flock of sheep whose shepherd had been killed came milling past him, heading towards the nearby creek. Crawling on his hands and knees, Moore mixed in with the sheep until he was hidden from the homestead by the high creek banks.

          There was a horse there too, tossing his head and snorting with terror, but Moore made no attempt to approach him. Even if he could have caught and mounted the animal, doing so would have made him the target for a dozen spears before he had ridden more than a few yards. Instead, he stumbled up the creek bed until clear of the camp and then ran for his life, arriving exhausted at Rainworth station, more than thirty miles to the south, about eleven o’clock on the following morning.

          It was shearing time, so Mr. Gregson, the owner of Rainworth, had no trouble in mustering a posse of nine shearers, but by the time they reached Cullen-la-Ringo it was dark and they could do nothing. Daylight found them in the midst of a shambles. Ten bodies were stretched out grotesquely on the ground among the huts and tents.

          Wills’ body lay about three yards in front of his tent, a revolver by his left hand, a double-barreled gun near his left. One shot had been fired from the revolver. The gun was still loaded.

          Some of the slain women still had sewing in their hands, and the children, their skulls smashed by the blows of nulla-nullas, were lying near their mothers.

          The cook, who shared the hut which Moore had left in search of a cool spot, lay dead near his fire. One of the bullock drivers who had been dragging up logs to build sheep pens, lay dead beside his yoked tea, his bullock whip still in his hand. A man who had been helping him lay a few yards away.

          Mr. Baker (the overseer), his son, and another man were found dead a mile and a half away where they had been building a yard for the ewes and lambs. They had apparently fought for their lives with tent poles. All their bodies were terribly mutilated. All the shepherds except two, Edward Kenny and Patrick Mahoney, were found dead near their sheep.

          Kenny said he had returned with his flock to the head camp about sundown, and that Patrick who had returned earlier, told him what he had found. Kenny had caught the horse that Moore had left alone, and had ridden it to Rainworth. None of the men at Cullen-la-Ringo had been armed at the time of the attack.

          Gregson and his party buried the bodies, mustered all the sheep they could find and made a quick examination of the camp. Packing cases had been smashed open, and their contents- blankets, clothing, axes, knives, tools, pistols, bullets and even books- had been carried away.

          Those killed in the Cullen-la-Ringo attack were: Mr. H. S. Wills, owner of the station; Baker, the overseer, and his wife and four children, the youngest of whom was aged seven months’ Patrick Manion and his wife and two children; and seven other men. Mr. T. W. Wills, the owner’s son, and James Baker, a son of the overseer, and another man were absent collecting stores at the time and escaped.

          Gregson and his party rode after the raiders that same day. Tracking them was easy because they had kept throwing away part of the loot they carried. About dusk, some twenty-five miles out from the homestead, the raider’s camp was sighted, in light scrub near the foot of steep hills. The pursuers halted for the night, to plan their attack.

          Just before dawn, leaving their horses tethered, the ten men began to creep up on the native camp on foot. There was not a sign of movement in it. As soon as the party were within effective firing range, they set up a great yell. Black painted bodies erupted and ran in every direction. The place seemed to be alive with them; two or three hundred, Gregson estimated. Taken completely by surprise, they made no attempt to fight back, but made a bee-line for the high, rocky ground into which it would have been suicide for the small party to have attempted to follow them.

          In the camp were found plunder from the station and large quantities of native weapons which were made into a heap and burnt. While the party was doing this, a shower of stones rained down on them from above, and, looking up, they saw that the Aborigines, slipping from the cover of one rock to another, were spreading out into a wide crescent and slowly descending the slope as though to surround them. There was nothing left but to retreat to the horses. The painted warriors followed, keeping their crescent formation and edging steadily closer. Only when they saw the man who had been left with the horses bringing them up, did they once again retreat.

          Meanwhile, Mr. P. F. Macdonald of Yaamba station had organised another party, and the native police had been sent for. The combined party picked up the tracks and about 26 October came upon their quarry and shot a large number, including one who vainly protested, “Me no kill white fellow.” Some stolen firearms and other property were recovered from the camp, and also a large supply of spears and nulla-nullas.

          Many Aborigines who escaped their pursuers on this occasion perished of hunger because of having lost their weapons and being constantly on the move.