Colonial massacres, 1794 to 1928

The date January 26 is one of immense current debate in Australia. Officially it’s the date of Australia Day, which supposedly celebrates the founding of Australia. To Aboriginal peoples it is a day of deep mourning and sadness, as the date commemorates over two centuries of oppression, bloodshed, and dispossession. To them and their many supporters, January 26 is Invasion Day.

The date commemorates the landing in 1788 of Arthur Phillip, in charge of the First Fleet and the first Governor of the colony of New South Wales.

The trouble is that “Australia” means two things: the island continent, and the country. The country didn’t exist until Federation on January 1, 1901; before which time the land since 1788 was subdivided into independent colonies. Many people believe that Australia Day would be better moved to January 1; the trouble with that is that it’s already a public holiday, and apparently you can’t have a national day that doesn’t have its own public holiday. And many other dates have been proposed.

My own preferred date is June 3; this is the date of the High Court “Mabo” decision in 1992 which formally recognized native title and rejected the doctrine of terra nullius under which the British invaded.

That the continent was invaded rather than settled is well established: all serious historians take this view, and it can be backed up with legal arguments. The Aboriginal peoples, numbering maybe close to a million in 1788, had mastered the difficult continent and all of its many ecosystems, and had done so for around 80,000 years. Aboriginal culture is the oldest continually maintained culture on the planet, and by an enormous margin.

Arthur Phillip did in fact arrive with formal instructions to create “amity” with the “natives” and indeed to live in “kindness” with them, but this soon went downhill. Although Phillip himself seems to have been a man of rare understanding for his time (when speared in the shoulder, for example, he refused to let his soldiers retaliate), he was no match for the many convicts and soldiers under his rule. When he retired back to England in 1792 the colony was ruled by a series of weak and ineffective governors, and in particular by the military, culminating in the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie who is seen as a mass murderer of Aboriginal peoples, although the evidence is not clear-cut. What is clear is that mass murders of Aboriginal peoples were common and indiscriminate, and often with appalling cruelty. On many occasions large groups were poisoned with strychnine: this works by affecting the nerves which control muscle movement, so that the body goes into agonizing spasms resulting in death by asphyxiation. Strychnine is considered by toxicologists to be one of the most painful acting of all poisons. Even though Macquarie himself ordered retribution only after “resistance”; groups considered harmless, or consisting only of old men, women and children, were brutally murdered.

People were routinely killed by gunfire, or by being hacked to death; there is at least one report of a crying baby - the only survivor of a massacre - being thrown onto the fire made to burn the victims.

Many more died of disease: smallpox and tuberculosis were responsible for deaths of over 50% of Aboriginal peoples. Their numbers today are thus tiny, and as in the past they are still marginalized.

Only recently has this harrowing part of Australia’s past been formally researched; the casual nature of the massacres meant that many were not recorded, and it has taken a great deal of time and work to uncover their details. This work has been headed by Professor Lyndall Ryan at the University of Newcastle. The painstaking and careful work by her team has unearthed much detail, and their results are available at their site Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

As a January 26 exercise I decided to rework one of their maps, producing a single map which would show the sites of massacres by markers whose size is proportional to the number of people killed. This turned out to be quite easy using Python and its folium library, but naturally it took me a long time to get it right.

I started by downloading the timeline from the Newcastle site as a csv file, and going through each massacre adding its location. The project historians point out that the locations are deliberately vague. Sometimes this is because the vagueness of the historical record; but also (from the Introduction):

In order to protect the sites from desecration, and respect for the wishes of Aboriginal communities to observe the site as a place of mourning, the points have been made purposefully imprecise by rounding coordinates to 3 digits, meaning the point is precise only to around 250m.

Given the database, the Python commands were:

import folium
import pandas as pd

mass = pd.read_csv('massacres.csv')

a = folium.Map(location=[-27,134],width=1000, height=1000,tiles='OpenStreetMap',zoom_start=4.5)

for i in range(0,len(mass)):
   number_killed = mass.iloc[i]['Estimated Aboriginal People Killed']
      location=[float(mass.iloc[i]['Lat']), float(mass.iloc[i]['Long'])],
      tooltip=mass.iloc[i]['Location']+': '+str(number_killed),

The result is shown below. You can zoom in and out, and hovering over a massacre site will produce the location and number of people murdered.

The research is ongoing and this data is incomplete

The data was extracted from: Ryan, Lyndall; Richards, Jonathan; Pascoe, William; Debenham, Jennifer; Anders, Robert J; Brown, Mark; Smith, Robyn; Price, Daniel; Newley, Jack Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788 – 1872, v2.0 Newcastle: University of Newcastle, 2017, (accessed 08/02/2019). This project has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Note finally that Professor Ryan and team have defined a massacre to be a killing of at least six people. Thus we can assume there are many other killings of five or less people which are not yet properly documented, or more likely shall never been known. A shameful history indeed.

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