Making peace with the Past - Remembering the Coniston Massacre 1928-2003
Warlpiri dancers celebrate the memorial ercted at Brookes Soak for those who were killed in the Coniston Massacre
The story of the Coniston killings is well known to many Central Australian Aboriginal people.
It has been told and re-told to generations of Aboriginal children by their parents and grandparents but most Australians are still unaware that such a brutal event happened in our recent past.
For many years Aboriginal people in the region have been asking the Central Land Council for a memorial to those who were killed, and this year, the 75th anniversary of the Coniston killings, seemed like a good opportunity to commemorate the event.
What is now known as the Coniston Massacre was in fact a series of raids following two key events.
The first began after the murder of Frederick Brooks on 7 August 1928 at Yurrkuru (Brooks Soak). Brooks, a friend of Randall Stafford who ran Coniston, had set out with camels from Coniston in the hope of trapping a few dingos to get him over hard times. He set up camp at the soakage and was, by some accounts, well liked by the local Aboriginal people.
There are many stories told about Bullfrog (Japanangka), the man who killed Brooks - some say he had one wife staying with Brooks, some say he had two. Most agree that Bullfrog was angry about his wife staying with Brooks and that perhaps Brooks didn’t pay him enough in rations. Early one morning Bullfrog crept down and killed Brooks. Again accounts differ, with some people saying Bullfrog and another man killed Brooks.
People still visit the cave where Bullfrog hid from the revenge party with his little dog. Bullfrog blocked the entrance of the cave with a stone or spinifex to hide himself from Murray’s party. He managed to escape and lived to an old age at Yuendumu.
Many innocent Aboriginal people were caught up in the violence that followed.
A reprisal party led by Constable George Murray, who was already on his way to investigate cattle killings at Pine Hill and Coniston, set out from Coniston Station on the 16 August and killed five people that day. By the time they returned to Coniston Station on the 30 August at least 17 people were dead.
Meanwhile, at Boomerang Waterhole, up on the Lander River, settler Nugget Morton was attacked by a group of Aboriginal men. He was a very strong man and fought them off and killed one man. He then went for help and eventually sent off a letter from Ti Tree to the police at Alice Springs. Constable Murray arrived in late September, got a party together and the killings continued around the Lander and Hanson Rivers until mid-October.
A Board of Enquiry, which began in late 1928, found that 31 Aboriginal people had been killed by Constable George Murray and others following the murder of Brooks and the attack on Nugget Morton. However, it seems likely that there were many more. TGH Strehlow, FW Albrecht, MC Hartwig and even Randall Stafford estimate the death toll was likely to be have been at least double that.
Between August and October 1928 there was a minimum of six sites where killings were officially recognised by the Board to have taken place. Aboriginal people of the region mention other places where they say killings took place, but these weren’t mentioned in the Board of Enquiry.
The Board of Enquiry also found that Murray and his party had acted in self-defence. The Board and its findings were widely criticised for having no Aboriginal witnesses except the tracker Paddy, no counsel for Aboriginal people, and that the evidence was not made public.
The loss of so many people has long been a cause of deep sadness to Aboriginal people in the region.
The lack of acknowledgment by the non-Aboriginal community of what occurred during those fateful months of 1928 increased the despair felt by people about this black moment in our history. The 75th Anniversary of the event is a chance for Australians to come to terms with our past and a chance for the local communities affected by it to find peace.
As time has passed most of the Aboriginal people who were present have passed away, although there are still some elderly survivors. However, there are still many accounts told by people in land claim evidence in the 1980s and in other publications such as Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories, Warlpiri Women’s Voices, Kayteye Country and Long Time Olden Time.
The story still remains vivid and painful to the descendants.
Many people still talk about their uncles, fathers and grandfathers who were gunned down during ceremony or hunting. The effect of the Coniston killings is felt widely in Central Australia, scattering people far to the northwest and northeast. Some never returned to their country.
She came with a fire, Napaljarri came with a fire. She was painting herself white in sorrow and putting white ashes all over her body. She was crying. I asked her, “Why are you crying?” Well she struck me again and then she said in handsign, I have no son. All the grandfathers (Jupurrurlas) didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t know.”
(Jakamarra Ross, Central Land Council, May 2003. Mr Ross was a teenage boy at the time of the killings and was camped at Watiyawarnu country, near Pirdi-Pirdi, not far from Mount Davidson.)