The Myall Creek Massacre and Its Legacy

Caitlin Burnett, Hawker College, 2012

The following essay was written as part of the 'Australia: Transition to Nationhood' unit at Hawker College, Semester 2, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'After the horrible incidents of the Myall Creek Massacre, a group of seven Non-Indigenous Australians were prosecuted for the murder of Aboriginals for the first time in Australian history. How did this outcome affect the shaping of Australia and the relationship between Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians (if at all)?'

On the tenth of June 1838, a group of eleven stockmen rode into Myall Creek with the intent of killing any Indigenous ‘blacks’ they came across. The men soon found a group of approximately thirty Aboriginal people and subsequently murdered them. They then killed another ten Aboriginal men, from the same group, the following day. As a result of their crimes, the men were put on trial for the massacre of the Aboriginal people but were found not guilty. Later, as reported at the time, seven of the men were re-tried, "The seven men were consequently two days afterwards, on the 29th November, put on their trial for the murder of the child, and found guilty…The council anonymously advised that the sentence of the law should take effect on them; they were accordingly ordered to me [Governor Gibbs] for execution…’.[1] It is assumed by some people that the Myall Creek Massacre was a turning point in Australian history; one that resulted in equality for all people under the law. This regrettably, is not supported by historical evidence. Although it was the first instance in Australian history of Non-Indigenous Australians being held accountable for the murder of Indigenous people, it did not result in an end to violence between the two cultures. Among both groups, the outcome of the Myall Creek Trial actually led to further conflict. Another consequence was the introduction of the first Aborigine Protection Act, which ironically took away most Indigenous legal freedoms. In more recent times, the events of the massacre and other atrocities against Indigenous people have gained more recognition and understanding. Only now, over one hundred years later, have Australians recognised the need for reconciliation.

At the time, after the verdict of the Myall Creek massacre trial became public, it stimulated a range of backlash from the white Australian community. Under New South Wales legislation, Aboriginal people were officially recognised as human beings and were theoretically entitled to equal protection under the law. However, this was not the view of the general public. The settler community was outraged that white people could be prosecuted for the killing of natives, whom they perceived as animals.[2] One of the jurors from the initial court trial was interviewed by the Australian newspaper, disclosing – "I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black."[3] Due to this public opinion, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were more openly discriminated against and subjected to even more acts of violence. These outbreaks also inspired retaliation from some of the Indigenous community, especially over land ownership (one of the leading factors in the Myall Creek massacre). Several groups of white Australians were killed in premeditated attacks by Indigenous Australians, their properties vandalised and their livestock slaughtered. In 1843, some European landowners felt so threatened by the natives that they abandoned their properties. But by British law, the Indigenous people were not at liberty to reclaim these properties as they had no legal right to own land. This furthered the alienation of native people in their own country. The two cultures were very quickly entering into a vicious cycle of planned racial attacks and retaliation, without any desire for reconciliation. This could, in part, be attributed to the language barriers which few white people attempted to overcome. Nonetheless, the ratio of European settlers killed in comparison to Indigenous Australians was minor.[4]

An argument has been proposed that the Myall Creek Massacre was a true turning point in Australian history.[5] It was ‘the first and last time that settlers were found guilty of, and hanged for, the killing of Aboriginal people on the frontier.’[6] The outcome of the Myall Creek trial offered a unique opportunity to enforce a fairness of law to all, irrespective of race. In A.K MacDougall’s book, Australia - An Illustrated History, he noted that "Australia was saved from becoming another South America, its racism legally condoned".[7] The historical evidence however, suggests a very different outcome. Fear of prosecution only resulted in an increase of surreptitious attacks. The mass murder of Indigenous people not only continued, but increased, through to the early 20th-century. Most of these massacres went undocumented as settlers began to use poisons, which were almost impossible to detect at the time. They no longer boasted about their felonies in public, going to great lengths to cover up all evidence.[8] This was also abetted by certain local police forces that deliberately expunged reports of racial attacks. Though the Myall Creek massacre had the potential to become a catalyst for change in Australian history, this chance was lost. Instead, it became best known for its unique circumstances: the only case in Australian history where European settlers were prosecuted for the massacre of Aboriginals under the Colonial Government.

Following the horrific actions of the Myall Creek Massacre, a Bill for the protection of Aboriginal people was drafted by the British Government. The ‘Aborigines Protection Act’ was intended to guard ‘their just rights and privileges as subjects of Her Majesty the Queen’.[9] However, this act also resulted in the loss of freedoms. Once the statute was brought into effect, the Aboriginal’s right to land, marriage, education and livelihood was entirely under the control of the Australian Government. This Act also took away the Aboriginal’s right to raise their own children, particularly half-caste children (Aboriginal children of mixed parentage). It was alleged by the Government that Indigenous people were incapable of properly raising their children. Children were forcibly abducted to live within the ‘white’ society, in an attempt to ‘breed out’ their black skin. Although the Protection Act was intended to mend poor relations between Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, it only generated segregation among the cultures and legalised discrimination.[10]

Historically the typical reaction to racial tension is senseless violence. This type of response is not limited to Australians, with racial crimes committed by the American Ku Klux Klan, the German Nazis and the South African Apartheid regime. Each of these organisations/groups believed in a supreme-race and that certain other races were less than human. This type of mind-set often leads to the attempted removal of the ‘lesser’ group (observed by the ‘White Australian Policy’) and futile racial wars. One issue that many cultures continue to disregard is that racism achieves nothing for either group. In the case of the Myall Creek massacre, the stockmen who committed the murders believed they were aiding society by killing the native aboriginals. Under British and Colonial Law, these same men were sentenced to death by hanging for their crimes. However, none of these deaths were followed by peace, but rather by more conflict. Unfortunately in most instances, it takes a long time for people to come to this inevitable conclusion. Australia’s move for reconciliation was largely influenced by a public change of opinion, as well as powerful external pushes for unity (the British Government being a prominent force at the time, in the early 1900’s). One-hundred and sixty-two years after the killings at Myall Creek a memorial stone was made in honour of the deceased, in an attempt to both remember and learn from past mistakes. In 2008, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, issued a formal apology to the Indigenous Australians for all past maltreatment of their people. ‘We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation. For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written. We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.’[11]

Whether in Australia or in any country struggling with cultural differences, racial discrimination will continue to accomplish nothing. The execution of the seven guilty stockmen was a small victory for Indigenous Australians, shrouded by their continued mistreatment. The settler community still held the same attitudes towards native Australians and the Myall Creek trial only fuelled their bigotry.[12] The Myall Creek Massacre and subsequent trial did not improve the relationship between the settlers and Indigenous people. This was due to the inconsistent application of the law throughout Australia. The only lesson learnt by the settlers was that they needed to use more clandestine methods of ‘dealing’ with natives. It also resulted in the introduction of the first Aborigine Protection Act. This was a hugely significant and racially prejudiced act, which influenced the lives of thousands of Australians (both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous). Although Australia has now attempted to reconcile these past actions, there is little that can be done to compensate for the lives of those previously affected.


Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
Myall Creek Massacre jcmhood jcmhood 1 289 Aug 24, 2013 by 09wadd23 09wadd23


  1. ^ Reynolds, H. (1989) Dispossession - Black Australians and White invaders – Governor Gibbs, letter to his superiors in Britain
  2. ^ Inglis, K. (1974) The Australian Colonists. Victoria: Wilke and Co. p.164.
  3. ^ (2000) Myall Creek Massacre - 08/06/2000 - NSW Parliament.
  4. ^ (2005) Skeletons are out: Tony Roberts - Frontier Justice
  5. ^ MacDougall, A. (2004) Australia - An illustrated History, Victoria: The Five Mile Press, p.146.
  6. ^ Heritage Database – Australian Government (2008) Australian Heritage Database. [PDF] NSW: Australian Government. p.4-5
  7. ^ MacDougall, A. (2004) Australia - An illustrated History, Victoria: The Five Mile Press, p.146.
  8. ^ Elder, B. (2003) Blood on the Wattle. 3rd ed. Sydney: New Holland Publishers (Australia), p.83-94.
  9. ^ The State Records Authority of New South Wales- Colonial Secretary: Copies of Minutes and Memoranda Received, 1838
  10. ^ (2010) //Racism. No Way.: Fact Sheets: The Stolen Generations.
  11. ^ (2008) Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples. – Speech Transcript
  12. ^ Reynolds, H. (1987) Frontier. Sydney: Allen and Urwin Australia, p.40-41