House debates

Monday, 20 August 2018


Coniston Massacre

7:49 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

This Friday, on 24 August, there will be a commemorative ceremony at Yurrkuru, Brookes Soak, about 60 kilometres east of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory. The purpose of this commemoration is to recall the Coniston massacre, which took place between August and October 1928, where a large number of Aboriginal people were murdered by an expeditionary force led by a policeman. This story is important to Australia in understanding our own history and in the issue of truth-telling, to appreciating the sacrifices that have been made and, in this case, the massacres of Aboriginal people.

What is 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 Yukurru, at Brooks Soak, as I mentioned. Brooks, a friend of Randall Stafford, who ran Coniston Station, had set out with camels from Coniston in the hope of trapping a few dingoes to get him over hard times, it was said. He set up camp at the soak and was, by some accounts, well liked by the local Aboriginal people.

There are many stories told about Japanunga Bullfrog, the man who killed brooks. Most agree that Japanunga Bullfrog was angry about his wife staying with Brooks. Early one morning, Japanunga crept up and killed Brooks. People still visit the place where Japanunga hid from the revenge party with his little dog. He blocked the entrance of the cave, it's said, with a stone or some spinifex, and he ultimately managed to escape and live to old age.

Sadly, that was not the case for many other Aboriginal people. A board of inquiry which began in late 1928 found that 31 Aboriginal people had been killed by Constable William Murray and others following the murder of Brooks. However, it's believed that many others—probably twice as many—at a minimum of six sites were killed and were officially recognised by the board to have taken place. Aboriginal people of the area mention other sites where, they say, killings took place, but these weren't mentioned in the board of inquiry.

Of course, most, if not all, of the Aboriginal people who were present around that time have passed away—those, at least, who weren't murdered. However, there are still many accounts told by people in the land claim evidence of the 1980s and other publications such as Every Hill Got a Story: We Grew Up in Country; Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories: Newly Recorded Stories from the Aboriginal Elders of Central Australia; Warlpiri Women's Voices: Our Lives, Our History; Kaytetye Country: An Aboriginal History of the Barrow Creek Area;and Long Time, Olden Time: Aboriginal Accounts of Northern Territory History. The story remains vivid and painful to the descendants. Many people still talk about their uncles, fathers and grandfathers who were gunned down during the ceremonial hunting. The killings of Coniston were felt widely in Central Australia, scattering people far to the north-west and north-east. Sadly, some never returned to their country.

Here is a salutary lesson to us all. But, sadly, there are those—not here particularly but elsewhere—who try to tell us that this is really not what Australian history is about. Well, it is. We heard from the Uluru Statement from the Heart about the importance of truth-telling, of coming to terms with our past and understanding the role that people played in it. That's not to say that we should feel guilty about the past, but we should own up to the past and understand how people suffered and how they feel about the injustices and, in this case, the killings that took place now 90 years ago.

This Friday is a very important commemorative event, and I encourage those who might be listening and those who may have an interest to research this subject and the other massacres that have taken place across this country since we whitefellas first arrived here.