Opinion

Stolen land and stolen lives demand repentance

Written to mark NAIDOC week 2018, Peter Adam reflects on why we must repent for stolen land and lives

By Peter Adam

July 12 2018We are called to repent for stolen land and stolen lives, Peter Adam concludes in recounting the horrific massacre of Myall Creek, and the sermon of Baptist minister John Saunders which damningly enumerated the sins of white colonialists against Indigenous Australians. The viewpoint was also written to mark NAIDOC week (8 to 15 July).

On Sunday 10 June 1838, at about 4.00pm, 11 horsemen arrive at the Myall Creek cattle station in New South Wales, run by Henry Dangar. Some Aboriginal people are there, having been invited to come and live at the station. The Aboriginal men are away working at the next station. Those left are women and children, and the elderly. One woman is kept alive so that they can rape her. The 11 horsemen herd the rest into a hut, where they are tethered to a rope. They are then dragged to a stockade 800 metres away, where at least 28 of them are shot or slashed and hacked to death. The youngest is a three year old boy. Two days later the 11 men return to build a large fire, to burn and destroy the remains of the Aborigines.

How could such a massacre happen? There was conflict over the land. The Aborigines, Wirrayaraay people of the Kamilaroi nation, were camped on their traditional lands. But the British had declared Australia terra nullius, and were gradually taking over the land for cattle and sheep. In this conflict, both Aborigines and British had been killed. There was a clash of cultures, massive misunderstanding, and a cultural arrogance which blinded the British to the realities and qualities of the Aboriginal people. While systems of justice were active in Sydney and Melbourne, it was much more difficult to maintain law and order in the outback.

Why was Myall Creek so important?

There were two trials in Sydney in November 1838. In the first trial, the 11 men were found not guilty by the jury. In the second trial, seven of them faced court again, and they were found guilty and hanged.

This led to a furore. The Sydney Morning Herald declared, “The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time”. And in a letter to the editor, “Anti-Hypocrite” described the Aborigines as “the most degenerate, despicable, and brutal race of human beings in existence”. A remarkable statement, in the context of the actions of the 11 men!

A memorable Christian sermon

However, John Saunders, minister at Bathurst Street Baptist Church in Sydney, preached a memorable sermon on 14 October 1838. His text was Isaiah 26:21:

“Behold the Lord cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain.”

Oppression, cruelty and blood, gather the clouds of vengeance, and provoke the threatening thunder of the Omnipotent, and attract the bolt of wrath. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed,” was the decree of the Eternal when the life of the brutes was placed in human power, and the reason for this solemn distinction is “for in the image of God made he man.” … It is a fearful thing to shed human blood, it is an act which has the deepest malefaction of heaven upon it – a curse from the dread power above… Pilate might wash his hands but he could not make himself guiltless of innocent blood.

He shows that these murders happened in the context of broader injustice and malice:

Our influence has been deeply fatal to the black. It might have been supposed, that a Christian nation colonizing the Australian wilderness would have sought to bless the original possessor of the wild; but so far from this, we have inflicted a series of wrongs, which I will now enumerate.

First, we have robbed him without any sanction, that I can find either in natural or revealed law; we descended as invaders upon his territory and took possession of the soil. It is not just to say that the natives had no notion of property, and therefore we could not rob them of that which they did not possess; for accurate information shews that each tribe had its distinct locality, and each superior person in the tribe a portion of this district. From these their hunting grounds, they have been individually and collectively dispossessed.

We have also destroyed their game, and the fine-spun arguments about wild animals are adduced to show that the kangaroo and the opossum are the property of him who first obtains them. But apply this argument to the aristocratic privilege of Britain, and it ceases to hold good; the lord of the manor could transport a man, exile him from his country, his family, and friends, for shooting a pheasant or snaring a hare; and the ground and the game, the sustenance and life of the New Hollander could be taken without compunction, or the offer of an equivalent. Surely we are guilty here.

Secondly, we have brutalised them. We brought the art of intoxication to them – we taught them new lessons in fraud, dishonesty, and theft…

Thirdly, we have shed their blood. I speak not of the broils and murders which might find a parallel in the conduct of the white toward the white, but out of those extra murders in which so many have fallen. We have not been fighting with a natural enemy, but have been eradicating the possessors of the soil, and why, forsooth? Because they were troublesome, because some few had resented the injuries they had received, and then how were they destroyed? by wholesale, in cold blood; let the Hawkesbury and Emu Plains tell their history, let Bathurst give in her account, and the Hunter render her tale, not to mention the South, and we shall find that while rum, and licentiousness, and famine, and disease, have done their part to exterminate the blacks, the musket, and the bayonet and the sword, and the poisoned damper, have also had their influence, and that Britain hath avenged the death of her sons, not by law, but by retaliation at the atrocious disproportion of a hundred to one. The spot of blood is upon us, the blood of the poor and the defenceless, the blood of the men we wronged before we slew, and too, too often, a hundred times too often, innocent blood.

And he calls for repentance, in the light of the promise of God:

For be assured that all the peoples of the earth shall yet be gathered to our Saviour, for the scene which John beheld in apocalyptic vision, shall yet be realised. “A great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands: and cried with a loud voice, saying salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.”

When he was Prime Minister, Tony Abbott referred to ISIS massacres in the Middle East as “medieval”. Massacres such as Myall Creek are part of Australian history. We have apologised for the Stolen Generation. We have not yet apologised for stolen land, or for stolen lives.

The Revd Dr Canon Peter Adam is vicar emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton.

For more on Myall Creek, see Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in our Hearts; Peter Stewart, Demons at Dusk: Massacre at Myall Creek; and Terry Smyth, Denny Day: The Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman. For massacres in Victoria, see https://cv.vic.gov.au/media/oldmedia/5755/massacre_File0001.jpg. For more on the Revd John Saunders, see Ken Manley and Barbara Coe, The grace of goodness: John Saunders, Baptist pastor and activist.