Australian Story

26/07/2001 8:00

Bridge Over Myall Creek

Producer: Ben Cheshire
Researcher: Andrew Dickson

Memorial marchHello. I'm Caroline Jones. There are some issues in public life that generate a lot of rhetoric but very little practical result. Tonight's program is about what can happen when people of goodwill and commonsense put their heads together. In northern New South Wales, a retired bank manager, the wife of a country schoolteacher and the matriarch of a prominent Aboriginal family have built something truly positive out of the wounds of an infamous incident 160 years ago - the massacre of Myall Creek.

BEULAH ADAMS: When you think about it, a descendant of the victim, a descendant of the perpetrator would never imagine that they were ever likely to come together. I don't think that would ever happen very often. I think that, in itself, is unique.

DES BLAKE: I had no idea how they would accept us. It was so long ago that it's easier not to have any hard feelings against us for what our great great-grandparents did.

On June 10, 1838, a gang of stockmen led by a squatter rode into Myall Creek Station and brutally murdered about 28 unarmed women, children and old men.

SUE: But a lot of them wanted to really forget about it there. It's just gone and done and just leave it alone. Sweep it under the carpet, in other words. They're dead, they're dead. They were just Aboriginal people.

We acknowledge this, our shared history. We seek reconciliation between our peoples and the healing of the wounds of the past. For this is the history of every one of us. We are all heirs and survivors, beneficiaries and victims.

SUE BLACKLOCK: We haven't forgotten them, but we know that they are still here. They're still in our memories, they're in our hearts. They will always be remembered. And it's just a very emotional time for some of us. And, we just want to remember them so they will be at peace.

BEULAH: It's a very satisfying experience. We've committed ourselves to follow this right through and to remember our history - the history of the Aboriginals and our history, because it is our history as well. So it is very humbling and it's a privilege.
Library search
I didn't know anything about Myall Creek at all. We were starting to research the family history. I discovered that my great-uncle, Edward Foley, was one of the perpetrators at Myall Creek. It disturbed me. I didn't really want to acknowledge that tragic things had happened in the past. I was quite happy - I was quite happy with my family. It was okay, you know - average Australian family. But to discover that, my great-uncle was indeed involved in such a horrendous crime, a heinous thing, was pretty devastating.

We naturally wanted to find out more about it. We were really very interested in finding out more about it. It was important for me to do that. We found a map of Myall Creek. It actually didn't have the site of the massacre on maps, so we attempted to find that ourselves.

Looking over the slopes of the massacre, it's a beautiful area. And to cast your mind back 150, 160 years ago and to realise what really did go on in that area and at that actual spot - it's mind-blowing. It's hard to get your mind around that.

I guess I felt a fair bit of anger as well, anger probably most. Why did it happen? How did could this thing take place? Why did it happen? There didn't seem to be a reason for it. Why would it happen?

REV. BROWN: From 1834 onwards, squatters and their agents began to move stock into the area. Some cattle were speared. One squatter and probably 11 former convicts rode into Myall Creek where there was a group of Aboriginal people who had been living peacefully by the huts of the settlers for several weeks. The people from outside rode in, roped 28 mainly women and children and a couple of old men together and dragged them away behind their horses - about 800 metres - and hacked them to death.

Sue Blacklock
SUE BLACKLOCK: As a mother, I just imagine them just sort of trying to grab their babies, hang onto their babies, trying to shelter their other children from the slaughter. It must have been a terrible feeling to stand there and see your child being killed in front of you. The agony, the pain and...Oh, it'd be just terrible, I know.

There was two brothers that were saved from the massacre. One of those little boys was my great-great-great-grandfather. My dad always told me about that. It was passed down from his great-grandparents right down to him, and he wanted to hand it down to his family. But I remember Dad when he'd speak about it. His voice cracked just like the memory just sort of hurt. I hear him now telling his grandchildren all about what happened out there, and how it was burnt...and were killed and then burned. We just kept it all hush-hush. We didn't want to talk about it because of how dreadful it was. And, um, I remember when we used to drive past that place. It...just had a feeling about it that I can't explain.

DES BLAKE: I'd never heard of the Myall Creek massacre until a customer in Gilgandra asked me if I was any relation to the John Blake that had been involved in that. And I said as far as I knew, I had no relation to him, because at that stage I didn't even know John Blake had been a convict. One of my cousins doing some research on the Blake family found out that he had been a convict. Eventually, it was quite obvious that it was John Blake, my great-great-grandfather, who was involved in Myall Creek.

The fact that he was a convict hadn't worried us. The fact he had done this was a surprise - it was a bit of a shock. But then you think, well, it is a long time ago. I can't feel any personal guilt for it at all because it was too far back. But we felt sorry that anyone in our family had been involved in it.

Rev John Brown
REV. BROWN: In 1991, I volunteered to take on a position called Coordinator of Reconciliation in the Uniting Church. For the last 10 years I have spoken many times about the importance of visiting the places that represent painful experiences for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and telling the truth about our shared history. It has involved a lot of travelling.

In 1998, we were planning a statewide conference on reconciliation and Sue Blacklock invited us to go to Myall Creek and hold the conference there. At the end of the conference, we decided to erect a permanent memorial. When we talked about what sort of memorial do we want, one Aboriginal leader said, "We want a rock, a rock as big as this hall." We found the rock about 60 km from the site. It had to be moved on a low loader. And so that has become the centrepiece of the memorial.

About three months before we were due to dedicate the memorial, I received a phone call from a minister at Glen Innes saying that there was a woman in the congregation who was a descendant of those who carried out the massacre at Myall Creek, and she would like to be involved in the reconciliation ceremonies, but she didn't know whether Aboriginal people would approve of this or not.

BEULAH ADAMS: I was pretty nervous about what the outcome would be - whether they would accept us, whether we were able to become involved. I would have understood if they had said no. I...I would quite understand that. So I was quite ready for them to actually say, "No, we don't want anything to do with that side of it at all." And I would have understood that.

SUE BLACKLOCK: Really, it was a shock to me to find out there were still descendants so closely around. I thought they might have all left the district. Didn't really dawn on me that anyone would come up and say, "I was related to those perpetrators."

We just talked...we just said, "Oh, well, if we want reconciliation we should do it now. I'll meet 'em."

REV BROWN: At that same meeting, another person, Des Blake, a descendent of another of those who had been involved in the massacre, came and wanted to be involved.

DES BLAKE: I wouldn't have gone if they'd said, "You're not welcome." And I was quite pleased that they decided, no, this was a good way to go.

BEULAH: And there was Sue on the opposite side. She introduced herself - I...I felt very emotional - came round to me, was very emotional for me to introduce myself because I felt somewhat shame, I suppose - disbelief. Because all of this was very new - very new information for me.

SUE: I just stood and looked for a while at them and then I could see their fear their face, you know, wondering what was I gonna say.

Sue Blacklock and Beulah Adams
BEULAH: And Sue and I just looked at each other and we...we wept. And we hugged - it was very, very emotional. And so it meant a meant a lot to both of us. It was a very, very personal thing.

We met later on, just Sue and I. We looked at the land and there was a strange bond there between us. It was a beautiful thing, really. And to think that the two of us could achieve that in such a short time.

SUE: I really felt sorry for Des and Beulah because they had to come and say that they was the ancestors, 'cause I wouldn't have. I wouldn't have the courage to come and say, "Oh, look, I'm part of those... the perpetrators that murdered your people." I believe it took a lot of courage for them to come back.

BEULAH: The past can be recognised and acknowledged and we can move forward. It doesn't take a lot. It just takes understanding and learning of both sides...of both cultures.

SUE: To look at Beulah and Des, all that.....all that I could think of was to forgive them. To forgive them - but they didn't do no wrong. It was their ancestors, not them.

DES: I think that the fact that we were there really did help to bring it together. And, um, while it is completely their show, their memorial, and everything is theirs, the fact that we were willing to stand up there with them and admit that we were descendents of those who carried out murder and mayhem on the slopes below - I think that it made it for them as well.

The day of the memorial opening was a marvellous day. It was a beautiful day. Everybody that was there was looking for reconciliation.

Rev Brown: We light this candle in memory of those who died on the slopes below - needlessly, brutally and wrongly.

REV. BROWN: It was an extraordinarily powerful moment for everyone there, and it was also an extraordinarily releasing moment. People said afterwards, it seemed as if a great load had been lifted between us and we were set free.

SUE: I never had any sisters, and I'd like to think of Beulah as one of my sisters.

BEULAH: Thank you. That means a lot.

SUE: I accept you into my tribe.

BEULAH: That's a big thing. That is a huge thing. I felt very humble. Very privileged. But, um, yeah, it was a great moment. And that's something that...that only happens in a lifetime. It's an experience I'll never forget.

REV. BROWN: We had planned a beautiful memorial, and it remains a beautiful memorial. But to actually have descendents of those who carried out the murder and descendents of those who were killed come together in an act of personal reconciliation as part of the process of...of dedicating this memorial was just marvellous. It was something we couldn't have planned, but it was a great gift to us. And a great gift, I think, to the people of Australia.

Des Blake
DES: I was there to say how sorry I was on behalf of all my family, and of all those who would wish me to say I was sorry, how sorry we were. When we said the words and said the prayers, the feeling I had was that I had done something in my life that was really meaningful to those people. The whole day was one where, you know, I really felt...It was probably the best thing I'd ever done.

IAN ADAMS: I guess my part in the research involved, to some extent, my background. I was a teacher for the last 30 years and when I was teaching kids, particularly teaching them Australian history, there was a missing part, and I actually never noticed that it's missing.

We taught history from the First Fleet, 1788, up until the crossing of the Blue Mountains. After that, we really didn't teach anything until Federation. I assumed that nothing much happened, nothing of any interest, and so we didn't teach the kids anything. Recently, I found out that an awful lot did happen during that period. There's an awful lot of information we never gave to the children - very important information.

DES BLAKE: A few times now I've been asked to speak at schools because they found out my connection, and when you go through and tell them the whole story you can see the look of horror on their faces.

So I am directly related. I am the great-great-grandson of John Blake, the convict who murdered the Aborigines...

DES: I quite enjoy it, because the more people that sort of learn about this, the better educated all of us are on all matters, well, the better off we'll be.

Anybody who had families and ancestors on the land back in those days, and after that, who think that their people would not have been involved in massacres in their area, on their properties, either by carrying them out or by condoning them happening, by not coming forward and reporting them - well, personally, I think that they're kidding themselves.

The seven men were then sentenced to hang - the first time that white people had been hung and punished for murdering Aboriginal people.

John Blake was one of the four that were let off. As to how far his involvement went, we have to believe that he was just as guilty as all the others.

In 1852 he finished up cutting his throat from ear to ear and committed suicide. Did he have a guilty conscience? We like to think he did.

BEULAH: Seven of the twelve were convicted of the murders and seven of them were hung. And one of those was Edward Foley. So he paid for his crime. What Edward Foley did was a dreadful, dreadful thing. There's nothing that I can do make it right. But I can say, "Well, it shouldn't have happened. I'm sorry it happened." And that's why I speak out today. So people will learn of the history, the dreadful history, in such a beautiful land. It should never have happened.

SUE BLACKLOCK: They paid for their crime that they done, so, I know, a joy. Then sometimes I sit down and think, as from a Christian's point of view, that it shouldn't have been an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth ,but, um, also that justice had to be done.

Beulah Adams
BEULAH: To a degree Sue has changed my attitude to Aboriginal people. I haven't had a lot to do with Aboriginal people, but meeting Sue, colour's not the issue. I mean, whether she's Aboriginal or not is not the issue. She is just a very beautiful person.

I've read about reconciliation, I've watched the protests on telly, but here it is - right here. Something that I have done - I have actually done it. It wasn't hard to do, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.

I believe I have done something good - a little thing, perhaps, but it's a huge thing, and I've done it and I'm proud of it.

SUE: The lesson that comes to me is that we can all work together, we can live in peace, we can all share and care for one another, if we put our mind to it and want to. But to see all those people come to that memorial and these people to say sorry, I think it's time that we stood up and said, "We're sorry too."

DES: As long as I'm able, I plan to be there at least once a year, on the day - the main day. We plan to take our children and grandchildren as they get to a certain age. I live over here on the coast and I think that my job is to help spread the message about what is out there and what we are doing.

This whole business, I think, can be the nucleus of.....right throughout Australia. There are now more massacre sites that have been identified, where they are starting to build monuments. There are still many who don't want to know about it, but as this happens in various places around Australia I think it'll just expand from there.

BEULAH: It's a great Australian story that needs to be told. I've made a commitment, really, at the beginning, that if I can do anything to help this, that I will do anything that I'm able to do so the story will get out and be told Australia-wide - worldwide, hopefully, that our history will be retold.

Memorial site sign
There are plans to build an education centre at the memorial site near Inverell, NSW. Organisers hope it will become as popular as the Stockman's Hall of Fame.

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