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Opinion And World View: My Encounter With Family History

"The outcome of my newly found New England ancestry is that I acknowledge the role my forebears played in the murder and dispossession of the Kamilaroi people in the nineteenth century. Many Australians hesitate to associate settler Australians with genocide but the evidence is substantial.'' declares Paul W Newbury.

In 2012, I began to write a memoir of that part of my life that I have spent in active support of the rights of Indigenous Australians. In particular, I have been seeking information about the Kamilaroi people who were part of my growing up in the NSW country towns of Werris Creek and Walgett.

Kamilaroi traditional country covers the New England district where my forebears lived and continue to live. My research involved searching for detail of how British settler invaders acted towards Aboriginal people in the early years of the NSW colony and I sought detail of massacres that have been documented regarding Kamilaroi people.

These include the Waterloo Creek massacre on the Gwydir River in January 1838 where troops and stockmen under the command of Major James Nunn massacred up to 200 Kamilaroi people over a number of days.

In June 1838, a party of convicts and former convicts led by a settler murdered over forty Kamilaroi people camped peaceably on Myall Creek Station. This brutal crime took place while eight young men of the tribe were away cutting bark on a neighbouring station. The victims were old men, women, children and babies. They were executed by gun and sabre and most were beheaded.

An account by historian Lyndall Ryan of Newcastle University, “a very bad business”: Henry Dangar and the Myall Creek Massacre 1838 reveals that the murderers returned the next day to murder twelve people absent on the first occasion. Seven of the twelve men charged with the crime were hanged.

In my research into the New England area, I came across Bluff Rock: Autobiography of a Massacre written by Katrina Schlunke (Curtin University Books 2005). Schlunke is unknown to me but she is my cousin by birth. In her book, she discusses two books written by her aunt Genevieve Newbury: Mother of Ducks and Echoes on the Wind. The books belong to the local history genre and they make a number of references to my father Walter Harold Newbury (1905-1991), my grandfather William Henry Newbury (1858-1931) and my great grandparents.

Under the heading: The Pioneering Families of New England, Schlunke reveals that the family of fifteen children of John Eckersley Newbury and Bridget Newbury owned eighteen pastoral leases in New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I was gobsmacked to find my great grandfather was a convict and a squatter.

I wondered how he had progressed so well from his convict beginnings. So, I began to research the squatter era in New South Wales to gain a profile of his life. I found many settler
Australians became rich through the annexation of Aboriginal land by the Crown in the early years of the colony.

My great grandfather John Eckersley Newbury (1820-1900) was born in Manchester, England and at fifteen, he worked as an errand boy. He stole a pair of boots and lead from a roof and he was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on the John Berry on 22 March 1836. He had one attribute that many did not - he could read and write. By 1844, he had earned his parole and his Certificate of Freedom was dated 23 February 1850.

On 24 April 1857, he married Bridget Kennedy (1842-1927) at Yarrabin near Mudgee which is where her parents moved after immigrating to Australia in 1841. About this time, John became sheep overseer at Gullendaddy Station. Then in 1866, he drove 12,000 sheep to New England and settled at Cook's Creek near Inverell in 1872.

John and Bridget raised fifteen children on their first property Newbury on Cook's Creek. Their first born was my grandfather, William Henry Newbury. John died on the family property at Wattle Grove and Bridget died at Snowflake.

At the time, John Eckersley Newbury gained his freedom in 1850; land-hungry squatters were overlanding their herds through the Hunter Valley, New England and on to the Darling Downs in Queensland. With the help of generous land legislation, immigrants and ex-convicts staked out fertile tracts of land and by 1853, almost all land in northwestern New South Wales had been allocated.

Squatters of the Hunter Valley, New England and the Darling Downs in the 1850s formed a self-interested group who dominated the politics of the colony. Their lust for land cost the lives and the sovereignty of countless Aboriginal Australians.

The term ‘squatter’ derives from its English usage as a term of contempt for a person who takes up residence at a place without legal justification. ‘Squatting’ became so widespread by the mid-1830s that government policy in NSW towards the practice shifted from opposition to regulation and control.

By that stage, the term ‘squatter’ applied to those who occupied Crown land under a lease gained by the payment of ten British pounds annually. This led to the lifting of the harsh nuances about the word of earlier times. The newfound respectability of squatters earned many of them seats in houses of parliament. Returns on squatter activities were considerable from the 1850s, with great demand for mutton and beef on the goldfields as well as the rapidly expanding English market for fleece and tallow.

During this period, the Kamilaroi fought a guerilla war of resistance against the British using deft strategies of stealth and surprise to great effect. The conflict is known as the Frontier Wars where the natives lived off speared cattle and sheep because British land activities had a negative effect on marsupial numbers. The irregular nature of the conflict intensified insecurity and anxiety became habitual. Eventually, the tide of war favoured the well armed and mounted British.

The Myall Creek Memorial of the infamous massacre commemorates the Wirrayararaay people who were a tribal clan of the Kamilaroi nation. The bronze plaque on the main memorial stone reads in Kamilaroi and English:

In memory of the Wirrayararaay people who were murdered on the slopes of this ridge in an unprovoked but premeditated act in the late afternoon of 10 June 1838.

Erected on 10 June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in an act of reconciliation and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history.

We remember them — Ngiyani winagay ganunga.

The outcome of my newly found New England ancestry is that I acknowledge the role my forebears played in the murder and dispossession of the Kamilaroi people in the nineteenth century. Many Australians hesitate to associate settler Australians with genocide but the evidence is substantial. At best, settlers treated the lives and rights of Indigenous Australians with callous indifference.

The UN Convention on Genocide 1948 defines genocide as the ‘systematic attempt to destroy a defined group’s essential foundations’. Australian genocide expert Colin Tatz believes Australia is guilty of at least two acts of genocide, namely: the massacres of Aboriginal people committed by settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century while colonial governments stood silently by; and the practice of forcibly transferring Aboriginal children from one group to another with the express intention that ‘they cease to be Aboriginal’. This was cited as genocide in the Bringing Them Home Report 1997.

The UN Convention recognises three parties to genocide: perpetrators, victims and bystanders – those without whom the perpetrators could not do their malevolent work. The category of bystander includes those who condone what is happening; those who are indifferent to what is going on; and those who fail to do everything in their power to stop what is going on.

The promising feature of the Myall Creek Memorial is that people have made commemoration of the massacre the foundation of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.


A shortened version of this article appeared in Eureka Street online magazine on 1 May 2013 under the title: ‘My family connection to Aboriginal genocide’.


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