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The Myall Creek massacre re-examined

In the latest issue of Inside History magazine, we examine a particularly harrowing episode of Australian history. The Myall Creek massacre in 1838 was an act of genocide in which up to 28 Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered. Revisiting Myall Creek 176 years on, Mark Tedeschi AM QC, the Senior Crown Prosecutor for New South Wales and a Visiting Professor at the University of Wollongong, sheds new light on the massacre and its aftermath. In this extract, he looks at the ringleader of the atrocity.

The funeral service at St John’s Anglican Church at Wilberforce on 21 August 1894 was one of the biggest in the area for years. The deceased had been one of the wardens of the church for decades and was highly regarded in his community. Outside the church, the cortege was met by a group of school children, marshalled by the headmaster and his assistants, who formed a guard of honour through which the mourners passed. Numerous wreaths were laid upon the coffin. During the service, Handel’s “Dead March in Saul” for pianoforte was played. The deceased was buried in the Church of England Cemetery at Wilberforce.

John Henry Fleming’s grave behind St John’s Church, Wilberforce. Courtesy Mark Tedeschi.
John Henry Fleming’s grave behind St John’s Church, Wilberforce. Courtesy Mark Tedeschi.

The local paper, the Windsor and Richmond Gazette, published an obituary which acknowledged the respect in which the deceased had been held by his community, stating:

As a resident he will be much missed for his kindness of heart and generosity to the poor; he was never known to refuse to anyone in want.

The man who had died was 78-year-old John Henry Fleming. For many years he had been a member of the Hawkesbury Benevolent Society, and about 10 years before his death, Fleming had been appointed a Justice of the Peace. The only hint that Fleming had had anything but a conservative, honourable and law-abiding life was this seemingly innocuous reference in his obituary:

Deceased used to tell some stirring stories of the early days of settlement in the colony, and the trouble he had with the Blacks.

Behind this cryptic observation lay the dreadful truth that 56 years earlier, on 10 June 1838, Fleming had been the ringleader of the Myall Creek massacre in which about 28 Aboriginal men, women and children from the Myall Creek area had been hacked to death with swords by a group of 12 stockmen.

Eleven of the murderers were either assigned convicts or former convicts who had been freed during or after serving their sentences. Only one — the ringleader — was a free man who had never been a convict: John Henry Fleming. John Henry Fleming’s father, Henry Fleming, was one of the earliest free colonists, having come into this world on 18 August 1791 on board the William and Ann on the day that it arrived in Sydney Cove. On board was his father, Joseph Fleming, a sergeant in the New South Wales Corps, and his mother, Mary.

In 1810, Henry, then 18, married Elizabeth Hall at St John’s Church, Parramatta. Henry and Elizabeth spent the early years of their married life on land on the Hawkesbury River, before moving to Pitt Town, and it was there in 1816 that their third child, John Henry, was born.

In 1828, Henry and Elizabeth moved to 250 acres at Lower Portland Head (Ebenezer), where he remained a farmer for the rest of his life. Henry and Elizabeth had eight surviving children, before Elizabeth died in 1834 from complications of childbirth.

During the 1830s John Henry was working as a stockman on properties in districts where occupation was strongly resisted by the Indigenous population. None of those areas was more contested than the one watered by what was then known as the Big River — now known as the Gwydir River in the New England region of New South Wales. The Myall Creek is a tributary of the Gwydir River.

At that time and in that district where the agents of law and government were distant, it was common for marauding gangs of white stockmen to slaughter any Aboriginal people that they happened to come across in the bush in retaliation for attacks on the colonists’ stock or property, or even the occasional murder. Presumably, the Indigenous people, having had their traditional hunting grounds expropriated or disturbed, were attempting to disperse the invading colonists who had taken over their land and introduced livestock that competed with their traditional sources of food.

According to Police Magistrate Edward Denny Day, who had authority in that area from his base in Invermein (Scone), in mid 1838 a war of ‘extirpation’ was waged all along the Gwydir River whereby Aborigines in the district were repeatedly pursued by parties of armed stockmen. Day claimed that a great numbers of Aborigines had been killed at various locations.

By 1838, John Henry Fleming was a 22-year-old overseer on the Mungie Bundie Station near Moree. His eldest brother, Joseph Fleming, had a 56,000-acre run called Mundowey located between present day Manilla and Bendemeer and a 47,000-acre run called Orrabar near the Big River. The next oldest brother, George Fleming lived quietly as a farmer in the Macdonald Valley.

The other 11 men who participated in the massacre were all employed on farms in the Gwydir River as assigned convicts, ticket-of-leave men, or what was known as a ‘freeman by servitude’. Ten of them were of European extraction and one, John Johnstone, was an African.

The Myall Creek Station was owned by absent landlord Henry Dangar. It was situated near the present day township of Bingara, on the Gwydir River in Murchison County in the New England region of New South Wales. Dangar — surveyor, explorer, pastoralist and businessman — was one of the largest landowners in New South Wales. By 1850 Henry Dangar’s pastoral empire amounted to more than 300,000 acres (122,000 hectares). The Myall Creek Station had three huts that were used to house Dangar’s station manager and his employed stockmen, who were all assigned convicts.

In the aftermath of a number of murderous attacks on native people in the Big River district, a group of more than 40 Aborigines who were members of the Weraerai tribe of the Kamilaroi nation had taken refuge at the Myall Creek Station. Here they had been given sanctuary by Charles Kilmeister, an assigned convict stockman in the service of Dangar. For months prior to moving to Myall Creek they had been living peacefully on two other stations: McIntyre’s and Wiseman’s.

Several days before the arrival of the stockmen, 10 of the most able-bodied men of the tribe had voluntarily gone to a station about 24 kilometres away called Newton’s on the Big River, where they had been employed by the station manager, Thomas Foster. This left more than 30 members remaining at the Myall Creek Station, who were mainly older men, women and children of the tribe.

On the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 1838, about five weeks after they had sought refuge at the station, a group of 11 mounted and armed stockmen, led by John Henry Fleming, arrived intent on murdering Aborigines.

About four days earlier, some of the stockmen had found out that there was a large group of the Weraerai tribe camped at Myall Creek and that the station manager, William Hobbs, had gone to another of Dangar’s properties about 100 kilometres away. This left only two assigned convicts at Myall Creek: Kilmeister, the station stockman and George Anderson, the hut keeper. There were also two employed Aboriginal servants from the Peel River district: teenage brothers who were known as Davy (Yintayintin) and Billy (Kwimunga). The Aborigines camped at Myall Creek Station were therefore extremely vulnerable to attack.

The 11 armed stockmen who approached the Myall Creek Station were in a murderous state of mind, arising from some ‘depredations’ that had occurred down the river some days earlier. According to one account, the men had been angered by the discovery of speared and dying cattle in the bush and then there had been attempts to spear the men who had been minding the cattle.

The fact that the Weraerai could not possibly have had anything to do with the depredations, because prior to taking up residence at Myall Creek they had been living peacefully at McIntyre’s and Wiseman’s stations for many months, and that they had a most harmonious relationship with the settlers at each of these stations, was of no concern to the stockmen.

They were intent on avenging the Indigenous challenge to white pastoral supremacy.

Ink drawing by  19th-century Aboriginal artist, Tommy McCrae.  Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H141226/1.
Ink drawing by
19th-century Aboriginal artist, Tommy McCrae.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H141226/1.

For the full account, see issue 22 of Inside History. In the second and final instalment, from issue 23,  Mark Tedeschi looks at the public reaction in the aftermath of the massacre, and examines the two trials that resulted in seven of the perpetrators of the massacre being convicted of murder. Click here for an extract.

Mark Tedeschi acknowledges the late Christine Jones, former police officer, who brought John Henry Fleming to his attention. He also acknowledges the assistance of Marie Turnbull, a descendant of John Henry Fleming’s brother Joseph.

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