Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The Elliston Massacre Reconciliation Monument, So. Australia

The Elliston Massacre Reconciliation Monument. CreditStephen Dupont for The New York Times
The New York Times
By Damien Cave
Dec. 4, 2018

ELLISTON, Australia — Jack Johncock, a local leader of the Wirangu people, pointed toward the spot near Waterloo Bay where a group of Aboriginal Australians were pushed to their deaths from rocky cliffs above a ferocious sea.

“My body crawls just looking at it,” Mr. Johncock said.

He didn’t want to get too close.

The town of Elliston had been arguing for months about whether a few people or a few hundred had been killed. He wouldn’t even be in Elliston at all if not for the presence of a new monument declaring that “a number of Aboriginal Australians were killed near this site in May, 1849 by a party of settlers.”

What happened at the cliffs was a massacre, in Mr. Johncock’s mind. And that’s what the monument commemorated: “an incident referred to by the traditional owners of this land as ‘The Massacre of Waterloo Bay.’”

But getting to that brief affirmation took more than a year of conflict.

“A lot of people didn’t want to accept the truth,” Mr. Johncock said.

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The Wirangu elders Della Miller-Mathews and Veda Betts in Port Lincoln, South Australia.
The Wirangu elders Della Miller-Mathews and Veda Betts in Port Lincoln, South Australia.CreditStephen Dupont for The New York Times
In a remote town of a few hundred people — mostly farmers, small business owners and itinerant surfers — the debate over the monument’s message turned neighbors into enemies, shifted power in the local government and poisoned even the most routine interactions.

At the local pub, signs announcing Elliston Council meetings about the memorial were torn down. Petitions created by a small group of residents opposing the use of the word “massacre” on the monument led to shouting matches, combative Facebook posts, racist insults and tension that persists two months after the monument’s opening ceremony.

“It’s war,” said Kym Callaghan, who was the chairman of the Council when the monument vote was held. “Some of these people just can’t move forward.”

The vitriol and raw feelings reflect the grip Australia's past still holds on this country, which has yet to fully grapple with its often ugly colonial history, even as long-buried atrocities continue to resurface and Aboriginal Australians press for their version of events to be recognized.

But the dispute caught many people in Elliston by surprise because the process to erect the monument had initially looked straightforward.

A few years ago, local officials proposed building a walking trail along the coast. The government funding agreement required that the town also build a monument of reconciliation with the area’s traditional owners.

By early last year, all the town needed to agree on were the words to be inscribed on the monument to describe what happened at Waterloo Bay.

“For me, it wasn’t a hard decision,” said Mr. Callaghan, a retired sheep farmer whose roots in the area run deep. “As a little bloke, my nana and my mum told me the blacks were driven off the cliff for the murder of Hamp.”

Robberies, Killings and Reprisals
John Hamp was a settler killed on a cattle station in June of 1848. The story Mr. Callaghan heard was that after Mr. Hamp’s murder, there were a string of violent events around Elliston that culminated with the deaths off the cliff.

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Ms. Betts and Ms. Miller-Mathews signing thank you cards for Kym Callaghan and other members of the Elliston District Council for their support of the monument.
Ms. Betts and Ms. Miller-Mathews signing thank you cards for Kym Callaghan and other members of the Elliston District Council for their support of the monument.CreditStephen Dupont for The New York Times
But official histories and oral histories offered different details of precisely what happened.

According to a published history of the area and other official records, “Hamp’s death was followed in August 1848 by an ‘affray,’ the shooting of at least one Aborigine.” Then followed a succession of robberies, deaths and reprisals.

Five Aboriginal Australians died after stealing grain that white settlers appeared to have intentionally poisoned with arsenic. Next, a white woman was killed, leading two Aboriginal men to be hanged.

Finally, a settler’s hut was robbed, causing cattle hands to chase a group of Aboriginal suspects to the cliffs of Waterloo Bay.

At least two of the suspects were shot and killed there; a third died later, the official records say.

But according to the research of Dr. Tim Haines, an anthropologist hired by Elliston to advise on the monument, there may well have been over 20 Aboriginal people killed.

And Wirangu oral history puts the number of dead much higher, in the hundreds.

The oral accounts also include harrowing details, absent from the written record.

Veda Betts, 76, a Wirangu elder, said that when her grandmother was a girl, she met a woman who told how she had survived the 1849 attack as a child by hanging onto a branch on the side of the cliffs.

“Our story is right,” Mr. Johncock said. “It’s the same one we’ve been passing down for years.”

[Sign up for Damien Cave’s Australia Letter to get news, conversation starters and local recommendations in your inbox each week.]

These sorts of frontier conflicts played a major role in Australia’s settlement.

The most up-to-date map of the country’s colonial violence, from the University of Newcastle, shows 250 massacres occurring from 1788 to 1930. The map includes Waterloo Bay, where it says a “settler posse” shot and killed “at least 10 as they sought refuge in the bushes.”

Most of the map’s locations lack any monument or form of public recognition, which is why Elliston’s monument resonates so powerfully among Australia’s indigenous minority; it is one of the few places where their story has become the official narrative.

Written Records vs. Oral History
The people in town who opposed relying on oral history argued that they were adhering to established facts.

Caroline Gillett, a leader of the opposition who did not respond to requests for comment, told an early Council meeting that there was not sufficient written evidence to prove the massacre even took place, according to news reports.

“To recognize this falsehood is erroneous and terribly wrong,” she said, according to the reports.

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