200 years on…

Shayma Taweel reflects on the 200th anniversary of the Appin Massacre.

For the past 15 years, the Appin Massacre has been commemorated on the Sunday nearest April 17 at Cataract Dam, just south of Campbelltown. This year, for the first time and on its 200th anniversary, the memorial service fell on its exact date as recorded in the archives. This years’ service also attracted the most attendees ever: over five hundred Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people paid their respects to the men, women, and children killed by colonial troopers under the orders of New South Wales Governor, Lachlan Macquarie.

After several years of peaceful relations between the Dharawal people and European settlers, a severe drought developed between 1813 and 1816. Conflict and violent retributive attacks followed. In April 1816, Captain James Wallis and the 46th Regiment marched west from Sydney, with what Dharawal man Gavin Andrews, a descendant of a survivor of the massacre, calls a carte blanche for violence. Captured in the letters dispatched between Wallis and Macquarie are the instructions to take all Aboriginal men, women, and children beyond Sydney prisoner, that any who ‘showed fight’ or attempted to flee were to be shot, and their bodies were to be hung conspicuously from trees in order to ‘strike terror into the hearts of the natives’. After attacking the men’s camp in the night, Wallis and his grenadiers pursued a group of women and children, and under the smart fire of their rifles, the troopers chased them off the edge of a ravine at Broughton Pass. Fourteen deaths were recorded; those who fell to their deaths were not included in this count. Of the few surviving children, those who were captured were placed in the Parramatta Native Institution where Aboriginal children were to be given an Anglo-Celtic education and upbringing with the aim of incorporating them into colonial society. The Parramatta Native Institution was also of Macquarie’s design.

The Appin massacre is one of the few recorded and recognised massacres that occurred in Australian history. What is less widely known, explained Andrews, is that in the years following the massacre, a group of local settlers went on a ‘black hunt’ – Aboriginal men, women, and children were killed wantonly. The actions of the military, with the sanction of the highest authority in the colony, implicitly gave license for this kind of indiscriminate violence.

Macquarie’s legacy is undeniable – his name is everywhere in the state, and he is often remembered as a benevolent governor who transformed New South Wales from a penal colony to a free settler society. Macquarie Street remains the seat of political power in New South Wales today.

Listening to the personal histories of descendants at the 200th Anniversary as they spoke of beheadings, hangings, and child removal, I could see that Macquarie had left his mark on Dharawal families, too.

After a walk down to the Dam, near where the memorial plaque was erected in 2007, Uncle Ivan Wellington led the commemoration with a smoking ceremony. The commemoration included singing, dancing, and a lot of speeches. Mayors of the surrounding councils (Camden, Campbelltown, and Wollondilly), the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, a fair few MPs, and representatives of the Reconciliation Council of NSW were among the guest speakers. Before the ceremony, Andrews told me that an ABC journalist had asked him for a copy of his speech. He laughed and said, ‘I’m a storyteller, not an actor’ – he hadn’t needed to write down what he wanted to say.

Combined with Wellington’s relaxed MCing and another Elder’s laughter as she gave the Welcome to Country in Dharawal language and joked about full stomachs, there was a noticeable contrast between Dharawal speeches and those of their parliamentary guests. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs gave a speech that was little more than a collection of buzzwords: intergenerational trauma, improving policy and programs, recognition, reconciliation. It sounded like it was lifted straight from a government report on Closing the Gap, and while it was relevant to the issues facing the Dharawal community in Appin, it came across as formal, disconnected, and rehearsed. When the Mayor of Campbelltown stated that Australia’s next step was to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution, sections of the audience broke out into applause. Looking around, I saw some Aboriginal members of the audience shaking their heads, their arms crossed or motionless by their sides.

The rhetoric gets better every year; but are they any more than symbolic gestures, empty statements, and self-congratulation?

The sheer number of non-Indigenous attendees at the Appin memorial says something about Australia’s potential to come to terms with its colonial legacy. Maybe Australians don’t want to uphold all the happy lies about the history of this place anymore. When I asked Andrews for his thoughts on the increased number of attendees and media attention, he said he believes that people are more empathetic now. In the years before the ceremony was held at Cataract Dam, Andrews and his family used to remember the massacre privately, laying flowers at the Broughton Pass site. No one wanted to know about the massacre twenty, thirty years ago, he said.

What struck me most during the April 17 ceremony was the strength and survival of the Dharawal people. The buzzing community atmosphere of the event, complete with a huge supply of sausages, felt almost like a local footy match: kids were climbing trees and running around waving Aboriginal flags, some were adorned with paint and feathers for dance, and all of this reinforced the centrality of family. Andrews strengthened this impression when he explained that the nature of the ceremony ‘is all about family, not grieving’. In the face of lost family through the massacre, as well as the removal of children and the ubiquitous pressure to assimilate, strengthening family, and through it, culture, is at the heart of everything. Aboriginal people are often accused of living in the past, of being perpetual victims; I’ve lost count of the number of times non-Indigenous Australians have suggested that they ‘move on’. You can hardly blame a population that lost so much to colonisation for remembering its past in the face of mainstream amnesia – but the Appin memorial ceremony showed that to acknowledge one’s past and to be comfortable with its difficult truths are not the same as dragging a dead weight, trying to force white Australians to feel guilty. Quite the contrary: the Dharawal community is celebrating the survival of their people and culture.