Forgetting the war, celebrating the murders

We recently marked the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War with reflections about its senselessness and the human tragedy it entailed. We are getting better and better at remembering our war dead in Australia: the extensive commemorations of this anniversary will hopefully highlight the appalling sacrifices of its wholesale slaughter.

But around the time that the First World War broke, an earlier war was in its final stages.  This war had been fought against Indigenous Australians from almost the moment the First Fleet moored at Botany Bay.  By 1850, over 80 percent of the Indigenous population had been wiped out by violence and disease, with much of this decline occurring in south eastern Australia where European settlements were first concentrated. In northern Australia, the invasion started later, meaning that the violence of the frontier continued well into the twentieth century.

The tributes marking the centenary of the First World War stand in stark contrast to our blindness about the war fought on Australian soil against the original owners of our nation.

Weaber Plain – an area of 15,000 hectares in Miriuwung Gajerrong country in the East Kimberley, Western Australia – provides a striking example of this myopia. It was named after German brothers William and Jimmy Weaber, who, in about 1908, chained forty Aboriginal people to a tree, then shot and killed them.

The history of the colonial invasion is replete with such stories:  of women used as sex slaves, of babies murdered, of children stolen.

In the Kimberley, the period in which the invasion was at its height is known as ‘the killing time’, described by a contemporary departmental head of the Colonial Secretary’s Office as a ‘war of extermination’.  The violence was not only carried out by white settlers.  Violence against Aboriginal people by police, for example, was often described as ‘giving them a lesson’.  One Kimberley policeman, PC Rhatigan, was described as ‘one of the best shots in the country’ who ‘missed very few blacks if after them, especially on the Osmond River where they were pretty well cleaned up.’

In 1894, an article on the Aboriginal resistance appeared in a Pilbara newspaper.  It advised Western Australia to ‘shut its eyes for three short months’ and let the settlers deal with ‘the niggers’.  It would soon ‘easily be forgotten’, the paper said.

Perhaps the most celebrated resistance to the white invasion came from the Bunuba in the east Kimberley. It was led at times by the legendary Jandamarra, a former stock-worker with a knack for firearms and raged in the early 1890s before being crushed.

Since 2001, Miriuwung Gajerrong traditional owners have several times raised the issue of Weaber Plain’s name with the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley.  Yet the name remains.  As prominent Kimberley Aboriginal leader Wayne Bergmann says: ‘all the old people, whenever they remember Weaber Plain, they think of these murdering brothers.’

It is ludicrous to imagine somewhere in Tasmania being named after Martin Bryant, or a New South Wales national park honouring Ivan Milat. Yet this is effectively what is occurring in the East Kimberley today.

Do we really lack the imagination to see how deeply offensive it is that a place name celebrates a mass murder? How can one war generate so much interest while another generates so little?

Perhaps one reason for this discrepancy in our remembering lies in the collective failure of white Australians to see the invasion for what it was.  It brings to mind Marcia Langton’s stinging rebuke that most Australians ‘do not know and relate to Aboriginal people … they relate to stories told by former colonists’. The Mabo decision of 1992 overturned a centuries’ old view that Aboriginal people were so low in the hierarchy of races that they were not capable of owning land.  Yet, the assumptions behind this view – that Aboriginal people are somehow lesser, that the war crimes committed against them did not occur – seem to persist.

The continuing celebration of the Weaber brothers echoes Mick Dodson’s view that Aboriginal people are often ‘deprived of the right to be seen as full, independent human beings’.  It is time that we stopped ignoring this war.

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  1. Historically there has always been the problem of recognizing and ending wars that were never officially declared or recognized. No excuses – more of a cop out really – the need to stand on ceremony, and not those of others.

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