1928 marked the end of a long, bloody and shameful history of killings and massacres of Aboriginal people that had occurred throughout the country since the start of British colonisation in 1788.

In 1928 Central Australia experienced a severe drought that reduced the ground water. The original owners of the land did what they had done for thousands of years and gravitated to their ancient water sources, mainly in the form of soaks. For the pastoralists, the lack of water came at a crucial time as they were carving out vast tracts of land to run cattle.

Conflicts between Aboriginal people and white settlers resulted.

The tensions of contact

The Aboriginal people were angry as they watched their waterholes being destroyed by cattle, fences being erected and white men taking their women as wives or servants. Their law, customs and traditions were being violated.

The new pastoralists became increasingly agitated by the “cheeky” Aborigines. In these parts, not only had they had become a nuisance, but they were competing with their cattle for the precious water, as well as killing cattle.

The Coniston Massacre

The tensions led in August 1928 to a series of killings of local Aboriginal people that by Aboriginal oral history accounts, left around 100 Aboriginal people dead and hundreds of Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye people devastated and displaced. These killings have become known as the Coniston Massacre.

The Coniston Massacre took place over the period mid August to early October 1928, and was comprised of two periods of killings, one in August and another in September through October.


The killing of Fred Brooks and the first reprisals

The first killings of the Massacre began after the murder of Frederick Brooks at Yurrkuru (Brooks Soak) on 7 August 1928.  On Coniston Station, just north of what is today Yuendumu, dingo trapper Fred Brooks had made camp at a traditional Warlpiri soakage, Yukurru, at which around 20 Warlpiri people had gathered. After taking liberties with one of the women he was murdered by her husband, the now notorious Bullfrog (Kamalyarrpa Japanangka). Brooks body was chopped up with a stone axe and buried in a rabbit warren. His leg however stuck out and was discovered the following day by Alex Wilson an Aboriginal horse tailer and tracker.  Alex Wilson took the news of Brooks’ killing back to Coniston Station.

A reprisal party led by Constable George Murray, who was already visiting Pine Hill and Coniston stations to investigate cattle killings, set out on 16 August to capture Brooks’ killer. Murray had returned to Alice Springs after the news of the death to gather reinforcements but had been told by Cawood to manage the investigation himself.

According to Murray’s account five people were killed on the first day of the raiding party.  Many innocent Aboriginal people were then caught up in the violence that followed. By the time they returned to Coniston Station on the 30 August Murray’s tally of those killed was 17. The Warlpiri themselves estimated between 60 and 70 people had been killed by the patrol.

Bullfrog himself hid in a small cave. He blocked the entrance of the cave with a stone or spinifex and managed to evade Murray’s reprisal party. He was never arrested and lived to an old age at Mount Doreen and Yuendumu until his death in 1959.

Murray had arrested three Aboriginal boys for the murder of Brooks – Padygar, Woolingar and Arkirkra. Woolingar died from injuries incurred during his capture and Padygar and Arkirkra were taken to Alice Springs to face trial.

The attack on Nugget Morton and the second set of reprisals

The second set of reprisals began after an attack on another settler. At Boomerang Waterhole, up on the Lander River, settler Nugget Morton who had a reputation for sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women, was attacked by a group of Aboriginal men. He was a very strong man and fought them off and killed one man. He then went for help and eventually sent off a letter to the police at Alice Springs. Constable Murray arrived in late September, got a party together and the killings continued around the Lander and Hanson Rivers until early October. The affected Aboriginal people themselves estimated around 100 people had been killed by this second patrol.

Murray arrived back at Alice Springs on 18 October and wrote up a short report, only a few lines, on both sets of killings, without identifying the numbers killed or locations.

The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra

The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra took place on 7 and 8 November 1928 in Darwin. An Aboriginal witness captured by Murray was called to the stand but following an irregularity with the jury, his testimony on the second day contradicted his previous testimony and indicated he had been coached as to what to say. Padygar and Arkirkra were acquitted.  Murray’s actions were not themselves the subject of examination.

The Federal Inquiry

The pastoralist appeared to have won. But concerned missionaries generated huge media interest. Athol McGregor, a Central Australian missionary had been present at the trial.  He and Annie Lock, a missionary working in Central Australia, widely criticised the trial and publicised its shortcomings.

The Federal government was under considerable pressure to act. The British media had been reporting on Australia's poor treatment of Aborigines, and the League of Nations had publicly criticised the case. William Morley, an advocate of the Association for the Protection of Native Races, also used his influence to support the establishment of a judicial enquiry by the Federal government.

A Board of Inquiry held over 18 days in January 1929 was however set up to be a whitewash. No Aboriginal witnesses from the affected groups were called, and the Inquiry’s composition was designed to include only those people who could minimise the damage to Australia’s reputation caused by the killings.

The Inquiry found that Constable George Murray had killed only 31 Aboriginal people and all 31 were killed in self-defence.  It also found that there had been no drought in Central Australia in 1928.

The aftermath

The devastating impact of these killings forced the traditional owners of the land to move away, too terrified and grief stricken to move back. To this day the Aboriginal people of this area have not received justice.

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