Coniston

No, not the Lake District in England, nor the Wollongong suburb…

It is the site of the last recorded massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Here, in 1928, up to 100 Aboriginal people were killed near the Coniston cattle station in reprisal for the death of a white man. The murders later became known as the Coniston massacre.

Warlpiri and Anmatyerr people welcomed Senator Nigel Scullion [2014] on to their land with traditional song and dance.

Senior Anmatyerr man Teddy Long said generations of his family had been fighting to have the massacre acknowledged and the land returned.

“My old man, my father been explaining to me what happened to me, the shooting days,” he said.

“In the massacre days many people were killed here and that’s why [I’ve] been fighting real hard for this land”

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Coniston Homestead in 1924

Yurrkuru, or Brook’s Soak as it is known in English, is at the centre of one Australia’s darkest chapters.

In 1928 white dingo trapper Fred Brooks was killed by Aboriginal man “Bullfrog” Japangka at the site.

Local police led a series of reprisal killings that became known as the Coniston massacre.

Official records claim 30 Aboriginal people were killed, but oral histories suggest more than 100 were murdered.

The conflict was part of an ongoing confrontation between pastoralists and Aboriginal people.

In the late 1920s, Central Australia was experiencing its worst drought.

There was increasing conflict between Aboriginal people seeking water and pastoralists protecting limited supplies for their cattle.

The prime minister at the time, Stanley Bruce, launched an a board of inquiry into the actions of police and pastoralists.

It ruled the police had “acted in self-defence”.

I recently watched  the film Coniston (2012), directed by Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty, having borrowed the DVD from Wollongong Library. It is a must see.

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See Telling it true and Coniston: survivors and descendants recall the massacre in a new film.

How could a man designated Protector of Aborigines end up leading a revenge party that would shoot at least 31 of them, including women and children, and probably many more, in retaliation for the death of one white man? It is a question that preoccupies a white Australian audience but the film Coniston, directed by Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty … does not try to answer it.  Nor does it look in much detail into the broad context of the infamous event it is concerned with – the last white on black massacre in Australia, starting at Coniston, about 250 kms north-west of Alice Springs, in 1928. The one hour documentary, that includes dramatised sequences, focusses instead on capturing the oral history of the massacre held by Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye people. The primary audience it has in mind are the Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye of today and into the future, so that the story won’t be forgotten.

Many of the speakers in this film are the descendants of the massacre victims; some few are survivors, young children at the time. One is Albert Jakamarra Wilson, the son of an Aboriginal tracker, Alec Wilson, who worked for the revenge party.  Others who take part in the dramatised sequences are the descendants of Bullfrog, the Warlpiri man acknowledged as the killer of the white man, Fred Brooks, a stockman  turned dogger.

The premise of the film was described by co-director Kelly, a Warlpiri man from Yuendumu, at its Alice Springs screening on Monday: “It’s all about white Australia but we got black histories.” He had started on this project 30 years ago, interviewing the son of Bullfrog, who could remember hiding in a cave with his father when the revenge party was searching for him – we see some of this grainy footage and a handsome young Kelly without his signature dreads. According to Bullfrog’s son, the revenge party went past but Alec Wilson went inside and spoke to Bullfrog, without realising that it was him, advising him to wait in the cave until the whitefellas went past (effectively saving him)…

The film has Alec Wilson discovering Brooks’ partially-buried body. He informs police and he is told by Mounted Constable George Murray, the Protector of Aborigines, that he must go along with him to track down Brooks’ killer. The search party soon turns into a revenge party: random groups of Aborigines are ordered to drop their weapons “in the name of the King” and when they fail to do so, they are shot. Albert Wilson says that his father did not go along with this; his father said to Murray that people should be given a chance but was told to follow Murray’s orders…

The revenge party was on the rampage for an initial two weeks and later Murray returned with another white man, Nugget Morton, and again Alec Wilson. Morton had been attacked by an Aborigine but had ultimately got the upper hand and killed him. Now others would also pay with their lives, as the party heads north, hunting down and shooting Aborigines “like dogs”, says Albert Wilson. This goes on for a period of three weeks. A speaker reflects that the victims, as they tried to flee, must have wondered why they were being shot at.

An old man, a survivor, Johnny Jupurrurla Nelson, comments that to this day people are “too sorry” to move back to their country. They might visit but they don’t want to stay. He was a baby at the time; his mother hid him in some bushes and ran…

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