This photograph titled 'Mock' Tribal Fight was taken in 1874 by Carl Ehlers. It is believed the re-enactment was staged in the Southgate area.
This photograph titled 'Mock' Tribal Fight was taken in 1874 by Carl Ehlers. It is believed the re-enactment was staged in the Southgate area. Clarence River Historical Soc

Grim evidence of massacre floated past Grafton

FEW are aware that beneath the tranquil face of the Far North Coast lies a history steeped in blood.

Hundreds of the region's Aborigines were killed by European colonists last century.

Massacres took place near Evans Head, Coutts Crossing, Ballina, Tabulam - the list goes on.

Many Aborigines fought back but spears, boomerangs and nulla-nullas were no match for guns and poison. Through Aboriginal and European sources, many previously unpublished, RORY MEDCALF tells the story of that conflict.

It was a sporadic guerrilla war, which lasted a generation and destroyed an ancient culture; a war of blanket reprisals in which many innocents died for the actions of a few. It mirrored the brutality that accompanied white colonisation through Australia.

Why I wrote Rivers of Blood

AUSTRALIANS pride themselves on living in a country at peace, one of the world's most multicultural and tolerant societies.

That is all the more reason for us to be honest about our history. This includes the appalling frontier violence that accompanied the dispossession of indigenous Australian societies.

This shameful story touches every district. The beautiful Northern Rivers region of New South Wales is no exception.

In 1988 I was an 18-year-old cadet journalist on The Northern Star newspaper in Lismore. It was the Bicentennial year, a time to celebrate all the nation had achieved - but also to reflect and question.

I was fascinated by history but, like many Australians, felt that ours had been selectively told. The heroic folklore of white settlement was far from the whole truth. Colonial settlers had done it tough, but what of the land's original inhabitants?

I had heard of massacres of Aboriginal people at nearby Ballina and Evans Head and wanted to know - and to share - the full story. This turned out to be even more disturbing than expected.

Hundreds of the region's indigenous people, perhaps a fifth of the population, were killed by guns and poison between 1838 and 1870. The violence began on the Clarence River and extended north to the Richmond and the Tweed, in an undeclared war. Sometimes Bundjalung, Gumbainggeri and Minjungbal people fought back, in a cycle of atrocity and reprisal.

My research made some people uncomfortable but, to their credit, my editors kept supporting my work.

I delved into archives. I interviewed indigenous elders about their communities' spoken traditions and traumatic memories.

In early 1989 we published the results. The article about massacres on the Clarence River was part of a series of six feature-length articles recounting the brutality that accompanied European occupation across the Northern Rivers.

Interest was intense. The series, titled Rivers of Blood, was republished as a short book, that has since been used extensively as an educational resource.

Three decades on, and as someone whose work is now about securing Australia's future, I remain proud of these early writings.

I wrote as a journalist, not a professional historian. There is scope for more detailed research. Other massacres may yet be revealed. And the complexities of the conflict deserve scrutiny.

It is good to see national efforts now to document and remember such history. Acknowledging the past is an essential step to reconciliation and a shared future.

Professor Rory Medcalf,

Head, National Security College, Australian National University, Canberra May 2019

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