Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History, School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia, Professor Jane Lydon.
Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History, School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia, Professor Jane Lydon.

HISTORIAN: Coutts was guilty, but says no to renaming town

THE GUILT or otherwise of Thomas Coutts, accused of poisoning 23 Aboriginal people 170 years ago, has been a bone of contention in the recent debate of a proposal to rename Coutts Crossing.

There is no doubt there was a mass poisoning of Aboriginal people on Coutts' property at Kangaroo Creek in November 1847, but just what involvement Coutts had in it has been debated hotly on social media.

Those prosecuting the case for keeping the name of Coutts Crossing intact have been outraged that Coutts has been painted as a mass murderer without a court ever finding him guilty.

Coutts was charged with the murders, but the NSW Attorney General at the time John Hubert Plunkett, decided not to proceed with the case because of the lack of evidence.

The case for changing the name of Coutts Crossing says the laws at the time created this situation because it would not accept the evidence from Aboriginal people, who had testified that Coutts had paid them for work done on his property with flour laced with arsenic.

An academic and historian Professor Jane Lydon has investigated the poisoning from original sources and in 1996 she published a paper 'No Moral Doubt...' Aboriginal Evidence and the Kangaroo Creek poisoning 1847-1849.

Prof Lydon, the Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History, School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia, has agreed to an interview with The Daily Examiner later today.

Her overview of the current debate is that while she has no doubts about the guilt of Thomas Coutts, she does not believe it is a reason to rename the village.

Here is a sample of her investigations from her 1996 paper.

She found Plunkett had 'no moral doubt' that Coutts was the man responsible for the deaths.

The Crown Commissioner, Oliver Fry, in his covering letter delivered with the depositions he took from witnesses was damning in his description of the event.

It was "one of the most hideous enormities that has ever taken place, in an age or country. The atrocity to which I allude is the murder by poisoning of not fewer than 23 Aboriginal natives" he wrote.

Plunkett was just as strong in his views, despite shelving the case.

He wrote: "I am sorry to say that the suspicioun is very strong that the prisoner is not guiltless of the dreadful deed charged against him" and "This is one of the many cases from which the defect of the present law, in excluding altogether the evidence of the Aboriginal natives, is apparent."

Plunkett referred to the Kangaroo Creek poisonings in his 1849 Bill to the NSW Parliament to allow evidence from Aboriginal witnesses.

That Bill was defeated 10-9 indicating the fraught nature of Aboriginal and settler relations at the time.

The views of its opponents reveal some thinking we now find abnoxious.

William Wentworth, said battles between settlers and Aboriginals should be be fought without government intervention and should not artificially perpetuate the Aboriginal race.

Another said the charges against Coutts were trumped up because Coutts had made himself "abnoxious to the magistrates" because of "certain matters relative to the females of his family".



Christmas concert truly delightful

premium_icon Christmas concert truly delightful

Clarence River Dance Academy shines on stage

Clarence Valley youth making a difference

premium_icon Clarence Valley youth making a difference

Artists, youth advocates and CEOs on our Youth Power 10

Christmas lights map: Where to see street displays

premium_icon Christmas lights map: Where to see street displays

Your guide with map for 40+ streets with lights in the Valley.

Local Partners