Historian proves Coutts was a murderer
THOMAS Coutts got away with murdering 23 Aboriginal people in 1847, but he would not be so lucky now, says an academic.
As a young researcher, the current chair in Australian History at Western Australia University, Professor Jane Lydon, was commissioned in 1996 to research what were called the Kangaroo Creek poisonings.
The job put her on the trail of the original documents, which mainly consisted of letters between the protagonists like Attorney General John Hubert Plunkett, the Commissioner of Crown Lands Oliver Fry and politicians of the day, as well as depositions from witnesses gathered during the initial investigation of the case.
Prof Lydon said in her view the evidence they gathered was strong enough to convict him under today's laws.
But in 1847 the law in NSW explicitly did not accept the sworn testimony of Aboriginal people, forcing the Attorney-General to reluctantly abandon the case.
Prof Lydon said her research centred on the archives of the Colonial Secretary's correspondence, but tracking down the right correspondence turned into a detective story of its own.
"These were the letters that went to and fro between the dignitaries of the day," she said.
"It was an amazing experience for a young researcher," she said. "When I started to look I found the letters that were referred to were not in the place they were supposed to be."
"The archivist was no help, just saying these things happen from time to time."
The breakthrough came when she realised the letters that referred to each other were kept together, "rather like an email thread".
"I kept looking and eventually found all the correspondence I was looking for," she said.
Prof Lydon said understanding how Coutts got away with murder needs to be understood in the context of the day, which began with the Myall Creek Massacre almost 10 years earlier.
"Plunkett was the attorney-general who prosecuted that case, which led to the hanging of seven white men," Prof Lydon said.
"At that time there was a lot of anti-slavery feeling around because Britain had just repealed its slavery laws. There was a view that the Aboriginals were analogous to black Africans, which they should now treat as brothers."
But this view was not shared on the frontier where the Aborigines were viewed as a threat.
"The Myall Creek trial angered many in the community, who thought it outrageous white men should hang for killing blacks," she said.
"In a way it actually made things worse. A lot of the techniques used against the Aborigines went underground and they used poison, which was not quite as open as other methods."
Prof Lydon said she was against changing names of places because it could lead to people forgetting what had taken place.
"Rather than that, we need to re-contextualise so these events are remembered for what they were," she said.
"That does not mean telling Aboriginal people just to get over it. That's very silly, telling people to get over something that is real to them."
She said the idea of combining the current name with a traditional name had merit and could help make the history of the community more real.
"Maybe as the town grows or new things are opened in the town, those traditional names could be used," she said.