Principal's Address: Sorry Day 2012

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Principal's Address
Sydney Boys High School
Assembly on the 15th annual Sorry Day
Held on 25 May 2012

To commemorate National Reconciliation Week (May 17-June 3) and in particular Sorry Day tomorrow, I want to use the occasion of this assembly to apologise to Aboriginal people generally and Kamilaroi people in particular for the events of a dark day in our history, June 10 1838. During the land grab by squatters in the 1830s aborigines were seen as threats to expansion of white settlement rather than as people with hereditary rights to the custodianship of the land. The prevailing attitude was that killing Aborigines was justifiable because they were threats to agrarian livelihood. Sadly, massacres of Aborigines were not uncommon. The Australia day Massacre of 1838 at Waterloo creek was triggered by the spearing of some cattle and the murder of two whites (supposedly by Aborigines). Between 25 and 100 Aborigines were killed by Major Nunn and his troopers who were sent to the district by Governor Snodgrass after complaints by squatters. Convicts and stockmen continued the slaughter after Nunn left.

Later that year, one of the convict stockmen at Myall creek station, Charles Kilmeister invited the Wirrayaraay group of the Kamilaroi tribe to come and camp at the station for their safety and protection from gangs of marauding stockmen. On June 10, a squatter, John Fleming, led a group of assigned convicts to Myall Creek in search of Aborigines. The Aborigines fled to the station huts, pleading for protection. Instead, they were handed over to the murderers who tied them up and led them away. The twenty-eight people who were subsequently slaughtered with swords were predominantly women, children and old men. The cruellest irony was that Kilmeister participated in the massacre.

The eleven convict perpetrators of the murders were brought to justice but Fleming, the leader and most culpable, was never arrested. In fact, he was involved in more slaughtering of innocents. At the first trial, all eleven men were found not guilty after the jury deliberated for only twenty minutes. Seven of the group were rearrested and charged with related offences. At the second trial they were all found guilty. All seven were executed on December 18, the only time in Australia’s history that Europeans were hanged for the massacre of aborigines.

North of Bingara there is a memorial site at the scene of the massacre. It is a moving place to visit. The Myall Creek massacre was a terrible tragedy for many reasons. First, the Aborigines were betrayed and killed by their supposed protector. Second, none of the victims of this racially motivated murder spree was guilty of any wrongdoing against white settlers. Third, the victims died in vain. Despite the legal principle of equality of European and Aboriginal persons before the law, it took two trials to convict the accused and the behaviour of white settlers towards aborigines did not change, the tactics altered. Perpetrators of massacres entered into pacts of silence to nullify prosecution attempts to find evidence. It was rumoured that poisoning of Aborigines was preferred as a “safe practice”.

In the 21st century we would be accusing such people as criminals against humanity. Australians have a case to answer for attempted genocide in the 19th century. The Wirrayaraay people in northern NSW were in 1838 to the squatters what in 1938 Germany Jewish people were to the SS, non-citizens even sub-humans, who could be killed with impunity.

On Sorry Day we should reflect on how long racist domination and ill treatment of Aborigines has continued in Australia and resolve to treat Aborigines as equal citizens in our multicultural society. For Sorry Day I want to say ‘sorry’ for what was done at Myall creek and elsewhere in NSW in the 19th century by white society.