News NSW government recognises site of Mount Dispersion’s ‘bloody and vicious’ massacre of Aboriginal people

NSW government recognises site of Mount Dispersion’s ‘bloody and vicious’ massacre of Aboriginal people

Major Thomas Mitchell depicted Aboriginal people by the Murray River with spears. Image: Heritage NSW
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It was the site of a bloody massacre where a party of surveyors scouting the lower Murray River fired on a group of Aboriginal people, continuing to shoot as they swam across the water in fear.

But, until now, the only acknowledgement of the atrocity of what became known as Mount Dispersion was a monument two kilometres from the correct location.

Barry Pearce, a Mutthi Mutthi elder who has lived near the massacre site on a property called Culpra Station, became inspired to have Mount Dispersion’s dark history acknowledged.

He said he wanted the site’s true history known, in “recognition and acknowledgement that there was a frontier war and that Aboriginal people did fight for their country”.

On May 27, the 184th anniversary of the killings, the NSW government officially gazetted Mount Dispersion as an Aboriginal place, giving it legal recognition and protection as a significant site.

Mr Pearce hopes it will attract visitors to the area to learn about its significance in traditional culture and what occurred when a surveying party, led by Major Thomas Mitchell, moved through.

A dark day

A monument recognising the Mount Dispersion massacre in south-west NSW. Photo: Heritage NSW

Even in the 19th century, questions were asked of Mitchell about what transpired on the day his men killed at least seven Aboriginal people.

Harvey Johnston, a Heritage NSW officer, led the project to have Mount Dispersion formally recognised.

“The real history is unclear because he probably doesn’t write the exact truth,” he said.

“But from the various accounts that we know, they [the surveying party] got scared.”

Mitchell’s party first encountered their victims when they arrived at Lake Benanee, near the present-day town of Euston.

The Aboriginal group followed the surveyors for several days and, Mr Johnston said, “were gradually becoming more intrusive” to Mitchell’s expedition.

But instead of negotiating, the colonialists decided on an ambush.

“The people who were following fled across the Murray and swam over the river onto the Victorian side,” Mr Johnston said.

“And Mitchell’s men continued to shoot people as they swam across the river and climbed across the other side of the bank and ran into the bushes.

“It was quite a bloody and vicious event.”

A plaque recognising Major Thomas Mitchell describes the massacre as “an encounter”. Photo: Heritage NSW

Mitchell faced an executive council inquiry when he returned to Sydney.

He claimed it was only later that he learned the Aboriginal people were seeking revenge for another massacre that had occurred at Menindee the year before, but that may not have been the truth.

“By the time he got around to writing his book in 1839, he’d changed his story,” Mr Johnston said.

More revelations about the massacre came from the account of Tilki, the only recorded Aboriginal survivor of the attack, who was a child being carried on his mother’s back while she and other Aboriginal women searched for mussels in the river.

German artist Ludwig Becker sketched Tilki in 1854 and noticed he was missing his left thumb, which Tilki said was struck by a musket ball when Mitchell’s men opened fire.

More than just a massacre site

While Mitchell named the small hill Mount Dispersion after his party’s acts of violence, it had been known for thousands of years to the Kureinji and Barkindji people for its sacred association with Dreamtime stories.

“Reconciliation means different things to different people,” Mr Pearce said.

“I guess for us here at Culpra [Station], we’ve played a role in promoting who we are and where we’re coming from, and the fact that reconciliation is an important process in which people may gain a better understanding of our history.”

His inspiration to have Mount Dispersion’s significance formally recognised came after a visit to the site of the Myall Creek massacre, where white settlers murdered 28 Aboriginal men, women and children in 1838.

It was a rare case where perpetrators were tried and executed.

Mr Pearce wants signage to direct visitors to Mount Dispersion so they can learn about its cultural significance, which he says is “more than the massacre”.

“It’s about the storyline that’s connected to that – the story of the great warrior and the cod and the spiritual ancestors,” Mr Pearce said.

He hopes the recognition will also lead to the return of artefacts to the site and, potentially, raise more awareness of other massacres that occurred along the Murray River.

“The main reason my wife [Betty, a Barkindji woman] and I nominated it is because of those old people who suffered at the hands of colonialism,” Mr Pearce said.

“Frontier war did happen, and it is a part of our history.”