The drought over the years 1814-16 led to an increase in crop depredation, particularly by the Gandangara people, who would descend onto the plains from their fastnesses in the Southern Highlands and plunder corn from the settlers’ fields. Tribes from as far afield as Jervis Bay habitually moved inland in times of scarcity as well. The plains were the traditional lands of the Darug people but the situation was complicated by the fact that both they and their coastal cousins, the Eora, had been decimated by disease, mainly smallpox, over the first two decades of European settlement.
In the vacuum so created, the Dharawal, another coastal people, whose traditional lands also encroached upon the south-west portion of the Cumberland Plains, had developed a largely peaceable, mutually supportive relationship with local settlers, particularly in Airds and Appin. When the Gandangara came looking for food, Dharawal people took refuge on the farms of friendly settlers; and also attempted to arrive at some accommodation with the interlopers on behalf of both the settlers and themselves.
Macquarie’s Aboriginal policy had since his arrival been conciliatory and in some respects enlightened; as was his early response to a new era of conflict. In December 1814 he founded a school at Parramatta for Aboriginal children and at the same time initiated, on the 28th, an annual feast at which the people of the district, both black and white, mingled, received gifts and exchanged entertainments. The next month, January 1815, he made the first ever land grant to indigenous people, returning to sixteen families, including that of his Eora friend Bungaree, some acres at Georges Head on the north shore of Sydney Harbour.
This was followed by other grants, notably at Black’s Town, now Blacktown, in Sydney’s west. His hope that an incorrigibly nomadic people would settle upon these tiny parcels of land to garden and to farm was, however, wholly mistaken. Another aspect of the realpolitik behind the grants—that they might operate to get Aboriginals off the streets of Sydney—was equally misguided; and later, in 1816, he decided to ban from the town the recurrent ‘contests’, during which ritual fights took place over a number of days. This despite the fact that these rehearsals of traditional law, while robust and confronting, were considered a fine spectacle by most townsfolk.
However, his initial low-key response to the emerging pattern of indigenous crop theft, settler retaliation, followed by revenge attacks and further depredations by the Aboriginals, inevitably leading to more reprisals, soon hardened into a resolve to settle the matter once and for all. Early in 1816 he conceived the plan of sending detachments of troops out into the troubled areas, with orders to pacify the land. His instructions were clear: the soldiers were to take prisoner all Aboriginal people they found, to shoot any who refused to surrender and to hang them in trees. They were also to bring back eighteen small children for the Native Institution (the school) at Parramatta.
When, two years earlier, Macquarie authorized civilian militias to act against crop thieves, he distinguished between the peaceful Darug and Dharawal, who were not to be harassed, and the warlike Gandangara, who were; no such distinction was made now. Nor were women and children excepted although they were, if possible, to be spared. Macquarie wrote that the Native Blacks of this Country, having for the last three years manifested a strong and sanguinary hostile spirit, in repeated instances of murders outrages and depredations of all descriptions against white settlers residing in the Interior, I felt myself compelled to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments. Effectively, the plains were to be cleared of Aboriginal people. It was an early example of the notorious policy of dispersal.
What followed was farcical. Captain Schaw was sent north and west towards the headwaters of the Hawkesbury River to scour the Evan lands and the Grose along the Nepean marches. Lieutenant Dawe marched down into the Cowpastures and the Illawarra; both these men commanded light companies. Captain Wallis, with a detachment of more heavily armed grenadiers, was given the most troublesome sector, the new country of Airds and Appin. The three forces were to meet at the conclusion of the operation at Woodhouse’s farm on the Appin Road. Neither Dawe nor Schaw managed to find, let along engage, any Aboriginal people at all, probably because the extant networks effectively subverted Macquarie’s intent. They were sent on wild goose chases by their Aboriginal and settler guides that tied them up and exhausted them.
Wallis, however, at the farm of a settler called John Kennedy, noticed among the Dharawal people sitting down there, two of the five named as wanted men: Yallaman and Battagalie. Kennedy and another settler, Hamilton Hume, asserted their right to be there and argued that they were helping to protect the property. Wallis left in some confusion and soon afterwards was abandoned by his guides—a convict called John Warby, sympathetic to the Aboriginals, and two likewise reluctant Dharawal men, Budbury and Bundle. Nevertheless, after the return of Warby and a tip off from a man named Tyson, he found, in the early hours of April 17th, above the Cataract River at Appin, an Aboriginal, probably Dharawal, encampment.
The fires were burning but deserted, Wallis wrote in his report. A few of my men heard a child cry. I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek. The dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs. It was moonlight. I regret to say some (were) shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions. How many met their deaths as they rushed shrieking and terrified over adjacent precipices, nobody knew for certain. Women and children were among the dead.
Five prisoners were taken, one of whom was later banished to Van Diemen’s Land in remittance of the death sentence imposed upon him. Two other men, Gandangara warriors Durelle and Cannabayagal, were captured nearby, hanged, as per Macquarie’s instructions, from trees, their bodies left to rot as a warning to others, their heads hacked off and taken back as trophies. Wallis’ men had with them special bags made precisely for this purpose. The heads were sent to Edinburgh and remained there, ‘for scientific study’, until 1991. Dawe, Schaw and Wallis each received fifteen gallons of rum for their exertions over the twenty-three days of the operation; their lieutenants got ten gallons; the guides, NCOs and soldiers were given half a pint. Cash and clothing was also distributed among the troops.
Wallis was not happy about what he had done. In his report he lamented this melancholy but necessary duty and expressed regret at the deaths of women and children. How deep the wounds went is difficult to say but it isn’t too much to suggest that the relatively enlightened policies he showed towards the Awabakal and Worimi during his time at Newcastle stemmed from the need to make amends for this traumatic event. By the same token, the operation, which Macquarie claimed as a military success, was one of the factors leading to Wallis’ appointment as Commandant. The Governor praised his zealous exertions and strict attention to the fulfilling of the instructions on this delicate but very important service.
image : Joseph Lycett : View on the Worrogoomboo River about 90 miles from Sydney