Benwhalla - The Fallen and Forgotten

It is said that history is written by the victor.  History itself tells us that is true. But history can also be covered up by the victor, or not written at all. 

I grew up in north-east Victoria, in a place called Euroa, it means ‘joyful’ in Taunarong. A small township nestled at the base of the Strathbogie ranges in what is known as ‘Kelly country’ after the bushranger, outlaw, cop killer or terrorist Ned, take your pick. 

 Actual picture of Ned Kelly

Actual picture of Ned Kelly

My family and one other, the Moores, a Noongar family were the Aboriginals in the village. Just to the west of Euroa was Shepparton and Mooroopna, you go there, shake a tree and James falls out. What always struck about the north-east was the clear remnants of a people who had inhabited its lush mountain valleys, its abundant flowing rivers and its open and fertile lowlands. 

The memory of these people are evident in the place names that stare resolutely out, as you enter the townships. Yackandandah, Milawa, Wangaratta, Boho and Gooram to name just a few. These place names were words bespoke by the Bangerang (also known as Pangerang), Way wurru and Taunarong people. The names remained, but the culture behind those rust eaten signs was nowhere to be seen. 

As a kid I was confronted with racism on daily basis. I am a proud member of the Yorta Yorta whose country is just to the north-west of where I grew up knowing more about the people whose footsteps I followed, in whose creeks and rivers I swam, would have been of some strength back in those days. Knowing they existed at all would have been of solace. 

The education system being what it was, and probably still is, taught us more about British and European history than our own. I could have told you more about a Medici commissioned fresco than the traditional owners of the land on which I stood. The only fragment of local history related to the exploits of the Kelly Gang, as Ned and crew had robbed a bank in Euroa. 

My only cultural connection came through my father supported by my mother, his brothers, my grandparents and the myriad of cousins I had over Shepparton and Mooroopna way. The teachings I received about my mob came from my family, not from the system. I grew knowing that I was part of a proud lineage of activists, from William Cooper down. My family was tightly intertwined with what in itself could be described as a people’s renaissance. This knowledge was passed down to me with passion, resilience and most endearingly, good humour.  

But what happened to the traditional owners in a part of the world, which dad described as God’s own country?

Recently, the University of Newcastle released a map that illustrates the number of massacre sites across Australia during the invasion. Each site is symbolised by a yellow dot, blue squares denote the massacre of Europeans.  

Victorian massacre sites.png

The number of dots concentrated in the boundary, of what is now known as Victoria, is startling. Many of these massacres were in fact battles. What we do know is that there are many little yellow dots still to be added to the map, there are still many more stories to be told. 

There is only one blue square in Victoria, it symbolises what has become known as the Faithfull Massacre, where the township of Benalla is now situated.  

I took a trip back to Benalla to conduct some research on the Faithfull Massacre. From the township itself I could see the remnants of the old Broken River before the it had been damned. I could see the same hills the Bangerang saw as they travelled to the banks of the of the Broken that flowed from their low round peaks. 

The place hadn’t changed much, nor had its recorded history. 

It is the town my father and his five brothers called home in the 50s and 60s.They grew up a few streets over from where the massacre is speculated to have occurred on the 12thof April 1838, more or less at the point of first contact.  

George Faithfull and his men, a combination of convict and ex-convicts, were droving thousands of sheep and hundreds of head of cattle south into Victoria, upon receiving a permit to do so after a long drought in NSW. Faithfull himself, pulled up camp at the Ovens River, while nine of his men with several hundred head of livestock continued onto camp at Swampy River, as the Broken was then known. 

The men, in their ignorance had chosen a kangaroo ground to camp alongside the main watering hole, which doubled as a sacred site and where clans from the three tribes, Bangerang, Taunarong and Way wurru would often meet.

After a number of days convalescing by the river, Faithfull’s men were ambushed by between 100 to 300 Aboriginal men, seven of the Europeans were killed by a combination of spearing and blunt force trauma. Two men escaped to tell the story and then reprisals began in earnest. 

What we know about these ‘reprisals’ is sketchy at best, opposed to what we know of the massacre of the colonists. 

The Melbourne Herald on the 2ndof April 1958 published a two page spread on the massacre, entitled, The worst of our early massacres, “Our” meaning European of course. 

The article goes into great detail about the circumstances in which the men were “murdered” and the story of the pioneering spirit of the Faithfull who overcame the odds to become “rich and substantial” landowners.   

Again, you have to look carefully to gain a hint of the devastation and terror that was to follow for the people of the Bangerang, Taunarong and Way wurru. In two paragraphs the article states, “The Faithfull massacre touched off a fierce warfare of raids and reprisals that made the settlement of north-eastern Victoria the most dramatic episodes in colonising history.”

It continues, “not until years later, after a day-long battle along the Ovens River, could George Faithfull declare the aboriginal (sic) tribes were finally crushed and his name ‘made a terror to them forever.’”  

There is scant detail on what the reprisals entailed, where they took place and many men, women and children were murdered in the mountains and valleys of the north-east. 

In Australia, when it comes to true history, we are often left with the task of piecing together the few snippets left to us by our colonial invaders. 

An example is an extract from the journal of squatter Niel Black, from May 1840, two years after the Faithfull massacre, he wrote, “the best way to procure a run is to go outside and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives left and right.”

In 1852, George Faithfull himself wrote, after a period of protracted raids and counter-raids, “people formed themselves into bands…and then it was that the destruction of the natives really did take place.”

By 1908 it was reckoned by the Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas, that there were no more than 72 natives (“full bloods”) left in the Colony of Victoria. The north-east Aboriginal populations had been decimated by a combination of murder, brutality and disease, which in itself could be used as a weapon. 

Within an 80 year period a culture that had thrived in the area for over 20,000 years had been wiped out. 

There were no two-page spreads in the metropolitan newspapers about that tragedy. There were no plaques, as there still are in Benalla, commemorating the fallen victims of north-east wars. 

The only plaque that exists was erected 100 years after the death of a woman believed to be the last member of the Bangerang, Mary Jane Milewa, who died on October 10, 1888. We of course know that descendants of the Bangerang and other tribes still continue to thrive, but it is true there are no longer any “full-blood” Aboriginal Victorians in existence. 

Only by exploring, searching for and knowing our true history can one fetch the solace the 14 year old me needed. Knowing could have enlightened those in the same classrooms who thought it was just to shoot an Aboriginal for stealing a sheep, it would have helped the teacher that asked if I could speak any Aborigine. 

It would have helped me explain to the teacher, ‘No sir, those languages are extinct now, the people gone, their culture with them and sir, your loss is as great as mine.’