Sunday, December 6, 2009

Truth about Cullin-la-ringo

LADIES and gentlemen, little girls and boys! My apologies for breaking this blog away from the usual theme of my growing up, but an important mistake in our history was recently made by an Australian author named Alex Miller.
Miller was recently interviewed in Brisbane's Courier-Mail newspaper about his books and was quoted thus:
"In Journey to the Stone Country (2002), I had always wanted to tell the story of Cullin-la-ringo (near Rockhampton) where 19 of the strongest and best-armed white soldiers were killed by Aborigines.
"It's weird and strange that no one has written about it. The silence is partly due to an inability of Australians to see Aborigines as having strategic intelligence and yet they killed the lot in a couple of hours and there wasn't one Aboriginal casualty."
Now ladies, gentlemen, little girls and boys, let's set the record straight. I wrote a factual feature on the Cullin-la-ringo massacre in The Courier-Mail back in 1971 and these are the fair dinkum facts.
The Cullin-la-ringo massacre on the early afternoon of October 17, 1861, involved the murder, mainly by clubbing to death, of six children, two women, 10 men and a male youth - 19 white people killed, and all but one, the new sheep station owner, Horatio Spencer Wills, were unarmed.
Wills, a wealthy Victorian pioneer, grazier and member of parliament, had led his party of 25 on the 800 mile overland journey from Brisbane and had been settled at Cullin-la-ringo in tents for two weeks before the unexpected attack.
Wills had had great relations with his Aboriginal workers on his Ararat (Victorian) property prior to deciding to move to the brand new state of Queensland and develop Cullin-la-ringo. That faith allowed him to ignore local warnings to be careful of Aborigines in northern Australia.
He took them into his confidence, allowing them into the camp at will. He even gave them sheep to slaughter as a display of friendship.
He also had all the camp's firearms stored in his tent. He was in that tent when the Aborigines, strolling around camp, suddenly attacked. He heard the screams, picked up a pistol and raced out of the tent only to be clubbed to death immediately. He managed one pistol shot before dying.
Six kids, two women and four men and Wills died in the camp attack while another five men and a youth were murdered as they worked a little distance from the camp.
Only three of the men left in the camp area escaped. One of the luckiest was the cook, John Moore, who abandoned the cook tent to escape the heat and was taking siesta in the scrub several hundred metres away. He was awakened by Wills' shot, could see what was happening and took off on foot for Rainworth Station, 30 miles away.
Three others of the original overlanders, including Wills' cricket-famous son, Thomas Wentworth Wills, were away at Albinia Station, a round trip of a week, picking up stores.
They returned two days after the massacre, well after a rescue party from Rainworth had buried the dead and set about mustering the remains of the 10,000 sheep the party had overlanded from Brisbane. The sheep were scattered far and wide as the attackers had tried to butcher them for food.
The camp was looted of blankets, clothing, tools and knives. Surprisingly the firearms were thrown on to the Wills' party camp fires but were only slightly damaged.
Naturally the whites took revenge, and while it would have been severe, there are many figures of deaths from both sides, which vary considerably.
Reconstruction of the murders showed that Aborigines in small parties began entering the Cullin-la-ringo camp, which was then only a circle of tents, about midday until the number grew to about 200. The kids were playing in the dirt and the women in a tent sewing. About 2pm they struck and all in the camp were dead within minutes.
I have done a fair study of the massacre because my great grandfather, Martin Kavanagh, worked on Cullin-la-ringo for 20 years after arriving in Rockhampton by windjammer in 1863, two years after the massacre. My father, also Martin, was a stockman on Cullin-la-ringo in the 1920s after returning from the First World War.
Of course the tragedy took its toll on many, but none more so than Tom. While he stayed on to help establish the station for his young brothers, who had been at school in Europe at the time of the massacre, Tom Wills eventually returned to Melbourne where he had become famous for his cricketing talents.
Although born to pioneering parents in the Victorian bush, Tom Wills was educated at England's famous Rugby School where he captained the school's cricket and rugby teams. He went on to Cambridge University where he became the top cricketer and played for Kent.
On returning to Melbourne in 1857 a sporting hero, he was immediately asked to help Victoria beat New South Wales in the annual cricket matches, the forerunner to the Sheffield Shield.
Wills decided his teammates needed a winter sport to keep them fit and wanted a code of football - but not rugby union or soccer because he believed his cricket players could be injured. So he invented a non-tackling, kicking game - the game that today is Australian Rules football. Wills and his cousin, Henry Harrison, founded the Melbourne Football Club in 1858, with Wills becoming the club's first captain.
After returning depressed from the Cullin-la-ringo massacre site in the mid 1860s, Wills again returned to cricket and Aussie Rules in Melbourne.
But the massacre apparently never left his mind and he began drinking heavily. In 1880 in acute depression, at the age of just 44 years, Tom Wills stabbed himself to death with a pair of scissors.

If you want to read more of Tom Wills and the Cullin-la-ringo story, look for Les Perrin's great book Cullin-la-ringo. The Triumph and Tragedy of Tommy Wills. It gives the full history of the Wills family.
Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, little girls and boys, the real story of Cullin-la-ringo definitely ain't "weird and strange".
That title belongs to at least one author who needs to learn the difference between "19 of the strongest and best-armed white soldiers" and 19 unarmed women, children and men slaughtered as they sat quietly after lunch.