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.


  1. As a (distant) relative of the Wills family, and a relative newcomer to the story of Cullin-La-Ringo - I was surprised to read Mr Miller's comments regarding "strongest and best armed men."
    I've just begun researching this side of the family, and find Les Perrin's account to be intriguing, as well as informative
    Well done Mr Kavanagh for pointing out the errors in Alex Millers comments.

  2. Well done. One must wonder if Mr Miller was mistaken in his account or deliberately misleading his readers?

  3. Having attended a session to day for teachers on the "Hidden History" (suggesting that Aboriginal history should be included in Australian history), the massacre at Callin-la-ringo was recorded as being carried out by whites on the aboriginals.
    I am sceptical of some of the recent accounts of what happened back in those early years.
    I am a descendant of Martin Kavanagh, Robert Donaldson of Medway Station, and William Thomasson (carrier from Rockhampton to Springsure District). The oral accounts that have been handed down of the relationships between the whites and Aboriginals were always positive with no harm being done to either side.
    I hope historians also record the good events that happened in the "Hidden History".
    12July, 2010

  4. From 1935 onwards, as children, growing up on a property in the Springsure district we often heard stories of the Cullin-la ringo massacre. The part that really fascinated us was the story of an aboriginal infant, often referred to as “Rosie”, being hidden in a hollow log during the conflict and later safely retrieved by her relatives.
    I am very interested to learn if other people heard this story and may be able to expand upon it or put it to rest. I can be contacted on 07 5445 7656

  5. The Wills family in Victoria had a great relationship with the local Aboriginal people, in fact it was part of a game they played which inspired Tom to lay down the basic rules of play for what was to become A.F.L. Les Perrins book describes how Tom Wills noticed they used a possum skin sewn up after filling it with charcoal. This they threw high in the air and the person who could jump the highest would catch it.

    Because of Wills' family close relationship they felt there was nothing to fear from the Aborigines in the Springsure district but did not know that they had been badly treated by the local white settlers, many black people having been beaten and shot. The attack at Cullin-La-Ringo, which was the biggest massacre of white people in one day resulted from this treatment. Local people, black trackers and police then rallied and set out to kill every black person they could find for many miles around, including women and children.

  6. I think you were in a rush or forgot to correct our work because you made a few mistakes. I think you are only blaming everything on the Aborigines because when the Whites went to get revenge on the Aborigines before they killed one of the Aborigines he/she said and i quote "I no kill white man". I would encourage more information on why the aborigines killed all those whites there has to be a reason they killed the whites because Tommy Wills had killed some aborigines .

    1. 7, 2013 at 10:37 AM

      The story I read was that the next door neighbour shot 2 aboriginals for killing and eating some sheep. This action was a reprisal. The original letter written the next day by the surviving Wills is in the Qld Library archive. The overseer Baker was married to Elizabeth Excell my remote relative. He was deported as a convict and after his release 7 years later he sent for Elizabeth and their 5 children. Elizabeth died as the ship approached Melbourne. Baker then re-married and was appointed by Wills to estalish the sheep station. An estimated 400 aboriginals were shot on sight in the years nfollowing the event.

  7. Tom Wills led the famous Aboriginal cricket team from around Harrow to England and is well remembered in the district. There is a Tom Wills drive in Edenhope. Tom Wills was a good man and like his father treated the natives well.

  8. Does anyone know the meaning of the word, Cullin-la-ringo"

    1. Cullin laringo means "Sough and found"

  9. Does anybody know how the artist T. G. Moyle who painted the scene 2 days after the massacre came to be on the scene? His painting of the recovery party was acquired by the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, in 2009.

  10. May I suggest that you go there and speak to Tom Wills Jnr. who still lives on the property to this day. He is a historian for that property and keeper of the cometary next to his homestead. He has many artefacts from the time and many diary entries written in the day. Yes I have been there and I knew Tom quite well, he is still there and is a direct descendant of these people. It would be far better to go and speak to the man than research fantasy.

  11. Interesting article. For yet another view of the events at Cullin-la-ringo, see "Tom Wills" by Greg De Moore, Allen and Unwin,2009, chapter 11.
    Bob Whiteman October,2016

  12. Interesting article. For yet another view of the events at Cullin-la-ringo, see "Tom Wills" by Greg De Moore, Allen and Unwin,2009, chapter 11.
    Bob Whiteman October,2016

  13. Some very interesting articles and comments made on this site. I thank you for sharing and look forward to hearing more :)