The truth of Australian wars

My latest feature for SBS, and one of the most important topics I have ever covered. Read the story in full below, or over at SBS.

“I was angry that my ancestors were part of the white-washing of history”

As a young girl, Sandy Hamilton held her ancestor, Stephen Partridge, in great esteem. A member of the British Army’s 46th Regiment, her great-great-great-grandfather had arrived in New South Wales in 1814, travelling its rivers with explorer John Oxley and later becoming superintendent of convicts in Port Macquarie.

“During my childhood my father instilled in us a sense of honour that we were somehow better because of our bloodlines to this man,” the educator from NSW tells SBS Voices.

But it was a version of history that turned its eyes from the whole, inconveniently grim, truth.

In fact, Partridge and his regiment arrived in NSW to witness the occupiers meeting resistance from independent, self-governing Aboriginal nations. The response was brutal and indiscriminate.

The fear and the stakes were deemed so high that, in 1816, the 46th was ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to punish “hostile natives” – despite their status as the King’s subjects – by firing upon them and “hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.”

And so unfolded the Appin massacre, when Muringong, Dharawal and Gandangara men, women and children were ambushed in their sleep and shot or forced over the cliff edge by soldiers moments before dawn at their encampment at Broughton Pass, 60km south west of Sydney.

In the aftermath, 14 bodies were counted although it is believed others were not retrieved from the gorge of the Cataract River below. At least three, including one woman, were later decapitated and sold by soldiers.

Far from his sparkling image, Partridge was likely party to a violent attack on women and children.

It is a fact that Hamilton learnt in 2016, when she watched Dharawal elder Glenda Chalker describing the 46th’s involvement with the Appin massacre on TV. Hamilton instantly checked her family records and realised the connection.

Every detail I discovered made me sick to the core, but I felt compelled to find out the truth about him and not just the glorified version

“It was a shock. Every detail I discovered made me sick to the core, but I felt compelled to find out the truth about him and not just the glorified version,” says Hamilton.

“It’s the cover-up that angered me. I was angry that my ancestors were part of the white-washing of history … [My ancestor] was also an instrument in the dark history of the invasion.

“I don’t remember the word massacre used in relation to Australia up until a few years ago. I’m now 57.”

The following day, she drove six hours to Appin and met with Chalker, taking the first steps on what has become a long journey of healing – and a determination to speak plainly about the past where it has so often been obfuscated.

In her new SBS documentary series, Arrernte and Kalkadoon presenter Rachel Perkins explores the “great Australian silence” around Appin and the many other massacres that form Australia’s bloodiest 100 years. The Australian Wars lays out the unpalatable facts: soldiers, convicts and settlers made a grab for land in what many historians agree counts as a war – and yet no war in Australia was ever declared.

Before that fateful dawn raid at Appin, Governor Macquarie instructed his men to avoid injuring women and children wherever possible and to call a command to surrender. But historians claim he would have known that First Nations people lived in family groups, making it impossible to attack male warriors alone. And, “even if there was a call to surrender, that was never, ever going to happen when you turn up at dawn with 30 soldiers with muskets ready. As soon as someone moves, the order to fire is given,” historian Dr Stephen Gapps tells Perkins in the series. “It was always going to turn into a massacre,” he says.

Realising that what happened at Appin was illegal and well beyond the bounds of civilised behaviour, Macquarie sanitised the record, as historian Bruce Scates tells Perkins in the series. “Several natives have been unavoidably killed and wounded in consequence of them not having surrendered themselves on being called to do so,” Macquarie wrote afterwards.

It is just one of many instances of white-washing that served Australia’s settlers and, 200 years on, continue to dominate the narrative of Australian colonisation. As the series notes, even people living in Appin do not know of its barbaric history.

Hamilton’s thoughts about Partridge run parallel to how society is beginning to reappraise Macquarie’s achievements. She has accepted that Appin is in her DNA, but was Partridge simply a soldier following orders?

“Was he a terrible man … was he cold-hearted and lacking in all feeling? He wasn’t trained to run down innocent women and children and old people, so I can’t help but to think that as a human being he was shocked by the situation he found himself in and that he was repulsed and horrified by what he was compelled to do. I hope he was,” she says.

“I don’t know how he lived with himself after that. All I can imagine is that he was in some sort of denial.”

It is likely that, fresh from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, he would have seen his job in NSW as part of another small-scale war, Professor Henry Reynolds, who appears in the series, explains to SBS Voices. Certainly, the Dharawal people would have seen this as war in its most fundamental of senses – but for the British to acknowledge that would have made a knotty situation yet more complicated.

“To treat Aboriginals as worthy foes would have created a different situation … It would have meant that fundamentally there was that respect for the people who were resisting,” says Professor Reynolds.

Instead, according to Reynolds, Indigenous people were increasingly redacted from the story and by the early 20th Century became little more than a footnote in history books. Leaving out First Nations peoples meant, “you left out the violence,” he says, and leaving out the violence meant swallowing, then promulgating, a convenient falsehood.

Now, asks Perkins, “are we ready to face the past … or go on living a lie?”

Hamilton has faced hers unflinchingly. She attends the “incredibly poignant” Appin Commemoration every year, where, aware of the complex layers of her story, she celebrates the survival of the Dharawal people and its culture, in spite of massacre, abduction, servitude and, ultimately, silence.

“It wasn’t just white settlers defending themselves,” says Hamilton. “Unless we can lay it all out on the table and talk about the details … unless we’re brave enough to actually accept those truths and those stories, then we can’t really understand our history or our present. We can’t make sense of where we’re at right now unless we can look very plainly at what happened.

“There is no reconciliation without truth-telling. The trauma continues every time the truth is not told.”

The 46th was eventually posted to India while Partridge transferred to the 48th Regiment when his wife became pregnant. Today, he is survived by hundreds of living descendants. “Many,” Hamilton believes, “aren’t ready for this moment of reckoning.”

Three-part documentary series The Australian Wars premieres on Wednesday 21 September at 7.30pm on SBS and NITV, airing weekly. You can catch up at SBS On Demand.


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