Conflict by the riverside
Blood Revenge recounts the killing of two Aboriginal boys on the Hawkesbury in 1799 and how a legal sleight of hand allowed the culprits to escape punishment. Lyn Stewart’s strength is her focus on the smallest details of this particular tragedy and the events and people surrounding it. The book reads like a detective story.
Stewart writes with a clarity that makes the dense material an easy and engrossing read. With forensic skill she unpicks a complex story from all angles. Most significant was the killing of an Aboriginal woman and child by a soldier for which no punishment was inflicted and the subsequent slaughter of two settlers named Wimbo and Hodgkinson that, in turn, directly triggered a sequence of events leading to the death of the boys. Five white men were subsequently put on trial; one of them, constable Edward Powell, was the author’s ancestor. All were found guilty but never punished. Stewart wants to find out why.
She accumulates evidence about the behaviour and motives of the settlers, the Aborigines, the military, governor John Hunter and the judge advocate. She examines new material in the form of seven depositions from witnesses, three from men who ‘‘turned king’s evidence’’ (as informing was known). These support or contradict the evidence given at the trial.
Hunter’s inconsistency about how natives were to be treated inflamed the volatile situation. His orders, like those to his predecessor Arthur Phillip, were that ‘‘if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy [the natives] ... you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence’’.
But Hunter was losing the struggle to manage violence in the colony. Angered by another case in 1798 where two Europeans were acquitted of murdering an Aboriginal man for ‘‘lack of evidence’’, he warned he ‘‘would make an example of the first person convicted of ‘having wantonly taken the life of a native’ ”. However, he also gave a military commandant discretion to deal with the natives according to circumstances. When Hunter released Charley, an Aboriginal man brought to him for punishment over the killing of two Europeans, settlers and soldiers were angered as well as confused.
The legal sleight of hand that allowed the murder of the two boys to go unpunished was that of judge advocate Richard Dore. By the time of the trial, he had fallen out with Hunter and his decisions on some aspects of the legal process reveal his determination to thwart his superior. It was Dore who drew up the charge. He knew Hunter believed it should be murder, but he framed it as ‘‘wanton killing’’, a crime that did not automatically entail execution.
Complicating the official ambivalence were the human emotions and cultural differences at the Hawkesbury. Confronted with the death of a woman and child, the Aborigines responded with payback, a practice that required the death of anyone from the same (white) tribe but not necessarily the actual culprit. The soldier escaped but, Stewart concludes, Wimbo and Hodgkinson paid the price.
In turn, Hodgkinson’s widow and neighbours sought revenge on the Aborigines they believed murdered the two men, namely the two boys. The settlers’ vindictiveness was in- creased by the knowledge that Charley had also been involved. In examining this particular crime, Stewart vividly pictures life along the Hawkesbury in the 1790s, finding that blackwhite relations were ‘‘in general cordial’’ but ‘‘could suddenly and unpredictably change’’.
Sometimes escaped convicts led parties of Aborigines to plunder the settlers’ corn. It was convicts also who taught Aborigines how to use muskets. Cultural difference was often a flashpoint. The settlers, for example, gave produce and other goods to Aboriginal people. They even tolerated what they called ‘‘pilfering’’, which the Aborigines probably regarded as legitimate sharing. Europeans, however, would reach a point when they felt the sharing had to stop, particularly when their livelihood was in
Blood Revenge: Murder on the Hawkesbury 1799 jeopardy. By comparison, Aborigines regarded sharing as an unlimited obligation. The outcome was violence.
Blood Revenge is fascinating and engrossing. It is also fundamental to understanding the tragic fate of the Hawkesbury Aborigines. Such is the power of the book, readers may well agree with Stewart when she concludes: My interpretation of the events of 1799 on the river and in the administration of the colony has led me to a much deeper understanding of the injustices the Aborigines suffered and the challenges the farming settlers faced in those times. That my ancestor took a leading role in the decision to execute these young Aboriginal warriors is, I believe, beyond doubt. That his actions were inexcusable, yet at the same time understandable, is also plain to me. That realisation has given me the deepest sadness about these events and about the plight of our Aborigines then and since.
Detail from the cover of Lyn Stewart’s