Con­flict by the river­side

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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