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Frontier massacre academics and experts on Tom Wills have added legitimacy to an archival newspaper story that suggests the cricket legend and founding father of Australian Rules football participated in the mass murder of Aboriginal people.
- Experts believe there’s some truth to an 1895 newspaper article that claims Tom Wills took part in reprisal attacks after the Cullin-la-ringo massacre
- The Chicago Tribune piece quotes Wills claiming “we killed all in sight”
- Wills was a pioneer of Australian Rules football
Wills biographer Greg de Moore says “there could be a thread of truth” in an 1895 Chicago Tribune article in which an anonymous American correspondent quotes Wills describing his involvement in deadly reprisal attacks that followed the Cullin-la-ringo massacre of 1861.
Journalist Martin Flanagan, whose 1998 historical novel The Call resurrected Wills from obscurity and contributed to a wave of interest in the sporting pioneer, says the document is “too remarkable to dismiss”.
ABC Sport yesterday revealed the discovery by Melbourne-based sports history researcher Gary Fearon, who has closely studied Wills. Fearon found the overlooked document on the online archival newspaper repository newspapers.com.
In the article, titled “Old Days in Australia”, the author quotes Wills saying: “I cannot tell all that happened, but know we killed all in sight,” before describing his murder of an Aboriginal man who’d stolen Wills’s prized I Zingari cricket jacket during the Cullin-la-ringo massacre.
Academics and historians have previously stopped short of conceding that Wills had been involved in reprisal killings. His father, Horatio Wills, and 18 other white settlers were murdered on October 17, 1861, at the family’s newly-established station on Gayiri land near Springsure in Central Queensland. Historians say that up to 370 Aboriginal people died in the revenge attacks.
Although the 126-year-old article contains numerous errors and exaggerations, quoting Wills in the loosest sense, experts agree that the author’s account contains telling material that only someone intimately familiar with Wills could know.
‘It’s too remarkable to dismiss’
“My reaction to the document was exactly the same as Gary Fearon’s, in that it’s full of inaccuracies and the guy who wrote it is clearly a proud, brazen, triumphant racist of a certain 19th century American kind,” Flanagan says.
“But what arrested me was this detail about the I Zingari cricket coat. Wills wore that coat on his first appearance at the MCG after he got back from England. He wore it to make an impression. That coat clearly meant something to him.”
When Flanagan published his book about Wills, it was dismissed by one reviewer as “seductive mythmaking” for its focus on the Aboriginal sub-plots of Wills’s life. Those included Wills’s childhood experiences as the only white child among the Djab wurrung people in Victoria’s Grampians region, and his decision five years after the Cullin-la-ringo massacre to lead the pioneering Aboriginal cricket team.
But the former Age journalist says he’s prepared to accept the new information.
“I’d always known I didn’t know everything about Tom Wills,” Flanagan says.
“It got to the point, when I wrote The Call, that I knew a lot and I knew that it was an incredibly important Australian story.
“But I also knew Wills had written that he would shoot any black person who came back onto the property. So, there was always a possibility he was involved in some of the shootings up there. At the end of the day, I’m a lawyer by education and I’m a journalist. If someone comes to me with what appears to be a credible piece of evidence, I’m obliged to look at it.”
Wills expert Greg de Moore was nominated for the national biography award for his 2008 book Tom Wills — First wild man of Australian sport.
In de Moore’s 10 years of extensive research for his book — completed in the 1990s and early 2000s, before researchers had access to online literary archives like Trove and newspapers.com — he never located the Chicago Tribune article, but says it is similar in style to a few dozen others he found.
“I never dismiss retrospectives like this out of hand,” de Moore says.
“My guess is that it’s quite possible that an American or an Australian who went to the US later on did meet Tom.
“If you look at the material, there are so many inconsistencies, but that doesn’t mean the story is wrong. It’s in that grey zone that a lot of people don’t like to inhabit, but that is the reality of historical research.
“I always keep an open mind. Often the story gets caught up in politics, but I’ve always tried to look at this as carefully and objectively as possible, even if it ran against the grain of what I might subjectively like to find.
“If you’re asking me if there is a thread of truth in this, yes, of course there could be. There will be other people who know Tom’s story who will say it’s nonsense, but I think you’ve got to look at the evidence.
“There are lots of errors here, but I think there could be a thread of truth.”
‘The perpetrators weren’t boasting’
“People are sick of not being told the truth about the history of this country,” broadcaster Boe Spearim, a Gamilaraay and Kooma man says.
Spearim is part of a new generation of truth-tellers. He created his popular podcast, Frontier War Stories, to not only fill the void of knowledge that he says all Australians leave high school with, but to highlight the tales of Aboriginal resistance that are usually sidelined in discussions of frontier violence.
“You can ask an Aboriginal person and nine times out of 10 they’ll tell you the story of a massacre, and tell you where the site is,” Spearim says.
“But we rarely tell the stories of the resistance leaders and battles where Aboriginal people weren’t just seen as the victims on the frontier. That’s where the podcast comes from.”
“I’m telling horrific stories of massacres, but I’m also highlighting the resistance and the resilience and intelligence of Aboriginal people in those times.
To Spearim, the aspect of the Wills story that resonates is that bloodshed flowed from the mistaken belief of Wills’ neighbour Jesse Gregson that local Gayiri people had been stealing cattle.
“There are similar stories everywhere,” Spearim says.
“And it happened too often to say it was just a coincidence of mistaken identity or mistrust. I’ve spoken to historians and researchers and that’s the recurring theme.
Reviewing the Chicago Tribune article, Spearim said he was also struck by the lapse of time between the private telling and public disclosure of Wills’s story. He says the reluctance of white settlers to tell the stories contemporaneously was a permanent byproduct of the Myall Creek massacre of 1838.
In that case, at least 18 unarmed Aboriginal people were murdered by 12 colonists, seven of whom were hung for their crimes.
“After Myall Creek, lots of people who participated in massacres didn’t make it public,” Spearim says.
“The perpetrators weren’t boasting or going around telling everyone they’d slaughtered the blacks in the area. You wouldn’t necessarily find much about it in the newspapers.
“Some of the only ways we find out about massacres is from correspondents like this. It’s people being told by the perpetrators that they’d gone on a hunt. Anyone who speaks up at the time ends up jobless or dead. They’re looked upon by their own race as traitors and they’re cast out. They die lonely, sad, miserable deaths.”
‘Good resolute men that will shoot every black they see’
Fearon says there are other sources that add credence to the narrative presented in “Old Days in Australia”.
Chief among them is Wills’s first bewildered letter after the Cullin-la-ringo massacre. Wills wrote to his cousin and fellow Australian Rules pioneer H.C.A. Harrison, listing the dead and asking that Harrison find replacements — “good resolute men that will shoot every black they see.”
Wills ended the letter: “I shall not spare a lot of them when I see the black devils again anywhere.”
On the same day Wills wrote to Harrison, a Queensland Native Police detachment left Rainworth, a neighbouring station, and two days later tracked down and shot between 60 and 70 Aboriginal people.
“We know Tom was still at Rainworth then, because he wrote a letter that day to the Colonial Secretary, requesting that another native police detachment be sent out,” Fearon says.
“There were more reprisals in the following weeks, which are not as well documented as the initial ones, and later accounts indicate that some reprisals occurred on the hush.
Fearon says the other significant document is a letter written by Tom’s mother Elizabeth Wills to her other sons, informing them of their father’s death and sharing Tom’s updates from the scene.
One line from Elizabeth sticks out: “Tom and the settlers around have well revenged his death before now.”
“I can only guess she based that comment on something Tom told her,” Fearon says.
“But Tom’s letter no longer exists, as far as I know.”
Writing soon after the Cullin-la-ringo massacre, Queensland Governor George Bowen summed up the settlers’ attitudes: “an uncontrolled desire for revenge took possession of each heart.” Eventually, it would be considered one of the most lethal punitive expeditions in pioneering history.
‘Embedded in the white colonial psyche’
“It was incredibly violent,” Emeritus Professor Lyndall Ryan says, describing the world Tom Wills inhabited in 1860s Central Queensland.
“If you didn’t have a couple of proper shotguns and pistols and heaven knows what, then there was no point in going out there.”
In 2013, Ryan, of the University of Newcastle, and Dr Jonathon Richards, then of the University of Queensland, were awarded an Australian Research Council grant to document frontier violence between 1788 and 1930. The result was an acclaimed map of frontier massacres that has vastly increased awareness of the staggering scale of killing.
“At the moment, there are about 300 sites on the map, and only 12 of those massacres are by Indigenous people,” Ryan says.
“There are quite a few massacres in 1860s Queensland on the map. You can still feel the menace in the landscape up there,” she says.
Ryan says the Wills story brings into stark relief a problem confronted by all historians studying frontier violence: whereas the few massacres carried out by Indigenous people were extensively documented and widely reported in painstaking detail, becoming “embedded in the white colonial psyche”, in some cases it is almost impossible to uncover the telling details of massacres carried out by whites.
Unlike others, she places greater emphasis on Elizabeth Wills’ letter than the Chicago Tribune article.
“I think that letter from the mother, there is no doubt they knew what was going on and what happened,” Ryan says.
Richards notes the disparity of information available with that related to another massacre of whites, at Hornet Bank in 1857.
“With Hornet Bank, there is a whole host of material on the lead-up and the immediate repercussions,” Richards says.
“With Cullin-la-ringo, there is almost nothing. It’s really bizarre. It’s almost as if they said, ‘We’re not going to say anything about what happened before or afterwards’.”
As yet, no historian or academic has tackled a comprehensive investigation of its aftermath, making it impossible to itemise the killings and identify those who carried them out.
To Richards, that neglect presents a microcosm of his profession’s underfunding and neglect.
“Asking why historians haven’t looked at Cullin-la-ringo carefully would have to lead you to a conversation about why we don’t want to know about or resolve Australian history,” he says.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC