As a postgraduate student in the 1990s I researched white women’s experiences of the North Queensland colonial frontier. Personal accounts of travel in the region written by women were few, but there is one passage of a diary kept by twenty-two-year-old Caroline Creaghe that I can still remember by heart. Creaghe, who travelled in northwest Queensland with her husband as part of a bigger expedition party in 1883, was staying at Lilydale station near Lawn Hill, enjoying some home comforts and conversations with the women who lived there. Her description of their reports of the interior design at a station roughly sixty kilometres distant is permanently imprinted on my memory: ‘Mr Watson has forty pairs of blacks’ ears nailed round the walls collected during raiding parties after the loss of many cattle speared by the blacks’. I read many accounts of frontier violence through the course of my research, but this sentence remains, for me, the most powerful symbol of the cruelty and complicity of white settlers who occupied Queensland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even if there was some tut-tutting associated with the telling of the tale, the implicit message was that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen. All white men and women knew this, but they rarely spoke of it.
When I opened my copy of Timothy Bottoms’ Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times, I went straight to the (detailed) index to find Creaghe’s name, and discovered that my memory hadn’t failed me (161). There was the reference to Mr Watson; one of the many examples of the settler brutality in Queensland that Bottoms has gathered together to provide ‘a roadmap back into what seems, from a modern perspective, to be a barely conceivable past’ (xix). Building on the work of Raymond Evans (who provides a foreword), Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, Bottoms combines detailed archival research with the oral lore of traditional landowners to remind us that, even after a generation of revisionist colonial history, there are still many crimes that were committed during these killing times that remain unacknowledged or, perhaps even worse, disputed and denied. ‘No Australian today is responsible for what happened on our colonial frontier’, he says. ‘But we are responsible for not acknowledging what happened. If we do not, our integrity as a nation is flawed and we are shamed as a people for perpetuating a lie’ (207). In a meticulously researched and referenced book, Bottoms makes sure that anyone who reads it is left in no doubt as to what happened in Australia barely 120 years ago.
In one respect Conspiracy of Silence is a recap of old evidence reproduced for a new decade. Stories of the massacres at Hornet Bank, Long Lagoon, and Blackfellow Creek on the Hodgkinson Goldfields, of mass drownings, burnings and poisonings at numerous places, are chillingly familiar to anyone who has worked, literally and figuratively, in the area. But even those familiar with the documentary evidence of the systematic violence that accompanied white settlement in Queensland will find something new in Bottoms’ approach. Bottoms received help from traditional landowners around the state and skilfully incorporates their knowledge of the past into the known documentary narrative. Mrs Alma Wason, an Okunjen elder of Kowanyama on the Gulf of Carpentaria, notes that today, ‘there are big gaps in the genealogies of the clans of the top end groups … as well as neighbouring clans … whose territory it was the Jardines trespassed upon’ (104). The Jardine brothers were well known for ‘shooting their way through’ on their way to Cape York, with Frank Jardine marking his sharp-shooting with notches on his rifle stock. Even without the visible evidence of the notches, the Okunjen have their own stories that tell the truth of how the Jardines ‘civilised the north’. Our understanding is enhanced through their inclusion.
Particularly impressive is the way Bottoms has mapped what he has collected, making visual the extent of the violence he has uncovered and described. In a collection of illustrations, ‘Some Massacres on the Queensland Frontier’, he offers a comprehensive set of ‘massacre maps’, aimed to confront the reader in the event that mere text won’t work. If anecdotes out on the edge of the frontier are easy to ignore, the total picture Bottoms provides through this graphic visualisation is an entirely different matter.
Bottoms does not hold an academic post and he received no significant funding to complete this book. It was a labour of life, an important landmark in a journey of personal enlightenment through experience and study, which amply demonstrates the quality of the work being done in this country by professional historians on a mission. For the sake of honesty and reconciliation, observes Bottoms, ‘the awful truth’ has to be acknowledged, not only because history demands it but because there are ramifications of relevance for contemporary Australia. ‘Greed and frustration in the effort to make profits is part of the reason for the callous disregard for the humanity of indigenous Queenslanders’, he says. ‘It is still a component motivator today, but without the killing and the violence’ (xxv). Conspiracy of Silence reminds us that local events that took place a century ago have the power to resonate nationally well into the twenty-first century.
University of Melbourne
© 2014, Nikki Henningham