[Author’s Warning: Like most such stories, this is a rather grim and grisly tale.] As we know, Aborigines resisted the British invaders in Australia at every step of the way. A road across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, was built under Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1814-1815. This represented a significant expansion of the British colony, and must have been of concern to the Aborigines who had witnessed the destruction of traditional society that had happened closer to the coast.A military depot to regulate traffic on the road was established at Springwood in early 1816, staffed by a corporal and two soldiers. This was around the same time as Macquarie launched a three-pronged military expedition against the Aborigines west and south-west of Sydney, the purpose of which was – as Macquarie put it in his diary – ‘clearing the country of Aborigines entirely, and driving them across the mountains’. In the south-west, the military carried out a massacre of mostly women and children of the Gandangara and Dharawal peoples at Appin on 17 April. In Windsor-Richmond, however, west of Sydney, the Dharug managed to repeatedly evade and outwit the redcoats, and for the rest of the year Macquarie sent mixed groups of armed settlers and troops out from Windsor to ‘scour’ the country and kill any Aborigines they found. Hostilities continued till the end of 1816.
In June 1816, a group of about 40 Aborigines – Dharug, I imagine, or a combination of Dharug and Gandangara – approached the Springwood military depot and watched until two of the soldiers were absent. Then they ‘raided’ the depot (i.e., re-distributed its goods in their favour, in accordance with Aboriginal sharing principles) and killed the one soldier present, presumably when (and because) he put up resistance. They then cut off the soldier’s hands, which they also took with them. According to Barry Corr, this was potent magic, meant to ensure that the soldier in his afterlife would not be able to harm Aboriginal people. (Aborigines had, similarly, cut off a white aggressor’s hand in Appin two years before, in 1814.)
The Aboriginal party then moved off east towards the Nepean River. On the morning after the attack, a vigilante posse of three settlers and two Aboriginal trackers set off after them. The three settlers were Kibble, of Windsor; Tom Coolan, of the Nepean; and Gratten, also of the Nepean. The Aboriginal trackers are unnamed in my source material, but were reputed to delight in killing wild Aborigines. The posse found the Aboriginal camp of the night before, and then tracked the group down McCann’s Ridge (now Rusden Road) towards the Nepean. Here they received information that a group of Aborigines had passed in sight, some wearing red coats, i.e., regimental uniforms. Just about nightfall, they spotted campfires on the mountainside south of Grose River.
The trackers reconnoitred after it got dark. They got close enough to the Aboriginal camp to see two women wearing red coats sitting on a log. Each held one of the dead soldier’s severed hands, chanting over it while they pulled the sinews of the hand together. The trackers returned to the posse and related what they had seen. The posse attacked at daybreak while everybody in the camp was still asleep – the favoured time for a British attack on an Aboriginal camp. A dog in the camp gave the alarm, and one of the Aborigines got up, but was shot down almost immediately. The women and children began screaming, but many were shot before they could rise, others running here and there trying to escape. One of the women climbed a tree with her child in her netbag on her back. Kibble shot her, then took the child and dashed its brains out against a tree near where its mother lay, saying as he did so: ‘Nits would come to lice.’ About half the group (i.e., some 20 people) were slaughtered that morning.
A man called Cooling was speared at Kurryjong Brush later in the same month; this was possibly Coolan, a member of the posse; and the killing a payback for the slaughter recounted here. This story is told in the memoirs of the sportsman and politician Toby Ryan, ‘Reminiscences of Australia’ (1895). It was a story he had been told by his parents, who were living not far away, at Bird’s Eye Corner (now Castlereagh Lakes) at the time – it was probably common knowledge in the area. Some historians reject the story because of some chronological inconsistencies, but Barry Corr gives it credit on his fascinating website www.nangarra.com.au.
Photo: Macquarie’s Party at Springwood, 1815, by the party’s artist JW Lewin. When Macquarie and his party took a trip over Cox’s Road, they named things (including Springwood) as they went.
Editor’s note: Published to honour Australian National Sorry Day, 26 May. This day commemorates the effects of the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities.