I’m sometimes asked about research that didn’t end up in my biography of Georgiana Molloy. There’s still a lot to be shared and I’m working on that now but, meanwhile, I try to answer questions with whatever information I have that might be useful for others. I’ve been asked a few times in the last decade about references to John Molloy being responsible for a massacre of Aboriginal men near Wonnerup WA on August 27, 1841. Someone asked me the same question again this week. Perhaps it’s time to share what my own investigations came up with.
History keeps turning up surprises and I don’t imagine for a moment that I’m right about everything so far. I expect future researchers to fill holes in my research when new evidence surfaces and someone, one day, will correct my errors. I learned way back that something isn’t necessarily true because it’s stated in a biography, reported in a newspaper, quoted in an academic paper, related through an oral history or mentioned on a website, not even if the same ‘fact’ is referenced in many different texts. I read for years that Georgiana was born at Crosby Lodge and married in Roseneath church. Neither is true and either could have been corrected at any time since 1805 simply by looking in the local newspapers of the time. As information of general interest that may not be important but it’s an example of the way that apparent truths can become so embedded that no-one bothers to investigate their validity even when alternative evidence is available. It’s important to be as sure as possible about the sources of supporting evidence when stating that someone ‘led an extensive massacre’ and ‘gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men.’
References to such an event at Lake Minimup (Minimup/Mingimup)[i] and Molloy’s apparent role in it, are numerous and appeared in my own searches. The WA Department of Education website includes a reference in its historical timeline: ‘a group of soldiers under the command of Captain Molloy was dispatched to stamp out Aboriginal insurrection, killing a large number of Noongar men at Minninup Lake south of Bunbury’.
When I looked up the documents, the same text extract appeared in most of them ([John Molloy] ‘gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men’) and it became evident they were from the same, single source. Here’s the original text that’s been so widely quoted. It’s from Warren Bert Kimberly’s History of West Australia. [ii]
The white men throughout Wonnerup, Capel, Vasse, and Blackwood banded together to take a dire revenge. They would no longer quietly bear these terrible murders after the liberal treatment extended towards the black men. Colonel (captain) Molloy ordered his soldiers to prepare to march, and he took command of them and the chief settlers in the south-western districts. He gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men. A strong and final lesson must be taught the blacks. All were well armed.
Kimberly describes how the party went ‘into the remote places, bent on killing without mercy’ and describes how they shot Aboriginal men they came across ‘during the first few days’ then pursued others ‘from district to district, from hill to hill’ until at last they ‘traced the terrified fugitives’ to a sand patch beyond Lake Minimup where they surrounded them. He states that,’ the settlers and soldiers were not satisfied’ and ‘redoubled their energy, determined to wreak vengeance’ for the murder of George Layman which had taken place in February the same year. His account concludes: ‘Native after native was shot, and the survivors, knowing that orders had been given not to shoot the women, crouched on their knees, covered their bodies with their bokas, and cried, “Me yokah” (woman). The white men had no mercy. The black men were killed by dozens, and their corpses lined the route of march of the avengers. Then the latter went back satisfied.’ Kimberly recounts these events and observations but does not cite his sources. From my further reading to date, it seems likely that his source was the account of an Aboriginal man who was told the story himself when he was a child.
Private texts such as diaries and letters, and military communications, indicate that the soldiers stationed and available in the area would have numbered four or five, including one sergeant and an ensign.
In February 1841, (Pp 268-269 in the Picador edition of my book) Molloy had been with the party who went in search of the suspect of the George Layman murder, immediately after it took place and over the following days, when at least one Aboriginal man was killed while running away. As Government Resident, he would have been responsible for the soldiers present. The other men in the group were civilians, neighbours of Layman at the Vasse. Molloy also instigated the capture of three other men in March by persuading them to go on board a whaleboat, an unorthodox means of capturing a suspect, for which he was reprimanded. Since the man alleged to have speared Layman was dead and the remaining wanted men were already in captivity in August, the first thing I did when I came across so many references to a ‘revenge’ massacre by soldiers and settlers in August (six months after Layman’s death) was to find out Molloy’s whereabouts at the time. I also searched for any original sources for that very specific date of 27 August 1841, cited in so many texts. To be reported word for word, the order must have been heard by an Aboriginal man who survived being close enough to Molloy to overhear him giving the ‘special instructions’ to the soldiers, and then escaped.
I found that Molloy was in Perth, very publicly, at the time he was said to have been leading troops through the bush and ordering the shooting of all Aboriginal men they came across.
I also read that the Minimup Pool has been a registered site of Aboriginal significance, a particularly important spiritual location because it is where the Ngarngungudditj Walgu rests and where family members go when a relative dies and still a place where Noongar people go to show respect to those who have gone before. (Site ID 15330). The remains of female skulls were found nearby at Wonnerup and Antonia Hasluck mentions this as indicating a battle between Aboriginal women using their ‘wonna’ (digging sticks) and not a massacre. [iii] She also refers to J S Battye’s Western Australia, a history from its discovery to the inauguration of the commonwealth OUP 1924 (Chapter 6) where he writes:
Colour is lent to the story by the fact that there is a sandpatch near Minnimup where skulls and bones are still to be seen, and near which even present-day natives will not go. No records of the encounter exist and it is more likely that it has been built up to account for the collection of bones which in all probability represents an Aboriginal burial-ground, which would be ‘wintych’ or sacred to the boolyas or spirits of the departed, and therefore to be avoided at all times.
Some letters to Perth newspapers over the years that followed criticised Dr Battye for ‘besmirching’ Molloy’s reputation with the mention of his role in a massacre at Lake Minimup yet the above quotation indicates Battye’s suggestion that it did not take place as described. Some of the letters seem to confuse the incident said to have taken place in August and the previous dates six months earlier when Molloy is indeed documented as having been present.
I noticed an exact repetition of the same source text on multiple websites, evidenced by the same idiosyncratic punctuation and spelling: ‘an extensive massacre at Lake Minimup in Western Australia, lead by Captain John Molloy’. I was also interested in the way that texts quoted had been edited slightly but with very significant change in effect or meaning. For example, the words used on some websites (including the relevant Wikipedia entry) ‘their corpses lined the route march of the avengers’ have been changed to, ‘The bodies were lined up as a warning to others’ on another website.
Let’s be clear. I’m not writing this to argue that such a massacre of the local indigenous people did not take place in August 1841. Nor do I set out to claim that John Molloy wasn’t involved in any way. His presence is widely documented in biographies, official documents, newspapers, letters and diaries, all in the public domain. Researchers have been studying them for decades, piecing together the combined evidence for what happened in those tragic and shocking days in 1841. First hand reports (both oral histories and written records) vary in their details, particularly in the numbers of Aboriginal men who were killed by soldiers and settlers on the dates in question. The very large group of settlers indicated by Kimberly’s description, ‘the white men throughout Wonnerup, Capel, Vasse, and Blackwood banded together’ differs from other descriptions and lists of those involved, a far smaller group. The Vasse region and the area around Lake Minimup is very flat, marshy and semi-tidal country so perhaps Kimberly’s account of the settlers pursuing people ‘from hill to hill’ did not come from an oral history he was given but from his own imagination of the scene.
I have no personal motivation in proving anything. In the continuing effort to identify what historical evidence exists (once the original sources of all references have been identified) I simply offer the results of my own efforts so far. I look forward to finding out more from others who are able to continue investigations, particularly in locating any new sources to add to the oral history of an individual for that date, 27 August 1841, and any evidence that John Molloy was not in Perth, including taking part as a pall bearer at a military funeral, when the settlers were said to have been pursuing their victims in the region between Vasse and Port Leschenault.
[i] English othography for this Aboriginal place name uses a range of phonetic spellings for the same word.
[ii] F.W. Niven & Co. Melbourne and Ballarat, 1897
[iii] Alexandra Hasluck, Georgiana Molloy: Portrait with Background OUP 1955 Appendix F p329