Michael Connor: The Australian Massacre that Wasn't

Roundup: Talking About History

OUTSIDE Portland in Victoria is a place named Convincing Ground. No one knows the reason for the name but recently it gained a reputation as the bloodiest massacre site in Australian history, a conflict with whalers in which, according to The Age and the National Trust, between 60 and 200 Aborigines died.

This version of what would be a textbook massacre was created by selectively reading a few bits of paper. The good news is that it probably never happened. Let's review the facts.

One day in 1835, Portland pioneer Edward Henty walked along the beach to Convincing Ground. The entry in his diary is the first recorded use of the placename.

In 1836 explorer Thomas Mitchell visited Portland. He was told that Aborigines and whalers were sharing the carcasses of beached whales. Only some of the head material was taken by the whalers because removal of the rest was "too tedious".

The remainder was left for the Aborigines, who had come to reason that by lighting signal fires to alert the whalers when whales entered Portland Bay, they increased the possibility of more animals being driven ashore. Mitchell praised this as "an instance of the sagacity of the natives".

So how did this co-operation end in a massacre? The only documentary evidence for the massacre story comes from several journal entries by George Robinson, the colony's chief protector of the Aborigines. In 1841, Robinson visited Portland. At dinner Henty told a story which, Robinson thought, had happened two or three years before. Henty did so to show the "badness" of the natives. Given the co-operation Mitchell described, a violent breakdown of the co-operation may have been the point of his story.

According to the story, a captured whale broke free and grounded. Going after it, the whalers were attacked and driven off by Aborigines. Angered, they returned to their base for guns. When they returned they were again attacked: "And the whalers then let fly, to use [Henty's] expression, right and left upon the natives. He said the natives went behind trees and threw spears and stones. They, however, did not much molest them after that." Henty's words, recalled by Robinson, were vague as to the outcome of the fight and did not mention where it happened.

Also present were two men who gave Robinson conflicting suggestions for how Convincing Ground had been named. One said it came "from some transactions with the natives of the kind mentioned". This source had been in Portland less than a year, and wasn't saying this specific incident was behind the placename. The other man, also a newcomer, suggested that "when the whites had any disputes, they went on shore and there settled it by fighting".

Robinson, and the historians, chose the more violent of the two explanations. The next day in his journal he added inventive detail and interpretation to Henty's story. Meeting local Aborigines, he named two male adolescents whom, he said, were the only remaining members of the group that had lived in the country around Convincing Ground. He didn't question them about the fight. The details of Aboriginal life he was collecting at this time were obtained through an interpreter: "He was not the best interpreter but was the best I had."...

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