Massacre of Truth at Forrest River

Bookmark and Share | Ron Brunton
Courier Mail 16th October, 1999

Horrific murders create two sets of surviving victims. The most obvious are the grieving families of those who have been killed. But the families of the perpetrators also suffer, carrying the burden of their loved one's villainy for as long as people remember the crime.

Their plight tends to attract expressions of sympathy, but little genuine concern, particularly if they attempt to deny their relative's guilt. It usually requires courage to take up their cause.

Five years ago, Perth journalist Rod Moran wrote a lengthy article for The West Australian arguing that the 1926 Forrest River massacre of Aborigines in the Kimberley was simply a myth, despite its widespread portrayal as one Australia's worst crimes this century.

The family of the late Constable James St Jack, who was supposedly a major participant in the murders, felt vindicated. They have long believed that St Jack was maliciously accused of an outrage that never actually occurred.

Understandably, Kimberley Aborigines, whose forebears died in the disputed massacre, were deeply offended, saying that Moran was 'stealing their history'. Their sentiments were shared by many other people, both black and white.

Unfazed by this anger, Moran continued his researches, and he has just published a book, Massacre Myth. Though not an engrossing read, this sets out his arguments in painstaking and seemingly compelling detail. He dissects the testimony presented to the Royal Commission set up in 1927 to investigate the murders, focusing on the inconsistencies and other weaknesses in the evidence.

Moran maintains that the massacre stories involved a fantastic distortion of much less egregious events---the slight wounding of a man during a raid on an Aboriginal camp, and Constable St Jack's shooting of the camp occupants' dogs.

More sensationally, Moran maintains that the rumours that grew out of these incidents were promoted and embellished by Reverend Ernest Gribble, the head of the Forrest River Mission, as part of a devious plan to protect himself by discrediting Constable St Jack. Moran suggests that Gribble learnt the constable had obtained information that the reverend and his son were supposedly engaged in serious hanky-panky with Aboriginal women.

The purported evidence comes from St Jack and his family, and includes reference to a long-destroyed personal diary, combined with some fanciful interpretations of scraps of other material. The slender grounds on which this allegation is based makes it hard to accept that Moran is the rigorous and sceptical researcher he would have us believe.

The most comprehensive account of the killings has been presented by the Western Australian historian Dr Neville Green, in his 1995 book The Forrest River Massacres. Having worked with Green on another project, I have some confidence in his judgement and his respect for the facts.

The Forrest River Massacres makes no attempt to disguise the problems involved in uncovering the truth about the murders. Nor does Green shy away from revealing the extent of Reverend Gribble's many personal faults, which eventually led to his removal from the mission.

But unlike Moran, Green describes the massacre in the full context of four decades of bitter race relations in the Kimberley. Very few people felt impelled to seek justice for Aborigines who had suffered violence, particularly if the interests of respected local identities were threatened.

Green has no doubts that Aborigines were murdered by a police expedition led by Constable St Jack and Constable Dennis Regan. The party of fourteen, comprising Aboriginal assistants as well as whites, were trying to capture an Aborigine named Lumbia for the killing of a station owner who had raped his wife.

Although Lumbia himself was eventually found and brought in for trial, many innocent Aboriginal men, women and children were killed along the way, and their bodies were incinerated in an attempt to hide the evidence.

No-one knows the precise number. The Royal Commission concluded that at least eleven Aborigines were killed at three separate locations. Police Inspector William Douglas, who had been sent to investigate Gribble's allegations before the Royal Commission was established, reported that sixteen Aborigines were killed.

Reverend Gribble thought that the number was at least thirty. And in 1968 Charles Overheu, the brother of one of the participants in the massacre, told Neville Green that as many as three hundred Aborigines lost their lives, although Green believes this figure is far too high.

Commissioner Wood recommended that charges of murder be laid against Constable St Jack and Constable Regan. In May 1927, the two were arrested for the murder of just a single Aborigine, a man named Boondung. Fearing that public sympathy for the two constables in the Kimberley would preclude a fair trial, the committal hearing was held in Perth.

But, as the Royal Commissioner himself had been forced to admit, all the evidence for the massacre was circumstantial. It had not been possible to identify a single body of those who had been killed; and neither was it possible to state that any particular individual had been responsible for the deaths.

Worse, at the committal hearing even Gribble could not state for certain that Boondung was dead. And the Government bacteriologist, who had examined the burnt and fractured skeletal remains collected at the massacre sites, testified that he did not think they were from humans. Green suggests that the material had been tampered with, because others who had examined it beforehand were convinced that it contained human remains.

The presiding magistrate dismissed the case against the two constables, who were quickly reinstated into the police force. Gribble, whose determination had been almost solely responsible for bringing the case to public attention, was largely discredited.

Gribble was clearly an extremely self-righteous, autocratic and intolerant man, which made it so easy for many to dismiss everything he said. But sometimes it requires a real ratbag to point us down the path towards truth. It would be most unfortunate if Rod Moran's writings lead people to believe that the Forrest River massacre is just another fabrication perpetuated by the Aboriginal industry.