Australia’s venerable and widely read Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on Friday apologized for articles published in 1838 that defended colonists accused of murdering dozens of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants.
The apology concerned SMH coverage of the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838. A local landowner named John Henry Fleming assembled a posse and kidnapped a group of Aboriginals peaceably camped near the station, believing his actions were justifiable vengeance for acts of Aboriginal violence against colonists.
Today and in tomorrow's newspaper the @smh formally apologises for its coverage of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre, in which at least 28 Indigenous people were murdered, and the subsequent trials of their killers https://t.co/vxBRD7eiSs
— Michael Koziol (@michaelkoziol) June 9, 2023
At least 28 men, women, and children were herded into the brush by Felming’s party and killed. Their bodies were dismembered, heaped into a gruesome pile, and partially burned. Captors reportedly raped at least one of the Aboriginal women.
The Myall Creek massacre, with its pile of mutilated corpses, was unbearably horrific. Word quickly spread and reached the governor of New South Wales, who ordered an investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators. As the SMH put it, a string of people proceeded to “do the right thing” and actually carried out this investigation instead of letting the vigilantes slide.
Eleven men were arrested and stood trial, only to be acquitted by a jury of local landowners. Remarkably, New South Wales Attorney-General Hubert Plunkett persisted with a second trial, outraging many colonial citizens, and this time seven men were convicted and hanged.
The SMH described the Myall Creek Massacre as part of what today’s international courts might prosecute as “ethnic cleansing,” and Plunkett’s prosecutions as “the earliest quasi-war-crimes trials in Australian history.”
“This was not the first massacre in the so-called Frontier Wars and it would not be the last; the indiscriminate killing of First Nations people would continue for nearly a century after Myall Creek. But the events of 1838 can only be retold in detail today because the massacre was the first – and only – time in Australia when colonists were arrested, charged and prosecuted for the mass killing of Aboriginal people,” the SMH wrote.
The Australian paper proceeded to apologize for how it covered the massacre and trials at the time:
In several editorials published before, during and after two Sydney trials in late 1838 relating to the massacre, the Herald essentially campaigned for the 11 accused mass murderers to escape prosecution. It also opposed the death sentence eventually handed to seven of the men. This was not due to a lack of evidence or genuine doubts over the integrity of any legal process, but because the perpetrators were white and the dead black. In one editorial published ahead of the trials and amid a public debate about legal protections for Aboriginal people, the Herald proclaimed: “The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly documents on which we have already wasted too much time.” The same editorial said the colony did not want “savages” to exist. “We have far too many of the murderous wretches about us already,” the editorial declared. In another piece, the Herald encouraged readers to shoot and kill Aboriginal people if they ever felt threatened. The combined effect of the editorial approach helped support the proposition colonists should be entitled to impunity for violence against Aboriginal people.
The lengthy mea culpa included mention that the SMH’s owner in 1838, Alfred Ward Stephens, helped to finance the legal defense of the eleven accused men, and suggested the SMH itself was either “mislead” or “knowingly put forward a fabrication” when it challenged some of the evidence in the case.
The SMH battered itself for being “out of step” with other papers of the day, which were much more critical of the Myall Creek Massacre and more supportive of putting the perpetrators on trial. For this reason, the SMH gave itself no quarter for merely following the tide of public and media opinion in 1838.
The contrite editorial concluded with an explanation of why the time was right for confession and repentance:
As Australia prepares for a referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians later this year, the nation is thinking deeply about what reconciliation looks like in 2023. So too is the Herald. We agree truth is an essential force for reconciliation, and on the 185th anniversary of the Myall Creek massacre offer an apology for our coverage of the slaughter and two subsequent trials.
[…] Some may question the need to apologise for history. We acknowledge that today’s generation is not responsible for the sins of earlier ones, yet we can help heal old harms nonetheless. We also respectfully argue that the capacity to recognise a past wrong is a sign of a strong future.
The referendum in question is tentatively scheduled for sometime in the last three months of 2023. It would recognize the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution, which currently does not mention them, and establish a parliamentary consulting committee devoted to their issues.
“We urgently need better outcomes because it’s not good enough where we’re at in 2023. On every measure, there is a gap between the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the national average,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in March when outlining the referendum.
Albanese detailed “a ten-year gap in life expectancy, a suicide rate twice as high, tragic levels of child mortality and disease, a massive overrepresentation in the prison population and deaths in custody, in children sent to out-of-home care.”
“This is not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics and it’s not because of a lack of funds. It’s because governments have spent decades trying to impose solutions from Canberra rather than consulting with communities,” he contended.
Australian constitutional referendums fail far more frequently than they succeed, and while this one reportedly has majority support from the public, it also has strong opponents who feel the constitutional changes are poorly detailed, or worry that the referendum will prove divisive.
Among those opponents are several Indigenous leaders, who have mounted a campaign against the referendum called “Australians for Unity.” Although most Indigenous Australians say they would vote in favor of the referendum, opponents fear it would be a distraction from the real issues facing their communities and could alienate their fellow Australians for no good reason.