Fatal Collisions is the story of violence on the South Australian frontier and the ways in which it has been remembered in Australian historical accounts. According to the authors this is a story which takes place in that fluid zone where history, memory and myth meet in popular consciousness and its subject is the way in which European accounts of frontier violence have been mythologised over time.
Since its first publication in 2001, several books have been produced discussing the frontier violence but not many went to the trouble of sorting fact from fiction or why many of the stories of the atrocities committed on both sides have been changed or completely forgotten. Each chapter in their book tells a unique story, but collectively they form a narrative sequence. Events examined in early chapters have a bearing upon the way events examined in subsequent ones were played out.
However they make it quite clear that the book is not intended to be a history of violence on the South Australian frontier, but rather an exploration of the ways in which the violence has been remembered. Although there have been numerous ‘collisions’ the authors have only selected, highlighted and analysed six different collisions in detail, which happened at different places in South Australia at different times.
Next they checked the original records such as newspapers, court and police reports and records, diaries, local histories, station records, memoirs, books both fiction and non-fiction and personal reminiscences. Their next job was exploring how memories of these six events have been transformed over time, how they have been mythologised and why.
One of the events they examined was that of James Brown.
In 1849, James Brown, a South Australian pastoralist in the lower south-east, was charged with the shooting deaths of nine Aboriginal people: an old man, five women and three children. Unable to find witnesses, the crown was forced to drop the case even though the magistrate was convinced of his guilt. Brown was released without trial, but few doubted his guilt. According to a local district magistrate, there was ‘little question of the butchery or of the butcher’.
Brown went on to become a wealthy landowner in the district, eventually entering the pantheon of South Australia’s pastoral pioneers. Two generations later, a glowing biography of Brown's life noted merely that he had been involved in a case of poisoning an Aboriginal man, but emerged from the trial with a clean slate. Why had the story changed so much: form shooting to poisoning, from nine victims to one, from evading trial to being found innocent?
Other collisions examined are the Maria massacre of 1840 when all surviving passengers of that ship were killed by local Aborigines. It became the largest murder of Europeans by Indigenous people in Australian colonial history. A year later many more Aborigines were killed, this time along the Murray and Rufus rivers. The Elliston murders, which began in 1848, resulted in the deaths of a large number of Aboriginal men, women and children. Last but not least the authors analysed the collisions in the Flinders Ranges and the far north-east.
Each of the chapters traces the way in which a specific event has been transmitted in, and transformed by, the folk-memory of the South Australian community. According to the authors, it was the emerging pioneer legend during the 1880s and 1890s which accounted for most of it. Although there were other forces at work, the pioneer legend played a fundamental role in shaping the way in which Aboriginal people were portrayed.
The pioneer legend was about subduing the land and battling the elements. It celebrated courage, enterprise, hard work and perseverance. Aboriginal people didn’t get much of a mention. Anthropologist WEH Stanner was one of the first to point out their almost total exclusion from national histories. It was the pioneer who became the focal point for the nationalist nostalgia. Any violence towards Aborigines was forgotten, watered down or just omitted from the story.
By the 1960s Stanner challenged Australians to break the ‘great Australian silence’ and many have taken up the challenge. The silence has been well and truly broken – to the discomfort of many. The on-going re-evaluation of the past has revealed many things that generations of white Australians were largely ignorant of. Few Australians know about the discriminatory laws that denied Aboriginal people their basic human rights, the policies that saw children being removed from their families, the exploitation of Aboriginal workers in the pastoral and other industries and, perhaps most important of all, the myth of terra nullius.
This reassessment of the past has had a profound effect not only on the politics of the nation, but on the way we see ourselves as a nation. Sadly not everyone agrees, some will call it black arm-band history, or giving in to political correctness. Others bluntly deny that any kind of violence occurred. The timely reprint of this ‘great little book’ may go a long way towards reconciling the different points of view.