The tale of St. Mary’s Towers is incomplete without reference to the first owners of the land which the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and many others have come to consider their home. While the MSC celebrate their presence and ministry here of more than a hundred years, a significantly more ancient spirituality and culture preceeded them at this place of the meeting of the rivers for tens of thousands of years.
The original inhabitants of the Appin, Wilton, Douglas Park area were the Dharawal people. Their country spread from Botany Bay south to the Shoalhaven River and inland to Camden. The Dharawal moved freely throughout the region and shared resources with their near neighbours. Their lands were fertile, with abundant resources. The Dharawal were custodians of this rich country and offered hospitality to people from other nations when their lands were ‘sick’. The traditional protector of the Dharawal people is the Eagle and she watched over them and cared for them.
Historical records describe white encounters with the Dharawal, which began around 1795, as peaceful. Some European settlers had close associations with them. Charles Throsby of Glenfield was accompanied by Dharawal men when he explored the southern highlands area. Throsby was a persistent critic of European treatment of the Aborigines. Hamilton Hume who, in 1814 with his brother John, made the first of a number of long exploratory trips southwards, did so in company with a young Aboriginal friend named Doual. Whereas the “mountain natives” (probably Gandangara) had a reputation of being hostile in defence of their people and their land, the Dharawal were peaceful and had no history of aggression. Unfortunately few settlers could distinguish between the two groups.
As early as 1795 cattle which had strayed from the colony at Farm Cove (Sydney) in 1788 were discovered in the Menangle-Camden area. (Explorer Francis Barrallier had reported 60 cattle near what is now known as Douglas Park in 1802). Governor Hunter visited the Camden area and name it “Cowpastures”. In 1803, Lord Camden, the Colonial Secretary, ordered Governor King to grant John Macarthur more than 5,000 acres for the purpose of breeding merino sheep, giving birth to the Australian wool industry. When Europeans took up land grants, they cleared and fenced the land, irrecoverably changing the patterns of hunting and gathering that had been followed by the Dharawal people for tens of thousands of years.
Europeans admired the people of this area. Lieutenant Collins described how, at a tribal meeting 1824 ‘the men from the Cowpastures were the most remarkable. They were rather short, stocky, strong and superbly built. The painting on their bodies, resembling some kinds of coats of mail, added even more to their martial attitude…’ From archaeology and information given by other tribes of the Cumberland Plain and by their descendants, it is thought that they hunted knagaroos and possums on the grasslands and in the forests. They camped by the rivers to fish and to catch eels and water birds. They harvested seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially yams which grew in big yam beds by the rivers and creeks.
When Governor Macquarie and his wife visited the Cowpastures in 1810, they were welcomed by “two or three small parties of the Cowpastures natives” with”an extraordinary sort of dance”. In 1814, Macquarie issued an order in the Sydney Gazette, admonishing settlers in the Appin and Cowpastures area. “Any person who may be found to have treated them [natives] with inhumanity or cruelty, will be punished?.” Yet within a few short years, orders issued by Macquarie would result in the deaths of many Dharawal people including an atrocity when an Aboriginal woman and her children were murdered at Appin.
Between 1814 and 1816 relations between Aborigines and Europeans in the Appin area became hostile, perhaps exacerbated by a severe drought which further increased pressures on the scarce food supplies. In May, 1814 three members of the militia fired on Aboriginals on two farms at Appin, killing a boy. This led to retaliation by the Aborigines, followed by further violence by whites. Over the next two years hostilities escalated and came to a head in March 1816, when members of the Gundangara attacked settlers, killing some and destroying property. It was in response to these attacks that Macquarie felt compelled to ‘inflict terrible and exemplary punishments’ on the Aborigines.
Macquarie ordered three military detachments to deal with the ‘Natives’ by ‘punishing and clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains’. Captain Schaw was to lead a punitive expedition against the “hostile natives” in the Nepean River region. Lieutenant Charles Dawe was ordered to do the same proceeding to the Cowpastures. Captain John Wallis had similar orders and was to march from Liverpool to the Districts of Airds and Appin. Wallis’s guides were John Warby and two Dharawal men, Budbury and Bundle. Warby had explored the Cowpastures, the Burragorang Valley and Bargo area, establishing a close working relationship with the Dharawal.
All Aborigines encountered by the military were to be made prisoners. In the event of their refusing, they were to be fired up and any “native” men killed were to be hanged on trees in conspicuous parts of the country where they fell. Budbury and Bundle were both unwilling guides, and Warby likewise showed his distaste for the military operation by saying he would take no responsibility for the Dharawal men. The following night Warby “winked at the escape of Bundle and Budbury”. “I was exceedingly annoyed” wrote Captain Wallis.
The next day (April 12) a number of Aborigines came forward unarmed, but the names of two (Yallaman and Battagalie) were found to be on the wanted list. Settlers named Kennedy and Hume quickly reassured Captain Wallis that Yallaman and Battagalie were harmless and innocent. Hume even lied, claiming he had seen the Governor erase their names from the “wanted” list. On April 13 Warby disappeared. Suspicion lingers that he may in fact have set off to warn the Dharawal. Warby reappeared the following day, but was still uncooperative.
Wallis then travelled to William Redfern’s property, chasing rumoured sightings of Aborigines there, only to find that there was no-ne at the property. He spent several days searching the George’s River in Minto and Ingleburn before receiving word that seven outlawed Aborigines were camped at William Broughton’s farm, Lachlan Vale near Appin. He marched his soldiers through the night of April 16th only to find a deserted campsite. Hearing a child’s cry and a barking dog in the bush, Wallis lined up his soldiers to search for the fugitives. In the moonlight they could see figures jumping across the rocky landscape. Some of the Aborigines were shot and others driven off the cliffs into a steep gorge. By the daylight of the 17th of April at least fourteen were killed and the only survivors were two women and three children. Among those killed were the mountain chief Conibigal, an old man Balyin, a Dharawal man called Dunell, along with several women and children. Heads of two of the Aboriginal men were removed and sent overseas. The skulls have recently been repatriated back to Australia.
There is evidence that civilians continued killing Aborigines after the military forces returned to Sydney. How many might have died that night will never be known. Local elders say the number was much higher than reported and that the dead were mainly women, children and the elderly, as the men had separated to protect them.
Five prisoners were taken. One was Hume’s friend, Doual. In August 1816, Macquarie banished Doual to Van Diemen’s Land “in remittance of the death sentence imposed upon him”. Macquarie had started out as a sympathetic friend to the Aborigines. In the end, more than fourteen (including women and children) met violent deaths as a result of his orders.
The massacre annihilated the Dharawal people destroying their way of life and social structure. Their numbers had already been decimated by disease and hostilities since European occupation but after the massacres of 17th April, 1816 it is estimated that there were less than 30 remaining. The site of the massacre near Broughton Pass, over the Cataract River, on the road to Appin (William Broughton’s Farm was on the Appin side of the River) is only about 5 km from St. Mary’s Towers.
Twenty six years had passed when in 1842 Sir Thomas Mitchell laid the foundation stone for his country residence, “Parkhall“. He did however know local aboriginal men, who are recorded as assisting him as guides in some of his expeditions. Mitchell’s country residence “Parkhall” was built on Dharwal land at a place near the meeting of the Nepean and Cataract Rivers. In Allen’s Creek to the south of Parkhall is a Dharawal rock paintintg gallery and several other sacred sites. Present day Dharawal Elders speak of the land in that vicinity as being “sanctuary”, where great inter-tribal meetings were held, sustaining thousands of Aboriginal people from the Eastern coast of Australia, who had come for ceremonial purposes, arranging marriages, and the resolution of inter-tribal disputes.
The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart enjoy good relations with the present day Elders of the Dharwal Nation. May we walk gently on this land and honour the Dharawal people, their ancestors and their culture.