The Woolgar Massacre

By Lynley Wallis

Historians such as Noel Loos, Henry Reynolds, Ray Evans and Timothy Bottoms (amongst others) have demonstrated convincingly that there was substantial conflict on the colonial Queensland frontier. One such instance was a series of killings that occurred on the Woolgar goldfield in 1881, following the death of Sub-Inspector Henry Kaye of the Native Mounted Police. This blog post explores what led up to the death of Kaye, and what happened in the days following his killing.

Various exploration expeditions – including those looking for Burke and Wills – traveled through northwest Queensland in 1861-62. Their reports of rich grazing land resulted in the Burke Pastoral District being officially opened for settlement in 1864; pastoral stations were immediately established thereafter at places like Richmond and Hughenden along the Flinders River. The discovery of gold in the north of the state during the 1870s and 80s brought with it a greater demand and market for pastoral products and the level of pastoral activity intensified. Gold was first reported from the Woolgar Goldfield (on the upper reaches of the the Woolgar River, just north of the small town of Richmond on the main highway halfway between the modern towns of Townsville and Mt Isa) during 1879, and in the following months a rush occurred.

Relationships between the first permanent pastoralists (post-1864) and Aboriginal people in this part of northwest Qld appear to have started off on a reasonable note. One of the few primary sources we have from this period are the diaries of Lucy Gray, the wife of pastoralist Robert Gray who took up Hughenden Station. She noted that initially the Aborigines on their run were quite shy and were rarely seen, but within a year or so had

… begun to be very troublesome, spearing the cattle and driving them away (Gray 1965:25) .

In a similar vein, on 28 August 1881, pastoralist Pierce Smith wrote to the NMP requesting the removal of Aborigines from his station, Savannah Downs:

I beg to inform you that the blacks are very numerous and hostile here and as my life and that of my men are in danger I beg you will kindly at once come and patrol the run. They are constantly spearing my cattle and if something is not done to disperse these large mobs I shall be compelled to give up the country as it is utterly impossible to live with such a mob of blacks constantly annoying me.

Smith’s request was responded to by Sub-Inspector Henry Kaye from the barracks at Cloncurry, with a detachment of probably 8 Aboriginal troopers (QSA A/38864 ). Kaye, his troopers and Smith departed Savannah Downs a few days later and over the following 12 days tracked a group of Aborigines about 150 km east to the Woolgar goldfield diggings. They arrived there on the same day (12 September 1881) as Sub-Inspector William Nichols, another NMP officer who had coincidentally come down from Oaks Park to patrol the Woolgar, and who had with him a second detachment of troopers.

Woolgar petition
A copy of the Woolgar petition.

The day after the two NMP contingents arrived at the Woolgar a number of residents presented a signed petition to them. The petition read:

We, the undersigned miners, and other residents of Woolgar Goldfield, beg to draw to your attention the fact that there are a large number of Aborigines camped here at present. They already have been guilty of stealing from camps, and we feel that if they are not checked they will do worse. We shall be much obliged to you if you will cause them to leave this locality.

An undated image of miners from the Woolgar goldfield.
An undated image of miners from the Woolgar goldfield.

The following day (14 September 1881), SI Kaye, SI Nichols, Smith and one lone trooper (out of the approximately 14-16 who were on the goldfield) headed out to do what had been requested of them. They had apparently rounded up a small group of people and were marching them back to camp when one of the men turned and fatally speared Kaye. According to oral histories, it was not a local person responsible for the spearing, but rather a Kalkadoon man – a group who were well known for being actively resistant to white settlement – who had come to the area on a trading visit (Frank Crapp pers. comm.).

Henry Kaye’s headstone, sent out from England by his grieving mother. This grave marker is not located at the actual site where Kaye was buried.
Henry Kaye’s headstone, sent out from England by his grieving mother. This grave marker is not located at the actual site where Kaye was buried.

SI Kaye was one of only a handful of white officers killed in the line of duty in QLD. A short time after his death an official inquest was held, at which SI Nichols and Smith both gave evidence, meaning we have a surprisingly good – and interestingly, quite seamless – account of the events leading up to his death. The Aboriginal trooper who was present did not give evidence (though in other inquest cases troopers had been requested to give their version of events). Shortly after the inquest an item appeared in the Townsville Bulletin, reporting the death with a dark overtone, stating:

A good many darkies will bite the dust within the next few weeks in consequence.

The question of interest is, what did actually happen after Kaye’s death?

In what is claimed to be an “authentic and true” account by JA Holmes (a friend of Kaye’s who came out to Brisbane with him on the Flying Cloud) published in the 19 October 1881 of the Brisbane Courier:

… I believe Mr Kaye’s troopers were dreadfully distressed and what they did – or what people say they did – is a matter I am not able to write about.

According to his testimony at Kaye’s inquest, after seeing SI Kaye’s body, SI Nichols:

… took charge of Mr Kaye’s troopers, horses, etc and proceeded searching the neighbouring hills for the murderers … I remained in the Woolgar neighbourhood 4 days after this, tracking and looking for blacks, confining my collisions with them strictly to the mob who were concerned in the murder.

This is a somewhat troubling account, given that only one man had been responsible for spearing Kaye, yet SI Nichols apparently had multiple ‘collisions’ with a ‘mob’ of people.


4 thoughts on “The Woolgar Massacre

    1. Hi Elliott
      Unfortunately this is entirely unknown, as the NMP explicitly did not keep records of their kills (as they could face dire repercussions if it become known publicly). Given research undertaken in relation to Native Title in the region, in which very few apical ancestors have been identified (and with a large majority of people today being descended from a single survivor of the massacres), it is likely to have been very considerable, but likely in small batches, as people fled and dispersed ahead of the NMP coming after them (as opposed to the NMP launching a sneak attack on a large camp).
      Kind regards Lynley

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