William Nichols, the NMP and the Murder of Aboriginal People at Irvinebank in 1884

By Lynley Wallis

In an earlier blog post I wrote about the challenges of finding contemporary physical evidence of deaths from the colonial frontier, and why such efforts are often akin to looking for a needle in a haystack (cf. Litster and Wallis 2011). Despite this, there are some rare instances where the specific location of a massacre is known and therefore some evidence is likely to exist; one such place is Irvinebank. This is the site where four Aboriginal people (1) were murdered by a detachment of troopers from the Native Mounted Police (NMP) on 18 October 1884. This event is particularly unusual for three reasons:

  • it is one of the few instances that was relatively thoroughly investigated at the time, mostly due to agitation by local mining magnate John Moffat;
  • it is the only known instance where Aboriginal troopers of the NMP were charged for such a killing; and,
  • There is an historic map pinpointing the massacre location, from which some archaeological evidence was recovered in 1996.

In this post I review the Irvinebank massacre, drawing heavily on the excellent work of historian Geoff Genever in his hard-to-find publication “Failure of Justice: The Story of the Irvinebank Massacre”.

Background

Irvinebank is a small town on the Atherton Tablelands, about 125 km southwest from Cairns, in the traditional lands of the Bar Barrum people.

An NMP camp had already been established in the broader region in 1878 at Baan Bero (also known as the Barron River camp), approximately 65 km to the north of Irvinebank. The Baan Bero camp was under the command of Sub-Inspector Ernest Carr, supported by a newly appointed cadet named Roland Garraway, and troopers Willie, Jimmy and Charlie.

Tin was first found at Irvinebank in 1880. Irvinebank is part of the larger Herberton region tin fields and, like other mineral finds, the discovery led to an influx of hundreds of miners (and associated persons such as shopkeepers, butchers, hoteliers etc) to the region, straining local resources. As elsewhere, the competing interests over land resulted in conflict with the Bar Barrum people. Subsequently, on 3 April 1882, in response to the killing of a European man named John Skene, 217 local residents of the Herberton District petitioned Qld Premier Thomas McIlwraith for the NMP to patrol the region and establish a permanent base nearby (2).

An NMP camp was thus established at “Nigger Creek” (3) (about 25 km east of Irvinebank) later in 1882 under the charge of Sub-Inspector William Austin Nichol (4), whose detachment included Troopers Carlo, Larry (aka Joe), Pituri, and Sandy, and Corporal Sambo. Also present in this camp was John Stewart, an Irishman who had joined the NMP in 1880, previously serving as the Oak Park camp keeper with Nichols before being transferred to Nigger Creek in the same role. It is worth noting here that Nichols and Stewart had worked together for four years, and presumably had at least a close professional relationship by the time of the Irvinebank massacre (5).

The detachment operating out of the Nigger Creek camp was kept particularly busy through the year, with Nichols writing to District Inspector John Isley at the end of 1882 complaining that “During the last three months I have had particularly heavy duty to perform having been continually in the saddle without hardly a days respite”, and requesting three months’ leave of absence; it is not clear from the records whether his request was granted or not.

The Killings of King Billy, Kitty, Another Unnamed Woman and Child

The lead up to the Irvinebank massacre in 1884 is somewhat complex, as perhaps many such killings were, and involves all of the NMP personnel mentioned above, as well as a cast of others. For the sake of simplicity, I restrict the telling below to the key dates, people and actions. In this regard, a key figure, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Irvinebank”, was local mining magnate John Moffat. Moffat was said to have favoured fair treatment of Aboriginal people, an opinion that seems borne out by his pivotal role in the investigation of the Irvinebank massacre.

On 17 October 1884, Sub-Inspector William Nichols and his detachment of troopers from Nigger Creek were seen in the Irvinebank township, as was Cadet Roland Garraway and his troopers from Baan Bero. Garraway had been visiting Nigger Creek from Baan Bero and, on the request of Nichols, had remained to assist with a patrol.

On 18 October 1884 the troopers weren’t seen around the township, but Nichols and Garraway were both seen by locals. Around 5 pm that night witness Alexander Leoni saw “four or five black troopers walking in the road about a mile from town, and no white man with them … met the four or five troopers on foot; they all had rifles, and were dressed in caps and shirts, but had no trousers on”, then later the same evening, he and other witnesses, heard a series of gunshots (Brisbane Courier, 12 December 1884, p5). That night Trooper Charlie was seen bringing a group of saddled horses into camp.

The following day, Sunday 19 October, John Moffat, Peter Moffat (John’s cousin), and local residents George Seaman, Antony Linedale and Charles Dineen (and potentially many others who were not called to give evidence at the inquiry) were led to a nearby Aboriginal camp by a local Aboriginal man named Alecky, who sometimes worked at the Bethel’s Mining Exchange Hotel. Alecky had told Moffat that on the previous night he had taken the troopers to the camp, where the troopers had killed four Aboriginal people: a man known as King Billy, a woman known as Kitty, another unnamed woman and a small child. Alecky himself had taken to his heels when the killing started, which he said had occurred while the victims were sleeping.

Moffat insisted on Alecky taking him to the scene, where the group saw:

… the remains of two gins, a piccaninny, and a blackfellow … the bodies were all partially burnt; one gin was totally unrecognisable; the remains appeared to have been drawn together, some logs and bushes piled on them and set fire to; noticed bullet marks on two or three trees in the vicinity; out of one of the trees took the bullet produced; found one of the pairs of handcuffs produced about 200 yards from the bodies, and the other pair lying close to the bodies; the cartridge case produced was within a few feet of them; found a wommera and spear close to the tree from which the bullet was taken; the shield, initially burned, was lying close to the bodies. (Brisbane Courier, 12 December 1884, p5)

In response to what he had been told by Alecky and what he himself had witnessed, Moffat (himself a Justice of the Peace) notified local Police Magistrate William Mowbray, who happened to be away in Thornborough on business that day (6). Peter Moffat, who worked for John, drew a map and marked on it the scene of the crime (Figure 1). On Mowbray’s return to Irvinebank an official inquiry was held. This map was to prove critical to the 1996 relocating of the murder scene.

Figure 1 Peter Moffat’s 1884 map showing the township of Irvinebank (which includes the location of the massacre) (from Genever 1999).

During the inquest, the scene of the murders was again visited by various persons, including on Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 October 1884 by witnesses George Seaman and Alexander Leoni, accompanied by a Herberton policeman, Constable Denis Maroney, after which Seaman noted:

… the bodies were much more burned and very much decomposed; the fire was burning when … [he]… first saw the bodies; on the 22nd it was not burning, but on the 23rd visited the place again and found a fire burning and merely a heap of ashes. (Brisbane Courier, 12 December 1884, p5)

Local Herberton doctor William Bowkett also visited the scene of the crime, but was unable to ascertain whether any surviving bone fragments were human or not; it seems that during the several days that had elapsed between John Moffat’s party seeing the partially burned bodies on 19 October, and the official investigations a few days later, a person (or persons) unknown (and possibly Nigger Creek camp keeper John Stewart – see later) had returned to the scene and restoked the fire so that it would fully destroy the then partially burned bodies.

There is no clear indication that Alecky gave evidence to the October 1884 inquiry, which is not unusual given that Aboriginal people were rarely called as witnesses for various reasons, such as their testimony not being considered ‘reliable’, their inability to fully comprehend the legal context of the situation, or language difficulties in the English-speaking system. Further, the strong testimony of leading figure John Moffat would likely have been seen as adequate at the time; it was certainly not known then that the case would end up in court with Nichols and the trooper being formally charged over the killings.

Between 1 and 14 November 1884 telegrams were sent between Commissioner Seymour in Brisbane, seeking further information, and District Inspector Isley, conveying information about the inquiry as it came to hand.  This included a statement from Isley noting,

Nicholls explains he knew nothing about these blacks and is convinced his troopers would not shoot women and children. Troopers were however out of camp late on eighteenth 18th October Handcuffs were found near the bodies shots were heard Must suspend Nicholls. (QSA564169 1884 Telegram from John Isley to Commissioner of Police 14 November, William Austin Nichols Police Staff file)

The written depositions from the inquiry were duly forwarded by Isley to the Colonial Secretary. Perhaps unexpectedly, questions were officially raised in the Qld Parliament on 18 November 1884 about what the Government knew of the event.

On 28 November 1884, presumably under pressure because of Parliamentary questioning, the Under Colonial Secretary, Robert Gray, wrote to the then Commissioner of Police David Seymour, directing that Sub-Inspector William Nichols be dismissed from the Police Force. Notes in the margin of the letter indicate that District Inspector John Isley was advised of this on 1 December 1884, with instructions to pay Nichols until 15 November 1884 (the date of his formal suspension).

It was about a month later, on 12 and 15 January 1885, that Nichols and the troopers involved were arrested by Townsville-based Detective, John Barry.

Nichols was charged with being an accessory beforethe fact of murder. His Committal Hearing took place on 19 January 1885, at which time he was discharged by PM Mowbray on with no case to answer. After this finding, the Week of 7 February 1885, was pleased to report:

The result of Nichols’ case has given general satisfaction ; firstly, because he is considered a most efficient officer; secondly, because he is the victim of a Brisbane sensational paper; and thirdly, because, having undergone a most searching inquiry, he has been cleared of the imputations charged against him …

This sentiment was also apparently held by some of the Herberton District residents, who subsequently “presented Sub-Inspector Nicholl’s, [sic]  … with a purse of sovereigns” (Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser, 13 January 1885, p2). The Telegraph of 3 January 1885 defended the golden handshake, suggesting it was out of concern for Nichols’ financial situation —“ … he is by no means a rich man — the contrary — and a purse of sovereigns was presented to him by those who know how he stood financially” —and attempted to downplay the situation by further suggesting,

… it is only just to say that the actual deed was generally condemned here, but as the circumstances are better known and better understood in the district than in Brisbane, the same degree of onus is not laid to Nichols, seeing that he was not present at the outrage, and people know the extremes to which black troopers will go when they commence to do battle with a strange tribe.

Two of the seven troopers who had been arrested, Sandy (from the Nigger Creek detachment) and Charlie (who had been seen bringing the horses back), were also released with no case to answer.

The other five, however, (Willie from Baan Bero, and Sambo, Larry, Carlo, and Pituri from Nigger Creek) were to spend a year in custody awaiting their day in court, the investigation of the case being made challenging by the need for an interpreter. In the end, they too were discharged on 22 October 1885, Justice Cooper refusing to hear the case due to language difficulties, despite many months having elapsed trying to find a competent interpreter for them.

Nonetheless, as Geoff Genever (1999:16) concluded: “There seems to be little doubt that these troopers were indeed responsible”, the only question being “why they did it or who, if anybody, ordered the killings”.

Archaeological Implications

Thinking about the investigation from an archaeological perspective, the 1884 investigation of the site revealed certain physical, tangible evidence of what had occurred (7), including:

  • The partially burned bodies, though by the time Constable Maroney visited the scene this had been reduced to unrecognisable charred bone fragments and charcoal;
  • Bullet marks seen in an ironwood tree, with a bullet retrieved from the tree and a cartridge from near the bodies.

The latter are of some interest, since, during his evidence at the Committal Proceeding at the Herberton Court House on 19 January 1885 Inspector John Isley testified:

Native troopers in the present day when going on duty are armed with Snider rifle and cartridges. I can not say whether they carry handcuffs. They are not supplied with handcuffs as part of their kit as a rule. That lays with the officer … (QSA847145 1885 Regina v Sambo, Sandy, Larry, Willie, Jimmey and Pituri 19 January, In letter 85/989).

Although slightly ambiguous, this implies, without directing stating it, that Sub-Inspector Nichols may have been involved in the killings in some fashion. Despite Isley’s testimony, the camp keeper at Nigger Creek, John Stewart, testified that “It is my duty when troopers are going on patrol to hand them their firearms – Snider rifle, cartridges, and handcuffs”; so someone (either Stewart or Nichols) was not playing by the established rules.

As noted by Genever (1999:13), Detective Barry “clearly recognised Stewart’s evidence as either lying or obstructive and more or less told him so”. Genever (1999:16) went one step further, to raise the possibility that it might have been Stewart, acting under orders from Nichols, who had been sent back to the scene to restoke the fire and ensure the bodies were fully burned. The four year working relationship between Stewart and Nichols, who had previously been stationed together at the Oak Park, might have been a factor here.

Of this evidence, the handcuffs and bullet from the tree were removed from the site. Any other evidence was presumably left on site, and could have been expected to have been destroyed or lost with the passage of time. However, events in 1996 proved this was not in fact the case.

The 1996 Survey of the Massacre Site

Members of the Eacham Historical Society were sufficiently interested in what had happened to attempt in February 1996 to locate and “ground-truth” the location that had been marked on the 1884 map by Peter Moffat as the scene of the crime. Setting off armed with historic and contemporary maps, GPS and a metal detector, they reached the general area and identified an area where “a camp site was possible and one of the few places where Ironbark trees were growing” (Ray and Tranter 1999:18). Like any budding archaeologists, they then set up a grid so they could systematically inspect the ground surface.

Despite the passage of more than 110 years, there was a surprising amount of material still present from the nineteenth century, including:

  • Seven Snider cartridges;
  • Seven pieces of lead from Snider bullets, with a further melted piece of lead that might also have come from a Snider bullet;
  • Buttons from clothing;
  • Metal objects, including an axe-head, wire, billy-can and lid fragments, and a matchbox; and,
  • Fragmentary burnt bone and charcoal.

These items were salvaged and lodged with the Irvinebank Museum (Figures 2 and 3). They are testimony to the potential for the survival, even today, of evidence relating to frontier massacres but, without doubt, in the absence of the 1884 map pinpointing the location of the event they almost certainly would not have been found. Their presence in 1996 further suggests that the examination of the scene in 1884 was not especially thorough; perhaps this says something about the lack of attention to detail displayed by Constable Maroney, the only government official who inspected the site. This in turn might imply something about the seriousness —or lack thereof — with which he regarded the investigation. After all, the general attitude of the majority of the non-Indigenous population at the time would undoubtedly have been “it’s just some more blackfellas, why all the fuss?”

Figure 2 Photographs of the 1996 expedition to the scene of the Irvinebank massacre by members of the Eacham Historical Society (from Genever 1999:20).
Figure 3 The display cabinet at the Irvinebank Museum in 2018 showing the objects recovered from the Irvinebank massacre site in 1996.

References

Genever, G. 1999 Failure of Justice: The Story of the Irvinebank Massacre. Eacham: Eacham Historical Society.

Litster, M. and L.A. Wallis 2011 Looking for the proverbial needle? The archaeology of Australian colonial frontier massacresArchaeology in Oceania 46:105-117.

QSA847066 1882 Petition from the residents of the Herberton district dated 3 April asking for Native Police protection In letter 82/2409.

QSA564169 1882 Letter from William Nichols to John Isley dated 6 December, William Austin Nichols Police Staff file.

QSA564169 1884 Telegram from John Isley to Commissioner of Police David Seymour dated 11 November, William Austin Nichols Police Staff file.

QSA564169 1884 Telegram from John Isley to Commissioner of Police David Seymour dated 14 November, William Austin Nichols Police Staff file.

QSA564169 1884 Letter from Under Colonial Secretary to Commissioner of Police dated 28 November, William Austin Nichols Police Staff file.

QSA847145 1885 Regina v Sambo, Sandy, Larry, Willie, Jimmey and Pituri 19 January, In letter 85/989.

QSA847145 1885 Regina v Sambo, Sandy, Larry, Willie, Jimmey, Pituri and Carlo 20 January, In letter 85/989.

Ray, D. and H. Tranter 1999 Report on the field trip that located the massacre site 1996. In G. Genever, Failure of Justice: The Story of the Irvinebank Massacre, pp.18–20. Eacham: Eacham Historical Society.

Footnotes

(1) Two other Aboriginal men, Spoopendyke and Toby, were also likely killed by the NMP troopers around this same time and, while loosely related to what happened at Irvinebank, is not of immediate concern here.

(2) This petition itself is fascinating because of what it reveals about European attitudes to Aboriginal people and the NMP in the region at the time. It noted that, “even when armed, the people are not safe from being fatally attacked”, and then implored the Government to order “a detachment of Native Troopers to patrol this district with all possible despatch” (QSA847066 1882 Petition from the residents of the Herberton district dated 3 April asking for Native Police protection In letter 82/2409). This suggests that solely defensive responses against Aboriginal people by Europeans were considered wholly inadequate; what the petitioners were requesting was pre-emptive, offensiveaction, such as the ‘dispersals’ the NMP were known to carry out.

(3) We recognise the offensive nature of this term and only use it here in historical context.

(4) You might recall William Nichols as being the officer who led the killings of Aboriginal people in the Woolgar River area in September 1881 following the spearing of Sub-Inspector Henry Kaye, which we wrote about here.

(5) This relationship was likely relevant to Stewart’s obstructive testimony when questioned by Detective Barry at the official hearing.

(6) Without Moffat bringing the affair to the attention of the authorities it is unlikely this killing would have garnered much official attention (Genever 1999:16).

(7) Of course, other lines of evidence also existed, as attested to in 1884, but these would not manifest in the archaeological record. These included:

  • The witnessing of the massacre by Alecky; it was Alecky who led the NMP troopers to the camp, and who also led Moffat’s party to the site in subsequent days. Unfortunately, Alecky never testified at either the 1884 inquiry or the 1885 Committal Hearings.
  • The partially burned bodies of the victims at the massacre site, witnessed by at least John Moffat, George William Seaman, Antony Linedale and Charles Dineen; however, by the time the scene was visited by Constable Maroney and Dr Bowkett they had been further burned and the resulting charred bone fragments could no longer be confidently confirmed as being human.
  • Gunshots heard by witnesses on the night of the massacre. In particular, John Sedgewick testified on 20 January 1885 that:

I heard seven reportsof firearms. I believe them to have been from a rifle, a gun, or firearm of that sort. Five of the reports followed quickly on each other. I believe I heard two first … There was not over three minutes between the two and five shots. The first and second shots were one after the other without an interval. The intervals between the five shots varied a little, but not over two or three seconds. One person could not have fired the seven shots. Not less than four persons could have fired the seven shots excepting with a repeating rifle (QSA847145 1885 Regina v Sambo, Sandy, Larry, Willie, Jimmey, Pituri and Carlo 20 January, In letter 85/989).

 

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