Murdering Molvo Part I: The Events at Wonomo Waterhole

By Iain Davidson, Heather Burke, Lance Sullivan and Lynley Wallis

The nature of historical knowledge is complex, involving oral history, archaeology and (less often than is generally supposed) written documents, many of which begin with some sort of oral telling. Here we outline the historical knowledge of a particular series of events in northwest Queensland (Qld) that we have recently written about (Davidson et al. 2020). These events began in 1879 with the killings of non-Aboriginal pastoral workers around Wonomo Waterhole on Sulieman Creek (midway between Mount Isa and Boulia). What followed is known from both written sources and oral accounts: many Aboriginal people were killed and others captured in reprisal raids by the Native Mounted Police (NMP) and other pastoralists.

Although there were no living European witnesses to the events at Wonomo, there are multiple written versions of what took place at the waterhole and afterwards. Some of these were published as correspondence to the newspapers in cities more than 1500 km away in the weeks that followed the discovery of the bodies. Others were told much later (the two most influential being written at least 40 years after the events) as reminiscences by key people who were present in the area at the time of the murders and who participated in subsequent events. Many of these are in effect oral accounts—circulated amongst the European community and communicated either relatively quickly to the newspapers or, later, to biographers, even though they are now all regarded as “documentary sources”.

Although most accounts about Wonomo are classic “histories written by the victors,” Lance Sullivan (one of the authors of this piece) also holds a detailed oral history about those events. This history had been passed down to him by his uncles Tom Sullivan and Clem Sullivan, by people who had first and second-hand knowledge of what happened. This allows for some fascinating insights into the nature of historical knowledge and how we know what we know about the past.

Authors Iain Davidson and Heather Burke first went to Wonomo Waterhole with Yalarrnga man Tom Sullivan in 1989 (and on several occasions thereafter; see Figure 1). The occasion was a project to record Aboriginal places as part of an archaeological project centred on the Selwyn Ranges. The conditions of the grant were that we should liaise with the Aboriginal community through the Kalkadoon Tribal Council (KTC)[i] in Mt Isa, which was then the only prominent Aboriginal organisation in the region concerned with heritage. This interaction saw the KTC Secretary, James Taylor, introduce us to Tom, who had recently left employment on Cooraboolka Station to work as a KTC heritage officer. Together we set out to locate a stone axe quarry on Stanbrook Station. Once we had completed our work there, we asked James and Tom which sites they would like to record next. Tom replied “Molvo’s Grave”. We asked him to tell us why, and he recounted the history of events from 110 years before, much as he and his brother Clem later told it to Lance, and as Lance told it to us in 2017 and 2019. This is the history we set out below. But, before we do so, we want to consider for a moment what we might make of Tom’s suggestion.

Of key importance in Tom’s response is that he had no hesitation in suggesting that a non-Aboriginal grave was an important site for us to visit and record. This was because that particular place, and the story about it, were the context within which his personal family history was framed. The immediacy of his response and the consistency between his account in 1989 and its retelling by Lance nearly 30 years later further tells us that this was an oral history passed on within the family with strong consistency from generation to generation.

1Tom and Dorry at Wonomo
Figure 1 Tom Sullivan and his sister Dorry Prowse at Wonomo Waterhole in 2004 (photograph by Iain Davidson).

Before we recount the story, here are the key players.

Dramatis Personae

Bernard Molvo: A Russian drover. He was employed taking sheep to Adelaide from Menindie in 1874 (Empire 21 February 1874, p.3) and was living and working around Wilcannia in 1876 or 1877 (New South Wales Government Gazette 3 October 1877, p.3833). By 1879 he was working in St George, near the NSW/Qld border.

Tommy Holmes, James Kelly and Harry Butler: Three workers who accompanied Molvo from St George to Wonomo in 1879. We know very little else about them.

Momas: A Yalarrnga man who was present at the Wonomo killings. He had two sisters, Ruby and Lucy, both of whom survived subsequent reprisals against Aboriginal people after Wonomo.

Ruby: A Yalarrnga woman and sister of Momas and Lucy. Ruby had a son, Willie, with the local NMP officer, Ernest Eglinton, in the early 1880s. How this came to be and what sort of relationship they had—if any—is unknown.

Willie Eglinton: The son of Ruby and Ernest Eglinton, and the father of Tom and Clem Sullivan, as well as Dorry Prowse, Val Punch and Hazel Sullivan. Willie chose to give his children the surname Sullivan because of the family’s later residence on Mt Merlin station, where Daniel O’Sullivan was manager. The family story is that Willie chose to rename his family after O’Sullivan, because Willie considered him to be a good man.

Alexander Kennedy: A Scottish-born squatter who arrived in Gladstone on 11 November 1861, less than one month after the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre in which 19 white squatters were killed by Aboriginal people; this was the same day that the massacre was reported in the Rockhampton and Brisbane newspapers. From 1861 he managed a series of stations in central Queensland (Fysh 1933:11, 25–26; The Week 10 February 1922, p.27), and then, in 1878, bought a large property on Sulieman Creek with his brother-in-law, Robert Currie, and James Powell.

Ernest Eglinton: An English-born immigrant and NMP officer. He had taken up a half share in Pearl Creek Station in Central Queensland soon after his arrival in the colony in 1870, but sold out in 1874. In 1878 he entered the NMP as a Sub-Inspector. Initially stationed at the Diamantina camp, he was transferred to Boulia in late 1878 to establish the Burke River NMP camp.

Frederick Margetts: Employed by Alexander Kennedy as the manager of Buckingham Downs at the time of the Wonomo event, although he lived on a different part of the run to Kennedy. Margetts himself later became an NMP officer, serving from 1882 until 1889 at various NMP camps in Cape York Peninsula.

William Paterson: Another pastoralist in the district, who took up Goodwood station  in 1877. The Burke River NMP camp was established on Goodwood in late 1878.

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So what happened 140 years ago?

The standard story told in published records is principally about the deaths of Molvo and his men. In late 1878 Bernard Molvo, Tommy Holmes, James Kelly and Harry Butler camped on the banks of Wonomo Waterhole. They were in charge of a large mob of cattle owned by William Beckett, a pastoralist from St George, who was in the process of establishing a run on the land around Wonomo. Beckett’s proposed run was already surrounded by others intent on the same endeavour: Goodwood to the south had already been claimed by William Paterson, Buckingham Downs immediately to the east by Kennedy and his brother-in-law, Robert Currie, and a third run to the northeast by Roger Hale Sheaffe, that was later named Stanbrook (or Stanbroke) (Figure 2).

Stanbroke, Wonomo and Kennedy's Old Camp 1905 (Map of Gregory North Original Runs)
Figure 2: Stanbroke, Wonomo and Kennedy’s Old Camp 1905 (Map of Gregory North Original Runs).

In January 1879 Molvo and the others were still at Wonomo. Sometime after the 11th or 12th of January the four were killed by Aboriginal people and their bodies thrown into the waterhole. The murders were discovered about 10 days later, when a messenger arrived from Buckingham Downs on 22 January and found the scene.

Although Wonomo was relatively close to Alexander Kennedy’s camp, both Kennedy and Currie were away at the time of Molvo’s death. The NMP at the Burke River were also absent on patrol. In their stead, on hearing of the murders, a party of ‘neighbours’, including Frederick Margetts and William Paterson, went to the waterhole and buried the four bodies in a communal grave (Townsville Daily Bulletin 29 June 1917, p2; Figure 3). Margetts, Paterson and the others then tried to track the Aboriginal party, but without success.

Figure 3: Molvo’s grave, Wonomo Waterhole, 2010. All four men were buried together in a communal grave (Photograph by Ron Eastburn, Mt Isa).

William Paterson described the sequence of events:

I am sorry to say that all Becketts [sic] men have been murdered by the blacks … and the blacks have carried away nearly everything from the camp, leaving nothing but the bullock dray and a few old saddles. From what I can hear, it appears that Malvo sent Tommy Holmes to Kennedy and Powell’s camp, a distance of seventeen miles, about the 12th January to borrow some rations, but did not get any. Currie—the man in charge at Kennedy’s camp—expected Malvo down in a few days, but as he did not come he sent a blackboy up about the 21st January to inform Malvo he could get rations. The blackboy returned the same evening with the news that all hands were killed! A man was at once despatched for the native police, but they had unfortunately started a few days previous for the Herbert to search for M’Coy, who is reported missing. In the absence of the police we made up a party here, and started up to the scene of the murder; as we were afraid the blacks would attack Kennedy’s camp and other camps on Will’s Creek. When we got to Malvo’s camp, we found the remains of the murdered men, strewn about in the waterhole, and everything gone. After burying the remains, we started in pursuit of the blacks, to try and recover some of the property, but we did not get anything of any great value. We saw several camps where the blacks have been lately, and got some of Malvo’s letters in every camp. (Morning Bulletin 1 March 1879, p.3)

While this appears to be a first-hand account there is some second-hand information in it relating to the prior events on Buckingham Downs, and some errors. Frederick Margetts was actually “the man in charge”, since both Currie and Kennedy were absent (Townsville Daily Bulletin 16 August 1948, p.5). It was he who sent an employee to Molvo’s camp and subsequently sent for the NMP (Townsville Daily Bulletin 29 June 1917, p.2). For Paterson to get this wrong is strange, given that both he and Margetts were together on the day the bodies were buried.

Another correspondent, known only as “Unfortunate”, wrote to the newspapers one week after Paterson, citing information from Aboriginal women who had presumably been caught by the party of neighbours and questioned:

From what information that could be got from some of the gins[ii] [women], the way the outrage was accomplished was this:— Mr. Molvo and the men were engaged either at meals or bathing, and the blacks, at a signal from Mr. Molvo’s own black boy, who, it appears, was the prime mover, rushed up between the men and the camp, thus cutting them off from their firearms, and then killed them with tomahawks and nulla-nullas, and threw the bodies into the waterhole. As this happened about the 11th of this month [January] and was not discovered till the 22nd, in which interval there had been heavy rain, it was impossible to find out anything by tracks or marks on the bodies as they (the bodies) were in the last stage of decomposition. (Brisbane Courier 5 March 1879, p.3).

Again, the pretense is that this is almost a first-hand account, but it reveals a problem: how did the Aboriginal women communicate this information? As the writer could not be sure whether the pastoral workers were at meals or bathing to seems likely they not have spoken any more than a few words of the language of the women, and the womens’ understanding of English was likely equally limited; as such, it seems clear that the exchange of information was not especially clear or detailed.

The NMP at Burke River returned to their camp on Goodwood six days after the discovery of the bodies at Wonomo and immediately set out in pursuit of those they assumed to be responsible. Eglinton was one of the people to publish his reminiscences, after presenting them as a paper to a meeting of the Qld Historical Society in Brisbane in 1920, at which both Kennedy and Paterson were in attendance. Although not written until 42 years after the event, Eglinton claimed the NMP tracked at least one group to a mountain gorge “fully seventy miles” away, who “were disagreeably surprised when, one evening at sundown, while celebrating their victory … they received a visit from a detachment of the force” (Queenslander 8 January 1921, p.11). Given the erasure of “all tracks or marks” by heavy rain, it seems unlikely that anyone could genuinely be tracked, especially over a distance of more than 100 km. It also seems implausible that any of the trackers had either the time or the inclination to find out whether the Aboriginal people were celebrating, or, if they were, what they were celebrating.

According to Eglinton the mountain camp:

… comprised only a portion of the murderers, for immediately after the massacre there was a division of plunder. Then the party broke up into a number of mobs, who scattered in the ranges, though, as I learnt afterwards, they had arranged to meet later and wipe out the occupants of all the stations in the district, the first to be that of Messrs. Kennedy and Currie, who, with their wives and little children, were camped about eight miles below Wonomo. (Queenslander 8 January 1921, p.11)

There is no plausible evidence of the “division of plunder,” or indeed of what that plunder might have been; no evidence of the group splitting up, nor of their intentions. This is particularly true if the evidence was “learnt afterwards”, because by that time the Europeans believed that most of the perpetrators had been killed. It was probably convenient for Eglinton to claim later that he learnt of a plot to attack other camps, since this allowed him to vindicate his earlier actions.

Jack Kennedy, son of Alexander, who was five when Molvo and his men were killed, was presumably describing his family’s version of the story when he noted retrospectively in 1948 that:

… nothing happened for about a week, when one morning about breakfast, a gin came to the door and said a big mob of blacks were approaching. It turned out they were the gins and picaninnies left after the “clean up” by Eglington. They were footsore and hungry and were supplied with tucker, and, in token, left a little black girl for a housemaid to the Kennedys. She absconded a couple of nights later and years later, became the last Queen of the Kalkadoons (Townsville Daily Bulletin 16 August 1948, p.5).

Other versions of the Molvo story were told in 1917 by Frederick Margetts (Townsville Daily Bulletin 29 June 1917, p.2) and in 1931 by Marion Kennedy, Alexander’s wife (Townsville Daily Bulletin 27 January 1931, p.4). Di Perkins’ The Woman Behind the Man: Mrs Alexander Kennedy provides a more fanciful version of Marion’s tale. Yet another version, which meshes with none of the others, was recounted by an anonymous source in a NSW newspaper in 1901, citing information provided by NMP troopers:

An instance of the kind of outrage by aboriginals may be told in a few words, but somehow the relation of facts does not meet with approval in all parts, especially out beyond Boulia. There may be soon to this day, for all I know, or, at any rate, some traces may exist of a roughly fenced in burial ground, with the adjacent waterhole (Wonomo), in which a party of four whites were done to death by certain aboriginals. The skeleton of a building was also in existence at the time of my visit (14 years ago), and also a few dozen skulls, shinbones, and other traces of unburied human remains. The different tribes in that part of the world are dissimilar in many respects. Their whole aim of life seems to be an annual intrusion into the neighbours’ territory, and the carrying away of the enemies’ maidens. In the incident above mentioned the “Yalingas” were supposed to be in possession of the country surrounding “Wonomo,” a splendid and the only large waterhole for many miles around. Things went along merrily for a month or two, but the “Miallios” (a tribe at deadly war with the “Yallingas”) insisted upon a share of the water, and after scattering their enemies, took entire charge of that particular spot. They were a numerous and treacherous lot, and at an arranged signal surrounded the whites and speared them whilst cut off from retreat to their camp. It is on record, and I may say there are very evident traces to show some foundation for it, that 300 “Mialles” were potted, not a soul escaping, but a couple of old gins and a few piccanninies. It would not help matters much to say that the “native police” were on the job, and that it is a day to be proud of amongst them. I had the main facts from one of them, and he, with two others then in the service, were in their glory shooting down anything shootable. It may be that the men are not of the nicest, but what can be expected. It is or was the usual thing to pot them first chance, and rarely could an able-bodied black be coaxed into camp with the women folks of his tribe. So great is the fear of the black troopers by these poor hunted devils that for days they will keep away from water if suspicious of being shot. (Dubbo Dispatch and Wellington Independent 17 August 1901, p4)

Of all versions, however, it was the one told later by Jack’s father, Alexander, that became the main source for the story of the deaths of Molvo and his men. Having become one of the original directors of Qantas in 1920 and its inaugural passenger in 1922, Kennedy was regularly interviewed by the press and told and retold his story multiple times between 1920 and his death in 1936. His story was also formalised in a biography by Hudson Fysh in 1933, which most likely derived from oral accounts told to Fysh by Kennedy, although many of the details Kennedy recounted could only have been communicated to him by others who were actually present at the time, or were made up to suit the story. Kennedy would have been aware of the other accounts by the time he dictated his memoir to Fysh.

According to Fysh, news of the Wonomo massacre came to Kennedy “like a bolt from the blue”, though the note of warning suggests some degree of wariness already existed amongst the Europeans, particularly on Kennedy’s part, perhaps spurred by his history in central Qld:

No one will ever know exactly how the massacre occurred, but the most likely story is that the black boy from the Boulia district, who had guided the party proved a disturbing element, and excited the numerous members of the Kalkadoon tribe camped in the vicinity with tales of the white men’s possessions and of the superiority of beef over kangaroo and lizard. Kennedy had warned Molvo of the danger involved in allowing the native tribesmen into his camp, a danger that he himself always avoided, but Molvo did not share the same views on the handling of the native problem. The party let the blacks into their camp and friendly relations seemed firmly established, but the desire to possess the belongings of the party was too strong. (Fysh 1933:94)

The claim that European possessions and food could incite Aboriginal people to violence was a relatively common one, often put forward by Europeans as a rationale for conflict. There is no evidence that any of Molvo’s possessions were taken away, however; indeed, Frederick Margetts—one of the first Europeans on the scene—stated that all of Molvo’s possessions had been thrown into the waterhole rather than stolen, including the dray (Townville Daily Bulletin 29 June 1917, p.2). The claimed explanation for the switch from friendliness to hostility is purely imaginary.

According to Fysh reprisal killings after the Wonomo deaths took place in several stages: some when Eglinton arrived with the NMP, and others later when Kennedy returned and, together with Eglinton and the NMP, killed another group in “the hills”:

The ghastly murders were avenged and the tribe scattered, but the settlers in the district did not feel really secure after this evidence of native hostility and kept constantly on the watch. Direct action or evacuation seemed the only two courses, and in the history of conquest the world over, the stronger measure has usually won. (Fysh 1933:97)

The Yalarrnga version of events

The first meeting between Iain, Heather and Tom established that there were other versions of the 1879 events. We reported on this in our 1989 report as follows:

This site is the location of the killing of the white settler, Molvo, in 1878, which led to the first major massacre of blacks (see Fysh 1933, 93-98). Tom Sullivan was told about these killings as a child. The nominated site is a grave enclosure on the west bank of the Wonomo Waterhole. This bank also has a large open site with flaked stone, tula slugs, grinding stones, hearth stones etc.

The grave enclosure is made of steel tubing posts and two rails, all painted silver.  At the western end a metal plate is welded to two uprights between the rails.  The inscription “Killed by Blacks 1878” was originally cut into a tree growing on the site which may still have been there in 1948.  A fallen coolibah near the grave is probably not this tree.  The site is not threatened.

The site was shown to us by Tom Sullivan. He described it as a place where the Aborigines with Molvo stole his gun and shot him. He was told the story as a story about the blacks who were massacred in revenge in the gorges to the east of the site  … This is clearly a very important place for Tom’s personal history.

Tom also told us a Dreaming story. This waterhole is the start of a Dreaming track for the Yellow Belly … which ends at Little Wandering Waterhole on Marion Downs. This may be a motive for the murder— Molvo was camped at a highly significant place. The site is clearly of significance to Aborigines both for the Dreaming and the association with a massacre of Kalkadoons, which began the major thrust against them by the pastoralists. (Davidson et al. 1989)

Iain worked for 15 years, off and on, with Tom , recording sites and stories that he knew. Tom often referred to Iain as “The ‘fessor”. At the beginning of 2004, Tom suffered a bad accident that left him in hospital recovering from brain damage. According to his family, his repeated plea as he was delirious was “Must take the ‘fessor to that site”. This was a product of their frequent conversations about the location of the killing of Yalarrnga people after the killings at Wonomo. Unfortunately, he had not recovered sufficiently by the time of our final trip and we never got to that site. Tom died in April 2009.

The story told to us by Tom Sullivan became more significant when we recorded contemporary oral histories relating to Wonomo and the Burke River NMP in 2017, 2018 and 2019 with Yalarrnga man Lance Sullivan as part of the Archaeology of the NMP Project. Lance was told the history by his uncles, Tom and Clem, both of whom were taught by their father, Willie Eglinton, as they lived and worked on cattle stations in their own Country around the region. Willie was taught by his uncle, Momas, who was present at Wonomo during the initial attack (Figure 4). 

Wonomo Waterhole
Figure 4: Wonomo Waterhole (photograph by Iain Davidson).

Lance’s family story places Wonomo Waterhole at the beginning of a ‘songline’ (a sung narrative tracing the journey of an ancestral being, sometimes called a Dreaming track) for the yellowbelly fish, who then travelled south to the junction of the Burke and Wills Rivers near the site of the Burke River NMP camp on Goodwood. Contrary to the dominant European interpretation, the deaths of Molvo and his men were not random, but occasioned by their interruption of a ceremony at the waterhole:

When the settlers first came in the Wonomo, they seen all the old people corrobboreeing there, initiation time … they fired shots at the old people and told them to go away from there. This was a serious offence … So some of the men went to the banks of the river … and they waited until Molvo went in first, the other three men followed him behind. … Molvo … was swimming around and bathing … the other men [were] near the bank … but then they went in a bit further and that’s when the men decided to spear them. (Lance Sullivan interview 30 April 2019)

Having killed Molvo and his men the Yalarrnga decided to make a stronger statement by attacking other pastoral runs:

Some of the men said …”while we all have the numbers, let’s send word to the other camps and let’s all hit Buckingham, get rid of them one time,” because that old Kennedy was at the time riding around the station shooting any Aboriginal that he saw on his property. … He went right up … Kennedy rode right up into … today where Monument and all that areas, he used to ride around there shooting them too.

[So] they … were running towards the station, gathering other groups of men on the way, word was spreading, so all the men started collecting. And they ran across one of the stockmen, Aboriginal stockman, who was coming back [and] they speared him through the thigh.… But he survived, and another spear went over his shoulder. He rode back, galloped back to Buckingham and he told them that the Aboriginals were coming.

So the Yalarrnga men, they had some of them Waluwarra people with them [and] they went back to the station. First they tried to sneak up on them, but because they were warned, Kennedy and them all were waiting and fired them with rifles and they started shooting them as the men were sneaking up. They waited until they got very close and they started shooting them. And then some of the [Aboriginal] men tried to rush for the door … but they were shot. … They tried to make a head-on rush, they tried it maybe three or four times but every time they were driven back. (Lance Sullivan interview 30 April 2019)

Various textual versions also refer to a subsequent but failed attack on Sheaffe’s station (Morning Bulletin 1 March 1879, p.3; Brisbane Courier 5 March 1879, p.3), including Marion Kennedy’s. According to her, having been warned by an Aboriginal stockman of the impending attack, Sheaffe’s men, “after mustering their cattle to a camp waited in ambush till the blacks approached, and then surprised them with a fusillade of gunfire, which gave them a great scare” (Townsville Daily Bulletin 27 January 1931, p.4).

That local Aboriginal people were active after the initial attack is supported by an account from another NMP officer—Henry Hasenkamp. Hasenkamp entered the Qld Police Force twice—the first time in 1876 for two years, and the second in 1881 for 36 years. After his first term and before his second, at the time of the Wonomo killings, he was in the Boulia area working with a party of surveyors. He and the others claimed to have narrowly avoided being murdered by Aboriginal people the day after Molvo was killed (Queenslander 20 August 1931, p9), consistent with the Yalarrnga story of multiple attacks.

Subsequent reprisals by the NMP took place along Sulieman Creek and up into the hills in and around Monastery Creek to the northeast of Wonomo (Lance Sullivan interview, 8 August 2018). Lance named Alexander Kennedy as one of the main participants in these later reprisals:

Kennedy went out with the troopers and they started shooting them all the way back to past Buckingham … all the way back to Dajarra … There was one place where they caught a big crew of the women and children and they shot them all up in the gully towards Monument today … and the boundary of Sandringham and Chatsworth … and Stanbrook. (Lance Sullivan interview 30 April 2019)

Survivors, including Lance’s great-grandmother, Ruby, were then taken back to the Burke River NMP camp, prompting the Yalarrnga to attack the camp in an attempt to free them:

… they [the NMP] kept the old people out on the open plains tied to them stockyards … and they put two of them Waanyi[iii] troopers around them … the Yalarrnga men … waited until Eglinton went in …  While they were waiting, the other Aboriginals … [from] the Black Mountain side of the river to the east, heard what was going on and came over, and the two groups joined together. There were perhaps about … 50 to 60 men … They say that some of the old people who were there … could hear the boomerangs flying at night … and the spears flying through the air. (Lance Sullivan interview 30 April 2019)

More NMP reprisals followed, culminating in the forced removal of Aboriginal people:

By then the troopers were aroused and they started firing at them and chasing them back across the creek. … after that Eglinton … went out and up the Mort River, Burke River … and started shooting them along there. He drove ‘em further back into the mountain. In them days old people would rush… towards Monument area … Monastery Creek leads right up into … a big waterhole up there and there’s a big bora ground …. But the troopers found out about it, I don’t know how, and they started rounding ‘em up … and took them down to … Mount Merlin … where they … put them, like a reserve. (Lance Sullivan interview 30 April 2019)

The fact of later reprisals taking place on Buckingham Downs and elsewhere was never disputed by Kennedy—indeed, Fysh presented them as a stirring tale of European bravery. That subsequent events had a devastating effect on local Aboriginal people is borne out in at least one other written source. In a letter to the editor written in 1897 commenting on Edward M. Curr’s The Australian Race, yet another anonymous correspondent noted that,

When in 1882 Mr Ernest Eglinton, then native police inspector stationed at the old barracks, 18 miles above Boulia, received instructions from his chief to fill in carefully and correctly Mr. E. M. Curr’s papers of questions … he had to journey to a station away from Boulia for the purpose … There were plenty of Yellinas at Noranside, but Buckingham Downs never had any but itinerant aborigines after the Woonoomoo murders. (Queenslander 18 December 1897, p.1170)

Having presented various versions of the Wonomo killings and the reprisals that followed, in our next post we will consider some of the divergent aspects of these accounts and the problems with privileging events as written down by Europeans over oral versions held by Aboriginal people.


Davidson, I., H. Burke and S. Mitchell 1989 Archaeological Sites in Northwest Central Queensland. Unpublished report prepared for the Australian Heritage Commission.

Davidson, I., H. Burke, L. Sullivan, L.A. Wallis, U. Artym and B. Barker 2020 Cultural conflict in text and materiality: the impact of words and lead on the northwest Queensland colonial frontier. World Archaeology 51(5):724–740.

Fysh, H. 1933 Taming the North. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Perkins, D. 1988 The Woman Behind the Man: Mrs Alexander Kennedy. Mt Isa: Mt Isa and District Historical Society.

Roth, W.E. 1897 Ethnological Studies Among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane: Government Printer.

[i] Although our contact was through the KTC, and despite the fact that the Aboriginal people around Wonomo were sometimes referred to as Calcadoons, Native Title research has made clear that they were and are Yalarrnga people.

[ii] We quote precisely from the published texts, which include language that would not be acceptable today.

[iii] From the Gulf of Carpentaria.

4 thoughts on “Murdering Molvo Part I: The Events at Wonomo Waterhole

  1. Looking forward to the next post . Also , a friend informed me that the data base had been released ,( I didn’t see any announcement on this blog ?) . Absolutely fantastic , cannot thank you enough. I did notice that the inquest from Powell’s killing on mistake creek in 1884 and sub inspector Urquhart’s letter describing his reprisals are not on there ( or I have not been able to find them ) . I have them if you want .


    1. Yes, please Alan – we would love copies if you have them. We meant to do a formal post when we launched the database in early December last year, but didn’t, so only posed about it a couple of posts ago. We hope you enjoy using it.


      1. Prior to your data base I was using the Q.S.A. reference numbers from Jonathan Richards theses ( a question of necessity ) to order files from the Qld state archives which was expensive and a lot like fishing as I never knew what was in the files . Needless to say your data base has been a godsend . Also have letters from J Bell, A Hart and Chapman who buried S.I. Beresford and a letter from Sergent Lacy ( Beresford ) that I don’t rember seeing in the data base . What is the best way to get them to you ? My grasp of technology is not great and would prefer to post.


      2. Thanks Alan. If it’s easier to post, then you could send to me c/- Archaeology, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001. We would really appreciate it.


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