Murdering Molvo Part II: Beyond History Written by the Victors

By Iain Davidson, Heather Burke and Lynley Wallis

In a previous post we described a series of events that occurred in western Queensland (Qld) in 1879, involving the killings of four Europeans by Aboriginal people, and the reprisal massacres carried out by the NMP and local settlers that followed. The story we told was reconstructed using various written accounts published in the newspapers of the time, and as later written reminiscences, as well as detailed oral histories passed down by Yalarrnga people through the Sullivan family (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Members of the Sullivan Family at Mt Merlin, 2017 (L to R: Lance Sullivan, Val Punch and Hazel Sullivan) (photograph by Heather Burke).

In this second post we consider how we know what we know about the Wonomo Waterhole killings and events thereafter, and why this is important.

The sign on Molvo's grave, 2010
“Killed by Blacks 1878” [sic]. The sign on Molvo’s grave, Wonomo Waterhole, 2010 (photograph by Ron Eastburn, Mt Isa).

Historian Alan Atkinson (2002) has argued that, while history deals in material documents, it nonetheless results from the spoken words of its actors. In many ways, the process of colonisation has been made easier by the opposition between the use of oral traditions among the colonised, and written ones among the colonists. Once written down, the published word is given more credence, partly because it can be read by many people and survives in material form within archives and libraries to be used by historians. Written texts can also be read in places far apart. Atkinson (1997:66-72) argued that the colonisation of Australia was only possible because of writing.

While ordinary social and administrative functions could be conducted via speech, the project of occupying or invading a land far from home ultimately required written instructions from London. Moreover, the allocation of land and property to colonists also required written contracts, given that there was no long term common law rights to land (until, of course, the Mabo decision recognised that Indigenous peoples of Australia had had Native Title through common law rights all along). The squatters who established runs beyond the settled areas or “Limits of Location”, became rich by thieving land from the Crown as well as from Aboriginal people whose titles to their land were maintained by oral traditions handed down within their tribe. The “punishment” of the squatters was to be made wealthy by being given (written) leases to the land, in effect for their service of dispossessing Aboriginal people of that land.

In another paper (Davidson et al. 2018), we suggested that it is necessary to remember the strength of oral traditions of story-telling in Aboriginal communities. In a famous case in 1838, workers for the squatter Henry Dangar massacred 28 Wirrayaraay men, women and children at Myall Creek in NSW. The massacre was reported in identical letters to Dangar and to the Police Magistrate, Edward Denny Day. Eleven of the perpetrators were tried and seven eventually convicted of the murders as a result of oral evidence given by white people. We showed that there were traditional lines of contact for ceremony and trade between, at least, the country of the Wirrayaraay and Lake Eyre. We also know that there were trade routes and ceremonial connections between Lake Eyre and the people affected by the events at Wonomo. We speculated that news about an event as traumatic as massacres of peaceable Aboriginal people at Myall Creek could have been known by the Aboriginal owners of Wonomo waterhole through oral transmission of the narrative of events.

Documents such as the court records of the Myall Creek trials allow historians, if they choose, to write a narrative of that dispossession. What was significant about Mabo was that it recognised that title to land might be maintained by oral tradition, as it had been in many other places with similar common law. What is important to the discussion here is that it took more than 200 years for that oral tradition to be recognised by non-Indigenous Australians. The account of the murders at Wonomo was maintained in the Sullivan family, and by other Yalarrnga people, and offers different details to those from the better-known published accounts. Historians have rarely used the opportunity to put together narratives that incorporate both oral and written documents.

Atkinson (2002) argued that texts can become objects of veneration in themselves, as material objects giving definitive accounts that can be referred to many times — and, of course, by many people. Written history thus has had a role in dominating the lives of groups with oral histories, often, as here, with a strong link to first-hand knowledge of events of the past. The value of written texts, however, depends on the accuracy of their translation of the contemporary oral accounts into written, material ones. In this instance, as we described in our previous post, it is apparent that the oral accounts that informed the written and printed versions were almost all second-hand at best, mostly reported by people who had no direct knowledge of events and often reflected little more than prior prejudices.

In saying that, it is important to remember that there are many different scales of operation of information flow in oral and written communication. The oral communications about the murder of Molvo that led to writings in the press, memoirs and later to Fysh’s book were essentially informal, spontaneous, probably coloured by prejudice, and with missing details filled in to drive the narrative.

This point is well made by contemplating how any Europeans could know any details of the deaths at Wonomo, since none of the people who recounted it were present when the deaths took place, and no one from Molvo’s party survived. William Paterson’s and Frederick Margetts’ versions were presumably pieced together from their observations at the scene many days later and from the information they understood from local Aboriginal women, as well as by their own assumptions. [We say “understood” because, even with the best will in the world (and it is doubtful whether that is appropriate), communication between people with different first languages was unlikely to be precise on a frontier such as this.] Ernest Eglinton’s version, too, would have resulted from his observations of the camp after the bodies were buried and from whatever information he acquired from local people, again involving a mixture of poor cross-cultural communication and cultural bias. That he must have acquired at least some information from local people is likely, given that as part of the events following Wonomo the police captured surviving Yalarrnga people, one of whom (Ruby) subsequently had Eglinton’s child.

The account in Fysh (1933), however, is the commonly accepted wisdom and derives from someone who was not present when the bodies were found. It was evidently written from an oral account given by Alexander Kennedy, who was not only not present at the earliest killings, but was also not candid about any subsequent killings of Aboriginal people for which he may have been the prime instigator or participant. Despite these shortcomings, his account became the dominant narrative because both Kennedy and Fysh became well known and prominent citizens , partly because of the narrative they themselves wrote about their importance as pioneers and also through their association with the national airline Qantas.

The Fysh version is explicitly about what the author called “Taming the North”, with the subtext that Aboriginal life in northwestern Qld was undomesticated and that its destruction was part of a larger Australian undertaking. In the European version the source of conflict was highly generalised and attributed to preconceived cunning and greed for European goods on the part of Aboriginal people.

Yalarrnga oral histories, on the other hand, speak of the disruption to their well-ordered life before either side had committed violence against the other. On this account the original violence was not instigated by “greedy” Aboriginal people, nor even the general presence of Europeans on Aboriginal country, but rather by the specific disruption those specific Europeans caused to particular ceremonies at an important cultural place. The Yalarrnga account allowed for shared space, providing that the rules of specific places were not transgressed; the European account denied this by presenting Aboriginal people as inimical to core values of the European way of life.

European versions thus tend to position colonists as “blameless victims”; the narrative is part of the establishment of an ideology of imposing the order familiar to the colonisers upon an environment deemed unruly because of its unfamiliarity, and people deemed “barbarous” (or worse) because of a long (written) tradition about those who do not “settle” permanently in one place, nor produce food for others as well as themselves. We point to the circumstance that Kennedy arrived in Gladstone in Central Qld on 16 November 1861, just a fortnight after an account of the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre of white settlers, based on the oral testimony of a survivor, was published in the Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser (2 November 1861, p2).

Horatio Spencer Wills epitaph
Epitaph for Horatio Wills, Cullin-la-Ringo, 2016, describing the killing as barbarous (photograph by Heather Burke).

It is probably no coincidence therefore, that after Kennedy took up land in western Qld, he named one of the local creeks Colinaringo. We cannot now know whether Kennedy knew that Yalarrnga people camped on that creek, but we know that an extensive stone arrangement associated with the creek was important to them (Figure 2). In the 1980s Tom Sullivan told us oral accounts of being camped with his family on Colinaringo Creek when the last ceremonies took place there sometime around 1942.

Figure 2 Colinaringo Stone Arrangement on the borders of Yalarrnga and Mitakoodi country (photograph by Iain Davidson).

The “history of the victors”, as told in both Fysh’s account and the newspapers, also gives the impression that the Aboriginal community has no memories of the traumatic events at Wonomo, or ignores that possibility entirely. There is, however, strong and detailed oral history within the Yalarrnga community that connects to an eye-witness at Wonomo, a relationship not present in any other account. It is noteworthy that the oral history emphasises details of importance to a relatively small community, mostly people related to each other, and that it remained unknown outside that intimate circle until first Tom, then his nephew Lance, shared it with us as researchers and granted us permission to share it in the public sphere[i].

To all intents and purposes most accounts of the past are personal in this way. It is researchers, or those with a political purpose, who seek to construct a narrative on a broader canvas connecting events in ways that go beyond those local and personal communities. One of the reasons that stories held within families and Aboriginal communities do not make it onto the broader canvas is precisely because their interests are often suppressed by those who construct bigger narratives, i.e. the so-called “victors”. But it would be a mistake to think that that means there is no history amongst those who are oppressed by the victors, though it may have different characteristics.

When we talk about “history” most often we think about what is written and printed in papers and books, which often derives from written or printed papers stored in archives and libraries. But as we have argued in the first part of this blog, many of those paper documents themselves derive from oral tellings of relationships between people or the events in which they participated. Historians like Alan Atkinson recognise this.

Australia is full of examples of communities, particularly Aboriginal, who maintain their own local and personal histories beyond the prying eyes of other people. There is a particularly fine collection of such histories edited by Luise Hercus and Peter Sutton in the book This is What Happened: Historical Narratives by Aborigines. These  range from an account of the first encounter between the Dutch and the people of Cape Keerweer, through massacres and encounters with Native Police, to the history of the Wave Hill Strike and the first Federal Government handback of Aboriginal Land by Gough Whitlam to Vincent Lingiari. Sutton’s careful analysis of the circumstances of the first of these raises questions about the time-depth of such oral histories. Substantial evidence around the world suggests that there is a limit of about 10 generations for the retention of precise information. Yet Patrick Nunn, in particular, claimed that Aboriginal mythology from around the country retains information about flood events of rising sea-levels at the end of the last Ice Age. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the plausibility of such claims — not least because of the need to define the interaction between different sorts of orally transmitted information, and the context in which it moves from the interpersonal to the mythological and finally into ritualised story telling.

Oral histories are emerging now as Aboriginal people, such as Lance Sullivan, interact with a broader community and share their stories. It remains to be seen how knowledge of histories at this more intimate scale might affect the broader narratives constructed by people who have not, hitherto, cared very much about the fate of the survivors. And how the survivors will construct narratives of their own experiences on that broader canvas.

This post has considered only the subtlety of interaction between oral and written accounts, without saying anything about the other great source of information about the past archaeology. Similar nuanced discussions are needed about the different qualities of information from archaeological evidence, and then the interactions between archaeological histories (what we call archaeohistory), oral histories and histories derived from documents.


Atkinson, A. 2004 The Europeans in Australia. A History. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, I., H. Burke, L.A. Wallis, B. Barker, E. Hatte and N. Cole 2018 Connecting Myall Creek and the Wonomo. In J. Lydon and L. Ryan (eds), Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre, pp.100–111. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.

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

Hercus, L. and P. Sutton 1996 This is What Happened: Historical Narratives by Aborigines. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Press.

[i] To read the full transcript of Lance’s 2019 interview with Georgia Moodie of the ABC, go to

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