“Each poor poisoned wretch”: Distributing death by poison on Queensland’s colonial frontier

By Lynley Wallis

We have written before about why finding evidence for frontier massacres in the archaeological record is extremely difficult. There are several reasons why this is the case, not least because most causes of death are soft tissue injuries that leave little trace upon skeletal remains. This is especially the case for victims of poisoning.

The use of poisons for inflicting death has been known for thousands of years, being commonly used for assassination in the Roman World, and then later in Medieval Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Poisons were also commonly used in gatherer-fisher-hunter societies, but more often as a weapon for hunting than dispensing with one’s enemies. A common example is the use of ichthyotoxic substances to ‘poison’ waterholes by removing the oxygen from the water, thereby allowing fish to be easily collected a short time later when they float to their surface comatosed or deceased (Acevedo-Rodríguez 1990:2; Heizer 1953:243; MacPherson 1933:158–159; Webb 1969:139). In northern Australian common plant species used for this purpose include manboyberre (white apple; Syzygium forte), ankarlngki (freshwater mangrove; Barringtonia acutangula), mawurrumbulk (Tephrosia spp.), anbarnadjdja (Owenia vernicosa) and djankarr (Striga curviflora) (Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre 2019). Other Australian plants were known to be extremely toxic to humans and required complex processing to render them suitable as a food source. Of these perhaps the most common were Cycas spp. and Macrozamia seeds (e.g. Asmussen 2009, 2011; Smith 1982), along with a range of nuts in the Wet Tropics (e.g. Ferrier and Cosgrove 2012). As such, Indigenous Australians were very familiar with the effects of poisoning on both humans and other animals.

Death on the Australian colonial frontier was typically inflicted by Europeans at the end of a gun, or by Indigenous peoples at the end of a spear or waddy. However, after seven White men were hanged for their part in the mass murder of at least 28 Wirrayaraay people at Myall Creek on the Gwydir River in NSW on 10 June 1838, there was an incentive for such killings to become more clandestine. Poisoning was one means by which this aim was realised. If poison is ingested over a long period of time, evidence of it may show up in the hair and nails of victims, but in Australia these parts rarely preserve archaeologically, and most frontier poisonings appear to have been carried out in large doses for immediate effect. As such, unless there were first-hand witness accounts that pointed to the use of poison, it was very easy for Europeans guilty of this crime to escape detection. 

The adoption of poison as a deliberate strategy by Europeans was facilitated by the introduction of toxic chemicals associated mostly with the pastoral sheep industry after the 1820s and 1830s. The sheep disease scab is caused by a parasitic mite (Psoroptes communis ovis) introduced into Australia with the sheep that arrived with the First Fleet in 1788; the disease had become widespread by the 1820s (Seddon 1964; Stewart 1945). The nature of pastoralism at the time was ideal for its spread, as flocks were confined to folds each night, allowing the mites to easily move from infected to disease-free sheep, and the movement of sheep from one part of the countryside to another was largely unregulated. Infestations can result in high death rates through loss of condition, malnutrition, secondary infections and hypothermia, and thus pastoralists were keen to arrest its spread by whatever means possible. Treatments for scab vary, but a very common one during the nineteenth century was an arsenic dip (arsenic was actually a by-product of gold mining and only later used as a pesticide; Rae 2003). As such, this poison was readily available to pastoralists and their shepherds, who were often at actual or perceived risk of attack when undertaking their work in remote locations.

Arsenic was commonly used for treating the disease ‘scab’ in sheep in the nineteenth century.

By the 1840s then, when the southern parts of Queensland (then comprising the northern part of the colony of New South Wales) were first being taken over by pastoralists, arsenic was widely available and the practice of inflicting death on Aboriginal people through its use appears also to have become common. With a claim that drew the attention of English authorities, Dr James Thompson, of Pall-mall East, wrote to the Editor of the weekly London journal Colonial Gazette of 17 February 1844 with an accusation about the widespread use of this means of distributing death:

In certain districts in the Bunya Bunya country some sheep flocks became affected with scab, and in the effort at curing them of this a preparation of arsenic is generally had recourse to; and during this period the sheep are not allowed to range far from the squatter’s settlement or habitation until a cure is accomplished; but when this remedy fails, and there is no prospect of saving the sheep, it had latterly been the custom to let the sheep considered incurable at large, and previous to doing so they are rubbed over again with the preparation of arsenic until they become saturated with the remedy: they are then driven far away into the vicinity of where the unsuspecting victims are bivouacking, and who, from the encroachment of the settlers and the loss of their natural means of subsistence — the kangaroos, &c. — are driven, by dire necessity, to take off a few sheep from any stray flock they may fall in with. The natives soon discover these sheep thus put in their way: they take them to their gunyas or wood encampments, kill them, and partake of the flesh, which, as was intended, is now surcharged with poison; and it is unnecessary to relate the fatal results to the poor natives. They soon become seized with all the fearful symptoms of poisoning by arsenic, and, horrible to contemplate, die in the most excruciating agony; those of them that escape leave the bodies of their friends and relatives behind, a prey to the carrion birds of the forest. This appalling truth is now mentioned to prove that there are men calling themselves Britons, in the distant parts of the interior of New Holland, anxious not only to palliate the most direful atrocities when discovered, but to prevent their disclosure by the most unworthy means! In this instance six or eight of the poor natives died, though 50 or 60 of them suffered for days from the effects of the poisoned meat.

Colonial Gazette, 17 February 1844

Unsurprisingly, Thompson’s accusation was met with vehement denials from those who declared it to be nonsense and unsubstantiated, but there is certainly strong circumstantial evidence that it was indeed true. It is likely that Thompson was making reference to what has come to be known as perhaps the most well-known poisoning event in Queensland, that at Kilcoy in 1842, given the proximity of the Bunya Mountains just 50 km distant. Sometime in the first half of 1842 pastoralist brothers Colin and Evan MacKenzie were alleged to have poisoned a batch of flour and given it to Aboriginal people, who took it away to make damper. “Shortly after some of those who had eaten of it took fits, and ran to the water and died there, others died on the way, and some got very sick but recovered. The old men showed father how each poor poisoned wretch had jumped about before he died” (Petrie 1904:149).

This account gained credibility when James Davis, also known as Duramboi, a convict who escaped from the Moreton Bay Depot in 1829 and lived with Aboriginal people until he was found in 1842 by Andrew Petrie, recounted the Aboriginal version of events to various white settlers including Petrie. In telling the story Duramboi “went through all the scene of the death of some fifty or sixty blacks: a strangely truthful delineation of the first pangs experienced: the ferocious wrath upon the discovery of the trap into which they had fallen: the increasing agonies: the crawling to water: the insatiable burning thirst: then—death” (Russell 1888:279-280)

Other poisonings in Queensland in the mid-1840s included a well-documented account of convict Charley Sellers of the Moreton Bay Convict Depot giving Aboriginal people biscuits containing arsenic. This occurred at the government-run farm known as Plough Station, near Ipswich, in mid-1844, after a dispute over a female member of the clan. Numerous recipients became sick, with one man, Docto, “vomiting dreadfully, unceasingly calling for water”; afterwards he departed into the bush and was never again seen alive. Two of Sellers’ hut mates, who had also eaten some of the biscuits, similarly felt sick, but recovered. Being aware that Sellers was in the habit of using arsenic to harden tallow, they reported their suspicions to their overseer that he might have deliberately poisoned the biscuits. An autopsy on Docto carried out by Dr David Ballow revealed his stomach contents tested positive for the presence of arsenic and they were sent down to Sydney for the “usual tests”. Sellers was held in confinement until the case was investigated further pending advice given by the Attorney General; as yet we have been unable to ascertain what the ultimate outcome of the investigation was or whether Sellers was ever punished.

A few years later, another arsenic poisoning incident gained notoriety, although again it did not result in any formal punishment by colonial authorities. On 18 November 1846 a convict hut-keeper named Campbell, working at Captain George Griffin’s station, Whiteside, on the Pine River, was injured from a blow from a waddy thrown by an Aboriginal, likely Gubbi Gubbi, man. Although Campbell survived and was eventually able to return to work, he lost the sight in one eye. The months following this initial incident saw a cycle of increasing violence in the vicinity of Whiteside, and there seems little doubt that all parties were on the constant alert for danger

By about February 1847, at the end of the lambing season, some Whiteside workers decided to take matters into their own hands—it is unclear to what extent George Griffin was aware of their plan. It was alleged that, before leaving the station at the end of the lambing season, “they mixed together a quantity of arsenic and flour, and then left it in the hut, expecting the blacks would visit the hut and make use of the mixture”. The numbers of people who died from this poisoning is unknown: at least three died, though a figure of 70 deaths was mentioned at the 1861 inquiry into the Native Mounted Police Force. When questioned about the killings by the Police Magistrate, the workers alleged to have been responsible “denied that any mixture had been deliberately made of the flour and arsenic by any one, but admitted that a quantity of flour only had been left in the hut, and that the blacks themselves had mixed it in a dish in which there were some remains of arsenic that had been used in a preparation for the sheep”. Rumours about the killings were seemingly common in the region at the time and in the decades following, with prominent Brisbane colonist Tom Petrie (Andrew Petrie’s son) writing about the affair in his memoir some half century later. Griffin, a prominent White colonist, had effectively shielded himself with plausible deniability of the affair, and seemingly once again no one was ever punished for it.

Beyond arsenic, another common poison on the frontier was strychnine. First discovered in 1818 by French chemists, strychnine crystals were soon being exported globally, and in Australia it became the preferred method in the mid-nineteenth century for controlling dingoes that were otherwise prone to attached sheep, and then later for getting rid of rabbits and rats:

The squatter attempts to rid himself of the dingo by poison, and consequently strychnine is as common in a squatters house as castor oil in the nursery. On many large runs carts are continually being taken round with baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head-man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief.

Trollop 1873:500
Strychnine poison was commonly used for destroying dingos; it causes an extremely unpleasant death.

Poisoning by ingesting strychnine is an extremely unpleasant way for any animal or person to die, involving muscular convulsions and eventual asphyxia, usually within a few hours after exposure. The infamous Hornet Bank massacre was allegedly preceded, amongst other events, by a number of Aboriginal people being killed by ingesting strychnine-laced Christmas pudding in 1856.

Intriguingly, there is even an account whereby an attempt was made to poison an NMP officer— John Carroll. An Irishman, John had joined the Queensland Police Force in 1873 as an Acting Sub-Inspector, and was sent to Bowen Downs in 1875. On 26 October 1876 John wrote to his commanding officer Maxwell Armstrong, reporting, 

… an attempt has been made to poison myself and others in my camp by putting strychnine in the bucket of milk brought to my kitchen and to my table. The tea was bitter and unfit for use and, on inspection, I found strychnine in the bucket of milk which trooper “Echo” brought to my kitchen in the morning. On further inspection I found part of the same in the constable’s camp and in the tea which had just been made and fortunately was in time to prevent his wife from drinking. The gin “Louie” gave information that trooper “Echo” was the offender and that he intended, when I should be dead, to desert, in proof of which he did do in the night.

QSA846984 1878 Letter from John Carroll to Colonial Secretary 22 February, 78/843, Colonial Secretarys In Letters Part 4 DR64056

When pressed by Armstrong for further details, John elaborated further: 

[The] Strychnine [was] obtained in my quarters where [it was] kept for destruction of native dogs round camp. The gin “Louie”, the only person first suspected, I immediately put her in irons, separating her from all others in camp and, as I did not believe her statement against Trooper “Echo”, I did not let the troopers know that anything unusual had occurred, and I kept close watch in the night to see if trooper “Echo” in his ignorance of my discovery should desert, which he did do.

QSA846984 1878 Letter from John Carroll to Colonial Secretary 22 February, 78/843, Colonial Secretarys In Letters Part 4 DR64056

John allegedly later told the camp-keeper’s wife, Maria Thomas, that both Echo and Louie had attempted to poison them all (Rockhampton Bulletin, 26 May 1876, p2). When he went after Echo for deserting, John stated “I … attempted his arrest, but as he stood on his own defence I was obliged to resort to force of guns by which he lost his life” (QSA846984 1878 Letter from John Carroll to Colonial Secretary 22 February, 78/843, Colonial Secretarys In Letters Part 4 DR64056).

Later charged with the murder of Echo, John was also accused of severely beating, if not also murdering, another trooper (frustratingly also named “Echo”). Although Carroll’s case went to trial in Aramac, as with most other cases levelled against NMP officers, all charges were dismissed and he was allowed to resign from the police service in July 1876. 

There are also claims that Aboriginal people made use of their own extensive knowledge of local poison to coat their spears, thereby ensuring that even if a victim survived the spearing itself (which often occurred), the associated poison would finish the job: 

  • “A Correspondent writes us from Cooktown about the late dispersion of the blacks on the Palmer Road by Senior-Sergeant Devine … An attack was judiciously planned, and they were dispersed, leaving most of their spears behind them. They are described as being terrible weapons, being poisoned and of great strength … ” (Warwick Examiner and Times, 20 November 1875, p2)
  • “Drew … was speedily speared in the back with a three-barbed spear. He succeeded in getting back to the boat, the spear still sticking in his back, and Cook managed to extract it by cutting and pulling it out. The wound over 4in. in depth, in a slanting direction, very close to the back-bone. The spear was pointed with bone, and supposed to be poisoned …” (Brisbane Courier, 10 November 1882, p4)
  • “Douglas was nearly wounded in 1874 on the Palmer during a dispersal, after a poisoned spear pierced the sleeve of his jacket and narrowly missed his chest” (Northern Argus, 17 February 1874, p2).

Despite these claims, it is not clear whether Aboriginal spears in the north (from where the three accounts above all derive) really were poisoned or whether this was just another myth perpetuated to demonstrate the “uncivilised” nature of Aboriginal people, poison often being seen as a cowardly way to kill: “The blacks, about 200 in number, attacked two men on the Laura, one of whom they killed — the other had a spear through his thigh; fortunately the blacks up here do not poison their spears, they probably do not understand how to do it” (Daily Northern Argus, 8 February 1875, p2).

Despite this, there seems little doubt that the widespread availability of both strychnine and arsenic on the colonial Queensland frontier led to its being used as a key weapon against Aboriginal people. The lack of evidence for such poisonings, even when modern forensic analyses are brough to bear (Smith et al. 20217), clearly allowed many responsible for inflicting such atrocities to literally ‘get away with murder’.


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