Resistance and Reprisal

A sunset, red sky reflecting on the water with for the foreground and bush background in dark silhouette.

The pervading terror of Lieutenant Cobban’s 1938 New England Expedition

The violent exploits of government-sanctioned operatives like Cobban were evidently exempt from prosecution.”

Callum Clayton-Dixon

Any idea that the colonization of Australia was conducted largely peacefully is being challenged by a generation of Aboriginal researchers, among them Callum Clayton-Dixon, an Ambēyaŋ researcher working at UNE. Callum is currently researching the circumstances under which the Anaiwan language was lost͛ from the New England region, and his conclusion is that it was forced into dormancy by the sheer intensity and rapidity of colonization in the region, and that the terrors of vigilante vengeance and officially sanctioned military operations helped make way for the ensuing cultural genocide.

One such episode occurred in early 1838, just a few months before the now-infamous massacre at Myall Creek (June 1838) when Lieutenant George Cobban led a force of Mounted Police from the Peel River onto southern New England. The expedition was ‘to employ coercive measures’ against local Aboriginal Peoples, whose armed resistance had ‘aroused the attention of the Government’. In defence of their land against the European invaders, Aboriginal warriors were killing colonists, and destroying livestock. Cobban’s action was in response to the killing of several shepherds working at Mihi Creek and on Yarrowitch Station. The information of their whereabouts had been extracted from local Aboriginal Peoples, Cobban admitted, ‘by threats and the promise of rewards’. Cobban reported that after three weeks pursuing the alleged assailants, they were tracked down. The Lieutenant and his troops ambushed the group, with at least two Aboriginal men killed in that attack. Survivors were marched down to Port Macquarie, then on to Sydney to face trial. Although officially deemed criminals by colonial authorities, local Aboriginal Peoples remember them as prisoners taken in an undeclared war.

Arriving in New England a year later, George James Macdonald, the districts’ inaugural Commissioner of Crown Lands, found there to be ‘a general and pervading terror of the Mounted Police’ among the Tablelands’ Aboriginal population; ‘a feeling instilled probably at some former period from having been pursued by them’. Such comments are a glimpse into the lasting ramifications of Cobban’s dealings with local Aboriginal Peoples in 1838, which clearly played a significant role in establishing a reign of fear and oppression over them and their descendants.

The expedition took place just a few months before the infamous massacre at Myall Creek, where a posse of 12 stockmen brutally murdered 28 Aboriginal people — women, children, and old men. After a second trial, seven of the perpetrators were found guilty, and they were hanged for their crimes. Questioning what he saw as a double standard exercised by the government of New South Wales, parliamentarian Stuart Donaldson pointed out that George Cobban ‘had slaughtered the blacks as cruelly as the men who were executed’. Rather than being brought to trial and punished accordingly, the Lieutenant was merely transferred to a post in another district. Meanwhile, the violent exploits of government-sanctioned operatives like Cobban were evidently exempt from prosecution. The death, destruction and whatever ‘collateral damage’ that these military men inflicted was simply written off as byproducts of pastoral expansion; the necessary means by which the colonisation project could proceed.

‘By reclaiming our history from the colonial archives,’ says Callum, ‘and telling their story, we honour our ancestors’ fierce resistance, their sheer resilience in the face of having the world they knew so violently disrupted.’

‘A large body of mounted police left Jerry Plains about ten days ago, in their route to Liverpool Plains. It was understood their destination was to employ coercive measures towards the New England tribe of Aborigines…’ (Sydney Gazette, February, 1838.)

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