The Sydney wars

In early 1816, in a huge arc around the Cumberland Plain from Lane Cove on the north shore to Bringelly in the west and Camden in the south, attacks and raids on settlers’ farms occurred in what the Sydney Gazette described as a coordinated and concerted campaign by the ‘mountain’s natives’.

At about five in the afternoon of 10 March Samuel Hassall, a settler at Macquarie Grove (near modern-day Camden airport), was in his ‘little room composing and committing to paper a Morning Prayer’ when a messenger arrived with worrying news. Two local Aboriginal men had just informed him that ‘the whole body of Gundenoran [Gandangarra] natives intended to attack Mr Macarthur’s farm [Upper and Lower Camden] to plunder and murder all before them’.

They then planned to ‘proceed down to Mr Oxley’s to act with them in the same manner’, Hassall heard, and attack his own farm. This gave him ‘a severe alarm on account of the little ones’ and he immediately sent his family away to safety. His next duty was to report to the local magistrate.

At magistrate Robert Lowe’s farm, Birling, a small detachment of soldiers had arrived and Lowe was busy gathering ‘all the arms and ammunition in his district’. Then came news that three of the Macarthurs’ servants at Upper Camden had ‘fallen victim to the dreadful atrocities of the savage natives’. The armed party ‘immediately distributed the ammunition … which afforded but a small proportion to each man’.

In Hassall’s account, they ‘mustered about forty armed men, some with muskets some with pistols some with pitch forks some with pikes and others with nothing’. Lowe’s force marched to Lower then Upper Camden where a ‘small company of the more friendly natives’ said they could guide them to the warriors who had committed the ‘dreadful atrocities’. They also warned the militia that these warriors ‘would show fight whenever attacked’.

This indeed proved to be the case. They had not travelled far — probably somewhere on the nearby Razorback Range — when ‘their enemy was upon them’ and the warriors, as Hassall described it, ‘began to dance in a manner daring our approach’. When the militia ‘advanced toward them … they threw a shower of spears’. Lowe’s men commenced firing ‘but to little affect owing to the disorder of our men’ and with ‘the enemy … posted on a high perpendicular rock’, ‘spears and stones came in great abundance’.

According to Hassall, ‘the natives would fall down as soon as the men would present their muskets to them and then get up and dance’. He could not but wonder that ‘a great number of us’ were not killed. In this ‘bad and dangerous situation’ the militia began to retreat, and the retreat then turned into a rout. Hassall, on horseback, ‘could scarce keep up with some of them’, who ‘even threw off their shoes to enable them to run fast’.

The desperation in Hassall’s letters is palpable. He describes how settlers and shepherds were ‘leaving their flocks behind to the mercy of the storm’. After their victory, the warriors broke off pursuit and Lowe managed to rally his men. But bands of hundreds of warriors had been seen in the area. Groups of refugees from various scattered farms had gathered at Narellan and were told to flee as ‘the natives had obliged us to retreat’.

One defiant woman said ‘she would not go till her husband went with her, or she would die with him’. After returning to Macquarie Grove, Hassall found to his ‘very agreeable surprise’, ‘a reinforcement’ and ‘ammunition’. Now the defensive militia was in full swing. That night they ‘stood armed on watch, taking turns all night long’. Hassall remained ‘in daily expectation’ of the warriors ‘paying another visit’.

The battle at Razorback, the growing number of raids and the mounting settler deaths forced Governor Macquarie to act. His response was to mobilise the largest military expedition in the history of the colony ‘so as to Strike them with Terror against Committing Similar Acts of Violence in future’.

Macquarie’s infamous campaign of April 1816, which resulted in the massacre of at least 14 Dharawal people at Appin, involved well-coordinated infantry detachments sweeping through the west and southwest of the Cumberland Plain. The campaign effectively ended resistance to the Europeans in the Sydney region and on its fringes (although there were smaller conflicts into 1817).

The campaign was developed in response to the aggressive tactics and military victories of the Aboriginal warriors, and the number of European deaths. Ultimately, Macquarie well understood that this situation could not continue if the colony was to expand across the mountains and to the south towards the ‘new discovered lands’. An often-overlooked factor in Macquarie’s thinking was his realisation that the supply route to Bathurst via Cox’s road was under threat. A detachment was ordered to defend it and escort all government movements along the route.

Hassall’s description of events has largely been ignored by historians, or treated as a farcical example of settler retaliation. However, it contains graphic details of a desperate foray by a scratch militia force against a concerted campaign by warriors that showed significant signs of preparation and planning.

The warriors lured the militia into advancing up a rocky hill until they were close enough for ‘showers’ of spears and stones — almost certainly stockpiled in advance. This excellent guerilla warfare tactic had been refined in the Sydney region over years of conflict and armed confrontations with settlers and soldiers.

As the settlements expanded across the Cumberland Plain, its rugged fringes became, as James Ryan put it, ‘a very advantageous retreating ground’. It was here that warriors were victorious in several engagements, using terrain of their choice, often with stockpiled weaponry. The Blue Mountains are remembered from school history as ‘impassable barriers’ that were only ‘conquered’ by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth after more than 20 years of attempts. Yet for Gandangarra, Dharug, Dharawal, Darkinjung and other Aboriginal people, they were places of retreat, safety and ambush during what one colonist described as the long-running ‘open war between the natives and the settlers’.

Stephen Gapps, photograph

Stephen Gapps, photograph by Joy Lai and Phong Nguyen

My research at the Library has involved piecing together details from accounts of conflict across the Cumberland Plain and its fringes between 1788 and 1817 as part of a broader story of resistance and warfare in the Sydney region. I have also compiled the first detailed list of all recorded casualties and mapped all the locations of conflict.

In letters, diaries, journals and official records of the early colony of New South Wales, conflict with Aboriginal people was often described as ‘war’. At times it was intermittent, at others intense, and for periods almost non-existent. Yet it was recognised as ongoing and widespread. It is time that a detailed history of warfare in the Sydney region is brought to the broader public and recognised in the commemorative landscape.


Sydney-based historian and museum curator Dr Stephen Gapps was the 2017 Merewether Fellow. His book Cabrogal to Fairfield won a NSW Premier’s History Award in 2011 and The Sydney Wars will be published by NewSouth Books in May 2018. Stephen will present a Scholarly Musings talk at the Library on 3 July 2018.


Sources:

Samuel to Thomas Hassall, 16 March 1816, Hassall Family Correspondence, ML A1677/3, 619–22, 627–30

Bowman, ‘Memorandum on the early state of the Blacks for Mr Scott’, SARNSW, 13696, 5/1161, 102, 102a

John Connor, The Australian Frontier Wars 1788–1838, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005