WHO would imagine that 200 painted and armed Aboriginal warriors threatened mayhem on the colonial frontier in Australia?
It reads like fiction, doesn't it? It's so unlikely, that it seems more like a barely believable plot of an American 'western', but set locally.
In fact, such a war party scene was conceived for a movie and outlined by none other than Kirk Douglas. The late American film star from Hollywood's golden age was in Australia years ago preparing for dual roles in the iconic film Man From Snowy River.
Douglas was pitching his climactic script idea to sceptical filmmaker and radio broadcaster Phillip Adams about an American cowboy called Quigley visiting Western Australia in the 1860s. Here, the lanky yank would lead a "revolution" of Aboriginals, a few hundred strong, menacing evil-doers from high above on a ridgeline.
Adams was far from impressed, and the pair almost came to blows. Adams then politely told Douglas about some of the realities of Aboriginal Australia. That included his view that while at least 40,000 Aboriginals were killed in our Frontier Wars early on, they mainly consisted of people in small tribes who were largely nomadic, not organised mass groups.
Adams was shown the door. But then, much later, a film exploiting the theme called Quigley Down Under, starring Tom Selleck, was released in 1990. Adams' parting shot to Douglas was: "Kirk, this script seems to confuse Aborigines with Zulus."
But maybe Douglas had unwittingly hit on a rare, but now largely forgotten, phenomenon that appears to have been almost airbrushed out of popular history.
After a careful check of colonial records, such big groups of Aboriginals, on occasion, weren't so unusual. The episode described at the start of this story actually did occur, and it was in the Hunter.
The incident of a big, planned attack, as a reprisal against alleged white wrong-doing, occurred at Merton, opposite Denman, in the last week of August 1826. The heroine of the standoff was the fearless Mary Ogilvie, who was in a house protecting her children. Merton had been the focus of racial tensions after the wrongful arrests of some Aboriginal farm workers.
Fearing the anger of the district Aboriginal groups, the mounted police involved hastily decamped at night, leaving Mary and the family property undefended. Mary, whose children were playing outside the homestead, defused the tense stand-off amid poised spears, getting the leader of the assembled warriors to agree the Ogilvies had done no wrong. The warlike group left.
Another surprise was the role played by Aboriginal guide Myles.
A potentially deadly confrontation was avoided. But a few days later, farm overseer Richard Alcorn and others at Fal Brook (Glennies Creek) weren't so lucky when 15 Aboriginal men bombarded their hut with spears. Two hut dwellers died and the white survivors claimed the attack was unprovoked, but the ferocity suggested retaliation for some unknown offence.
Soon after, a party of mounted police and settlers made a retaliatory raid on a campsite. Two offending natives died, officially. A later newspaper report indicated, however, that 18 Aboriginals died in what amounted to a massacre.
According to Singleton-raised professional historian Mark Dunn, the incident, although remembered by Aboriginal people in the Hunter, was "lost in White Australia's colonial memory among the increasingly violent reports from Tasmania in the later 1820s and the shocking accounts from Myall Creek in 1838".
It was with a great deal of anticipation then that I opened Dunn's new book The Convict Valley, subtitled 'The bloody struggle on Australia's early frontier'. I was then initially, well, frankly disappointed. About two-thirds of the book seemed to focus on Hunter Valley early settlement (from 1790 to the 1850s), including familiar tales about the woes of the early penal settlement of Coal River (Newcastle), the cedar cutters upriver and the eventual kick-starting of modern Newcastle with large-scale private coal-mining operations conducted by the powerful A.A. Company in the 1830s.
Delving deeper, however, has its rewards. Instead of expected major new revelations adding to the national massacre map project still underway, there was a wealth of unexpected detail in a revealing snapshot about the extraordinary past of our valley, just told in a different way.
By his own admission, Dunn feels that the valley's convict history has been overlooked and he aims to resurrect forgotten stories. Dunn writes, "Like our convict past, Aboriginal history is barely remembered in the Hunter.
"In the mad scramble for land in the 1820s, the valley was opened to free settlers, tensions increased and Aboriginal people were put under enormous pressures. Their Country was being overrun, and violence erupted."
Revelations include how Major James Morisset, former prison commandant at Newcastle, would declare martial law in the western plains in 1824, culminating in the killing of at least 16 Aboriginal people near Mudgee to halt roaming warrior bands coming into the Hunter from the Bathurst region.
Another surprise was the role played by Aboriginal guide Myles, sent by explorer John Howe to investigate a possible route into the Upper Hunter in late 1819.
Myles would lead possibly the first armed all-Aboriginal expedition in colonial Australia. It successfully pioneered the first viable route connecting the Hawkesbury settlement with the Hunter Valley. The Putty Road follows this route very closely today. It was a remarkable turnaround.
According to Dunn, Myles received a musket as reward for being a pathfinder, but, more importantly, he was rehabilitated. In the space of three years, trusted guide Myles had gone from being a wanted outlaw and hunted rebel to rewarded explorer. Perhaps it gave him "some security on the potentially volatile frontier" and even status among both the British rulers and his own people.
Another revelation includes the statistic that more than 71,640 cedar logs alone were stripped from Hunter forests and shipped to Sydney from convict settlement Newcastle until it closed in 1821. The total value of the cedar was almost two and a half times that of all the coal extracted.
Unfortunately, the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre by 11 convict stockmen of 30 men, women and children (while not in the Hunter admittedly) and the aftermath is only given a brief, but telling, mention. After seven executions, many future killings, however, went unreported.
For despite an earlier reliance on Indigenous knowledge and bushcraft, "many colonists increasingly considered Aboriginal people to be inferior and dangerous", Dunn reports.
Meticulously researched and engagingly written, Dunn's book is a towering achievement of depth and quality.
Dunn is descended from convict settlers in the Hunter and he comes with knowledge acquired over 20 years looking into the region's history.
His book, originally the subject of his doctorate degree, may well in time become a landmark, even classic, work. As it is, the book should prove to be an invaluable resource for serious researchers, while being a handy, quick go-to guide for casual readers interested in the Hunter's colourful past.
Newcastle's convict days have frequently been neglected. Many Sydneysiders, I suspect, still believe our brutal penal era ended at the Hawkesbury and maybe then resumed in Tasmania.
That's why Dunn's book is such a long overdue recognition of the Hunter and deserves to be applauded.