The magistrate from Tralee who took a stand on Aboriginal genocide
Denny Day’s work led to conviction of 7 men - 3 Irish - for Myall Creek massacre of 1838
‘Fight between aborigines and mounted whites’, by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913). Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia
After I arrived in Melbourne back in the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear crude Aboriginal jokes. Needless to say, these “jokes” were unbelievably offensive and racist. Thankfully, such jokes are now well beyond the pale, but there is still little to celebrate when it comes to the welfare of Australia’s long suffering Indigenous people.
President Michael D Higgins was absolutely correct to say during his recent visit to Australia that our Irish forebears inflicted injustices on Australia’s Indigenous people.
The historic apology, by former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, was well received by many, including our Aboriginal community. But Australia still has a long way to go. Many believe that Rudd’s apology is just a tiny, perhaps even timid, step in the right direction.
It may surprise many to learn that as recently as 1967, Australia finally held a referendum to amend our constitution to give Aborigines the right to vote.
Perhaps President Higgins can take some solace from the heroic deeds of Denny Day, a vicar’s son from Tralee, who took a stand against Aboriginal genocide almost 200 years ago.
Day arrived in the colony of New South Wales as a police magistrate. One of his first tasks was to deal with the Myall Creek massacre of 1838.
As a reprisal for the alleged spearing of livestock, a party of stockmen shot and killed at least 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camped at a Myall Creek station. The stockmen attempted to dispose of the evidence of their crime by dismembering and burning the bodies.
This massacre was just one of many took place all over Australia, including here in Tasmania where I live. No one knows how many massacres. In many instances, killings were hushed up, and viewed as necessary, to teach the “black fella” a lesson.
President Higgins is to be applauded for being so candid during his visit. While many historians and academics will agree with him, very few Australian politicians believe there is anything to be gained by turning a spotlight on the misdeeds of our forefathers. Another of our former prime ministers, John Howard, counselled against Australians taking on what he termed a black armband view of our history.
What makes Myall Creek significant, apart from the barbarity of the crime, is that this was the first time white perpetrators were held to account for their crimes. It was Day who determinedly organised a posse that subsequently rounded up the 11 stockmen suspects. Among those charged with murder was John Russell, a 33- year-old domestic servant from Co Tipperary, Edward Foley, a 30-year-old stockman originally from Co Laois, and John Blake, a 27-year-old butcher from Co Meath.
Despite graphic eyewitness accounts of the massacre, the all-white, male jury, after deliberating for just 15 minutes, found all 11 defendants (who had all arrived in the colony as convicts) not guilty. But the attorney-general John Hubert Plunkett, an Irishman from Roscommon, refused to accept the verdict and he ordered a retrial for the following week.
Day was vilified for daring to bring anyone to account for the massacre. The hostile Australian press supported the belief that “the blacks” were untrustworthy and inferior human beings, to be regarded with hostility and suspicion. The Sydney Morning Herald, an influential broadsheet at the time, published several articles decrying Day’s actions. Aborigines were regarded by the press as being subhuman. Extrajudicial killings of Aborigines who displayed any hostility to the early settlers was considered entirely justifiable.
Day’s determination prevailed, and seven of the defendants, including Russell, Foley and Blake, were subsequently found guilty at the second trial. They were publicly executed at The Rocks outside Sydney Gaol on December 18th, 1838. Such was the public disquiet that a large number of armed troops had to be deployed to deter any mob violence.
The remaining four defendants were remanded in custody due to a lack of evidence. But the case against them was eventually dropped after a key witness, a young black station hand named Yintayintin, disappeared. Rumours abounded that he was murdered. Whatever the truth, he was never seen again.
Australia is yet to come to terms with the bloody origins of its white settlement history. Much of this nation’s colonial history is yet to be fully scrutinised. Some say that not enough time has elapsed for this conversation to be had.
But Denny Day, the vicar’s son from Tralee, has secured his place in Australian history; even if the obituaries at the time of his death in 1876 made no mention of his extraordinary efforts to bring the perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre to justice.