The poster for the 2012 docu-drama 'Coniston' about the 1928 massacre. Photo: PAW Productions
In the lead-up to the Sunday just gone, Channel 7 was promoting a special on the Port Arthur Massacre. This special, which featured "never seen before" footage, has undoubtedly drawn high ratings for the station from an Australian public who remembers the horror and tragedy of that day. In April 1996, Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old man from Hobart, killed 35 people in cold blood and wounded a further 28. It was a pivotal moment in history and led to wide-ranging gun law reforms being implemented by then Prime Minister John Howard. Twenty years on, it's an event that should never be forgotten. To do so would encourage complacency and would deny those left behind the right to acknowledge their grief and commemorate those they lost.
Yet, when Channel 7 referred to Port Arthur as "Australia's Worst Massacre", my blood ran cold. When it comes to massacres which have occurred in this country, Port Arthur is not even the worst one to have occurred in the past one hundred years. Indeed, as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre, so too does it mark the 100th anniversary of the Mowla Bluff Massacre, where up to 400 Aboriginal men, women and children were gunned down on a cattle station south of Derby, Western Australia. Aboriginal people there had responded to brutality experienced at the hands of the station manager and in response were murdered and their bodies burnt. Only three people survived and police who "investigated" stated they couldn't find evidence of a massacre. Witness statements unearthed amongst police records 80 years later confirmed the horror. A documentary film entitled Whispering in Our Hearts has since been made to educate people of this event.
This may be a strange way to start an article on the importance of International Women's Day, but at its very core, International Women's Day is a day of struggle, staunchness and remembrance. It began in commemoration of the 1908 International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union strike against the exploitative and brutal sweatshop conditions they were working in. Tides of time have often forgotten the staunch political roots of this day. Indeed as women's stories and actions tend to be ignored in a world which continually centralises and celebrates the achievements of white men, International Women's Day often just becomes a day of acknowledging there are women on the planet and sometimes they do notable stuff.
If the struggles and achievements women have had in this country often get ignored, this phenomenon occurs even more distinctly when it comes to the struggles Aboriginal people have had and, in particular, Aboriginal women. It should be noted that the retaliation Aboriginal men took at Mowla Bluff was partially in response to the continual rapes the women were experiencing at the hands of the station manager and his workers. It should additionally be noted that the 1928 Coniston Massacre in the Northern Territory, which saw up to 170 Aboriginal people brutally murdered, carries a similar theme of sexual exploitation. It was precipitated due to the murder of dingo hunter Fred Brooks.
Brooks had camped with some local people at a waterhole 23km from the Coniston Homestead and offered the payment of food in exchange for one of the women, Marungali, washing his clothes. Brooks never paid this food, and was killed by Marungali, her husband Bullfrog and his uncle Padirrka after Bullfrog found Brooks in the apparent process of sexually assaulting Marungali. What next happened was a series of government sanctioned murders of Aboriginal people, mainly under the suspicion of cattle spearing but also following a report that a settler at Broadmeadows station, William Morton, had been wounded. Morton himself had a reputation for sexually assaulting many local women. As with Mowla Bluff, most Australians don't know about Coniston.
International Women's Day is about pushing the struggles and achievements of women from the wings to the centre stage and remaining strong in the fight for equality. I personally feel that in doing this, we tend to neglect the unique struggles Aboriginal women have faced, both because they are women and because they are Indigenous. IWD therefore provides a unique opportunity as women to look at our history honestly and with integrity to ensure that while we're struggling for gender equality, certain women aren't left behind because as a nation we remain too scared to tell their stories. For when it comes to Australia, Aboriginal women have fought and survived the absolute worst of it. Our stories give vital insight into what is needed to ensure we are striving for a more egalitarian society where such horrors are never repeated. A "herstory" in this country will never be complete without the voices of Aboriginal women.