3 May 1804
On 3 May 1804, a group of about three hundred Aboriginal Tasmanian men, women and children were hunting kangaroos at Risdon Cove, on the outskirts of the first British settlement on the island, which had been established the previous autumn. Edward White, an ex-convict settler saw the Aborigines and ran to alert British marines, under the command of lieutenant William More, who immediately marched to confront the hunting party.
Moments after arriving, the soldiers opened fire with cannon and grapeshot, killing a large number, even though there had been absolutely no threat of violence.1 White later testified that ‘they looked at me with all their eyes… [they] did not threaten me. I was not afraid of them. They had no spears with them, only waddies (hunting sticks)’ adding that as the soldiers approached ‘the Natives did not attack the soldiers; they would not have molested them.’2
William Charles Wentworth, the Australian author and explorer, though he didn’t witness the event, spoke with residents in the nearby town of Hobart on his way to England in 1816, and he was also convinced that the British troops had been unduly trigger happy. ‘At first,’ he wrote, ‘the natives evinced a most friendly disposition towards the newcomers (in Tasmania) and would probably have been actuated by the same friendly feeling to this day, had not the military officer entrusted with the command, directed a discharge of grape and canister shot… The havoc occasioned among them by this murderous discharge was dreadful.’3
White’s testimony also concurred on this point, recalling that when the soldiers opened fire ‘there were a great many of the natives slaughtered and wounded.’ The Australian historian James Backhouse Walker later concluded that White’s account of the massacre was likely to be true and appeared to be ‘the story of a man who had kept his head amid the general panic.’ Further support for White’s version of events came from an Aborigines Committee set up by the British administration to manage an inquiry into the massacre soon after the event.4 It concluded that possibly up to fifty Aborigines had been killed. It also noted that Jacob Mountgarret, a British surgeon, exploited the grisly opportunity to collect some of the human remains, salting down two casks of bones which he dispatched to Sydney in the name of ‘science’.5
- Lyndall Ryan, ‘Risdon Cove Massacre: A Reassessment,’ accessed online at https://www.academia.edu/8844776/Risdon_Cove_massacre_a_reassessment
- Edward White cited in Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage 2003, p. 414 and in Philip Tardif, ‘Risdon Cove’ in Robert Manne (Editor), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc. Agenda, 2003 p. 220.
- William Charles Wentworth cited in Lyndall Ryan, Rison Cove and the Massacre of 3 May 1804: Their Place in Tasmanian History, accessed online at url https://gsp.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/200409420.pdf
- Edward White and J.B. Walker cited in Philip Tardif, ‘Risdon Cove’ in Robert Manne (Editor), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc. Agenda, 2003 p. 219.
- Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, I.B. Tauris, London, 2014, p. 32 and Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage 2003, p. 414.
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