I have just finished reading Goodbye Bussamarai, about how Europeans displaced the Aborigines in the part of Australia I live in. Subtitled less evocatively “The Mandandanji Land War Southern Queensland 1842-1852”, the book is simultaneously a work of great research, and a difficult, dense and sometimes dull read. Author Patrick Collins laments the fact that most Australians have heard of the Apaches heroes like Cochise and Geronimo but few have heard of tribes such as the Mandandanji and their leaders such as Bussamarai.
The problem is the record is patchy, written by whites and with the most awkward bits left out. It doesn’t help that a sense of Bussamarai the man does not emerge from Collin’s book.
What does emerge is that early Europeans were tolerated as adventurers but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. When explorers Mitchell and Leichhardt drifted into what Collins calls East Maranoa in the colony of NSW (the current Queensland local government region of Maranoa plus all of the Balonne shire north of St George), they were followed by a handful of whites determined to take advantage of the fertile lands suggested by Mitchell’s descriptions of “mount abundance” and a “champagne region”.
Mitchell and Leichhardt also described their meetings with “the blacks” so the settlers knew the land weren’t empty. But they were not occupied in a way the new settlers understood. So with a sense of entitlement allied to superior firepower, it gave carte blanche to mass murder as the competition for territory expanded. The white arrived with “too many dreams and two many cows”.
After NSW surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell came to East Maranoa in 1846, he recounted his adventures in Sydney to William MacPherson, secretary to the NSW parliament and William's son the grazier Allan. Mitchell gave Allan maps and encouraged him to set up a land claim there. Macpherson Junior would be the first farmer in the Roma region setting off with men and livestock from his headstation in the Gwydir in 1847.
Without an inspection of the land, MacPherson was taking a large leap of faith with Mount Abundance near Muckadilla some 200km from the nearest white settlement at Moonie.
Mitchell and MacPherson weren’t the first whites in the area. Clarence River area squatter Finney Eldershaw described his search in 1842 for suitable land after he heard of “luxurious downs” in the region. But it wasn’t the Aboriginals that stopped Eldershaw, it was economic conditions. Australia was in depression and East Maranoa’s remoteness from white settlement made it a difficult financial prospect.
Five years later, conditions were improving. While MacPherson was setting off, another friend of Mitchell, Edmund Kennedy was back in the region to do more exploration. He was joined by Archer, Blyth and Chauvel who explored the region from the north. MacPherson started his run in October 1847 with 20 men working the property.
While we know a lot about the early whites, the Aborigines are more inscrutable. The character of the warrior “Bussamarai” who gives his name to the book is particularly problematic.
Collins claims that a tribal leader called variously by different whites as old Billy, Eaglehawk, Possum Murray and Bussamarai was the one and the same person but the evidence is not always convincing. Collins said the elder who helped Mitchell find Muckadilla Creek and the Maranoa River was “probably” Bussamarai. All Mitchell said was the blacks were not covetous and asked for nothing.
But by the time Kennedy got to the region, relations had gone downhill and he had to use “one or two shots in the air” to frighten 200 Aborigines away from his camp. As the decade went by the Mandandanji lands became untenable as more whites entered the East Maranoa motivated less by fame and discovery then by land acquisition.
MacPherson recorded the first cattle killing at Warroo station near Surat in late 1847. By December 1848 there was all out war between the blacks and the settlers affecting every station the area between the present day towns of Roma and Chinchilla. Station hands working for absentee landholders dispensed rough justice in retaliation for attacks on their livestock while authorities in faraway Sydney and even further London turned a blind eye.
Finally a new force gradually restored “order” by 1851. This was NSW’s northern division of the Native Police, who served the economic ends of the pastoralists. Pastoral superintendent Frederick Walker led a team of 20 Aborigines up from the Macintyre River district dispensing rough justice wherever they went. Walker was renowned for his good relations with Aborigines but he showed no mercy in East Maranoa.
Scanty evidence exists of the genocide that followed. Pastoralist Gideon Lang testified to an 1854 parliamentary select committee on the native police that he wanted them to protect his Darling River runs. But Lang also knew of the “wholesale and indiscriminate killing” and “cold blooded cruelty on the part of the whites quite unparalleled in the history of these colonies”. Walker’s men used “fair means or foul” to bring about a lopsided peace in East Maranoa. There were significant massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and Yamboucal station near Surat in May 1852.
In retaliation, Collins said Bussamarai united the Bigambul people and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji to drive out the whites. They engaged in battles with the Native Police with inevitable conclusions. On November 1852 a Sergeant Skelton noted a skirmish at Ukabulla between the Aboriginals led by Bussamarai and armed troops in daylight. Two Aboriginals were “shot in the attempt to apprehend them,” Skelton said. “Likewise four more of the Blacks were shot before I could drive them to the station.”
The East Maranoa front was “tamed” and the war and the atrocities moved on to other areas of Queensland.
The surviving Mandandanji settled into a life of fringe dwellers in their own territory. Many were forcibly removed to settlements at Taroom and later at Woorabinda and Cherbourg, scattering the memory of their sacred link to the land. The Goodbye to Bussamarai is not only to a warrior but to a way of life that had no chance against European civilisation.