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Evidence: A place of great sadness

Bells Falls Gorge - an interactive investigation

Evidence: A place of great sadness

3.8.1

In 1962 Bathurst area local historian Percy Gresser recorded the local tradition that hundreds of Aborigines were killed at Bells Falls Gorge. He was prepared to believe that this was 'a tradition with a solid basis in fact', althought he thought it likely that the estimate of numbers killed was an exaggeration.

(David Roberts, 'The Bells Falls massacre and oral tradition', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pages 153-154)

In the 1980s the story was written about by Al Grassby and Marji Hill, and Bruce Elder.

In these, Gresser's casual and cautious remark on a local tradition was ignored as detailed highly dramatised accounts of naked atrocity were reproduced, replete with descriptions of soldiers advancing in a pincer movement, around an Aboriginal camp, of Aboriginal women grabbing their children and leaping over the cliffs, of broken bodies piling up on the rocks below and the water running red with the blood of murdered Wiradjuri. These highly sensational accounts, which have no provenance [origin] in historical sources, disguised or completely disregarded the fact that there is no contemporary or historical evidence for a massacre at Bells Falls Gorge.

(David Roberts, 'The Bells Falls massacre and oral tradition', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003 page 154)

In 1993 history student David Roberts investigated the story. He determined that it had been a story around for well over a century, and had been passed on by families whose members had been in the area since the 1850s, but:

One has to conclude ... in the case of the Bells Falls massacre story, that it is hard to accept as sound historical evidence ... [T]here is no record of the circumstances in which the story was conceived and whether it originated with a perpetrator, an onlooker or survivor; and from the evidence we cannot trace the history of the story through the generations ... [W]e cannot ascertain whether any pertinent details have been changed or lost over time, and we cannot test the suspicion that this tradition may have derived from another quite different event, or series of events ... In short, there is no possibility of determining whether or not the story is based on an actual event.

(David Roberts, 'The Bells Falls massacre and oral tradition', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pages 154-155)

However, Roberts argued that, because there were other recorded conflicts in the region around that time and because legends about the Bells Falls Gorge event could still be found among the local white community, this should be taken as evidence that something like a massacre did take place, at least somewhere in the district about that time.

In 2000 Wiradjuri Elder Bill Allen's reflection on the events during the time was recorded by Museum curator Brad Manera and a quotation used in the display. Brad Manera:

I think what the display wants to present is an Indigenous voice. The stories that have been passed from one generation to the next about what happened on that site. I've spoken ... in detail with some very highly respected law keepers ... and they are quite convinced that something very tragic occured on that place and that they are certain that members of their family, their language group, died in that place in the 1820s.

(Transcript of interview on ABC PM 13 August 2001, http://www.abc.net.au/pm/stories/s345657.htm)

3.8.2

[T]he centrepiece of the Contested Frontiers exhibit, a photograph of Bells Falls Gorge which implies that many Aborigines were killed at this site, is grossly misleading since there is no contemporary evidence that anyone was killed there. The 'Bells Falls Gorge Massacre' derives from mythology rather than history. All 'evidence' about this incident is based on oral tales told in the twentieth century. (Keith Windschuttle, Submission to the review of the National Museum of Australia, 3 March 2003, http://www.sydneyline.com/National%20Museum%20submission.htm)

Do you agree that the photograph implies that a massacre occured?

Does the etching of the words 'This is a place of great sadness' in association with the photograph establish that connection between the place and the claim of a massacre?

Do you agree that the size and placement of the photograph lead the viewer to exaggerate its significance?

3.8.3

Nowhere in the display does the museum actually affirm the popular story of women and children being forced over the edge of the falls, name the place 'Bells Falls' or use the word 'massacre'. The general label covering the episode refers only in a general way to 'an exterminating war' being conducted in the Bathurst area in the early 1820s.The words that Windschuttle attributes to the Museum - 'This is a place of great sadness. Our people still hear the echoes of women and children who died here' - are actually attributed to a present-day Wiradjuri elder, Bill Allen.

(Graeme Davison, 'Conflict in the museum', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, page 210)

Do you agree with this view that the Museum does not affirm the story - that is, promote it as true and accurate?

Do you accept that because some things are not explicitly stated in the display, they are also not implied?

3.8.4

The National Museum has an exhibit on the massacre, including a large photographic reproduction of the waterfall and gorge. Its caption says it was white settlers rather than soldiers who did the deed, but otherwise agrees with the accounts [presented by the authors of secondary accounts in 3.8.1]. 'This is a place of great sadness,' the museum records. 'Our people still hear the echoes of the women and children who died here'.

(Keith Windschuttle, 'How not to run a museum: People's history at the postmodern museum', Quadrant, September 2001. http://www.sydneyline.com/National%20Museum.htm)

Compare the underlined words above with those in 3.8.1.

Is Davison's criticism of Windschuttle's position on these words a fair one?

Is there a difference between 'attributes' and 'records'?