Bullet scarred trees, charred remains and makeshift incinerators at Forrest River

By Ciaran O’Mahony

In August 1926, on the banks of the Kimberley’s Forrest River, an Aboriginal Deacon found a pile of human remains.

Famed for his tracking skills, James Noble was sent by Reverend E.R. Gribble to investigate whether Aboriginal people had been shot en mass by the WA Police.

He began his search at Wodgil, where he found a series of horse tracks and footprints. He followed them to a quiet, picturesque site called Gotegotemerrie, where he spotted a mound of ashy sand on the riverbank.

As he ran his hands through the sand, he discovered singed teeth and bones scattered everywhere.

Just 40 feet from these remains lay a deep hole, covered by stones, where a large fire had been left to burn. It appeared to be a makeshift oven.

The footprints of three women were also spotted, leading to a nearby tree where they appeared to have been chained.

Noble had discovered just a fraction of the atrocities carried out by Police constables Graham St Jack and Denis Regan, and a group of 11 locals. Atrocities now known as the Forrest River massacres.

These reprisals were inflicted after an Aboriginal man named Lumbia murdered pastoralist Frederick Hay, for the rape of his wife, Anguloo.

Rev. James Noble performing a christening at the Forrest River Mission a year before the massacre, 1925. From the State Library of WA collection, courtesy of Wilma and Harry Venville

Although the group killed many, their attempts to conceal their crimes failed, as Noble’s Great Granddaughter, Tabatha Saunders explains.

“They thought they could hide the massacres, but my Great Grandfather found the evidence,” she says.

Saunders, a Badtjala and Bidjara woman based in Brisbane, learned of her Great Grandfather’s harrowing discovery by accident. Most of her Great Grandparents had died before she was born, so she decided to learn more about them.

After some googling and skimming through theological websites, she saw James’ name mentioned in connection with the massacres. “I looked into it further and was surprised and horrified to discover that he was the tracker who discovered the [victims’] remains,” says Saunders.

“I can’t even comprehend how he tried to understand or cope with this atrocity,” she says. “What horrors must have been going through his mind as he walked along the sand that day?”

“What horrors must have been going through his mind as he walked along the sand that day?”

Tabatha Saunders, Rev. James Noble’s Great Granddaughter.

There was more trauma to come.

Noble returned to Gotegotemerrie with Rev. Gribble and the WA Aborigines Department’s Inspector E.C. Mitchell. Together, they inspected the “improvised oven”, which was loaded with scorched fragments of bones, teeth and skulls, as were chunks of charcoal in a shallow pool nearby.

Dr Chris Owen, author of Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia, says makeshift ovens were a common tool for destroying massacre evidence during this period.

“It was a method used from the 1890s through to the 1920s,” he says.

“Police did investigate a lot of alleged killing of Aboriginal people and incineration became the way in which all evidence of a murder was obliterated. No [physical] evidence of killing meant no killing occurred and thus investigation ceased.”

According to Owen, the killers would build a large wooden pyre, often using wood that the victims were forced to collect. Dead bodies were placed on it and set alight. Once the fire had died, the perpetrators would return and “possibly burn them again, then stomp on any remaining bones to crush any evidence.”

A photograph of a “Bullet-scarred” tree in Dala after the massacre. Four Aboriginal prisoners are alleged to have been shot by this tree. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests.

Noble, Gribble and Mitchell followed the tracks of the perpetrators and their captives, to other sites in Rounggu, Mowerie, Umbali and Dala, where they encountered more evidence of incineration and devastation.

The tracks of the three women held captive ended about 6 miles from Gotegotemerrie- by another pile of ashy bone fragments.

While we will never know the true extent of the bloodshed, one of the few survivors, an Aboriginal girl named Loorabane, provided an eyewitness account. It was translated sixty years later by Lily Johnson, in an interview with Christine Halse:

…the police got all those Aborigines from the Kular tribe that lived from the coast to the mission…they put the men on one chain and the women with their children and their kids on another chain. Some of those women had babes at the breast…they killed the men. They just lined them up and shot them one by one…the women had to watch those men being shot…their husbands and brothers and relatives… the men had to collect wood first. They didn’t know why they had to collect that wood but they had to get a big pile of it…They lined them up and shot them…then they cut them up into pieces, you know, a leg, an arm, just like that and those bits of body were thrown on the wood…and burnt there…the women were taken to another place just a bit away…and had to stand on the river bank but it was dry that time of year and they were shot there so their bodies just fell into the river… they bashed the brains out of the babies and threw them into the river with their mothers and burnt the lot…there’s a lot of bodies. It took a long time to burn…With the women was a mother and her two kids… they had bush names. They couldn’t speak English…The boy’s name [was] Numbunnung (Kangaloo) and the girl was Loorabane…the boy spoke to his sister in language and told her that when that chain came off to grab mum and head for the bush…they were at the end of the chain…but [when they ran away] the police shot at them…they killed the mother and the girl got shot in the leg there [pointing]…they hid in the roots of the pandanus grass in the Forrest River. They hid under water and breathed through a bit of pandanus grass, you know, it’s hollow, like a straw…the police looked for them everywhere but they just kept real still, not moving ‘cause they were so scared…by evening, when they thought it was safe to leave, they moved out…swam across the Forrest River and travelled all the next day and then the day after until the evening until they reached the mission where they knew they’d be safe…I was playing with the other girls…when Loorabane came…She was shaking with fright…She told us what happened and we told Mamma [Angelina Noble] and Mamma told Jim [Noble] and he told old Gribble.

A photograph of Rev. Noble at another massacre site in Mowerie, where the three women are alleged to have been shot and burnt. Rev. Noble (Centre) and a boy named Ronald (Right) are pictured searching through the ashes for charred bones. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests.

The death toll is still highly disputed, with some historians estimating that 30 to 40 were killed, and others up to 100. There is no doubt though, that many innocent lives were lost.

“The trauma – intergenerational trauma – is real. We hear these stories about our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. This is still in living memory for us, it hurts,” Saunders says.

She thinks not only of the death and devastation her Great Grandfather discovered, but also the sacred traditions that were broken along the way.

“How much lore was broken with regards to death rituals? How many songs and rituals did he sing to himself while he found the bones of the fallen? How many rituals did he perform to cleanse himself of the spirits of the dead who would have been hounding his soul asking why this had happened? Was he allowed to be involved in rituals to allow the dead to pass to the Dreaming?”

What we do know is that the massacres may never have come to light without Noble’s discovery. With Gribble’s assistance, the perpetrators were arrested for murder and a 1927 Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests, was held.

Numerous accounts of the shootings were translated by Noble’s wife, Angelina, who spoke at least 5 Indigenous languages. She played a critical role as an interpreter of witness’ accounts and as the official translator at the Royal Commission.

“My Great Grandfather might have found all of the evidence but without her they would never have been able to understand. She is probably even more important in the outcome than him,” says Saunders.

Rev. Noble (2nd from the right), Angelina Noble (far left) and their family at the Forrest River Mission, 1925. From the State Library of WA collection, courtesy of Wilma and Harry Venville.

Despite the Royal Commission’s conclusion that at least 11 Aboriginal people had been murdered and their bodies burned, significant tampering with witnesses and evidence meant that the Police on trial walked free.

Three Aboriginal trackers who led the Police to sites containing improvised ovens and bone fragments, disappeared on the eve of the trial. Tommy Doort, the Aboriginal servant of Leopold Overheu (co-owner of Frederick Hay’s Nulla Nulla Station), also vanished. However, Lumbia was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Lumbia (far left) pictured in chains in the Sydney Morning Herald, arrested for the murder of pastoralist Frederick Hay, which resulted in a massacre at Forrest River.

In the Royal Commission’s final report, Magistrate GT Wood said “I must record my displeasure that those trackers were not produced before the Commission, and I cannot exonerate the police at Wyndham from responsibility for their absence or for the very slight effort that seems to have been made, when their absence was discovered, to secure their return and attendance.”

He bemoaned the “conspiracy of silence” that had compromised the investigation – a common problem following the public hanging of seven European settlers following the Myall Creek massacre in 1838.

Although the perpetrators escaped punishment, Saunders knows her Great Grandfather made a significant contribution to truth-telling that we can build on as a nation.

“As his descendant, I am very proud that James was responsible for bringing two policemen to trial even though they were acquitted,” she says.

“The Forrest River Massacre is one of the biggest [known] mass slaughters of Aboriginal people in modern times. The fact that an Aboriginal man brought the perpetrators to trial is stunning.”

As we reflect on unchecked Police violence and brutality today, it’s important to recognise its deep-rooted history in this country.

Saunders says we should not make the mistake of thinking that Aboriginal people are no longer targeted or unfairly treated by the Police.

“Every Aboriginal person in this country feels the pain and stigma of racism from the authorities. We have all been stigmatised or profiled due to our appearance,” she says.

“I try to live in a bubble and keep to myself. But I know that when I am out in public, I am on notice. I am no stranger to being misunderstood by government authorities under innocent circumstances.”

For almost 100 years, the WA Police failed to recognise the Forrest River Massacres and numerous other harms perpetrated during WA’s “killing times”.

In 2018, the Commissioner of the WA Police, Chris Dawson, delivered an apology speech on behalf of the force for its “past wrongful actions that have caused immeasurable pain and suffering” to Aboriginal people. He conceded that although their role was to protect them, they instead “played a significant role in contributing to a traumatic history, which continues to reverberate today.”

While he did not mention massacres, he broadly acknowledged previous dispossession, violence, racism, incarceration and deaths in custody. “The intergenerational impacts of this suffering continue to impact the welfare of Aboriginal people who are overrepresented in our justice system today,” he said.

Saunders is proud that her Great Grandparents ensured the Forrest River victims were not forgotten. Although their story is a painful one, she feels a deep responsibility to pass it down.

“I will continue to tell this story to my children, as harrowing as it is, because I think it is important that they understand where their strength comes from. We continue to survive.”

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