Books

Book cover: the book title printed in red text and the author's name in what. In the foreground is a cross stuck in the ground with debris scattered around it. In the background there is dry bushland

Kate Auty
O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre

“Telling the truth shouldn’t take so long.”
– Professor Kate Auty

 

With the coming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the concept of “truth-telling” is currently getting more airtime than ever. For decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been calling on Australia to front up to the truth of the past so we can deal with the present and move towards a more positive and collaborative future. Until this truth has been confronted, the racist lies this country was built upon will continue to fester, erupting in more acts of violence and erasure.

With Kate Auty’s O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre, we get such a journey into truth-telling. The book plots the events of a massacre in the Kimberley in 1926 that involved a team of police and civilians and was seemingly led by one Bernard O’Leary.

The trigger point for the 1926 expedition is the murder of a station owner, Frederick Hay, who was found naked and speared. His killer, Lumbia, was on the run, and so the team set out to find him and bring forth justice. What happens next, however, cannot in any way be touted as “justice”. As human remains turn up at various sites and tales of brutality, mass cremations and disposing of bodies in waterways start to leak from the expedition, so too pass denial, misdirection and blame. “O’Leary was framed,” cried his lawyer, and on the whole, the royal commission into these events seems to believe it.

Perhaps this tale would have been allowed to sit unquestioned for another 100 years had Auty not painstakingly researched two other lines of inquiry. The first of these is into O’Leary himself – who was this alleged backwoodsman? The second is into the man who started it all – Lumbia, the murderer.

These investigations leave us with no doubt about who are the heroes and villains of this historical episode. They also show how an entire system worked to ensure that, wherever possible, there could be no Black innocents on the frontier. O’Leary, in effect, becomes a commodity in a system that was set up to benefit him and others like him, no matter how violent and grotesque he was.

We find out, for example, that “O’Leary” himself was a fiction – a man born of another name who descended from generations of crooks and swindlers. He rose to become the very worst of them. O’Leary is a mysterious figure – we are introduced to him as a World War I veteran who has a land holding called The Underworld. Auty charts a course from his ancestors to his early years, from his young adulthood to his war service and then the years following the Forrest River massacre, portraying a man capable not only of atrocity himself but also of leading others into brutality. He lacked empathy, had a keen ability to circumnavigate the law and lied constantly. His sense of entitlement meant O’Leary had no problem hunting Aboriginal people like animals for his own twisted pleasure. That he may have gone on to inspire the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory came as little surprise to me.

Similarly, through Lumbia, Auty highlights a man who was indeed a murderer, but whose mitigating circumstances in the case of Hay have been ignored for a century. Auty lays the evidence bare, unpacking the circumstances around the initial murder. She follows his life after these events and explores another murder case involving Lumbia 20 years later. Lumbia is belatedly vindicated
as the victim of a system he was never meant to survive.

There are many villains in this slice of history, yet we are also introduced to a couple of heroes along the way. Given the purpose of Aboriginal missions, for example, it was a nice surprise to discover one of the heroes was mission manager Reverend Ernest Gribble. Gribble worked hard to not only uncover the magnitude of the violence committed by O’Leary and his crew but also repeatedly tried to seek some justice for Aboriginal people during the catastrophic legal proceedings. I can think of only a few Gribbles on the frontiers. One is left wondering how different things may have been had there been more.

Through Indigenous activism, education and tools such as the University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacres map, Australians are starting to become better informed about what “settlement” in this country actually entailed. Electorates are renamed, place names are questioned and hundreds gather for a dawn service each Invasion Day to recognise the Frontier Wars. Even so, mainstream ignorance prevails.

Auty not only names the victims, she also tells us their stories. She highlights how the sexual assault of Aboriginal women was often a starting point for these massacres, and how chained indentured trackers were frequently scapegoated in the crimes of white men. Her work ensures that, at least in the case of Forrest River, mainstream Australia can no longer claim ignorance.

This is a story of a merciless thug, but it is also much more than that. It isn’t a pleasant read but it is a necessary one – particularly if Australia truly is committed to the project of truth-telling for a better future.

La Trobe University Press, 288pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre".

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