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Queensland's killing fields

Tom Ellison

First published 24 August 2018 on Around Australia by Schooner

Reprinted with permission from the author.


There was no memorial. No plaque. Nothing to indicate that the ground where I stood was soaked with the blood of innocent people.

It was a dusty wasteland of drought-stunted trees, cacti, rusted bits of machinery and discarded beer bottles.

A desolate place.

A place where in 1837, Thomas Crampton shot and killed at least 15 people.

Near Crampton's Corner, Goondiwindi. Photo: supplied

I was on the outskirts of the Queensland border town Goondiwindi, discovered (according to the local authorities) by Alan Cunningham in 1827. That Goondiwindi needed discovering would have been a surprise to the Bigambul people who had a connection to country dating back some 40,000 years.

40,000 years of history, 191 years of recognition

Within a few years of Cunningham's 'discovery', squatters started arriving, including a thug from England called Thomas Crampton. He'd been sentenced to transportation for robbery in 1830, but before his sentence in Van Diemen's Land was completed, he'd washed up on the shores of the Macintyre River just west of the current town. Armed and dangerous. The massacre of 15 innocent people at what's now called Crampton's Corner wasn't out of character for Thomas Crampton.  According to reports, Crampton was feared by the Bigambul people more than any of the other settlers. He never ventured outside unarmed, and was always looking for a target - preferably one with black skin.

He was known to brag about dragging an Aboriginal man for eight miles behind his horse. The man died. Of course Crampton wasn't the only settler with a murderous history.  But let's go back a step.

Goondiwindi history, as explained by white people

I'd arrived in Goondiwindi too early for beer, but just in time for the opening of the local history room. I'd done some research before hitting the road (which I always do) and found out, according to the local authorities, that Goondiwindi is a Bigambul term meaning 'place where the birds rest'. How lovely, I thought, until I found out it was complete bullshit. More on that in a moment. Actually, the local council's grip on historical reality is slippery at best. So I was keen to talk to the locals, particularly First Nations people, about their town. The local history room is part of the local council buildings, which also feature the library and Gunsynd museum (Gunsynd was a local horse of some repute which didn't win the Melbourne Cup. There is also a statue).

The history room is staffed by volunteers, including a Nell, a charming older lady of about 110 (but a well-preserved 110).

When I asked about local attractions, first she steered me towards the horse.

I'm guessing she saw my eyes glaze over, so she suggested I visit the bridge over the Macintyre River. Apparently it was 100 years old (Nell was probably at the ribbon-cutting ceremony).

Where I come from (Tasmania), a 100-year-old bridge is usually called 'the new one'.

So to shift her thinking, I asked Nell about local Indigenous history.

She said there were some Aboriginal wells 'out west'. So that's where I headed.

Go west

The Weengallon Aboriginal Rock Wells are a half-hour drive towards St George, and well worth a visit. Shame about the tip the council has built next door.

On the way to the rock wells, I stopped to visit the memorial to the early settlers of the Callenden property.

They're melancholy places, these memorials. This one had a couple of restored tombstones and a plaque recognising the hardships faced by the pioneers of the region. The local Rotary Club had built a fence around it.

There was no mention of the 12 Bigambul people killed on the property by a squatter, James Marks, in revenge for the killing of his son in September 1847.

The night before, I'd camped by the Macintyre River, not far from where Marks and his posse found a camp of 40 Aboriginal people in 1847. He killed all of them as well, although they had nothing to do with the death of his son.

A year later, still hell-bent on revenge, Marks and his men killed another 12 Indigenous people on a station further north.

According to the Goondiwindi Council though, there 'isn't enough information about Aboriginal history' to include it in its tourism information.

Goondiwindi's shitty little secret

Despite the efforts of people like Thomas Crampton and James Marks, the Bigambul people weren't wiped out, although their numbers were reduced to less than 100 by 1860.

Diminished in number and geographically dispersed, their stories need to be told.

In Goondiwindi itself, the only recognition of the Bigambul people is a mural painted on a water tank near the river depicting the story of 'the place where the birds rest'.

Which is the town's shittiest attempt of whitewashing of all. Perhaps to try and drag in a few tourists, the original nomenclature has been altered.

Originally, Goondiwindi was an connection of two Bigambul words meaning 'droppings' and 'ducks'.

That's right, Goondiwindi means duck shit.

Metres, yet worlds apart: NSW on the left, Queensland on the right. Photo: supplied

Queensland. I love you, but...

Just today, a Queensland Senator made a claim that Australia's first act of terrorism took place in 1915. Apparently, to some Queenslanders, the wholesale slaughter of people doesn't count if they aren't white.

Across the Macintyre River in NSW, every local government area I've visited acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land. Many even celebrate it.

It's a small step towards reconciliation. Some would even say a token step.

But in Queensland, it seems just acknowledging the past is a step too far.

Goondiwindi Region

Tom Ellison is a writer, editor, financial analyst, and sometimes cook. He's interested in whatever's happening in the world around him, with the possible exception of football, greyhound racing, and property market obsessives.

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