Scars of Bathurst’s martial law declaration laid bare at commemoration 193 years on

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By Sonia Feng

A bloody part of Australian history has been examined at Bathurst in central NSW on the 193rd anniversary of its declaration of martial law.

Martial law was declared across the Bathurst region on August 14, 1824, leading to a sharp rise in conflict between settler society and the Wiradjuri peoples.

Wiradjuri elders and others yesterday marked the anniversary with an inaugural ceremony at Bathurst’s Bicentennial Peace Park.

TV Package about the inaugural commemoration of the martial law declaration


A history of bloodshed

Between 1820 and 1824, the white population increased tenfold in the Bathurst region, from 114 to 1,267.

With their traditional hunting grounds destroyed, the Wiradjuri people became increasingly involved in skirmishes with white farmers.

The proclamation of martial law by governor Thomas Brisbane ordered any retaliatory bloodshed be stopped by any means necessary, with the use of firearms against the Wiradjuri in the area west of Mount York on the Great Dividing Range.

In reality, this gave white settlers legal impunity to slaughter any Wiradjuri person on sight.

Author Bruce Elder, who wrote Blood on the Wattle, which details the massacres and mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788, said martial law was “used to justify every atrocity and every massacre”.

“The cynicism of the frontier had created a new ethic — Aboriginal people could be shot with impunity [and] murder would have no legal repercussions,” Mr Elder said.

He said because the Wiradjuri were one of the largest language groups in Australia, they previously had no great conflict with other people.

But when settler numbers increased dramatically, they realised “there was a kind of theft going on”.

“And this is one of the great complexities, how many people were killed. I believe there’s not a hectare of land in Australia where some Aborigines was not killed,” Mr Elder said.

Wiradjuri Elder, Dinawan Dyirribang
Wiradjuri Elder Dinawan Dyirribang standing at the site of the potato field massacre where a number of his ancestors perished


The Potato Field Incident and other massacres

In early March 1824, a farmer showed a group of Wiradjuri people how to cook potatoes in what has become known as the Potato Field Incident.

Under the belief that the potatoes were growing on their tribal lands, the Wiradjuri people felt they had a customary right to the produce.

Upon their return, the white farmer, who misunderstood the situation, gathered neighbours to slaughter an unreported number of “thieving blacks”.

Wiradjuri Elder Dinawan Dyirribang detailing the potato field incident

Mr Elder’s book details other massacres including in Billywillinga about 20km north-west of Bathurst.

Unaware of the dangers of martial law, a group of Wiradjuri people approached a party of soldiers who were offering food.

In minutes about 30 were shot dead.

In another massacre during the period of martial law, Wiradjuri peoples who were camped on the escarpment at Bells Falls Gorge were encircled by soldiers and given the option of jumping into the falls or facing gunfire.

Some 20 to 30 people perished.

Wiradjuri leader Windradyne who led a resistance army unprecedented at the time (Source: Wikipedia)


Windradyne and guerrilla warfare

During this period, Aboriginal resistance leader Windradyne was organising Wiradjuri warriors in guerrilla warfare against the European settlers.

Bathurst-based Wiradjuri elder Dinawan Dyirribang, who is descended from Windradyne, said for the Aboriginal people it was warfare because martial law was an English concept that was never communicated to the Wiradjuri peoples.

“They said they were enforcing their law, but the Wiradjuri were also enforcing their own law because they never surrendered their sovereignty,” he said.

“So Windradyne is seen as a law man because all he was doing was enforcing Wiradjuri law, and the white man didn’t take too kindly to that I suppose.”

Two aboriginal men with body paint on and wearing scarves around their heads and holding eucalyptus leaves, surrounded by smoke
Wiradjuri elder Dinawan Dyirribang (Right) and elder-in-training Yanhadarrambal (Left) at a smoking ceremony to mark the day


From past to present

Dinawan, along with the Bathurst Wiradjuri elders and the local branch of the National Trust, helped organise yesterday’s inaugural commemoration, which was attended by about 50 people.

A smoking ceremony was held followed by a yarn up around a circle, during which people could express how they felt about the martial law declaration and its impact throughout history.

“There are a lot of bad things that have happened in history … [which] were not right, but we need to learn from the past to be able to move forward,” Dinawan said.

He said it made him angry at times to think about what he and generations before him had lost, and the pain was felt acutely to this day.

“I carry the scars of what happened 193 years ago,” he said.

“Living next to descendants of early settlers they carry the guilt, [and] the only way to move forward is if we hold truth and reconciliation of how this affected us all.”

People standing around a circle with smoke in the centre
A yarning circle was held as part of the inaugural commemoration of the 1824 declaration of martial law at Bathurst

Dinawan and the National Trust Bathurst branch plan to mark the martial law proclamation annually, building to the 200th anniversary in 2024.

Bathurst’s National Trust chairman Iain McPherson said it was important Bathurst’s past was brought into the future in order to foster reconciliation.

“The imposition of martial law was one of the steps of a very brutal period of time of Australia’s history that we can’t keep ignoring,” Mr McPherson said.

Elder-in-training Yanhadarrambal practising ceremony

Elder-in-training Yanhadarrambal said he would like to see a council and government-funded event to commemorate the day across NSW because it marked the start of an era of dispossession and ongoing violence.

“As an elder-in-training, part of my responsibility is to learn about this place here and the importance of what happened here, the good and the bad,” he said.

“The day itself is a very poignant one and I would like the whole Bathurst community to remember that”.

 He added that there is strength in non-Indigenous solidarity and that supporting Wiradjuri initiatives is key to recognition.

Wiradjuri Elder Dinawan Dyirribang speaking about the importance of remembrance

 Meanwhile, the oral tradition of passing down cultural knowledge continues as a strong practice amongst the Wiradjuri people.

 “I keep the stories going with my own kids talking to them about this stuff so the memory of our old people are not forgotten,” Dinawan said.