When a domino falls it sparks a chain reaction, one which without meticulous planning often leads to unexpected results.
And so it was in 1868 when a group of Yaburara men stole flour from a small pearling vessel on the banks of Nickol Bay a chain of events unfolded which would ultimately see the traditional custodians of Murujuga in WA’s Pilbara wiped off the map.
Of course it wasn’t as simple as retribution for petty theft – details of the event are scarce, but there were intricate politics at play on both sides of the field in the lead up to February 17, 1868.
Police Constable William Griffis and his Aboriginal assistant, Peter, arrested one of the men accused of the thefts and had him chained by the neck to a tree.
“It is well that punishment followed so quickly upon the crime, as it is stated that emboldened by their success, the natives had actually planned the murder of all the whites, and the burning of the township Roebourne” – West Australian Times, 1868
A large group of Yaburara men embarked on a rescue mission which resulted in Constable Griffis, Peter and a pearler who was camping nearby being speared to death.
Also at play was the accusation Constable Griffis had been abducting young Yaburara girls.
Upon investigating the melee, government resident Robert John Sholl raised two parties of special constables led by pastoralists Alex McRae and John Whitnell to find the alleged murderers.
“I earnestly trust that the effect of your operations will be to teach these misguided persons to abstain from violence, and to protect the lives and property of the few white people who are scattered over a large extent of country, and who are peculiarly liable to attack,” Sholl wrote to McRae.
With help from settlers and friendly Aboriginal locals in the area a list of those involved in the murders of Constable Griffis, Peter and the pearler was drawn up.
McRae and Whitnell proceeded to King Bay and the Flying Foam Passage where, over the course of several days, their parties shot those trying to flee.
Depending on which side of history you believe between 15 and 150 Yaburara men, women and children were killed in the fracas and aftermath. The most likely estimate is about 50.
What is indisputable is there are now no Yaburara people left.
“The natives have shown me the skulls of 15 who were shot dead. Three of the skulls were those of children, and two of these small skulls had bullet holes in them” – David Carly, 1885
The massacre crippled the Yaburara population beyond recovery. Disease and age did the rest.
Their lands, today home to world-renowned petroglyphs, heavy industry and the port town of Dampier, have been entrusted to the neighbouring Ngarluma, Mardudhunera Yindjibarndi, and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo custodians for safekeeping.
The government resident who approved of the massacre, Sholl, has plaques and street names honouring him in various locations in WA, including Roebourne and Perth’s St Georges Terrace.
According to one report Sholl was so shocked by the carrying out of the order he executed, he eventually called it off.
This is a history which is not well-known, even in the towns now established near the massacre site.
Over the years efforts to increase knowledge of the massacre have come and gone, but to this day small plaques by the standing stones down an unmarked gravel track remain one of the few public recognitions of the sorry events which transpired in 1868.
- A comprehensive collection of facts and allegations surround the Flying Foam Massacre compiled by former WA Greens upper house MP Robin Chapple can be found here.