To speak the unspoken

For Aboriginal people, the Hyde Park Barracks and the convict system it oversaw represent a very different ‘founding narrative’, one that needs to be told in Aboriginal voices.

Yaama Gamilaroi ngaya murri.

Winangaylanha ngaya yaraaydha ngiyani gurubaldanha Gadigalgu Dhawunda.

Winangaylanha ngaya Marigiirgal mayabuu galumalanha Marigiiraraay Dhawunbaraay.

Wayamaa ngiyani winangaya ganungawu.

Nguwalay yanayindaay, nguwalay yanaylandaay, nguwalay yanangayiylandaay.

Dhawun ngiyani winangaylay.

Winangalaylay ngiyani.

Hello, I am a Gamilaroi man.

I acknowledge that we meet today on Gadigal land.

I recognise that Aboriginal people continue to connect with Aboriginal land.

Let us respect the elders, all of them.

Who walked here long ago, now and in the future.

Let us respect the land.

Let us respect each other.

Gamilaroi transcription kindly provided by Donna Gayford McLaren

As a 47-year-old Gamilaroi man from north-western NSW, I’m finally learning my mother tongue.

To begin to speak and write these words opens a range of emotions for me, from sadness and anger at how my cultural birthright has been kept from me and previous generations for so long, to pride at being part of a reclamation movement that speaks to the very core of a strong and resilient cultural identity and continued connection to my country. There’s also a strong sense of optimism about what the future has in store for current and future generations of Gamilaroi people, and the benefits for Australia as a whole.

Founding narrative

These emotions resonate when I reflect on my role at Sydney Living Museums, helping to shape the way that we explore, uncover and share the insights of Aboriginal people’s views on Australia’s colonial past and present. The impacts of Australia’s colonial past and present are ingrained into the very fabric of the buildings and places that make up SLM. They have been felt by generations of Aboriginal people, yet for the most part they have remained unspoken.

As we look at the significance of the Hyde Park Barracks and the story of the convict system as a foundation narrative for this country, we need to reflect on what this story means to Aboriginal people.

A devastating impact

The integral role convicts played in the development and growth of the new colony has a much deeper meaning for many Aboriginal people. Our colonial history imposed dramatic and often violent change upon a way of life that dates back millennia. It instituted systems that had a devastating impact on Australia’s First Peoples, largely due to a failure to fully comprehend and appreciate the vast richness and depth of a cultural way of life in tune with its environment and country.

Where convicts were at the forefront of growth and expansion of an ever-moving frontier – clearing lands, building roads and settling new farms – they played a pivotal role in the subjugation of the country and the many nations of people who were connected to that country.

The result was loss: loss of country, loss of family and loss of life. For Aboriginal people, this loss still strongly resonates today through our connection to our ancestors and our country.

Print showing Aboriginal people being rounded up by men on horseback with weapons.
‘Australian Aborigines slaughtered by convicts’ [Illustration of the Myall Creek massacre, 1838]. Flickr.com/Wikimedia Commons

Conflict

As a Gamilaroi Murri, working at SLM near the Hyde Park Barracks, I’m continually reminded of this impact, both on a personal front and in the knowledge that these impacts were replicated across the country.

My home town of Tamworth will celebrate its ‘200th birthday’ in 2018, commemorating the ‘discovery’ of the Peel Valley by the expedition led by NSW Surveyor-General John Oxley in 1818 and supported by a number of convicts. Some 15 years later, the Australian Agricultural Company took up a land grant of over 550,000 acres of the ancestral lands of the Gamilaroi people and began a long history of agricultural expansion, supported mainly by convict labour.

This and other encroachments onto Gamilaroi country inevitably resulted in conflicts that saw loss of life from both parties. The losses from the ‘settler’ side, however, drew a brutal response. On 26 January 1838, an expedition led by Major James Nunn aiming to subdue Gamilaroi resistance carried out a massacre of what is thought to be over 200 Gamilaroi men, women and children at Waterloo Creek. Five months later, another massacre perpetrated by a group made up of convicts and former convicts saw 28 Wirrayaraay people slaughtered at Myall Creek. Until recent times, the Myall Creek massacre was remembered not for the absolute devastation rained down on Aboriginal women and children, but for the resulting court case, in which some of the perpetrators were found guilty of this crime and hanged. This was the only time Europeans were executed for the massacre of Aboriginal people.

Memorial stone with view of country in background.
Myall Creek Memorial. Photo courtesy and © Vivian Evans

A shared future

In considering these realities of the convict system we see another loss: this country’s ongoing inability to broadly acknowledge and embrace a difficult past. But I’m optimistic. By reclaiming this history through the work we’re undertaking at SLM, and especially in the renewal of the Hyde Park Barracks, we’re laying the foundations for a new national identity and understanding that draw on the experiences, strength and resilience of Australia’s First Peoples. It’s through this reclamation and new understandings that we can achieve a shared future for this country.

2018 marks the 180th anniversary of the Myall Creek massacre. Visit myallcreek.org

About the author

Man wearing glasses standing next to sandstone wall.

Peter White

Head of Indigenous Strategy & Engagement

Peter White is a Gamilaroi Murri from north-west NSW who has held a number of senior positions in major cultural institutions and government arts agencies. Most recently, Peter has been a freelance adviser on First Peoples’ cultural and creative development. Peter is now SLM's Head of Indigenous Strategy & Engagement.

Related content

Convict Sydney website: Myall Creek massacre

On Sunday 10 June 1838, at least 28 Aboriginal people were massacred by a group of 12 Europeans at Myall Creek Station, between Moree and Inverell in Northern New South Wales. Eleven of these people were convicts and ex-convicts, and their story is linked to the Hyde Park Barracks.

Read more

Related stories