A forgotten war, a haunted land

The swamps of far south-west Victoria are full now, great families of swans making the wetlands their home, and secret pools and little lakes and weird islands and creeks hide among tangled scrub on ancient lava flows known simply as the Rocks.

The swamps of far south-west Victoria are full now, great families of swans making the wetlands their home, and secret pools and little lakes and weird islands and creeks hide among tangled scrub on ancient lava flows known simply as the Rocks.

It is haunted country, and hauntingly beautiful, too, in an untamed way; those parts of it not colonised by bluegum plantations. It does not look at all like the landscape for a war.

We make much, us Australians, of our wars. Anzac Day quite properly commemorates the suffering of men and women in all manner of dreadful places in countries foreign to us, and our prime ministers fly to stand beside Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

But what of the Eumeralla War? And what of the warriors known as Jupiter and Cocknose? I drive regularly through the old Eumeralla battlefield on the journey back to my family's home country, reminded by the brimming swamps and the weeping lava of the written words of one of the early settlers.

"All the land I looked upon was deep-swarded, thickly-verdured as an English meadow. Wild duck swam about in the pools and meres of the wide misty fen, with its brakes of tall reeds ... Over-head long strings of wild swan clanged and swayed. There were wild beasts (kangaroo and dingoes), Indians (blacks, whose fires in the Rocks we could see), a pathless waste, and absolute freedom and independence."

The utopian vision belonged to Thomas Alexander Browne, who was just 18 when he overlanded to the Lower Eumeralla, a bit of a stream near the hamlet of Bessiebelle south-west of Macarthur's Mount Eccles, a volcano responsible for the lava flow known as the Rocks or the Stones where the fires of indigenous people once flared and where no sensible horseman would risk his mount's hooves. It is around halfway between Port Fairy and Portland, though 15 kilometres inland. Few travellers pass by.

Browne squatted on 50,000 acres there and with help from trusted retainers built a hut. It was 1844 when he settled on what he called Squattlesea Mere; a lettered young man who borrowed the name of his property from the work of his English literary hero, Sir Walter Scott. In that year he took part in and witnessed Australia's forgotten war, and it stole a lot of his easy romance.

Later, under the pen-name Rolf Boldrewood, he wrote of it. His most famous book, Robbery Under Arms, remains something of an Australian classic. It is fiction. But he wrote a long autobiography, too, titled Old Melbourne Memories, and it includes an excruciatingly detailed tract on the Eumeralla War.

Browne-Boldrewood started out admiring the indigenous people: "One is often tempted to smile at hearing some under-sized Anglo-Saxon, with no brain power to spare, assert gravely the blacks of Australia were the lowest race of savages known to exist ... On the contrary, many of the leading members of tribes known to the pioneer squatters were grandly formed specimens of humanity, dignified in manner, and possessing an intelligence by no means to be despised, comprehending a quick sense of humour, as well as a keenness of perception, not always found in the superior race."

As for the bad rap and brutality handed out to these people by squatters and shepherds outraged by their occasional insistence on creeping out of the stones and taking sheep and cattle for food, Browne-Boldrewood initially felt it was unfair.

"I thought the poor fellows had been hardly treated. It was their country, after all." But when the people of the stones led by Jupiter (who was "supposed to have a title to the head chieftainship of the tribe which specially affected the Rocks and the neighbourhood of the extinct volcano") and Cocknose ("named by the early settlers from the highly unclassical shape of the facial appendage"), began raiding his stock, Browne-Boldrewood's attitude changed.

"We went now well armed. We were well mounted and vigilantly on guard. The Children of the Rocks were occasionally met with, when collisions, not all bloodless, took place."

The Eumeralla War, in short, very bloody indeed, was under way.

Browne-Boldrewood recounted numerous attacks that now would be labelled atrocities, for the indigenous people had nothing to match the gun. Squatters all round were cornering Boldrewood's Children of the Rocks and massacring them.

He writes of one enraged land-owner who felt he couldn't miss with his gun and, having killed a number of Cocknose and Jupiter's people, shot dead two men and a boy with a single blast, and his servant having "a good innings, which he thoroughly enjoyed".

"He fired right and left, raging like a demoniac. One huge black, wounded to death, hastened his own end by dragging out his entrails ..."

The war reached a new height when a group of Aborigines raided Browne-Boldrewood's homestead and removed large amounts of flour, sugar, tea, a gun and several silver spoons.

None of the white people at the homestead was hurt, but it was enough to persuade Browne-Boldrewood to write for help from the governor. A troop of mounted police, most of them "native" police from distant districts, arrived to dispense "justice".

The pursuit took weeks, but finally the police crossed the tracks of their quarry in a desolate tract of country on the property. "Patiently for several hours the man-hunters followed up the tracks, while fresh signs from time to time showed that a large body of blacks had quite recently passed that way. Suddenly, at a yell from Yapton (one of the native police), every man raised his head, and then rode at full speed towards a frantic company of savages as, startled and surprised, they made for a patch of scrub."

It was but a small forest of tea-tree. The police covered every corner and attacked. Spears and boomerangs came out at them, but "quick shots follow, a general stampede takes place, but few escape, and when the troop turn their horses' heads homeward, all the known leaders of the tribe are down. They were caught red-handed, too, a portion of a heifer and her calf freshly slaughtered being found on the spot where they were first sighted."

And what of the warriors Cocknose and Jupiter? "Jupiter and his associate with the unclassical profile were never seen alive again; and as no head of stock was ever known to be speared or stolen after that day, it may be presumed that the chastisement was effectual," Browne-Boldrewood wrote.

The Eumeralla War was over. The remnants of the indigenous people of the Rocks were herded into a mission at Lake Condah within the stones, and their story and that of their descendants is long and bitter to this day.

There is no memorial to the Eumeralla War. No prime minister has ever come to this battleground. There remain only tumbledown remnants of Thomas Alexander Browne's homestead, a shed and a few old trees by the road.

A national silence and the Rocks abide, and the swamps are full again, swans clanging and swaying. Haunting.

Related Articles