The Pinjarra Massacre took place on 28th October, 1834. The event is remembered as one of the most horrendous massacres of Aboriginal peoples in Australia’s history.
Even now, close to two centuries later, the event in Western Australia is cause for significant controversy. Referred to as the Battle of Pinjarra in some histories – suggesting that the Aboriginal people’s deaths were part of a conflict involving mutual aggression, others argue that the term massacre is the only one capable of truly capturing the events that took place in Pinjarra.
Ultimately, a case can be made for both explanations. The Aboriginal people in the region had shown aggression to the European Settlers there, although one could argue this was an inevitable consequence of Europeans moving into their territory. Just as significantly for those who call the event a massacre, among the Aboriginal people killed were a substantial amount of women and children.
The origins of the tragic events at Pinjarra came in the arrival of the first European settlers to Western Australia, in 1829. Led by Captain James Stirling, the Swan River Colony was quickly established in what is now known as the Peel region of Australia. This was a region which had been inhabited for thousands of years by the Bindjareb tribe, an indigenous people particularly renowned for their spear making ability.
Tensions quickly started to form between the white, European settlers and the Bindjareb tribe. While the Aboriginal people initially placed the Europeans into their folk traditions, interpreting them as the returning ghosts of their ancestors, Stirling declared the region a territory of England, arguing that the Bindjareb should be accountable to English law.
As the settlers expanded their territory, taking up more land as they established farms, settlements, and ultimately towns, conflict started to brew. One key issue was a fundamental difference in agricultural practices. The Bindjareb people practiced firestick farming, a method where parts of the bush were torched to enable hunting and encourage regrowth of the land. For the white settlers, with little understanding of the firestick tradition, it seemed like an attack, especially on the occasions when the fires spread into the land they had started to cultivate.
Signs of discontent continued to mount in the region over the next few years, as the settlers desire for land increasingly put pressure on the Aboriginal population. In 1834, with the colonists struggling to feed themselves, Governor Stirling ordered the flour rations given to the Bindjareb as a means of keeping the peace to be cancelled. On 24th April a group of Bindjareb launched a raid on the mill at South Perth, stealing 445kg of flour, possibly as a result of a misunderstanding that saw them believe that the flour rations were payment for the land the settlers had taken from them.
Eventually, three Bindjareb believed to have been involved in the incident were captured by the settlers, and publicly flogged. Several days later, in response to their humiliating punishment, the Bindjareb men formed a group and lead a retaliation against the settlers, killing one soldier and seriously injuring another.
With tensions high, Governor Stirling set off on an expedition with a group of soldiers and police on 26th October. Taking a surveyor with them, they intended to expand the area of settlement to Pinjarra, a region with fertile land. It was also an area at the heart of the Bindjareb community.
At some point on 28th October, Stirling’s party encountered members of the Binjareb tribe. His group divided into two, taking up strategically advantageous positions around the Bindjareb camp. Exact details of which side was the first to show aggression are not clear, with some sources arguing that the Bindjareb hurled their spears at Stirling’s men, while others claim Stirling’s forces opened fire first.
Either way, after roughly an hour of fighting, the outnumbered colonists were forced into retreat. Only one settler had been killed in the fighting, although several, including Stirling, were injured. Even now, it is unclear how many Aboriginal people were killed, but estimates range from around fifteen, into the hundreds.