Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2016

Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman, by Terry Smyth #BookReview

Denny Day

Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman is popular history written by a journalist, so you can expect a lively retelling of the life of ‘the forgotten hero of the Myall Creek Massacre’.  Day (1801-1876) was the lawman who brought the perpetrators to justice at a time in Australia’s history when the frontier was a lawless place, but he has been so comprehensively forgotten that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry of his own.  I found his birth and death dates at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  The ADB doesn’t have much to say about this pivotal moment in Australia’s legal history, just this:

In June 1838, under instructions from Governor Sir George Gipps, a party of mounted police led by Day was sent to arrest white men said to have killed at least twenty-eight Aboriginals at or near Henry Dangar’s station at Myall Creek on the Liverpool Plains. Eleven men were caught, tried and found guilty; seven were hanged.

Smyth is Denny Day’s champion, and he tells the story in much more detail.  Although Myall Creek was certainly not the first massacre of Australia’s Indigenous People, those men who were hanged were the first to be executed for killing Aborigines.  Denny Day was up against colonial attitudes so outrageous that a corrupt association was formed to pay for the defence of the men who were charged, and the third of three trials never took place because a crucial witness ‘disappeared’ and was never heard of again.

As a police magistrate in those days, Day found his role more like a US sheriff: he rode out to gather evidence, make arrests and prepare the indictment.  He didn’t sit on the bench as a magistrate does these days, he was a witness in the trials.  On the one hand the case was doubly difficult because the unarmed Aborigines could not be identified; on the other hand the murderers were so sanguine about what they had done that they admitted it, because they were confident that there would be no penalty, and that they could expect to be admired for what they had done.  Frontier violence in NSW in the 1830s was commonplace because colonial stockmen regarded the Kamilaroi people as fair game – even though British Law was quite clear that murder of any kind was punishable by death.  Aborigines were hung for crimes of violence against white men, but white men were not even charged with violence against Indigenous People, much less sanctioned in any way.

Until Denny Day…

I’m no historian, but the book appears to be well-researched from original sources and there are plentiful endnotes.  (I was interested, however, to see that there was no reference to Henry Reynolds, who is Australia’s preeminent historian of frontier violence.)  There are photos, too, including a poignant one of Denny Day’s neglected grave, and the imposing monument to one of the murderers.

(For copyright reasons, I can’t share the image of Denny Day’s neglected grave, but you can see it in this article about the book in The Australian. )

Books like this serve a useful purpose.  Denny Day is written for the general public in an engaging way, and the heroism of Day against formidable odds makes a highly readable story.  And that, hopefully, will make it the sort of book that people will pick up at the airport or a chain store, and learn the truth about the fierce resistance of the Kamileroi People, and how, until Denny Day had the courage to confront the hunting parties, British justice was impotent to deal with the vigilantes who were intent on exterminating the indigenous people altogether.

Author: Terry Smyth
Title: Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman
Publisher: Ebury Press, published by Penguin Random House Australia
ISBN: 9780857986825
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia

Available from Fishpond: Denny Day


Responses

  1. I’m glad you were able to bring this book and this story to our attention. It seems to me that the official (British) position towards Aborigines was often at odds with what was going on outside Sydney, so I’m glad that some of the perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre were not only brought to court, but that they were found guilty.

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    • Yes, indeed, if memory serves me correctly, Henry Reynolds says that there is ample evidence that the Colonial Office was forever sending instructions that British Law was to be observed on both sides of the frontier conflict, and also that there were some courageous ministers of religion who spoke out against it as well. I’ve read This Whispering in Our Hearts, Why Weren’t We Told? and The Law of the Land, but I couldn’t tell you which one of those was the one that I am remembering. I’ve got Forgotten war on my TBR as well, I must get round to reading that.

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  2. Sounds good (sorry for the Avalanche of comments, BTW, I haven’t read any blogs since mid-July and am playing catchup). I’ve recently read a non-fiction book about Angus MacMillan, discoverer of Gippsland, who history has recorded as being a great man, though there is now evidence he lead many massacres of indigenous people. The book was written by Macmillan’s great-great-great niece, who lives in Scotland, and it’s truly shocking. It’s called Thicker Than Water. Am yet to review it, but I think you’d appreciate it.

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    • Your comments are always welcome, in avalanches or otherwise!
      (I’m slowly catching up on all the blogs I missed while I was too crook to read too).
      These stories are starting to come out now, and a good thing too. There will come a time when the Australian War Memorial drops its racist blindfold and acknowledges that there were frontier wars from one end of the country to the other…
      I think that Liam Davison (who lost his life in the Ukrainian plane disaster) wrote about that massacre, it might have been in his novel The White Woman/
      Who publishes Thicker than Water?

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      • It’s published by William Collins and the author is Cal Flynn. It’s a kind of travelogue: she’s a young journalist who is so appalled by her ancestor’s crimes she wants to atone for them, so she travels to Gippsland from the Scottish highlands to trace his footsteps.

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        • A bit like Kate Grenville…

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          • Yes, I guess so, but in some ways more powerful because it’s non-fiction.

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