Debate over 'massacre' at Waterloo Bay

FURTHER negotiations between the Elliston community and the Wirangu people will be required before the wording of a sign recognising the deaths of Aboriginal people at Waterloo Bay can be erected. 

The wording will be placed on a reconciliation monument on the recently opened Elliston Coastal Trail. 

The proposed wording for part of the memorial reads: “This monument commemorates an incident, referred to by the traditional owners of this land as ‘The Massacre of Waterloo Bay’.”

The Elliston District Council has been working on the wording of the sign with the Wirangu, who have the only native title claim  registered over the land on which the coastal trail.

Elliston District Council chairman Kym Callaghan said the monument was included in the coastal trail plans from the outset and intended to symbolise the recognition of past wrongs against the original inhabitants of the land during settlement.   

He said part of the government funding agreements for the coastal trail was reconciliation and recognition of the Wirangu people.

“The monument has basically been completed but we had to come to a decision with the Wirangu on the wording on this plaque that explains it,” he said.  

Mr Callaghan said through negotiations, the Wirangu people were committed to the inclusion of the phrase “The Massacre of Waterloo Bay” on the memorial. 

He said using the word “massacre” to describe the incident at Waterloo Bay had caused some controversy in the community now and in the past.

He said the Wirangu understood the sensitivity around the phrase ‘The Massacre of Waterloo Bay’ and agreed to it appearing in quotation marks to identify it as the preferred language of the traditional owners.

He said it was an important concession and recognised that it was not everyone’s interpretation.

The council this year employed anthropologist Timothy Haines to investigate the historical events and to assist in negotiation of a respectful compromise.

Mr Haines said in an eight-page report on his investigation that it seemed “undeniable” Aboriginal people were killed at Waterloo Bay in 1849 but it was highly unlikely huge numbers were involved, though there could have been more than 20. 

The monument has basically been completed but we had to come to a decision with the Wirangu on the wording on this plaque that explains it.

Elliston council chairman Kym Callaghan

He also delved into the definition of the word massacre concluding its meaning was based in the attitude and intention of the perpetrator rather than the numbers of victims. 

“Perhaps we would be right in concluding that three random people shot at the end of a pursuit responding to a perceived burglary may constitute a massacre as much as 230 chased over a cliff,” he said. 

Elliston resident Caroline Gillett is one of the community members concerned by the use of the word massacre to describe what happened in the area. 

She spoke at the council meeting on June 20 and presented a list of 45 others who objected to the word massacre being applied to the plaque. 

Mrs Gillett said there was no hard written evidence documented to prove the massacre ever took place.

“There is evidence verifying that yes, there was violence certainly on both sides in this very large district but not an iota, whatsoever about a large massacre in the late 1840s on the Elliston coastline, let alone Waterloo Bay.

“To recognise this falsehood is erroneous and terribly wrong,” she said. 

Mrs Gillett said the use of the word massacre was a sensitive issue for local people and for the Wirangu and more consultation was needed on the wording so a compromise could be reached. 

“I think recognition is fine, I think acknowledgement is fine but I don’t think the word massacre should ever be used because there is no proof it ever happened,” she said. 

She said there was no disrespect intended to Aboriginal families and representatives but a section of the community wanted the opportunity to contribute to a healthy discussion on the wording. 

“We all want to move forward and we want to work this out so Elliston can continue to be a lovely place,” Mrs Gillett said. 

The council decided to again meet with the Wirangu to discuss other options.

A representative of the Wirangu was contacted for comment.