A Massacre in Port Phillip 1842

When I was researching the ancestry of my husband John Wilton [E.2.2a.2b.4c.2d.1e=], I looked into Trove to find out more about his Arabin ancestors. The Arabins left France around 1700 and settled in England, where they were judges, soldiers and solicitors. A son of one of these men was George Thomas Arabin – John’s great-great-great grandfather.

George Thomas Arabin was born in 1815 in Islington, London. His father Gustavus was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1813 and published The Spectator – a weekly journal of News, Politics, Literature and Science and had chambers in St Andrew Holborn – so they were an educated family. Gustavus kept a second family (as “gentlemen” often did), abandoning both families and dying in France. So George, like many people in overcrowded England, headed to Australia in search of opportunity. He landed in Melbourne sometime before 1835, although I haven’t found a shipping record.

In 1842, aged about 27, George became witness to murder of a kind he would never have encountered in London. The articles below were found in Trove and I have preserved the spelling and capitalisation of the day in the quotes below.

The Hull Packet Friday 13 October 1843 page 4:


Melbourne, Port Phillip, June 5.

Through the praiseworthy exertions of Mr. Sievwright, protector of aborigines, several of the guilty parties concerned in the above outrage have been apprehended, and the police office was crowded almost to suffocation on Saturday morning last, when three of the parties implicated were brought forward for examination before Major St. John, C. W. Sievwright, Esq., and other magistrates. Richard Hill, Henry Beswick, and George Bates Were placed at the bar, charged With having shot several natives in a tea-tree scrub, near Messrs. Smith and Osbrey’s station, at a place named Mustin’s Creek, about the latter end of February, 1842. It appears from the evidence of George Arabin, and another person named McGuiness, that about the latter end of February, 1842, George Bates came to Arabin’s hut, and requested to have the loan of his gun, to shoot a large kangaroo. Arabin loaded the gun with ball, and gave it to him. He then went to the door of his hut, and saw Messrs. Hill, Besvick, Bates, and four others leave his master’s hut on horseback all armed with guns. _ Mr McGuinness said to Arabin, as perhaps the gentlemen might require the kangaroo dogs, he would follow with them and see the sport. McGuinness returned about 20 minutes afterwards, and likewise the gentlemen on horseback. Arabin saw Messrs. Hill and Beswick with some black fellows’ weapons in their hands; and asked McGuinness what sport they had. McGuinness answered the party had been shooting blacks, not kangaroos. Bates returned him his gun unloaded. McGuinness had been examined on a previous day, and stated on his approach with the kangaroo dogs he heard several shots fired, aud perceived two blacks running and screaming from the   tea tree scrub, from whence the sound of the shots came. Mr. Sievwright came to the station three days afterwards, and stated that a most barbarous outrage had been committed by a party of white persons, a few days previous, they having murdered four inoffensive native women and one child at Mustin’s Creek, and offered a reward of £50 to find out the murderers. He said it was the same thing as coming to a settler’s hut and shooting their wives and children.  Mr. Sievwright, after holding an examination on the bodies of the poor murdered natives, ordered their remains to be buried. On a further examination, the three persons at the bar were finally committed for trial at the ensuing criminal sessions, which were to commence on the 15th June. The above dreadful affair has created a great sensation here, several of the parties implicated being settlers and their overseers. Tbe length of time since the crime was committed (nearly 17 months since) marks the mysterious ways of Providence, in (sooner or later) bringing forward evil doers to justice.

The Chronicles of Early Melbourne later documented the case.  The defence asserted that the witnesses McGuiness and Arabin were “wretches, steeped to the lips in crime, self-convicted perjurers seeking to earn the price of blood.” The Chronicles explains:

The evidence of these two witnesses as given to the Court was compared with their depositions at the preliminary investigation, and the discrepancies indicated. An alibi was set up for Beswicke, who on the day of the alleged massacre was away on the station of a Mr. Brock, attending to his business. The whole charge was declared to have been trumped up by ” conspirators banded together in perjury, linked together by the bond of mutual guilt, and joining together in a well-concocted story, to swear away innocent life, and earn a blood-stained reward.” At this stage the prosecution was stopped by the jury intimating that they had agreed to a verdict of ” Not Guilty.” The judge, in directing the discharge of the prisoners, remarked that it would have been an everlasting disgrace on the Government had this case not been investigated, and if the prisoners had been convicted he should have passed sentence of death upon them without the slightest hope of mercy. It was reported that two other parties supposed to have been implicated had cleared out for England, and had there been a conviction, warrants would have been despatched for their apprehension.

The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal 29 March 1890 page 4 gave a fuller account of George Arabin’s testimony.



A Series of Historical Sketches, bearing upon Australian Colonization and Convict Life in New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land.

By ” The Chatterer.”

PART III. The Story of the Blacks THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA. CHAPTER XIII.— MASSACRES. The Natives of Port Phillip. (Continued.)

George Arabin, in last witness’ employ at the station, in February, 1842, was next examined. He remembered prisoner Betts riding up that day when he and McGuinness were at dinner in the hut, and asking him for a gun; asked him what he wanted it for, and he said to shoot three ” boomers ” ; McGuinness advised him to take the dogs ; witness handed him the gun unloaded, but as Betts said he had no ammunition and asked him to load the gun, he did so, putting in powder and two or three balls : Betts then went to the master’s hut, where Hill and Beswicke and three other persons were ; they were all on horseback ; they all rode off in the direction of Kemp’s station ; did not see a dog with them, but McGuinness followed them with four dogs, saying he was going to get some kangaroo skins ; McGuinness was away about 20 minutes, and the others about an hour ; did not see any arms with them except Betts ; when they returned they had blacks’ weapons with them ; witness asked Betts where he had seen the blacks, and he said where they had previously been looking for horses, and that the blacks had dropped their instruments and ran away ; Betts said some- thing about the blacks, but witness could not remember what it was ; McGuinness told Betts he ought to be ashamed of himself, and to hold his noise — alluding to what was said about the blacks ; did not recollect Betts saying anything about kangaroos, or that any of the party said they had seen any ; did not hear shots fired that day ; when Betts returned the gun it was unloaded ; Betts said the gun carried well, for he had hit twice with it ; he said he fired at a gum tree ; saw Mr. Seivewright at the Station subsequently ;   he addressed all at the station and said three women and a child were killed and he would give £50 reward to anyone who would give information on the subject ; witness saw the remains of the lubras,  which were burned; did not recollect seeing any arms, except those on Betts, on any of the party when they returned.   In cross-examination, witness said: I am a free man — never was a prisoner; I was arrested on this charge in Geelong on 24th May, 1843, by the chief constable; I was taken to a watchhouse in Geelong,   then to the gaol, then to a steamer, and then to the watchhouse in Melbourne, where I was placed in a room and locked up ; while in that cell I saw McGuinness; I do not know who put him in, but the door opened and he walked in; he said,   “What, are you here ?” and I replied, “I am”; I said I would have no conversation with him, and knocked at the door and desired the gaoler to put him out ; I   did not wish to have my name brought in question; I lay down in a corner and re- fused to speak to McGuinness ; after remaining about an hour in the cell, McGuinness was let out on whispering to the gaoler; I asked the gaoler what he was put in there for, and he said he had orders to do so; I never said, “Take that villain, McGuinness away — he wants me to takeaway innocent blood”; I was examined on the Saturday, and subsequently was discharged on my own recognizances; no terms were mentioned to me; I have since been in the employ of Mr. Thomas, Assistant Black Protector, and McGuinness has been there also. I did state to Mr. Seivewright that I knew nothing at all about the business; I was in bodily fear on the station; Hill was then present and I was afraid of him.”   This closed the case for the Crown. The two blackfellows, who escaped when the murderous attack was made, could not give evidence, the law holding aborigines to be incompetent as witnesses. For the defence, witnesses were called to shew that McGuinness was not worthy of credence, and these men declared they would not believe him on his oath. One of these was an ex-convict, who had served in Van Dieman’s Land with McGuinness; another was a publican, who had worked with him as a journeyman shoemaker; and the third was a builder, who declared that when McGuinness was working with him he robbed him.

A special defence was set up in prisoner Beswicke’s defence, two men being called to prove that they were at the prisoner’s station, on business, on the day of the murder, and that prisoner was there from early morning till late in the afternoon.

At the end of a similar article, it was said

Mr. Cunningham then addressed the jury on behalf of Beswicke, and brought witnesses to prove an alibi in his case. His Honor commenced summing up when the foreman. of the jury informed him that they would not trouble His Honor to read over the notes of evidence, as they had made up their mindsas to their verdict.
The jury then returned a verdict of ‘”Not Guilty” in favour of the prisoners.

Wednesday 2nd August, 1843
Mr Cunningham said that he had consulted his client, Mr. Beswicke, respecting the application which he had made the previous day to have M’Guinness and Arabin given in charge for perjury. He thought that such a prosecution must keep up the state of excitement which the trial had caused and it was more desirable that it should, die away. His client would leave these men to be punished by their own consciences and their God.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography contains this article by Lindsay Arkley:

Charles Wightman Sievwright (1800-1855), soldier and protector of Aborigines, was born on 31 March 1800 in Edinburgh, third of seven children of Andrew Sievwright, a solicitor and merchant burgess, and his wife Ann, née Robertson. When Charles was 15, £400 was paid to gain him a commission as an ensign in a Scottish infantry regiment. He served for 20 years in the army, half the time in Britain and half in the Mediterranean, without being involved in combat. On 3 April 1822 he married Christina Watt in the Episcopal church, Stirling, Scotland. They had seven children. ‘A fine, soldierlike man, muscular and strong, straight as a ramrod’, Sievwright was forced to sell his commission to pay off gambling debts in 1837 and returned to London from Malta, where he had been a captain in the Royal Fusiliers. Well-connected friends helped him to gain a post in Australia as assistant to G. A. Robinson, recently appointed chief protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District.

Reaching Sydney in the Lord Eildon in November 1838, Sievwright moved with his family to live in tents among the Aborigines near the tiny settlement of Geelong. With responsibility for the whole of what would later become the Western District of Victoria, he was charged with protecting the Aborigines ‘from cruelty, oppression and injustice’ and ‘from encroachments upon their property’.

From his first official report, he was complaining to Robinson about Aboriginal deaths, as their traditional sources of food and clothing were depleted. Sievwright also began what would become a lengthy series of investigations into massacres of Aborigines. His determination to seek prosecutions for mass murder—in one case of up to 80 people—helped to make him ‘the most unpopular man that ever breathed’ among his countrymen. Inaction by the authorities in Melbourne and Sydney were constant themes of his reports. The deterioration in his relations with the white community soon extended as far as Superintendent Charles La Trobe and Governor Sir George Gipps.

Despite his limited ability to address their needs, Sievwright won considerable respect from the Aborigines who lived with him at several camps—as many as 270 at a time—most having had little or no previous contact with Europeans. With sporadic supplies, he attempted unprecedented food-for-work schemes, hoping to replace some of the lost traditional food with crops grown by the Aborigines themselves. But guerilla attacks by Aborigines and stock thefts continued, and the squatters and the press blamed him for failing to stop them. When the colonial administration received Sievwright’s report outlining the murder of three unarmed Aboriginal women and a child by a group of white men, he was suspended without pay in 1842 for alleged incompetence. Simultaneously, there were references to disharmony within his family. Gipps and La Trobe, nervous about the possible reaction in London to Sievwright’s claims that the protectorate had not been given a fair trial, ignored his demands for an official inquiry.

Following confirmation of his dismissal, Sievwright returned to Britain in November 1845 to clear his name, leaving his family in poverty. A limited investigation by the Colonial Office in 1847, largely comprising statements from his detractors, found his dismissal justified. As late as mid-1849 he was still campaigning in London for a full inquiry. Having gone both deaf and blind, he never again saw the family he left behind in Australia. Sievwright died of rheumatic heart disease on 10 September 1855 in Belgrave, London, and was buried in a common grave in Brompton cemetery. Christina had died in 1854 in Melbourne. Seven children in Australia survived him. A miniature oil on ivory portrait of Sievwright (c.1825), held privately in Victoria, shows him as a young man with curly, red hair, dressed as a Royal Fusiliers officer.

Interestingly, not longer after finding this story, I saw that a an indigenous man, Darren Sievwright, was superintendent of police in the town of Kalgoorlie. I wonder whether there was a connection.

Would the murder of Aboriginal people be handled this way today? Would a public servant be suspended for pursuing enquiries into deaths? I’m not sure we can say no. Searching for “massacre in Port Phillip” in Google led to many more articles and images drawn by colonial artists. I will leave it to readers to research this further.

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