The first recorded killing happened on 1 September 1794, six years after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove and declared Australia a British colony.
It was not the first murder of Aboriginal people by Europeans but it is the earliest to have enough evidence to meet the strict criteria of University of Newcastle researchers, who have mapped the sites of more than 150 massacres in one of the most significant pieces of work ever undertaken on the frontier wars.
The detail is scant. A group of settlers on the Hawkesbury river, reportedly in reprisal for an attack on a settler and his servant and the theft of their clothes some days prior, armed themselves and killed seven or eight members of the Bediagal clan.
The massacre occurred on a bend in the river at Cornwallis, about 4km from what is now Richmond. According to a 2011 book by the historian Peter Turbet, one of the sources cited by the University of Newcastle researchers, it was the largest massacre committed by settlers to date.
Another seven or eight Bediagal were killed nine months later, just over 6km away on what is now a thoroughbred stud. Their murderers were two officers and 66 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, dispatched by Captain William Paterson, who would later be promoted to colonel, serve as the lieutenant governor of NSW, be celebrated by history as an explorer, and have a river in the Hunter Valley named after him.
According to a temporary account, Paterson ordered his men to “drive the natives to a distance; and, in the hope of striking terror, to erect gibbets in different places, whereon the bodies of all they might kill were to be hung”.
They came upon the sleeping group of Bediagal people at night and shot them with muskets but were denied the chance to string them up; the survivors had taken away their dead in the night.
The list ticks on. Thirty to 50 members of the Leenowwine and Pangerninghe Big River tribes killed by 15 armed soldiers, supported by 15 armed convicts and magistrate Jacob Mountgarret at Risdon Cove on the River Derwent in 1804. Seven more Bediagal and Darung people killed on the Hawkesbury River in 1805. In 1806, a retaliation: nine sealers killed at Twofold Bay on the NSW south coast by a group of 11 Aboriginal men, clan unknown, in response to sealers abducting Aboriginal women.
It is the untold history of Australia, painted in blood.
The numbers are staggering, but lead researcher Lyndall Ryan said they were conservative estimates.
Only events where six or more relatively defenceless people were killed have been counted as a massacre. Skirmishes and other violence were not.
To be included in the map, the massacre also needed to be verified by several sources, which usually meant it had to be mentioned in colonial or settler accounts. Indigenous oral histories were included, but the very nature of the frontier wars mean they are often incomplete or have not been catalogued.
“You might get a little reference to a hunting party going off somewhere in a colonial newspaper, and a few years later there might be an account from a settler of seeing their neighbour going over the hill, going shooting,” Ryan told Guardian Australia.
“You have got to put the evidence together bit by bit by bit. It’s painstaking work.”
The accounts are brutal, and Ryan said the history they present will be upsetting to Indigenous Australians and is also likely to be quite confronting and traumatising to non-Indigenous Australians, who are often ignorant to this history.
“Aboriginal people, of course, know all about it, have always known all about it, and are deeply traumatised,” she said.
As of the public launch of the map at 6am Wednesday, it listed about 4,000 deaths. More will be added. The exact death toll from massacres and the frontier wars is unknown, but it runs in the hundreds of thousands. More than 65,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in massacres or conflicts between 1788 and 1930 in Queensland alone.
It’s Ryan’s hope that researchers and communities will contribute to the project to help build a complete picture.
Many of the listings include extracts from colonial texts and first-person settler accounts, which bluntly describe the killings.
“They are absolutely callous and horrendous,” Ryan said, adding that she and other researchers often had to take a break from the work because could not read another account of slaughter.
“It is very traumatising, and you have to walk away from it … It’s probably another reason why it’s taking so long [to pull the map together],” she said.
The information in those first-person accounts slipped out over decades. In one particularly deadly series at Warrigal Creek near Jack Smith Lake in East Gippsland, five men went on what Ryan called a “massacre rampage” for five days, killing every Aboriginal person they came across.
The story of that massacre emerged more than 30 years later from the two lone survivors, who had been just boys when their family was killed.
“That’s one of the characteristics of massacres wherever they happen – it takes a long time for the information to come out because the perpetrators don’t want you to know,” Ryan said.
In the case of the biggest single massacre recorded on the list, she said, the perpetrators had never been named because every white person in the area was implicated.
That was the killing of 300 members of the Kamilaroi people at Slaughterhouse Creek, about 54km from Moree in western NSW. A group of 15 heavily armed stockmen attacked at dawn on 1 May 1838, rushing down the slopes of the ravine to the camp on the creek bed.
It came just over four months after another massacre on 26 January 1838, at Waterloo Creek, where up to 50 Kamilaroi people were killed by 26 mounted police, under the command of Major James Nunn, whose orders were to expel Aboriginal people from the region which was being opened up for farmland.
Two years earlier, another 80 Kamilaroi were killed over several weeks by squatters and mounted police.
The Waterloo Creek massacre was brought before court, but the case was dropped. Both witnesses were soldiers who had taken part in the massacre. One said three or four had been killed, the other said 40 to 50 had been “badly killed”.
Despite leaving its name on the landscape, the Slaughterhouse Creek and Waterloo Creek massacres remain a contested event in Australian colonial history.
It wasn’t the only massacre brought to trial in 1838. On 10 June, settler John Henry Fleming and 11 stockmen, armed with muskets, swords, and pistols, drove a group of 28 Wererai people into stockyards at Myall Creek, east of Slaughterhouse and Waterloo Creeks.
The Wererai were brutally murdered in ways that made the bodies difficult to count.
Seven of the stockmen were later convicted and executed – the only time Europeans were executed for the murders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Ryan said she hoped the map would change the way Australia viewed and taught its history.
“I would like to hope that over the next five or 10 years there will be a much wider acceptance that this was a feature of colonial Australia, and it will change the way we think about Australia,” she said.