Yiman does not have a word for ‘massacre’

Memorial to Yiman leader Bilba at Wallumbilla (Source: Goodbye Bussamarai)

On October 27, 1857, a group of Aboriginal Australians, members of a group known as Yiman carried out a massacre: they attacked Hornet Bank Station, a newly-established large sheep run in Queensland. Three white men, two women and six children were killed in the attack. The women and an 11-year-old girl were raped and one man was castrated before they were clubbed to death. The event is remembered in Australian history as the ‘Hornet Bank Massacre.’

By contrast, there is no name or single term of reference for the events that led up to and that followed the Hornet Bank Massacre. In the lead-up to the event, the Yiman had been dispossessed of their lands on the Dawson Plains by white settlers establishing sheep runs. In the process, they had been subjected to violence and humiliation, including wanton killings and rape. After the event, an irregular paramilitary force, the so-called Native Police, as well as white vigilante groups, engaged in brutal revenge killings. The Yiman decorated themselves with crescent-shaped cicatrices on the chest and people with those characteristic markings were shot on sight. The numbers of those murdered in this revenge killing spree are debated – the most conservative estimate is that 150 Yiman and related people were killed in the 18 months after the Hornet Bank Massacre. Many others were maimed and displaced. Within a decade, the Yiman as a distinct group with their own culture and language became extinct.

No anthropological or linguistic account of the Yiman exists and so we will never know whether they had a word for ‘massacre’ or not. I made the headline up although the idea that they didn’t is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Aboriginal law operated as a redistributive justice system within closely circumscribed limits. Ted Strehlow, the eminent anthropologist of Aboriginal Australia, noted:

[…] in spite of considerable differences in point of language and as regards local customs, no tribe sought to dominate or terrorize its neighbours. […] even if a local totemic group was almost wiped out in a particularly fierce blood-feud, the successful raiders respected the sacred sites and made no attempt to seize the hunting grounds of the vanquished for their own use. No ursurpers would have risked the vengeance of the local earth-born supernatural beings. (Strehlow, T. G.H., The Sustaining Ideals of Australian Aboriginal Societies. Melbourne, 1962, p. 10)

I first became interested in the Hornet Bank Massacre when I read about it in Egon Erwin Kisch’s Australian Landfall (1937). Kisch seems to have been the first to have noticed that by most counts the events following ‘the massacre’ were more of a ‘massacre’ than the event that bears that denomination.

Many people get excited by the fact of linguistic relativity and think it matters hugely in intercultural communication whether a language has a word for something or not. They are wrong. Whether Yiman had a word for ‘massacre’ or not is entirely pointless: what we know is that speakers of that language committed one and suffered a series of massacres that led to their extermination. What is of real interest in intercultural communication is whose point of view gets recorded, whose voice matters. Dell Hymes has called this communicative relativity:

[I]t is essential to notice that Whorf’s sort of linguistic relativity is secondary, and dependent upon a primary sociolinguistic relativity, that of differential engagement of languages in social life. For example, description of a language may show that it expresses a certain cognitive style, perhaps implicit metaphysical assumptions, but what chance the language has to make an impress upon individuals and behaviour will depend upon the degree and pattern of its admission into communicative events. (Hymes, Dell., Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia, 1974, p. 18)

75 years have passed since Kisch first observed that Australian history was only told from the invaders’ point of view and I was curious to see how much that has changed since then. Have aboriginal voices got a better chance now to make an impress? Have they been admitted to Australian history? I’m sure there has been much progress but as far as the colonial war of expansion fought in Queensland in the mid-19th century is concerned, we don’t even have a term for it yet.

Wikipedia has an entry for ‘Hornet Bank Massacre’ but none for ‘Yiman massacre’ or similar although the latter does appear in a list of massacres of Indigenous Australians. The website Monuments Australia categorises memorials to ‘conflict’ into 14 themes: one of these is ‘indigenous’ and there is a memorial listed commemorating the Hornet Bank Massacre: it is described as a “cairn at Hornet Bank Station in memory of Europeans killed by the aborigines.” No memorial to the Yiman is listed although I’ve discovered one on another website (of an out-of-print book commemorating aboriginal resistance fighters).

Off the internet, there is an excellent book about the events under discussion: Gordon Reid’s A Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events. The book is out of print. My local public library doesn’t hold a copy but Macquarie University Library does – in the Automated Retrieval Collection (which means it’s not displayed on the shelves but has to be requested). Requesting an item from the Automated Retrieval Collection is easy enough but you have to know what you are looking for. The time stamps in the back of the book indicate that this particular copy is taken out for loan on average every two years. So, there is a detailed fair and balanced account incorporating all available evidence and voices – but its “chance to make an impress” is evidently extremely limited.

One more piece of evidence: according to all records I’ve read, William Fraser, surviving son and brother of those killed, “never lost an opportunity of shooting a wild blackfellow as long as he lived” (contemporary, quoted in Reid, p. 145). Despite the fact that there were witnesses to many of his murders, he killed with impunity. There never was even an inquiry into his murders despite the fact that simply shouting “Watch out, Billy Fraser is about!” was a common tease of aboriginal people at the time and sent them running away in terror. When he died in 1914, the local newspaper described him as “one of the oldest pioneers of this part of Queensland [whose] death will be received with regret by a large number of old residents in Queensland” (quoted in Reid, p. 153). Has that assessment of his character changed? I looked up the man who is reported to have killed more than 100 people in his life in a list of Australian mass murderers: his name is not there.

As we’ve remembered the men and women serving in the armed forces once again this Anzac Day, Aboriginal voices are still left largely outside the communicative event that is Australian history: their stories remain hidden.

ResearchBlogging.org Reid, Gordon (1982). A Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events Melbourne: Oxford University Press

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • One of a number of terrible stories, the Hornet Bank massacre of the Frasers and the subsequent massacre of many Aborigines have been retold in books with sensational titles, e.g. “Murder!: 25 True Australian Crimes”, as well as by Henry Reynolds, Bruce Elder and Judith Wright. Perhaps that’s why this book has had less airtime.

    On looking for a name – the “secret war” is a recent name given to the frontier battles in Queensland – made peculiarly hideous by the role of the “Native Police”.

    The name of the people concerned, Yiman, gets variously spelled as Iman, Jiman and Emon. There are fragments in the linguistic and ethnographic records about them, about their social system, but not much; it is hard therefore to know how much their language differed from those of their neighbours, about whom more is known.

  • khan

    A thought provoking post triggers thoughts on historiography: ‘what is of real interest in intercultural communication is whose point of view gets recorded, whose voice matters’. Thank you very much Professor Ingrid. I think the celebrated histories are often the histories of elites written by their paid historians. I would like to give you the example of Indian History because I am more familiar with it. The history of India has been written by historians who were employees of East India Company, a commercial group that came to India for trade in seventeenth century and later became the master of this land for two centuries. Before British the patrons of historians were invaders from Arab, Afghanistan, Persia who came and ruled India in different times. What we find in these histories is the account of few great leaders who have done everything for enlightening the ‘dark, static Indian society bound to a caste system, without any dynamics for change’. These messiahs came and brought candle to the dark world and now the dark worlds have become bright. In this historiography,’ the subaltern ‘ (Gramsci) voices are missing because they are constructed as barbarians, savages with very crude languages.
    I find Linguistic relativity as an important inquiry point but what is more important is ‘whose voice matters and whose gets recorded.

  • Jim KABLE

    A friend alerted me to “Japanese on the Move” (I’ll listen on Wednesday evening) – then I followed up a link to Kimie T whom I met at a Japan Foundation evening last year – Dr Ian McARTHUR interviewing Sayuki – an Australian 芸者. (I was some 16 years in western Japan.) And found this reference to Hornet Bank/and the subsequent massacre of Yiman/Jiman people. At the end of last year I was tracking some of my paternal kinfolk (First Fleet arrivals) from Bathurst to Central Queensland – one of whom joined in the immediate vengeance murders of the Yiman – post the 1857 Hornet Bank attack. The “Frazer Massacre” as Egon Kisch rightly calls it. It is salutary to contrast William Frazer’s “filial devotion” with that of Tom WILLS following the slaughter of his family and others (19 in all) by local Indigenous people whose land was being taken – at Springsure in 1861 – the “Cullin-La-Ringo” aka the “Wills Massacre”. He did not join in the the subsequent slaughter – but went back to Western Victoria where he’d grown up – and created a cricket team from local Indigenous men whose language/s he spoke – and took them to England (see Greg de MOORE’s recently published biography of Tom) – in the late 1860s – where they won 14 games, lost 14 games and drew 19 games! I am just back from a trip to Lake Mungo – where I heard of the Rufus River Massacre of Indigenous people further to the west – then there’s the Myall Creek Massacre – and one in Port Stephens – in fact far too many! History!

  • Jess

    The correct way to spell is Jiman the is silent.

  • Intriguing claim … how do you think ‘correctness’ would be established in this case?

    All we can say is that there are spelling variants in English (Jiman, Yiman, Yeeman etc.) and, not being an aboriginal linguist, I’ve chosen what seems to be the most frequent spelling (see, e.g., Selected Bibliography of Material on the Yiman language and people held at the AIATSIS Library).

  • Tom

    It is noted that the memorial above was placed in Wallumbilla not Taroom, which is synonymous with the Hornet Bank massacre. It is doubtful whether it’s placement would have been permitted. Taroom was cursed by the Jiman people, after Hornetbank and no aboriginies will live in and/or around Taroom. This is a fact that is little known to this day. I must look at the memorial on my next trip through.

  • Neil

    The bodies were buried without an official investigation being conducted, which also included expert examination to determine cause of death and trauma suffered, so how can it be said that one of the men was castrated? If that is what happened, how come the name of the man was not provided?

    Andrew Scott took up Goongarry in 1853, renaming it Hornet Bank which he rented to John Fraser in 1854. When John died in 1856, his eldest son, William, took over the rent. All of this happened before Scott was granted a lease for the run in 1858. Hornet Bank was well-established when the tragedy happened in 1857!

  • Andrew

    I work in Native Title as a researcher in the area being discussed. There are a couple of important points to clarify here; firstly there are in fact quite a number of Iman (Yiman, Emon) surviving today and as I type this are headed towards a successful Native Title claim – which means they have maintained a continuing practice of their traditional laws and customs as is a required element of proof in Native Title claims.

    Secondly although it is generally relevant, relying on Ted Strehlow’s work with the Aranda of central Australia is not the most appropriate use of the ethnographic record. Much more reliable and applicable to this area of Australia would be the writings of R.H. Matthews, A.W. Howitt and J. Mathew. In these works there are references to groups from a broader region that shared close cultural similarities to the Iman and others in the Dawson River region at times annexing the territory and totemic sites of other groups. This process more often occurred through a process of a kind of succession, but this succession to estates and territory often may have followed a period of sustained and heavy conflict. I raise this point only to highlight the diversity which exists in Aboriginal Australia and warn against drawing inferences too broadly from the general body of ehtnographic literature available.