‘They have attack’d almost every person who has met with them’ – Re-reading William Bradley

In a previous post I discussed finding the name Bloody Point in Lieutenant William Bradley’s log book that had just been donated to the Australian National Maritime Museum. This honest place-naming of the most gruesome, violent event that had then occurred between the colonists and the Sydney people in 1788, made me revisit Bradley’s journal.

As a junior officer, the more senior colonists including his captain John Hunter didn’t give great credit to his work, and Hunter took much of it for himself. Indeed, Hunter largely ignored many of the place names Bradley had allocated around the harbour he surveyed in early 1788.

When checking Bradley’s journal again, it also seems workmanlike and honest – not (at least initially) written for audiences back in London as many others were. He was also, unlike other diarists, keen to note what events he personally witnessed, and what were told to him by others. So I decided to check Bradley’s journal and examine his notes on instances of conflict. I was looking to see if his daily record of events, as I suspected, shows a pattern of increasing conflict between the colonisers and the Sydney people during 1788.

In late January 1788, Bradley reported how the people they first met at Botany Bay were ‘Well disposed to us’ and for two days ‘our People & the Natives were mixed together’. In the first two weeks at Sydney Cove, he said ‘Men, Women & Children’ were ‘very friendly’. At the ‘Middle Branch’, they ‘met us in the most cheerful manner’ and ‘danced with us’ and at Spring Cove on the north shore Bradley met ‘several canoes’ and the people ‘had so much confidence in us’ they ‘mixed together and were quite sociable’.

Bradley also noted how the men were reluctant to allow the Europeans near women. He admired their tactical good sense, as even when ‘socialising’ they ‘had Arms ready to protect them’ {women}, or had someone guarding their weapons, which ‘increased my favourable opinion of them’. In the last few days of January Bradley recorded nine instances of communication that he witnessed, and only one of conflict (a spear thrown), and that was reported to him.

A view in upper part of Port Jackson; when the fish was shot, 1788 / possibly by William Bradley 
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

During the month of February however he recorded several times where ‘the natives would not come nearer the camp’ or ‘ran off in great confusion’. But there also appeared to be a growing acceptance of the colonists – gifts of fish were readily received and Bradley witnessed several women fishing who ‘felt no interruption from our boat being among them’. There were two reports of conflict. On the 9th of February he wrote that the French under La Perouse at Botany Bay ‘had been obliged to fire on the Natives’ ‘to keep them quiet’ and at Garden Island how some Sydney men stole axes and shovels, ‘but not without their skin being well pepper’d with small shot’. Still, he recorded personally observing ten instances of ‘communication’ and only two of conflict.

In March, Bradley reported six instances of conflict. Most were from convicts who were ranging outside the encampment in Sydney Cove, or Aboriginal men who took tools from the colonists, who regarded this as stealing. Several convicts were wounded or beaten and at the end of the month Aboriginal people ‘would not come near the ship’ and others who were approached when fishing, ‘paddled to the shore and ran into the woods’. There were 18 instances of communication, and six of conflict noted in Bradley’s journal in March.

In April, suspicion and fear of the colonists increased and Bradley noted the Sydney people could ‘not be persuaded to go into Camp’, or ‘ran away to the woods’. In May, while most of Bradley’s references to the Sydney people were that they were ‘very friendly’, there were many ‘who appeared to be very hungry’. In mid-May a convict ‘sent out to get greens’ was wounded and an Aboriginal man at Garden Island wounded and possibly killed in what may have been again retaliation for ‘stealing’ tools and equipment. In the last days of May, Bradley noted that Captain Campbell went to the ‘SW arm’ to where two convicts had been left to gather rushes and found a trail of blood from their tent leading to the mangroves, where Campbell found the mutilated bodies of the convicts William Okey and Samuel Davis.

In one of the rare moments Bradley mused on the overall situation (and why I am certain this is where he marked ‘Bloody Point’ on his first draft map of the harbour), he felt that while ‘they have attack’d our people when they have met them unarmed, but that did not happen until they had been very ill treated by us in the lower part of the Harbour & fired upon at Botany Bay by the French’.

Here, Bradley agrees with Collins, Tench and others that it was the colonisers who generated conflict. And this idea has held sway in almost all subsequent accounts of the first year of 1788. Added to the depletion of fish stocks in the harbour, these are the generally accepted reasons historians give to the conflict that began to increasingly occur and turn bloody.

But this suggests that the Sydney people were all quite happy to have the colonists in their midst. It says nothing about the earlier shows of force – displays of musketry and military capability that in my mind had the most important bearing on relations in the early colony. As Tench and Dawes noted, there was an association made between all the colonists and firearms – ‘gooroobeera’ according to Tench was the name given to the colonists as ‘those who carry guns’ and according to Dawes ‘djerebar’, the name given to the musket and which ‘the natives frequently called us by’.

The day after Phillip and his party had returned from the expedition in search of the people who killed Okey and Davis (where he had bumped into a group of over 200 warriors who had allowed his small party to return to the encampment at Sydney Cove) he gave orders ‘that no party under 6 armed Men were to go into the woods on account of the Natives being so numerous.’ During the cold month of June, few Aboriginal people were seen. Bradley noted at North Head he met three men and two boys who ‘made signs for us not to fire our Musquets’.

In July, Bradley described increasing hunger and further conflict. The Governor’s fishing boat met ‘a great number of the Natives in the lower part of the harbour’, gave them fish, but they were not satisfied and ‘took what they pleas’d’. At Camp Cove, he ‘found a Man & two Children ‘starving’, and gave them salt beef. A boat ‘down the Harbour’ had ‘several stones thrown at her on landing’ and a ‘musquet fired at them set them off’. In late July ‘convicts gathering greens’ were ‘attack’d by the Natives’ and one was wounded. A ‘straggling’ sailor only escaped conflict when he ‘presented a stick as if a musket’ and got away.

A view in Port Jackson taken from Sirius Island; the Sirius lying of [sic] the entrance of Sydney Cove, 1788 / possibly by William Bradley 
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

In August some canoes were seen passing up and down the harbour. Bradley noted that on the Governor conducted a sort of ‘census’ of Aboriginal people around the harbour. They counted ’67 Canoes, 94 Men, 34 Women & 9 Children’. All those in the upper harbour were ‘very friendly’ but in the North Arm ‘were not so friendly’,  and ‘while speaking with the boat’ a ‘spear was thrown which passed about 6 feet right over the midships’. They ran off and a small shot round was fired at them. Women came to the shore and tried to entice the boats to land. Over the month there were 3 instances of communication and three of conflict.

In early September a convict at Major Ross’s farm was ‘wounded by a spear being thrown at him from behind a tree by a Native who ran away immediately’. At this point, Bradley’s account of events at Port Jackson ends as his ship HMS Sirius is ordered to sail for Norfolk Island. He then launches into a ‘collected account of the Natives’ based upon his ‘certain knowledge’.

He says his initial idea ‘of their being Friendly disposed’ had changed. By September he was convinced the Sydney people were only friendly when ‘we have them in our power’ or they ‘are well prepared by being armed’. He noted that lately ‘they have attack’d almost every person who has met with them that has not had a muskquet & have sometimes endeavoured to surprise some who had’. Indeed, he writes ‘the Musquet now seems to be the only thing to keep them in Awe’ and that some of them have been killed by Musquet balls … I have not the least doubt’.

Much has been made by historians of the cross-cultural encounters that occurred in the first few months of the Europeans arriving at firstly Botany Bay and then shortly after, Sydney Harbour. In The Sydney Wars I suggested that during the first year, before the devastating galgala disease of April 1789 killed probably more than half the population who lived around the harbour, instances of conflict grew in frequency and intensity.

Bradley’s journal gives us an excellent snapshot of this spiralling conflict in the first months of the colony. It points to a picture of growing discontent with the colonists, particularly on the North Shore, and a growing willingness to attack them. It also shows how the Sydney people had an understanding of the firepower of the British and a great concern with their military capability – tactics were already being adapted to counter this military superiority. Bradley’s matter of fact account focuses on this, rather than, as other officers accounts that speculate, often wildly, about the motivations of the people living around Sydney Harbour. It seems to me historians should have paid more attention to Lieutenant William Bradley.

Finding Bloody Point

Picture a crisp Autumn day in May 1788 on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, just two months after the colonists had arrived in Sydney. Two convicts – William Okey and Samuel Davis – have been sent out to cut rushes used in making thatch roofs for the buildings that were beginning to replace the canvas tents in Sydney Cove. At a likely ‘cove up the harbour’ they pitch a tent and, we assume, get to work. At this stage there had been a few convicts who had been speared and wounded by Aboriginal people, and some had gone missing. But the British officers were not sure if these missing convicts had just got lost in the bush or had been killed by Gadigal, Wangal or other Sydney people, or precisely what had happened to them. In the first months of 1788 there was little contact between the colonisers and the Sydney people, and often – though not always – the contacts were curious exchanges. There seemed to be little reason as yet to send out soldiers with convict work parties at first, though reports of violence outside the settlement were increasing.

Despite their suspicions, the military officers and officials needed hard evidence if they were to include these missing people in the lists of dead they would compile for official reports. This confirmation practice was to be one of the reasons conflict in the colony was under-reported. People suspected of being killed were left often noted as ‘missing’, and the reporting of people who were wounded was minimal, if at all, or with the simple phrase ‘several wounded’. In fact, if we had a fuller account of the casualties of conflict in the Sydney region, it may well be much better known today. 

But when the colonists found the bodies of Okey and Davis, the officers could then confirm these as the first European deaths at the hands of the Aboriginal people in the Sydney region. Confirmation was quite obvious as the bodies had several spears still sticking out of them. It was certainly a gruesome find. Surgeon White described how Okey was ‘transfixed through the breast’ with one spear and had two other spears sticking out of him. Okey’s eyes had been taken out and his head had been ‘beaten to a jelly’. Okey’s was the first of many mutilations that were to disturb the colonists over the following years. This practice was known elsewhere later, and was known as a gruesome message to those who would find the body.

Most historians have assumed, as the two men were cutting rushes, this occurred at Rushcutters’ Bay. But several diaries say they were found ‘up the harbour’. More recently some historians have suggested other locations such as Darling Harbour. In The Sydney Wars I suggest it may have been around White Bay. Well, I was wrong.

Log of HMS SIRIUS 1787 – 1792, a close-up view of Bloody Point from Bradley’s chart of Sydney Harbour.
ANMM Collection Gift of descendants of Vice-Admirals Harry Edmund Edgell CB (1809 – 1876) and Sir John Augustine Edgell KBE, CB, FRS (1880- 1962)

Not long after my book had been published I was looking at a log book from the family of Lieutenant William Bradley, one of the junior officers on the 1788 ship HMS Sirius, that had just been donated to the Australian National Maritime Museum, where I work as a curator. Ships’ logs are pretty boring stuff generally; notes of tides and weather, coastal profiles and latitude and longitude. But in Bradley’s log there are some of his first charts and maps before they were tidied up, before they were combined with Captain Hunter’s material and made into the official version to be sent back to England, and there is some information on Bradley’s draft maps in his log book that didn’t make it into the later maps we all are familiar with.

So I was having a close look at Bradley’s first chart of Port Jackson and there are some unusual names he gave to various places – most of them after his fellow officers, and most of them names that were not used by Hunter, or presumably agreed to by Governor Phillip. One of the names stuck out – Bloody Point. It is marked on the piece of land jutting out at the end of Iron Cove, where the UTS Haberfield Rowers Club stands today, passed every day by hundreds of joggers on the Bay Run. This place, where two creeks join the cove, where at low tide these days the shopping trolleys emerge to signal a very shallow water depth, rushes were likely to have been plentiful. It is in my mind almost certainly the place where Okey and Davis were killed. At around the same time Bradley made this chart, the gruesome deaths of Okey and Davis were reported in all the colonial diaries and journals.

The events at Bloody Point shocked the colonists and were the cause of the first punitive military expedition undertaken in Australia, an expedition that was personally led by Governor Phillip. In fact, it was the first of four military expeditions he personally led, and there were arguably others such as the heavily armed ‘excursion’ up the Hawkesbury River. The detachment of officers, soldiers, and armed convicts (yes, that’s correct, armed convicts employed as ‘guides’ but also as auxiliaries, adding firepower to the small detachment) didn’t find any trace of the people who killed Okey and Davis. But a determined Governor Phillip then led them across to Botany Bay, after which they stumbled across a gathering of over 200 warriors and numbers of women and children. Fortunately for the small detachment, outnumbered more than 20 to 1, they were allowed to pass and return to the encampment at Sydney Cove. Straight after this, Phillip ordered that no one was to go outside the colonist’s ‘lines of limitation’ without being armed or escorted by soldiers.

Bloody Point today. While the foreshore of Dobroyd Point has changed, the two creeks entering either side of the headland can still be seen, despite landfill, canals and shopping trolleys. Drone photograph courtesy of
Jason Burcher & Friends of Callan Park

Finding the name Bloody Point is I think important in several ways. It marks the site of the beginning of the first major punitive expedition against Aboriginal people in Australia, the first in what was to become a long history of such expeditions. It marks the site of the first such expedition in the Sydney region against Aboriginal people who had either been involved in violence against the colonists, or who apparently needed to be shown the repercussions of such violence. From Governor Phillip right through to Governor Macquarie’s military campaigns of 1816, the same language was used to describe punitive expeditions – they were to ‘infuse a universal terror’ or to ‘strike terror’ among Aboriginal people outside the settlements, a theme common to asymmetric, irregular or guerrilla warfare over time.

Bloody Point marks the site of the beginning of what in Sydney was very much an officially sanctioned, military led system, based in previous experience of insurgency in Ireland and frontier warfare experience in North America in particular, where raids or other guerrilla warfare could be tolerated but the killing of colonists was to be met with shows of force, often with the intention of bringing back the heads of anyone associated, or hanging their bodies from trees as gruesome warnings. From Governors Phillip to Macquarie, for over 30 years the practice of beheading or a form of gibbeting (in the Australian version, hanging bodies from a nearby gum tree rather than in a purpose built cage) was a way of not just harnessing the power of displaying the dead, but blurred distinctions between criminality and military resistance.

Bloody Point marks the beginning of a time of violence against Aboriginal people in the Sydney region that many historians have seen as a template for frontier wars elsewhere. Lieutenant Bradley’s journal at the State Library of New South Wales is well worth revisiting for an honest, workmanlike, junior officer’s assessment of the first six months of the colony at Port Jackson. He dutifully notes how over that time, curiosity with the invaders gradually turned to conflict. (See upcoming post on this)

I think it is important to remember too that in the first thirty odd years of pushing out a colony across the Cumberland Plain, unsanctioned reprisals by settlers were few and far between. Almost all the skirmishes, battles, massacres and punitive responses to attacks by Aboriginal people were conducted not by vengeful ‘posses’ or ‘armed parties’ but led by magistrates, constables, armed convicts and soldiers, all acting under official direction.

The killing of two convicts who had it seems transgressed Aboriginal law on Wangal land at Bloody Point (Governor Phillip thought the two convicts had tried to steal nawi or bark canoes) reminds us too that the warfare and conflict across the Sydney region was not always one-way traffic – that while there were massacres, there was also Aboriginal resistance. There was small scale conflict such as at Bloody Point, and there were military victories such as the Battle at Razorback in 1816, or in warfare along both the Hawkesbury and the Nepean Rivers that forced white settlers to flee as refugees from their farms. Who today remembers the lower Blue Mountains township of Kurrajong as the only entire settlement in the Sydney region to have been abandoned at one point due to attacks by Aboriginal warriors?

The finding of Bloody Point, erased from European-Australian maps and memory, gives me hope that there are more such discoveries to be made – if we turn our full attention to it, at last.


Phillip to Sydney 9 July 1788, Historical Records of NSW, Volume 1, part 2, 148

John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1962, (1790), 135-38

David Collins, An Account of the English Colony etc., Volume 1, AH & AW Reed, Sydney, 1975, (1798), 24

Keith Vincent Smith, Bennelong: the coming in of the Eora, Sydney Cove 1788-1792, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 2001, 27

William Bradley, A Voyage to New South Wales etc., Trustees of the Pubklic Library of NSW, Sydney 1969, (1792), 110

A thin red line across the Blue Mountains: Governor Macquarie and the military campaigns of 1816

For two violent years between 1814 and 1816 the so-called ‘Wild Mountains Natives’, mostly Gandangarra people, were seen by the Sydney colonists as a major threat. Their raids on the fringes of the Cumberland Plain were regular and at times deadly. There were reports they would ally with the Dharawal warriors and attack the settlements, and ‘murder all the white people before them’. Gandangarra warriors had been seen in warbands of several hundred and settlers had been forced to flee outlying farms for the safety of townships.

After the Battle at Razorback in March 1816 where a scratch militia force under the command of the Bringelly Magistrate Robert Lowe had been defeated in open battle, and after increasing numbers of settlers’ deaths at the hands of warriors, Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided to act.

Historians have long emphasised the fact that Macquarie was the first Governor of New South Wales who had an army rather than navy background, and have seen this as part of his methodical and clinical approach to the sweeping campaigns of 1816, designed to ‘Strike them (Sydney Aboriginal people) with Terror’. But what particular military experience did Macquarie bring to the colony? And did this have any bearing on what was essentially guerrilla warfare in 1816? There has been little attention paid to the influence Macquarie’s field and campaign experience may have had on warfare in the Sydney region and there has been no real interrogation of his – and others in his circle – motivations for the largest military campaign in the early colony.

An old soldier

Before the dire situation of 1816, Macquarie had travelled by coach and horses across the Blue Mountains to inspect the ‘New Discovered Country’ of the Wiradjuri lands around Bathurst. In his journal and his reports back to the authorities in England he waxed lyrical about the grasslands of the Bathurst Plains. This ‘rich, fertile country’ was, he believed, critical to the expansion of the colony beyond the Sydney basin that it had been trapped in for so long.

So Macquarie certainly had a good first-hand knowledge of the long and isolated route of William Cox’s newly built road over the mountains, and would have well understood its vulnerabilities. Perhaps he was reminded of the road from the Malabar Cost to Mysore in India. This road up and over the Western Ghats via the Poodicherum Pass was a significant physical challenge (and remains so today, popular with trekkers and mountain bikers). Macquarie had traversed this road three times (in 1791, 1792 and 1799) and had also campaigned in the Western Ghats against the Pazhassi Raja (aka Kerala Varma) in 1797.

This campaign of guerrilla warfare prior to the defeat of Tipu Sultan had dragged on from 1793-1805. British forces stretched out along the narrow, jungle covered mountain roads were always vulnerable. The similarities between the new road across the rugged Blue Mountains and the road from the Malabar Coast to Mysore may well have influenced Macquarie’s decision in April 1816 to send a detachment under Sergeant Jeremiah Murphy to defend the road and escort all government movements across it. (The Sydney Wars, 243-4)

The Western Ghats in Kerala. ‘View to the west, of Sispara bungalow and Sispara peak across the stream in Sispara pass from the Sispara ghat trail’, Lithograph after Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke, 1847 (details)

By 1797 Macquarie had made his way through the ranks of the British Army in India to the position of Brevet Major. He had seen action in regular warfare at the siege of Cochin in 1795 and the capture of Colombo and Point de Galle in 1796. In April 1797 he heard news that Governor Jonathan Duncan and Lieutenant General Stuart were in Tellicherry preparing for a military campaign against the Pyché Rajah in the Cottiote region of the Malabar Coast. Macquarie immediately volunteered for active service and was given command of the Advance Guard of 700 men, made up of four companies of the 77th Regiment and a battalion of the 3rd Native Infantry Regiment. Macquarie recorded his experiences during the campaign for the three-week period from 3-22 May, 1797. On May 9 Macquarie led his Advance guard out from Kydree and as he wrote in his journal:

… we marched on for about an Hour, through very close Jungle, and occasionally through Batty Fields, without meeting with any molestation, until we entered a narrow Pass that led through remarkable thick Jungle and rough broken Ground full of Ravines, Rocks and Banks that afforded excellent cover for the Enemy. 

It was in this pass that the British ‘convoys were afterwards so severely attacked and annoyed by the Enemy’ and Macquarie went through several days of skirmishing with forces who were ‘no sooner Dislodged from one set of Rocks and Banks than they occupied others at a distance to annoy us from with this teasing and galling Fire’. Macquarie led his men in charging ‘the different Bodies of the enemy posted on the Heights and very soon put them to the Rout’, and he received a minor wound from a spent musket ball. Macquarie reflected on his experience of what he called an ‘extraordinary mode of warfare’ and noted how communication and supply route guard posts were established after the campaign in response to the fact that while ‘their Troops must now be fully sensible that they never can stand us in the Field’, the enemy could still easily cut British communications in narrow roads through mountain passes covered in dense jungle.

Western Ghats as seen from Gobichettipalayam, by Magentic Manifestations – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (details)

An advantageous retreating ground

In Sydney between 1814 and 1816 an often repeated reason for the scourge of raids and attacks on outlying farms was that warriors could easily retreat into the rugged Blue Mountains after plundering farms of corn and livestock. The mountains were described by one early colonist as ‘advantageous retreating grounds’ where soldiers and armed parties could never hope to capture those responsible for these ‘depredations’.

In 1816, Macquarie and his military officers were obviously aware of this when they planned their campaign. Each detachment was to support the other and cover any warriors trying to escape into the mountains. Once the initial campaign was devised to sweep around the north, down the west and to the south of the Cumberland Plain, Macquarie added an important but often overlooked additional attachment to guard the Bathurst or Western Road.  

A map showing the extent of Macquarie’s 1816 campaign. The Sydney Wars, p 224

‘Celebrating’ the Appin Massacre

While Macquarie’s military experience should be highlighted, what of the other officers involved in the 1816 campaigns? Who else may have helped to shape Macquarie’s military thinking and planning? The officers directed to lead detachments in the campaigns also had direct military experience of campaigning in rough terrain. Captains James Wallis and William Schaw of the 46th Regiment had both served in the West Indies and campaigned in the defense of Dominica against the French in February 1805. Captain John Watts, Macquarie’s aide de camp, had served in the West Indies, firstly in the 64th Regiment, and later with the 46th Regiment in the capture of Guadeloupe from the French in 1810 and Captain John Gill (46th Regiment) probably also served in the West Indies.

There was a wealth of military experience surrounding Macquarie. Captain Henry Colden Antill, Macquarie’s Major of Brigade, served with the 73rd Regiment in India between 1798 and 1806 and earned promotion in the field during the storming of Seringapatam on 4 May 1799. And finally, Lieutenant Colonel Molle, commander of the 46th Regiment and Lieutenant Governor, certainly could have contributed to the planning of the 1816 campaign, although an increasing estrangement between Macquarie and Molle may have been at issue here.

This seating plan for a dinner party at Government House includes the senior military figures in the colony and officers involved in the 1816 campaign. It has been suggested that the dinner party may have been held to celebrate the recent safe return of the three detachments from campaigning on the Cumberland Plain – a campaign that included the massacre of 14 Aboriginal people, cutting off the heads of two and stringing their bodies from trees, and bringing women and children in as prisoners. ‘Table Plan for a Dinner Party at Government House.’ (Ca. 1815?) Macquarie Papers – Single Letters and Fragments 1801-1820 ML MSS 4199 Item 6

Macquarie researcher Robin Walsh raises other important questions about the 1816 campaign. What role did the Governor’s Secretary, ‘intimate friend and loyal supporter’ John Campbell play? Campbell was influential in shaping official policy during Macquarie’s governorship. He also had a vested interest in land near Bringelly on the fringes of the Sydney basin in 1816 with his Shancomore and Ballynashannon estates – both of which had been raided by warriors and plundered of stock and produce. Did he urge Macquarie to act? Campbell’s role in the military responses to the raids and attacks on the out-settlements in 1816 must be considered, as should his role in shaping the language of punishment by punitive expedition and any subsequent ‘reconciliation’ – his role as ‘official censor’ for the Sydney Gazette newspaper was in fact important in shaping the views of the entire colony.

The strategic significance of the Bathurst Road in Macquarie’s response to conflict with the Sydney people has been overlooked by a focus on the crossing of the Blue Mountains, the construction of the road, and the opening up of the ‘New Discovered Lands’. This teleological view of these histories has added to the erasure of the significance of Aboriginal resistance warfare in this period from broader historical memory (by non-Indigenous Australians at least).

The Gandangarra were perceived as the major threat in 1814-1816 and Macquarie almost certainly would have been aware of the similarities between this road and its’ vulnerabilities to attack in the same way that the road from the Malabar Coast to Mysore had been prior to the defeat of Tipu Sultan. The extent to which military officers in the early colony used their knowledge and experience of guerrilla warfare in places such as India and North America and adapted this to the specifics of Australian Frontier Wars, has only comparatively recently been of interest to military historians. From Captain Watkin Tench’s first use of what was to become a ubiquitous part of armed responses to Aboriginal resistance – the dawn raid – in 1790, to Macquarie’s thin red line across the Blue Mountains in 1816, there is much still to be uncovered about the impact of the British armed forces in Australia, and the significance of the threats they faced.


With thanks to Macquarie researcher Robin Walsh for insights into Macquarie’s military experience in India.


Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive


Macquarie, Lachlan. Journal No. 3: 29 December 1794 – 27 September 1799. Mitchell Library, Sydney. ML Ref: A769 pp.225 – 260

Rifle slits and gun loops: Early colonial domestic defensive architecture in the Sydney region

The image above is of Beulah homestead, near Appin in southwest Sydney. It is important as a rare example of 1830s colonial architecture that is still in – at least for the moment before it is surrounded by new housing developments – a rural setting. But there is something intriguing about it. In an attached stone room at the rear there is a narrow window. It is carefully crafted from sandstone with a well-cut groove for an external wooden shutter. The aperture flares out at angles to create a wider window on the inside. It follows the classic features and dimensions of rifle slits – often also called loopholes, gun loops or musket loops. In the 400 odd pages of the heritage report on this historic homestead there are two words about the window; ‘possibly defensive?’.

The Vines granary 1

This image is of another stone outbuilding in the Appin area, at The Vines. It too has an embrasure, or opening in the style and dimensions of a rifle slit. In fact, I have now identified five similar features in buildings in just a few kilometres radius. It is possible, as several decades of Australian heritage studies of early colonial building have rather disinterestedly noted, that these loopholes were made for ventilation in granary structures, or were Georgian decorative features. But there is increasing circumstantial evidence at least that they may have been made for other reasons as well.

The first land grants of Dharawal land to settlers in the Appin area began in 1811. By 1816 there was a small settlement which grew throughout the 1820s. It is unclear exactly when these stone outbuildings were constructed – it seems to have been from the 1820s according to heritage studies – but it is known that outbuildings of stone were often the first structure of importance in frontier districts deep in Aboriginal land. So too, we know that in other colonies such as Jamaica, the British practice was to build domestic architecture with defensive elements. And we also know of hundreds of examples of rifle slits in frontier settings beyond Sydney.

At the height of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s now infamous military campaigns of 1816 that resulted in the Appin Massacre there were reports of groups of several hundred Gandangarra and Dharawal warriors roaming the district, raiding farms and attacking settlers. Between 1814 and 1816, a significant period of resistance, guerrilla warfare occurred in the area. Just after a local militia force led by Magistrate Robert Lowe had been beaten in a battle at The Razorback, settlers in the area fled as refugees from a war zone to the safety of the main settlements.

Were some of these domestic defensive structures built at the height of this period of conflict? Or were they built later, with this warfare still fresh in settlers’ minds? Were they built, like many other examples of government, military and other buildings around Sydney, with several uses in mind at the same time – securing precious grain, as well as defence against convict uprisings, bushrangers and Aboriginal attacks?

The Vines granary
A closer view of the exterior of the outbuilding identified as a granary at The Vines, Appin.
The Vines slit ext
Interior view of the Vines granary slit window showing the thick wall and angled embrasure. A 2002 Heritage Report noted of this outbuilding on The Vines at Appin (on land granted to Moses and Michael Brennan in 1816) thatthe western wall has an unusual V-shaped slit half way up the wall. While this may be a ventilation slit, its position and width has led to local suggestion that it was a fortified structure and the opening is a loophole’. The NSW heritage listing for the site notes; ‘The ruin of the granary building at North Farm is unusual in that it appears to have a loophole or gun slit in the remaining section of the western wall. Although this can’t be proven, if it is evidence of a fortified agricultural building this would be rare in a State context.’

Heritage experts versus military historians

My first thoughts about these narrow windows was to err on the side of caution, and in line with heritage opinion. So I consulted an expert, who basically said that such embrasures were a normal feature of stone/brick granaries in the Anglo-European tradition. This heritage argument runs that the inner splay of the opening assists with air movement and as most of the embrasures in the Appin district are found in granaries or store rooms, and the cultural background of the property owners led to the use of traditional English building forms, whether appropriate or not, it seems they were distinctly agricultural in function and had nothing to do with defensive architecture.

So then I consulted a military historian and sent him pictures of the various slits in several buildings. He felt the buildings were ‘strong defensive structures of stone with gun slits built in. On the outside these would have been just narrow slits that were difficult to target with a spear, while on the inside the generous space allowed to traverse muskets meant that fire could be delivered with a wide arc …’

Blighton NGA
George William Evans, Blighton Farm, 1810, watercolour with drawing in pen and ink and brush and ink. National Gallery of Australia (NGA 94.1418) This watercolour shows Governor Bligh’s so-called ‘model farm’ on the Hawkesbury River at Pitt Town. As in many images of early colonial Sydney , on close inspection the granary has slit windows that may well have made the outbuilding a stronghold if required.

Fortified houses across the Empire

In other British colonies during the 18th century, domestic architecture, particularly in rural settings, almost always incorporated defensive elements. According to Louis Nelson’s study of architecture and empire in Jamaica, ‘the British colonial presence … was marked by a profound uncertainty, an unrelenting anxiety that found expression in their architecture.’ Fortified houses in Jamacia were built during a long period of guerrilla war in the countryside, and were often based upon Scottish border ‘tower houses’ or with a ‘bastion room’ (a stronghold) that would function daily as a normal room, but be well fitted with armaments and capable of military defence at a moment’s notice. Many of the loopholes doubled as ventilation holes.

Indeed, after a rebellion in 1760, ‘the following decade saw an intense period of fortified house construction that was based on fear and anxiety of past events, rather than any actual threat. It continued to shape architecture long after and into the 19th century’. Could the same be said of the 1820s across the out-settlements of Sydney? Were these rifle slits in some way referencing the history of Frontier War violence in the Appin district? (Nelson, 42-65)

Colonial fortifications

In a recent article ‘”Necessary Self-Defence?”: Pastoral control and Ngarrindjeri resistance at Waltowa Wetland, South Australia’, Wiltshire, Lister and Rigney note that research into the fortification of colonial buildings in Australia has advanced recently, but that much of this research is ‘marred by uncertainty, with the purpose [of the architecture] being difficult to discern in the absence of archival records, oral history or other signs of use’. They do note that there are rare instances of concrete evidence of explicit defensive arrangements often found in pastoral ‘reminiscences’. (Wiltshire et al., 102)

Interestingly, this overview of buildings in Ngarrindjeri country found a ‘stable/shearing house’ with rifle slit style apertures (50cm by 10cm) that were ‘a surprising 2m above the ground, possibly requiring a prop or step for their use’ and potentially higher for better distant views – very much like the openings at the Mount Gilead property outbuilding in Appin. They also note that the narrow windows ‘probably served as ventilation, common in the English ‘Bank Barn’ design, where installation would mitigate heat accumulated from grain storage’.  (Bell 1997; Grguric 2008, 71; Wiltshire et al, 103-4)

As in the Sydney region, it is almost impossible to know the precise date of the construction of the buildings and whether this aligns with periods of frontier violence. But as Wiltshire et al argue, even if these structures were built later than the frontier violence period and for non-defensive reasons, they have become part of the cultural memory around this violence, becoming reference points ‘that physically anchor cultural memories of frontier violence’ to certain places. And importantly, as Nicolas Grguric notes, ‘this architecture also constitutes material evidence of a vanguard of Australian colonisation (or invasion) being carried out, not by the military or police, but by civilian settlers.’

My work has been very much focused on the historical archive – the discursive structure of the colonial written record of warfare and conflict in early Sydney. But archives also exist as things, as places, occupied by people. The few surviving remnant landscapes and buildings around Sydney may tell us more than the architectural expression of early settlers’ aspirations and traditions, and something of their fears as well.

With thanks to Saul Dean of the Total Environment Centre for alerting me to these buildings, to Sue Gay for her insights, to historians Ray Kerkhove and Rodd Pratt, and to the helpful people at the Appin History Centre, especially Nola Douglass.


N K Grguric, (2008) ‘Fortified Homesteads: the architecture of fear in frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca. 1847-1885’, Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4 (1-2):59-85

Grguric, Nicolas, (2007) Fortified Homesteads: The Architecture of Fear in Frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca 1847-1885, Flinders University, School of Humanities

Louis P. Nelson, (2016) Architecture and Empire in Jamaica, Annie Burr Lewis Fund

Kelly D. Wiltshire, Mirani Lister and Grant Rigney, (2018) ‘”Necessary Self-Defence?”: Pastoral control and Ngarrindjeri resistance at Waltowa Wetland, South Australia’, Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Vol 42, December 2018, 81-114

Windmill Hill Group’ NSW Office of Environment and Heritage

‘SCA – Historic Appin Properties – Conservation Management Plan’, Godden McKay Logan, 2002

The Sydney Wars

The Sydney Wars – Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817 was published by New South Press in May 2018. The book is an account of the first of Australia’s Frontier Wars. The Sydney Wars were some of what the British at the time called ‘small wars’ – comparatively minor conflicts that took place across the empire, but nonetheless were recognised as war. My book looks at some of these conflicts as they played out around the greater Sydney region, across the Cumberland Plain, along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers and into the Blue Mountains, between 1788 and 1817. My research has focused on the historical archive of this invasion and subsequent occupation – the diaries, journals and official correspondence of the colonisers – and what this might tell us about the very first of the wars of resistance by Aboriginal people.

Since the publication of my book I’ve done quite a few public talks and at almost every single talk someone has paraphrased Henry Reynolds’ seminal question he first posed 18 years ago – why weren’t we told? Reynolds suggested that generations of Australians have grown up with a distorted and idealized version of the colonisation of Australia and its resistance by Aboriginal people. Most people I have talked to have no idea there was resistance warfare in the Sydney region. Some have heard of Pemulwuy and his warriors and know him as a resistance leader, but know nothing of the details of his guerilla warfare campaigns. Some few have now heard of the Appin massacre of 1816, but know nothing of the several others that occurred across Sydney.

In these blog posts I want to focus on some areas of my research and expand on others. Over the last months many people have been most generous and introduced me to new stories and places associated with warfare in early Sydney. New information has come to light. The archaeology, landscape and memory of the Sydney Wars is still unfolding and  as an historian concerned with truth-telling around the Frontier Wars, I hope these blog posts may prove useful and interesting.

‘It seems extraordinary that, after 230 years, the myths of benign colonisation and absence of Aboriginal resistance during the first decades of British settlement at Sydney are still firmly entrenched in the Australian narrative’ – Lyndall Ryan

The Vines