Culture and heritage

Aboriginal cultural heritage

Living on the frontier

Map of Ballina regionOn this page, Aboriginal people from the Bundjalung community describe their ancestors' interaction with early European settlers in the Ballina region in the mid to late 1800s. Violent exchanges resulted in massacres that are still remembered today. The people describe their connection to the spirits of their ancestors and to the places where they perished. They also explain how their ancestors worked with farmers and cedar cutters.


From the early 1800s, European squatters and settlers rapidly colonised far north-eastern New South Wales (NSW) near the Queensland border. Conflicts between Aboriginal people living on the land and new settlers often occurred and the police were often called in to settle disputes. 

The Native Police had a reputation for violence against Aboriginal people. The Native Police were frequently called in to 'disperse' large Aboriginal camps, which often meant directly firing at people (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody National Report Volume 2). 

James Ainsworth, an early settler in the Ballina region, gave detailed accounts of life on the frontier in his reminiscences of the period from 1847 to 1922. Ainsworth records that in 1853 or 1854 when Queensland was under the jurisdiction of NSW, it was the custom for white policemen to patrol distant territories with Aboriginal trackers who had expert knowledge of the bush and could track down fugitives (Ainsworth 1922).

The East Ballina camp massacre

East Ballina Masacre East Ballina massacre site plaque and cross
There is a strong oral tradition amongst the Bundjalung Aboriginal community that a massacre occurred in the 1850s at an old campsite at East Ballina. The oral tradition includes stories of escape, of people who were shot and were laid to rest in the forests north of the camp, and of those who were driven off the cliff at Black Head.

There is a belief that some victims of the massacre were never buried, their bodies being either dumped off the cliff at Black Head or abandoned on Angels Beach (Haglund 1991, Riebe 2000, Medcalf 1989).

The connection that Aboriginal people have to sacred places where their ancestors perished is strongly felt and is reinforced by the presence at these places of the spirits of the deceased. Aboriginal people consider these spirits to be particularly sensitive to disturbances and improper behaviour, and the spirits often seek to communicate their pain and sorrow to those who visit. Protecting these sacred places is important as they provide a way in which victims can be remembered, and the events recorded and acknowledged (Weiner 2003).

The stories of the massacre and those who escaped it mark the significance of the East Ballina camp massacre site to the Bundjalung Aboriginal community, who remember particularly the way in which their ancestors were attacked:

'...They more or less surprised them early in the morning when they were all sleeping and they were angry about that...They didn't get the chance to fight back and that was sad, so what they said [was]: "Well, we are warriors, we want to defend ourselves but we didn't have the time to get together to defend ourselves...". And if you [the interviewer] come, I don't know if you [will] feel anything when you come here but usually we can feel the spirits coming to you too, you know they ... you get that cold shiver or something and you know that they're around.' Aunty Yvonne Del-Signore, interview 17 May 2005, Ballina

Facts leading to the massacre

James Ainsworth writes about a massacre in East Ballina in his memoirs (Ainsworth 1922).

It was alleged that some Aboriginal people had murdered some white men north of the Tweed River and that the murderers had fled south towards Richmond River. Soon after, the patrol rode into East Ballina and was put up at Ainsworth's public house. The patrol neither disclosed the purpose of their mission nor made any inquiries about the incident.

At 3:00 am the next morning the patrol ascended the hill in the direction of the present reservoir. Aboriginal people had a camping ground on the slope of the hill facing the valley near Black Head. The patrol surrounded the 200 to 300 people asleep in the camp, and opened fire at close range. Men, women and children were slaughtered. Between 30 and 40 people were killed, while some who managed to escape were badly wounded. Their graves may still be found on the ridges.

Other people managed to escape and hide in the scrub.

After the carnage, the patrol returned north and the white settlers reported the shooting to the NSW government and urged it to take action. The government took no action against the perpetrators and told the white settlers to mind their own business, and not inquire further unless they wanted trouble.

When the Aboriginal survivors eventually returned to the camp, they sought no reprisals and took no revenge against those involved in the massacre (Ainsworth 1922).

Other massacres in the region

Bundjalung oral tradition records several other massacres that took place in the region when advancing settlements resulted in violent clashes and the Native Police were sent in to deal with the situation.

The frontier violence broke up large Aboriginal camps. Many survivors took refuge in the scrub, where they lived and worked with cedar cutters, farmers and settlers.

Uncle Lewis Cook wearing cap and grey shirt, sitting on a chair in front of greenery
Uncle Lewis Cook
'See, the Aborigines that lived there, they used to camp there in Broadwater, that's when they got massacred. They used to walk up the hill there, and they hit 'em, they chased them back. All the troopers came from up Queensland. There was Aborigines and troopers too from Queensland, and they shot them all in Ballina, all over and all along the coast, Evans Head and Broadwater. They used to work there ... they used to stay there and work for white people over here so they massacred a lot of them there. A lot of them are buried there, there's a burial ground there. And some of them got away, they run up that real steep hill and they run away up that way 'cause the horses couldn't get up the hill, it's pretty steep, so that's the only way they got away.

'Well, that happened; because there was massacres here in Ballina, see, there was a lot of massacres at the time, they shot 'em here, there, out at Coraki, poisoned them with flour, the south of Ballina and in Ballina. So they more or less moved out into the bush, you know, when the cedar cutters came and some of them used to work with the cedar getters ... and they went out [to the] back of the hospital, they had a big scrub out there, the Big Scrub was [what] they used to call it then, and they worked there for farmers and different settlers there and they used to live at ... Victoria Park. It's all just left as it was there just like a forest, there's walkways in there and everything now.'

Uncle Lewis Cook, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

Some Aboriginal families moved to Cabbage Tree Island during the late 1800s.

Page last updated: 09 January 2015