27. 12. 2015

The Maria: arrival of European Law

PLEASE NOTE: Some people may find the content of this post to be distressing. It describes a series of events that occurred in the 1800’s along South Australia’s Coorong that involved both Aboriginal people and European colonisers.  

In July, 1840 the colony of South Australia was four years old. News had reached the authorities in Adelaide from Encounter Bay, that a number of the survivors of the wreck of the Brigantine Maria had been killed by Aboriginal people along the Coorong. Mr. Pullen, who was at The Elbow – now Goolwa – at the time, put together a party and sailed south into the Coorong to investigate. There they discovered the remains of some women, children and men and buried them at the site. Their impression, after travelling further south to the wreck, was that the others had managed to escape.

By August that year, Major O’Halloran, Commissioner of Police, and Alexander Tolmer, his deputy had put together a party of police and traditional men from Encounter Bay to investigate further. They rounded up 13 men, 2 young men, and 30 women and children. Later they released the women and children but kept the men under guard. Almost all of the people they captured were wearing European clothing of some sort and some of it was stained with blood. O’Halloran and his men searched the area for further evidence and potential culprits, taking, according to O’Halloran, advice from their captives of who the guilty parties were and where they were hiding. In huts along the Coorong O’Halloran’s party discovered further articles from the Maria and shot and seriously wounded two Ngarrindjeri men as they escaped across the water to an island and later evaded the party by reaching the mainland. These men later died. The captives then apparently pointed out one of their own members as the murderer of a whaler named “Roach” two years previously and one of the murderers of the crew of the Maria who was in easy reach across the water on the mainland. Satisfying himself that these two men were guilty as charged O’Halloran took the entire party back to the Maria grave at a place he identified as being named Pilgaru by the Ngarringjeri:

…and there, at 2 minutes past 3 o’clock, p.m., these two men were executed by hanging, immediately over the grave. They died almost instantly, and both evinced extreme nerve and courage to the last, especially the man who was given over to us by his tribe, who had the most ferocious and demon-like countenance I ever beheld. He was also a man of extraordinary strength and powerfully made. – O’Halloran

The police party then released their captives under orders to leave the men’s bodies hanging and to bring their families and children back to the site so that they would know the consequences of killing white people. After thoroughly searching the region for any survivors of the Maria, it was concluded that all 26 had been killed.

The new colonists of South Australia took to the newspapers to express their horror at these summary executions that were conducted without trial and therefore clearly, in many people’s view, in violation of the colony’s stated intention to extend British law to the traditional owners of the land. Within twelve months Moorhouse, the Protector of Aborigines, was on the Coorong trying to extend the government’s Declaration of Peace towards the illusive and frightened “Big Murray Tribe”.

‘We are sorry to see your countrymen flew whenever they are approached; we have visited them, wishing fully to satisfy all, that the Europeans are desirous of being on friendly terms & that the Government has made a declaration of peace towards them. If any Europeans should again be unfortunately cast upon their shores, if they would enable them to cross the Murray & conduct them either to Encounter Bay or Adelaide, they should be supplied with clothes, & not repeat the atrocities committed upon the passengers of the “Maria” for the sake of their garments.’ – Moorhouse

A fatal misunderstanding occurred on the banks of the Coorong in 1840. The shipwrecked Europeans expectation to be delivered to Encounter Bay or Adelaide collided with the tribal boundaries and reciprocity laws of the local people. What followed was a new law into an old land. By 1841 a police presence was established at Morphett’s Ferry (later known as Wellington) in order to protect the settlers from what were considered to be the hostile natives.


o South Australia. Reports &c. of the Protector of Aborigines &c. 1839 – 1886 from the S. A. Government Gazette[originals available in the State Library of S.A.][O’Halloran]
o Case study, Wreck of the Mariah incident – The Wreck of the Brigantine Maria. The Reverend George Taplin, Missionary at Point MacLeay Mission In The Native Tribes of South Australia, J.D. Woods (Ed.), 1879.
o Province of South Australia Protector of Aborigines Out Letter Book Volume 1 May 21, 1840 to Jan 6, 1857 [Moorhouse]

Sand on the Roof: the story of Wellington on Murray, By Robert Turner, Wellington Progress Association February 1977

Michelle Murray



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