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Appin massacre

The Appin massacre occurred in the early hours of the morning of 17 April 1816, the outcome of a military reprisal raid against Aboriginal people ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. At least 14 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed when soldiers under the command of Captain James Wallis shot at and drove a group of Aboriginal people over the gorge of the Cataract River.

The Appin massacre is often said to mark the end of hostilities on the Cumberland Plain, a war that began in the early 1790s when settlers began to take land for farms, and continued in cycles as they expanded into new areas.

But the massacre failed to suppress the violence, instead, it inflamed the situation and fierce Aboriginal attacks on settlers continued. In response, local magistrate William Cox devised and organised a relentless campaign of raids on Aboriginal people of Dyarubbin (the Hawkesbury-Nepean area) over the next eight months, and possible longer. Together with Macquarie's policy of banishment, these raids and killings finally resulted in Macquarie's proclamation in November 1816 that hostilities had ceased. Since 2000 the Appin massacre has been commemorated annually at a memorial service at Cataract Dam.

Muringong country

The area where the massacre occurred is the tongue of land reaching down between the Georges and Nepean Rivers to the deep dead-end gorges of the Cataract River. The rivers have cut deep into the sandstone country here. Much of the land is flat or undulating, rolling into a range of hills to the east near present-day Wilton Road.

[media]This was the country of the Muringong, known by the 1810s as the Cowpastures tribe. Muringong warriors were impressive, and said to be warlike. [1] From at least 1814, these districts were also visited by the Gandangara of the mountains. They reportedly came down in the autumn months to raid the corn fields in those drought years, though perhaps seasonal visits had been part of traditional movements too. Described as tall, lighter-skinned and good-looking, the Gandangara were considered 'a much more hardy and athletic race' than the people of the plains. Early explorers of the region had quickly learned of the deep enmity between the Gandangara and the Muringong. By 1814 the Gandangara were thought of by white settlers as the 'myall' or wild strangers, while the local tribes were considered 'friendly' and helpful. [2]

Settlers arrive

[media]Settlers began moving into the southwest regions of Sydney after 1809, after it was realised that floods on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River would always jeopardise farms and food supplies there. Wealthy settlers took thousands of acres as grazing estates and staffed them with convict and ex-convict workers, while ex-convict small settlers farmed small grants clustered around creeks. [3] In the Appin area, the settlers, including the Broughtons, Kennedys and Humes, tended to be old hands, with long colonial experience, and they were very much intermarried. [media]Some, like John Kennedy of Teston Farm and the explorer Hamilton Hume, already had close, practical and sympathetic connections with Aboriginal people, as did Dr Charles Throsby at Glenfield (present day Casula) to the north. [4] Teston Farm and the gorge-locked land south of Appin appear to have been a retreat, a place of security for the Gandangara as well as other Aboriginal peoples; their presence in turn provided security for white settlers. These relationships would complicate the unfolding events of the 1816 military campaign and be severely tested by them.

Although good relations and mutual assistance were common between settlers and Aboriginal people, violence also almost always flared as a result of dispossession, the loss of food sources, the taking of Aboriginal women and children, assaults and shootings. [5] The Appin massacre can be locally traced back to 1814. By March that year, Aboriginal warriors were spearing cattle and raiding farms along the Nepean from Bents Basin to Castlereagh. In early May three veteran soldiers shot and killed a Gandangara boy who was with a group taking maize from a farm on Mallaty Creek at Appin.One soldier was speared in return, died and was mutilated. A chain of revenge attacks and atrocities followed: settlers attacked a camp of sleeping people, killing and mutilating an Aboriginal woman, the wife of Bitugully, and three children, one of whom was a child of Yelloming – both Gandangara warriors. A stock keeper and his wife, and the children of another settler were killed at Bringelly in revenge. [6]

Macquarie intervened and visited the area himself, decided that Aboriginal payback justice had been satisfied and ordered both sides to desist from further attacks. But violence continued. The men who killed the Gandangara woman and children were speared by Gandangara warriors on William Broughton's Lachlan Vale estate. In response, Macquarie ordered out the first official reprisal party of armed civilians and local Aboriginal guides. But after three weeks, this party returned empty-handed. [7]

Military reprisals

Fatal conflict again erupted at Bringelly in February 1816 when GT Palmer's farm on the Nepean River was robbed by a group of 30 to 40 Aboriginal men. Settlers who went in pursuit were ambushed, shot at and speared – four were killed and the rest chased back to Fowler's farm, where warriors returned the next day to attack them again. One of the warriors may have been David Budbury, a local youth who had grown up with white people. [8] A week later the Gandangara struck again, at the Macarthur estate to the south, killing three men. A posse of settlers armed with muskets, pistols, pikes and pitchforks went after them, this time led by Budbury, only to be ambushed again by the Gandangara hurling stones and spears at them from a large rock above them. By the end of the month two more settlers, a woman and her servant, had been killed. These events were reported in detail in the Sydney Gazette however, settlers' attacks, atrocities and killings were not, so the other side of the story in this cycle of conflict is unknown. [9]

[media]In response to these sophisticated and effective Gandangara attacks, Macquarie ordered a second much larger reprisal raid, this time staffed by military personnel. On 10 April 1816 he sent out three detachments of soldiers, each commanded by an officer, to comb the entire colony. Captain Schaw and his men went to the Hawkesbury, Lieutenant Dawe headed south to the Cowpastures and Captain Wallis trooped down to the furthest districts of Airds and Appin. Each detachment had both European and Aboriginal guides – Wallis had well-known white bushman John Warby and Aboriginal men Bundle and Budbury. They were ordered to track down, capture or kill all Aboriginal people, with no distinction between 'friendly' and 'hostile', although they also carried lists of particular men who were wanted as killers. Macquarie clearly specified that the Aboriginal people were to be 'called on, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War'. Only if they 'refuse to do so, and make the least show of resistance' were the soldiers to open fire on them. The bodies of the slain were to be hung up in the trees 'in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors'. Women and children were not excluded – any who were killed were to be buried 'where they fell'. [10]

Schaw's group failed to find, let alone kill, any Aboriginal people along the Hawkesbury,. At the Cowpastures, Dawe, led by Aboriginal 'chief' Tindale, was similarly unsuccessful – until a local stock keeper directed him to the Macarthur estate, where two warriors were killed and a boy was taken prisoner. The evidence strongly suggests that the Aboriginal guides were leading the parties away from camps, and on wild goose chases. [11]

Captain Wallis and the massacre

Captain Wallis was similarly frustrated, especially when Bundle and Budbury disappeared, followed by Warby, who was supposed to be watching them. On 12 March, Wallis arrived at Appin where he found Aboriginal men on John Kennedy's farm. Among them were Bitugully and Yelloming, who were both on Macquarie's wanted list. But Kennedy insisted these two had been removed from the list and that the men were protecting the farms from hostile attack. Wallis was swayed, and did not arrest them, sending off to Sydney for instructions instead. [12]

Following tip-offs, Wallis marched the soldiers to various farms in the area, and then back up to Throsby's Glenfield, invariably finding abandoned camps or nothing at all. Finally, a message arrived that Aboriginal people were camped at Lachlan Vale. At one o'clock on the moonlit morning of 17 April, Wallis's troop marched back down to Appin. There was no-one at the campsite when they found it, but the fires were still burning. Someone heard the cry of a child. Wallis immediately 'formed line rank entire' and the soldiers 'pushed through a thick brush' towards that cry. They were also heading directly towards 'precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek', the gorge of the Cataract River, 60 metres deep. The line of men pushed on, the dogs set up a frantic barking. As the soldiers opened fire on them, the Aboriginal peole 'fled over the cliffs' and were smashed to death in the gorge. Others were wounded or shot dead. The soldiers secured only two women and three children. They counted 14 bodies 'in different directions' including that of an old man, Balgin, and more women and children. The bodies of two warriors, Durelle and Cannabayagal were hauled up to the highest point of the range of hills on Lachlan Vale and strung up in trees. [13]

The soldiers thought they had seen a familiar figure among those who managed to escape the massacre: Budbury. They waited to ambush him and the others at a pass over the river – probably Broughton's Pass just to the south – but failed to capture him. It appears that Budbury had left Wallis's party to warn these people. The alleged enmity between the Muringong and the Gandangara was thus not clear-cut – there had been some association and cooperation between them. Durelle is said to have been a Dharawal-speaker, probably of the Muringong, and Cannabayagal was a well-known Gandangara warrior and leader from the Burragorang valley. [14]

Meanwhile, Macquarie had ordered the arrest of Bitugully and Yelloming. They were tied up and taken in a cart to Sydney, along with the woman and children who survived the massacre. John Kennedy now feared Aboriginal retribution and begged Wallis to leave soldiers behind at Teston farm to protect it, and he did. [15]

Reports, reminiscences and echoes

Macquarie's proclamation [media]on the raid and massacre in the Sydney Gazette on 4 May was longwinded, but said only that 'several Natives have been unavoidably killed and wounded' and that they were themselves to blame because they had not 'surrendered themselves on being called to do so'. But, contrary to Macquarie's own orders, the Aboriginal people had not been 'called', let alone given the chance to surrender. In his report to his superior in England, Macquarie again falsely asserted that the Aboriginal people had 'resisted' the soldiers. He also omitted the fact that the five prisoners were women and children. All the participants of the 1816 military operation, even Warby, Budbury and Bundle, were handsomely rewarded in spirits, shoes, cash, clothing, blankets, food and tobacco. [16]

Captain James Wallis produced the only official report on what happened at Appin, writing that the massacre had been a 'melancholy but necessary duty', and that he deeply regretted the deaths of the old man, the women and children. [17] There was one other eyewitness report. William Byrne was a boy of eight when the massacre happened. His reminiscences of the event were published almost 90 years later. Byrne said that

The Government then sent up a detachment of soldier who ran a portion of them into a drive, shot sixteen of them, and hanged three on McGee's Hill.

After the three bodies – not two, as Wallis reported – had been strung up, Byrne said,

they…cut off the heads and brought them to Sydney, where the Government paid 30s and a gallon of rum each for them. [18]

Byrne's reminiscences contradict Wallis's official account – yet they proved to be true. In 1991, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra received three skulls. They had been held in the Anatomy Department at the University of Edinburgh for the previous 175 years. One is the skull of the Gandangara leader Cannabayagal, killed at the Appin massacre. The bones still bear 'clear cut marks' where the head was severed from the body. It is very likely that the other two are also massacre victims, probably Durelle, and an unnamed woman. Silent yet eloquent, they serve 'as a reminder that the events of the past echo to the present'. [19]

Another of these echoes is that stories about Aboriginal people driven over high cliffs to their deaths became part of oral tradition in many other country towns over the nineteenth century. In each case there is, so far, no other evidence to verify them, though the stories do serve to explain the absence of Aboriginal people in settler landscapes. But the single horrific event of 'the drive', always tied to local landmarks like cliffs, bluffs and gorges, obscures the long and complex history of frontier conflict – as well as the fact that Aboriginal people occasionally drove the settlers back. The Appin massacre of 1816 is probably their foundational story. [20]

The end of the Cumberland Plain war

The Appin massacre is often said to have marked the end of hostilities on the Cumberland Plain – but in fact, it unleashed another spate of violence and killings and a long campaign of retributive raids which lasted at least to November 1816.

In May, 14 year old native born boy Neil Cooling was killed along with a local worker named Gallagher.  In June, settlers at the Kurrajong Brush on the steeply rising foothills of the Blue Mountains were attacked with such ferocity that by the end of the month Joseph Hobson was the only one left 'on that line of farms'. On 7 July he was killed. In August, attacks on Cox's Mulgoa farm were renewed, a shepherd was found dead and mutilated, and 200 'very fine sheep' were hurled down an 'immense precipice'. [21]

The history of what happened in the eight months or more after the Appin massacre has tended to be relegated to mere 'mopping up' operations, overshadowed by the drama of the military operation and the massacre. In fact the reverse is true. It was the relentless raids devised and organised by local Hawkesbury magistrate William Cox which finally led to a cessation of hostilities. But unlike the military offensive of April, these raids and killings were barely recorded. It was Aboriginal historian Barry Corr who, patiently combing official archives and the rich body of local lore, first revealed the extent of this hidden and terrible campaign. [22] 

After the Appin massacre Macquarie adopted King's earlier strategy: he banished Aboriginal people from all settlements until the perpetrators were given up or hunted down. They were forbidden to come within a mile of farms and towns when armed, and groups larger than six were also banned from approaching anywhere that settlers lived. Since bands comprised about 20 to 30 people, and all warriors carried spears and hatchets, it was practically impossible for Aboriginal people to 'legally' be anywhere near the white settlements. Settlers were also forbidden to 'harbour or conceal' or to provide 'Aid or Provisions' to their Aboriginal friends unless the latter gave up the outlaws. [23]

These orders were backed up with punitive raids. William Cox sent Macquarie a grim manifesto for a final showdown on the Hawkesbury-Nepean. Whatever 'Friendship or good faith' existed between Aboriginal people and settlers, he declared, it did not protect settlers from 'Revenge and Murder whenever the former are Insulted or think themselves aggrieved by any White people'. Friendship and amity had failed. Five punitive parties were to comb the country repeatedly - the period was unspecified. Three detachments of soldiers, each with a constable who knew the area, and a 'friendly native' as a guide, were to be posted at the Grose River, Windsor and downriver at Portland Head respectively. Young native-born men were also involved in these parties. Cox wanted the Aboriginal people to understand that, until the wanted men were captured or dead, 'no peace will be given them'. [24]

Macquarie's official proclamation of 20 July 1816 echoed Cox's plans and retrospectively sanctioned his punitive expeditions and the killings of warriors Cocky, Butta Butta, Jack Straw and Portland Head Jamie, described as 'several of the most sanguinary and guilty...[who]...met with and suffered the punishment due to their flagrant enormities'. What happened was not officially reported but local lore says the men were summarily strung up, hanged and riddled with musket balls at the places where settlers had been killed. [25]

The July proclamation also authorised every colonist, bond or free, to bring in or 'kill and utterly destroy' the ten most wanted Aboriginal warriors, including Hawkesbury men Myles, Warren, Carbone Jack (Kurringy), Narrang Jack, Kongate and Woottan, offering ten-pound rewards for each. [26]

Cox's raids were eventually effective. On November 1 1816, Macquarie published another grand proclamation announcing that hostilities had ceased. He declared an amnesty on the ten remaining wanted men and invited all the Aboriginal people to the great annual feast at Parramatta. Two weeks later he released all but one of the warriors arrested during the raids. [27]

At Macquarie's reconciliation feast at Parramatta in December 1816, the children from the Native School were paraded for the assembled Aboriginal guests and the white onlookers. Some of the Aboriginal women wept to see them.. The Gazette described these as tears of joy for the 'helpless offspring of their deceased friends, so happily sheltered and protected by British benevolence. [28] But it seems more likely that these women wept for their lost children, and for friends and relatives killed in the violence of 1816.

Since 2000, people from the non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal communities of the region have come together at Cataract Dam, downriver from the massacre site, every year around 17 April for a memorial service to remember the Appin massacre. A memorial to the victims was erected at Cataract Dam in 2007. [29]


Liston, Carol. Campbelltown: The Bicentennial History. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988

Karskens, Grace. The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009

Karskens, Grace. People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020

Brooks, Jack and James L. Kohen. The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History. Sydney: UNSW Press, 1991


This entry was updated on 3 July 2022 to incorporate additional information about events after the massacre, and the brutal campaign led by William Cox.

[1] James L Kohen, The Darug and their neighbours: The traditional Aboriginal owners of the Sydney region (Sydney: Darug Link and Blacktown and District Historical Society, 1993), 21; Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past: investigating the archaeological and historical records (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002), 32–3

[2] Sydney Gazette 4 June 1814; George Caley, Reflections on the Colony of New South Wales, ed JEB Currey (Sydney: Landsdowne Press, 1966),178; Carol Liston, Campbelltown: The Bicentennial History (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988) 1ff, 19–20; Chris Cunningham, The Blue Mountains Rediscovered (Sydney: Kangaroo Press,1996), 101;Chris Illert, The Mayran Clan of the Gayn-d'hay-ungara (East Corrimal NSW: C Illert and D Reverberi, 1998)

[3] See Parish Maps for Parishes of Bringelly, Mulgoa and Cook, County of Cumberland, NSW Land & Property Information, http://www.lpi.nsw.gov.au/mapping_and_imagery/parish_maps, viewed 31 Jan 2015; Brian Fletcher, Landed Enterprise and Penal Society: A History of Farming and Grazing in New South Wales before 1821 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1976), 50

[4] See Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009), 496–8

[5] Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009), chapter 13

[6] Sydney Gazette 14 May 1814, 4 June 1814, see also 7 May 1814

[7] Government and General Orders, Sydney Gazette 18 June 1814; Jack Brooks and James L. Kohen, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1991) 20–2; Sydney Gazette 18 June 1814; Carol Liston, 'The Dharawal and Gandangara in colonial Campbelltown, New South Wales, 1788–1830', Aboriginal History12 (1988): 51; John Connor, The Australian Frontier Wars 1788–1838 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000), 48

[8] Sydney Gazette 9 March 1816; Bringelly Parish Map, NSW Land & Property Information, http://www.lpi.nsw.gov.au/mapping_and_imagery/parish_maps, viewed 31 Jan 2015

[9] Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009), 504–6

[10] Macquarie to Bathurst, 25 May 1816, Historical Records of Australia 9, 139 and note 36, 854; 'Instructions to Captain Schaw', Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 4/1734, 149–68, New South Wales State Records; Jack Brooks and James L. Kohen, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1991) 22–6

[11] Jack Brooks and James L. Kohen, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1991), 23–6

[12] Captain James Wallis, Journal and Report, 10–17 April, 1816, Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 4/1735, 52–4, New South Wales State Records.

[13] Captain James Wallis, Journal and Report, 10–17 April, 1816, Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 4/1735, 52–4, 57, New South Wales State Records; William Byrne, 'Old Memories: General Reminiscences of Early Colonists – II', Old Times, May 1903, 105

[14] Carol Liston, Campbelltown: The Bicentennial History (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988), 23

[15] Captain James Wallis, Journal and Report, 10–17 April, 1816, Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 4/1735, 57, New South Wales State Records; William Byrne, 'Old Memories: General Reminiscences of Early Colonists – II', Old Times, May 1903, 105

[16] Macquarie, Proclamation, Sydney Gazette 4 May, 11 May 1816; Macquarie to Bathurst, 8 June 1816, Historical Records of Australia 9, 139–40; Jack Brooks and James L. Kohen, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1991), 31

[17] Captain James Wallis, Journal and Report, 10–17 April, 1816, Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 4/1735, New South Wales State Records.

[18] William Byrne, 'Old Memories: General Reminiscences of Early Colonists – II', Old Times, May 1903, 105

[19] Mike Pickering, 'Lost in Time?' (paper given at School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney, November 2007, 4–7; pers. com. Mike Pickering, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia, 2008

[20] See for example D Roberts, 'Bell's Falls Massacre and Bathurst's History of Violence', Australian Historical Studies 105 (1995): 615–33; C Moore, 'Blackgin's Leap: A Window into Aboriginal-European Relations in the Pioneer Valley Queensland in the 1960s', Aboriginal History 14 (1990): 61–79

[21] Sydney Gazette 29 June, 13 July, 31 August 1816; see early Kurrajong grants on Kurrajong Parish Map, NSW Land & Property Information, http://www.lpi.nsw.gov.au/mapping_and_imagery/parish_maps, viewed 31 Jan 2015

[22] Barry Corr, ‘Nangara: The Website of Barry Corr’, including ‘Pondering the Abyss: History and the Hawkesbury’, website, 2012, updated 2013, http://www.nangarra.com.au/index.htm 708-47.

[23] Sydney Gazette 4 May, 20 July, 3 August 1816

[24]  William Cox to Macquarie, Memorandum, 19 July 1816, in William Cox, Letters to Governor Macquarie, 1816, Sir William Dixson – Documents relating to Aboriginal Australians, 1816-1853,  DL Add 81, 185-6.Dixson Library, State Library of NSW

[25] Sydney Gazette 20 July 1816; Grace Karskens, People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020) 164, 168-9.

[26] Sydney Gazette 20 July 1816

[27] Sydney Gazette 2 November 1816; Lachlan Macquarie, Journal, MSS A774, entry 16 November 1816. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW 

[28] Sydney Gazette 4 January 1817

[29] Pers. com Sister Kerry McDermott, Winga Myamly Reconciliation Group, 2008; pers. com. Ross Evans, Aboriginal Development Officer, Wollondilly Shire Council, 2008.The memorial inscription refers only to Dharawal people.