Poison: the discreet massacres

CONTENT WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article discusses traumatic events.

Coutts Crossing is just one of many places in Australia linked to the little-known massacres of Indigenous Australians by poison.

Coutts Crossing Coronation Hall. Photo: Google Maps

Coutts Crossing, New South Wales, is a town named after Thomas Coutts who allegedly murdered 23 Aboriginal people. It is just one of many places linked to the use of poison in massacres of Indigenous Australians. 

On November 29, 1847, witnesses reported to police that Coutts offered his victims damper laced with arsenic. Coutts was arrested and charged but later released because of a lack of evidence. At that time, Aboriginal witnesses were prevented from testifying by law and the stockman who reported the crime had already been arrested for another charge.

Charles Darwin University historian Robyn Smith said the last attempted massacre by poison was in the Northern Territory only 42 years ago. Her research found that in 1981 there was an attempted poisoning where two people died and 14 others were hospitalised.

Dr Smith explained poison was used as it was readily available for settlers to control pests and it was a more discrete way than firearms to commit murder – “a silent means of massacre.”

She said: “The use of poison became more widespread as opposition to wholesale slaughter across the frontier grew.”

The use of poison in frontier conflicts is little-known and Griffith University Research Professor Lynley Wallis said this is because it is extremely hard to prove. She explained this is due to many factors including:

  • Fearing punishment, colonists would only subtly record massacres of First Nations people in diaries or journals.
  • Newspaper articles from the time would rarely have first-hand accounts and were based on gossip.
  • Poisons, such as the most commonly used – arsenic, cannot be detected in skeletal remains.
  • Asking victims’ families about the crimes brings moral issues.
  • Most massacres occurred a long time ago, lowering the likelihood of people remembering. 

Professor Wallis explained that written records can lack accuracy and even memoirs written by retired pastoralists: “seem to be couched in terms of ‘we were defending ourselves’ rather than ‘we were the perpetrators of the violence in the first instance’.”

Dr Smith said: “As with massacres using firearms, there was a conspiracy of silence among colonists. There was also widespread use of euphemisms to hide the truth.” Examples include: Australia being ‘settled’ and Aboriginal people being ‘dispersed’.

Professor Wallis said in Queensland, cases of poison massacres were almost always through the use of flour or sugar, often deliberately left.

“That was the tendency of Europeans to put the poison in something that Aboriginal people would take away, either through theft or it would be openly given to Aboriginal people in the form of dampers.” 

Historical consultant Chris Owen explained many Aboriginal people were starving and would come to the pastoral stations looking for food.

Dr Smith said in the Northern Territory, this allowed colonists to blame their crimes on their cooks.

“It is unlikely that cooks acted unilaterally because they were usually Chinese with limited English and limited access to poison. It is more likely that whites found it convenient to blame Asians and to absolve themselves from responsibility.”

Professor Wallis felt it wasn’t logical for Europeans to poison waterholes that their stock drank from. 

Experts in areas of Australia other than Queensland, say poisoning waterholes was a common practice.

Dr Owen said one reason colonists poisoned waterholes was to “get rid of kangaroos so it also killed all local black fellas.”

Whadjuk Noongar elder and Curtin University emeritus Professor Simon Forrest thought poisoning waterholes was a more efficient way than using firearms for colonists to ‘move’ First Nations people off country, especially for the expansion of the wool industry.

“It was probably more effective and took less resources. They only had to use poison rather than lots of bullets.” 

Professor Forrest said although it may not have killed everyone near the waterholes, it acted as a deterrent to others, as the water was undrinkable. 

The total number of poison massacres of Indigenous Australians is unknown. However, according to the University of Newcastle, the total number of massacres is estimated to be 403, with more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people killed.

In 2018, village residents met to vote on changing the name of Coutts Crossing but the result was an overwhelming ‘no’.

This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why, you can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.