Historians and First Nations people shared stories of Busselton's brutal past in the hopes to heal and move forward

Always was: Wardandi elder Bill Webb and his grandson Tyler Webb, led the peaceful walk down Queen Street in recognition of the painful history. Picture: Brianna Melville
Always was: Wardandi elder Bill Webb and his grandson Tyler Webb, led the peaceful walk down Queen Street in recognition of the painful history. Picture: Brianna Melville

For the first time in 160 years, new information about the brutal and bloodthirsty history of the South West was spoken about openly in public on Tuesday.

About 400 people coming from as far as Perth, gathered in Mitchell Park in Busselton to hear researchers from UWA speak about new revelations on massacres of First Nations people during white settlement.

The group watched a didgeridoo and cello performance, and heard some words from Wardandi elder Bill Webb, before walking peacefully down Queen Street.

Historian Mary Blight spoke at the 'Truth-Telling' gathering, to share her research findings on a string of massacres carried out by settlers in the area.

About 400 people joined the gathering to acknowledge the painful history of Busselton and move towards healing. Picture: Brianna Melville.

About 400 people joined the gathering to acknowledge the painful history of Busselton and move towards healing. Picture: Brianna Melville.

She spoke about the Pinjarra massacre, carried out in 1834 by Governor James Stirling, in retaliation to the theft of flour in Perth.

She explained that the Bussel brothers Charles, Vernon, Lenox and Alfred led another two massacres in 1837.

In 1841, she told of a much larger massacre which took place on Wardandi country, as punishment for ongoing conflict with Wardandi birdiya (leader) Gaywal.

It followed after three Wardandi men had killed Henry Campbell, potentially for raping Gaywal's daughter or beating a Wardandi man.

The three Wardandi men were flogged, and one of them was sent to Rottnest, which was a prison at the time.

Journey to healing: The group walk peacefully down the sidewalk on Queen Street, visiting the statue of Gaywal, a Wardandi leader at the time of European settlement. Picture: Brianna Melville.

Journey to healing: The group walk peacefully down the sidewalk on Queen Street, visiting the statue of Gaywal, a Wardandi leader at the time of European settlement. Picture: Brianna Melville.

Later, Gaywal and other Wardandi people were working for settler George Layman at Wonnerup, when an argument broke out around the campfire one night about damper and wages.

Gaywal speared George Laymen after the settler had pulled his beard for emphasis, "a huge insult in Wardandi culture," Ms Blight said.

The settlers, led by Resident Magistrate John Molloy and Justice of the Peace John Bussel, then went on several expeditions in the next weeks, killing at least five more Wardandi people in the hunt for Gaywal.

Finally, on a sandbar near Lake Minninup, the soldiers and settlers surrounded a group of Wardandi men, and the 'Wonnerup massacre' ensued.

Visiting Gaywal: Bill Webb spoke about how Wardandi people were 'round up' and taken to prisons in Busselton and Smiths beach. Picture: Brianna Melville.

Visiting Gaywal: Bill Webb spoke about how Wardandi people were 'round up' and taken to prisons in Busselton and Smiths beach. Picture: Brianna Melville.

"The white men had no mercy," Ms Blight said.

"The black men where killed by the dozens, and their corpses lined the route of the march of the avengers."

Local Wardandi elder Bill Webb had contributed to the oral history, with his ancestral grandmother a witness to the killing of George Layman.

In his account, his grandmother was "tied up", so that she couldn't warn the Wardandi men when the Bussels went on their expeditions.

A statue of Gaywal now stands on Queen Street, and Mr Webb spoke about how Wardandi people were "round up" and sent to prisons in Busselton and Smiths Beach.

He said that the purpose of speaking about the past was to share the truth about the history, so that "we can move on".

Truth-telling: PhD student at UWA Mary Blight shared her knowledge on the Wonnerup massacre, which remains a source of pain for many Wardandi people.

Truth-telling: PhD student at UWA Mary Blight shared her knowledge on the Wonnerup massacre, which remains a source of pain for many Wardandi people.

He also said that the colonisation of Australia by European settlers resulted in not only the loss of his people, but also of the biodiverse environment.

He said that while the government failed to recognise the true history, he was confident the younger generation would share and acknowledge the truth.

"Stories are starting to come in thick about what happened to us," he said.

Fifteen year old student and School Strike 4 Climate activist Emma told event goers it was time to "tell the truth" of the Wonnerup massacre.

"We need to move forward and start healing, and stop naming people like John Bussel heroes and naming places after them."

Geographe horticulturalist Rod Cary spoke about horticultural techniques used by First Nations people that demonstrated "a detailed understanding" of how these plants worked.

Mr Cary explained that this evidence showed that First Nations people were knowledgeable and responsible caretakers of the land, contradicting the settlement justification of Terra Nullius, meaning 'no-body's land.'

"We were millennium geared environmental scientists," Mr Webb explained.

"We weren't Terra Nullius."