The Flying Foam Massacre was actually a series of confrontations between white settlers and the Yaburara people which occurred between February and May 1868 around the Dampier Archipelago and the Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga.
According to the local Ngarluma people, a Roebourne police officer, Constable Griffis, who was known for regularly molesting Aboriginal women, abducted a Yaburara woman at gunpoint and took her ‘into the bush’. He then arrested her husband, Coolyerberri, on a charge of stealing flour from a pearling boat, on 6 February 1868. That night he and his native assistant, named Peter, camped with two pearlers, George Bream and Jermyn, on the west coast of Murujuga, chaining their prisoner by the neck to a tree. During the night they were attacked by a group of Yaburara men who, in freeing Coolyerberri speared Griffis to death, also killing Peter and Bream in the ensuing fight.
The Government Resident in Roebourne, Robert J. Sholl, examined the site some days later and estimated from the tracks that about 100 Aborigines had been present. He swore in two parties of special constables, totalling nineteen men, and sent them to apprehend nine Aboriginal men who had been named as the murderers. One party moved in by land, the other by sea, sailing to the north end of Murujuga on a cutter, ostensibly to prevent the Yaburara from escaping to other islands.
No handcuffs or chains to secure any prisoners were carried by the government force, and in fact, only two prisoners were taken but they escaped because of this lack of means to secure them.
According to the police report, only a few people were killed when the main camp (which appears to have been at King Bay rather than Flying Foam Passage,) was located and attacked on 17 February.
However, other reports at the time indicate thirty to sixty people were killed in that massacre. David Carly, a settler from Roebourne, reported the higher figure and in 1885 he personally examined fifteen skulls at the site, three of which were of children, ‘and two of these small skulls had bullet holes in them’.
The indiscriminate killing of women and children, apparently even at close range, combined with the lack of materials to secure prisoners imply that there was no intention to limit the ‘reprisals’ to the apprehension and trial of the men accused of killing Griffis and his companions.
This is confirmed by the events of the following ten weeks, during which an unknown number of further massacres occurred on Murujuga and nearby. Only a few such events have been recorded officially.
On 19 February, Aborigines trying to cross Flying Foam Passage on logs were chased by a posse in a rowing boat and shot in the water, as were others on land nearby. Another attack occurred on the following day, on either Angel or Gidley Island, as the distraught fugitives tried to escape to other islands. Three Aborigines were shot dead in March at the Maitland River, well into the territory of the Mardudunera, presumably trying to escape into the mainland. By this time the campaign was conducted by a police party led by a Constable Francisco.
In May, four more were arrested on Legendre Island, two of whom were sent to Rottnest Island Prison for twelve years. Two more men ‘gave themselves up’ in early 1869, and the Government Resident Magistrate, Robert J Sholl then exercised ‘leniency’.
Magistrate Sholl had stated a year earlier, in February 1867: “the result of my observation in the Colony is that the fears of the whites are more the cause of disorder than the aggression of the blacks”. This fear was very likely a common trait in remote white communities settling on Aboriginal lands. In fact, Sholl had written previously very positive reports about the area’s original inhabitants.
“The natives are a fine race of men. Their conduct had, I am pleased to say, been very good from the first settlement of the district, until the present time. They have been friendly towards the settlers and are more willing, as well as able to work than any natives I have met with”.
It is sad that the apparent actions of one, errant police officer resulted in so much death and suffering to a noble people.