The following text is quoted from Anne-Maree Whitaker, William Cox and Cox's Road, a bicentenary souvenir, Writelight, 2014, pp 28-30, and is copyright.
Bruce Elder’s landmark study, Blood on the wattle, was first published in 1988 and has made a significant contribution to public knowledge of Aboriginal dispossession in many subsequent editions. At the head of chapter four appears a quote, attributed to William Cox: ‘The best thing that can be done is to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcases’. No source is offered for this quote, but it has become widely circulated and was repeated by Father Ted Kennedy in his homily at the funeral of Aboriginal elder ‘Mum Shirl’ Smith at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, in 1998.
The quote appears to derive from a 1984 article by Michael Pearson in Aboriginal history, and was sourced from the memoirs of the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld. [Michael Pearson, ‘Bathurst Plains and beyond: European colonisation and Aboriginal resistance’, Aboriginal History, vol 8, no 1 (1984), p 75] The allegation was first made in a letter Threlkeld wrote to the London Missionary Society, where the remark appeared as ‘Shoot them all and manure the ground with them!’ This was embroidered and repeated by Threlkeld on numerous occasions for over a decade as part of his campaign, described as a ‘propaganda war’, to persuade evangelical British parliamentarians that settlers throughout the British empire were engaged in genocide. [Anna Johnson, ‘A blister on the imperial antipodes: Lancelot Edward Threlkeld’, David Lambert and Alan Lester (ed), Colonial lives across the British empire: imperial careering in the long nineteenth century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp 78-79]
What are the facts behind Threlkeld’s allegation? Firstly, the remark was supposedly made at a public meeting at which Threlkeld was not present. It was reported to him by a fellow evangelical, the Attorney General Saxe Bannister. The meeting seems to have taken place in July 1824, and is probably one of those which took place in Sydney and were reported by Cox to another Bathurst settler, George Ranken, in a letter written on 21 July. [Cox to Ranken, 21 July 1824, MLDOC 1244, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW]
Cox describes a meeting of Bathurst landholders held in Sydney on 15 July, and attended by Messrs Marsden, Palmer, Lawson, Lowe, Cox and the Judge Advocate. As the office of Judge Advocate, formerly held by John Wylde, had been abolished earlier in the year it is possible Cox meant to refer to the Attorney General. In any case the meeting after considerable discussion agreed on a five-point plan to put to the Governor:
1. A resident magistracy of no less than 3 in number
2. Certain stations to have depots of four soldiers and a constable
3. Certain Natives to be proscribed and no peace till they are delivered up
4. Rewards to Natives after a peace
5. A Magistrate to go out with the troops when necessary, who are to act by the Magistrate’s order. This will have the effect of martial law without resorting to it.
[Cox to Ranken, 21 July 1824, MLDOC 1244, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW; see also Report of magistrates re Aboriginal hostility, 6 July 1824, Colonial Secretary’s papers, 4/1799, pp 73-76, NSW State Records]
Following this Cox received further letters from Messrs Lee and Lewis in Bathurst, and he and Marsden on 20 July spoke to Governor Brisbane in Parramatta and then to the Attorney General, Saxe Bannister, reporting that ‘between the two we had at least 3 hours argument’. A public meeting was then held in Sydney at noon on 21 July, attended by ‘a large number of persons’. At this meeting Cox recounted his discussions with the Governor over the past month. On the same day Cox, accompanied by Marsden, Riley and Moore, then returned to the Governor who ‘expressed his final determination to bring into effect all we had recommended’.
There is no opportunity in this schedule for a public meeting in Bathurst to be addressed by Cox, as various writers have claimed, using the remark quoted by Threlkeld. Furthermore no-one else reported hearing such a public remark, and the terms of the settlers’ request conveyed by Cox and others to the Governor for action to protect their employees are much more measured.
Secondly, the alleged remark does not accord with the sentiments expressed by Cox on this or other occasions. In 1816 Cox conducted a lengthy correspondence with Governor Macquarie regarding the best means of dealing with a series of clashes between Aborigines and settlers in the Mulgoa and Hawkesbury areas. On this occasion he advocated measures similar to those adopted in 1824 around Bathurst, including enlisting the support of ‘friendly natives’ such as Coleby of Richmond (who had assisted in the construction of the road over the Blue Mountains), stationing small parties of soldiers in outposts to maintain order, and rewarding the Aboriginal people for keeping the peace and for handing over named offenders. [Cox to Macquarie, February-November 1816, DLADD 81, Dixson Library, State Library of NSW; view on-line at http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemDetailPaged.aspx?itemID=446953#]
Thirdly, academic analysis of references to Cox’s alleged remark reveals that it has now gained new currency during the ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s and 2000s. The alleged remark and its disseminator, Lancelot Threlkeld, have entered the debate between Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle. As well as his quoting of the alleged remark by Cox, Threlkeld’s other polemics have been characterised by modern analysts as ‘controversial and lurid’ accounts which sought to ‘shock and then to galvanise sympathetic white readers’. Judging by the reliance on Threlkeld in Henry Reynolds’ 1998 book, This whispering in our hearts, it seems that the resonance continues after nearly two centuries. [Johnson, ‘A blister on the imperial antipodes’, p 80-87]