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Mean streets: the heated debate when history meets horror

The naming of a local street after an alleged mass-murderer of hundreds of local Indigenous people tests locals’ and historians’ views. Is renaming remembering, airbrushing or forgetting? James Worsfold reports.

Mean streets: the heated debate when history meets horror

Photo: James Worsfold

Words by James Worsfold

A regional Victorian council has decided a main street named after a colonist who killed hundreds of Indigenous people should not be changed as renaming would “hide the history”.

Faithfull Street, in the centre of Wangaratta, is named after George Faithfull, a 19th century pastoralist who is associated with the murder and mistreatment of local Indigenous people.

Deputy Mayor of the Rural City of Wangaratta Cr Harry Bussell said keeping the name of Faithfull Street provides an opportunity to acknowledge colonial history.

“If you remove a statue or a signboard, you have just brushed it under the table.”

The north-east Victorian Council passed a motion in June 2020 to look into the renaming of the street in response to a community campaign.

Bussell said that while it was a valid discussion to have, the council, with the support of Indigenous elders and the wider community, opted not to change the street’s name.

Bpangerang man Rod Dowling told ABC News in 2020 that removing Faithfull’s name might also remove the history behind it.

“If you take away the street names…no one will know what they actually did.”

Local historian Wendy Mitchell outlined the suspected shooting and sexual assault of Indigenous people by Faithfull’s men in her 2009 book, Corroboree or War Party.

She told the ABC the public should know about the violent history and decide as a community whether the street should be renamed.

Following a hostile encounter, Faithfull admitted to shooting many Bpangerang people. In an 1853 letter to Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe, he wrote that his name was “a terror to them ever after”.

In 2020, Mitchell said the public should know about this violent history and decide as a community whether the street should be renamed, but that doing so would allow the town to recognise the bravery of the Bpangerang.

“People should remember what happened to them and work out a way that celebrates their history,” she said.

Bussell said that keeping the name puts the history “front and centre”, but more could be done to acknowledge the past.

“What we should do is put more effort into telling the stories, good, bad or otherwise.”

Bussell said installing storyboards may be a good option to provide wider context to place names.

Faithfull was one of the first European settlers in the Wangaratta area, establishing a station on the nearby Oxley Plains.

In addition to Wangaratta, streets in Benalla, Violet Town, Longwood and a creek in the Strathbogie Ranges are named after Faithfull, with slight spelling variations.

Bussell said the role of the council was not to create political division, which is “important for the resilience of our community”.

At a council meeting in June 2020, fellow councillor Harvey Benton said that amid uncertainty around the facts, it is not right for the council to judge history.

“History’s there whether it’s good or bad,” he said.

At the same meeting, Cr Ken Clarke said in his own research on Faithfull’s interactions with First Australians, he found “a lot of hearsay” but “no evidence to verify what transpired”.

Several historical sources portray Faithfull and his men as victims of unprovoked attacks and the killing of Indigenous people as acts of self-defence.

The 1838 Faithfull Massacre in nearby Benalla resulted in the deaths of eight European men and one Indigenous man. A commemorative plaque in Benalla says that “Faithfull’s men were attacked and…plundered by Aborigines [sic]”.

An 1838 article in The Sydney Monitor said that “not the slightest cause can be given for this outrage”.

Historian Judith Bassett said this view ignores critical evidence from the sworn statements of six survivors, but while Faithfull is undeniably responsible for atrocities, his role as a settler should not be ignored.

Despite it being “irrefutable” that Faithfull was a murderer, people may not be willing to question the popular narrative, she said.

“Myths and legends are hardest to dislodge.”

In a 2019 article in Quadrant, Bassett outlined an “indescribably horrific slaughter” by a large, well-equipped party of Europeans, including Faithfull and his men, of hundreds of “Aboriginal [sic] men, women and children” at a feasting ceremony.

The Faithfull Massacre was, Bassett argued, in retribution for a prior incident where Faithfull’s men shot at some Aborigines (the historian insists on using “Aborigines” in reference to Indigenous people as “true to [her] 1838 sources”). While Faithfull was “reprehensible for murdering Aborigines”, she said, that was not to say that he should not be recognised for his role in establishing Wangaratta.

“I don’t think there is a blanket answer. Society recognises other people who have murdered.”

Bassett also questioned the “logic” of removing Faithfull’s street name while other signs continue to commemorate settlers complicit in “the same horrendous attack”. In the June 2020 meeting, Bussell said Faithfull was rightly recognised for a “pioneering role” in white settlement in north-east Victoria, however, the “dark side of our history” had not been well acknowledged.

Bussell said that the Rural City of Wangaratta now took greater care in the naming of places to ensure they are “named after the right people”.

“We’re many more times respectful of other people than we were 100 years ago.”

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project by journalism students from around Australia called Where What Why: Tales of controversial and curious place names. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names on the Journalism Junction site here.

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