Broadly speaking, criminals fall into three types: heroes, buffoons, and brutes.[i] The categories are just as applicable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they are today – ‘heroes’ would be men like Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber of 1963, buffoons would be the types of offender featured in television shows such as America’s Dumbest Criminals (1996-2000), while the ‘brutes’ would include people such as Geoffrey Dahmer (1960-1994). This website usually deals with the criminal-as-hero types: outlaws and highwaymen whose crimes fall under the category of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘social banditry’,[ii] although I have featured the cannibal Sawney Beane whose story was inspiration behind the popular horror movie, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). It is about a set of brutes, or ‘monsters in human shape’,[iii] who were executed in nineteenth-century New South Wales that we turn our attention to today.[iv]
Outside of academia, the history of British colonialism is usually conceived of as one in which the colonisers – the British – committed atrocities against the indigenous population without any consequences. That the British were responsible for some ghastly humanitarian crimes during the time that they had an empire is certainly true, but the colonisers’ hands were not completely free to do as they pleased, as the execution of Charles Kinnaister and his men in 1838 for the murder of Australian aborigines illustrates.
A penal colony was established at New South Wales in 1788 following the “discovery” of the region in the 1770s by Capt. James Cook. Britain’s criminals, which previously had been shipped off to the Americas, as the eponymous title character of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), were now shipped off to Australia instead, a decision no doubt arrived at after the American colonies had declared their independence from Britain in 1783.
Charles Kinnaister, and his accomplices, William Hawkins, James Parry, Edward Foley, James Cates, John Russell, and John Johnson had all been transported in 1837. While transportation was designed to be a punishment, one of the ideas behind it was that some of the felons transported could serve as labourers for the local citizens, and thereby help to build up the colony. The men alluded to above were set to work as shepherds to a family of landowners in New South Wales.
One day, in the course of their duties, the men, along with one native free man called John Fleming (who, as Jillian Barnes notes, is usually left out of accounts of these murders)[v] rode beyond their masters’ lands and encountered a group of Australian aborigines. There were thirty of them in total. Kinnaister and his crew,
Tied them together with a rope, with the exception of one woman. This was done without a word being uttered, and with a cool and bloody determination. When all were thus secured, one end of the rope was tied around the body of the foremost of the murderers, who, having mounted his horse, led the way, dragging the terrified group after him, while his infamous companions guarded them on all sides.[vi]
The victims were dragged some distance and were then butchered with knives and swords,
‘Till all lay a lifeless mass, in death clinging to each other in the throes of natural affection’.[vii]
The murderers attempted to conceal their crimes as best they could by setting alight to the bodies. But after the fire died down, fragments of bones remained.
A professional police force in Britain had only been recently established in 1829, and the detective agency would not be established until 1842. Needless to say, policing and detection in the colonies was oftenn less efficient than it was in Britain. At this time period, Europeans still believed that God directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murderers. It is a belief expressed in the account of this crime in The Chronicles of Crime (1841); despite the men’s attempts to conceal their foul deeds,
The vengeance of providence was not to be thus thwarted; and although for a time these miscreants imagined they had effectually disguised their horrible work, circumstances led to their detection and apprehension.[viii]
It was birds that brought about these men’s arrest. After the murders, birds of prey were seen circling the place where the outrage had been committed. Some stock-men went to investigate and found the half-burnt carcases. Kinnaister and his accomplices were immediately suspected, owing to their past conduct, and upon examination the men admitted everything they had done.
The most ‘whole’ body that was left unburnt by the men was that of an indigenous man named ‘Daddy’. So it was for his murder that the men were indicted for. The next part of the story is where the racial prejudice in the minds of some of the colonialists becomes most apparent. Despite Kinnaister’s and his men’s admission of guilt, and the strong circumstantial evidence against them, an association was formed by some of the rich colonists to get the men acquitted. The best legal counsel was hired, and the defence lawyers argued that the murders were necessary because
They had been formed with the ostensible project of preserving the property of the settlers from the incursions of the [natives].[ix]
The defence convinced the jury, who found the men Not Guilty. It was a case of blatant racial prejudice, something which was acknowledged at the time. Camden Pelham, who recorded this event a few years later in The Chronicles of Crime, expresses his regret and shame that racial prejudices contributed to the acquittal.[x]
The prosecution did not rest, however, and two months later arraigned the men again, and this time they were justly found Guilty by the jury. The vile criminals were then hanged on 15 December 1838.
Header Image: Kinnaister and his Accomplices Murder the Aborigines. From Camden Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime (London, 1887), p.473.
[i] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.54.
[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Pelican, 1969).
[iii] Camden Palham, The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar. Being a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters who have Outraged the Laws of Great Britain from the Earliest Period to 1841 (London: T. Tegg, 1841; repr. London: T. Miles, 1887), p.472.
[iv] Scholarship on this case includes the following articles: Patsy Withycombe & Jillian Barnes, ‘Representation and Power: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – “Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts” 1841’ Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues 18: 2 (2015), pp.62-67.
[v] Barnes, ‘Representation and Power’, p.67.
[vi] Pelham, Chronicles of Crime, p.473.