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Massacre of Running Waters

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The Massacre of Running Waters occurred in 1875 at Irbmangkara, a permanent water stretch of the Finke River about 200km SW of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. The "Matuntara people planned the attack in the belief that a neighbouring Aboriginal group, the Southern Arrernte people, or Aranda, had committed an act of sacrilege. Revenge was called for. The offenders and even the relatives of the offenders must be killed".[1] Some 80 to 100 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed[2] by the raiding party of 50 to 60 Aboriginal Matuntara warriors.[3]


Irbangkara (Running Waters)

The Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow, who lived amongst and studied the Arrernte, has written,

Irbmangkara looked a place of peace and undisturbed serene beauty but like many other seeming Eden's on earth, it had known its full share of man's cruelty and viciousness.[4]

Strehlow describes the details of why the massacre was carried out.

A middle-aged man, called Kalejika, who belonged to a Central Aranda local group, paid a visit to Irbmangkara, and then told some Upper Southern Aranda men that Ltjabakuka, the aged and highly respected ceremonial chief of Irbmangkara, together with some of his assistant elders, had committed sacrilege by giving uninitiated boys men's blood to drink from a shield into which it had been poured for ritual purposes. Sacrilege was an offence always punished by death.[5]

According to historian Geoffrey Blainey, the party of Aboriginal warriors sent to avenge the sacrilege,

...selected Running Waters as the place where their enemies could be readily surprised in a secret raid while they were cooking their meals before making their beds on the ground.[1]

Ted Strehlow then describes in detail the course of events.

...three parties of warriors, hidden among the bushes of the nearby mountain slopes and in the undergrowth in the river bed at their foot, were watching the men and women of Irbmangkara returning to their camp ... the armed men [then] ... rushed in, like swift dingoes upon flock of unsuspecting emus. Spears and boomerangs flew with deadly aim. Within a matter of minutes Ltjabakuka and his men were lying lifeless in their blood at their brush shelters.

Then the warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children, and either speared or clubbed them to death. Finally, according to the grim custom of warriors and avengers, they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die "natural deaths". The final number of the dead could well have reached the high figure of from eighty to a hundred men, women, and children.[6]

But one of the woman had merely pretended to be dead and escaped northward to raise the alarm. As a small boy, Moses Tjalkabota was greatly affected by the massacre, given that two of his friends and their mother were killed in the raid,[2] and he had himself witnessed the great clouds of smoke arising from the funeral pyres when the bodies were burnt the next day.[7] Much later, his reminiscences of the killings were recorded and translated into English and although they differ slightly to other accounts in some details, they are the same when describing the ruthlessness of the raid.[2]


The first European explorers had arrived in this area in 1860 and, by 1872 to the east, the Overland Telegraph Line had been surveyed and constructed.

Missionary Carl Strehlow (top) and his son, Ted Strehlow with two Aranda elders (below)

The massacre occurred in 1875 and the Germans set up their Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg in 1877. There were ample informants alive who were involved in the massacre, or knew of its detail, when the Strehlows began their recording of the event.

Moses Tjalkabota,[8] who was an Aboriginal informant to both Carl Strehlow and his son Ted Strehlow, was a young boy at the time of the massacre (6 to 9 years of age) and, according to researcher Peter Latz, "he recalls it [the massacre] in some detail".[9]

Carl Strehlow's recordings of the massacre appear in his grandson John Strehlow's historical biography of this grandparents.[10]

Ted Strehlow wrote a detailed account of the massacre in his 1969 book, Journey to Horseshoe Bend.[11]


Justice Michael Kirby used the reasons for this massacre at Irbmangkara as an example of the incompatibility of Indigenous Australian customary law, or Aboriginal tribal law, with modern Australian law and an insurmountable object to ever allowing its revival in Australia.[12]

See also[edit]

  • List of massacres of Indigenous Australians



  1. 1.0 1.1 Blainey 2015, p. 116.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Blainey 2015, p. 117.
  3. Strehlow 1969, p. 37.
  4. Strehlow 1969, p. 35.
  5. Strehlow 1969, pp. 36–37.
  6. Strehlow 1969, p. 38.
  7. Strehlow 2011, p. 409.
  8. Albrecht 2005.
  9. Latz 2014, p. 13.
  10. Strehlow 2011, pp. 408ff.
  11. Strehlow 1969, pp. 35ff.
  12. Kirby 1978, pp. 27-29.


  • Albrecht, Paul (2005). "Tjalkabota, Moses (1869–1954)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Supplementary. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  • Blainey, Geoffrey (2015). The Story of Australia's People – The Rise and fall of Ancient Australia. Viking-Penguin. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Kirby, Michael (October 1978). "TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Customary Law" (PDF). michaelkirby.com.au. Open Publishing. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  • Latz, Peter (2014). Blind Moses: Aranda man of high degree and Christian evangelist. IAD Press. ISBN 9780992572709. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Strehlow, John (2011). The Tale of Frieda Keyser – Frieda Keyser & Carl Strehlow : an historical biography. Wild Cat Press. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Strehlow, T. G. H. (1969). Journey to Horseshoe Bend. Angus and Robertson. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png

Others articles of the Topic Australia : Fingal Rovers Surf Life Saving Club, Rachel Alonso, 2009 Joy Flight crash, Indigenous peoples of Australia, Highway 61 Motorcycle Club, Joe's Basecamp, The Masked Singer (Australian season 3)

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