Where Blackfellas Met Their Waterloo

Displays of civic pride are prominent out on the Eyre Peninsula. The locals paint their colours on the buildings, on watertanks, and even on the roads. The winners of the regional footy competition celebrate their premiership victories by painting messages on the monolithic watertanks near Port Augusta. Each victorious team, of what seems the last two decades, has proudly announced its premiership victory upon the tanks. The roads around the towns of the peninsula often bear similar celebratory graffiti.

In Elliston you can see the largest mural in the southern hemisphere. Quite a few buildings in Elliston have murals but the record setter is the town hall. In another display of civic pride each external wall is painted with a pictorial depiction of the town’s history. There are factual events in the town’s history depicted in the mural and actual people are represented in the image.

Elliston is about halfway up the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula, midway between Streaky Bay and Port Lincoln. It’s a typical South Australian town – bone dry and dusty. All the buildings are old and those that aren’t sporting murals have walls of sunbleached limestone. Everything in Elliston has a white ‘overexposed’ appearance, like faded 35mm photos.

The two main features of Elliston are Waterloo Bay and Blackfellas.

Waterloo Bay is the reason for the town’s existence as it is the only deepwater port between Streaky and Lincoln. Back in the day boats used to harbour there and pick up wool from the local farmers. Wool being the first economy of the area back when the topsoil was intact and there was grass for sheep to feed on. Nowadays the only farming is wheat and even that is sparse; the rain too infrequent and the soil too rocky and infertile.

Blackfellas is a couple of kilometres north of town and rates as one of the better lefts in Australia. It has a reef outside the main ledge that focuses the swell as it rounds Cape Finiss, the effect not unlike the outside reefs at Pipeline where the energy from each swell line is drawn together and the magnified energy then targeted toward the inside reef.

The name Blackfellas comes from a massacre that occurred in 1849 during the frontier wars when white settlers wanted to occupy and farm the land around Elliston. The exact details are subject to speculation though general consensus is that in an act of retribution white settlers drove approximately 250 aborigines off the cliffs adjacent to the wave. Those that didn’t jump were speared or shot.

Waterloo Bay – just to the south of Blackfellas – derives its name from the same event. A local with a macabre wit announcing that during the massacre the local mob ‘met their Waterloo’, and the name stuck. Thus the two geographical features for which Elliston owes its existence and ongoing popularity refer to a massacre of the Aboriginal population.

But don’t look for the massacre on the record-breaking mural – it ain’t there. I’ve walked around the town hall and seen all the events deemed worthy of recording, but the massacre – a defining event in the town’s history – isn’t among them. In fact no blackfellas appear in the mural at all.

Granted it’s an unsavoury incident and may seem out of place in a mural that celebrates white pioneers with a Protestant work ethic building a town out of the desert sand. However it’s not the only example of the massacre being overlooked or ignored. In 1970 a proposed memorial of the massacre was rejected by the local council on the grounds that there was no proof that it took place.

These days the Elliston massacre has been formally acknowledged, but as yet there is no memorial to those that were killed. The only tangible reminders of the event being the name of a surf break and the bay behind it.

– by Stu Nettle, Co-editor, Kurungabaa