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"It's embarrassing" - Descendant of coloniser wants monuments removed, Truth-telling inquiry hears

Dechlan Brennan -

The Yoorrook Justice Commission has heard from one of the descendants of an original coloniser in Victoria, who described the establishment of Victoria's first settlement - with her family's involvement - as war.

The truth-telling hearings, which opened on Gunditjmara Miring Country on Monday, are examining injustices in Victoria that have taken place since and during initial colonisation.

On Thursday, Suzannah Henty, a sixth-generation descendant of James Henty, appeared at the hearings. Ms Henty noted her ancestor was "one of the Henty Brothers and early colonisers of Gunditjmara Country in Southwest Victoria".

"My family has been celebrated and remembered as establishing the first settlement in Victoria," she said.

She outlined the research that she undertook, which revealed the massacres that took place on Henty properties.

"I was never told while I was growing up that the Henty family were involved in an organised ethnic cleansing of First Nations peoples. Yet, if needed, I was encouraged to distance myself from the Henty legacy," she said.

"The cognitive dissonance in ignoring historical facts while exercising the privilege and power to deny any involvement in genocide struck me as a particular articulation of settler colonial repression that I would later see reflected in colonial memorialisation."

Ms Henty said the family were present at three colonial frontiers: Noongar in 1829; Palawa in 1831; and Gunditjmara in 1834. They took a land grant in the Swan River Colony (later abandoned for Launceston), before sailing to Portland, on Gunditjmara Miring Country.

"Without permission from British authorities, the family illegally squatted on the Gunditjmara homelands, where they stole and damaged tens of thousands of acres of land and waterways," Ms Henty said of her ancestors.

"For both the British and First Nations peoples, this settlement was a crime."

On Monday, the hearing's visited the site of the Convincing Ground massacre site just outside Portland - the first massacre site in Victoria.

Commissioner Travis Lovett said of the site: The European whalers used their guns to fend off the Kilcarer Gundidj people from accessing their own resources."

"Despite brave resistance during the Eumeralla Wars, the Gunditjmara population was decimated in what was a highly unequal contest."

Ms Henty said her ancestors established a sheep-run called Merino Downs, where Indigenous people were "enslaved," with Ms Henty saying this process was "war".

She described the murder of Indigenous people that took place on the site.

"In June 1838, one Aboriginal man was killed by a hutkeeper on Merino Downs," Ms Henty said.

"In October 1838, three Aboriginal men were killed on Merino Downs. In March 1840, one Aboriginal man was killed by a hutkeeper on Merino Downs. In November 1840, "dozens" of Aboriginal people were killed by an overseer for the Henty brothers.

"There are hundreds of unmarked sites of conflict in which members of the Henty family were likely involved."

Ms Henty noted people continued to celebrate the Henty family, with a monument erected as late as 2007 and a planned celebration in 2019 in Portland with "no consultation with Gunditjmara people".

She said her ancestors' arrival marked the beginning of the harm that continues to be inflicted on Gunditjmara peoples and their country at the hands of the Henty family, the state of Victoria, and the settler colony of Australia."

"This harm is especially articulated in the ongoing dispossession of Gunditjmara peoples from their land and the memorialisation of colonial figures."

She brought to attention several monuments erected throughout Victoria, and their celebration of James Henty as being the "first" person to plough land in Victoria.

"This is producing a colonial myth. This is why they need to be removed…it is perpetuating a lie. It's a particularly egregious monument," she said.

Discussing the notion of "first-ness," Ms Henty said the monuments to her ancestor and his pioneering exploits only perpetuated the notion of terra nullius, with the monuments exposing themselves by saying "first".

"We know the Hentys were not the first on the land…this is another lie," she said.

"I think it shows how obsessed the settler colony is with creating a narrative around its legitimacy, which I have said is based on lies. It's embarrassing."

Ms Henty said she wanted the Henty family, who had been studied in schools as pioneers, needed to be correctly written into history.

"These places…they obscure that," she said.

Yoorrook chair Eleanor Bourke AM described Ms Henty's contribution as "very important".

Asked by Commissioner Lovett if she had anything to say to the Gunditjmara people in the room, Ms Henty said:

"I want to say sorry, and I am sorry for what my family did…I acknowledge the impact of what they did is ongoing... I want to help reverse that if I can, and I will, in whatever way. I am also prepared to be told to shut up."

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