Eighteen men, women and children were massacred on the evening of September 1, 1826 when their camp was attacked by mounted police.
The massacre of the Wonnarua people was revenge for the murder days earlier of two convicted laborers accused of raping their wives.
It was one of the bloodiest episodes of New South Wales’ “border wars” between early settlers and Aborigines. And it took place in the Hunter Valley, now best known for its coal mines and full-bodied Shiraz wine.
Hallowed ground: Glencore is locked in a dispute over plans to expand a coal mine at a site where eighteen locals are believed to have been massacred in 1826
Nearly 200 years later, Glencore is locked in a long-running dispute with indigenous leaders and local authorities over plans to expand a coal mine on the site where the massacre is believed to have taken place – at least for some .
Planning permission has already been refused and Glencore is now opposing a heritage listing proposal designed to protect it from being unearthed.
It is the latest salvo in a much larger conflict, which escalated three years ago when Rio Tinto blew up Juukan Gorge, a 60,000-year-old sacred site in Pilbara, Western Australia.
Mining companies across Australia, accused for years of paying lip service to the original owners of the land, must now be very careful.
The case of the Hunter Valley is less clear than that of Juukan Gorge, which drew worldwide condemnation of Rio Tinto’s actions.
Glencore is eyeing 135m tonnes of coal underground, worth more than £10bn at today’s prices.
This deposit holds the key to extending the life of the Glendell open pit mine, which is currently due to close next year, until 2044.
The war in Ukraine has driven the price of thermal coal to record highs, providing more incentive for miners like Glencore to extract more.
The problem Glencore faces is that the coal is buried under an isolated rural farm called Ravensworth, consisting of a dilapidated stone farmhouse and a few outbuildings.
This has been identified by some indigenous oral traditions as the site of the murders.
“This place is sacred ground to us,” says Scott Franks, who is a local archaeologist and Wonnarua man.
He added: “But Glencore showed us no respect, they are only looking for coal.”
The reality, however, is that the precise location of the massacre is unknown.
So while the site is considered sacred by some natives, others have dismissed the importance of the site and believe the killings took place elsewhere.
Remote: The Ravensworth site consists of a dilapidated stone farmhouse and a few outbuildings
This uncertainty formed the basis of the Glencore case.
He has already gone very far. He hired a local historian who concluded that although Ravensworth was the scene of a number of attacks by Aboriginal warriors and reprisals by settlers, the massacre is more likely to have taken place more than 15 miles away.
Ravensworth, which is about 100 miles north of Sydney, is believed to have been built in 1832 for Dr James Bowman, a few years after the massacre.
Dr Bowman, of Carlisle in Cumbria, was chief surgeon to the first doomed ships to Australia and was later appointed chief surgeon to the colony of New South Wales.
He became a pastor, grazing sheep on 12,000 acres of land. The former Bowman Estate is now owned and maintained by Glencore, which purchased the mining lease of the land 26 years ago.
The FTSE 100-listed company has submitted a proposal to move the buildings to a local farm or nearby village called Broke, rebuild it stone by stone and open it to the public.
This received support from a group of residents and business people, as well as the neighboring Singleton Town Council.
But his planning application was blocked in October by the New South Wales Independent Planning Permission.
He accepted the conclusion of the state’s heritage and planning departments that the massacre was unlikely to have occurred on the Ravensworth estate. But he always ruled that destroying or relocating the property, and mining the land for coal, would desecrate a culturally significant colonial-era landscape.
To make matters worse for Glencore, the state heritage board is now seeking a heritage listing for Ravenscroft, expanding it to cover an area of over 1,200 acres. The company fears this will force it to close the Glendell mine and abandon its expansion plans.
Amid global goals to move away from fossil fuels and meet net zero carbon emissions targets, many might say this can only be a good thing.
But it will be a blow to many in the local community, with hundreds of local workers set to lose their jobs when the mine closes.
Glencore is now considering its next decision, including whether to submit a new mine expansion proposal.
A spokesperson for the society said the heritage nomination “does not present a balanced or factual assessment of the significance of the farm and its surrounding landscape”.
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