Australian boxer James Leslie
Australian boxer James Leslie "Les" Darcy turned out to be no relative to my family at all. Picture: Stanley Weston Archive/Getty

The dark family secret I can’t shake off

MY SEARCH started as a way of honouring my father who died earlier this year.

He'd been researching our ancestry and had discovered the bones of a story that was equal parts fascinating and repelling.

I can remember him spending hours over the rabbit warrens that ancestry searches become. After he died I found a box full of papers and documents, old photos of faces that seemed eerily familiar and scraps of paper with names of people I never knew who seemed related to us.

There was a newspaper clipping of Les Darcy, the great Australian boxer, who Dad seemed to be trying to link to our family (it turned out to be a furphy).

I started compiling all the information and searching a little further than my father was able to. Late one night I discovered a reference to a murder and thought it - as any journalist would - would make a juicy story to spice up what was a standard history of convicts being sent across the world.

I needed to find out more. Convicts and links to distant Irish kings are one thing, but a 200-year-old murder was something else. I didn't know the story we would find would make me question so much about who my family really was.

My ancestor arrived on the Second Fleet, a convict, of course. No one would be surprised by that.

It seems possible that he would have known a settler who arrived on that fleet, John Macarthur, who would go on to have his own troubles in the new colony. It was 1790, a bare two years since Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet.

Dad tried to link to our family to champion boxer Les Darcy, but it turned out to be a furphy. Picture: National Library of Australia
Dad tried to link to our family to champion boxer Les Darcy, but it turned out to be a furphy. Picture: National Library of Australia

The Second Fleet was known for its appalling treatment of the people that it delivered to the colony. A huge number never made it. My ancestor had been in a hulk on the Thames before boarding an old slave ship the Surprize to come to Australia. It's hard to know what would have been worse. Maybe that horrible treatment led to an even more horrible event.

He was just a kid, about 20 and he had been transported for a theft that would probably get a good behaviour bond in the magistrates court if it occurred today.

It wasn't unusual for my ancestors. One was done for highway robbery, another for stealing a lamb carcass and another for stealing a length of carpet which he told the judge he was holding for someone else.

It probably wasn't the first time someone used that lame excuse but it proves how dated it is.

"Sure, son. Off you go to NSW,'' was the response in the Old Bailey.

My wife carried on the detective work and found the details of the murder.

It was part of a revenge killing. A settler had been savagely killed and in retribution my ancestor and a posse of others murdered two young Aboriginal kids, aged 11 and 15. They had been living among the settlers and even had nicknames. They were returning the gun of the murdered man when the they were killed. An 11-year-old kid. How could you do that? What sort of person was this man? What set of circumstances could lead anyone to do that?

I keep seeing this imagined face of an 11-year-old in absolute terror.

My ancestors arrived in Australia two years after Arthur Phillip. Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London
My ancestors arrived in Australia two years after Arthur Phillip. Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London

Suddenly, what was a juicy story became a repellent part of our history, something that seems to echo down through the years to the present day. It adds a sense of shame and guilt that my life here is based on such a terrible event.

Worse still, he got off.

The court found him guilty of murder but for some reason could not impose a sentence. Later, the word came from London to set him free.

Then, like a lot emancipated convicts he was granted farm land, got married and started the modern history of our clan.

How do you deal with that? He wasn't even punished.

Suddenly the awful history of our treatment of Australia's indigenous people is a bit personal.

It wasn't the only barbaric act the white settlers were guilty of and it certainly wasn't the worst, but my existence here is now tinged with an awful stain.

Thinking about it I can hear former Prime Minister John Howard and his claims that we should not hang on to the black armband view of history. But how can you not? I would be flippant to just dismiss this double murder as an act by someone else a long time ago.

It may be that my difficulty in dealing with this is just a reflection of how the nation is struggling to deal with indigenous issues.

John McCarthy is a senior Courier-Mail journalist.