Massacre of Running Waters

The massacre of Running Waters was the killing of 80 to 100 southern Arrernte (or Aranda) men, women and children[1] by a raiding party of 50 to 60 Matuntara warriors[2] in 1875 at Irbmangkara, a permanent water stretch of the Finke River about 200 kilometres (120 mi) south-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia.

The Matuntara planned the attack as a punishment for an act of sacrilege by the neighbouring southern Arrernte.[3]


Irbangkara (Running Waters)

The Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow, who lived amongst and studied the Arrernte, 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.[4]

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

...selected Running Waters [as the place where the Southern Arrernte could be readily be surprised], and timed their secret raid for ... when their enemies were cooking their meals before making their beds on the ground.[3]

Ted Strehlow 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.[5]

One of the Aranda women 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,[1] and he had himself witnessed the great clouds of smoke arising from the funeral pyres when the bodies were burnt the next day.[6] 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.[1]


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.

Tjalkabota, who was an Aboriginal translator for both Carl Strehlow and his son Ted Strehlow,[7] was a young boy (6 to 9 years of age) at the time of the massacre and, according to researcher Peter Latz, "he recalls it [the massacre] in some detail".[8]

Carl Strehlow's recordings of the massacre appear in his grandson John Strehlow's historical biography of this grandparents.[9]

Ted Strehlow wrote a detailed account of the massacre in his 1969 book, Journey to Horseshoe Bend.[10]


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.[11]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c Blainey 2015, p. 117.
  2. ^ Strehlow 1969, p. 37.
  3. ^ a b Blainey 2015, p. 116.
  4. ^ Strehlow 1969, pp. 36–37.
  5. ^ Strehlow 1969, p. 38.
  6. ^ Strehlow 2011, p. 409.
  7. ^ Albrecht 2005.
  8. ^ Latz 2014, p. 13.
  9. ^ Strehlow 2011, pp. 408ff.
  10. ^ Strehlow 1969, pp. 35ff.
  11. ^ Kirby 1978, pp. 27–29.


  • Albrecht, Paul (2005). "Tjalkabota, Moses (1869–1954)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Supplementary. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 2 October 2020 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  • Blainey, Geoffrey (2015). The Story of Australia's People – The Rise and fall of Ancient Australia. Viking-Penguin.
  • Kirby, Michael (October 1978). "TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Customary Law" (PDF). Open Publishing. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  • Latz, Peter (2014). Blind Moses: Aranda man of high degree and Christian evangelist. IAD Press. ISBN 9780992572709.
  • Strehlow, John (2011). The Tale of Frieda Keyser – Frieda Keyser & Carl Strehlow : an historical biography. Wild Cat Press.
  • Strehlow, T. G. H. (1969). Journey to Horseshoe Bend. Angus and Robertson.