A debate over whether to change the name of a northern New South Wales town has reopened the wounds of its bloody past.
Coutts Crossing sits on the banks of the Orara River south-west of Grafton, and is home to more than one thousand residents.
The Clarence Valley village was named after an early settler, Thomas Coutts, who built a cattle and sheep station at Kangaroo Creek in 1840.
But an opinion piece in the local newspaper during Reconciliation Week last month questioned whether it was appropriate to honour Mr Coutts, who is believed to have poisoned 23 Aboriginal people in 1847.
Local Anglican priest and Aboriginal Elder, the Reverend Lenore Parker, said a name change would bring unity to the region by recognising the past.
“There are lots of other massacre sites in this area,” she said.
“I know from here, they’re all going to be addressed and that is where each one of us will be walking on this journey together as bridge-builders,” Minister Parker said.
Little support for change
At a public meeting this week Coutts Crossing residents overwhelmingly voted to retain the name of their village earlier this week.
A total of 183 residents voted against a name change, while only 13 were in favour of it.
Local woman Jeanette Hay said changing the name would not achieve anything.
“So many people have worked so hard in the village to make the village what it is today,” she said.
Coutts Crossing will retain its name, but other towns in Australia have opted for change for various reasons. (ABC News: Meghna Bali)
Ms Hay said the suggestion to rename the town had upset many locals.
“The village being referred to as ‘the village of the damned’ and being named after a mass murderer is upsetting.
“He was never convicted and the people that live in this area — have built this area — had nothing to do with what he was supposed to have done,” Ms Hays said.
Dividing a community
Gumbaynggirr woman Lisa Southgate said past wrongs should be acknowledged, but is concerned the community had been divided by the issue.
“Us fellas have no imminent plans with Council or anyone else or amongst ourselves for a name change,” she said.
“We don’t have any specific names proposed for the change and that would take a long process internally in amongst the Aboriginal community to develop a name that we all agreed on,” Ms Southgate said.
“Some sort of acknowledgement is necessary and I don’t think we should keep our history a mystery.
“If people can learn about the real story of passive warfare in Australia in terms of poisoning then that brings a broader context to all of our history,” she said.
Coutts Crossing resident and Gumbaynggirr woman addresses the crowd at the public meeting. (ABC NEWS:Meghna Bali)
Historical evidence of massacre
West Australian historian Jane Lydon has researched the massacre in Kangaroo Creek and was involved in a book about the Myall Creek massacre.
Professor Lydon is convinced the Aboriginals were poisoned and said there was evidence that Coutts was responsible for their deaths.
However, much of the evidence and information came from Aboriginals and at the time their evidence was not admissible in court.
“There is a lot of well-intentioned people who live in Coutts Crossing and obviously had nothing to do with the massacre,” Professor Lydon said.
“But my point is, when we see this name we understand the historical events as part of a pattern of relations between white invaders and Aboriginal people.
“Keep the village name but acknowledge its meaning more clearly,” she said.
Other towns that have changed their names or experienced a campaign for change because of the history associated with them.
Lambing Flat became Young because of the stigma around the Lambing Flat riots, while Germanton changed its name to Holbrook because of anti-German sentiment.