Aborigines and Colonists: Aborigines and Colonial Society in New South Wales in the 1830s and 1840s
I was speaking to a fellow postgrad of close proximity (wave!) the other day and he commented on the deluge of research amongst our postgraduate colleagues in Aboriginal history now, compared with the 1970s, when he first dipped his toes into the historical waters. It brought home to me the distinctiveness of Reece’s Aborigines and Colonists, published in 1974, where it joined a handful of books written after Stanner’s Boyer 1968 lectures that spoke of “the great Australian silence”. There was John Mulvaney’s work, and C.D. Rowley’s trilogy, and Henry Reynolds had published a book of sources and some journal articles- but not yet the books that he was later to become famous for.
In fact, it’s difficult to read Reece now without peering through the dust raised by Reynolds, Windschuttle etc. in the history wars of late last century. There was such a heightened moral fervour in that debate that Reece’s work seems very cool and dispassionate in comparison.
The aim of his book, he says in the introduction, is to examine the “Aboriginal problem” as seen by philanthropists, squatters and colonial administrators, and so it locates itself very clearly on “one side of the frontier” as Reynolds might have characterized it. The early chapters of the book explore the mindset of “improvers” and “officials”. Among the “improvers” he identifies those who wanted aborigines separated from white society as distinct from those who opposed segregation; those who thought that the introduction of Christianity was the main priority; those who saw “kindness” as a sign of weakness, and those who were repulsed by the sight, the smell and the sensational anecdotes that surrounded the Aborigines. He traces through the changing emphases of official policy and the influence of evangelicals on Colonial Office policy, particularly in the mid 1830s, and the changes during Gipps’ tenure up until about 1844. He sees the brief period between 1838 and 1844 as the time of genuine, but ill-informed attempts to bring Aboriginal and white relations under the framework of the law and to improve the spiritual and material welfare of Aboriginal people.
He focusses closely on the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838 which he contextualizes as one of a series of massacres in the Liverpool Plains district at the time. It is here that I most clearly noticed the sober tone of his writing. He does not underplay the death and cruelty of Myall Creek but nor does he sensationalize it, and the writing is more powerful for it. He also injects field research (quite literally) when he writes of Len Payne and Cecil Wall traipsing around what had been the Myall Creek stockyard, digging up hinges and fence posts. Cecil Wall had been the last of a succession of Walls who had worked on Myall Creek. You can read more about this here, in a rather idiosyncratic site.
Reece also spends quite a bit of time on the Port Phillip district, which was being newly settled at the time of the Myall Creek massacre. It was in Port Phillip that the evangelical vision of Aboriginal Protectors was trialled, and found wanting. He is particularly critical of La Trobe over his unfavourable reports of the Protectorate which made no recommendations to Gipps and provided little insight into the problems they faced. I’d take issue with this: I see La Trobe as a benign but ultimately impotent figure in relation to the Protectorate. Within the tenor of the deferential relationship he had with Gipps, I don’t think he could be anything else.
Nearly forty years after publication, this book still stands strong but it was a product of its time. It would be wrong to chide it for the perspectives it does not explore- aboriginal resistance, aboriginal agency- because these historiographic themes did not emerge until decades later, and no doubt will be themselves overtaken. As a trailblazer in its field, this book might well have been drowned out by the flood of later research, but its dispassionate tone serves it well.