Critchett, Jan ‘A distant field of murder’: Western District Frontiers 1834-1848, Carlton Vic. Melbourne University Press, 1990, 219 p.
As you can tell from the title, Critchett’s book focuses on a specific district of Victoria over the short period of 14 years between 1834-1848. For the aboriginal tribes of the Western district, it was 14 years of tumultuous and catastrophic change. But even this 14 year period was just a small part of the life of Hissing Swan or Kaawirn Kuunawarn, the tribal man with whom this book starts and finishes. Hissing Swan was born around 1822 and died in 1890 of a broken heart when he was moved from Framlingham mission when it was selected for closure. It was the second dispossession he had faced. As the mission record shows:
“Old David (Hissing Swan) dead. Idea of leaving home killed him; buried Thursday.” (p.192)
This book focusses on the Western District of Victoria, which under the Squatting Act was known as Portland Bay. It was a huge territory that stretched from west of the Werribee River across to the South Australia border, with a line up to the Murray River. Of course, this was a white-man’s division for the purposes of administrative convenience. The area of Portland Bay took in many clans and tribal groups, and a large part of this book is devoted to her appendices listing the different groups and individuals that Robinson and other missionaries and observers had counted in the district during the early days- a difficult task given the vagaries of pronunciation and orthography. This might be seen as another attempt at head-counting, but I think that it’s more than this. In the same way that she starts and finishes her book with an individual, named, person, this enumeration of small, family groups is a way of giving a human identity and empirical presence to what was more often portrayed by white settlers as a brooding, shifting, often invisible presence. Settlement, as she notes, can take one of three forms- slow expansion; a leapfrogging rush; then infilling of the vacant spaces between settlements. In the second phase, white settlers moved into the district, often bringing with them their Aboriginal ‘boys’ from other areas. The whites were largely oblivious to the clan boundaries they were crossing, but the aborigines who accompanied them were well aware of the boundary infringements they were committing.
By choosing to focus on the period 1834-1848 she takes in the period prior to the quasi-official ‘settlement’ of Victoria. The aboriginal people of the Portland District had had long contact with white whalers and sealers, and Henty’s settlement in Portland predated the settlement of Melbourne. She estimates that the chillingly-named Convincing Ground massacre probably took place around 1833 or 1834, but it was the influx of pastoralists after 1835 that heralded the greatest change.
There was a war in the Western District, she claims, but there were no great battles. Instead, as she points out, the frontier was a personalized space:
The frontier was in fact a very local phenomenon, the disputed area being the very land each settler lived upon. The enemy was not on the other side of neutral ground. The frontier was represented by the woman who lived near by and was shared by her Aboriginal partner with a European or Europeans. It was the group living down beside the creek or river, it was the ‘boy’ used as guide for exploring parties or for doing jobs now and then. The ‘other side of the frontier’ was just down the yard or as close as the bed shared with an Aboriginal woman. (p. 23)
Although the white settler characterized clashes with Aboriginal people as “aggression”, “depredation” and “outrage”, most of the killings of whites involved prior violence or disputes over women, and often involved Aborigines known to them. They were most often killed by blows to the head, rather than guns, suggesting that their Aboriginal attackers had been able to get close to them. The nature of Aboriginal behaviour changed over time- groups combined forces, they used guerilla tactics, they took sheep and drove them long distances. The killings of aborigines most often involved Europeans seeking to recover their property, generally forming a small hunting party themselves, sometimes accompanied by a JP or the native police.
She sees 1842 as the turning point. It was the worst year for inter-racial conflict and it was the year that white state power was most effectively demonstrated to the aborigines, partially through the hangings that took place then, but even more significantly through the deployment of the Border Police and especially the Native Police during that year. As she notes:
In the end the Aborigines were dealt with on their own terms. It was not necessary to have a large military force. The enemy was really a series of enemies, each being a relatively small group of people. They could be dealt with one by one or even simultaneously by a small number of individuals, providing they could follow the Aborigines to their camping places, normally inaccessible to Europeans. Once a Native Police force was established the end of Aboriginal resistance was a possibility. (p 158)
Although 1842 was the turning point, the winter of 1843 was the worst period for ‘collisions’ between the Native Police and local aborigines, and even white authorities were uneasy about the lurid tales that the Native Police themselves told of their exploits.
There is much to be gained from a close-grained analysis of Aboriginal/White interaction based on a particular geographic region- I know that Jim Belshaw has adopted this approach. I think that her emphasis on the degree of contact, indeed sometimes intimacy, on the frontier is important. This is a beautifully written history. Its rather oblique chapter headings use quotations from the archive, and it is clearly structured without feeling contrived and constrained. There are people here behind the numbers.
There is the hint in her work of an alternative ‘what-if’ history that shimmers just out of sight- the runs that were abandoned and remained empty because no settlers could withstand the violence; Gipps’ angry but unfulfilled threat to turn the whole district into an Aboriginal reserve and cancel all squatting licences- but as Critchett points out, change was inevitable. The murnong grass was no longer available because the sheep had eaten it; Aboriginal groups could no longer fire the grass to encourage its growth; they were excluded from their waterholes, and had abandoned their permanent winter housing there. Tribal and clan boundaries were weakened. The district, as she says, was an extended convincing ground, and by 1848 when she draws her story to a close, the Aborigines had been convinced.