2016, 223 p plus notes
Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins, NLA publishing, Canberra, 2016
One of the few Australian expressions to make it into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is the saying “You’ve got Buckley’s” -a little Australianism that I myself use quite frequently to mean “you’ve got no chance”. Although its origin probably lies in a reference to the Buckleys and Nunn department store (“you’ve got Buckley’s chance or Nunn (non)”), for Melburnians it has another layer of meaning . William Buckley was a tall escaped convict who emerged from the bush, startling the early settlers of Melbourne, having lived with the Wathaurong people for thirty-two years after escaping from the short-lived convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803. He was not, however, the only white person to be accepted into an indigenous group, as John Maynard and Victoria Haskins show in this book. The information that these Europeans brought back into white society when they were ‘discovered’ or ‘saved’ can, read sensitively, provide a different perspective on pre-invasion or invasion-era indigenous life to counter the settler or missionary narratives which then (and to a large extent, now) largely framed knowledge of indigenous practices.
Our main focus and concern has been on trying to recapture what living with the locals was really like for these European individuals. The fact is that, in the main, they were treated with great kindness, compassion and care by their Indigenous hosts. And therein lies a great tragedy of the Australian historical experience. The wild white men and women were witness to the beauty and richness of Indigenous culture in this country that no other outsiders would ever see. For us, these men and women are our eyes into another world on the cusp on an incredible upheaval. (p. 8)
The fold-out front cover of the book serves both as map and chapter outline as it plots the examples discussed in each chapter against the coastline of eastern Australia. Early white settlements clung to the edge of the continent, with the sea the main source of communication and commerce. The chapters of this book proceed chronologically, and the first two examples deal with Sydney and Melbourne. All the other examples, however, are plotted from Brisbane northwards, where the Great Barrier Reef spelled the end of many ships and where the ‘frontier’ was shifting inexorably up the coast.
Of course, the authors could only deal with those Europeans who actually returned. Maynard and Haskins occasionally mention that the tribes were aware of other Europeans who were among them, or sometimes the escapee/survivors themselves report catching sight of them, but they do not break into the European historiography at all. Maynard and Haskins only draw on the cases where there is sufficient written documentation or oral testimony- flawed and incomplete though it may be- but there could be countless other similar scenarios that went unreported or even unknown.
This was particularly the case where the Europeans were convicts. At a time when rumours of being able to walk to China circulated amongst the convicts, the authorities were probably happy to have fear of ‘wild natives’ dissuade any would-be escapees from making a break for it. Some did, however, as in the case of William Buckley (‘Murrangurk’) in Melbourne escaped from the camp at Sorrento, only to have the convict settlement break up and sail off, leaving him behind (Chapter 1). James Davis (‘Duramboi’) and David Bracefell (‘Wandi’) ran away from the Moreton Bay convict settlement in 1829 and and 1831 respectively, and joined separate tribes until they were both rounded up in 1842 (Chapter 4). Despite their shared, albeit separate, experiences, the two Europeans remained wary of each other when they were apprehended. While no longer convicts, the three ticket-of-leave men described in Chapter 3 who also joined indigenous tribes in 1823, Thomas Pamphlett, Richard Parson and John Finnegan, were likewise wary of each other when they ‘disappeared’ when accompanying a freightload of cedar from the South Coast back to Sydney. They were blown off-course and, instead of being south of Sydney, were actually blown north to Moreton Bay. The three men, who argued with each other constantly, fell in with groups of indigenous people who treated them kindly but did not incorporate them into the tribe, as evidenced by the fact that they were not given indigenous names as many of the other Europeans were.
John Wilson (‘Bunboe’), dealt with in the first chapter, made the conscious decision to join an indigenous tribe in the Hawkesbury district in the 1790s early in the white settlement days of the colony. This decision was a confronting one for the authorities: that a white, free (albeit ex-convict) man would choose to do so. Perceived as a threat to the colony by sharing his knowledge of settler armaments with the aborigines, he and some runaway convicts who had joined him were ordered to turn themselves in to the authorities, on pain of immediate execution without trial “having by their unlawful conduct forfeited the protections of those wholesome laws under which they have been born and bred” (cited p 17). He eventually did so, but continued to shift between the indigenous and settler world, leading expeditions and translating as white explorers moved further inland, followed by land-hungry settlers. As the authors note
There is an irony in how John Wilson, from being a threat to the colony, became an instrument of the colonial project, taking the British further inland than they had ventured before and encouraging them in their hopeful belief that expansion into these lands would be unhampered by Aboriginal resistance. (p.22)
The other Europeans described in the book did not choose to join indigenous tribes, but did so through circumstance when the ships in which they were travelling were shipwrecked, mostly along the Great Barrier Reef. Fifteen-year-old cabin boy John Ireland (‘Waki’) and three year old William D’Oyley (‘Uass’) were shipwrecked in the Torres Strait when their ship, the Charles Eaton was wrecked en route to India in 1834. (Veronica Peek has written a very detailed blog about the Charles Eaton here). Another cabin-boy, 14 year old Narcisse Pelletier (‘Anco’) was marooned on Cape York in 1858 when his French ship the Saint-Paul, laden with 300 Chinese men recruited to work on the goldfields ran aground on a reef. [I hadn’t realized that Chinese miners were actively recruited, although I suppose that someone must have been making money out of the transport between China and Australia. In this case, it was the ‘enterprising captain, Captain Emmanuel Pinard]. Pelletier lived, and came of age with an indigenous tribe for seventeen years. Twenty-two year old James Morrill was one of several survivors of the Peruvian, who were divided beween different indigenous groups and became caught up in inter-tribal politics. The other European survivors died, but Morrill remained with indigenous groups for seventeen years, leaving them to eventually become a storekeeper in Bowen. It is strange that there was no indigenous name recorded for him, given that he spent so long in indigenous company.
There are two women among the Europeans described in this book. The first is Eliza Fraser, famously fictionalized by Patrick White in A Fringe of Leaves and more recently critically appraised from an indigneous perspective by Larissa Behrendt in Finding Eliza. After being shipwrecked, Eliza Fraser was only with the indigenous tribe who found her for six weeks- a much shorter period than most of the examples in other chapters of the book. There are multiple and conflicting accounts of her time with the aborigines and her eventual rescue and her story is quite unlike the others in this book, being framed as one of enslavement and degradation. As the authors admit:
…fact cannot be separated from fiction in the Eliza Fraser story. All we can say with certainty and without fear of contradiction is that she did not enter willingly or happily into Aboriginal society, and that her legacy has been one of only resentment and confusion. [p. 140]
Perhaps, as a woman, the expectations of her as a gatherer were different to those of men and young boys, prompting harsher treatment when she so steadfastly resisted her indigenous rescuers. For whatever reason, her experience was quite different from that of Barbara Thompson (‘Giom’) who spent four to five years with the Kaurareg Islanders and indigenous people of far North Queensland after being shipwrecked in 1844. She was adopted into the family of a highly respected elder called Pequi, and this bought her a degree of acceptance that Fraser never achieved.
As can be seen from the links I’ve provided to entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Europeans described in this book have not been unearthed for the first time by the authors. The authors reference many monographs that they have drawn on that have been either self-published by individual historians or produced through local historical societies. Continued reference is made to Charles Barrett’s White Blackfellows: The Strange Adventures of Europeans Who Live among Savages from 1948 which adopted an ‘action adventure’ tone to cover similar examples.
Where this book differs from other accounts is in its careful reading against the narratives (generated both at the time and later) in order to reconstruct indigenous life and practice at this time of political and economic transition for aboriginal people. The authors’ findings are displayed on buff-coloured pages at the end of each chapter- or at least, this is the display decision that I think the authors have made as it was not made explicit in the introduction (and the structure does break down a little in the Eliza Fraser chapter). But, as they found, their European informants were not as forthcoming as they might have hoped. Brought back into white settlement, they were reluctant to divulge spiritual or cultural knowledge that had been disclosed to them: a sign, Maynard and Haskins suggest, of the obligation they felt for the kindness that they had received from their indigenous contacts.
Given the prurient badgering they were subjected to, it is unsurprising that so many of the Europeans who lived among Aboriginal people were taciturn. But perhaps their reticence was also a way of protecting the cultural integrity of the people who had sheltered and befriended them: at the very least, a mark of respect for the Indigenous appreciation that not all knowledge is open and available for sharing. (p. 3)
By collecting several stories in this way, the authors can make several generalizations. If the Europeans were identified as a dead relative who had returned, their way was greatly eased into the tribe. These are not isolated tribes, but instead part of an active network where knowledge both of the invaders and of these European foundlings passed across tribal groupings and distance. Knowledge of the use of iron passed between them, and it was valued as an object of exchange. There are frequent mentions of anthropophagy (cannabilism) – as Liz Conor found in Skin Deep (my review here) but it is described by informants more as a form of ritualized behaviour than blood-lust. Likewise, there is intra- and inter-tribal conflict but it is not clear whether it is a form of legal process or a display of prowess (like medieval sports were during the Middle Ages) rather than warfare and violence. Many of the Europeans found it difficult to fit back into settler life; some took up an interpreter/intermediary role while others – particularly the women- seemed to just disappear from the public record. Some moved between indigenous and white society- David Bracewell, was captured in May 1837 after six years with the Carburrah clan near Noosa. Two years later he escaped again and returned to the clan until being captured a second time in 1842. There were several examples of genuine sorrow and loss, on both sides, when the European rejoined white society.
In each chapter the authors describe and use the production of the contemporary accounts that the Europeans gave when they were ‘rescued’ or ‘came in’ including newspaper reports, government dispatches or accounts purportedly written by the European or his/her rescuer themselves. I regret that in their overview of the narratives in the introduction and conclusion, the authors did not interrogate this production and re-production more fully as a transnational genre that combined titillation, racial theories and empire, and the purposes to which these narratives were put in the metropole and periphery.
As with other books produced through NLA Publishing, this book is replete with images drawn from the National Library’s own holdings (most particularly the Rex Nan Kivell Collection) and from other libraries and galleries. It is a beautiful book in itself. However, the power of the book is in the narratives that have been presented, and the analysis and careful reading that the authors have brought to bear on them. It is an uplifting and positive book, but wistful as well.
In their conclusion, Maynard and Haskins remind us that the sense of loss when those they had welcomed as family left their care represented
the ending not only of an individual’s story of connection across a major cultural divide but the closing of a window of great opportunity. The nation itself, even today, has not come to terms with the magnitude of this loss. In the final analysis, we hope that we have delivered a glimpse of what living together with mutual respect might still be like, if we could only imagine it. (p 222)
Source: Review copy
Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitlovers also wrote a review.
This book is co-written by a male and female author and I have included it in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.