Category Archives: Aborigines in Port Phillip

‘Imagining Early Melbourne’ Kathryn Ferguson

I just found an online article about Early Melbourne from 2004,  published in the very first edition of Postcolonial- an open source journal that is now in its eleventh year.

You can source the article at:

In this article, I will examine three elements that were posited by Melbourne’s early surveyors as incompatible with the development of a city invested in post-Enlightenment commitments to the rational and orderly division of space: the indigenous population, the extant landscape, and the poor. Each of these ‘problematic’ features was, for the most part, posited as antithetical to the creation and sustainability of an ordered and orderly social space through which the settlement, the colony and the Empire invented and inhabits a place.  Each element was, ostensibly, addressed in the founding strategies of Melbourne, with varying degrees of success, between 1836 and 1839.  Thus, this article highlights the irrationality — the almost mythical foundations — of the city.

As she points out, Major Thomas Mitchell’s encomium of the beauties of Australia Felix and Robert Hoddle’s grid were both describing something that wasn’t there.  Mitchell feigned complete ignorance of the presence of indigenous people, while Hoddle just superimposed a public-service template onto the landscape. They were producing predictions, rather than describing extant realities.

There were, of course,  indigenous people right in the centre of Melbourne, and settlers had started building along their own natural contour lines, following the geography of the site before Hoddle got to it with his surveying tools. Even though the word ‘slum’ would not be used for another fifty years,  the Hoddle grid and the push to construct only wide streets was responding to a fear of the vice-ridden poor.

As you might guess from a journal called Postcolonial, there’s some fairly complex language in this article, but it’s an interesting reflection on map-making, symmetry and geographical fantasy.

‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855’ by Jessie Mitchell


2011, 197 p & notes

Available for download (free) at

1825 to 1855- just thirty years. Thirty years to start off with a timorous hope that perhaps it might be possible to spread Civilization among the Aborigines and lead them to the Christian Religion, only to end with an acknowledgement that it hadn’t worked, and that the whole situation had to be turned over to God’s mercy and his wondrous ways.  In 1825 L. E. Threlkeld established a mission at Lake Macquarie in NSW; in 1855 John Smithies closed his Methodist mission in Western Australia.  These two events form the bookends for this analysis of Australia’s first missions and protectorate stations.

In this book, based on her PhD. thesis, Jessie Mitchell writes:

My work has been guided by key themes of governance, subjecthood and rights, and the need to understand these ideas as developing through complex exchanges between imperial centres and mission outposts…and to consider how they were shaped by charity, religious beliefs, personal relationships and commitments to empire  (p.5)

Her work concentrates on Protestant missionaries working both on Church-based missions and government-sponsored Protectorate Stations.  Although there was a  high degree of cross-over, the distinction is important (and perhaps could have been emphasized even more strongly). The interconnection between the church-directed missions and government-directed model was there from the start, when the idea of government-funded Protectorates was first recommended by a Select Committee with a strong representation of Evangelical Christians, several of whom had been involved in anti-slavery campaigns in the past.

But the Port Phillip Protectorate was established and funded by government – not the churches. Protectors were expected to attach themselves to the tribes in the district and attend them until they could be induced to assume more settled habits; watch over the rights and interests of the natives and protect them from encroachment on their property and acts of injustice;  instruct them in cultivation should they settle in one place; educate and instruct the children; learn their language; be accountable for provisions and clothing and obtain accurate numerical information about them.  They were also were expected to instruct  in ‘elements’ of the Christian religion, with the expectation that other specialized teachers would take over instruction in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. (Note 1)   It was this emphasis on religion that distinguished church-based and government-based models, because in many other regards they were very similar.   But of the Protector and his four assistants who were appointed, all but one were Evangelical Christians, and their own religious fundamentalist beliefs very much influenced their perception of their task and the Indigenous people under their charge.   When the Protectorate all went pear-shaped, several of these Protectors sheeted home the blame partially to the secular nature of the government scheme.

Mitchell has consciously decided not to use the term ‘humanitarian’, which was not coined until 1844 and has since been overlaid with many latter-day connotations, especially in the last half-century.  Instead, she conceptualizes the impetus as ‘philanthropy’, with all its nineteenth-century connotations of benevolence, gratitude, control and religion.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to note that the Aborigines Protection Society itself in its 1840 Annual Report spoke of ‘rights’:

the rights of a common humanity, the rights of citizens, the right to possess and retain their own, the rights of protection and security to life and property, and the rights of unfettered liberty of mind, of free action and self disposal. (Third Annual Report 23 June 1840 cited on p 41)

The book explores the many tensions that are implicit in this declaration of ‘rights’, so to speak, and the aspirations for a God-centric, settled, institutionalized mission.  Philanthropists were aware of the cruel dispossession of indigenous peoples, but they were not necessarily opposed to colonialization itself.   In their attempts to foster agricultural labour on their own reserves amongst the people in their charge, missionaries themselves encouraged them to move away from traditional land use- something that became of crucial importance in late 20th century court cases (Mabo and Wik).  Those missionaries and protectors who expressed the strongest support for Indigenous land rights were those who were most opposed to an Indigenous presence in the cities.

In her introduction,  Jessie Mitchell mentions that she herself has worked in the community sector where

tensions between rights and charity and questions about the supposed (in)gratitude of vulnerable people towards state and benevolent agencies continue to have a strong relevance. (p.1)

Her analysis of ‘charity’ is insightful. Missionaries and protectors saw the distribution of food, blankets and clothing as a form of recompense for the loss of land and livelihood, but it was conditional on the Aborigines remaining on the mission.  The ‘settling’ of Indigenous peoples on a mission was seen by the government as a sign of success, but if it was done through the distribution of food, then the missionaries and protectors were accused of profligate generosity.  The missionaries’ dilemma goes on today: there were many echoes of the current government’s attempts to break the concept of ‘sit-down’ money and achieve school attendance through punishing the parents.

Perhaps the ultimate tension was in the religious missionary task itself.  We are now more attuned to the deep significance of the afterlife for Indigenous people, and are aware of the sensitivity about the names and images of people who have died.  For the missionaries, however, the afterlife and death was the major ‘hook’ to evangelize to their charges.  Mitchell emphasizes what we would now call the ‘born-again’ aspect of these missionaries’ religion: the whole  penitence, conversion, personal-relationship-with-God thing still being preached in evangelical super-churches today.  They wanted Indigenous people to have the individualistic, personal conversion experience, but they also wanted their church pews to be full with people streaming into church each Sunday, even if they didn’t yet believe.  They wanted individualism, but institutionalization as well.

And so, Mitchell suggests, we need to read the missionaries’ declarations of failure and disappointment carefully.  As born-again Evangelicals themselves, they were much given to self-examination and confession of weakness, and this was a trope that played out well in the metropolitan churches and missionary societies as well.   The Colonial Office, ever keen to reduce expenditure, took up these expressions of failure with alacrity, arguing that the whole project was futile and best ended.

While it is wonderful that this book is available as an e-book, I found myself wishing that it had a few more book-like features.   I read it in hard copy, and I missed an index in particular, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I found the absence of chapter numbers frustrating.  It is not difficult to read, but you’re still aware that the thesis is not far distant.  I liked the way that the chapters started off with an anecdote or episode, and the logic of the argument was clearly laid out in the chapter structure.  Conceptually, it’s a complete, well-managed project. As a narrative, the thirty-year time span gives a coherence and almost elegiac quality to this humanitarian experiment that was tried and found wanting.

Note 1: Glenelg to Gipps 31 January 1838

aww-badge-2015-200x300My first posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015

‘Dark Emu’ at Eltham Bookshop

Will I? Won’t I?  I’d better make up my mind- it’s on Monday 4th August.

darkemu“Time To Look Again”
ELTHAMbookshop, Nillumbik Reconciliation Group and Magabala Books invite you warmly to celebrate Bruce Pascoe’s new book Dark Emu

The latest foray into Australian Indigenous history by national award-winning Aboriginal writer Bruce Pascoe is set to re-ignite the long running debate about the true nature of Aboriginal civilisation at the time of European colonisation. Dark Emu – Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? is a significant new contribution to the academic and social discourse about the true history of pre-European Australia and its Indigenous inhabitants.

Bruce is an acclaimed writer, having won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for YA Fiction, 2013, for Fox a a Bunurong man. He is a member of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative of southern Victoria and has been the director of the Australian Studies Project for the Commonwealth Schools Commission. Bruce has had a varied career as a teacher, farmer, fisherman, barman, fencing contractor, lecturer, Aboriginal language researcher, archaeological site worker and editor.His books include the short story collections Night Animals (1986) and Nightjar (2000); the novels Fox (1988), Ruby Eyed Coucal (1996), Ribcage (1999), Shark (1999), Earth (2001), and Ocean (2002); historical works Cape Otway: Coast of secrets (1997) and Convincing Ground (2007); children’s book Foxies in a Firehouse (2006); and the young adult fiction Fox a Dox (2012).

Local historian Mick Woiwod, author of engaging, very well researched books including Last Cry, The Christmas Hills Story, Diary of Andrew Ross and Once Around the Sugarloaf will introduce the evening.

Date: August 4th

Time: 6.30pm until 8.00pm

Venue: ELTHAMbookshop, 970 Main Road, Eltham

Cost: $40.00 includes a signed copy of the book or a $35.00 gift voucher and bush food flavoured refreshments

Prepaid bookings are essential:9439 8700

Judge Willis on the front page of today’s Age? Not quite….


It’s the 20th January and so it is the 172th anniversary of the hanging of Maulboyheenner and Tunnerminnerwait.  Each year this anniversary receives more prominence, and I see from today’s article that Melbourne City Council plans to erect a memorial, probably outside the Old Melbourne Gaol.  Details of location, cost, size and nature have not yet been decided. You can read the research paper by Monash University academic Clare Land supporting the proposal here.

I thought that Judge Willis was about to get his 15 seconds of 21st century fame in this article, but he’s not mentioned at all.  So, you’ll just have to read my earlier posts about Judge Willis’ part in these hangings, which were the first official hangings that occurred the Port Phillip district.  You can read them here and here.

Again, I’d strongly encourage you to read Leonie Steven’s article ‘The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait’ published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 81, Number 1, June 2010.  If you’re a member of the State Library of Victoria, then you’ll be able to get access to it (likewise with the other state libraries in Australia.  It’s really worth joining your state library: you get so much access to databases and journals from home).  Alternatively, there’s an online version here.   It’s a beautifully written article that has the humility to admit that sometimes motives for action are ultimately unknowable and that it is important to go back to the primary sources again and again.  Good advice.

‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40’ by Marie Hansen Fels

There is a somewhat elegaic, wistful tone to this book, hinted at by its title. It is a quote from the journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas as he was about to re-locate his Protectorate for the second time in three years under official instructions.  He had been forced to shift from the Mornington Peninsula in 1840 to Nerre Nerre Warren, then forced again to shift to Merri Creek in 1843.  There were many reasons that he had failed, he said, but there was one time when he could have been said to have succeeded- and that was at Arthurs Seat between 1839 and 1840.

In the Afterword to the book, the author admits that there is “no conclusion, no grand summing-up” in her work.  She evokes the late Greg Dening, who taught that “the historical effort was to understand and to explain: not to judge, not to label, not to take sides.” (p. 397).  In many ways, it would have been helpful to have her afterword as a preface, because I found myself somewhat puzzled about what this book actually is. It is part of ANU’s Aboriginal History Monograph series, which presents “studies on particular themes or regions, or a series of articles on single subjects of contemporary interest.”  In this case, it focuses minutely on a relatively small area of land, over mainly a one-year period, although it does spill out of this chronological limit at times.

The book won the ‘Best Community Research, Register, Records’ category of the Victorian Community History Awards in 2011. The typographic layout of the book is more suited to a records-based document than a narrative history: it has the appearance of a work-book or training manual, and the headings and boxed biographies of individual aboriginal people feel as if they are the product of a word-processor rather than a commercial print layout.   It is thoroughly commendable that the book is available free as a download through ANU e-press here.  I suspect that I might have felt short-changed had I paid $29.95 for a print-on-demand copy (although, admittedly that is not a high price).   The rather thin covers of my book are already curling.

But the value of this book lies in its contents, not the layout.   As a Melburnian, and one who holidays on the Mornington peninsula side of the bay (rather than the “other”, western side), it was as if my January canvas of caravans and holiday houses had been stripped back to another, earlier frontier time.  Names were familiar, but distorted (like Moody Yallock for what I assume is now Mordialloc, and Kullurk for Coolart).  Although I was of course aware of McCrae Homestead, it had never occurred to me that there were other pastoralists down on the peninsula as well. I hadn’t thought of my caravan site down at Capel Sound as part of a squatter’s run, but I think that I sensed, just a little, an older history of the peninsula when I was down at Balcombe Creek a month or two back.

Her book is, as she admits, a contrarian view to the prevailing orthodoxies of confrontation, massacres and victimhood.  Instead, hers is a story of an “amiable, intimate, non-violent coexistence”, but this is not explained by the facile “our lot were a peaceful lot” with “mild and inoffensive” men. Instead, she argues:

That there was no conflict at all on the Mornington Peninsula is to be explained in the same terms as conflict is explained in other regions of Victoria, that is, in terms of individual leaders, of social and political agendas of groups, of the tone of relationships between both Indigenous and European. (p.177)

And this is what her book is- an exploration of the tone of relationships between Assistant Protector William Thomas and the squatter farmers of the Mornington Peninsula, and the men and women of the Bunurong people who ranged over it as their traditional lands.  Just as she did in her earlier book Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District, Fels delineates, names and gives a life trajectory and agency to aboriginal people who otherwise remain as the shadowy ‘other’. In text boxes headed with the variations of their names- both aboriginal and conferred-  (e.g. Nunupton/Nunuptune/Nalnuptune/Naluptune/Nunnapaton/Nunupthen/Namapton/Billy Langhorne/Mr Langhorne p. 266), you sense the white informants grappling with unfamiliar sounds, trying to render them into writing and to somehow capture individuals within a bureaucratic report and a census system.  She traces the appearance of individuals at different locations throughout the district as recorded in musters, reports and official letters, their family connections, and their all-too-often premature deaths.

She brings Assistant Protector William Thomas to life for us as well.  The Protectorate scheme was devised in Britain in response to humanitarian concern over the decimation (a term that under-estimates) of indigenous people across the empire.  The Protectors were greeted by many settlers with disdain and derision, and by humanitarians with frustration and annoyance at their various shortcomings.  Rather than being mobile, single men able to follow tribes ranging across country, they were family men operating on a model of establishing a mission in a central location.  I’ve mentioned Robinson before here and here, and Sievewright here.   Assistant Protect William Thomas was a family man as well, and shared with his fellow protectors the curse of execrable handwriting, although the depth and range of his private and public writings has been invaluable for historians (especially now that someone else has grappled with the handwriting!)

And so we see Thomas trying (not always successfully) to enforce Sunday observance; we see his powerlessness to stop a raiding party; the pettiness of Protector Robinson and the futility of railing against bureaucracy, and his sense of bewilderment and sinking disappointment as he returns to the Peninsula after the enforced and much-resented shift to Narre Narre Warren, only to find the peninsula deserted.

Although the focus of the book is on 1839-40, this one year did not happen in isolation.  Actions which took place in this focal year had antecedents, and when the Bunurong men took off on a raiding party towards Gippsland, it was yet another episode in a long-running distrust between the two nations that long predated white settlement.  She works hard to uncover the context and rationale for this feud, exploring a number of hypotheses that take her beyond tribal and cultural factors into a consideration of geological and archaeological evidence of sedimentation, inundation and earthquakes in millenia past.

Moreover, there had been contact between the Bunurong people and white sealers and timber gatherers along the coast and the Bass Strait islands in the decades before Fawkner/Batman claimed possession of the district.  Fels devotes a considerable amount of time tracing the kidnapping of particular individuals, both men and women, who ended up in the Bass Strait Islands, South Australia and even Western Australia,  far from Bunurong country.  This is important: as we speak, there are competing custodial claims from the Boonwurrung Foundation and the Bunurong Land Council based on the status and identity of Louisa Briggs, one of several women abducted.  The contentiousness of such issues is highlighted by the heavily censored and blacked-out reports generated by archaeologists and ethnographers as part of this twenty-first century dispute.

There is a sense, too, of the clock ticking over several of the sites that she describes here.   A footnote questions the expertise of the author of the archaeological report for the Martha Cove development, and a planning permit has been granted on a mission site, extended to 2013, for a Holiday Resort incorporating a winery, function centre, restaurant, hotel, camping park and golf driving range. Another mission site has been identified on private property, but she does not disclose the location.

This is not a ‘straight’ narrative history.  She rebuts a number of local history myths, and she challenges other written histories, for example Bruce Pascoe’s The Convincing Ground.   There is not a smooth narrative flow and it is certainly no coffee table book (and I’m sure was never intended to be).  It is history with its sleeves rolled up.

Seeing my city with new eyes

One of the things about being away for any considerable length of time is the way that you view your own home once you return.  I came home to a house that was cleaner than I left it (ah, the joy of adult children!) and a recently-planted garden that is not only still alive but growing like topsy! But today was the first time that I’ve been into Melbourne itself, and I felt as if I were seeing it after a long absence.

It’s a beautiful clear, sunny but cold winter day today, and the city absolutely sparkled.  I don’t know if I just fluked it, but the trains both to and from the city were clean, warm and with little graffiti.  I had been opposed to the proposal to remove seats from the trains to provide more standing room, but having now used public transport in Toronto, Boston, New York and London, the carriages did seem particularly cluttered with seats.  There was little rubbish on the stations- in fact, our streets generally seem clean in comparison with streets in the cities above.   The underground stations in particular seemed light and modern. The trains were on time, the trams were predictable only in their unpredictability.

It’s the infrequency of our public transport that’s the sticking point.  Other cities do not have the same emphasis on time- in fact, you were often hardpressed to find a clock- because trains arrived so often that it didn’t really matter if you missed this one, because the next would soon arrive.  Not so for us here in Melbourne- 20 minutes is too long between day time services.  It seems that every tram and bus stop has a disconsolate little clutch of would-be passengers, stepping out onto the street, craning to see if something -anything- is coming.

And Melbourne itself: look- the Darebin and Merri creeks are running high! That sparse and artificial planting on the banks of the Merri, beside the over-engineered bike path, is looking a little better.  People have moved into the high-rise opposite Heidelberg station (although I’m still cross that it dominates the hill as much as it does).

I read in this morning’s paper that they’re thinking of moving the statue of  Bunjil the eagle in order to, no doubt, build yet another high-rise in Docklands. Other than Colonial/Telstra/Etihad stadium (which I always make a point of calling ‘Docklands Stadium’ on principle) I’ve only been down to Docklands once, and it seemed a particularly godforsaken place.

I noticed, too, that the building on the old CUB site is finally going up as well. This is the one that is planned to have an image of William Barak on it.

Artists impression of the finished building

I really don’t know quite what to think of these modern representations of aboriginal presence.  Appropriation? Acknowledgment? Tacky? Reverential? Is the CUB building a fitting juxtaposition to the Shrine of Remembrance at the other end of Swanston St/St. Kilda Rd?  Or an ironic one?

Most of all today, I noticed our beautiful, big bowl of sky.  Yes, I know that it’s the same sky,but somehow it seems bigger here. I think that I must be glad to be home.

‘Settler Sovereignty’ by Lisa Ford

Lisa Ford ‘Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia 1788-1836’

2010 , 210 p & notes (86p)

I’m starting to think that a good gauge for my response to a book is the resounding slap of the book as I close it, and the whispered “Well done!” or “You beauty!”  that accompanies it.  That’s how I finished Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors, and it was my response as I finished Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty as well.  I’m not alone: obviously the judges of the 2010 NSW Premier’s History Award felt the same way.

I was lent this book an embarrassingly long time ago, and I have been eyeballing it rather guiltily for some time.  Any of you who follow this blog chronologically may have noticed a  preponderance of reviews of books related to Aborigines in Port Phillip over recent months.  I have been writing a paper that looks at Judge Willis and the Aboriginal cases that came before his court, and I kept deferring reading Ford’s book until I’d finished because the 1836 cut-off in the book’s title was too early for the case I was examining.  How wrong I was: I would have gained so much from this book had I read it earlier.  Ah well.

In this book Ford takes Georgia (in America) and New South Wales as two exemplars of the development of what she calls “perfect settler sovereignty”. By this she means that,  in claiming the territory of the indigenous people who were there before them, white settler governments claimed sovereignty and legal jurisdiction over them as well.  There’s shades here of  Fran in the ABC series The Librarians voicing the same assertion-  “Our Country: Our Rules.”  This had not always been the case.  Both colonies, up until the 1830s, had tolerated plurality through a combination of dependence on native expertise,  uncertainty, impotence, silence  and ‘leaving them to their own business’. But in both colonies this was to change, at much the same time and based on much the same rationales.

We might raise a quizzical eyebrow at this combination of Georgia and New South Wales.  Traditionally Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been linked together as imperial triplets on the basis of their shared relationship with the Colonial Office, especially after the American Revolution sent America off onto a different trajectory.   Certainly during Willis’ time,  Australian judges were viewed as rather suspect if they referred to American law, and they took every occasion to declare their fidelity to British justice.  However, recent work has begun considering American legal conditions alongside those of Canada/Australia/New Zealand e.g. John Weaver’s The Great Land Rush, Peter Karsten’s Between Law and Custom: ‘High’ and ‘Low’ Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora and James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth.

In both Georgia and New South Wales, settlers did not seek to govern through indigenous hierarchies (as they did in India), and in both places indigenous people occupied arable or pasture land.  Farming did not proceed through the forcible co-option of indigenous labour, although it did run on imported free, indentured or slave labour.  But there were differences too: Georgia was surrounded by other powers (Spain, France, the Creek and Cherokee Indians), and Georgia used slavery.  There was a multiplicity of treaties in Georgia, and none in New South Wales beyond Batman’s quickly disowned ‘treaty’.  And yet, both Georgia and NSW passed similar declarations in 1830 and 1836 that abandoned the legal pluralism that both had exhibited previously, ruling that indigenous violence fell within the jurisdiction of settler courts.  They used the same legal arguments at the same time, and it is this historical congruence that Lisa Ford sets out to explore.  Her approach is strongly based in legal history and court cases, and this is the lens through which she views the world.

By linking two apparently dissimilar colonies like this, she runs the risk of leaving scholars of one or the other societies bemused.  It’s a testament to her writing that, even though the New South Wales cases were far more familiar to me, I feel that I understood the Georgian cases as well and the parallels she was drawing.  But was there something particularly special about Georgia and New South Wales, or could she have chosen any other American state  and drawn the same connections? I’m not in a position to say. Or, indeed was New South Wales the best Australian example? Henry Reynolds in his review of this book in the Australian Book Review in April 2010 thought that Georgia and Tasmania would have been a better pair for comparison because both societies took up expulsion as a way of solving the ‘problem’ of their indigenous populations.  But I think that Ford is looking not so much at the outcomes of legal actions, as the philosophy behind the legal interventions.

For the most part, her chapters are organised thematically- e.g. pluralism as policy (Ch.2); indigenous jurisdiction and spatial order (Ch. 3); legality and lawlessness (Ch. 4) etc.  She starts each with a general introduction,  examines Georgia, then New South Wales, then draws parallels and distinctions between the two.  This pattern is broken at Chapter 6 where the narrative splits into two separate streams, with what she has identified as a seminal case in each colony.  Chapter 6 focuses on a case in Georgia  while  Chapter 7 looks at the case of Lego’me in New South Wales, tried and found guilty for a particularly petty robbery (of a pipe, no less!)  as part of a more general clampdown on Aboriginal ‘lawbreaking’.  In chapter 8 she then returns to the pattern of  intertwined chapters to discuss the way that 1830 in Georgia and 1835 in New South Wales marked a turning point in settler sovereignty. In both colonies, the claim of settler ‘ownership’ of territory was now offered without question as the rationale for the extension of settler law over indigenous people .   In relation to New South Wales, she goes on to explore the way that this rationale fed into R v Murrell, which has long been viewed as the touchstone case on which all subsequent legal policy in Australia has been based.

She points out that this shift was not restricted to Georgia and New South Wales alone.  Instead it was part of the post-Napoleonic era trend of formalizing or eroding legal pluralism world-wide, including in Europe itself.   She recognizes that by ending with the great cases of the 1830s, she is creating “historical closure where there was none historically” (p.204)- and this is exactly the point at which my own work with Judge Willis fits in.

This is a beautifully written book.  It has a very disciplined chapter structure- an introduction, an argument (clearly bifurcated into the parallel Georgian and New South Wales scenarios) and succinct and thought provoking conclusions.  Fairly conventionally academic, perhaps, but certainly clear. She obviously enjoys language, images and words- she rolls words around, rejoicing in alliteration, repetition and nuance.  We see it where  she describes the imperial network of bureaucrats as they “moved about the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans with Vattel and Blackstone under their arms” (p.4), and the settlers as “savvy masters of the discourses and politics of settler jurisdiction…eager for its bounties and wary of its gaze” (p. 84).

I’ll leave the last part to her.  She is describing how the flexible pre-1820s plurality that had governed settler/indigenous relations began to chafe against hardening notions of sovereignty:

Again and again, troubled executives and their law officers tried to perfect settler sovereignty by bringing indigenous-settler conflict within the bounds of settler law.  Again and again, they tried at the very least to preserve order in their towns and on the roads that connected them.  Again and again, they were thwarted by indigenous people, by frontier settlers or by local magistrates…The period described here, then, is one of plurality in transition, when a new vision of perfect sovereignty emerged from long-practiced and institutionally entrenched pluralism. (p. 120)

‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds

1998, 251 p.& notes

The title of this book is taken from a speech delivered by Richard Windeyer as part of a 5-night debate carried out  in September 1842.  Henry Reynolds describes the speech, called ‘On the Rights of the Aborigines of Australia’, as “perhaps the most sustained and intellectually powerful attack on Aboriginal rights ever mounted in early colonial Australia.” (p.20).  Certainly it was felt at the time that Windeyer’s speech for the negative side had carried the day:

…we believe it to be the unanimous opinion of the members, that the speech of Mr Windeyer, for the negative, was the most argumentative and logical… He distinctly proved not only that the Blacks have no right to the soil of Australia for want of settled occupancy and cultivation; but that they have no right even to the kangaroos more than we have, the game laws of England agreeing precisely with the great law of nature, that wild animals not confined by enclosure are not, and cannot be the property of any man. (Sydney Morning Herald 12 Sept 1842)

And yet, after denouncing traditional Aboriginal society, and insisting that they had no claim on the land, Windeyer admitted at the end of his speech

How is it that our minds are not satisfied? …What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts? (cited in Reynolds p. 21)

It’s an evocative term- the whispering at the bottom of our heart- and yet the fact that it was Richard Windeyer who voiced it is but one of the many complexities and contradictions that arise when trying to tease out of nuances of public utterances about Aborigines in the early decades of settlement in Australia.  Reynolds, perhaps, does not highlight the context of the speech sufficiently – i.e. it was argued as part of a debate where one often argues against one’s own beliefs.  Still, it’s hard to pin down Windeyer’s politics,  as it is with many of these 1830s and 40s public men.   Richard Windeyer was a parliamentarian and barrister: he had been at the meeting that established the Aborigines Protection Society in 1838 and yet he had defended the white stockmen in the Myall Creek trials (although there is a limit to what one can deduce from courtroom advocacy).  What are we to make of his position if  his head was telling him one thing and his heart another? In the final analysis, which one matters more?

In this book Henry Reynolds looks at three periods of white humanitarianism: the 1830s and 40s; the 1880s and the period 1926-34.  He deals with a small number of individuals in each period: George Augustus Robinson and Lancelot Threlkeld, Louis Giustiniani and Robert Lyon in the first period; John Gribble and David Carley in the second; and son Ernest Gribble and Mary Bennett in the third.

My interest in reading this book was mainly on his first period, and in many ways the people he considers in this section are the most difficult to reconcile with our own ideas of humanitarianism today.   Like the settlers whose actions they deplored, these humanitarians were likewise steeped in  ethos of colonisation, albeit for different purposes:

It was not that they were against the establishment of British colonies.  They spoke themselves of spiritual empires.  They were zealous to evangelize the pagan, to save the souls of Aborigines and other indigenous people.  They firmly believed they should both civilize and Christianise or at least radically change local cultures. The missionary could be more overbearing, more interfering, more insensitive than frontier settlers and stockmen.  And they were characteristically profoundly self-righteous, often with the fixed stare and intense focus of the convert. (p. 33)

Some writers- for example Lindsey Arkley– would be surprised to find George Augustus Robinson featured here, and Robinson’s role and motivation continues to be contested territory among historians.  Importantly, Reynolds charts the differences between 1830-40 humanitarianism and the humanitarianism of the 1880s.  A much changed intellectual climate and two generations of colonization meant that by the 1880s there was no longer any assertion of racial equality based on the biblical notion of shared descent and common blood.  It was taken for granted that Aborigines were members of an inferior race, and many assumed that they would eventually die out.  The horror of shedding blood, so prominent during the 1830s, had moderated and it was now seen as a regrettable, but unavoidable accompaniment to colonization.  Colonization and development were now a justification in themselves.  (p. 112, 113)

Reynolds reminds us that there have always been humanitarians- people who were willing to raise their voices and inured themselves to the abuse and obloquy  that they attracted.  But he also reminds us that these humanitarians of the past were for the most part unsuccessful:

… Australians of today who find comfort in the history of the humanitarian crusade should reflect that the protesters had little influence on events. Their assertions, however cogent, their moral appeal however persuasive, were largely ignored. Arguments forcefully put in the 1830s required restating in the 1930s. Many are still relevant today.  What the humanitarian story shows is that an alternative agenda was aired, a more humane course projected, was listened to, understood and then comprehensively rejected, often with derision  (p. 249)

The little moral force that they could exert often depended on overseas support- the Anti-Slavery society, the Aborigines Protections Society and various Colonial Office pressure groups in the 19th century and the League of Nations in the twentieth.   Access to the press  was crucial and skillfully used by many of these humanitarians: a sobering thought in our Wikileaks days.

And finally, and most importantly when looking at the 1830-40 period, our idea of what humanitarianism looks like is different.  We tend to shuffle away and distance ourselves from the “fixed stare and the intense focus” of such men (used intentionally), and there are statements in their rhetoric that send alarm bells ringing in our heads.  We would do well to remember:

The humanitarians were often paternalistic/maternalistic and shared many of the ideas that were current in their generation.  Some of them undoubtedly were racists in the way we understand that term now.  They were people of their period.  But if inquiry and understanding stops there we miss the passion for justice, the anger about cruelty and indifference which drove humanitarians along lonely, thankless and unpopular paths (p.251)

‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley

2000, 469 p. & notes

Lindsey Arkley The hated Protector: The story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42. Mentone Vic, Orbit Press, 2000.

Charles Sievwright is an ‘interesting’ man from 170 years distance, and was certainly controversial and combative at the time.  This biography of Sievwright examines his time in the Port Phillip District as Assistant Protector for Aborigines in the western district of Victoria between 1839-1842.  Lindsey Arkley, the author, also wrote Sievwright’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The Aboriginal Protectorates were an experimental measure, urged on the Colonial Office  in London by the evangelical pressure groups concerned about the treatment of indigenous subjects throughout the empire.   They were established as a secular adjunct to the church missionary system and comprised a Chief Protector and several Assistant Protectors. They were given the remit to firstly, protect indigenous people from settler cruelty and secondly, assist the church-based missionaries in converting Aborigines from a wandering and barbaric state into sedentary,  ‘civilized’ Christians.   The inland areas of the  Port Phillip District had only been recently exposed to widespread settler incursion, and it was rather optimistically hoped in London that this could herald a new and better approach.  It was an experiment imposed on Governor Gipps in Sydney and his local superintendent in Melbourne, Charles LaTrobe, and in the absence of any clear vision of how it would work in practice, George Augustus Robinson was appointed Chief Protector on the basis of his work in Van Diemen’s Land.  Unlike the other Assistant Protectors who were school teachers, Charles Sievwright had a military background and used his admittedly rather impressive patronage ties to get the position after some rather dubious gambling problems back in Europe.

It was a position fraught with tension, ambiguities and contradictions, even without the added complication of the deeply flawed individuals who were chosen to fill the roles.  Chief Protector Robinson was variously jealous, ambitious, inefficient, blustering, out of his depth and conflicted, and the Assistant Protectors soon began fighting both with Robinson and among themselves over lack of supplies, perceived lack of support, ambiguous instructions and – importantly for Sievwright- rumours of sexual impropriety.   In Sievwright’s Port Phillip career, and in his subsequent dismissal, these rumours of sexual misconduct including domestic violence, attempted seduction of other Protectors’ wives and most damaging of all, incest with his own daughter bubbled underneath all his interactions with his superiors, other bureaucrats, and the white settlers who resented his presence in prime grazing territory.

This is a very long biography at over 400 pages dealing mainly with three years of Sievwright’s career in Port Phillip, although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ are dealt with in the opening and closing chapters.  Arkley has drawn heavily on official correspondence, particularly the letters written to, from and by La Trobe and the local bureaucracy and the resultant reports between and by Gipps and the Colonial Office.    This is territory that I have been likewise wading through with my own research, and seeing how Arkley has dealt with it has made me more reflective about its value and limitations as a genre and source.  He has published much of this information in a much more accessible form than the originals, and been punctilious in his footnoting, but there is so much of it and often over so little.   This is something that I have likewise struggled with, in both a narrative and methodological sense.   Arkley reproduces the texts and has placed  the ‘controversy of the moment’ (and there were many!) within its context, but much of this is ‘he said/he said’ reportage.

Arkley started each chapter- and there are (too) many at 35 of them- with a few brief, interest-arousing observations but these are fairly general, often rejoicing in coincidence and juxtaposition and not always particularly relevant to the chapter.   In Arkley’s telling there are clearcut baddies- “Flogger” Fyans, Robinson, and the duplicitous La Trobe and Gipps- and one senses that Arkley’s purpose is largely to rescue Sievwright’s reputation from their clutches.

But in doing so, there is no scholarly discussion of the protectorate system and its ambiguities and no exploration of the meaning of the sexual scandal and its relationship with the other grounds given for Sievwright’s dismissal.  Perhaps this was not Arkley’s intention: I see in the blurbs that the book was embraced by local historians and Arkley himself works as a journalist.  Other historians have picked up on Arkley’s work- in particular Alan Lester and Fay Dussart in their article “Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies: protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century” [1] who thank him directly in their Acknowledgments.  I’m sure that Kirsten McKenzie [2] would do much with  Arkley’s work on Sievwright as well.

Is it valid to critique a book for what it doesn’t do, and perhaps even had no intention of ever doing? I’m not sure.  After all,  we stand on the shoulders of other researchers, and there is certainly value in Arkley’s collection and reproduction of much of the archival material on Sievwright.  His footnoting is excellent, and I’ve been able to find many of the sources he cites.  But at times I found myself wary of his clear attempt to promote and rehabilitate Sievwright’s reputation, and found myself having to read against Arkley’s text for much of the time and wanting to prod him a bit further.  Sometimes a bit of ambiguity and scepticism is not a bad thing.


[1] Alan Lester and Fay Dussart ‘Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies:  protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century’ Gender Place and Culture, vol 16, no 1, 2009 pp.  65-76

[2] Kirsten McKenzie Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 Carlton Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 2004


Ian D. Clark The Hated Protector: The Story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42 [Book Review]  Aboriginal History, Vol. 24, 2000: 305-313.

169th Anniversary

If you go into Melbourne on Thursday 20th January at 12.00  and head up to the corner of Bowen and Franklin Streets, you’ll see the 169th anniversary of the hanging of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  These commemorations have been conducted for several years now- in fact, the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle spoke at the 2009 commemoration.

I’ve heard it said that once a blog starts to cannibalise itself, then the end is nigh- I hope this is not the case.  But just this once I’ll refer you back to an earlier post that I wrote on this anniversary two years ago and a post on images of Tunnerminnerwait in  the Robert Dowling exhibition at the Geelong Gallery and later National Gallery of Australia last year.

The smile in this image – so unusual amongst depictions of Aboriginal people at the time- is explored by Leonie Stevens in her article ‘The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait’ published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 81, Number 1, June 2010.  If you belong to a library that has access to Informit, then it’s well worth following up.

Abstract: There have been numerous historical constructions of Tunnerminnerwait, alias Cape Grim Jack, who was publicly executed along with his friend, Maulboyheener in Melbourne in January 1842.  This paper revisits the documentary record and historicizing of the two young Tasmanians, and asks, were they victims of colonial indifference, freedom fighters, or simply wild Tasmanians enacting the final stages of the Black Wars?

The commemorations on 20th January that have been held over several years now certainly claims them as freedom fighters, but I’m not particularly comfortable with that characterization.  I concur with Stevens that they were defiant, independent actors, and her article highlights the difficulty in ascribing any one motive to their actions when dealing with  such a partial and complex historical record.  For me the connotation of politicized, communal action denoted by 20th century term ‘freedom fighter’ does not ring true for a small group of Aboriginal people cast adrift from their country and tribal structure and utter strangers to the land they found themselves in.

I’m puzzled, too, by the recommendation to mercy by the jury: a recommendation that  that was not supported by Judge Willis and disregarded by the colonial authorities.  The Van Diemens Land Blacks encapsulated the two huge and very sharp anxieties of the frontier- blacks AND bushrangers rolled into one- yet there was obviously some disquiet about the death penalty among the jurors at least.  Nonetheless,   large crowds witnessed the execution outside the jail but here too, we can only guess at what motivated them to come out in such numbers:   curiosity? sense of occasion? 19th century popular culture? crowd behaviour?-  close to the spot where the commemoration on 20th January will take place.


And here it was:

Corner Bowen and Franklin Streets, Melbourne

What's a demo without good old Joe Toscano?

Up Franklin Street on the way to the Vic Market