Category Archives: Aborigines in Port Phillip

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 17-25 September 1841

Census tales

The 2106 Australian census is just finishing up here in Australia, and an ill-starred census it has been with website difficulties, inadequate phone assistance and a general loss of goodwill all round. The 1841 census was conducted in March 1841 after quite a bit of judicial bickering over the propriety of asking about convict origins which I wrote about here. The census was compiled in person by an appointed collector. On September 21 the Port Phillip Herald published an article purporting to be from ‘Pencilling in the Bush’ by a Collector of the Census 17 March 1841′.  I can find no record in Trove of this publication, but the Sydney Gazette also published a column on 25 November 1841 in its Port Phillip section, claiming to be from the same publication.

The book, if indeed there ever was one, seems to be a compilation of humorous ‘tales from the trenches’ of a census collector charged with collecting census information in the Port Phillip district.  It’s quite odd reading with our 21st century what passed as humour in 1841.

Here’s the Port Phillip Herald extract. It picks up on the common trope of Irish-bashing that often runs through the Port Phillip Herald columns, reflecting not only the English/Scots prejudice against the Irish generally, but an anxiety about the influx of Irish immigrants into New South Wales in particular.


“Good morning ma’am! who is the proprietor of this establishment?” I said to a fat, fair and jolly-looking woman into whose domicile on the River ___ I was just intruding myself. “Musha the top’of the mornin to ye sir, but ye’re early afut this blessed and holy mornin’,” said she- “Not very early ma’am- It is the fittest time for travelling now the weather is so hot- Pray ma’am, who is the proprietor here?” “Musha sure I wouldn’t be after telling you a lie this blessed day; and the throoth I couldn’t tell you; so I couldn’t, but it’s not me or mine that’s the owner, nor Therry either, so it isn’t- Surra long we’re here, neather of us- only three months or there- we came in the Andrew Mackey (Andromache), so we did.” Here were no less than half-a dozen points of voluntary information for me, yet not one of them even remotely directed to my simple enquiry. “You came from Ireland Ma’am?” “Augh aye- I did, I did, sure enough come from it, and its sorry am I for it, so I am.” “Which are you sorry for ma’am?- being Irish, or leaving Ireland?” “Neither o’them,” she replied “only to be stuck up in a sentry-box like this on the blessed Patrick’s own day when – augh! but there’s no use talking so there isn’t.  May be ye’d like a dhrop o’tay sir- surra better I have to give ye or I’d be shame-faced to offer it this holy mornin, so I would.” “Tea is a very good beverage ma’am, this weather.” “Musha throth an its a poor baveritch for a day like this- It’s not that ye’d be drowing you shamrock in it ye were in sweet Loughrea this mornin.” “Is your husband at home, ma’am?” “Faith he isn’t an he’ll have more luck than his over if ever he see’t again, so he will – at home!– Musha!” “What’s his name, ma’am?” “Therry’s his name sir, – Therry Connor.” “How many children have you?” “Fourteen sir- six at home and eight here- three boys and three girls and two childer,” (Eh? Malthus.)  “Well ma’am, who is the owner of this place?” “Sorry know I know, they say it’s come into other hands now- the master’s not well at all, at all, and more’s the pity. Terry says he’s laid up in the Rules in Melbourne, but myself doesn’t undertand the diases o’ this country much yet. Is the Rules a taking disease sir?” “It is indeed ma’am.” “Is it like a favor sir or the molera corbis? God save us!” “It is not like either ma’am, particularly the first. It’s a contraction of the movements, caused by a vacuum in the chest”- Can I see your husband ma’am?” “Sure enough you can sir- step this way if you please,- look over the ‘tother end o’ the stockyard younder, dye’ see the boy with the white jacket?” “Yes!” “Well that’s not him- now dye’ see the t’other boy with the red waistcoat?” “Yes.” “Well that’s not him neather, so it isn’t.” “Well, but which is he ma’am?” “Augh its yerself that’s in a hurry now- have ye any business with Terry Connor?” There was a look of severe apprehension with this enquiry that showed me the poor woman was afraid of the papers I held in my hand- I replied “yes ma’am but no private or unpleasant business; I am collecting the census- the population of the district- and in the master’s absence I require some person in the place to sign a paper, that’s all.” “Augh, sure an if that be all,” she said, “I’ll bring Therry to you in a wink;” in saying so she disappeared, and Therry soon made his appearance, which was a remarkably fine specimen of the peasantry. Moreover, Therry was a sensible, intelligent man.  He comprehended the matter at once, gave me all the information I desired, and ample directions for the accuracy of my movements, concluding with a hope that the collection of the census would have a tendency to promote the public good. “After all the good that can be said of it,” said Therry, “it is no place for a man of a family– there is no way here of getting the childer educated- for my own part I would rather live on potatoes and buttermilk and have my childer at school than all the tay and mutton we can make use of.” This afforded another proof of one national characteristic of the Irish Peasantry, an indelible anxiety to give their children education.  (PPH 21/9/41)

The extract from the Sydney Gazette of 25 November 1841 purports to come from the same publication. A warning-  its language about a practical joke based on racial views of aborigines does not sit well today.

A Stray Leaf.-From ” Pencillings in the Bush, October, 1 Oil.”-In one of my rambles between Melbourne and Mount Macedon, I called at a settlement on the ___  Creek, to procure a drink. Here I observed a number of persons around a man, poking his naked back and target in what I conceived to be a very unprofessional manner. The person on whom they were operating, or the pokes, appeared to have been wounded behind by small shot, for he was bleeding rather copiously. As I could perceive that the bystanders wore struggling to suppress their laughter. I had the curiosity to make some enquiry as to what had happened, and the thing was so farcical, though nearly spoiled by a dash of the tragic, that I thought it worth taking a note of. after my departure.

It was this, two female servants at the station had got permission to take a walk-it being Sunday-and a resident at the station took it into his head to disguise himself in tin old rug and a piece of crape over his head and face in order to give the girls a fright by personifying a blackfellow. Well, he sallied forth, and about half a mile from tho station he made his appearance with a spear on his shoulder. The girls, who, it appears, began to think of  “Home, sweet home,” fled onwards ; but Blackey, like an able general, intercepted their retreat,jabbering and figuring like an ouraug outang- The fears of the terror-struck damsels were unutterable.’ In this dilemma then Don Quixote made his appearance in the shape of a man servant, at the station, with a dog ; and he,not knowing the prank, ran up to the release of the paralyzed handmaidens whom he found quailing very successfully. The blackfellow flings his spear at the true knight ; and just at this moment the proprietor comes up with a gun, and seeing blackey in attitude, and the girls with their drapery tucked up in front, churning their flight through the long grass, he fires his piece bung at Snow-ball, who had not seen him approaching. Luckily it was but small shot, and a happy distance but it had effected a neat carification in the reverse of the man’s countenance,and then they were poking and jerking at hi.with pins and needles as if they were stitching an oppossum cloak.

I thought of the old song –

At this disaster

Up came the master,

And gave the hero such a cursed crack :

Ob murdher o murdher !-.

It went no further

Like  a flitch of bacon, boy, they left his back.  [Sydney Gazette 25/11/41]

More cricket

The cricketers seem to have got their act together.

CRICKET- The fine weather having now set in, the lovers of cricket may be seen practising nearly every day.  We have been requested to state that the afternoons of Tuesdays and Saturdays have been fixed upon for regular practice.  The club will be regularly organized in the early part of next month, when the principal players are expected in town to attend the first of the Melbourne Assembly Balls. (PPH 21/9/41)


Given that this blog is dedicated, both through its title and its impetus, to John Walpole Willis, the resident judge of Port Phillip it would be remiss of me to let this September date pass without mentioning the Bon Jon case, which could have been the most important case in Judge Willis’ career.  I did write a paper about it in the ANZLHS e-journal (which has since been swallowed by the internet), and I recently gave a similar paper at the conference to accompany the launch of the Judging for the People book, for which I wrote the first chapter.

During this week in 1841 the case of R v Bonjon came before Judge Willis.

Put simply, Judge Willis’ opening speech before the Bonjon case was a foretaste of the Mabo judgement 150 odd years later.  The case involved a young man, Bonjon who was at the time working as the ‘boy’ accompanying Crown Land Commisioner Foster Fyans. He was accused of the inter-tribal murder of another indigenous man in a dispute over a woman, in a manifestation of the long-standing emnity between the Wada.wurr.ang/balug tribe (to which Bonjon belonged) and the Gulidjan tribe of the murdered man. Bonjon moved in that liminal space between his own tribe and attachment to a white official, and the murder took place outside a tent occupied by Bonjon, the victim and two white men.  When the case came before Judge Willis, he started off with a very long address where he raised the question of whether he, as a British judge, had jurisdiction over a murder that had taken place under indigenous law. He pointed out that the Aborigines, as the native sovereigns of the soil  had neither been conquered nor acquiesced; that a treaty should have been made with them, and that they had their own law.

So why don’t we all know about this? Why did it take the law 150 years to come to the same conclusion? Mainly because the case collapsed and so this ‘address’ never got to be an actual ‘decision’. The  Sydney Judges dismissed its significance, even though some ten years earlier the previous Chief Justice had been moving in the same direction. The Sydney newspapers didn’t pick it up, and it didn’t get written up in the early summaries of colonial cases.

And, complex man that he was, it’s not possible to paint Judge Willis as a before-his-time Aboriginal activist either.  There are other times when his court was actively hostile to indigenous interests, most particularly over the right of access for aboriginal people over leased landholdings. Nor is it impossible that this was another maneuver in Willis’ ongoing dispute with the Sydney judges.  Nonetheless, this was an important case both for Willis personally and in the annals of European-Indigenous relations in Port Phillip as well.

And the weather?

There was a heavy gale on the 19th and 20th with rain and hail, and it was cloudy up to the 24th. The highest temperature was a balmy 72 (22C) and the lowest a bracing 37 (2.7C)


This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 9-16 September 1841

Once the worst of winter had been left behind, thoughts turned to CRICKET! Of course, there was no VFL footy to fill in September, so let the cricket season begin!

The season has now set in for cricket playing, and we are right glad to see that the Melbournites are bestirring themselves to carry on the game with something like spirit.  The tradesmen, we learn, are about forming a cricket club; and we learn, also, that the members of the Melbourne and Port Phillip Clubs are about establishing another. This is as it should be: the two clubs will, we hope, have several matches during the season and may the best men win, say we.  We would strongly recommend these clubs to the attention of our fellow-colonists, as cricket is not only the very best description of gymnastic exercise, but even in a moral point of view it has its pleasures, by carrying the mind back the “the days of former years” in “merry England” and by “the association of ideas” bringing before us the companions of our youth, in whose society our cares were forgotten and our joys increased.  His Honor Mr La Trobe is known to be passionately fond of cricket, and we feel confident (as ‘a Batsman’ remarks in another column) that he will willingly follow in the footsteps of Sir Richard Bourke, and set apart a portion of land in the immediate vicinity of the town as a cricket-ground. A deputation should wait on him for that purpose immediately.” (PPH 10/9/41 p.2)

The aforementioned ‘a Batsman’ (who may well have been one of the writers of the Port Phillip Herald themselves) wrote in a letter to the Editor:

SIR- As I have with much pleasure observed that you take considerable interest in Cricket, and as the season for its practice is approaching I trust I need make no apology for affording, through the medium of your columns, a few remarks with may prove acceptable to all who feel anxious to see this manly, healthy and truly British game fairly established amongst us.  I would suggest to the gentlemen of the town and district the propriety of forming a Club, who should establish regular days for play, and who should make the laws of the Mary-le-Bone Club their guide, and adhere to them strictly at practice, as well as when playing matches.  The necessity of strict attention to the laws, even at ordinary practice, must be apparent to all who know any thing of the game.

In the event of the establishment of such a Club, I should hope that our much respected Superintendent might be induced to follow the example of Sir Richard Bourke, who appropriated a piece of ground in the town of Sydney for the use of players, and might ultimately patronize an institution formed for the encouragement of this noble game.

The want of public amusements has long been felt and acknowledged, and I feel assured that an attempt by the gentlemen of Melbourne to establish a manly and rational recreation, will be imitated by the humbler classes of the community, and will have the effect of enrolling amongst it supporters many who would otherwise have wasted their health and means in less legitimate sources of enjoyment.  I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant, ‘A Batsman’.  (PPH 10 Sept p.3)

Edmund Finn, writing as ‘Garryowen’ tells us that the first informal cricket match took place on 22 November 1838 on the flat land at the foot of Batman’s Hill (i.e. roughly where Southern Cross Railway Station is now).  Following this match a number of the gentlemen from the Melbourne Club decided to form a club, with a subscription of one guinea which served well to keep the riff-raff out. Familiar names emerge here: A. Powlett, George Brunswick Smyth, William Meek, William Ryrie and William Highett and Peter Snodgrass.  An opposing club, the Melbourne Union Cricket Club was formed from men involved in retail lines of business and tradesmen and on 12 January 1839 the Gentlemen of the District took on the Tradesmen of the Town and were soundly beaten.  A second series in March 1839 pitted the Marrieds against the Bachelors.

These murmurings in September were to bear fruit on 1 November 1841 when the Melbourne Cricket Club was formed at the Exchange Hotel. In case I overlook it in November,  this club had a rather illustrious committee of management, chaired by  F.A Powlett as President,Henry F. Gurner as secretary and George Cavenagh the editor of the Port Phillip Herald (who always gave racing and cricket generous attention in his newspaper columns) as secretary. The committee included, among others, D.S. Campbell and Redmond Barry. They continued to play on the flat below Batman’s Hill until they took over a “more commodious and convenient” spot on the south of the Yarra, between the river and Emerald Hill (i.e. South Melbourne) [Garryowen p. 737-9].

Not completely the dog’s fault

Richard Broome, in his book Aboriginal Victorians, reminds us that indigenous people were a common sight in Melbourne during these first years of settlement.  The Port Phillip Herald of 10 September carried a report about a bulldog attacking a group of Aboriginal people in Flinder’s Lane- and, while reporting on the injuries sustained by a young indigenous woman, the article reveals quite a bit of sympathy for the dog:

FEROCIOUS BULL DOG: On Monday last a number of the natives, who daily throng the town, were congregated in Flinder’s-lane.  Unfortunately for humanity, a large and ferocious bull dog, excited by their yells, made a rush at them.  One of the Aborigines, a woman of about 20 years of age, was very seriously injured: her face, throat, neck and limbs being dreadfully lacerated: and it is more than likely that she would not have excaped with life had it not been for the timely and energetic assistance rendered by District Constable O’Neil who was passing at the moment.  The unfortunate woman was immediately conveyed to the hospital, where her wounds were dressed, and every assistance afforded her.  The bull dog was a splendid animal of the kind, and very large. (PPH 10/9/41 p. 2)


I’ve been fascinated by an advertisement that appeared in several consecutive editions of the Port Phillip Herald:

WANTED: a Female Kangaroo.  Apply at the Herald office

A pet perhaps? Or did the advertiser have plans to send the kangaroo back ‘home’ as a curiosity – dead or alive?

How’s the weather?

Windy, it seems.  On 14 September the Port Phillip Herald reported that

The equinoctial gales have set in this season much earlier than usual.  On Saturday night, the storm was so severe that several large trees were blown down and the William lying in Hobson’s Bay drifted from her anchorage, but, we are glad to state, suffered no damage.  The gale was only partial not have extended even so far as Heidelberg but was in some places the severest felt for the past two years. (PPH p. 2)

The official weather report for 8th-14 September described it as

Fine, agreeable weather with light winds 8th, 9th, 10th, strong winds and gales with cloudy and rainy weather afterwards.

The top temperature for the period was 64 degrees (17.7), and the lowest 35 degrees (1.6- that’s cold for September), with the coldest day of the month falling on 13 September.

‘Caledonia Australis’ by Don Watson


1984, republished  1997 (this review) and 2009. 255 p. & notes.

Actually, I hadn’t intended reading this Don Watson book at all.  I was reading the first chapter of his more recent, award-winning book The Bush and found myself reminded that before Watson was a Monthly correspondent, a commentator on public discourse or Paul Keating’s speechwriter, he was a historian.  His book Caledonia Australis was already on my bookshelves, and having recently had the experience of reading two books from the edges of a historian’s career as I did with Michael McKernan (see here and here), I decided to put the more recent book aside in order to return to Watson’s earlier book.  After all, I reasoned, it would do a disservice to the earlier book to read it after the larger, more mature work, honed by over thirty years of writing.  My assumptions were unfounded. I haven’t yet returned to The Bush but Watson’s Caledonia Australis,  a more consciously historical work, stands proudly on its own two feet.  Watson was a damned good writer in 1984, just as he’s a damned good writer in 2016.

We see in this 1984 book the subtlety that Watson would later display in his exploration of Paul Keating in his Portrait of a Bleeding Heart.  It does not have the trappings of an academic text: it does not have footnotes or an index and its reference list is only loosely tied to the chapters.  It does, however, make a strong historical argument which has maintained its currency- has indeed become stronger- since its initial publication in 1984 and reissue in both 1997 and again in 2009.

The first part of Watson’s book is not about Australia at all, but instead the Scottish Highlands.  I’d heard of the Highlands clearances, but I’d assumed that people were shifted directly from their Highland ancestral homes onto ships to the New World as part of a global diaspora.  But, as Watson points out, there was an in-between period where Highlanders were forced onto the coastal edges where they were forced to work in kelp-harvesting. Kelp was prized as an industrial additive for the soap, linen and glass industries and had become lucrative when imports of Spanish barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) were heavily taxed during the 1790s.   The shifting of the Highlanders to the coast and the attempted suppression of the language and culture of this ‘backward’ people was seen as an ‘improvement’ measure that, fortuitously for the large lords, freed up the land for the importation of sheep. When the duties on barilla and salt were reduced in the 1820s, the kelp market collapsed, and it was at this juncture that the ‘improvers’, especially on the isles of Skye and Mull,  looked to emigration and particularly the large, clan-based Scottish emigration schemes in Canada and Australia.

And so, by Chapter 4, we have ‘Highlanders at Large- the Kurnai at Home’. Both by an accident of timing and also as a result of clan networks, Scottish settlers explored and appropriated the lands of the Kurnai people of what we now know as Gippsland but which  Scottish explorer Angus McMillan christened ‘Caledonia Australis’.   Across the seas come the Highlanders, a clan-based culture, where the land was the basis of their identity, where history and legend were passed through song and dance, where the supernatural world co-existed with the natural one. And here in Chapter 4 they meet the Kurnai with a parallel culture, with similar qualities to their own:   clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world. There was, however, no recognition of these affinities. Charged with their Calvinistic faith, the former Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, turning over their land to sheep just as had happened to them in Scotland.

In the second half of the book Watson hones in on Angus McMillan,  who has been lionized as one of the pioneers of Gippsland in both myth and physical memorials. McMillan is, in effect, the Highlander in Caledonia Australis writ large.


Angus McMillan Wikipedia

Watson traces the rivalry between McMillan and the driven, publicity-conscious professional explorer Strzelecki in their competing claims to have ‘discovered’ Gippsland. The Highland temperament manifested itself in both exploration and frontier settlement behaviour.  Clan connections and a shared sense of righteousness drove the Scots settlers into their dogged but ultimately fruitless search for the White Woman of Gippsland. Their prickliness, pride and sense of mission had a much darker side as well.

Watson writes:

There were three types of squatters on the Australian frontier: those who thought that their right to the land was qualified by an obligation to treat the Aboriginal inhabitants with kindness; those who believed that their right was conditional only on extermination; and those who combined murder with kindness. (p. 223)

The squatters of Gippsland, Watson writes, were fickle and dangerous and McMillan exemplifies this third type of squatter. McMillan

-half steering his way, half being blown-arrived in the new province and from that moment seemed to embody every paradox the frontier could throw up: making its history and being made by it, writing its story and engineering its secrets, living through all manner of triumph and torment and leaving a legend which put his life beyond our reach, ending up a cliche, a block of stone (p. xix)

When the nephew of his patron Captain Macalister was killed by Aborigines, McMillan was most probably responsible for drawing together the ‘Highland Brigade’ of his neighbours and retainers who, bent on revenge, massacred between 60 and 150 Indigenous Australians at the Warrigal Creek massacre, and beyond.  Yet, this same man was also lauded for his “sympathetic interest” in indigenous people and became in the last years of his life the Aborigines’ protector.  Murder and kindness: a chilling combination.

In his introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Watson writes that his original intent in writing this book was

to give a more sympathetic portrait of the pioneers than any I had ever encountered.  I wanted to give them blood as well as bones; religion, motives, choices, memories, identity, ancestors, an inheritance of their own (p.xxvii)

This doesn’t sound like the aspirations of a historian whose work, through this book,  became associated with those derided by the New Right as promoting ‘black armband history’. We know, from Watson’s later work on the deadening effect of managerial language and ‘Weasel Words’ that he is impatient and dismissive of ‘political correctness’. But, he argues, “It can hardly hurt a mature society to know that its founders were capable of evil as well as good.  An immature society can only benefit”(p. xxvi)

Hence the importance of McMillan:

The harder we look at McMillan the more we see the patterns of our collective experience and the elements of our contemporary dilemma.  The harder we look at him the more signs we see of the kindness and brutality, self interest and charity, memory and amnesia, decency and hypocrisy that has characterised public and private dealings with Aboriginal Australia from the beginning to the present day.  And the harder we look at the society McMillan came from the more we see how the dispossessed everywhere tend to follow the same path to material and spiritual poverty: in the nineteenth century the Australian Aborigines were not the only ones to be first cast as dangerous and unruly savages, and then left stranded between pity and contempt- and then thrown still further adrift from humanity by Social Darwinism. (p. xxviii)

No: this process had engulfed Highlander society, which in turn subjected the Kurnai people to the same fate.  The last words of Caledonia Australis are “..the irony was lost”. Irony, at its most powerful, does not need a spotlight or announcement, but emerges quietly and insistently out of the material itself.  Just as it does in this book.

‘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.