State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

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The Journals of George Augustus Robinson

Introduction

In recent years there has been a quickening of interest in the study of Victorian Aboriginal culture. This upsurge has resulted in the publication of many books and journal articles, and the completion of many theses, on subjects as diverse as prehistoric Aboriginal society and Aboriginal-European relationships in the post-contact situation. The increased output has been due to a number of factors, including the creation of a state government archaeology department, the development of an archaeology department at La Trobe University, increased amateur involvement in the field, and a general raising of public consciousness about the value of Aboriginal culture.
Whatever the cause, a major contributing role in providing a database for these studies has been played by the La Trobe Library, particularly through its holdings of source material in the form of manuscripts. In this paper I wish to examine one such source, the Victorian journals of George Augustus Robinson, and show why it is of particular importance.
Robinson was the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Victoria from 1839 to 1849, and an indefatigable correspondent and diarist. The original manuscript of his voluminous diary for this ten year period is held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Since 1976 a microfilm copy has been held in the Australian Manuscripts Collection of the La Trobe Library. In recent years a number of annotated extracts from the ten year Victorian journal have been published,1 but the major part exists only in manuscript form. Before looking at this diary in detail, it is worth considering briefly both its context in Victorian Aboriginal studies, and its author.
Because of the very rapid dislocation of traditional Aboriginal culture in south eastern Australia, at a time before the development of ethnography as a field discipline, there were no ethnographic studies (as such) made of Aborigines in this region. Studies of Australian Aborigines feature centrally in the developmental history of ethnography but all such studies were done on groups living in the arid centre of Australia or in the northern regions. However there was little similarity in the way of life of these people and that of Aboriginal groups in the temperate parts of Australia such as Victoria and eastern New South Wales. For this reason, in Victoria historical sources of a particular kind have assumed a greater importance in reconstructions of prehistoric Aboriginal life, and have been used increasingly by prehistorians in the past few years.2
These sources take a variety of forms, depending on the circumstances of compilation. They include first hand observation by early settlers, sometimes recorded from memories of events which occurred decades earlier3; information collected from available Aboriginal informants4; and observations recorded at the time in diaries, field notes and official reports.5 This last group contain the most useful sources because, despite the lack of training on the part of the writers, observations were direct and the recording virtually immediate.
George Augustus Robinson's journals are of this type. Within the early history of Victoria the entire document is significant, for the observations it contains on landscape and settlers. But the most interesting and valuable entries from the point of view of Aboriginal studies are those he made while in the field — where he was able to observe firsthand the material evidence of traditional Aboriginal culture. The daily entries made during Robinson's field trips are also generally the longest.
Sources of this type are essentially historical but in many recent works by prehistorians they fulfil the role of ethnographic studies which were never made.6 Within academic circles such first hand observations have come to be called ‘ethno-history’, in that they relate the history of an ethnic group different from that of the writer. The epistemological status of ethno-history is a matter of debate — is it a discreet academic discipline? is it ethnography serving history? or vice versa? However, as will be shown here, its value to Aboriginal studies (even if merely as a convenient database) cannot be denied.

G. A. ROBINSON

In March 1839 George Robinson arrived in Port Phillip to head the newly formed Aboriginal Protectorate. He was 50 years old and had about ten years direct experience of Aboriginal culture in Tasmania. Between 1829 and 1838 he had been instrumental in having the Tasmanian Aborigines removed from their traditional land to a settlement on Flinders Island, where he subsequently presided over their demise. He was a complex person, seemingly capable of simultaneously accommodating generally irreconcilable beliefs about the value to Aborigines of his own work. He came closer than most of his contemporaries to seeing that the essential nature of Aboriginal society is the relationship its members have with their land. He also notes in many places the injustice of Europeans taking the land. But he still proceeded with the scheme to collect Aboriginal clans on established Protectorate Stations.
Robinson has been the subject of a great deal of study and comment in the past couple of years, including an essentially uncomplimentary biography
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by Vivienne Rae-Ellis7. His own journal entries show him as pompous and self-opinionated. He was generally disliked by his contemporaries and it is probably true to say (as B. Plomley does, quoting A. A. Milne), that Robinson ‘was not a nice man’.8 However the fact that he wasn't a likeable person shouldn't preclude a fair and unbiased assessment of his work and very real achievements. Robinson, for all his faults, deserves better than Rae-Ellis gives him.
The circumstances of Robinson's writing of his Victorian field journals are interesting in themselves. As the administrative head of the Protectorate, with Assistants stationed in rural districts, Robinson theoretically had little need to travel in the line of duty. It is fair to ask then, why did he spend such long periods, sometimes months, trekking to almost all parts of the colony of Port Phillip, supposedly in the line of duty?
The answer mostly lies with Robinson's character. It is not however that Robinson lacked the will to do anything else, and wandered through the bush in order to escape the problems of the Protectorate.9 There is no doubt that the Protectorate had problems but if Robinson lacked anything it was not will; it was faith in his Assistants’ ability to carry out their jobs. Of Edward Parker (the Assistant Protector for the Loddon District), he wrote:
Mr P. is very indolent and loitering; a gossip, but little good to the blacks and no energy. Has no executive; little good will be done by him.10
Coupled with this type of feeling about his staff, he had an inflated opinion about his own ability. He simply believed he could do a better job than anybody else, and took every opportunity to try and prove it. His plan of action for contacting the Aborigines of Port Phillip and persuading them to congregate on the Protectorate stations was based entirely on his method of operation in Tasmania. His reasoning was simple: it had worked in the former situation; it should work again. So he set about directly contacting as many Aborigines as he could.
There can be little doubt that Robinson seriously misread the situation, and certainly he was both out of his depth and without any real support. But as he travelled through the bush seeking out Aborigines, and at the same time compiling the massive journal which today stands (ironically) as the one great achievement of the Protectorate, he was still a man driven by a desire, albeit misguided, to do good for the Aborigines — and by reflection for himself.

The Value Of The Journal

The almost unparalleled value of Robinson's journal as a primary source of information on traditional Victorian Aboriginal culture can be demonstrated in two ways. Firstly, we can assess it from an essentially quantitative point of view — we can look at the amount, type and range of information that it contains. In this way it will be clear that for a number of reasons the journal is unique in Victoria. Secondly, we can measure the value of the journal in terms of the use to which it has been put. Here it will be shown that Robinson's diary sheds light on several previously unclear areas of Aboriginal studies.
From the point of view of its informational content, there are four aspects which give Robinson's journal a greater value than most contemporaneous sources. The first of these is that the recorded observations are made in a wide range of locations. From his first trip, to the Loddon and Campaspe Rivers region of central Victoria in 1840, to his 1849 trip to Lake Colac, Robinson walked or rode more than 10,000 miles in south eastern Australia. During these trips he travelled through almost every part of the colony, always recording what he saw, not only of Aboriginal material culture, but of the landcape.
The second advantageous feature of Robinson's journal, a corollary of the first, is the time depth inherent in the document. The ten years of operation of the Aboriginal Protectorate were vitally important ones in relations between Europeans and Aborigines, and the inevitable disruption to Aboriginal culture. In the period which separates Robinson's first diary comment in Victoria from his last, there were massive changes wrought on traditional Aboriginal society. In some cases whole clans ceased to exist,11 and everywhere there was a dramatic decrease in Aboriginal population. Robinson was a participating witness to this demise and his notes and observations are a vital reference source.
The third aspect of the journal which is noteworthy is the descriptions which Robinson gives of a variety of Aboriginal artefacts, events and practices. In ten years of travel and observation, he was witness to a wide range of economic and ceremonial practices, for some of which there is little or no extant material evidence. Examples are not difficult to find. Between May and July 1841, in the western district, Robinson saw and described in great detail a couple of ingenious methods which the local Aboriginal clans had devised for catching fish and eels.12 The structures which he saw have long since been destroyed by the farming practices of Europeans. Thus what we know of the operation of these fish traps comes almost entirely from Robinson's journal accounts of their appearance and use.
Some of the scenes Robinson describes were unique, and their like will never be witnessed again. In this category we can put his sometimes detailed recounting of corroborees (for instance on 4 June 1841), and a meeting of ‘chiefs’ near Mount Weevort on 3 August 1841.
Finally, Robinson not only described features of Aboriginal life — he also drew sketches of many of them. From an artistic perspective Robinson's illustrations leave something to be desired but in many cases they have the invaluable function of being the only known graphic representations of their subject. Moreover, as with the corroborees which
11

C. A. Robinson's sketches in his journal of western Victorian Aboriginal body painting, 18 April 1841 (Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales).

Robinson described, some of the subjects of his sketches were fleeting and unlikely to leave any permanent evidence. Within the journal entry for 18 April 1841, for example, are six separate drawings of body and face markings corresponding with clan affiliation in the area of Lake Keilambete in the western district. Following enormous disruption to clan groupings in that area in the 1840s, such identifying characteristics ceased to be functional and now exist only in Robinson's journal.

Use Of The Journal

The second measure of worth of Robinson's journal is the enormous use to which the document has been put in studies of pre-European Victorian Aboriginal life. In addition to its value from the amount of information it contains, the journal is valuable for the range and type of information it holds. It thus provides a basis for a variety of studies which would otherwise be the poorer, or might not be attempted at all.
Much of the fabric of any society consists of non-material elements — beliefs, ideas, language, personal expression. In literate societies these aspects often achieve a material (ie. written) form and can be studied as such; in non-literate groups the material expression is often in a transitory form which does not survive. For this reason reconstructions of extinct Aboriginal societies are often limited in scope, and tend to focus on the material aspects. In this context a source of information on such a wide range of non-material aspects of traditional Victorian Aboriginal life as Robinson's journal is a rare boon for researchers.
In Robinson's detailed descriptions of the accepted protocol at meetings, of corroboree dance sequences, personal adornment, clan names, and vocabularies, the journal points to aspects of past Aboriginal life for which there is no physical evidence. But the journal is more than a simple indication of neglected areas of study; in itself it contains sufficient data for the basis of a study of these crucially important parts of traditional society. For instance, recent reconstructions of clan affiliations in a number of parts of Victoria have taken this data as their starting point.13
Studies of Aboriginal economic activity have also benefited from scrutiny of the journal. As noted above, Robinson's records cover a wide physical area and a substantial period of time. There are two advantages to be gained from these features. Firstly, observations made in a short space of time in diverse physical settings are useful in allowing researchers a rare opportunity to make comparisons between synchronous cultural manifestations, on a regional basis. Thus, for example, one study was able to focus on contemporaneous but different Aboriginal
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techniques for fishing in western Victoria.14 It is possible in this way also to draw probable links between physical environment and cultural diversity. As noted above, the value of such studies is underlined by the fact that virtually the only record we have of these economic practices is what is contained in Robinson's journal.
The second advantage for economic studies in the spatial and temporal spread of Robinson's observations lies in their application to change. During the period of the Protectorate there were dramatic cultural adaptations taking place, some of which can be reconstructed on the basis of journal entries made in the same area at different times. Aboriginal culture was adapting in the face of increased European numbers and widespread alteration to their traditional environment. In many places Robinson documented the effect on the native fauna of permanent European settlement.

Conclusion

The range and depth of information on Aboriginal culture in George Augustus Robinson's journal give it an enormous importance in a huge variety of studies. The journal contains information of interest to studies of prehistoric Aboriginal life in all its rich diversity, of Aboriginal-European relationships, of changes in the physical and cultural environments, and of the European settlement history of rural Victoria. Like all other European observers Robinson was not without biases (both conscious and subconscious) regarding Aboriginal culture and its worth. He certainly wasn't an impartial commentator on his contemporaries. Thus, as with all other ethno-historic sources, the journal cannot be used without some allowance being made for the ethnocentric and egocentric perspectives of the writer. However, this source has the advantage of an immediacy of recorded observations, and a temporal and spatial range unequalled in any other Victorian source of this kind.
In use, the journal has proved to be an invaluable and, in some cases, unque source of data. Ironically however, although it has been used widely and is informing an increasing number of studies, it remains substantially unknown and untapped. In part this is due to the sheer physical volume of the source (the manuscript takes up more than one shelf metre). It is due also in part to the difficulties of reading Robinson's poor handwriting. To a limited extent this difficulty has been lessened15 but more needs to be done towards publishing this invaluable source of information.
Gary Presland is an archaeologist and historian who has worked in Victorian Aboriginal history since 1975. He is the author of Land of the Kulin, and has edited sections of George Robinson's journal. Since April 1988 he has been Manager of the Police Historical Unit.
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1

Presland, G. (Editor), ‘Journal of George Augustus Robinson. January — March 1840.’ Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey. No. 5, 1977; ‘Journal of G. A. Robinson. March to May 1841.’ Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey. No. 6, 1977; ‘Journal of G. A. Robinson. May to August 1841.’ Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey. No. 11, 1980; Clark, Ian D., ‘The Port Phillip journal of George Augustus Robinson: 8 March — 7 April 1843 and 18 March — 29 April 1843.’ Monash Publications in Geography. No. 34, 1988. The La Trobe Library's copies are held in the Australian Manuscripts Collection at MF 1–5. (Mitchell Library microfilm reels are numbered CY 424, 432, 441, 442, 443).

2

See for example Coutts, P. J. F. et al, ‘Impact of European settlement on Aboriginal society in western Victoria.’ Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey. No. 4 1977; Lourandos, H., ‘Change or stability?: hydraulics, hunter-gatherers and population in temperate Australia.’ World Archaeology 11 (3): 245–264, 1980; Williams, E., ‘Complex hunter-gatherers: a view from Australia.’ Antiquity 61 (No. 232): 310–321, 1987.

3

See for instance Smyth, R. B. The Aborigines of Victoria, (Melbourne: Govt. Printer, 1878); Bride, T. F. (Editor) Letters from Victorian Pioneers, (Melbourne: Govt. Printer, 1898).

4

Dawson, J. The Australian Aborigines, (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1881); Howitt, A. W. The native tribes of south east Australia, (London: Macmillan, 1908).

5

Thomas, W., MS Papers 1839–1848 Mitchell Library, Sydney; Aboriginal Protectorate Records, 1839–1849, VPRS 10–12, Public Record Office, Laverton.

6

McBryde, I., ‘Ethnohistory in an Australian context: independent discipline or convenient data quarry!.’ Aboriginal History 2, pp. 128–151, 1979.

7

Rae-Ellis, V., Black Robinson, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988).

8

Plomley, B., ‘Who was the real Robinson?’ Overland No. 111, (June 1988), p. 58.

9

Ibid., p. 57.

10

G. A. Robinson, Journal, 14 February 1840.

11

Ibid., 14 May 1841.

12

Ibid., 30 April 1841; 9 July 1841.

13

Barwick, D., ‘Mapping the past: an atlas of Victorian clans 1835–1904,’ Aboriginal History 8(2) pp. 100–131, 1984; Clark, I., ‘The spatial organization of the Chap Wurrung — a preliminary analysis,’ in Australia Felix: the Chap Wurrung and Major Mitchell. (Dunkeld: Dunkeld & District Historical Museum, 1987), pp. 2–36.

14

Presland, G., ‘Man-environment relationships in prehistoric western Victoria’, B.A. Hons Thesis, La Trobe University, 1976.

15

See note 1.