State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 61 Autumn 1998

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Pencil drawing of Windberry, possibly by Assistant Protector Thomas, who thought him a ‘most splendid character’. [MS8181, Box 1176/7. R. Brough Smyth Papers, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.]

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The 1996 Redmond Barry Lecture
Aborigines and Settlers in the Port Phillip District 1835–1850

Everyone here knows Redmond Barry, but not everyone may know that he was himself very interested in the Aborigines, and was for a time the permanent counsel for Aborigines accused of any crime who were being tried in the Supreme Court. For this he would be paid half a guinea for defending each defendant — roughly $1, or about $60 today, so one cannot say he was overpaid. Still, it stimulated his interest in Aborigines which he retained throughout his life.
The story of the Aboriginal–white conflict in the Port Phillip district (as Victoria was then called) during the first 15 years of its existence, is really quite a disastrous one; however, I am inclined to think that it was more or less inevitable and therefore to talk, as some people do talk, about blaming either one side or the other, is really not strictly relevant. We have in this period white settlers occupying a land which was already occupied by Aboriginal people. I do not think they owned the land — I do not think the Aborigines knew what ownership was — but they occupied it, and the arrival of white settlers caused disturbance and loss to the indigenous inhabitants.
We do not know everything that happened. Much is indefinite because, although some records are good because it was necessary for the government in Victoria, that is Superintendent La Trobe, to correspond with the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, in Sydney, and that correspondence has been preserved, a lot of facts that we would like to know are not mentioned in that correspondence. However, there is much that we do know. To begin at the beginning: in 1835 the Port Phillip Association headed by Vandemonians (Tasmanians) — Batman a pastoralist, Swanston a banker, Gellibrand a lawyer, and Wedge a government surveyor — planned to occupy land in Victoria with their sheep so that they could expand their pastoral experiences. In order to achieve their aims, Batman came over to Port Phillip and signed a treaty, or made an agreement, to purchase land from the local Aborigines. He claimed to have purchased 600,000 acres, running roughly from somewhere a little bit to the north of Melbourne round about the suburbs of Preston or Northcote down to Geelong and round into the Bellarine Peninsula, and for that he agreed to pay the ‘sellers’ an annual tribute, or rent if you like, of goods to the value of £10 a year. He hoped to be able to persuade the British government to hold the ‘treaty’ valid so that he and his partners could proceed with their pastoral activities. So the first question was whether or not this treaty would be ratified or validated, and whether or not the British government would allow settlement at Port Phillip anyway.
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Well, the answers to that in a sense indicate the problem. Governor Bourke, who was then still governor of New South Wales, wrote a despatch to Lord Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary, reporting what had happened, saying that he did not think that the treaty should be validated and that it was not right for private people to buy land from the Aborigines, particularly an area of this size; however, he did think that the government should allow settlement in Port Phillip District, which it previously had refused to do; as he put it, to refuse to allow settlement here would be ‘a perverse rejection of the bounty of providence’. I think there is something in that. Here was a land which was fertile and which was capable of development and of supporting a large pastoral industry; that industry would of course produce wool, reduce its price and provide a raw material to the British wool manufacturers at a time when supplies from Germany and Spain were falling off. So there is, I think, no question that from the Western point of view — Western used in a very general sense — the occupation of Port Phillip was desirable. By the time Victoria was established as a separate colony in 1851, there were 5,000,000 sheep in the District, more than were in rest of New South Wales, and there were just on 100,000 people there, many of them employed directly in the pastoral industry and others in Melbourne and Geelong and elsewhere, looking after the infrastructure of the pastoral development. So there was a very strong case for the development of the colony. But of course that development would interfere with the Aborigines who were already occupying the area, and that was something which, though not ignored, was certainly not properly understood. When Lord Glenelg replied to Bourke, not validating the purchase but saying that the District should be colonised, he also said he did not want to support the purchase or the sale of land by Aborigines to the pastoralists because it would ‘consult very ill for the real welfare of that helpless and unfortunate race by recognising in them any right to alienate to private adventurers the land of the colony’ — and if you think that perhaps the Aborigines were being exploited by this sale of 6,000,00 acres for £10 a year you would think that Glenelg was quite right. At any rate since W.C. Wentworth had only the year before tried to buy the entire South Island of New Zealand for £100, you can see that there was a risk involved in allowing native people to sell land to, as Glenelg put it, private adventurers.
But what to do with the land was, of course, the problem. Could the British government protect the existing occupiers while allowing development to proceed? Well, when you get two groups of people both wanting the same thing, the result in the absence of some person to conciliate or mediate between them is normally going to be a fight. And the victory will go to the stronger — and you can see that sort of thing happening today where two peoples are fighting over the right to occupy what is formerly the British colony of Palestine. In the seventeenth century you can see it in Ireland, where the ‘adventurers’ from England and Scotland came and occupied the land that was formerly being occupied by what were called the ‘mere-Irish’, and as a result of that occupation drove the latter, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, ‘to Hell or Connaught’. Many went to Connaught, whether the others went to Hell I don't know — but you have as a result a struggle affecting Irish history for three centuries. And
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you see this again in America, both North and South, where the Spaniards in the South and the British in the North were engaged in a struggle with the American Indians. You can see it in Yugoslavia, where you go back to the invasion of the Mahometan Turks in the fourteenth century, and find the struggle going on. So our struggle is not unique, but what is it about, apart from the mere right of occupation?
Well, the first problem of course is one of food and water. The Aborigines, who were living off the land, found that their water supplies were being defiled by the sheep and the cattle who interfered with the supplies of clean fresh water. Their food supplies, which were the roots and berries that they collected and the kangaroos and wallabies and other animals and birds that they speared and the fish they took from the waters, were interfered with too; they were not immediately wiped out, but it became more difficult for the Aborigines to live off the land as they had been doing for several thousands of years, as the land was increasingly occupied by human beings and sheep and cattle who were taking what the Aborigines had been using for their ordinary livelihood. Apart from that there were particular sites, so-called sacred sites (though that phrase was not used at this time), which were of particular significance to the Aborigines as being sites where some of their forebears had lived or died and were buried, or places which were thought to have magical qualities. Then, too, in some cases were their dwelling places. If the best sites in any particular area were taken up by the pastoralists, the Aborigines had to build their shacks somewhere less promising. In the Western district especially, the Aborigines had built a complicated series of fishtraps in the rivers and these were taken over by the pastoralists and their stock. Then of course there was interference with the women. This was a constant complaint, as the 90 per cent male population of the rural districts was inclined to seek sexual satisfaction from the women in the Aboriginal tribes.
Those were the sort of things that particularly distressed the Aboriginal people, but it was of course the whole enterprise of occupation which interfered with their way of life. On the other hand, the squatters were quite sure that they were benefiting humanity in the way that I have suggested. (Perhaps they were economic rationalists, producing wool to meet needs and demands, and not being very thoughtful about the social consequences of this economic enterprise!) They complained that from time to time the Aborigines would steal their stock, which they did, wondering sometimes what was the difference between a sheep and a kangaroo when nobody minded them spearing the one but did mind them spearing the other. That was one cause of great complaint by squatters, and secondly there was a lot of petty theft by the Aborigines who had no notions of private property and thought that some of the possessions of the pastoralists would be useful for themselves. Sometimes this would lead to white retaliation, and interference with the women would nearly always provoke Aboriginal retaliation; then you would have what was usually called a collision — sometimes later called a massacre — but in all events it resulted in bloodshed, if not the loss of life. I think the word massacre is overdone, because though there were a few collisions which I would call massacres, where perhaps 30 or 40 people were killed, in most cases only one or two were killed. Perhaps you may say that this is
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only a semantic distinction, but still it is an example of the misuse of language over this conflict which I think does not help us.
We are told, for example, that there was a lot of poisoning. Well, there was poisoning but it is very difficult to know how much. I have been able to discover only three authentic cases, though possibly there were more; two of these were deliberate but the third one, I think, was accidental. Now of course nobody should be poisoned, and a few regrettably were, but some people talk as if half the population was poisoned; which is a lot of rubbish. But it is certainly difficult to discover the truth — in this as in other matters. The squatters complained that the Aborigines stole sheep. Sometimes they did, but often the truth was that the squatter's shepherd had let them stray. It was very easy to lose sheep when there were no fences. Each shepherd looked after a flock of usually about 500 at this time, and occasionally some would get away; of course the shepherd, not wanting to be reprimanded or sacked, would say the Aborigines stole them, and the latter would be blamed even if the sheep came back in two or three days.
But if it is difficult to decide the whole truth in these matters, there is no question that there was conflict and most Aborigines suffered from it. So did some of the whites, but as Lord John Russell said, when Colonial Secretary, the Aboriginal aggression on the property of the settlers was not the less irritating ‘because it is nothing else than the natural result of the many wrongs of which the Aborigines have been the victims’. This was perfectly true, and as he wrote in another despatch, ‘the original aggression was our own’ and it was only natural that the Aborigines should resist it. So in this situation one asks the question: could the authorities do anything about it? I am speaking now of the period between 1835 and 1850, and my discussion does not refer to anything anybody might wish to do or think ought to be done in 1996. There is no doubt that the British authorities were sympathetic. It was a time when the colonial office was in the hands of men who were deeply concerned with the fate of the indigenous peoples in various parts of the British empire. The anti-slavery society had just succeeded in 1833 in emancipating slaves in all the British colonies, and its former members were concerned with the continued reports of strife, disturbance, killings and bloodshed in South Africa, in New Zealand with the Maoris, in Van Diemen's Land where the Black War, so-called, had only just been concluded and in the West Indies where there was still racial trouble. So it was not surprising that in 1835 the House of Commons appointed a select committee to consider the fate of the indigenous peoples throughout the British empire, a committee of which the Colonial Secretary and his Under-Secretary were members and which had the support of the government of the time.
In due course it came up with two suggestions. In London they seemed sensible but in Australia they appeared unsatisfactory. First, it recommended that the local government set aside reserves of land where the Aborigines could live, subtracting them as it were from the area that the pastoralists were or soon would be occupying. Two types of reserves were proposed. The first should be about 1,000 or even 2,000 acres where the Aborigines were not only to live but even to enjoy their practice of
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the chase and live on the natural products of the land, the root crops which they had been eating for 2,000 years and the berries and the fish and animals and birds and so on. They were, in a way, to be taken out of the general land system and given a little place to play. This was well meant but obviously it was hopeless unless the reserves were very large, not of 2000 acres but of many thousands — and these would immediately arouse opposition from the pastoralists who wanted to occupy the land with sheep. The second type of reserve that was suggested was to be small, about 20–50 acres. These would really be no more than depots, where an Aboriginal protector would set up a station which the Aborigines could come in to. There they would be taught to speak English, they would be taught a trade or agriculture — how to cultivate the land and how to grow crops — and most importantly they would be taught Christianity. Then, having learned these things, they would go out and be good Englishmen, or at least good Australian Englishmen. They would find employment, become farm labourers or shepherds, as a number of them did. They might even go to town, learn a trade and become skilled labourers. And having imbibed the beliefs of Christianity they would not of course bear any ill feelings against the whites; they would be good citizens
Now, that sounded all right. It would certainly protect those Aborigines who came in from being shot at or interfered with by the pastoralists who were running their sheep all over the country, but it had other objections. The Aborigines did not want to come in and they did not necessarily want to learn to speak English. They did not want to learn how to grow crops: they had been living very happily eating the crops that nature supplied, so why should they learn anything else which was much more troublesome? They did not want to learn a trade either. And in many cases, they would lose their sacred sites. Then, if more than one tribe came into one of these depots, and there were to be only four in the Port Phillip District so it was impossible that there would not be more than one tribe visiting each of them, there might well be deadly or traditional enemies in the same place and they would want to fight each other. Apart from that, since each tribe spoke a different language the unfortunate Protector who was teaching these people all these things would have to learn half-a-dozen languages before he could get very far. So the four depots which the Protectors established were not very successful. The Aborigines who came in might be given some food and clothing and occasionally, when they needed it, medical supplies, but such distributions were naturally limited; and in any case, this was not really what was wanted. The whites wanted to convert the Aborigines into good citizens but did not do so. Nor were the Aborigines interested in learning what were described as the truths of Christianity. They had their own religion which they believed in. The whites might regard this as superstition, but the Aborigines saw no good reason to change their traditional beliefs.
The second policy which the British government proposed and ordered the local government to follow was allied to the first, namely the establishment of the so-called Aboriginal Protectorate. There was to be a chief Protector, George Augustus Robinson, who had been practising in Van Diemen's Land for some years, and four
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George Augustus Robinson (1788–1866), Chief Protector of Aborigines, Port Phillip, 1839–49. Photograph taken before his return to England in 1852. [T.F. Chuck portrait no. 600. Picture Collection, SLV.]

Assistant Protectors, one for each of the four districts that were defined. These men were instructed to establish their depots in the way that I have been describing and look after the Aborigines who came into them, but their other duties were far more extensive and were certainly not easy to carry out. What, then, were the Protectors to do? They were to cultivate a personal knowledge of the Aborigines through personal intercourse. They were to ‘itinerate’, as the phrase was, throughout their districts meeting one tribe or one clan after another, explaining as they met them that the white men were very good and they were not going to shoot them all, and that if the tribes’ members were good citizens they would live happily ever after in the white culture. In order to carry out these duties, the Protectors were to learn the native languages (perhaps the select committee thought there was only one) but this was not easy, nor was it easy for them to be able to itinerate and to cultivate friendship with the tribes that they walked through. And as well as all this, the Protectors were to educate and look after the children — and lest you should think that the recent policy of removing children from their families is new, it is not. The Protectors were, if possible, to remove the children from the tribes, take them to the depots, teach them to be good little English children, and then when the children had grown up they would discard the superstitions of their forebears and live happily ever after — or so it was hoped.
In addition, the Protectors were given the office of magistrate and they were ordered to investigate every alleged crime and outrage that was committed in their districts and if possible arrest the offenders. This meant that four men with forces of
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William Thomas (1793–1867), Assistant Protector of Aborigines, Port Phillip, 1839–49; appointed Guardian of Aborigines, 1850. [T.F. Chuck portrait no. 618, Picture Collection, SLV.]

border, mounted and native police, never more than 80 altogether, investigating every person accused of a crime or an outrage outside Melbourne and Geelong in the whole of the Port Phillip District, with no means of communications other than horseback or foot. Clearly the Protectors were given an impossible task. But if they could not do all they were asked to do, or put an end to outrages committed by both they could, and did, do something; and overall I think they have received an unjustifiably bad press — from both contemporaries and historians. The squatters constantly complained of their activities and their complaints do show that they were at least occasionally able to check abuse — not often enough if you like — and we know that the squatters were prone to exaggerate the losses they suffered. But, as I said earlier, I think the conflict was inevitable and in the end the victory would go to the more powerful, who were the whites.
Sometimes I think we also exaggerate the effects of white violence, because of course it is easy to say, and it is true, that the Aboriginal population was drastically reduced during this period; however, it does not follow that everybody who died or was killed was killed or shot in a punitive expedition. The difficulty we have here is that nobody knows what the Aboriginal population was at the time of white settlement. I am not sure that we even know what the Aboriginal population was in 1850, because the recorded Aboriginal population of about 2,000 in 1851 rose to about 3,000 at the census in 1861. But I suppose we can say it was between two and three thousand 1850, if it was down to just over 800 in 1881 — the lowest figure reached of full-blood Aboriginals in the State of Victoria. But what was it in the beginning, in 1835?
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Well there are a lot of different estimates, and there is a further complication because many people believe that the Aboriginal population drastically declined between about 1780 and 1830 when there were no whites in the district at all, or at most, a very few down on the coast fishing. We have been told that the Aboriginal population halved in that period. If it did, why did it fall? The evidence for some reduction seems to be clear enough, in the sense that Aborigines, when they were questioned in 1835 or soon after, spoke of a period when the population had been much higher. But if it had fallen, we do not know why. Some historians say a smallpox epidemic came down from central New South Wales, and there were certainly bad epidemics near Sydney in 1789 and on the Murray between 1828 and 1830. Smallpox is certainly very infectious and it could move through the tribes, but we do not know for certain how much it did so. Estimates of the 1790–1830 population are doubtful; are we any better off on what was the population when the whites came in 1835, the first time of systematic white contact? Well, not much, because the estimated population of that period varies between a high level of twenty to twenty-five thousand and low level of about ten or twelve thousand. So which is correct? Much has been written on the subject, but nobody has succeeded in entirely convincing their opponents that they are right. This means that if we accept a population of less than 3,000 full-blood Aboriginals in 1850 the population must have fallen to at least a quarter of what it was in 1835; and it may have fallen to only one eighth of what it was, if you start with the figure of about twenty-five thousand. We can look at what we know about those who died, though perhaps I might first say a little about the casualties among the whites.
These were nearly always reported because the squatters were always asking the government to ‘send us more police, we need more police’, so that every evidence of an outrage was used as an excuse for getting more police. According to the figures collected by the various select committees on Aborigines in the New South Wales Legislative Council up to 1850, during the 15 years between 1835 and 1850 there were 59 whites killed — that is four a year — a figure which per capita is roughly the same as those who are killed in motor accidents in Victoria today. Now we would like to try to stop motor accidents just as we would have liked to have stopped the killing of whites, but these figures do not suggest the disasters that you sometimes read about among the squatters writing at the time, as if your life was in danger every time you put your nose out of your hut, which some said had to be protected by a cannon.
Then, apart from reports of white persons who were killed, there were reports of sheep being killed or driven off. Well, of course, if you owned a flock and your flock lost 100 or even 200 sheep it was irritating. It might be a little more. But it was not a disaster. The worst period was in the western district between 1840 and 1842, when there was a bitter struggle, because the land was very fertile, the Aboriginal population was the thickest in the Port Phillip District and the pastoralists were moving in with their sheep as rapidly as they could. During those two or three years, as far as we can tell from the recorded complaints of the squatters, about one percent of their flocks in the western district were killed — though of course that varies quite a lot in particular cases. Over the Port Phillip District as a whole, in the years between 1835
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and 1850 the average number of sheep removed or killed or seriously injured was 0.2 percent per year, that is two in every thousand, and as the average squatter would have between 5–6,000 sheep, he might lose 20 to 30 in 15 years. Irritating as I have said, but minuscule compared with the losses from scab and catarrh, and certainly not enough to destroy the pastoral industry, which indeed was very prosperous. These figures, I think, make you anxious to query those large-scale claims that the Aborigines were such a terrible menace to the squatters.
Now, to come back to the Aborigines, which is what I am more concerned with. The problem here is that not only do the estimates of population vary so much at the beginning, but we do not know the exact number of deaths or injuries. An Aboriginal could be wounded and die without any record being made. If he was killed outright in an encounter his body might be collected by the white party, but obviously a number of Aborigines were going to die in the bush, either after wounds or for some other reason, and nobody was going to know anything about them. So we do not know accurately how many were killed, and again estimates vary substantially. The lowest I have seen is 500, compared of course with 59 whites. The highest I have seen is 2,000. As far as I am concerned, I take about a middle figure, not because I am rather prone to do that on the law of averages, but because the authors of those who have plumped for 1,000 to 1,200 Aboriginal deaths during this period seem to me to have better evidence than those others who are more extreme in either way. So for the sake of argument I would say that rather more than one thousand Aborigines died from violence during these 15 years.
But that of course does not cover the whole of the decline in the Aboriginal population, because as well as violence there was death from disease and there was also a drastic fall in the birth rate. Again we cannot find out accurately the number of people who died from disease, except by taking the rather dubious figure of the number of Aboriginals thought to be alive in 1850 in relation to those who were thought to be there in 1835, subtracting the numbers thought to have been killed by violence and suggesting that the balance died from natural causes — i.e., sickness — which was the major cause of the drastic decline in the Aboriginal population.
All reports — whether from Protectors, squatters, magistrates or medical men — bore witness to the increasing distress of the Aborigines, whose food supply was diminished and way of life destroyed, particularly though not exclusively near towns. Cities everywhere have been fatal to indigenous peoples, and even in 1948 a measles epidemic carried off more than a quarter of the population of a Central Australian Aboriginal community in two weeks. In our period neither Melbourne nor Geelong were exceptions, and by 1850 their Aboriginal populations had fallen from between 300 and 350 people to 20 or 30 in each case, owing to disease, worsened by alcoholism and poor diet. As early as May 1839, Dr. Cussen had reported that the ‘unfortunate creatures’ were suffering from ‘dysentery, accompanied by typhus, and were worn down by syphilis, rheumatism and acute catarrh’. The ‘venereal’, introduced by the whites, was often exaggerated because of its moral implications, but it and many other diseases were rampant — the vaguely defined ‘fever’, diphtheria, measles,
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Edward Stone Parker (1802–1865), Assistant Protector of Aborigines, Port Phillip, 1839–49; leading Methodist preacher in the colony. [H28015, SPF. Picture Collection, SLV.]

whooping cough, digestive ailments, bronchitis, all sorts of chest complaints, tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza and even the common cold. Infantile mortality rose and the birth rate fell too; as one Westernport Aborigine told Protector Thomas, later the official Guardian of the Aborigines, ‘Black Fellow says no country now for them any good … No more Piccaninny’. This population decline occurred throughout the district. Around Bendigo, Protector Parker reported that among a population of about 200, there were only 25 births between 1843 and 1858 — that is one birth to every four females over 15 years. In the western district the Aboriginal population seems to have fallen by nearly 90 per cent by 1850.
So although we must treat all estimates with caution, it seems probable (one can scarcely say more than that) that disease, together with a low birth rate, accounted for more than four-fifths of the decline in the native population in the Port Phillip District and that little more than 10 per cent was due to violence. This was too much, certainly, but not the ‘genocide’ which is sometimes implied. One could argue that to a large extent the whites were responsible for the disease, too, though in the contemporary state of medical knowledge, there was, perhaps, little they could do about it. I might conclude by quoting squatter Thomas Learmouth — while admitting he might be prejudiced — who thought
the disappearance of the native tribes in this district (Buninyong) to be owing, not to the result of encounters with the stockmen and early settlers, but to the vices introduced by the white man among them, and to the change in their habits, by which the active exertion of a hunter's life was exchanged for the idleness, and, commonly, the plenty they enjoyed in their new condition of beggars, thereby inducing diseases and catarrhal affections, to
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which they were not subject before; for I believe there is no surer way of extirpating a race of savages like the Australian native than by supplying them freely with food, and thereby taking from them the necessity of personal exertion.
(T.F. Bride, ed., Letters from Victorian Pioneers, 1898)
So the well-intentioned plans — and hopes — of the Imperial government to assimilate, convert and civilise the Port Phillip Aborigines had failed; not surprisingly, for though apparently logical, they were quite unrealistic, being based on a false image of the Aboriginal people and a complete failure to recognise the Aborigines’ association with their tribal land. The squatters did not want the Aborigines as labourers when they could get white men. Most of them really looked forward to the time when the race would die out. The Aborigines, having no idea of private property and so no wish to acquire it, did not want what they regarded as a life of ‘unmeaning toil’; regrettably, by 1850 the 3,000-odd who survived were perforce becoming pilfering, starving mendicants, few enough to remove from the whites all fear of Aboriginal violence, and barely sufficient to maintain their race in Victoria until such time as they might find a public more sympathetic to their hopes and needs.
But in the circumstances of the time, bearing in mind the lack of good communications and both the nature and the inadequacy of the forces available to the authorities, it is not easy to see, realistically, what more the government might have been able to do. To have made it legally possible for the Aborigines to give evidence in court was certainly desirable, but would juries have heeded it? Should trial by jury have been suspended? And what would have been the consequences if the government had done this? Here we are asking hypothetical questions which many say historians should not do — especially when they do not like the probable answers. At all events Gipps thought he would have needed a military force ten times larger than that which he had at his disposal if he were to be able to control the squatters’ expansion, keep them off the Aboriginal lands they wanted and reduce outbreaks of violence — and for this he had neither the men nor the money. He and his colleagues and successors were relatively powerless, which we should remember. And while many individual incidents were clearly wrong and their perpetrators are rightly subject to severe criticism, even on the standards of the day, one should not forget that the squatters as well as the Aborigines ‘had a case’ — as well as ‘a case to answer’. And so the Aboriginal tragedy emerged, which like all true tragedies was the result not of a conflict ‘between right and wrong’ but of one ‘between right and right’.
[This is an edited version of the Redmond Barry Lecture delivered at the State Library of Victoria on 25 November 1996.]
A.G.L. Shaw