State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 61 Autumn 1998


A Letter from Port Phillip

Melbourne, Port Phillip

My dear Sir,
Since I left my native land I have forwarded a succession of letters to the different members of my own family and also to several of my much esteemed Salisbury friends. That so long a period should have elapsed without addressing you will not, I trust, be attributed to any want of esteem for yourself and family or the absence of gratitude for the many kindnesses I was wont to receive from you, but to the want of a suitable opportunity. I now, however, avail myself of a little leisure to furnish such information regarding this Country, its inhabitants, and my doings &c. here as may, possibly, be acceptable to you.
The Settlement of Port Phillip — or as it is sometimes called Australia Felix — is a Province of that portion of Australia, or New Holland, denominated New South Wales, and is situated on the Southern Shore of that vast Island, opposite to Van Diemen's Land, from which it is separated by Bass’ Straits — reference to any modern map of the World will give you a notion of its locality. Melbourne is the Capital of this Province and is a rapidly increasing Town situated about eight miles from the harbour of Port Phillip, on a fine River named the Yarra Yarra. This stream is not navigable for larger ships, but small Craft are employed to bring up Merchandise to a natural basin in the river, on the banks of which stands the Town. It is laid out in regular streets, on an extended plan, which when completed will be a somewhat magnificent place. When it is remembered that the first Settler — a few enterprising individuals from Van Diemen's Land — arrived here no longer ago than 1837, and sat themselves down amidst the Woods, and the savages which then were Lords of the soil, — the progress it has made in wealth and mercantile importance is really wonderful. Already do the inhabitants of Melbourne amount to Five thousand, and those of the other parts of the Province to nearly as many; while scarcely a week elapses without accessions to its increasing community. The Province being a part and parcel of New South Wales is under the administration of Sir George Gipps the Governor of the Colony; but as it is situated Six hundred miles from Sydney the seat of Government, His Excellency is represented here by C.J. La Trobe Esq. recently appointed, with the title of Superintendent. As, however, this Officer has been invested with no power but that of making representations to his Superior, any matter of importance is referred to Sydney — which necessarily consumes much time, occasions often great expense, and very much retards the advancement of the
Province. A Governor independent of Sydney is needed and must sooner or later be appointed: a petition has even been forwarded to Her Majesty praying separation from N.S.W. and the appointment of a separate Government. Australia Felix exhibits a considerable variety in its Physical aspect — some parts of it are extremely mountainous and barren, while in other portions extensive tracts of rich soil promise an abundant reward to the labours of the Agriculturist; and luxuriant herbage for flocks and herds. The Climate is on the whole fine, — a little too warm in summer, but the spring and autumn are delightful. There can be little doubt that this part of the Colony — as well as others — is subject to occasional alternations of drought and flood. The revenue of this Colony is derivable principally from the Customs, and the sale of Lands. This latter forms an item of considerable magnitude — as you may infer from the fact that at the last Government Sale held at Melbourne in June more than One hundred thousand pounds were realised. As yet there has not been much land sold except in the Townships and in their immediate neighbourhood, hence Settlers who adopt pastoral pursuits are recognised here as Squatters; they select their location according to their taste, or their design to keep sheep or cattle, and then obtain from the Government a License for which they pay £10. a year (about to be raised to £20.) — they also pay one penny per head for sheep, threehalfpence for cattle, and sixpence for horses. These taxes are intended to defray the cost of a Mounted Police force, to protect the property of the settlers from Bushrangers (runaway convicts) and Blacks — And form the only outlay analogous to rent. Some of these farms — or Stations as they are called — are of considerable extent, especially where sheep are kept, which in this country require a large range. The new settler has to put up with many inconveniences in respect of residence, diet, clothing, &c. &c. and if his Station be far in the interior he is cut off from almost all society. If his location be unfavourable for the production of Grain he has to fetch all his supplies from Melbourne — which is usually done with a Dray and Bullock Team — horses being but little employed as draft animals. Persons of industrious habits possessing a moderate capital, may by judicious management in these pursuits realise good profits — sheep farming, however, except on a large scale, is an uncertain enterprise. Sheep in this country are liable to a species of Catarrh — I believe peculiar to this land — which admits of no remedy, and which sweeps them off by hundreds. Dairy produce insures good returns when at a convenient distance from the market, good cheese fetching 1/0 and butter 2/- per pound — wholesale. The great draw back here is the high price of labour: no convicts being assigned in this Province, labouring men get large wages. From £40 to £50. per Annum, with food, are the sums given to shepherds and other agricultural labourers — nor is there any thing like an adequate supply, at these terms. For some time to come, this Province will hold forth advantages to sober and industrious Mechanics, and labourers, of every description well worth the attention of these classes.
With regard to the original inhabitants of this Country you will have learnt that they are wandering savages — without house or home. As they are divided, however, into many Tribes — each tribe has its distinct district the extent and boundaries of
which are well known to themselves, and they speak of their country to a stranger with emotions of pride. The habits of the Australian Aborigines seem to be nearly identical wherever they are met with, but there are wide differences in their language no two Tribes being exactly similar, although those contiguous to each other, from more frequent intercourse, readily understand each other. Not so with those situated at a distance — these can no more understand each other than can the inhabitants of England and China. There are no persons among the Tribes of this Province sustaining the character, or authority, of King — nor is there any Chieftainship existing amongst them — the movements of the different Tribes are determined upon by the general consent of the men — who generally confer together upon all points of importance. A great deal of animosity exists amongst the Tribes, which leads to much fighting, and frequent destruction of life by surprise during the night when their victims are found asleep and unconscious of their danger. Murders of this description are revenged by the injured Tribe on the first favourable occasion and are never forgotten till their revenge is satisfied. Thus their numbers are kept low or are constantly diminishing by internal feuds and butcheries. The men are, in general, possessed of capabilities for far nobler pursuits and enjoyments than fall to the lot of the New Hollander — merely because he is a savage — and has not been taught better things. The women are, generally speaking, the slaves of the men; and have scarcely better treatment than their dogs. The children are sprightly and evince, at least, an average share of capabilities which only require the guidance and fostering care of christian instruction. Viewing them in their purely savage state — and contemplating their condition rendered tenfold worse by the abominable vices and diseases acquired by intercourse with Europeans — they are most truly in an unspeakably awful condition. In this Province numerous murders of white men are constantly occurring — but how many blacks are sacrificed to revenge the death of one white man it is impossible to say. In these respects things are becoming worse and worse, and I greatly fear that ere long, a war of extermination will become general, and these sable sons of the forest be blotted from the records of the living.
If the people of England imagine that the Government is befriending these outcasts they are greatly mistaken. The Government is deriving immense revenues from the sale of their lands but they are giving them nothing in return. You are ready to ask, I dare say in amazement, has not the Government sent out Protectors to these people? Undoubtedly, the Home Government, some two years and a half ago, sent out four Protectors for this Province — they were sent however with no definite object in view — the Secretary of State with a few crude notions floating in his brain forwarded these men, each with a large family, to Sir George Gipps at Sydney — for instructions as to their duties and employment — who not relishing the appointment of such officials nor indulging the slightest fellow feeling for the blacks determined from the beginning to place them in circumstances precluding the possibility of usefulness to the Aborigines, and exposing them and their families to such degradation and suffering as should effectually bring the scheme of Protection to an utter failure, and involve its agents in the consequent disgrace. Determined to do my utmost to

A page from letter of James Dredge to Rev. D. Harding, 12 September 1840. [MS 11625, Box 16/6. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.]

promote the benefit of the oppressed, degraded Aborigine — I spent the paltry Salary (for paltry it is — not being worth more than £100. in England) lavished upon me, in getting into the interior myself, and conveying my family thither, constructing a residence &c. — for which I was obliged to buy tools &c &c. I opened a communication with several Native Tribes, travelled at least two thousand miles, often without food — and sleeping on the ground in the open air. From time to time I made such representations of their actual condition and pressing necessities to the Government as, in my judgement, required urgent attention, as the making immediate provision for their support by the reservation of land — but especially the indispensable importance of appointing, or employing, a Missionary to impart to them the Knowledge of God. No attention, however, was paid to these representations further than to intimate that no increase of means could be afforded. During thirteen months residence among them — far away from civilized society — my wife and family unprotected — without a servant, and consequently compelled to labour beyond her strength, Mrs Dredge's health received such a shock as to require a speedy alteration of circumstances — and as I saw no hope of benefiting either myself or the Blacks I tendered my resignation. I did not, however, hastily come to this determination, I sought advice of the Preachers and others of our friends — who were unanimous in recommending my abandonment of a measure so hopeless as to any beneficial issue. Upon tendering my resignation I received testimonials of approbation from the Chief Protector and the Superintendent of Port Phillip who is the representative of the Government here, but without power — both of whom were anxious to retain my services. In Sir Geo. Gipps's reply, however, there was such a display of evident hostility to the Department that — notwithstanding some concessions — I conceived it my duty to abide by my determination, and my connection with the Government, consequently, ceased on the 30th of June. I am prepared to shew by indisputable arguments that the Government scheme of Aboriginal Protection must fail of accomplishing any permanent good to the Natives, and therefore I could not conscientiously continue its Agent. My arguments are involved in this — The Heathen are Christ's inheritance (I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance) and are to be gathered to Him by means of His own appointment (Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every Creature) but the Government scheme of Protecting the Native Tribes makes no provision for their spiritual instruction, therefore, it is not of Christ's appointment and cannot have His blessing:– in other words it must fail of producing any adequate good. The thing then is reduced to a mere worldly enterprise, or occupation. And in this view of it, it is so irksome and profitless that I would not walk a mile to attain it, although by relinquishing it I sacrifice my rank as a Colonial Magistrate. I now, therefore, with a good conscience, turn my attention to pursuits which I trust will, in due time, enable me to attain one of the main objects of my repatriation to this distant land. Most deeply, however, do I deplore the condition of my black brother in this vast territory. I am confident their case will never be bettered until Missionaries are sent amongst them. O that British Christians might feel an interest in their welfare and send them Missionaries.
Begging our kind remembrance to Mrs Harding, the members of your family, and all enquiring friends —
I am, My dear Sir,
Yours Most Truly

James Dredge
Mr. D. Harding
Annotation: This letter is contained in the letter book of James Dredge held in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 11625. The letterbook contains copies of letters written by Dredge between 20 April 1839 and 3 January 1845, covering the period of his stay at the Goulburn River (which is described in this issue by his great-great-great-granddaughter, Rhonda Dredge) and subsequent years in Melbourne (where he was a Wesleyan preacher and schoolmaster, as well as storekeeper for a time) and Geelong (where he was a Wesleyan preacher from July 1842 to July 1843).
The letter, addressed to one of Dredge's Salisbury friends, Rev. D. Harding, presents Dredge's considered view of the colony of Port Phillip and the Protectorate. Dredge's account needs to be read in the light of his desire, as he put it in his diary, ‘to fully engage in spreading the Gospel of Peace and make known to sinners the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (29 September 1817). As a young man he was attracted to the idea of being a missionary, and one of the heaviest disappointments he experienced in a life of failures was his rejection by the Wesleyan Missionary Society for mission work in 1820. The closest he came to realising his dream of being a missionary was his appointment, eighteen years later, as an Assistant Protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip.
John Barnes