State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 61 Autumn 1998


Aborigines of Australia under Civilisation
As seen in Colonial Illustrated Newspapers

The title of this article, ‘Aborigines of Australia under Civilisation’, comes from an album of 21 photographs relating to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station assembled in the mid 1860s by Carl Walter (1831–1907), a German immigrant to Victoria in 1856 who appears to have subsequently developed an interest in photography. From about 1862, he spent 20 years making periodic solo expeditions into the eastern and alpine regions of the colony carrying a 50-pound (25-kilogram) pack containing his camping gear and wet plate camera equipment. He displayed considerable resourcefulness in preparing, exposing and developing his glass plate negatives, then returning to his Melbourne studio where he advertised himself as a ‘Country Photographic Artist’ and later as a ‘Landscape Photographic Artist’. Particularly in the 1860s Walter devoted much of his photographic work to recording the Aborigines on the government stations at Coranderrk (Healesville), Ramahyuck (Lake Wellington) and Lake Tyers.1 Presumably Walter's motive in compiling the ‘Aborigines of Australia under Civilisation’ album was to make him better known as a photographer; in other words, it was a way of displaying photographs at colonial exhibitions, and making his work known to the public and to the editors of illustrated newspapers by whom they could then be reproduced as wood engraved illustrations. Walter has been described as ‘possibly Australia's first photojournalist.’2
Illustrated newspapers were published in colonial Australia from 1853 to 1896. The early, predominantly weekly papers of the 1850s were mostly short-lived, but after 1862 and the transition to monthly issue, there were some very successful papers. Melbourne was the centre of their production with the leading papers being the Illustrated Melbourne Post (1862–68), Illustrated Australian News (1862–96) and Australasian Sketcher (1873–89).3 These papers relied on a network of artists and photographers, both professional and amateur, to supply them with sketches and photographs for reproduction as illustrations. Walter, for example, supplied all three papers with approximately 100 photographs: country town panoramas, landscapes and images of Aborigines. These three subject areas form part of a much broader mosaic of illustrations in the papers that included imagery of buildings, streetscapes, manufacturing, exhibitions, shipping, people, civic occasions, sport, rural life and natural disasters. There are an estimated 15,000 different images in all the illustrated newspapers of colonial Australia, of which approximately 1.8 per cent, or 243 separate illustrations related to Aborigines.4
The great advantage of newspaper illustrations compared with photographs or sketches in researching colonial Australian history is that they come with an
accompanying article. Indeed, it is this combination of image and text which defines an illustration: a pictorial image which complements a text by providing a visual representation of the same subject. The key to understanding the complexities of this image-text linkage is that the text serves to anchor the intended meaning of the image from the variety of possible meanings that could spring to mind from just looking at the image.5 With a photograph or sketch, by contrast, there is no accompanying text that can fulfil this role. For example, with the ‘Aborigines of Australia under Civilisation’ album, the only real clue to the intended meaning of the various photographs, notwithstanding the very brief captions for each image, is the title of the album. On the other hand, three of the photographs from the album were reproduced as illustrations to accompany a full-page article in the Illustrated Australian News of 25 August 1863 — entitled ‘The Aboriginal Settlement at Coranderrk’. The article gives a description of the station, the daily routine with its mix of religious instruction, farm work and schooling, and mini-biographies of the superintendent and three of the 103 Aboriginal residents. In discussing the purpose of the station as a means of acculturating the Aborigines to European values, the article commented:
Nowhere else in the Australian colonies is there to be seen so large a number of natives collected together, of whom it can be said that they appear to be reclaimed from their former wandering and savage life, and to be conformed to the manners of Europeans. They are all dressed in European clothing, not received in charity, but acquired by their own industry.
It is quotations like this, which, when coupled with an illustration, demonstrate the extent to which illustrated newspapers provide a snapshot reflection of colonial society and its attitudes. Firstly, there was the indisputable appeal of the visual; a point that was reinforced during the second quarter of the nineteenth century by the explosion of imagery that resulted from the advent of illustrated newspapers and photography. The result was that ‘people came to learn about the world through pictures rather than through words.’6 Secondly, illustrated newspapers circulated freely in the public sphere of nineteenth-century western culture, reflecting and informing public opinion. Photographs, by contrast, were much more restricted to the private sphere. This is not to deny they were on public display, in photographers’ studios, at exhibitions and in penny-operated stereoscopic viewers; however, in their most common vehicle, the album, they were essentially destined for private viewing.
The range of images relating to Aborigines in the illustrated newspapers can be divided into three broad categories. Approximately 43 per cent depicted ‘traditional’ Aboriginal culture such as camps, hunting, corroborees and burial practices; 16 per cent were concerned with frontier conflict and its aftermath, dispossession; and finally, 36 per cent dealt with issues arising from cross-cultural relations between Aborigines and Europeans: black trackers, alcohol, mission stations. The remaining five per cent of images were of miscellaneous subjects. If any common theme can be found in relation to this range of imagery, it was that of uncivilised Aborigines being contrasted with colonial progress.
It was a slightly earlier German compatriot of Carl Walter, Ludwig Becker (1808–61), who encapsulated the ideology of colonial progress in an article he wrote to accompany the illustration, Notabilities of Bendigo, which appeared in the Newsletter of Australasia of September 1857 (Fig. 1). Depicting the ravaging of the landscape that was caused by the goldrushes, the foreground is dominated by four massive tree trunks which had been given macabre appellations by the local diggers: The Bishop of Bendigo, Monk and Lubra, and The Philosopher of Bendigo. A solitary Aboriginal crosses the landscape, one which would have been hardly recognisable as that from six years earlier:
“Grass does not grow upon a miner's path,” is a German proverb, very applicable to the Diggings. Here flourished once the noble forest. Children of nature here found shelter and a home. Then came the peaceful shepherds with their flocks creeping slowly through it. “Eureka!” Suddenly there comes from the south a storm of human beings—the peace of untold centuries is broken—the very frame of earth is bared for hidden treasure—the ancient trees are felled for the service of invaders, the saplings become supports of dwellings: sometimes yet a charred and sapless trunk is found still standing upright, like a shade of Hades, and the fancy of the miners clothe it in romance, as it seems to look down upon the busy, never-ceasing strife beneath, as one of a race of giants, long since passed away.
The true significance of this quotation resides in its correlation with the eighteenthcentury Enlightenment idea of societal progress as a four-stage sequence: savage or primitive hunter-gatherer tribal culture, semi-nomadic pastoralism, settled agriculture and market town-based commerce. In the context of 1850s Victoria, a concession has obviously been made by Becker to the economic importance of gold to colonial progress. Although this Enlightenment conceptualisation of societal development had long since passed out of fashion in European intellectual circles, it retained considerable currency in colonial Australia as a scheme which made sense of the conversion of a wilderness environment into a civilisation. It enabled colonists to rationalise attitudes towards the Aborigines, the stocking of land with sheep and cattle, the development of farming and the advance of commerce based on the export of wool.7
The four-stage model, or ‘The Course of Empire’ as it was known by poets and artists, had also given rise to debate during the Enlightenment and afterwards as to whether progress was cyclical or linear. Before the publication by Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species (1859), the cyclical argument had held sway. The Aborigines, accordingly, were seen as the degenerative remnant of a former civilisation, a twist to ‘The Course of Empire’ which sowed the seed for the colonial idea that they were doomed to extinction. The growing conviction of colonists that the Aborigines were incapable of becoming civilised through their contact with European civilisation was taken to be further confirmatory evidence in support of this idea. By the late 1860s and the rise of the science of race, the linear argument was in the ascendancy. In particular, evolutionary anthropologists stated that the Aboriginal Australian race, like the native fauna of Australia, had occupied an evolutionary backwater. Furthermore,
they would never become civilised and the best that could be done was to make their last days as comfortable as possible. In the interim, their Stone Age culture could provide valuable insights into how other more advanced human races had once lived.8 It was the ongoing appeal of ‘The Course of Empire’ scheme and the dialectic between the cyclical and linear arguments, which informed colonial attitudes to the coverage of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal culture, frontier conflict and subsequent dispossession, and cross-cultural relations in the illustrated newspapers.
In the depiction of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal culture, the ethnographic interest in a hunter-gather mode of subsistence was coupled with growing frustration over the Aborigines’ failure to civilise themselves. During the 1850s and 1860s, the articles accompanying images of camps, hunting, corroborees and burial practices were generally very descriptive and without any overt denigration of their ‘primitive’ culture. In the 1870s, however, this changed. Even an innocuous illustration such as Native Hunters from the Illustrated Australian News of 22 February 1870 (Fig. 2), which could be viewed as simply an idyllic depiction of a family group preparing to roast a freshly killed kangaroo, could provide a platform for commenting on the Aborigines as being a doomed race:
Of the many thousands who once inhabited the region now known to all the world as Victoria, not more than two thousand survive, and this poor remnant is fast dwindling under the influence of drink and disease.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is estimated over 50 per cent of the pre-contact Aboriginal population of the Port Phillip District did succumb to disease, there is only a passing mention of frontier conflict having been a factor, even though this resulted in an estimated 1,000 Aborigines being killed by colonists. No mention is made either of the consequences that dispossession had for inter-tribal conflict, this resulting in the death of another 1,000 Aborigines, either in tribal skirmishes or at the hands of the Native Police.9 The article goes on to comment on the hopes of civilising the remnant survivors:
Under favorable circumstances and with careful treatment, such as they receive at the Coranderrk station … they evince capabilities of civilisation to a hopeful extent; but generally speaking, they never care to live at one place long enough to learn settled and industrious habits… [since] the greater number prefer a roving life in the bush, where the pursuit of kangaroos, opossums, ducks and different kinds of native game furnishes them with food and occupation. If they can obtain sufficient food for the day they care little about the morrow.
The remainder of the article discussed the scene in the engraving, the intended meaning of which, by this stage, had been well and truly established.
It is significant that it was only during the latter half of the 1860s and in the 1870s that illustrations relating to frontier conflict and the dispossession of the Aborigines appear in the illustrated newspapers in any appreciable number. There were three inter-related reasons. Firstly, it was this period which saw the expansion of

Fig. 1: ‘Notabilities of Bendigo’, Newsletter of Australasia, September 1857. [ LTF 052.9 N47, La Trobe Rare Books Collection, SLV.]

Fig. 2: ‘Native Hunters’, Illustrated Australian News, 22 February 1870. [Picture Collection, SLV.]

both the pastoral and mining frontiers in Queensland, this resulting in several illustrations depicting frontier conflict between Aborigines and settlers and miners respectively. Secondly, the period saw the apparent extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines, with an illustration, ‘King Billy’, in the Illustrated Australian News of 19 April 1869 marking the death of the last male, then seven years later, illustrations of Trucanini, the last female, in the Australasian Sketcher of 10 June 1876 and Illustrated Australian News of 12 June 1876. Her death was commented upon in the latter paper with typical sanguineness for the period:
The death of this last scion of a once numerous race is an event in the history of Tasmania of no common interest; and it may well serve to “point a moral and adorn a tale” on the question of the gradual but certain extinction of the aboriginal races of these southern lands.
Thirdly, and possibly stemming from the first two reasons, there was the inclusion of a number of illustrations depicting historical or imaginative incidents relating to frontier conflict in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. With Australian Aborigines—War from the Illustrated Melbourne Post of 27 May 1867 (Fig. 3), the accompanying article describes an imaginary attack by some Aborigines on a shepherd's hut, only to conclude, ‘Fortunately, outrages of this kind are now almost unknown, except in the far north.’ The net effect of such illustrations for the readers of the papers was a mythologising of frontier conflict in the name of progress yet without the sordidness of having to record an actual incident.
A similar myth-making by the papers could also be considered to have occurred with the depiction of cross-cultural relations between Aborigines and Europeans. Emphasis was given to the positives such as the civilising role of the mission stations, as opposed to the negatives, particularly the introduction of alcohol. Up until the 1880s, the mission stations were viewed as the best hope for the survival of the Aborigines, it often being inferred that if they did not avail themselves of the benefits of European civilisation by moving on to reservations and adapting to European civilisation, then it was they themselves who had to take responsibility for dying out. What with the active encouragement and support that was coming from their European benefactors with the establishment of reservations, surely the loss of a seminomadic way of life was a small price to pay. Yet it was almost with a tone of exasperation that the article accompanying Opening of the Railway to Beaufort—Astonishment of the Aborigines from the Illustrated Australian News of 7 September 1874 observed:
a large proportion of the aborigines still prefer their vagrant life, and will endure privations and want of food rather than submit to the most trifling amount of restraint.
As for the portrayal of life on the stations, it was Coranderrk that was given the broadest coverage by the Victorian papers. It was the closest to Melbourne, the most established in terms of both buildings erected and agricultural viability (particularly through the cultivation of hops), and, under the superintendence of John Green, the most successful with regard to harmonious relations between the Aboriginal residents

Fig. 3: Australian Aborigines — War. [Calvert Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.]

Fig. 4: ‘Wedding Ceremony at the Aboriginal Station, Coranderrk’, Illustrated Australian News, 25 April 1868. [Picture Collection, SLV.]

and the superintendent.10 No better proof of the civilising purpose of the missions could be had than with the illustration, Wedding Ceremony at the Aboriginal Station, Coranderrk, from the Illustrated Australian News of 25 April 1868 (Fig. 4). It depicted the fourth wedding ceremony to be held at the station, and one in which five couples were married, thereby showing, according to the accompanying article, ‘that a desire for proper matrimonial relations is growing among the blacks.’ Indeed, the article gave a quite detailed description of proceedings, and it reads just like an account of a white wedding (no pun intended). The cross-cultural impact of these weddings was such that an Aboriginal superstition relating to ‘traditional’ marriage ceremonies had been discarded. And on the subject of wedding presents, so to speak, four new huts had been built for the newly-married couples. Somewhat cynically, the writer of the article, who was present at the service, wrote:
Thus, then, there is every inducement for these people to remain on the station, for they could hardly be more comfortable. Indeed, the answer I received from several when interrogated on the subject was, “Oh, no; not go back to the bush; much better here.”
The writer went on to relate how a small group of residents who had left the station because of the outbreak of an epidemic were treated as pariahs; from which it is evident that the process of civilising was all or nothing.
In the papers of the 1880s there was a declining level of interest in the Aborigines, as evidenced by both a reduction in the number of illustrations and a change of tone in the accompanying articles. The reason, from a myopic colonial perspective was oxymoronic, as encapsulated by the opening to an article accompanying Robbing a Bee Tree from the Illustrated Australian News of 30 April 1887:
Aboriginal races seem to have become more and more interesting as they gradually die out or are swept from off the face of the earth by the ever-advancing wave of European civilisation. To the antiquarian, the ethnologist and philosopher they present an illimitable field for study and contemplation. Their origin, language and customs afford invaluable materials for purposes of comparison and speculation, which must always occupy a prominent place in the literature of every country. The Australian blacks and the Maoris are now rapidly approaching extinction, and in time we will learn to treasure the simplest memento, the most ordinary object which serves to give a faithful illustration of a primitive people who, with their forests, their hunting grounds and their strange superstitions and traditions, have entirely disappeared. To the home reader such matters must prove of special interest. To the white population of the colonies blacks have ceased to attract attention.
In effect, colonists were seen to have not only given up hope of civilising the Aborigines, but to be not even interested in what could be learnt from the Aborigines at an anthropological level. From the perspective of the illustrated newspapers, what interest that remained in the doomed race was mostly given over to memorialising the Aborigines, almost as if they were already extinct. With regard to ‘traditional’ Aboriginal culture, this memorialising was epitomised by The Native Encampment,

Fig. 6 (left): ‘Memorial Obolisk to the Aborigines’, Australasian Sketcher, 7 April 1886. [Picture Collection, SLV.]

Fig. 5 (below): ‘The Native Encampment, Zoological Gardens, Royal Park’, Australasian Sketcher, 26 August 1882. [Picture Collection, SLV.]

Zoological Gardens, Royal Park
in the Australasian Sketcher of 26 August 1882 (Fig. 5). It depicts a replica of an Aboriginal camp, based on drawings from the early days of the colony, which had been constructed recently at the Melbourne Zoo. Authentic materials had been used and the weapons, nets and other artefacts were of ‘real native workmanship’. The inclusion of an Aboriginal woman in front of the foremost mia mia was accounted for in the accompanying article:
To make the scene more life-like our artist has introduced the figure of a native gin squatting, native fashion, in front of the rude hut.
As for the memorialising of frontier conflict, there was Memorial Obelisk to the Aborigines from the Australasian Sketcher of 7 April 1886 (Fig. 6). It depicts a monument which had been erected in the cemetery at Camperdown, in the wealthy, wool growing Western District of Victoria, in memory of the extinct tribes of the immediate area, due to the initiative of James Dawson, a local pioneer landowner. His long and active interest in the district's Aborigines had already been evidenced by his book, Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria (1881). More recently, he had returned home after a lengthy period overseas to find the last of the local Aborigines buried in a boggy, unmarked grave outside the local cemetery. With the help of some ‘sympathising friends of the aborigines, “all of the olden time”’, but not always from ‘the leading land occupiers of the Camperdown district, whose estates were originally the hunting grounds of the local tribes’, Dawson raised the money for a monument:
It is 20 ft. in height, and the column or shaft is of grey granite. The date 1840 at the top of the column is the commencement of the extinction of the local tribes… and at the bottom, 1883, the date of their total extinction. The column stands on a massive base of the same material, finely polished and has engraved on it in golden letters:—“In memory of the aborigines of this district. Here lies the body of the chief Wombeetch Puyuum, and last of the local tribes.”
Finally, in relation to the high hopes that were once held for the civilising role of the mission stations, there was Dolce far niente [Sweet Nothings]: An Aboriginal Interpretation from the Illustrated Australian News of 1 October 1895 (Fig. 7). It depicts a group of Aborigines at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station who, after the innumerable Aborigines Protection Board policy changes concerning the station, had now been ‘enabled in the twilight of their race to pass out their existence with freedom from toil and an assurance of plenty to eat’:
The civilising influences of European habiliments have not eradicated the aboriginal tendency to laziness, and the native group in store clothes which make the picture exhibit as strongly as in their accustomed adornment, the desire to loll about and lie reclined, careless of any consideration other that their ease, until the demands of hunger stir them again into activity. In reflecting and informing colonial opinion, the illustrated newspapers had contributed to the entwining of The Idea of Progress that had originally been
propounded by eighteenth-century European civilisation and the supposed racial superiority of Europeans which had been assumed by nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropologists.11 The result was an enshrining of racist attitudes towards Aborigines that have yet to be fully unravelled.12
Peter Dowling

Fig. 7: ‘Dolce far niente: An Aboriginal interpretation’, Illustrated Australian News, 1 October 1895. [Picture Collection, SLV.]


J. Kerr (ed.), The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 834–35.


Ibid., p. 834.


P. Dowling, ‘Destined not to Survive: The Illustrated Newspapers of Colonial Australia’, Studies in Newspaper and Periodical History, 1995 Annual, 1997, for a comprehensive account of the publishing history of colonial illustrated newspapers.


See ‘Index to Illustrations relating to Aborigines in the Illustrated Newspapers of Colonial Australia’. It is important to note that this figure of 243 separate illustrations does not mean 243 different illustrations. This was due to the common practice in the 1860s and 1870s of papers reprinting illustrations from other papers that had either folded earlier or were published in another colony, either New South Wales or South Australia. In this context, of the 243 separate illustrations, approximately 20 per cent were reprints, which leaves a total of 190 different illustrations.


J. Mulvey, ‘Pictures with Words: A Critique of Alain-Marie Bassy's Approach’, Information Design Journal, 5/2 (1988), esp. pp. 156–58.


G. Needham, 19th Century Realist Art, New York: Harper & Row, 1988. p. 36. With regard to illustrated newspapers, the decade of the 1830s saw the commercial application of the wood engraving process (pioneered by Thomas Bewick at the turn of the nineteenth century) to the publishing of mass produced, mass circulation illustrated magazines, the first being the Penny Magazine (1832–45). As for photography, in 1839, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot announced independently of each other their invention of photography.


R. Dixon, The Course of Empire: Neo-Classical Culture in New South Wales, 1788–1860, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986, ‘Introduction’.


R. McGregor, Imagined Destinies Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880–1939, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1997, ch. 1, ‘The Creation and Annihilation of Primitive Man’.


R. Broome, Aboriginal Australians: Black Response to White Dominance, 1788–1980, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1982, p. 61.


Ibid., p. 74.


McGregor, Imagined Destinies, p. 21.


Broome, Aboriginal Australians, ch. 6, ‘Racism Enshrined’ (ie., referring to the title of the chapter).