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Lately I’ve been wondering what kinds of people were living around the Beechworth area when gold was first discovered in early 1852. By this time, the local Aboriginal peoples had been reduced to small bands of survivors who had witnessed an horrific genocide of their families and clansmen — a genocide wrought by the first European settlers. While it cannot be said that every single white settler was directly involved in this genocide, the killers were thick among them — and so it’s worthwhile asking, in a broad sense, who were these people? The answer is, in fact, reasonably simple; even though generations of local historians almost never mention it. 

nma_130117_ma23067364_convict_leg_irons

Image: courtesy National Museum of Australia.

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes subject matter that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

While researching this period of early European invasion and settlement of North East Victoria (broadly mid-1830s to mid-1840s, although most of the settlement happened in a single year — 1838), I’ve come across a number of glaring ‘myth-conceptions’, which are perpetrated in just about every history book concerning the region. It’s perhaps understandable how such errors came about: the well-to-do early European settlers who continued to stay living in the region and who went on to have descendants who in turn stayed locally, became the people who were remembered best in local histories. (If you read local history, you’ll be familiar with names like David Reid and Thomas Mitchell). As a consequence, their experiences were taken as indicative of the whole picture of early European settlement in North East Victoria. And yet, numerically, these men were very much in the minority.

Conversely, the people whose involvement in settling the North East Victorian region was either comparatively brief, or those who did not go on to become ‘pillars’ of local society, were barely remembered at all. Thus local history became slanted in favour of the ‘stayers’, who would be forever memorialised as ‘our pioneers’ — as if the only early settlers of the region were free men who came here of their own volition, with the ‘heroic’ intention of single-handedly converting ‘virgin’ countryside into productive grazing land. To say that this picture is at odds with the truth on numerous counts is an understatement.

Several of the largest misconceptions perpetrated about the early European settlers of North East Victoria are ones of omission, and in this post I will tackle but one of them. To illustrate this point, I will for now avoid narrating historical events, if only to present a simple characterisation by way of examples.

***

It should be obvious that none of the ‘pioneers’ who ‘settled’ North East Victoria (the ‘squatters’ who took out licenses to ‘despature flocks and herds’ on Crown Lands, establishing the first pastoral stations of the region) did so single-handedly. When they first arrived in search of grazing lands, invariably with a few thousand head of sheep and/or hundred head of cattle in tow, they arrived in territory which was already fully occupied by Aboriginal peoples of the region: clans of the Waywurru (Waveroo), Dhudhuroa, and so-called ‘Mogullumbidj’ peoples [1]. They not only had to establish head-stations and out-stations from which stock could be managed, but do so while simultaneously dispossessing the original inhabitants. Such a feat could only be managed with the assistance of a labour force.

Each station commonly had a manager or overseer, and various stockmen, shepherds, bullock drivers, and sometimes their wives (who worked as hut-keepers). This workforce, which comprised the majority of non-Aboriginal people in North East Victoria from the late 1830s through to perhaps the gold rush of 1851-2  — people who have remained largely invisible in most local history books — were convicts, comprising either those who had been allocated as ‘assigned servants’ while still serving out their sentences, those who had been given a ‘ticket-of-leave’ (akin to being ‘on parole’), or those who had finished their sentences.

The predominance of convicts can be found in any description of the first overlanding parties to settle in North East Victoria. Among the earliest to attempt to settle were the Faithfull Brothers. After their ‘Convoy of sheep and Cattle’ was attacked and seven men killed by Aborigines at Winding Swamp (Broken River, present-day Benalla), in April 1838, Governor Gipps lamented to Lord Glenelg ‘These men (who were chiefly convicts) did not defend themselves, but ran at the first appearance of their assailants’. [2]  The partnership of Morrice, Wilde and McKenzie, who would take up Kergunyah station, was rare among squatters in that they had decided to employ a free man, George Kinchington, as their station manager. Nevertheless, their overlanding party, which arrived with 200 head of cattle on the Murray in June 1838,  also had an ‘ex-convict for stockman, and two convict prisoners, one acting as bullock-driver, the other as helper with the cattle.’ [3] Likewise, when David Reid Junior reached the Ovens River on 8 September 1838 (settling on what would become ‘Carraragarmungee’ station), he had been equipped by his father Dr David Reid with 500 head of cattle, 2 bullock wagons and teams and 6 assigned servants. [4]

Not only were members of the convict class to be found among the labourers of the pastoral runs; but emancipated convicts were, on occasion, also to be found as station holders in their own right. Among their number were George Grey and his family, at ‘Pelican Lagoons’ (a small run neighbouring George Faithfull’s, situated in the wedge of land between the Ovens and King Rivers, after which the property ‘The Pelican’ on the Oxley Flats Road is named today). While touring the North East of Victoria in the Autumn of 1840, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, and Assistant Protector James Dredge, met the Greys. Robinson said of them, ‘These people have, I believe, been convicts… They are in middling circumstances and have commenced dairying, but appear not the most efficient’, [5] while Assistant Protector James Dredge, added dryly, that they were ‘a large family, apparently not remarkable for cleanliness or industry.’ [6] Before going to North East Victoria, Grey had operated a station in the Monaro district in association with Benjamin Warby, and it is likely that he came over with cattle from the Monaro to Wangaratta at the same time as, and in association with the Warbys, who took up land at Taminick Plains. [7] While Robinson wrote that, ‘One of the Warby brothers, I have been informed, has been transported for cattle stealing,’ [8] it seems that is it was Benjamin’s father, John Warby, who (with William Deards) had been convicted of stealing two asses in October 1790 and had been sentenced to seven years transportation. [9]

On the face of it, stealing two asses is not the worst crime known to man, but before you gallop away with the romantic notion that most convicts were downtrodden souls cruelly incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread or a packet of sewing needles, let me impress upon you the findings of eminent academic historian Alan Frost:

‘It is one of the abiding myths of Australian history that many of those sentenced to transportation… were hapless victims of a savage penal code and an uncaring, class-driven society. It seems not to matter how often or with what clarity the real situation is explained…  It would be silly to claim that there were never miscarriages of justice, or that harsh penalties were not given for what we should now consider minor offences. … However, the plain fact is that the majority of 18th century convicts sentenced to transportation were convicted of crimes that we continue to consider serious.’ [10]

This is to say, most convicts arrived in Australia after committing either violent crime, theft of a substantial criminal nature (often with threats of violence), or very occasionally, political crimes. For example, on Oxley Plains, one of George Faithfull’s original stockmen (and longest surviving — he would die a centenarian at Edi in the King Valley in 1903), had been transported for beating a man to death in a fist fight. [11]

And like all convicts, these people also had been subjected to a harsh penal system, which may have reinforced their worst tendencies. Squatter George Grey had been given a conditional pardon for what was originally a life sentence (he was an Irish rebel, convicted as a member of the agrarian-terrorist movement, the Defenders), and he also had been given three hundred lashes for his role in an attempted mutiny aboard the convict ship Brittania in 1797 — a voyage which in itself became infamous for the cruelty of its sadistic captain, Thomas Dennott. [12] In other words, the convict servants (and some of the lower-tier squatters) working on the stations of North East Victoria, were people who, for the most part, were either brutal before they hit the penal system, or had been brutalised by it.

Making matters worse, the region’s ‘Border Police’ force had been established on the cheap by using soldiers who had been transported from South Africa to New South Wales as convicts. [13]

It’s an unstated fact, but the ability to undertake wanton acts of brutality was a payable skill on frontier. Brutality was of practical use in dispossessing Aboriginal peoples of their land, and many convict labourers were — in their day — notorious for their violent attitudes and actions towards local Aboriginal peoples. Writing many years later of the years 1839-44, during which he had overlanded through Yackandandah, Barwidgee and the King Valley with a group of stockman, James Demarr recalled, ‘the white men had been flowing into this newly-discovered country with their flocks and herds… and many of the men they had brought with them were the scum of the earth, so that collisions with the blacks were inevitable.’ Demarr continued:

‘The blacks were driven away from their ancient positions, their hunting grounds taken possession of, their game either destroyed or driven away, and they themselves driven back into mountain fastnesses; the consequence was the black sort every opportunity of revenge, killing the solitary shepherd and stockman whenever they had the opportunity of doing so, and scattering, and partly destroying the flocks and herds. The settlers retaliated in their own way, and old colonists know what that means. … Many of the settlers were well-disposed towards the blacks, and there were men [i.e.: labourers] also like-minded, but the ruffian element mixed up with them, brought on conflicts with the blacks that the kindly disposed were powerless to prevent.’ [14]

Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, and Assistant Protector, James Dredge, were among those who came face-to-face with such ‘ruffian elements’ at ‘Myrhee’ station on the west bank of the King River, owned by absentee squatter John Chisholm (yet another station neighbouring George Faithfull) — ruffian elements which by May Day of 1840 had been inflamed by the fact that a shepherd on their run had been ritually murdered by Aborigines only days before. [15] Robinson wrote, ‘Harry Broadribb, a man who has been a prisoner, acts as overseer.’ [16] Dredge noted with displeasure, ‘His wife got some refreshment for us, but raved an swore awfully against the blacks.’ [17] Robinson provided more detail: ‘Mrs Broadribb is a low hard woman, been I imagine a prisoner. She was not acquainted with us and went on about the blacks in a most strange manner. She would have them all burnt, hung, drowned or any death, provided they were got rid of. She applied the vilest epithets to them and would shower out of volley of abuse upon Broadribb for harbouring the wretches.’ [18]

Two stockmen who worked for Dr George Edward Mackay at ‘Whorouly’ (on yet another station that bordered George Faithful’s ‘Oxley Plains’), became notorious for their violence towards the Aboriginal population, particularly after another attack made by a band of Aboriginals resulted in the death of one of Whorouly’s stockmen. Writing his anonymous reminiscences for the Border Post in 1875, one old station hand recalled Mackay’s stockman, named Bill Thomas — a ticket-of-leave man, who had served as a bullock driver on two of Major Thomas Mitchell’s expeditions into the interior, including the Third Expedition during which Mitchell and his party killed seven Aborigines near Mount Dispersion. [19] According to this writer in the Border Post, Thomas ‘was a most diabolical fellow – a perfect tiger – who was determined to have his revenge on the natives, and, indeed, there were others amongst us that thirsted for satisfaction. Some advised poison, but Thomas met them with the quotation – “Whose sheddeth man’s blood, by blood shall his blood be shed”.’ [20] Thomas clearly escaped any form of repercussions for his actions, but when word got back to Governor Gipps that ‘acts of cruelty had been committed on the aborigines’ of the Ovens district, none could overlook rumours and suggestions regarding the actions of stockman Ben Reid (no relation to squatter David Reid), whose ‘conduct toward the aborigines was complained of by Robinson’ and who subsequently had his ticket-of-leave cancelled and was returned to Sydney. [21] Ben Reid was no doubt among those who, in squatter Joseph Docker’s words, was responsible for the ‘considerable amount of black men’s blood which has already been shed.’ Robinson’s chief complaint against him was that, ‘Reid has had several collisions with the natives, it is feared many have been of fatal character to the aborigines.’ [22]

***

This characteristic aspect of the early settlement of North East Victoria — it’s settlement in the main either by seasoned absentee pastoralists or by inexperienced young sons of the same, who were in turn supported by a crude if not wholly brutal convict labour force  — ranks among the factors which combined to make it possible for the European invaders to kill large numbers of local Aboriginal peoples, and to keep the facts of the matter sufficiently secret from government authorities so that effectively nothing could or would be done to stop it.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that every convict labourer was blood-thirsty and wanted to destroy local Aboriginal people — indeed at least three local squatters Joseph Docker (‘Bontharambo’), Ben Barber (‘Barnawatha’) and for as long as he was there, William Brodribb (who held a station on the Broken River which became known as ‘The Junction’, [and who was no relation to the manager of ‘Myhree’]), were notable for the way in which they all employed local Aboriginal people as labourers in the very early days of ‘settlement’. [23] In the Autumn of 1840, George Augustus Robinson ruminated in his journal on why some stations suffered from what was commonly termed ‘depredations from the blacks,’ including substantial losses from having stock either speared or chased away; whereas other station holders suffered almost no losses of stock at all. ‘Mr Broadrib said yesterday that the blacks had speared more of Mr Faithful’s cattle, than of any other person. … There must be some cause for this’ he pondered. ‘Mr Christie lost one or 200 cattle, yet these people say they never allow blacks to come to their stations.’ Conversely, the stations which employed Aboriginal people, and allowed them to travel and camp on the land, had few problems. [24] All is suggestive of a ‘top down’ attitude being responsible for the treatment of Aborigines: that whereas every station employed a brutal and brutalised labour force, on some stations these convict labourers were encouraged by their employers to slaughter Aboriginal people; whereas on other stations they were encouraged to act towards them with tolerance. And the Aboriginal peoples responded accordingly.

References

[1] Concerning the Waywurru (Waveroo), Dhudhuroa, and so-called ‘Mogullumbidj’ peoples, the best works I have read on the nation-boundaries and naming for these Aboriginal peoples, which take into consideration all previous work on the North East area (E.M. Curr (1883), R.B. Smythe (1878), A. Howitt (1904), R.H. Matthews (1905), N. Tindale (1940, 1974), D. Barwick (1984, plus manuscript material produced shortly before her death in 1986, now held in the State Library Victoria), M.H. Fels (1996, 1997), S. Wesson (2000), et al), are by Dr Ian Clarke. Clark has written his papers with a knowledge of the various professional limitations associated with earlier works — those written especially prior to access to critical primary source materials such as the Journals and collected papers of George Augustus Robinson, the journals of William Thomas, and the private papers of Alfred Howitt.

Clark, Ian, ‘Aboriginal language areas in Northeast Victoria: ‘Mogullumbidj’ reconsidered.’ Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 81 Issue 2 (Nov 2010), 181-192.

Clark, Ian, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22

Clark, Ian, ‘Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction,’ Aboriginal History, 2009, VOL 33, pp.201-229.

[2] SIR GEORGE GIPPS TO LORD GLENELG. (Despatch No. 115, per ship Superb; acknowledged by Lord Glenelg, 21st December, 1838.) in: Australian Aborigines: Copies or extracts of despatches relative to the massacre of various Aborigines in Australia, in the year 1838, and respecting the trial of their murderers; compiled by the British Colonial Office, 19 August 1839.

[3] ‘YACKANDANDAH IN 1838. SOME REMINISCENCES. BY MR. GEORGE KINCHINGTON,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 September, 1899, p.8.

[4] Reminiscences of David Reid: as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, type-written manuscript, p.21.

[5] Ian D Clark (ed), Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Protectorate, issued in 6 parts, Heritage Matters, Melbourne, 1998-2000, this entry from Volume 1, entry for Friday 1 May 1840, p.273.

[6] James Dredge, Assistant Protector, Goulburn Protectorate, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16]. The diaries contain daily and weekly entries from 1817 to 1833 and 1839–1843. This entry: Friday 1 May 1840.

[7] Harry Stephenson, Cobungra Station and Other Mountain Stories, published for the Mountain Cattleman’s Association, Omeo, 1985, p.3.

[8] George Augustus Robinson, Vol 1, 2 May 1840, p.275.

[9] For information on Benjamin Warby’s father John Warby, see entry on the well-researched website called ‘Australian Royalty’.

[10] Alan Frost, Botany Bay — The Real Story, Black Ink, Melbourne, 2012, p.54.

[11] ‘DEATH OF A CENTENARIAN AT EDI.’ Euroa Advertiser, Friday 27 February 1903, p.3.

[12] On George Grey, see entry on the well-researched website called ‘Australian Royalty’.
On the voyage of the convict ship Britannia, see Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 1959.

[13] John Conner, The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838, UNSW Press, 2012.

[14] Demarr, James, Adventures in Australia fifty years ago: being a record of an emigrant’s wanderings through the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland during the years 1839-1844, Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1893, p.132.

[15] George Augustus Robinson,  op cit. Volume 1, p.273, 1 May 1840, also 7 May, p.280.

[16] George Augustus Robinson, ibid. Volume 1, p.276, 2 May 1840.

[17] James Dredge, op cit., diary entry 2 May 1840.

[18] George Augustus Robinson, op cit. Vol 1, p.276, 2 May 1840.

[19] D. W. A. Baker, ‘Mitchell, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792–1855)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-sir-thomas-livingstone-2463/text3297, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 12 January 2019.

[20] ‘The Blacks,’ Border Post, Albury, NSW, 7 August 1875, p.2.

[21] Copy of Despatch No. 90, Gipps to Lord John Russel, 9 April, 1841, in British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.106-7.

[22] Joseph Docker to Governor George Gipps, 31 December 1840; and Enclosure 2 in number 25, Report of George Augustus Robinson to Charles Joseph LaTrobe; in British Parliamentary Papers, ibid., p.108.

[23] For Brodribb, George Augustus Robinson, Vol 1, p.232, entry for Monday 20 April; for evidence of Aboriginal people working on Docker’s and Barber’s stations, see their submissions to the NSW Legislative Council’s Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, 1841.

[24] George Augustus Robinson, op. cit. Vol 1, entry for 9 May, 1840, p.283.

 

 

 

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