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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors whose words are quoted within this post, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

This post relates to my previous post on the Pallanganmiddang — First Peoples of Beechworth and Beyond, addressing some potential criticisms of the research. Be warned: it is technical!


In my last post, I stated that from a historical perspective, the first people of the Beechworth region, and in fact a much broader area, were a local area group (in anthropological language, an ‘areal-moiety’ grouping, ie: belonging to an area, with a moiety attached), called the Pallangan-middang. The Pallangan-middang spoke a unique language which was neither Pangerang/Yorta Yorta, nor Dhudhuroa. They also appear in multiple detailed references in one historical source (the journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines) as a sub-set of a larger group called the Waywurru (Waveroo).

Since the last post was published, I have has some suggestions which in turn constitute arguments to the effect that I (and others) have misinterpreted the historical source materials. The body of this argument is that when Europeans talked to Aboriginal people and then tried to write down what they said, they got it wrong. One reason they got it wrong is because Aboriginal languages are difficult for Europeans to interpret and transcribe. Another reason is that they didn’t understand Aboriginal culture and frequently misinterpreted things. As a professional historian who trained at a university (La Trobe University), whose history department was internationally known for its ‘ethnographic history’, I was exposed to individual historians who made it their life’s work to grapple specifically with these kinds of historical problems. In a nutshell, these issues of cross-cultural interpretation do constitute real problems for historians. No sound historian would negate that argument, and would always seek strategies to attempt to compensate for the possibility of such misreadings.

Conversely, to consign to the ‘rubbish bin’ written historical source materials just because they were created by European colonisers, would mean loosing a lot of valuable information. Very few scholars of Victorian Aboriginal history (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal), would consign the massive journals of writers like George Augustus Robinson or William Thomas, written mainly in the 1840s, to the bin — no matter how offensive some of the actions of these individuals with regards to Aboriginal people were. All historians should be suspicious of what their sources have to say, and attempt to ‘test them’ using historiographical  practices such as cross-referencing, and placing source materials in their correct historical context.

Particularly when talking in a public forum, it is difficult to counter-argue an argument against one’s own work without actually pulling out enormous wads of source materials in order to demonstrate to lay people in the audience that I have already considered certain potential errors and done my best to compensate for the possibility of these errors. However, I would like to take this opportunity to address four specific arguments which suggest my work is the result of faulty interpretation of the historical source materials. I cannot prevent people from reading primary source materials however they like. However, I can at least respond to criticisms of my own work by explaining how I have gone about some specific points in relation to my interpretation of primary source materials.

Counter argument 1: ‘In the historical records, Pallanganmiddang is just a misspelling of Pangerang. They are the same thing.’

This argument was systematically dismantled by historian Dr Marie Hansen Fels in her monumental report ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks, Supplementary Report, 28 July 1997’ written in response to anthropologist Rod Hagen’s critique of her initial report, produced for the Yorta Yorta Native Title case during the mid-1990s. However, because this report was never published, this argument continues to be raised.

My response to the argument that Pallanganmiddang is a misspelling of Pangerang runs like this: Yes, Europeans did struggle with spelling Aboriginal names and words, and frequently, they spelled the same name or word in several different ways. Aboriginal cultures were oral cultures, and there were no conventional ways of spelling Aboriginals names and words. However, when one sees attempts to write certain words written enough times, one can discern a similarity between these various attempts as spelling, which unifies them.

In Victoria generally, some common issues arise in spelling, which can be easily accounted for, if one is aware of them. The first is to do with the way Europeans struggled to record the sounds ‘P’ and ‘B’ which as a consequence are used interchangeably. Even today, as well as historically, one may often see ‘Pangerang’ written as ‘Bangerang’ (or even Bpangerang), but we are all aware that Pangerang, Bangerang and Bpangerang refer to the same group. Certainly one also finds, in the historical sources, Pallanganmiddang also written a ‘B’ instead of a ‘P’. (The same kid of transposition often occurs with the sounds ‘T’, ‘K’ and ‘Dj’.)

The second issue with spelling is cultural: it seems that the Pallanganmiddang people frequently deployed the Kulin areal-moiety (local area) group suffix ‘—illum’ instead of the north east Victorian alpine areal-moiety (local area) group suffix ‘—mittung’, depending largely on where they were in the landscape. So it is possible to see the name appearing as Pallangan-illum, or, Ballangan-illum, as well as Pallengan-mittung. (One also sees the second ‘a’ replaced with an ‘i’, and the third ‘a’ replaced with an ‘o’ — especially in geographical zones associated with Kulin peoples. So one sees Ballingo-illum, Ballingon-illum, or variations of this.)

In fact, we do see a lot of spelling variation in Robertson of the name Pallanganmiddang. However, he does spell Pangerang rather consistently throughout as ‘Pingerine’. Take, for instance, Robinson’s first visit into North East Victoria. On 20 April 1840, at Brodribb’s station on the Broken River (near Benalla), he meets a number of Aboriginal men, who may be passing through, or may be station workers. He writes:

‘We ascertained these natives belong to or were parts of three tribes [in fact, he goes on to list four, but I will list the two relevant to this discussion!]:
1. Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo, so says Mr Brodribb (queri)

4. And the Pine.ger.rines, a large tribe inhabiting the country on the south and south west banks of the Murry.’

From this excerpt we can see that Robinson has clearly met two different groups, the Ballingoyallums and the Pinegerines.

The following February (1841) Robinson revisits north east Victoria, and on the 9th and 10th of February, he meets with a large mixed group of Aboriginal people on Bontharambo station (just out of Wangaratta). He sits down and records their names, gender, ages, what groups they belong to, and sometimes their kin relationship. On the 23 February 1841, he writes down his findings. He records the names of around 15 people who are specifically ‘Pallengoillum’ or ‘Pallengomitty,’ belonging to the ‘Waveroo’ or ‘Wave.veroo’ ‘nation’, plus another 10 or so generally Waveroo people. He also records about 28 ‘Pinegerine’ people. (As an aside, Robinson also records roughly equal numbers of Wiradjuri and Taungurung people on the same site on that occasion.) Insofar as I can see, Robinson has interviewed in this instance, around 95 people, and within that large group he has clearly identified people who are ‘Pallengoillum’/’Pallengomitty’ (Pallanganillum/Pallanganmiddang) as well as people who are ‘Pinegerine’ (Pangerang). The two groups are clearly identified, with exceptional clarity, as separate groups.

Counter argument 2: ‘Waywurru is really a misspelling of the Melbourne broader group Woiwurrung.’

This could easily be a legitimate concern. The argument runs along the lines that when Robinson was in north east Victoria, he was meeting a lot of Woiwurrung people who were in transit, using the Port Phillip route (ie: the modern day Hume Freeway, which was the original overlanding track), as a means of travel. Thus he was meeting Woiwurrung in North East Victoria, and he recorded them as ‘Waywurru’ (in fact, variations of this spelling such as ‘Wee-her-roo,’ ‘Waveroo’ and so on).

This seems plausible until one realises that Robinson had spent a lot of time in Melbourne around the Woiwurrung and that he could identify this language when he heard it spoken. However, in north east Victoria, he clearly treats the ‘Wee-her-roo,’ or ‘Wave-veroo’ as a new and unknown group, which he has to learn about. Whenever Robinson was unsure about something, and knew he had to continue to check the facts, he made a note in his journal to himself to ‘queri’ the statement.

When, on Monday 20 April 1840, Robinson met some ‘Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo, so says Mr Brodribb (queri)’ , Robinson made a note to ‘query’ further about this group.

On Thursday 23 April 1840,  Robinson wrote, ‘The natives at Dockers [ie: Bontharambo station] prostitute their women in like manner as do many other tribes: Goulburn, Waverong; Barrable, &c.’

Here we can see that within the same short period of time, Robinson has chosen to identify ‘Wee.her.roo’ and ‘Waverong’ separately. Dr Ian Clark has accounted for the different ways in which Robinson wrote Waywurru: Wee.her.roo, Way.u.roo Wee.er.roo; Way.you.roo, Waveroo, Wavaroo, Wavoroo, Wave.veroo, Way.you.roo, Wayerroo (Ian Clarke, ‘Aboriginal languages in north-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered,’ Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22). Critically, Robinson only used these spellings in the geographical context of north east Victorian locations. 

We can compare this with the way Robinson wrote Woiwurrung, frequently as ‘Waverong’ (eg: on 18 July 1839, 11 October 1840, 16 November 1840) and ‘Way.you.rong’ (1 June 1840). (There are probably more examples  but I do not have time to scan the 800+ journal pages I have before me.) Moreover Robinson’s geographical context for using ‘Waverong’ never applies to north east Victoria (ie: country north of the Broken River).

It is easy to see that Robinson differentiated between Waywurru by creating the sound ‘—varoo’ on the end of the word — a linguistic gesture he retained exclusively for a group in north east Victoria; while in the case of Waverong, he created the sound ‘—erong’ on the end of the word, and used this in context appropriate to an area and people we now comprehend as Woi-wurrung.

One could argue that this differentiation is due to a dialectical difference between say Melbourne and North East Victoria, but it still refers to the same group of people. That argument comes unstuck when one considers that none of the people whom Robinson associates with Wavaroo claim any connection to Melbourne: Quite the opposite; several claim specific connection to areas of land in north east Victoria. The same cannot be said for anyone associated with Waverong. There still exists a remote possibility that Pallanganmiddang were a non-contiguous areal moiety of ‘Woi-wurrung’, and that they pronounced it ‘Waveroo’. However it would require a lot of evidence to establish this in concrete terms, as a non-contiguous areal moiety speaking an entirely different language doesn’t fit the broader pattern of Kulin society.

Counter argument 3: ‘There is only one historical source for the term Waywurru, therefore its existence might be just the faulty perception of one person.’

In his paper published in the journal Aboriginal History (Volume 25, 2005, pp.216-227), titled ‘Ethnographic information and anthropological interpretation in a Native Title claim: the Yorta Yorta experience’, anthropologist Rod Hagen stated that with regards to the term ‘Waveroo,’ aside from the journal of George Augustus Robinson, ‘No other 19th century commentator makes mention of them.’  This is easy to demonstrate as inaccurate. There are two other contemporary sources (squatters Benjamin Barber and David Reid, both [in context] of Barnawatha) who agree with George Augustus Robinson, referring to a ‘Weeroo’ or ‘Weiro’ broad group in the area of north east Victoria north of the Broken River and south of the Murray River (Letter from Benjamin Barber, in ‘Replies to the following Circular Letter on the subject of the Aborigines, addressed to gentlemen residing too remote from Sydney, to expect the favour of their personal attendance upon the Committee, in Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, NSW Legislative Council, 1841; and David Reid in ‘Aboriginal Population 1860, The Argus, Friday 5 October, 1860. p.5). This is not a substantial historical record compared to other large groups such as the Wiradjuri or Taungurung, but the paucity of information about them must be contextualised by the fact that the Waywurru/Waveroo were a comparatively small group which bore the brunt of violence from numerous overlanding parties travelling to Port Phillip, as well as violent squatters who settled in north east Victoria, all through the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Counter argument 4: ‘There are old maps, and these maps show the Pangerang on country where you say the Pallanganmiddang should be.’

Another criticism of my work on the Pallanganmiddang is that what I have written and describe doesn’t accord well with maps of Aboriginal Victoria. Some of them, like Norman Tindale’s map of 1940, revised in 1974, are very famous and well-regarded. Unfortunately, maps have a power to them that people don’t often question, but one has to remember that maps of Aboriginal Victoria are based on historical information. 

The criticism of my work on Pallanganmiddang could be expressed more specifically as ‘Durrant’s work does not accord well with maps of Aboriginal Victoria produced before the 1990s.’ ‘Why discard maps produced before the 1990s?’ I hear you ask. ‘Surely old maps are more accurate?’ I hear you say. The simple answer is that in the 1990s, historians and linguists suddenly found themselves in possession of information about Aboriginal Victoria recorded far earlier than the oldest maps of Aboriginal Victoria (for instance, Brough Smyth’s map which appeared in his 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania.), and they began using this ‘new’ (in fact, much older) information to produce new maps. In particular, the Victorian Aboriginal Languages Corporation commissioned Dr Ian Clark to produce a new map, based on the new archival materials which had come to light. These new maps accord far more closely with the historical picture that I have painted of the Pallanganmiddang local group of the Waywurru broad group.

There is, in fact, a backstory behind the creation of these ‘new maps based on old material’:

By the early 1980s, the late, great anthropologist Diane Barwick (1938-1986), was dissatisfied with the Victorian section of Tindale’s maps, and was trying to unravel the issue of which Aboriginal groups occupied different parts of Victoria. She’d tackled some of Victoria, and published a major article titled ‘Mapping the Past, Part I’. She was in the middle of working on a new paper devoted to North East Victoria (intended as ‘Mapping the Past, Part II’) when she died tragically and suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. However, this is what Barwick had to say about Norman Tindale’s mapping in 1984, about two years before she died:

‘The best-known map of Victorian ‘tribes’ is the continental ‘tribal map’ published in 1940 by South Australian Museum biologist and ethnologist Norman B. Tindale, which was explicitly “based principally on recent fieldwork with additions from the literature”. Dr Tindale’s unparalleled record of ethnographic publications dates back to 1925, but it appears that the Victorian fieldwork which shaped this map was undertaken when he and Dr Joseph Birdsell were co-leaders of the 1938/39 Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition. Tindale’s 1940 tribal labels were admittedly the basis for more recent maps of language distribution in Victoria — with some amendments resulting from linguistic research during the 1960s and/or consultation of the original notes compiled by amateur ethnographers A.W. Howitt, R.H. Mathews and John Mathew, which were not accessible for scholarly study until the 1970s. Tindale’s 1974 revision of his 1940 map incorporated available information from recent research but necessarily relied upon published material, mainly the writings of Howitt, Curr, Smyth, R.H. Mathews (whose reliability he had questioned in 1940 but now acclaimed), and the few accessible Protectorate records from the 1840s. His tentative boundaries in central and northeastern Victoria were admittedly deduced from discrepant published sources…’ (Barwick, Diane E. Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904 [online]. Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984: 100-131. This reference: pp.100-101. My emphasis added.)

What Barwick was saying is that, with regards to North East Victoria, Tindale’s first map was compiled principally from his interpretation of four historical sources, written by men who were contemporary to each other: R. Brough Smyth, Edward Curr, Alfred Howitt and R.H. Mathews (and some of his own research conducted at places such as Cumeragunga). At a later date, Tindale had access to some field notes and manuscript materials left by some of these same men. Each of these men had his own distinctive limitations, and when their work was combined, there were discrepancies between them which were difficult to reconcile. There were a number of professional jealousies between them, but perhaps the biggest limitation of their work as a whole is that each man had laboured under the misapprehension that Aboriginal people would soon be ‘extinct’, which led them to believe that if they simplified or fudged some information for publication, that no Aboriginal people would be around to question their work at a later date. They were wrong.

By 1986, the year of her death, Diane Barwick had credible reasons for thinking she could revise the map covering North East Victoria on Normal Tindale’s by now famous map of Aboriginal tribes. ‘Why not get Tindale to do it?’ I hear you ask. —Tindale was 86 years old. ‘Why did Barwick think she could do better?’ I hear you ask. — Let me reply first with some rhetorical questions: What if some absolutely critical sources of information had simply vanished from the historical record, only to reappear at a later date? What if some source materials previously inaccessible were suddenly entered into a local public institution and made available to researchers? This is precisely what happened with regards to information about Aboriginal history in North East Victoria. Where there had been, at first, slender and contradictory evidence, there came a pivotal moment that changed everything: and this a happened when the journal of G.A. Robinson was returned to Australia from Great Britain!

George Augustus Robinson was the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, from 1839 to 1849. Robinson was a prolific writer, and kept a daily journal as he travelled around the Port Phillip district (in what would become Victoria in 1851). His observations about Aboriginal people were made on location, usually written on the same day, and he often conversed with Aboriginal people and even recorded their names (both Aboriginal and ‘conferred’ white names). Robinson visited the northeast of Victoria in 1840, January-February 1841, 1842 and 1844, and recorded a considerable amount of information about the people he met.

Historian Dr Marie Hansen Fels has lucidly described the impact that having access to Robinson’s journal had on historians:

‘The return to Australia of Robinson’s material in 1949 (he took his papers back to England with him in 1852 and there they remained, inaccessible to scholars for nearly 100 years) transformed the nature of Aboriginal research in Victoria. We no longer had to rely on 19th century collectors of information with all the dangers of their filling in the gaps in knowledge with speculation (Howitt is a good example of this – in the 1904 edition of Native Tribes of South Eastern Australia he states on page 54 that ‘I have not been able to obtain any information as to the tribes occupying the course of the Murray between the Bangarang and Albury, or on the Ovens River lower than the “Buffalo Mountains”,’ but this absence of information does not prevent him from conjecture about them on page 101.)’ (Marie Hansen Fels, ‘These Singular People…’ p.8)

There is, however, something that Fels fails to mention — and that is that Robinson’s handwriting was atrocious. Deciphering his journal notes would only ever be a labour of love for a handful of the most diligent historians, anthropologists and linguists, like Diane Barwick and Fels herself. Thus, even up to the latter part of the 1980s, the Robinson journals remained an under-utilised resource. Historian and archaeologist Dr Gary Presland began transcribing some parts of Robinson’s journal. As soon as he did, it seems that other historians started borrowing his transcripts. In 1989, Presland wrote:

‘…the journal has proved to be an invaluable and, in some cases, unique source of data. Ironically however, although it has been used widely and is informing an increasing number of studies, it remains substantially unknown and untapped. In part this is due to the sheer physical volume of the source (the manuscript takes up more than one shelf metre). It is due also in part to the difficulties of reading Robinson’s poor handwriting. To a limited extent this difficulty has been lessened but more needs to be done towards publishing this invaluable source of information.’ (Gary Presland, ‘The Journals of George Augustus Robinson’, The LaTrobe Journal, No 43, Autumn 1989, p.12).

In fact, it wasn’t until Dr Ian Clark (of Federation University at Ballarat) undertook the mammoth, almost monk-like task of transcribing Robinson’s journals in their entirety, initially publishing them in sections from 1996-2000, that the average researcher had ready access to this incredible storehouse of information. There are copies of Clark’s monumental work available for purchase, but they are still very expensive. (In north east Victoria, the only public copy is at Charles Sturt University’s Albury campus library, which has an annoyingly incomplete set of Clark’s transcriptions. The current complete volumes that I use are on loan to me from a generous local person!)

To recap once again: Tindale’s 1974 map did not make use of the journal of George Augustus Robinson. Diane Barwick knew the Robinson material. She knew that in the 1840s, Robinson had repeatedly met and talked with numerous Waveroo people at places like Wangaratta, Oxley and Albury-Wodonga. Robinson even recorded a vocabulary of the Pallanganmiddang (Waywurru) language in north east Victoria — a language which would later go on to be studied by linguists in the 1990s. Clearly, these people, the Pallanganmiddang people of the Waveroo ‘nation’ (as Robinson described them) existed, but were entirely absent from Tindale’s map. Barwick was also carefully reviewing other resources, such as Alfred Howitt’s field notes and correspondences (held between three different institutions, but now available on line here). She had also examined the unpublished manuscript notes of R.H. Mathews (manuscript material in the National Library of Australia catalogued as MS8006), rather than his publications, and learned that his ‘Minyambuta group’ overlapped a little too suspiciously with Pallanganmiddang/Waveroo (she surmised the Minyambuta was an exonym for Pallanganmiddang language), and extended geographically as far as Wangaratta, which once again, was at odds with Tindale’s map. And so, she had started re-mapping the northeast Victorian section of Tindale’s map. And then before she was finished, she died. Vale Diane Barwick.

Diane Barwick’s work laid the ground work for Dr Ian Clarke, who had also transcribed George Augustus Roninson’s papers, to substantially revise the map of Aboriginal groups in North East Victoria. Clarke did not use Barwick’s manuscript papers (now in the State Library of Victoria) uncritically. However, he seems to have used them as a starting point for creating a new map based on early and credible documents such as George Augustus Robinson’s journal (to which we can now add the journals and papers of Assistant Chief Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas). My work accords well with Clarke’s work not because I am drawing directly from it, but because we are both using a storehouse of primary source materials far more substantial than what Norman Tindale ever had access to. And if Tindale was alive today, I am sure he would revise his 1974 map based on new sources, just as he had previously revised his 1940 map after new sources came to light.