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The art of cutting stone: Aboriginal convict labour in 19th-century New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land

Kristyn Harman, University of Tasmania, 9 November 2009

KRISTYN HARMAN: In the year of Australia’s Bicentenary, historical revisionism saw [the late historian] Manning Clark’s ‘persistent thieves’ engaged in a life of crime reconfigured as convict workers who in the nineteenth century [had] formed part of a global system of forced migration; and at the same time increasing recognition was given to the diversity of the convict population. It was acknowledged that some of these convicts came from places like the Cape Colony, Mauritius, Bermuda, India and China. But within this new paradigm one small yet highly significant cohort of convicts continued to be overlooked: Aboriginal convicts.

Between 1805 and the 1860s at least 60 Aboriginal men from New South Wales were transported as convicts. Each was taken captive within the first decade or so of colonial contact in his region. Some were captured by the military, while others were taken into custody by the police or civilians. Those captured were considered to have committed an offence against the person or property of a colonist, or in some cases against the person of another Aborigine. In the absence of an official declaration of war against Aboriginal people, actions carried out within this context of frontier conflict resulted in Indigenous men being criminalised.

Before the law courts had been established in New South Wales, several Aboriginal men were actually transported at the behest of the colonial governor, and these men represent the first incidences of labour being extracted from Aboriginal people within the colonial convict system.

The earliest extent record pertains to two men known to colonists as Mosquito and Bulldog, and those names may be familiar to some of you here today. These men were involved in actions to repel the colonial incursion at the Hawkesbury River before being taken into custody and ultimately shipped to Norfolk Island.

The governor at the time, Governor King, wrote to the acting commandant at Norfolk Island on 8 August 1805, instructing him that ‘the two natives, Bulldog and Mosquito, are sent to Norfolk Island where they are to be kept, and if they can be brought to labour will earn their food. But as they must not be left to starve for want of subsistence, they are to be victualled from the stores.’

Following their arrival on the island the following month, Mosquito and Bulldog got allocated one of the least favourable jobs at the penal station. They were put to work as assistants to the convict charcoal burners, and this of course situated them amongst the lowest ranks of convict labourers.

Bulldog’s ultimate fate is uncertain, but more is known about Mosquito, who was in fact transferred to Van Diemen’s Land in 1813. This was a period in which assignment was retained for convicts. So they would be assigned to private individuals to be put to work as their servants. Mosquito was in fact put to work as a stock-keeper in return for a roof over his head, and for rations and clothes equal to that which he would have been supplied [with] by the government.

What differentiated Mosquito at this point from his fellow convicts was that he was also put to work as a tracker. He was so effective against the bushrangers that continued to plague the island colony at the time that he was later described as ‘an admirable bloodhound.’ It’s been suggested that Mosquito was also assisted in his work by another Aboriginal convict, a Dharawal man from the Cowpastures [farming district south-west of Sydney] known as Duall. He had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1816 at the behest of Governor Macquarie, who instructed the commandant at Port Dalrymple that the black native, Duall, was to be kept at hard labour, and to be fed in the same manner as the other convicts.

Despite some extensive research, I haven’t in fact located any primary sources that indicate that Duall was in fact worked as a tracker. But I have introduced him here because I think Macquarie’s rationale for having Duall transported is rather interesting. It sheds light on some of the sorts of thinking that underpinned these decisions during the early colonial era.

Duall had been taken captive during the punitive expedition ordered out by Macquarie during 1816 after there had been a series of altercations between Aboriginal people and colonists in the districts of Airds, Appin, and Bringelly to the west of Sydney. Macquarie’s strategy in dealing with Duall, who, despite close friendships with notable settlers like Hamilton Hume and Charles Throsby, had been labelled ‘a hostile native’, was embedded in a policy of exclusion. Duall was removed not only from colonial society at the Cowpastures, but also, of course, from his tribe.

The punishment was meant to be exemplary, as explained in the Sydney Gazette: ‘The banishment of the native Duall may possibly produce a greater dread in the minds of his predatory associates, than if he had been killed when in the act of plunder. The doubt of what may be his fate when absent is likely to excite a dread, which may render them less liable to a similar treatment.’ So fear and intimidation excited through the apparently inexplicable absence of Duall’s body was meant to ensure that his kinsmen would desist from attacking colonists and their property.

Following the inception of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1824, Aboriginal defendants began being brought before the colonial judiciary. But in the 1820s, very few Aboriginal men were transported, only a handful. It was really from the 1830s onwards – and partially, I think, as a backlash following the hangings of the Myall Creek massacre – increasing numbers of Aboriginal defendants received guilty verdicts in the colonial law courts. Some of these men were sentenced directly to transportation, while others were sentenced to death. Some of those sentenced were in fact hanged, but others received commutations of their death sentences and were then transported instead.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the colonial rationale for incorporating Aboriginal men into the convict system became more nuanced. The emphasis on imposing exemplary punishments remained, but was tempered with the idea that captivity provided an excellent opportunity to try to Christianise and to civilise Aboriginal convicts.

This shift, I think, is amply illustrated by the outcome of a series of trials held in Sydney after a period of frontier warfare north of the settlement in the early 1830s. These trials involved 18 Aboriginal defendants, who together represented about 10 per cent of a combined Aboriginal force that waged war against the colonists in the Brisbane Water district [north of Sydney]. Most of these prisoners were sentenced to transportation.

Governor Richard Bourke tried to arrange for them to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land [now Tasmania]. On 4 February 1835 he wrote to the lieutenant-governor and told him that, ‘they are more than half civilised, and will make decent herdsmen.’ I think that Bourke may have been inspired to suggest that because he would have observed the Khoi working with their cattle at the Cape Colony during his time there before coming through to Sydney.

Rumours abounded that these Aboriginal prisoners were to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land. This proposal attracted public opprobrium, with the Australian newspaper printing that, ‘it has been supposed by some persons, but we have reason to believe without foundation, that these poor wretches are to be worked in irons, or at least subjected to some form of prison discipline. The idea is too monstrous for belief.’

In any case, the colonial authorities in Van Diemen’s Land strongly opposed receiving a group of Aboriginal convicts. They had, after all, only recently resolved what they saw as their own Aboriginal problem by exiling the remnant Aboriginal population to an island in Bass Strait [north of Tasmania].

Given the Van Diemonian position, they arranged to transport the Brisbane Waters men – Leggamy, Toby, Whip-‘em-up, Currinbong Jemmy, Tom Jones, Little Freeman, Monkey, Little Dick, and Charley Muscle – to Goat Island at Port Jackson. They then engaged a Wesleyan Methodist catechist, George Langhorne, on a salary of 100 pounds per annum to instruct the men. Langhorne was told to teach them elements of the Christian religion as well as the English language.

In colonial New South Wales, the penal station became the site par excellence for the state in its endeavours to produce a civilised native. The suspension of any legal rights that Aboriginal captives had notionally been entitled to claim as free British subjects meant, as Satadru Sen explained in a different colonial context, that ‘the state’s power to coerce, to manipulate, and to experiment was relatively unimpeded by its own constructed limits’.

The government’s treatment of these Aboriginal convicts was once again denounced in the columns of the Australian newspaper, where it was written, ‘To teach religion and literature to these poor wretches is absurd. The one, it is impossible that they should understand; the other cannot be accomplished without putting a force upon the inclinations of the adults to which they would never submit.’

Despite the misgivings expressed in the Australian, Bourke intended for the men to be worked in irons for two years on Goat Island and housed in the prison hulk Phoenix that lay at anchor nearby. By day, the Aboriginal convicts were taken off the hulk to be put to work on Goat Island cutting stone under charge of ‘one of their own kindred, ’ as it was stated at the time. Sandstone was required for the construction of a powder magazine on Goat Island, where more than 200 convicted men had been put to hard labour.

Aboriginal men certainly had some measure of insight into the colonisers’ urge to civilise them and the role that gaol played in this. An exchange between one of the settlers in the Brisbane Water district, William Speed, and his Aboriginal employee, Charley, which was later cited by Charles Swancott, illustrates this point. As Swancott wrote, ‘Old Conkleberry Charley was in the bad books with the boss one day who told him to “run away, Charley, you’re only a bloody Myall.”

Charley got very indignant and corrected him, ‘Me no Myall boss, me been breakum stone along Wyndham gaol.’ Swancott rounded off this anecdote with the exclamation, ‘He had been civilised!’ This phrase, I think, neatly encapsulates Charley’s understanding of the purpose of the gaol’s disciplinary regime and the outcome sought in relation to Aboriginal inmates.

Their harsh existence as prisoners of the Crown took its toll on the Aboriginal convicts. During their first year of captivity, several died. The missionary Langhorne speculated that one of these men was, and I quote, ‘perhaps among the first of the New Holland tribes gathered into the Kingdom of God.’ Aboriginal convicts generally exhibited a really high mortality rate in colonial custody, being 10 times more likely to die than non Aboriginal male convicts who had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1840s.

The Port Macquarie missionary, Launcelot Threlkeld, took a keen interest in the Goat Island experiment. He visited the island to assess the progress of the surviving Aboriginal convicts housed there. Threlkeld later reported that, and I quote, ‘under the superintendence of Mr. Langhorne, they were improving fast in their English reading.’

Langhorne told him that ‘on asking the blacks who made all things, one of them immediately, to his surprise, replied, “God”. And on being further questioned as to the source of his knowledge, he replied it was at Lake Macquarie.’ This clearly gratified Threlkeld.

In November 1836, with their sentences about to expire, the surviving Aboriginal convicts were in fact transferred to Threlkeld’s mission at Lake Macquarie. Threlkeld showed the prisoners a large hut put aside for their use. He planned to build a small boat for them, and proposed that they ought to work to catch fish that would then be sold in Sydney.

In return, the men could get rations of flour, tea, sugar, and clothing, but were prohibited from buying either alcohol or tobacco. They also would not be allowed to leave the mission without a pass. Threlkeld noted that ‘to all this, they appeared cordially to agree,’ providing him and Langhorne with much gratification on the prospect of carrying into effect a plan long contemplated.

However, the missionary’s gratification was very short lived. Their Aboriginal charges escaped during the night, leaving their clothes behind them. Threlkeld’s assessment of the outcome to this experiment in Christianising and civilising Aborigines in captivity is illuminating, and I cite from him here:

The mere mechanical external operation of human instruction is too transitory in its effects to calculate upon, as was clearly exemplified in the Aborigines confined at Goat Island who, whilst under coercive instruction, rapidly advanced in their respective attainments of reading, writing and arithmetic, repeating prayers, singing hymns, and the art of cutting stone, at which they exhibited much skill; but when removed from under restraint, proved to man that coercive religious instruction is of no moral avail, however much we may deceive ourselves from specious appearance of success during compulsory education.

The missionary later heard that the men had returned to the Brisbane Water district. Whether they agreed with Conkleberry Charley’s view that breaking stones in jail meant they were no longer males is not recorded. But when some of the former prisoners were asked to engage in stone cutting in return for payment, they refused on the grounds that it had been their punishment. Thank you. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I’m not sure why your data analysis is in terms of the time, depth or the geographic spread. But the mention of the guy becoming a tracker, I was wondering whether you’d come across any references to people having their sentences commuted to join the native police? Or was that too early at this point for the people to be doing that?

KRISTYN HARMAN: It was too early at that point in Van Diemen’s Land, but there is an indication later in the 1840s of several Aboriginal people from the mainland working with the police as trackers. But the timing doesn’t correspond with any of the convicts I know to have been in Van Diemen’s Land at that time.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Michael Bennett from Native Title Services in New South Wales. I was wondering whether you’ve been able to trace into more recent past the lives of any of these Aboriginal convicts and what happened to some of them?

KRISTYN HARMAN: Sure. The vast majority, unfortunately, actually died in captivity. Very, very few returned home. A small number of the Brisbane Water cohort did return home, and two others that had done the treks going from Port Jackson, to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land were in fact repatriated, going back up through Hyde Park Barracks. But virtually everybody else did in fact die in custody.

Which is, in fact, a point that was recognised in the middle of the nineteenth century. Particular colonial attention was paid to Aboriginal deaths in custody and steps taken to ameliorate the circumstances. If men looked like they might in fact die while under sentence, provided their crimes weren’t considered too heinous – in other words, if it wasn’t a case of rape – they could in fact then be released from custody to avoid dying.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: What was killing them?

KRISTYN HARMAN: I think there’s a variety of factors contributing to that. From the colonial mindset it was, of course, pining away in custody. But at the same time you’re looking at people in the very early years of contact suddenly finding themselves enclosed in these dank dwellings – having to use blankets, the change in diet, the hard labour, and just the whole disjuncture, I think. Probably in a similar way to the massive death toll over at Wybalenna on Flinders Island too, once you get people housed in that sort of situation and subject to these regimes. And also a lot of lung complaints, too.

STEVE MULLEN: Steve Mullen, Central Queensland University. It does actually put me in mind of the 1908 Royal Commission, where fishermen testified that Aborigines died on the boats from nostalgia. If they were kept away from their country at particular times, they would get ill and basically just die. And this was to explain the mutiny of boats and their being stolen and sailed down to the Cape at particular times. So there may be a relationship there of some sort.

KRISTYN HARMAN: There’s a very poignant case actually of a settler visiting Norfolk Island and finding over there Yanem Goona. He was aged around 60, with several wives and a number of children up in the Grampians. Probably the oldest amongst the Aboriginal convicts. And he was said to cry every time somebody mentioned home, whenever he thought of home. And he later in fact died at Impression Bay. He was sent to the convict hospital at Tasman Peninsula. So very much this whole idea of pining away, being away from country, was hugely significant.

Date published: 12 July 2010