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Before the mission station: The incorporation of settlers into a seasonal economy

John White, Australian National University, 10 November 2009

JOHN WHITE: My work is drawing on both ethnographic and archival material based on Aboriginal people’s changing relationship with the economy and the state on the New South Wales south coast. And today’s paper will be drawing solely from the historical component of my research.

By the end of the twentieth century, Aboriginal people of the Eurobodalla region of the New South Wales south coast were broadly incorporated into the expanding settler economy. With ongoing labour shortages providing a brake on economic development, Indigenous labour became critical to the success of the forestry and fishing industries and also to the emergence of a booming seasonal horticultural industry; bean and pea picking, that sort of thing.

These patterns of seasonal employment, with shortfalls in income being supplemented by the continuance of subsistence fishing, were characteristic of the hybrid or mixed economy of the Eurobodalla until the 1970s. In about the 1970s, there was a collapse of these industries in the process of what Chris Lloyd was talking about. Forced off their country, particularly by the expansion of small-scale land holdings, Yuin people moved variously between estuarine camps close to sources of employment and the government-administered station at Wallaga Lake.

So today, rather than examining the processes of incorporation into the settler economy, this paper wants to invert the question and look at how Aboriginal people came to incorporate the presence of settlers into pre-existing seasonal but dynamic patterns of the economy and sociality. So in doing so, this paper will wind the clock back to a critical juncture in the region’s history of intercultural relations – that is, the initial four decades of contact – that resulted in Aboriginal groups moving from social and spatial distance to coming in to the emerging towns, to incorporating settlers into relations of obligation.

Now, a recent edited volume by Margaret Jolly and others provides interesting points of comparison in regards to these initial types of encounters in the Pacific and Melanesia and Polynesia that encompass both extreme violence, and exchange and congeniality.

In Australia, there is a considerable body of literature dealing with general themes of massacre, theft and reprisals. But there is not a lot of literature dealing with congeniality or exchange in these very first encounters, although some of the papers in this conference are certainly expanding on that. Basil Sansom describes emergent relationships in Northern Australia in terms of gifts of service.

So in view of the available archival material on the Eurobodalla region, this paper will argue that one of the most compelling reasons for the rapid tempering of intercultural violence, theft and reprisals and the rapid take-up of Indigenous labour in the emerging settler economies is a relationship between exchange and relatedness.

So I’m going to give you just a brief history of these early intercultural relations in the form of a rough timeline.

Europeans and Aboriginal people initially came into physical contact in the Eurobodalla region in 1797. A ship, the Sydney Cove, foundered on a beach at Gippsland, Victoria, and the crew began a long journey by foot up the coast to the colony of Sydney. Of the 17 men that survived the wreck, only four made it back to the colony. And they encountered several so-called hostile groups of Aboriginal people along the way.

One of the survivors, Mr W Clark, recalled meeting with locals in the vicinity of the Tuross estuary [Eurobodalla region], who provided the travellers with mussels and then invited them to camp with them for the night. In return for this unexpected civility, Clark’s party reciprocated with presents, noting that the locals, and I quote, ‘possessed a liberality to which the others were strangers and freely gave us part of the little that they had.’

The next encounters were most likely with sealers, who had clearly been travelling along the south-eastern coastline by the turn of the century. And it was reported that they were commonly abducting Aboriginal women. In March 1806, Governor King reported that a number of Aboriginal people had been massacred by sealers at Twofold Bay, which is further south.

Two later articles appeared in the Sydney Gazette, referring to the terror experienced by European seamen encountering Aboriginal people at Batemans Bay. By way of the prominence of the two articles in Australia’s first newspaper, the reputation of the ferocity of Aboriginal people at Batemans Bay was broadly circulated in Sydney, reinforcing already pre-existent rumours of terror and cannibalism south of the colony.

In 1822, Charles Throsby’s overland exploration party ventured towards Batemans Bay but lost their nerve; the reasons given, because of the reputed hostility of the natives in this area.

Flash-forward another two years, there was a lone missionary by the name of John Harper who arrives at Batemans Bay. And he stays for two weeks without hostility, encountering a number of Aboriginal people in the area. Importantly, Harper initiated contact by offering the first people he met with blankets and biscuits, rather than muskets. And these were reciprocated in kind with several presents once he was led ashore.

Harper intended to return to Batemans Bay to establish a mission, but his request was denied by Governor Darling, who concluded that allowing the selection of land by the missionaries would have been prejudicial to the interests of the settlers.

So, Harper’s desire to Christianise Aboriginal people at Batemans Bay at a distance from the contaminating influence of settler society conversely led to the widespread settlement at the region. His genuine effort to create a mission, coupled with these reports of friendly, rather than hostile, savages, inspired confidence in the possibility of settlement to the south.

The first settler at Murramarang, a Mr William Morris, wrote a number of letters to the governor reporting the spearing of cattle and threatening of settlers by Aboriginal people, and requested for permission to be given to shoot those responsible and for soldiers to be sent to ensure the settlers’ safety. In response, Lieutenant McAllister was sent to the Batemans Bay area and concluded that it was Aboriginal people from the mountains and not the coastal groups that were responsible for the theft and the spearing.

McAllister proposed – well, he actually sat down with all the different groups, and through an interpreter proposed – that the conflict was a result of the mountain people missing out on the blankets that were distributed by Morris on behalf of the colonial administration.

So in response, blankets were distributed both to mountain and coastal groups, and pretty much, the matter was settled once and for all. And, indeed, it does appear that, in general, the hostilities had ceased and the prevalence of livestock theft had been ameliorated by McAllister’s mediations.

So we’ll turn to the next section, which is about exchange, provisioning and heroism at Broulee. The original settlement at Broulee was heavily reliant on provisions being shipped from Sydney. In the absence of supplies being delivered, the small community of settlers was saved from starvation on several occasions during the 1830s by Yuin people who provided them with seafood.

Later, in 1841, a heroic story emerges of Aboriginal people saving the survivors of a shipwreck at Broulee in a daring rescue operation. With the settlers being unable to swim out through the surf, several Aboriginal people risked their own lives to rescue the seamen.

But the question I want to ask today is: is it enough to view these events and the earlier provisioning of Clark’s party as evidence that Yuin people were, as the local historian Herbert Gibbney suggests, clearly a kindly folk who welcomed travellers? The hostility toward seamen at Batemans Bay somewhat contradicts this assumption, despite the action probably being in retaliation to the earlier atrocities committed by the marauding sealers.

So this is a slide based on AW Howard’s ethnography [shows image]. In his analysis of provisioning in Aboriginal systems in general, Ian Keen identified that, and I quote, ‘People invested in the productivity of others through their own generosity and expected recipients to be generous in return. Indeed, continuing relatedness required constant affirmation through giving. Therefore, underlying systems of reciprocal giving is a fundamental premise of the existence of relatedness.’ AW Howard’s ethnography of the region illustrates that this general principle can be applied to the Yuin people at Eurobodalla in the nineteenth century.

I believe this framework is useful in examining the provisioning of settlers in Broulee in the 1830s because relationships had already been formed between the first settlers and Aboriginal people. The earliest written record identifying individual Yuin workers was provided by a fellow by the name of John Hawdon who, along with Francis Flanagan, had taken up land in the Moruya area by 1830. Presumably, Hawdon was exchanging rations for labour. And it is very clear that he was highly regarded by Aboriginal people in the region.

Broulee was also a hub for the distribution of blankets during a period in which the Yuin population was in rapid decline, most likely due to an influenza epidemic. And both Francis Flanagan and Captain Oldrey were responsible for distributing blankets and providing a census of the number of Aboriginal people in the district. As Sue Wesson identified, Oldrey’s census – which I’ve popped up there [shows image] – is quite unusual because it includes family groups and the names and ages of all members of the family. But it also details the country in which families usually camped, and, as you can see, the greatest number of families are clustered around the first settlement at Broulee.

The comprehensive detail in Oldrey’s blanket returns, I would argue, entails an intimate knowledge of the individual family groups that could only have been achieved through pretty close relationships over a number of years. In contrast, further north, Morris’ census provided only the number of people to which blankets were distributed and the names of the adult male family members.

So through the provisioning of blankets and establishing close relationships with Aboriginal people in the area, these handfuls of individual settlers can be credited with narrowing the social and spatial distance, where Aboriginal groups were orbiting at the periphery of white settlement, to coming in close to the broader community of settlers at Broulee.

However, I must say that in the absence of kin terms being used for individual settlers, it is impossible to argue that this relatedness was extended to kin relations in the manner that Tony Redmond describes, the relationship between Ngarinyin workers and white stock owners in the Kimberley web, where relative strangers become strange relatives.

Understanding the rescue of the survivors of the Rover in terms of relations of obligation based on relatedness is also, I believe, instructive in this respect. The rescue can be seen perhaps as a projection of relations of obligation onto the strangers in the boat, who were probably thought as part of the local settler community.

So I’ll just wind up with a couple of conclusions, and this is the Tuross River estuary [shows image]. So this schema is problematic if we return to the provisioning of Clark’s party in 1797, keeping in mind these are the very first Europeans any of the folk at the Tuross camp had ever met. Stumbling out of the bush starved and disheveled, their skin must have been curiously white. Do they resemble a tulugal, the spirit of a ghost of a dead relative, described by Howard? Why would gift-giving be triggered with absolute strangers?

This is a puzzle for which I have no definitive answers. I suspect that it either had something to do with a belief that Clark and his men were physical manifestations of supernatural beings, or with the more generalised, or perhaps even likely defined, predisposition towards generosity as the higher secular value in Aboriginal Australia.

The first rationale, based on misunderstanding, is certainly not without its problems. However, William Buckley’s experience in Victoria lends some credibility to this premise. In Morgan’s account collected in 1852, Buckley stated that Wathaurong people thought he was a returned spirit of a dead relative and gave him the name Murrangurk, meaning ‘return from the dead’.

So expanding on the second rationale, it seems that the idea of relatedness being a priori to exchange can be inverted so that the exchange itself facilitates relatedness.

In any case, it is a predisposition towards exchange as a function of maintaining relatedness that was characteristic of the non-violent interactions between Aboriginal people and the first wave of settlers on the New South Wales south coast. It is this predisposition that also led to the amelioration of conflict. And this is quite anomalous in the New South Wales context, that the period of violence, theft, and reprisals was so short. And also to the rapid incorporation of Indigenous labour to fill the critical labour shortage in the primary sector industries.

Accounts of the subsequent years bemoan Aboriginal people begging – and that’s the term that’s been used throughout the historical record – around the coastal towns during periods when work was scant and fish were off the bite. A more accurate reflection I think on this period would view these actions as evidence the settlers had become incorporated into the Indigenous social and economic world of mutual obligation, and demand-sharing expectations had been extended through relatedness on relative strangers. So, thank you. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Yeah, thanks John. There’s one other fact you might consider and that’s the Bush Telegraph: the knowledge of a presence of non-Aboriginal people through the network of information, so that people had foreknowledge, in other words, of the possibility of white people coming into their country. Have you considered that?

JOHN WHITE: I have considered it. I think the initial encounter in 1797 might have been too early. Although it is possible …

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I was thinking of the later one.

JOHN WHITE: … that the 1830s one, yes, that is really possible. But I would suspect that that information would also include information that might mobilise people to move away from settlement. White people were doing some pretty horrible things in that period.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Another suggestion is about the raiding from the Tableland [west of the Eurobodalla region], which I wonder if that reflects previous relationships. Because relations in Gippsland, the relationship between the people of the coastal plain – the Kunari people – and people of, say, Omeo, was quite hostile and they used to raid each other. And for the Tableland, people here would be a nice resource in the country of enemies who they would customarily raid anyway. So I wondered if that’s kind of a continuation of that pattern.

JOHN WHITE: Yes, it could be. A lot of the evidence points towards people in the Braidwood [southern New South Wales] districts – maybe not so far as towards the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] and the Ngunnawal people, but certainly the Southern Tablelands and up and down the south coast – as intermarrying and having quite congenial relationships.

However, people from Omeo and further west were to be feared that they were a horrible murdering people, because they were having raids from that way. Yes. Thanks. Mike.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Hi John. Michael Bennett. I’ve enjoyed your paper very much, having done some recent native tidal work on the coast, and we were talking about this yesterday. But what’s interesting around the Broulee area, perhaps more so than other places on the south coast, is the strength of continuing association of those Broulee families, through to the present.

And perhaps one explanation for that might be what you are talking about: the relatedness that was established between the Aboriginal families and the settlers may have facilitated the continuing association even into the present. So it was very interesting to see your presentation.

JOHN WHITE: Okay, thanks Michael. Yes.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks. It was quite provocative to rethink all the endless references to begging in the historical record as demand sharing, as evidence of incorporation. Thank you. I’ll have a good think about that one.

Date published: 5 July 2010