Friday essay: invisible no more – putting the first women archaeologists of the Pacific back on the map
Emilie Dotte-Sarout, The University of Western Australia and India Ella Dilkes-Hall, The University of Western AustraliaHistory is the study of “present traces of the past”, as historian Judith Allen once put it. In our Pacific Matildas research project, we are recovering the hidden traces of the first female archaeologists in the Pacific.
Historians of western science have well documented the “Matilda effect”: how female scientists were written out of history, with barriers to accessing education, qualifications and professional roles.
Often, women had to practice science via alternative pathways (such as by making scientific illustrations). This rendered them invisible in the records and/or concealed by the “halo effect” – where prominent scientists (typically older, white men) were credited for the work of less recognised collaborators.
Archaeology, the discipline that uses material remains of the past to trace human history, has long been associated with the image of a solitary masculine adventurer rather than a woman with a trowel in hand. The TrowelBlazers project, for instance, seeks to remedy this by celebrating women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists.
Pacific Matildas focuses on our own region, Oceania, to tell the stories of the first women in the field, to understand the barriers they faced and highlight their legacies.
Our interactive map locates the research conducted by 50 women identified as Pacific Matildas: the first women to participate in the development of archaeology as a science.
Our timeline starts with those rare women who took part in European voyages of exploration. It ends with the exponential entry of women into professional archaeology after the 1960s.
The earliest we know of was Rose de Freycinet who accompanied her husband, Louis de Freycinet on an expedition around the world in 1817-1820.
Rose was the first woman to record her circumnavigation, writing down her observations of Indigenous groups in places such as Australia, The Mariana Islands and Hawai’i, including details on their customs and material culture. Although not directly related to archaeology (the discipline was just emerging), her writings are important as the first direct source voicing a female, western view of the Pacific.
The Pacific Matildas include lesser known researchers such as Mā’ohi expert Aurora Tetunui Natua, who collaborated with many 20th century western archaeologists in French Polynesia. They also include more recently recognised scholars, such as New Zealand’s Janet Davidson, renowned for her pioneering research across many Pacific islands and her work in NZ cultural heritage.
As well as putting the women back on the Pacific map, our bibliographic catalogue compiles some 2,000 written works produced by or through the labour of these women, so their scientific legacy can be rediscovered, analysed and referenced. Importantly, we include not just English references but some in French, German, Spanish and Tahitian.
Pacific Matildas are not always listed as authors of these works. We have sometimes had to identify their contributions by reading against the grain: finding traces of their essential roles in the acknowledgements or prefaces of publications; in unpublished reports and in archival documents such as photographs, field-notes, journals and letters.
One such example is Jeanne Michel Leenhardt, an indispensable collaborator in New Caledonia to both her famous pastor-anthropologist husband Maurice Leenhardt and early archaeologist Marius Archambault.
Jeanne Michel was born in 1881 in France and well educated. Her father was an influential art historian and curator at the Louvre Museum; her mother was born and raised in Hawai’i as the daughter of the minister of foreign affairs. Jeanne Michel married Leenhardt in 1902, eager to embrace the missionary vocation.
During almost two decades living in New Caledonia, she took an active part in her husband’s research. She gathered ethnographical information – notably from women – discussed his ideas and edited his writings. These writings also considered the island’s prehistory in collaboration with Archambault’s work.
Back in France, she continued to work with her husband, attending scientific meetings and conferences with him. Jeanne Leenhardt is never officially mentioned as a collaborator in her husband’s writings. But historical archives, family letters and other accounts help to document her essential role.
Interestingly, women who succeeded in practicing as archaeologists or anthropologists, often did have their skills acknowledged and were well respected by their contemporary male peers. While the latter had stable professional positions, the women mostly had to navigate insecure positions, working as “assistants” or “volunteers”. Thus the legacy of their research has faded quickly compared to the men of the time.
Beyond ‘founding fathers’
The Pacific Matildas map is a striking reminder that all along, women were actively present in the field. But we, the younger generations of Pacific archaeologists and historians of science, have been blinded when it comes to seeing them and their contributions.
For instance, when studying Pacific archaeology in the 2000s (in France and Australia), we would hear about “founding fathers”. This included Edward Gifford, leader of archaeological expeditions in the 1940s and 1950s in the Pacific southwest, attached to the discovery of Lapita (first settlement) sites dating back 3,000 years; José Garanger, who started the only course in France on Pacific prehistory in the 1970s; Te Rangi Hiroa, Maori scholar of Polynesian cultural history and director of the influential Bishop Museum in Hawai’i in the 1930s, or Ralph Linton, first PhD in Pacific archaeology in 1925, at Harvard.
We learnt a lot less about the successful academic career of Mary Elizabeth Shutler, who played a critical role in the first professional archaeological expedition (led by Gifford) to New Caledonia in 1952. Born in California as Mary Elizabeth Hall, she began studying anthropology at UC Berkeley in the late 1940s. There, she met and married fellow student Richard. When he was invited to join the Gifford expedition, she was able to join as a “voluntary assistant” because she spoke French.
In fact, she was the only French-speaking team member, becoming the main interlocutor to local Kanak fieldworkers and expedition guides. She gathered oral traditions and cultural information related to archaeological sites they excavated – including, possibly, the name of the famous Lapita (Xapeta’a) site, on the west coast of New Caledonia’s Grande Terre.
Despite this, and historical sources clearly demonstrating her active role in archaeological fieldwork, the monograph for the expedition is authored by Edward Gifford and Richard Shutler.
Mary Elizabeth Shutler then pioneered ethno-archaeological studies of pottery in Vanuatu. She led archaeological excavations and analyses with her husband in the archipelago, while studying to obtain her PhD in 1967 and raising three children. Later, in the US, she went on to a successful academic career in a number of American universities.
Similarly, few would be familiar with the work of Tahiti’s Aurora Germaine Tetunui Natua, who coordinated fieldwork access for archaeological research conducted in French Polynesia between the 1950s and 1980s – including some led by “founding fathers”.
Born in Papeʻete in 1909 in a respected scholarly local family with strong links to Tahiti and Maupiti, Natua was an early local collaborator to western scientists. She spent some time in France – one of the first Pacific islanders to join the newly formed Society of Oceanists in 1945 – and became archivist-librarian then curator of the Museum of Tahiti, a position she held for more than 30 years.
Her essential collaboration in anthropological and archaeological research conducted in French Polynesia is traceable in a long trail of acknowledgements and references found in several published and unpublished works. Historical sources show she was excavating with the scientists and present in the archaeological operations from the very beginning – as negotiator, translator and supervisor of the land access.
She was there too, in the final stages of conservation and analysis of the artefacts discovered – as a recognised scholar, librarian and curator. For western researchers, she was literally a key person: opening (or closing) the doors to Polynesian archaeology.
As far as we know, the second and third PhDs ever earned in Pacific archaeology were obtained by women. One of them was Margarete Schurig. We know little about her as she tragically died soon after completing her doctoral dissertation on Pacific pottery in 1926 at the University of Leipzig.
The other was Laura Maud Thompson who completed her PhD on “Native trade in southeast New Guinea” in 1933 at UC Berkeley. Thompson was born in Hawai’i in 1905 to English and American parents. She studied anthropology on the mainland in the 1920s – among the very first women to do so.
In her memoirs, she recounted the prejudices she faced as a woman. She could not enrol in Harvard as women were not admitted. She left Radcliffe, where she was studying as a graduate, after a professor of Oceania studies requested she sit in the hall rather than the lecture room where she might “distract” the men.
Despite this, she worked as assistant ethnologist at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum on archaeological collections from the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. She undertook fieldwork in Fiji and then the Mariana, publishing her archaeological results and ethnological analyses. The rest of her long and successful career shifted towards more socio-cultural and applied anthropology, in North America and Guam, where she developed strong relationships with the CHamoru people.
Thompson’s research on Guam was based on analysis of collections and field-notes gathered by husband and wife team Hans and Gertrude Hornbostel. Born in Switzerland in 1893, Gertrude had moved with her family to Guam at the age of eleven.
There, she learned to speak fluent CHamoru and became known as “Trudis Alemån” – a name she later published under. Gertrude met and married Hans in 1914, assisting him with his work as an anthropologist. She collected, recorded and translated CHamoru stories, songs and customs, producing illustrations of important archaeological sites and artefacts.
Where were all the women in the Stone Age?
Many “wives” of noted archaeologists took part in archaeological excavations, data analysis, and monograph writing, sometimes only to have their contributions mentioned in the acknowledgement section.
Take the research of Douglas and Carolyn Osborne in the mid-20th century. The pair met as graduate archaeology students at the University of New Mexico, marrying in 1941. From 1954-55, they conducted some of the first systematic surveys and excavations of prehistoric sites in Palau. Carolyn is not a co-author of the seminal 1966 publication, The archaeology of the Palau Islands, an intensive survey. Instead her role and contributions are simply acknowledged by her husband. He writes:
The work of laboratory analysis and recording, including shard analysis, cataloguing, photographic developing, and negative filing was all done by my wife, Carolyn. It would not have been possible for me to do the extensive survey work that was accomplished had I not had my keen and well-trained partner with me.
What is clear is that Carolyn’s involvement was crucial to the success of the research. What is less clear is how she ended up absent as co-author of a work for which she was largely responsible.
Even the work of one of the best known, trailblazing field archaeologists, Katherine Routledge, in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has not been properly considered in all its importance. In 1914, Routledge, a British archaeologist and anthropologist, was among the earliest to conduct planned archaeological excavations in the Pacific.
Her legacy was under-explored until archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg wrote a 2003 book about her, examining her unpublished field-notes and other archives.
The intellectual context for Routledge’s expedition, the field and excavation methods applied, the complex relationships established with the Rapa Nui community and the results of her work – notably her conclusions that the large statues, mo’ai, were indeed linked to the past of the Indigenous people of the island (and not to a mysterious civilisation) – still needs to be integrated into the general narratives about the history of Pacific archaeology.
There are many more stories to tell about the Pacific Matildas. More often than not, these open doors to even more hidden histories – especially those of Pasifika people who played an instrumental role in the work of early archaeologists.
Historians are gathering increasing evidence that “minority” groups found ingenious alternative ways to participate in the development of science. Yet we cannot ignore the intersectionality of various factors of oppression – typically race, class, gender and complex colonial relationships – which made it harder for some people to do so.
That’s why it is important to continue fighting discrimination and supporting diversity in scientific research. One of the best tools we have is to talk loudly about the figures, such as these women, who played an instrumental role in building our scientific knowledge of the world. For too long they have remained hidden behind “founding fathers”.
The Matildas were identified as “women” mainly by their collaborators and the dominant social structures around them, which might not always correspond to their own chosen gender identity, a complex matter we acknowledge.
Hidden women of history: Annie Lock was a bolshie, outspoken Australian missionary, full of contradictions
“We have fared well out of native hands”, wrote missionary Annie Lock from Oodnadatta in South Australia in 1924. Four years later, having moved to Harding Soak north of Alice Springs, she declared the government should “give the natives food in place of their country”.
Lock’s recognition that white Australians had taken Aboriginal land and owed them compensation was ahead of her time, even if her idea of appropriate compensation was inadequate.
Born in 1876 into a Methodist sharefarming family of 14 children in South Australia’s Gilbert Valley, Lock was a practical woman with a very basic education. A dressmaker by trade, in 1903 she joined what would become the United Aborigines Mission.
It operated on faith lines: missionaries were unpaid and could not actively solicit donations, relying on prayer to answer all needs. Lock, like her colleagues, developed a nice line in inviting supporters to “join her in prayer” for very specific needs, such as “a nice staunch horse for £12”, hoping for a “practical” show of sympathy.
From 1903 to 1937, she lived in 10 mission camps across four states and territories. Renowned for being the “Big Boss”, she usually worked alone establishing “new work” — partly because her colleagues found her intensely uncollegial.
She wasn’t only out of step with many of her contemporaries in her belief Aboriginal Australians deserved compensation: she also believed Aboriginal people had a future and they could be “useful citizens” of Australia.
Once again, however, her view of their place in broader Australian society was narrow. She did not imagine Indigenous doctors, lawyers or politicians, but labourers, stockmen and domestic servants.
I first encountered Annie Lock through some of her letters in the South Australian archives. She berated government officials, demanding action and funding for (what she saw as) Aboriginal people’s interests. She was bolshie and outspoken.
At the time I was a young graduate student and naively thought I had uncovered a feminist heroine. I was quickly disabused: for all her intrepid and gutsy behaviour, Lock held intensely socially conservative views in line with her religious conviction.
A grand adventure
Lock’s life was like a “girls’ own” adventure story – albeit a teetotal and highly moralistic one.
She made epic horse and buggy journeys across the desert, camped in the middle of nowhere with few resources and was shipwrecked in a pearling lugger. She railed against white men’s abuse of Aboriginal women, and she “rode rough-shod over rules and regulations, always managing to come out on top”, in the words of her obituary from her longsuffering mission society.
Many white Australians felt she went too far. She cuddled Aboriginal children, nursed the sick, and shared her campfire – even “drinking tea out of the same cup”.
After the 1928 Coniston Massacre, in which a police party killed over 100 Aboriginal men, women and children in Central Australia, the Board of Enquiry, widely considered as a whitewash at the time, blamed the unrest leading to the events partly on “a woman missionary living among naked blacks, lowering their respect for whites”.
It was no coincidence that Lock was also one of the people who had publicised the massacre, forcing an enquiry in the first place, after Aboriginal people sought refuge in her camp and told her their horrifying tale.
In fact, rather than “lowering their respect” as a white woman living with Aboriginal people, Lock maintained her camp was an area of mutual respect and negotiation:
They told me their laws; […] I made my rules; they kept them; I kept theirs; we had no trouble.
At certain moments when researching her life, I found Lock seemed impressively broadminded. However, given the uneven distribution of power, the reality was not so idyllic.
A troublesome woman
Lock was an integral part of the colonial machine, with all its patronising ethnocentricity. As a white woman, Lock was never troubled by any sense that Aboriginal people were her equals.
She could be dictatorial and bloody-minded, with a highly developed sense of what she saw as right and wrong, approving harsh punishment for transgressors. At the Coniston enquiry itself she was critical of those Aboriginal men who killed cattle, suggesting “a good flogging” was called for.
In Western Australia, she actively took children from their families and she was instrumental in establishing Carrolup Native Settlement in 1915 — a forerunner of notorious Moore River Settlement — to which Aboriginal people were removed.
In South Australia in 1924, she started what became Colebrook Home, in which Aboriginal children of mixed descent were institutionalised.
At Ooldea, when Lock was 58, the overworked and tired missionary let her guard slip. An Aboriginal man hit her after she punished his daughter. The daughter should be sent to Colebrook, she suggested, “to punish” him — deviating from the usual missionary script of “in the child’s best interests”.
But history is complicated. One elderly Aboriginal woman smiled when she told an interviewer her memories of Lock, “a real fat one”, playing rounders at Ooldea. The image of a stout middle-aged missionary hitching up her skirts and charging around the sandhills with a bunch of Aboriginal kids is hard to beat.
In Central Australia, some remembered her as a caring for children “on country”, saving them from being sent away.
Lock was consistently vocal about Aboriginal girls’ rights to be protected from white men (although she condoned Aboriginal men’s violent “punishment” of their wives). And while she was irrepressibly evangelistic, she eventually learned Christianity could work with some aspects of Aboriginal culture. Sometimes, she wrote, Aboriginal people could “teach white people a lesson”. They were “real socialist”, sharing the clothes that she gave them. She waxed lyrical about their “corroboree songs” and appreciated the authority of elder generations over the younger.
In 1937, aged 60 and after 35 years in the mission field, Lock suddenly retired. Certainly she had been finding her “pioneering” missionary work more of a strain, and her health had suffered, but also, she told her supporters, God was giving her a “quieter work”. Much to everyone’s amazement, this independent woman had found herself a husband.
She married a retired bank manager and spent the last six years of her life evangelising in a caravan around Eyre Peninsula.
In uncovering the life of Annie Lock, I found a woman who was both fascinating and discomfiting. We can try and judge her motivations and actions as an individual of her time, but we cannot ignore her impact.
She saved people’s lives by providing food and healthcare, and a refuge from more hostile forces. She also destroyed families by removing children. She introduced Christianity, which some found a welcome way of navigating the changing world. She was one of an army of “do-gooders” whose haphazard attempts to improve the lives of Aboriginal people did not always have the result that anyone would have desired.
Her personal impact could be positive – some remember her as “lovely” and “motherly”. But her impact as an active participant in “protectionist” government policies, which limited Aboriginal people’s lives and movement and tore families apart, was traumatic and has endured.
Catherine Bishop is the author of Too Much Cabbage and Jesus Christ: Australia’s “Mission Girl” Annie Lock, out now with Wakefield Press
People dropped whisky into their noses to treat Spanish flu. Here’s what else they took that would raise eyebrows today
Philippa Martyr, The University of Western AustraliaWe’re researching COVID-19 in a fast-paced world with new data becoming available all the time. We track which interventions work well and which ones don’t.
But in 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic, the world was a different place. No one was entirely sure what caused influenza. By the time health authorities began to find out, it was too late.
Our knowledge about viruses was limited in 1918, but we knew about bacteria. People who died of flu had bacterial infection in their lungs. However, this threw researchers off track because these were secondary infections, not caused directly by the flu.
With this lack of knowledge, it was still an anything-goes medical research world. There were unregulated vaccine trials and lots of hype for the latest “cure”, even in respectable medical journals.
Here’s what we know about the Spanish flu “cures” of the day, whisky included.
Doctors, pharmacists and nurses had cures
Doctors developed and used some of these cures for the flu. Sydney’s chief quarantine officer, Dr Reid, treated patients in March 1919 with 15-grain (1 gram) doses of calcium lactate every four hours, and a “vaccine” containing influenza and pneumococcus bacteria. In 203 cases, he had no deaths.
Calcium lactate is used today to treat low levels of calcium in the blood. But Dr Reid’s doses are well above the current recommended daily level.
Chemists were also busy making and selling their own influenza cures. J. Reginald Albert McAlister of Guyra in regional New South Wales advertised his 1919 patented mixture as curing influenza at once.
People even listened to nurses — who at the time were usually the least important people in the health-care system — about cures for the Spanish flu.
Nan Taylor, a New Zealand nurse, advocated whisky — lots of it, including gargling and drops up the nose. She also recommended quinine and castor oil.
Nurse Kate Guazzini cared for Spanish flu patients in South Africa in late 1918, and caught the flu there before moving to Sydney. She said:
I was kept alive on brandy and milk for six weeks […] That, with quinine and hot lemon drinks, were found to be the only effective remedies.
Food manufacturers linked themselves to flu cures. In 1919 a brand new beef extract, Bonox, had just hit the Australian market, and the flu epidemic was a great marketing opportunity. Bonox was advertised as a sure way to recover your health and strength after the flu.
News of ‘cures’ spread far and wide
In much of Australia just after WWI there were often no doctors close by. So many people were used to dosing themselves with homemade potions and remedies. They shared their prescriptions in the pages of local newspapers.
Between 1918 and 1920, Australian newspapers were flooded with Spanish flu cures of all kinds.
In October 1918, a journalist at Victoria’s Bendigo Independent lamented:
Cures? My goodness me, the vast amount of cures on the market are positively frightening, and everyone has a favorite cure. I pin my faith to one, you to another. There’s a certain influenza mixture that, taken in the early stages, is regarded as a certain cure by one large section […] Asperin [sic] is the cry of another batch of victims, and they tell you that that drug does the trick. ‘Try whiskey and milk taken hot and taken often,’ is the advice of others who have had it. But one and all end in the same way: ‘Go to bed and stay there till the thing leaves you.’
Like aspirin, its overuse might have boosted the Spanish flu death rate.
They’re using it in America
Like today, Australians were also eagerly reading about overseas experiments, and wanting to try these cures locally.
In June 1919, the Richmond River Herald reported:
On Friday we published the following New York cable: — ‘Dr. Charles Duncan, at the Convention of the American Medical Association, said the cure for influenza was one drachm of infected mucus pasteurised and with filtered water injected subcutaneously … Yesterday (says Tuesday’s Tweed ‘Daily’) a youth was seen inquiring for a chemist, having in his hand the above clipping and sixpence, his object being to secure that amount’s worth of the ‘cure.’ Several others, it is understood, have also been inquiring into the same matter, with a view to ‘having it made up’ locally.
Some of these cures lingered
Once the Spanish flu pandemic was over, many of the cures remained. Most of them, like aspirin, incorporated the threat of influenza into regular advertising.
Some, like quinine, have made a reappearance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julian Droogan, Macquarie University and Malcolm Choat, Macquarie UniversityDespite cliched talk of a “graveyard of empires”, what we now call Afghanistan has for thousands of years been an important part of many sophisticated cultures.
Situated along the Silk Road — a tangle of Eurasian trade routes stretching back to the days of the Roman Empire — Afghanistan and its people have long served as a place of connection between Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
It has been home to Hellenistic cities populated by the successors of Alexander the Great, glittering Buddhist monasteries that served to transmit early Buddhism from India to far away China and Japan, and a series of Medieval Islamic kingdoms at the forefront of the literature and science of their day.
This dazzlingly diverse heritage is preserved in over 2,600 archaeological sites scattered across its rugged terrain, numerous regional museums and galleries, and, most famously, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Refurbished in 2007, the museum holds a collection of over 80,000 artefacts from throughout the region.
All of this is now under renewed threat by Taliban forces, whose fanatical interpretation of Islam forbids representative imagery, and is particularly dismissive of anything it considers to be non-Islamic.
While remaining focused on the plight of the Afghan people, countries such as the US, UK, and Australia need to also start planning how they can reduce the coming assault on Afghanistan’s art, history and material culture.
A history of destruction
In the 1980s, whole ancient sites were illegally excavated with artifacts sold off under cover of war. The Hellenistic Greek city of Ai-Khanoum, dating from the 4th century BCE to the mid-2nd century CE and discovered in the 1830s, was destroyed, including its Greek theatre, gymnasium and temple to Zeus.
During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, items from the 12th century palace of Mas’ud III were looted and distributed through international black markets.
The National Museum in Kabul, established in 1919, was extensively damaged and looted in the period immediately following the end of communist rule in 1992.
The “Dead Seas Scrolls of Buddhism” — thousands of scrolls and fragments written on leaves, bark, parchment and copper containing Buddhist sermons and treatises from as early as the 2nd century AD — were smuggled out of Afghanistan and dispersed among various manuscript collections from 1994 to 2001. Some were looted from the Kabul museum, but most were found in caves in the region of Bamiyan in the 1990s.
The Taliban were ruthless in their destruction, but also strategic. They saw Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic art and culture as a resource to be used and abused where possible to aid their international objectives.
Just two years earlier, in 1999, the Taliban Minister of Culture had assured the international community Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage would be safe under his custodianship. In 2001, the Bayiman Buddhas were held hostage — and ultimately destroyed — while the Taliban demanded international recognition.
What does this mean for Afghanistan today?
The Taliban are again claiming Afghanistan’s heritage will be safe under their rule.
Statements have been released instructing fighters to protect and preserve historical sites, halt the plundering of archaeological digs, and forbid the selling of antiquities on the black market. Guards have been posted at the National Museum to prevent looting.
However, this initial charm offensive could just be the opening move in a longer strategy in which Afghanistan’s history and heritage will be once again held hostage. Priceless cultural treasures may be threatened with destruction.
Archaeologists and curators responsible for preserving Afghanistan’s national heritage were caught off-guard by the Taliban’s rapid advance. Many are now seeking to flee the country or are going into hiding.
The loss of these experts and custodians of Afghanistan’s rich heritage will mean there is nobody to protect its material past from neglect or looting. Nor will future generations of young Afghans be able to learn about their past from fellow citizens who have dedicated their lives to preserving it.
Australia’s part to play in stopping illegal trade
Markets for illegally looted artefacts only exist while international collectors — including museums and galleries — continue to acquire stolen antiquities.
Afghanistan remains, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy and we must do what we can to assist the Afghan people.
But now is also the time for Australia and other liberal democracies to put in place stronger legal safeguards to prevent the trafficking of antiquities, in particular much stronger border security and customs measures for the detection and ending of this illicit trade.
New research shows WA’s first governor condoned killing of Noongar people despite proclaiming all equal under law
Jeremy Martens, The University of Western AustraliaIn June, councillors in Perth’s City of Stirling decided not to change the name of their municipality, despite former Western Australian governor James Stirling’s leading role in the 1834 Pinjarra massacre.
That massacre, in which troops and colonists killed between 15 and 80 Noongar people, is widely known. Less recognised is Stirling’s encouragement of soldiers and settlers to flout the law and employ violence, including murder, against Noongar communities resisting colonial dispossession elsewhere in WA.
Stirling was WA’s first governor from 1829-39. My new research on the early history of pastoralism highlights how this industry’s success was built on the violent conquest of the Avon valley in the 1830s, during which Stirling condoned the unlawful killing of Noongar people by soldiers and settlers.
In one case, for instance, he refused to prosecute a farm worker who killed an Indigenous man in cold blood.
This was despite his proclamation that all the settlement’s inhabitants, Indigenous and European, would be protected equally by British law.
He also argued authorities needed to deliver a decisive blow to “tranquilize” the district. Any balanced assessment of his career in WA should take these actions into account.
‘Liable to be prosecuted’
The proclamation declaring the establishment of Swan River in June 1829 explicitly extended the British legal system to the new settlement.
Indeed Stirling gave notice that if any person was “convicted of behaving in a fraudilent [sic], cruel or felonious Manner towards the Aboriginees of the Country” they would be “liable to be prosecuted and tried for the Offence, as if the same had been committed against any other of His Majesty’s Subjects”.
Yet his commitment to abide by the laws he had proclaimed was frequently tested, especially when colonists began to explore and occupy the Avon valley, 60 miles east of Perth. This area became the centre of the colony’s nascent pastoral industry.
The conquest and settlement of the Avon district by pastoralists and farmers in the 1830s was especially bloody. The Noongar people of the Ballardong region, who owned this well-watered and fertile country, bravely resisted the settler incursion.
In 1836, Stirling dispatched ten soldiers to the town of York under the command of Lieutenant Henry Bunbury. This young officer (for whom the city of Bunbury south of Perth is named) was instructed by the governor “to take the most decisive measures”. Bunbury took this to mean he had been “ordered over here with a detachment to make war upon the Natives”.
During 1836 and 1837, Bunbury committed several atrocities, freely admitted to in letters and journals. People sleeping at night were killed without warning. A Noongar man running away from his mounted party was killed, also at night.
Bunbury knew his actions were illegal, but claimed in a letter to Stirling that “severe measures” were necessary. Stirling expressed his satisfaction with Bunbury’s “promptitude”.
In a public notice he explained “a decisive blow” at York was necessary “to tranquilize that District”.
The “boldness” of the Ballardong Noongar resistance meant that nothing would suffice, wrote Stirling, except
an early exhibition of force, or […] such acts of decisive severity, as will appal them as a people for a time, and reduce their tribe to weakness.
Stirling actively condoned the killing of Noongar people by Avon settlers. One particularly egregious atrocity occurred in September 1836 when the pioneering pastoralist Arthur Trimmer ordered a worker to murder a Noongar man “in cool blood”.
The employee, Edward Gallop, was instructed to hide in a barn loft with a gun. The doors of the barn, which contained flour, were intentionally left open and as soon as three men entered to take some, Gallop shot one of them in the head.
Stirling made no public statement condemning this premeditated murder. In a letter to his bosses at the Colonial Office in London, he openly defended settlers’ use of extrajudicial violence.
While expressing his “displeasure and regret at the loss of the Native’s life”, Stirling decided not to prosecute Gallop. He believed that
in cases where the law is necessarily ineffectual for the protection of life and property the right of self protection cannot with justice be circumscribed within very narrow limits.
On several other occasions colonists murdered Noongar people without cause, and in some cases mutilated their bodies. For example, another of Trimmer’s employees named Souper boasted of shooting a woman while hunting in the forest; soldiers under Bunbury’s command later mutilated her body.
When Stirling was asked to investigate and prosecute these crimes by the missionary Louis Giustiniani, he ignored them.
The perpetrators never faced justice.