When the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s report was tabled in 1991, it was not the first official inquiry into this tragic phenomenon. The disproportionately high rate of mortality among Aboriginal convicts in colonial New South Wales had triggered an earlier investigation in 1850.
The problem is, of course, still with us. This year a Guardian investigation found 147 Indigenous people have died in custody over the past ten years, and 407 since the end of the Royal Commission.
In my research into the transportation of Aboriginal convicts in the 19th century, I uncovered a government circular, a formal letter, written in 1851. It set out detailed instructions about watching and reporting on the health of Aboriginal prisoners. And it recommended that if an Aboriginal prisoner’s life was in danger, he might be released from gaol.
When Aboriginal convict Jemmy died in custody in 1850 soon after being transported to Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the Native Police Office wrote to let the colonial secretary Edwards Deas Thomson know. Thomson reacted by asking for a report of the number of Aboriginal convicts who had died on the island over the past five years.
It revealed that of the 19 Aboriginal men transported there between 1845 and 1850, 12 (63%) had died there or in Sydney’s general hospital.
Jemmy, along with at least 60 other Aboriginal men from NSW (which at the time included Queensland and Victoria), was transported following his involvement in Australia’s 19th century frontier wars. Some of these Aboriginal convicts were sent to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land.
Others languished on Goat Island, Sydney, and, later, Cockatoo Island. The most high profile Aboriginal captive was Musquito who was banished from NSW to Norfolk Island in 1805 and later hanged in Hobart in 1825.
Most Aboriginal convicts simply did not survive for very long in captivity. In their first year of incarceration, Aboriginal convicts died at ten times the rate of male convicts shipped to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain. Speculation about this at the time mostly hinged around the idea that they died from pining for country.
Other contributing causes included untreated injuries following violent arrests and crowded, unsanitary living conditions, which led to chest infections. Aboriginal poor health in custody was exacerbated by colonial diets and hard labour.
The disturbing trend of high death rates amongst Aboriginal prisoners is evident in archival records from the early decades of the 19th century. Yet until the 1840s Aboriginal convicts were spread out across a range of different probation and penal stations.
When Thomson heard how many Aboriginal convicts were dying in custody at Cokatoo Island, he set up a board of enquiry to consider alternatives to confining them there. This board comprised the medical adviser to the government Dr Patrick Hill, the surgeon at Cockatoo Island Dr O’Brien, and the island’s visiting justice, H. H. S. Browne.
The most significant outcome of the inquiry was a remarkable document that went beyond the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission almost 150 years later. An official circular instructed surgeons visiting colonial gaols to report to justices any cases involving Aboriginal prisoners whose lives could be endangered by longer confinement.
The upshot of this was that, providing it was not considered contrary to the public interest, the suffering prisoner might be released from custody. With the restoration of his freedom, it was hoped he would return to full health.
While this initiative arose out of the convict system, the instructions were circulated more widely and applied to Aboriginal prisoners generally.
The gaol at Bathurst, a town north west of Sydney, was among the institutions to which the circular was sent in March 1851. In the early 1850s, Godfrey Charles Mundy visited Bathurst Gaol as part of a tour of NSW with his cousin, Governor Charles FitzRoy.
Mundy wrote about a man known as “Fish-hook”, who had been locked up for cattle stealing and showed signs of reduced mental function. Returning a month later, Mundy noted a marked deterioration in Fish-hook’s mental and physical wellbeing.
FitzRoy ordered Fish-hook’s immediate release. When Mundy saw Fish-hook a third time, after the Aboriginal man had become a colonial servant, he wrote how the former prisoner’s mental health had been perfectly restored.
Despite the transformative outcome for Fish-hook, it seems unlikely many Aboriginal prisoners were freed. To the contrary, some were considered too sick to be released, as it would almost certainly lead to their death.
The 1851 Circular and the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody shared a common concern, to reduce the mortality rate of Aboriginal prisoners. The 19th century solution was to initiate, where possible, their early release. By the end of the 20th century, the Royal Commission’s focus was on strategies to lower Aboriginal incarceration rates. However, 27 years later, many of its recommendations are yet to be implemented.
On November 2, 1816, Charles Repeat, “a poor old man”, was driving his master’s cart along the short route between Hobart and New Town in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He accidentally drove over a small tree stump, and was thrown from the cart and killed immediately.
By that time the British had been established in New Town for about 12 years, and this road was part of the route to several settlements further out of town. It was not an unused back street but a main road, and yet drivers still had to avoid the deadly perils of tree stumps.
It was not that roads were not important – a network of overland routes was quickly spreading to connect the growing colony – but they were not the only transport routes. Waterways were also vital to transport systems, as overland routes were rough and slow. In Australia, rivers played a pivotal role in giving European settlers access to the land beyond the immediate coastlines, and shaped the modern cities we know today.
Charts of Van Diemen’s Land from expeditions by Abel Tasman, James Cook, and Nicolas Baudin reveal the extent to which these colonial explorers relied on rivers. The maps show water depths, fresh water supplies, and sources of timber for ship repairs. Mountain ranges are depicted as lines of peaks, as they would have appeared from the deck of a ship following the coastline. The world beyond navigable waterways was a place for speculation, not exploration.
In Tasmania’s hilly landscape, valleys were often more accessible than the scrub-covered hills. Rivers also served as stable landmarks to identify important points in the environment, and were useful for retracing steps. Even some 30 years after the British were firmly settled in Tasmania, rivers remained the starting point for pushing out into areas they had not yet explored.
There were plenty more sensible reasons for concentrating on rivers, besides ease of access. They also provided the necessities of daily life: drinking water, irrigation for kitchen gardens, and a sewer for removing the less picturesque elements. This preoccupation with waterways is captured on charts showing the Tasmanian colony throughout the early 19th century, where all the settlements are based on the banks of rivers.
Even places that could not be reached by river, such as Bothwell, 60km north of Hobart, needed fresh water. Settlements like New Norfolk, 20km from Hobart, were used as transport hubs between Bothwell and the colony’s governing centre. Goods could move between river and road along these routes, depending on the infrastructure, urgency and weather.
Individual properties could be focused on the rivers as well, with houses facing their front doors toward the main thoroughfare – the river. Tour guides at Woolmers Estate in northern Tasmania will tell you that the house was originally orientated towards the river. This was common among grand houses and small cottages alike. It was not until roads became more reliable that new properties began facing them instead.
The Archer family at Woolmers renovated and built a grand new entrance, now facing an overland access route. This was a power move, as it made sure that guests approaching the house would pass through the most impressive land, and their first sighting of the house would be the entrance. They would be duly awestruck by the grandeur (and therefore wealth) of their hosts.
The site of today’s Hobart central business district was chosen largely because of the waterways. The River Derwent was deep and suitable for ships, while the Hobart Rivulet (and others) provided fresh water for daily life and industry. Priorities change, however, and the rivulet has now been “all but obliterated from the city centre”, squashed into a series of culverts and tunnels.
The history of Australia’s colonial-era reliance on waterways will not be so easily buried, however. In May 2018, Hobart was hit by storms that brought 100mm of rain in a few hours. Hobart’s rivulets and streams broke their banks with spectacular vigour, washing over streets and into buildings. This was not the first time the Hobart Rivulet has brought the city to a standstill, and it will doubtless not be the last.
For those of us who live in today’s Australian cities, waterways can be easy to dismiss as simply picturesque places to paddle a kayak or have a swim. But historically they were so much more. In fact, without rivers, the people who sowed the seeds of our modern cities would not have got very far at all.
In 19th century Queensland, the Native Mounted Police were responsible for “dispersing” (a euphemism for systematic killing) Aboriginal people.
This government-funded paramilitary force operated from 1849 (prior to Queensland’s separation from New South Wales) until 1904. It grew to have an expansive reach throughout the state, with camps established in strategic locations along the ever-expanding frontier, first in the southeast and then west and north. While staffed with non-Indigenous senior officers, the bulk of the force was made up of Aboriginal men and, sometimes, boys.
We have been exploring the remote Queensland outback for traces of the base camps of the Native Mounted Police. There were nearly 200 such camps. So far we have visited more than 45 of them.
Our archaeological work is revealing the day-to-day livelihoods that underpinned the chilling work of these police. This is an important part of reckoning with Australia’s colonial violence, given the difficulties in identifying physical evidence of massacres in the archaeological record, despite recent efforts to map massacre sites from oral and written sources.
Rather than maintaining order among the European population, the Native Mounted Police’s role was to protect squatters, miners and settlers on the frontier, by whatever means necessary. Their well documented method of “protection” was to mount patrols and kill Aboriginal people who were trying to protect their land, lives and loved ones. There were literally hundreds of such events.
On February 10 1861, for instance, a detachment led by Sub-Inspector Rudolph Morisset shot at least four, possibly more, Aboriginal men on Manumbar Station (about 160 km northwest of Brisbane). This was in reprisal for Aboriginal people killing cattle on the run. We know about these particular deaths because John Mortimer, one of the station owners, complained in the local press about the police’s behaviour. He also gave evidence to an 1861 inquiry into the activities of the Native Mounted Police.
Around Christmas 1878 meanwhile, on the banks of a waterhole near Boulia, some Aboriginal people killed one or more Europeans looking after stock. The reprisal massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children that followed — with one, possibly two, survivors — are known from a written account, and from various oral accounts documented in the months and years after. The Burke River Native Mounted Police, stationed just outside Boulia, commanded by Sub-Inspector Ernest Eglinton, and assisted by at least one prominent pastoralist, Alexander Kennedy, were responsible for the Aboriginal murders.
Excavating the past
Similar to the forts built on the plains of North America during the “Indian” Wars, or the offices of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, Native Mounted Police camps formed the force’s administrative backbone. More than 450 non-Indigenous officers lived on these bases, along with at least 700 Aboriginal men, through the force’s 50-year history.
Like other bureaucratic systems, their very domestic ordinariness — providing insights into what the police ate, drank and how they lived — belies the conflict that took place beyond their boundaries.
Many camps were short-lived, sometimes being occupied for only a few months; in such cases their physical imprint is limited. In other situations — particularly where the terrain was rugged and higher population densities meant Aboriginal people were able to mount more effective campaigns of resistance — camps were occupied for longer periods, sometimes several decades. These left a clearer impression on the landscape.
Even so, what is left is not what you might normally associate with a frontier war. There are no battlefields, in the traditional sense of the word, to be seen. No victims with bullet wounds, no mass graves, and no large fortified buildings. Instead, the Native Mounted Police camps are ordinary, banal even, revealing the detritus of everyday life: stone fireplaces, segments of post and rail fences, sections of pathways, clearings and the occasional rubbish dump strewn with broken bottles.
Perhaps more telling, are the large numbers of bullets and spent cartridges from government-issue Snider rifles. These were rarely owned by private citizens but were issued to the Native Mounted Police for decades.
At each of the Burke River, Cluney and Boralga camps we have catalogued more than 100 bullets and cartridges, an unexpected situation given that most killings of Aboriginal people by the Native Mounted Police occurred outside the confines of the camps. Perhaps the abundance of these objects in the camps is the result of regular target practice by troopers, or maybe the result of having to hunt kangaroos at the local waterhole to supplement their meagre rations. Military-style buttons from uniforms – with ornate monograms, sometimes including a royal cipher and crown – serve as a bleak reminder that the violence associated with the Native Mounted Police was endorsed by the state.
The Burke River camp
Burke River near Boulia in southwest Queensland – the base for Sub Inspector Eglinton and his detachment – was described in 1882 by a visitor as
the most respectable looking native police camp I have seen in Queensland, there seems to be a place for everything and everything in its place.
This camp sits beside a waterhole that is associated with Dreaming stories – an Aboriginal stone arrangement and the thousands of flaked stone artefacts along the edge of the watercourse are testament to it being an important living and ceremonial place. The establishment of a police camp on the site was likely to have been viewed by local Aboriginal people as both inappropriate and insulting – but of course their views were not a concern.
There are two stone buildings, likely built to house equipment, guns, ammunition and dry foodstuffs, and possibly the officer’s quarters. Further away again is a series of small mounds – so slight that unless you know what to look for you would not even see them. These mounds are a treasure trove of discarded rubbish. The fish hooks, flaked glass artefacts and animal remains we have recovered from them indicate they are likely the remains of the troopers’ huts. They serve to remind us that, despite the job they were hired to carry out, they too were just men trying to survive.
Sites of colonial violence are difficult to locate exactly. As such, there is ongoing debate about its scale and nature. Aboriginal people have always referred to these events as a war. Such statements are often dismissed by critics as unreliable. Yet 19th century European authors also described the frontier killings as a war. The archaeology of Native Mounted Police camps is the closest material indication we have of the scale of suppression of Aboriginal people through the 19th century.
While some of these camps are recognised on Queensland’s Aboriginal heritage list, none can be found on the broader State Heritage Register – despite 200 sites that refer to the regular Queensland Police Force in some manner. We believe this should change to give more formal recognition to the dark past of the State’s foundations.
Since the beginnings of settler occupation in Australia, the kangaroo has been claimed at once as a national symbol and as a type of vermin to be destroyed en masse. In Kate Clere McIntyre and Michael McIntyre’s recent award-winning film, Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story, Sydney academic Peter Chen sums up this stark contradiction: “Kangaroos are wonderful, fuzzy, they’re maternal, and they’re also a pest that should be eliminated wholesale”.
The killing of kangaroos by Europeans began at exactly the same time that the species was first identified. Shooting, naming, describing, scientifically classifying, sketching, dissecting, eating: these things all played out simultaneously as soon as Cook’s Endeavour got stranded on a reef in far north Queensland in June and July 1770.
Lieutenant John Gore was the first to shoot a kangaroo; Cook noted that Aboriginal people called this animal “Kangooroo, or Kanguru”; the ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson produced two beautiful sketches of these creatures; and Joseph Banks went ashore to hunt with his greyhound and “dress’d” a kangaroo for his dinner.
Bits and pieces of dead kangaroos were shipped back to England, where Banks presented them to George Stubbs, an artist famous for his anatomical accuracy – and who had made his name as a painter of thoroughbred horses and hunting scenes. Stubbs worked with a stuffed or inflated pelt and drew on Parkinson’s sketches to produce the first painting of this newly-identified species, Portrait of the Kongouro from New Holland (1770).
An engraving of this painting – with the kangaroo gazing back over its shoulder (curiously? Is someone pursuing it?) – was used to illustrate the bestselling 1773 publication of Cook’s journal. As Des Cowley and Brian Hubber have noted, further engravings were made, the image began to circulate, and soon “the kangaroo had entered the European popular imagination”.
The kangaroo hunt quickly became a recognisable genre in colonial Australian art. Joseph Lycett was transported to New South Wales in 1813, a convicted forger. His Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroo (c. 1817) and Aborigines hunting kangaroos (1820) give us two early examples of “ethnographic” landscape painting where Aboriginal people hunt kangaroos in a fantasy precolonial space untouched by the impact of European settlement.
In other works, however, Lycett placed Aboriginal hunters alongside settlers as mutual participants in the developing social and economic life of the colony. In these early days of settlement, kangaroos were a vital food source.
Lycett’s Inner View of Newcastle (1818) depicts a settler, a convict and an Aboriginal man walking in single file with four kangaroo dogs (usually, greyhound, deerhound and wolfhound crossbreeds); the convict is carrying the carcass of a freshly killed kangaroo over his shoulder.
Lycett’s View on the Wingeecarrabee River, New South Wales (1824) takes us down to the Southern Highlands, inland from Wollongong – where a settler with a musket, an Aboriginal man with a spear and two kangaroo dogs are all chasing down a single kangaroo.
Augustus Earle was a freelance professional artist who had travelled around the world – with Charles Darwin, among others. He spent two and a half years in Australia in the mid-1820s, chronicling metropolitan and bush scenes. His painting A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Day Break (1827) gives us an idyllic scene of Aboriginal and settler companionship in the wake of a kangaroo hunt.
A group of settlers and two Aboriginal men are arranged around a campfire, waking up, preparing breakfast, and tending to a horse. There are two kangaroo dogs curled up and sleeping, and in the foreground of the painting – in the shadows, lying beside a rifle – is a large, dead kangaroo.
S. T. Gill is probably the best known local artist to represent the kangaroo hunt as an organized recreational event. Colonial hunting clubs were established across Australia in the 1830s and 1840s; the first “meet” in Victoria, for example, was in 1839, organized near Geelong by the Indian-born military officer and pastoralist William Mercer. Squatters bred packs of hounds and wealthy locals and visiting dignitaries would be invited to join in the hunt and all the social occasions that went with it.
Foster Fyans was the Police Magistrate of Geelong and helped to oversee the dispossession of Aboriginal people across the western district frontier. “A noble pack of hounds was kept up by gentlemen squatters who met every season”, he recalled much later on, “hunting twice and thrice a week, and meeting at each other’s houses, where good cheer and good and happy society were ever to be met”.
Kangaroo hunting helped to consolidate squatter power and influence, lending it an available rhetoric of pleasure and merriment. No longer dependent on the kangaroo as a source of food, landowning colonists soon learned how to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the kill for its own sake, as a blood sport that came to define their social world.
Gill was a prolific chronicler of colonial life; his Australian Sketchbook (1865) included one scene, Kangaroo Stalking, in which a settler with a gun and an Aboriginal man hunt kangaroos together. In 1858 he produced a series of three lithographs under the general title Kangaroo Hunting. The first, The Meet, shows a gathering of men outside a rustic colonial homestead, with their horses and dogs (and some chickens; and a magpie on the roof). One of them has the conspicuous trappings of a wealthy squatter, tall, commanding, elaborately styled in black riding boots, yellow waistcoat, and scarlet jacket.
The second, The Chase, puts the squatter into the foreground, leaping over a fallen log on his powerful white horse. The reckless excitement of the hunt is obvious as the settlers gallop across the dangerous terrain, whips raised. The dogs are chasing a kangaroo, which is retreating into the distance.
But the third lithograph, The Death, seals the animal’s fate. A squatter stands beside his exhausted hounds as a hunter readies his knife to take the dead kangaroo’s tail. Another hunter lifts his hat, looking back; perhaps he is greeting a group of Aboriginal people who are approaching in the background. The leader of this group – a family? – is carrying a spear; he may also be returning from a hunt.
There is no sense of impending frontier violence here, but the lithograph does seem to register the differences between settler and Aboriginal relationships to the body of the dead kangaroo: who claims possession of it, and for what purpose.
Many notable visitors participated in organized kangaroo hunts: Charles Darwin in 1836 (“my usual ill-fortune in sporting followed us”), Britain’s Admiral of the Fleet Henry Keppel in 1850, the novelist Anthony Trollope in 1871.
The Duke of Edinburgh came to the colonies in 1867 – the first royal visit – hunting kangaroo in South Australia and then travelling out to Victoria’s western district for more sport.
The Russian-born colonial artist Nicholas Chevalier accompanied him on tour, staying at the squatter John Moffat’s luxurious homestead Chatsworth House at Hopkins Hill, where he sketched a number of hunting scenes. The Duke himself shot at close range over 30 kangaroos trapped in a yard; he got the locals to preserve the skins and claws.
A few years earlier, Chevalier had joined an expedition to the Grampians, producing two significant landscapes. Mount Abrupt (1864) shows an Aboriginal family peacefully camping on a plateau above a gully, with cattle grazing on the pastures behind and the mountain in the background. This family is not (yet) dispossessed from what is clearly settler property.
Mount Abrupt and The Grampians – produced the same year and published as a lithograph in Charles Troedel’s The Melbourne Album – gives us the same perspective of this mountain. But now there is no Aboriginal family. Instead, a group of settler hunters and their hounds ride roughshod over the place this family had once occupied, chasing kangaroos. It is as if the hunt itself has erased any trace of Aboriginal occupation of land. Its depiction is an expression of settler triumph over both native species (the kangaroo will surely be killed) and Indigeneity (Aboriginal people have been dispossessed).
Godfrey Mundy was another officer who had served in colonial India. He came to Australia in 1846, where he held a senior role in colonial military administration. He was also the cousin of Sir Charles Fitzroy, who by this time was Governor of New South Wales. Together, they went across the Blue Mountains on a month-long journey that became the basis for Mundy’s bestselling diary and narrative of colonial development, Our Antipodes (1852).
Mundy also illustrated his book; one of the illustrations is titled Hunting the Kangaroo. Here, two hunters are in hot pursuit of a kangaroo, with their hounds leading the way. One of the hounds has the kangaroo by the throat; the other lies injured at its feet. Interestingly, Mundy depicts himself as one of the hunters, with his initials “G.M.” branded on the shoulder of one of the horses.
On 30 November 1846, Mundy writes, “the resident gentlemen of the vicinity…attempt to show [us] the sport, par excellence, of the country”. But they find only one kangaroo, which eludes them. The landscape makes the kangaroo hunt difficult and dangerous, with uneven ground, tree stumps, and so on. Mundy rides “at full speed into the fork of a fallen tree” and has to “retreat”. But in his sketch, he is still proudly mounted on his horse and in full pursuit; and the kangaroo is about to die. This is the kangaroo hunt sketch as wish-fulfilment, a fantasy conclusion.
Sympathy for the kangaroo
Edward Roper was a keen naturalist and artist who travelled around the world, coming to Australia in 1857. His landscape A Kangaroo Hunt under Mount Zero, the Grampians (1880) has four hunters galloping through a woodland of eucalypts and grass trees, chasing three kangaroos. A long brushwood fence separates the hunters from their quarry. The riders and their hounds are approaching the fence at break-neck speed, highlighting the thrills and dangers of the chase; this is their land now, and they ride across it as a post-frontier expression of settler freedom and exhilaration.
Roper’s After the Flying Doe gives us a similar scene, although with a closer view of everything including Mount Zero, which now looms large in the background. There is no fence in this version: two hunters on horseback are pursuing kangaroos, with a couple of hounds racing along in front.
Unusually, the kangaroos themselves are in the foreground of the painting. The “doe’s” femininity is apparent in the delicate representation of her features, and possibly there is a joey peeking from her pouch. It looks like this painting wants to invite some sympathy for the female kangaroo’s plight by placing her in the foreground, emphasizing her gender and invoking her directly in the title.
What happens when male hunters kill a female kangaroo? “Colonial Hunt” is the first poem published in Australia on an Australian topic; it appeared in the Sydney Gazette in June 1805. Here, a female kangaroo (“Kanguroo”) is pursued and trapped by a hunter and his dog. “Fatigu’d, broken hearted, tears gush from her eyes”, the poet writes, as she realizes her fate.
The kangaroo that weeps when it dies offers a rare moment of sentimental identification with a native species that by 1805 is already a target for extermination. We don’t see kangaroo tears again until Ethel C. Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1902). In this famous children’s story, a female kangaroo’s sadness over the ecological toll of settlement is now shared by all native species: “Every creature in the bush weeps”, she says, “that they should have come to take the beautiful bush away from us”.
Organised hunts could kill any number of kangaroos; alongside hunting meets that pursued individual roos as game, squatters also organised large scale drives or battues, which could see thousands of kangaroos rounded up, slaughtered and left to rot.
Kangaroos are no longer hunted on horseback, of course. But small – and large -scale killing continues unabated. Recently, the New South Wales government relaxed kangaroo culling licences, consistent with the view of the kangaroo as a “pest” that competes with livestock for survival in drought conditions. If we add this to that government’s plan to expand and intensify forest logging, it’s easy to sympathise with the kangaroo’s complaint in Pedley’s turn-of-the century fantasy.
In 1866, Adelaide colonist George Hamilton published An Appeal for the Horse, arguing against the harsh treatment of animals. He claimed that in “treating [the horse] as a machine, [people] have forgotten the higher attributes of his nature, and considered only his bone and muscle”.
Hamilton was a trailblazer in challenging the cruel treatment of animals by humans. He loved horses better than many people, and frequently likened them to children, wives, or friends. Although Australian anti-cruelty laws were passed as early as 1837, more specific prohibitions against cruelty to animals were not introduced until the 1860s. Hamilton’s challenge to the boundary we have constructed between humans and animals anticipated considerable recent research that questions this divide.
In contrast, Hamilton’s compassion for Aboriginal people was conspicuously lacking. Empathy is always politicised, and emotional narratives such as Hamilton’s tell us whose lives are worthy of compassion and therefore valuable.
In 1839, on a journey droving 350 head of cattle from Port Philip to Adelaide, Hamilton had a tense confrontation with two Aboriginal men, in which he drew and cocked his pistol, ready to fire. The moment passed, and as he later explained:
Although it was my intention to fire upon my black relations, it was with no desire to kill them. No … they would have been merely winged, shot through the leg or arm, or in some place not vital.
Hamilton contrasted his willingness to harm, if not kill, Aboriginal people with what he saw as the hypocrisy of those “pious persons” who cared more about “ignorant pagan black monsters” than “their white brethren who are, from poverty, neglect and vicious teaching, fast falling into a savagedom far more frightful”. Like many at this time, he pitted the rights of Indigenous people against those of poor whites, whether in Britain or in the colonies.
Picturing colonial violence
As an “overlander” who helped “open up” land routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide during the years from 1836 to 1845, Hamilton was a veteran of frontier conflict. His fine-grained narratives and carefully observed drawings and prints provide a valuable insight into the story of white settlement in South Australia.
In 1845 Hamilton wrote:
The black man who roams over these wilds their lord and master is little elevated by nature from the beasts that inhabit his native forests, so far beneath the rest of his species that he seems to be standing on the line of demarcation between instinct and reason.
It seems that humans have always needed to elevate ourselves in contrast to those who are radically different – the “other” – whether that be animals, non-white races or women. This process was fundamental to imperialism and, more often than not, it was violent.
There is a shift in Hamilton’s views from his first forays into the bush around 1836 to his late-19th-century reminiscences. Some of his early drawings, such as “Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836”, express a friendly curiosity, offering many details of material culture and exchange between white travellers and local Aboriginal people.
But after the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838 in north-western New South Wales, colonists became more circumspect regarding frontier clashes with Aboriginal people. Following this massacre, seven white men were hanged for the murder of 28 Wererai people, outraging white colonists and increasing racial tensions over subsequent decades. Recent research by Lyndall Ryan documents the sites where thousands of Aboriginal people and tens of settlers were killed in south-east Australia.
During the 1840s, Hamilton began to produce less sympathetic images, including many drawings and prints depicting frontier violence. These sometimes showed conflict in relatively objective terms, such as his ink drawing “Overlanders Attacking the Natives”.
Even “Natives Spearing the Overlanders’ Cattle”, while showing Aboriginal people as aggressors, remains relatively neutral.
But a series of lithographs from the late 1840s have a nastier edge, losing their quality of realist observation and descending into caricature. These show Aboriginal people attacking white colonists, with ironic titles such as “The Harmless Natives”, or “The Persecuting White Men”. Here Hamilton directs our sympathy from black to white.
As Hamilton’s legacy shows us, emotional narratives and images are a powerful way of defining our relations with others.
This process is also fundamental to modern global warfare, as Judith Butler argues in her analysis of war journalism. It can be seen at work wherever interests compete. For Hamilton, Aboriginal people’s defence of kin and country challenged his own right to colonise and posed a personal threat. This made it easy for him to demonise Aboriginal people.
On the violent frontier, Hamilton was typical in defining the white colonist as victim and Indigenous Australian as persecutor, declaring in 1845:
We may soon look forward to the time when murders perpetrated by the savage on the settler will be considered something more than a peccadillo, and we may hope to see the settler at liberty to protect his life and property without the fear of escaping the blacks’ tomahawk only to run his neck in the hangman’s noose.
Here we see the emotional logic of Hamilton’s imperial cultural hierarchy and his political deployment of compassion. Suddenly, the seeming incongruity of Hamilton’s scorn for threatening Aboriginal people alongside his sympathy for the faithful horse makes perfect sense.
War memorials are a feature of the Australian landscape. Obelisk and arch, broken pillar and stone statue remind us of the crippling loss a young nation faced in campaigns overseas. But where are the monuments to conflicts fought in our own country – a brutal war of dispossession that left deep and enduring scars on countless communities?
As the recent debate over Australian statues demonstrates, sanitised symbols of violence and dispossession have long stood unchallenged in the heart of our towns and cities. By occupying civic space they serve to legitimise narratives of conquest and dispossession, arguably colonising minds in the same ways white “settlers” seized vast tracts of territory.
Stan Grant has called for a Sydney statue of James Cook that claims Cook “discovered” Australia to be corrected. Others have called for the renaming of buildings and public spaces named after Lachlan Macquarie and people associated with Queensland’s slaving (known as “blackbirding”) history.
In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with other politicians and commentator Andrew Bolt, have labelled these calls to alter monuments “Stalinist”.
In debating the place “explorers” or “blackbirders” might occupy in civic space, Australians face a choice in how we engage with a past that is painful, multivocal and complex. White Australians raised such memorials as tributes to their colonial pasts; other than as subjects, there was no place for Indigenous peoples.
Should politicians, bureaucrats or the apologists for our country’s racist past decide the fate of these memorials today? Or can this debate empower previously displaced voices? These monuments have maligned and marginalised first nations’ peoples from the first day they were erected. And they stand, after all, on land whose sovereignty was never surrendered.
Indigenous communities have confronted such challenges before. And they have acted with courage, wisdom and generosity. In Fremantle, Western Australia, a monument that celebrated the racism that mars Australia’s past has today become a symbol of dialogue and reconciliation.
Revising the past
The Explorers’ Monument in Fremantle was unveiled in 1913 to commemorate three white explorers – Frederick Panter, James Harding and William Goldwyer – who were killed in the far northwest in 1864. For generations it stood unquestioned in the centre of the Esplanade Reserve in Fremantle, enshrining a pioneer myth writ deep in Australian history.
A series of plaques circling the monument claimed that the explorers were attacked at night and “killed in their sleep” by “treacherous natives”. The land where they died is portrayed as hostile and alien: a “terra incognita”. Aboriginal people are described as savages, the whites as “intrepid pioneers”.
Other features of the monument are stridently belligerent. An imposing bust pays tribute to Maitland Brown, “leader of the government search and punitive expedition” who carried the explorers’ remains back with him to Fremantle. Brown’s expedition ended in the massacre of around 20 Aboriginal people; mounted and well armed, none of his party were killed or wounded.
In 1994, the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples, a counter-memorial was set in the monument’s base. Elders from Bidyadanga (formally La Grange) unveiled a new plaque outlining the history of provocation that led to the explorers’ deaths. It was a striking instance of what scholars call “dialogical memorialisation”, where one view of the past takes issue with another and history is seen, not as some final statement, but a contingent and contested narrative.
Equally importantly, the plaque acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to defend their traditional lands and solemnly commemorates “all those Aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country”. The dedication service ended as Aboriginal people scattered dust from the site of the massacre and two white children laid wreaths of flowers decked in Aboriginal colours.
The Explorers’ Monument carried the same inscription chiselled on war memorials the length and breadth of our country. “Lest we forget” was the chilling phrase chosen to commemorate Panter, Harding and Goldwyer in 1913, and those words back then were an incitement to racial hatred.
Over 80 years later, the people of Bidyadanga and the Baldja network in Fremantle added “lest we forget” to their counter-inscription. This invites us to widen the ambit of remembrance and recognise the common tragedies that attended the so-called settlement of Australia.
Authorised and unauthorised history
In the United States, symbols of the nation’s racist past have been the flash points of violent confrontations, such as in Charlottesville. Protesters demand the removal of statues that celebrate slave owners and white supremacists. Right-wing militia groups rally to their defence.
Similar debates have emerged elsewhere. Should great centres of learning like Oxford pay tribute to Cecil Rhodes, a man who pioneered the policies of apartheid?
Can a democracy enshrine the advocates of racial, sexual or religious discrimination, or peaceful communities honour those who carpet-bombed Europe? In each case, statues and memorials stand at the heart of these controversies. Once the meanings of monuments were thought to be set in stone; now they crumble in the relentless critique of history.
Would those opposing the altering of Australia’s colonial statues have also opposed the demolition of the Berlin Wall, or the toppling of statues of Saddam Hassein? In monuments, as in written histories, some narratives are authorised, others denied or disputed.
And such critique raises deeper questions, interrogating the very nature of history as a scholarly discipline. Does history cease to exist when a memorial is removed from public view and civic sanction – or is that act of removal, a forceful repudiation of the past, itself an act of choice and agency in history?
Ray Minniecon was an Aboriginal student at Murdoch University who led the liaison with Indigenous communities. “Monuments,” he said on the day Fremantle’s counter-memorial was unveiled, “are not just a window into our past; they are a window into ourselves.” We can choose. We may cling to the racism and hatreds of the past or make our own commitment to what the constitutional convention at Uluru aptly dubbed “truth telling”.
Perhaps, at this critical juncture in our history, Fremantle suggests the way forward.
On this day in 1804, in Castle Hill, Irishconvicts revolted against British colonial rule in New South Wales. The revolt would continue for ten days, with many people killed. The rebels were led by Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 which resulted in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. On the 6th March, Cunningham was appointed the first sovereign of Australia by the rebels, a position which would soon be lost and his life ended with his hanging.