Mates in the Bush

The Hunter Valley pioneers get a pass from me, perhaps seven out of ten, for relations with the Aboriginal people there. The cover of this book shrieks of a “bloody struggle” on the frontier, and from time to time Mark Dunn writes modishly of the fate of the people who had been living there for thousands of years. If a man from Mars read it, however, he might be tempted to think that, but for one very bad patch, the Aborigines welcomed these newcomers and the widened horizons they brought.

The Convict Valley is a history of the Hunter Valley from the first white colonists arriving in the 1790s to the end of the convict era around 1840. Mark Dunn, from old Hunter Valley convict stock, writes affectionately of the place. The book originated with a PhD thesis from Newcastle University—no bastion of white supremacy. Any slight bias favours the Aborigines and convicts, but it seems mostly faithful reporting from the abundant evidence he has gathered—from official records, the copious holdings of local historical societies, newspapers, pioneers’ letters, Dunn’s grandmother’s memory of the lash scars on her grandfather’s back.

The official big-picture and government-based side of early colonial Australian history has now been well covered, mostly from fairly easily accessible records. This book is one of the best I have read from the next generation of close-up history, which fills many of the important gaps.

Colonisation of the Hunter Valley began with convict teams sailing up from Sydney to collect and later mine coal. Permanent settlement began at Newcastle in 1804. Timber from the magnificent red cedar on the lower river, salt and lime were other attractions. Newcastle doubled as a penal settlement for transported convicts who re-offended. The Sydney administration placed a few small farmers, usually ex-convicts or their children, along the lower river. The white population rose from dozens to hundreds, while the indigenous may have numbered a couple of thousand. 

The book suggests that all this seemed to go fairly smoothly, apart from it all being arduous work and a few convicts escaping into the bush, usually to be caught soon. The Aborigines seemed ready to show the newcomers around, guide them on the tricky overland routes from Sydney, and help them catch runaways.

Progress quickened about 1820, with graziers overlanding stock to the enticing pastures of the middle and upper Hunter. Immigrant graziers soon followed, to land grants of around 1000 to 2000 acres. These people needed sufficient capital to establish estates able to employ big teams of convicts to develop and operate them. One estate employed sixty-four convict workers.

The idea was to provide more work for the rapidly growing convict numbers arriving from Britain and Ireland, and also to make convict life seem less comfortable, in line with the Bigge report into the New South Wales colony. They were within the “Limits of Location” allotted for legal settlement, about 350 kilometres around Sydney.

The land itself did not cost much. The new owners often had helpful London contacts or army or India backgrounds. Many were Scots. The sense of an elite continued on the Hunter for generations, something of an irritant for the lower orders, as in many other places. There is not much official record of how the indigenous people fared.

Age-old Aboriginal “country” was rapidly changing, beside the river especially, when the white population reached around 3000. But, as portrayed here, the local Aboriginal people at first remained friendly and worked on or with the estates, as guides, bark strippers and rural hands. They were learning some English and added English names to their own, while many whites picked up Aboriginal words. Black and white knew each other personally, sometimes as mates. Pay for the blacks included food, clothes, metal goods and sometimes even muskets, prized for hunting.

The Aborigines became more concerned as the reality of a white takeover became apparent, with fencing, clearing of the bush, traditional food sources disappearing, and a few troublesome people among the newcomers. Reaction culminated in the bloody year of 1826, with raids on white crops and huts, especially for food, and spearing of whites, to kill as well as wound. Fear, probably mutual, produced a sense of crisis and settlers fatefully called in the newly formed New South Wales Mounted Police. Perhaps up to a dozen whites died that year and somewhere between fifteen and thirty or more Aborigines (estimated from incidents described in the book) in the “campaign of terror”.

The police had until then been a unit of the British army stationed in the colony, trained for defence, not policing. Two years earlier it had disgraced itself in similar conflict in the Bathurst-Mudgee district, killing at least fourteen (but probably many more) Aborigines. Part of the army was then converted into police, drawn from soldier volunteers and mounted on horseback, where before soldiers had stumbled on foot in the Bathurst bush.

In the agitated Hunter, the restyled troopers still fought like warring soldiers, and also shot prisoners. Settlers also played a regrettable part. After a group of spear-wielding Aborigines killed two convict workers in a raid on a homestead, a mixed party led by local grazier and magistrate Robert Scott (and including police and two black trackers), set off in pursuit. They killed two “murderers” and possibly two additional blacks at a campsite, Scott acknowledged in his report. But Dunn says they may have been the wrong Aborigines and a Sydney newspaper reported that eighteen Aborigines died.

British colonial policy was to put down “native” rebellions, but it was still meant to be proportionate and fair. The police commander, Lieutenant Nicholas Lowe, was charged with killing a prisoner, but there were problems with Aboriginal evidence and the jury of soldiers unsurprisingly found Lowe not guilty.

Memories of the Bathurst fighting not long before had heightened fear on the Hunter and in the colony generally. Dunn criticises the Sydney press for sensationalism over Aboriginal attacks.

People were aware that the whites were taking over more and more Aboriginal country and worried about a general Aboriginal rising and in particular about the Bathurst district Wiradjuri people joining up with the Hunter Aborigines through the Cassilis gap in the ranges.

Dunn concludes, however, that the Hunter violence more likely originated from payback for local whites provoking the Aborigines—as has also been said about Bathurst. Possible causes of offence varied, but he points to considerable evidence of kidnapping and misuse of indigenous girls, some aged only eight or nine. Relations with the huge preponderance of young single men, most but not all of convict background, was perhaps the most common source of conflict in the early outback.

Dunn does not go far into it. Although there was abundant rough stuff, there has also been much evidence elsewhere of Aboriginal women attracted to white men. Aboriginal culture was that girls were allocated to an older tribal man soon after birth, married at puberty, one of several wives who became the husband’s property. Husbands could lend wives to visitors in exchange for a gift, but a permanent exchange required elaborate process. Part-white babies were usually killed at birth. Wife beating was common.

It was not an easy situation for anybody. Tribal Aborigines had no written or nuanced lore and routinely used spearing or clubbing to wound but often also to kill people who broke their traditional rules.

Dunn says the Valley settled down again after 1826, but the Aboriginal people remembered. However, they also often visited the towns that started developing around that time, worked on estates, and were employed as guides in the exploration parties into remote Australia in the 1830s and 1840s. Hunter race relations were complicated, as Dunn often notes.

He says convicts on the estates usually accepted their position but, like the blacks, had a strong sense of the fairness with which they expected authority to treat them. Convict turbulence, including a serious rebellion on one estate, most often arose from overseers turning tyrant when the owner was absent for long periods.

About half the convicts married eventually and when freed often became substantial figures in the Hunter Valley, often as publicans but also as shopkeepers, tradesmen and police (Dunn’s ancestor).

The peep into the controversial but generally clandestine role of squatter vigilantes is interesting. Robert Scott, the magistrate and grazing leader in the 1826 incident, years later led similar actions on the troubled but still otherwise unpoliced Liverpool Plains far to the north-west. On the Hunter at least he seemed mainly to be a friend of the blacks.

His brother wrote to their sister of the Hunter incident:

If the governor [Darling] had acted as he was advised to by persons on this river, and as he ought to have done, the blacks should have been quiet in a short time without so many whites and blacks being killed.

The suggestion seems to be that the local landholders should have been left to impose discipline, without Sydney barging in.

I would also make some additional points from my own reading. The great Australian wool boom began in the mid-1820s and spread white occupation over much of southern Australia in the next few years. There is little record of further racial conflict in that time. It is difficult to know how much this was because Aborigines were frightened after the violence in the Hunter; how much because whites handled things better; or how much because there was never much of a problem in the first place if newcomers were sensible. The idea that all Aborigines fought to defend their land from invaders is easy to assume but there is not much evidence for it, at least in the southern half of Australia.

By the 1830s, too, the squatters, as the sheep and cattle men became when they sprawled into the lawless immensity beyond the Limits of Location, were not, legally, taking Aboriginal land. They were supposed to purchase grazing permits for public land. Later, leasehold land was supposed to be shared with the local Aborigines.

The Mounted Police was further reformed after the Hunter disaster and went on to enjoy a good, conciliatory reputation within the Limits of Location until absorbed in the 1850s into what became the modern New South Wales police.

Racial conflict broke out again in 1837, though in parts of the distant frontier and after squatters had fairly peacefully occupied most of the inhabitable southern continent. It usually had specific causes, not least men and women again. Renewed conflict lasted for about five years, after which it was rare south of Brisbane.

Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg).

The Convict Valley
by Mark Dunn

Allen & Unwin, 2020, 304 pages, $32.99

Leave a Reply