Bennelong Papers

Bruce Pascoe’s Even More Unreliable ‘History’

Having worked my way through Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, I wondered if his earlier foray into ‘history’, Convincing Ground, published in 2007, might enjoy something of a resurgence given the amazing success of the former.  After all, massacres of Aborigines must be of infinitely more interest to activists than mundane aspects of alleged Aboriginal ‘agriculture’.  Also, I was curious to know if it was based on the same level of academic rigour — ie., just make stuff up — evident in Dark Emu, which I exposed in my own book Bitter Harvest.  So I waded in.  And that is a good metaphor, for on first encounter, Convincing Ground offers a reeking bog of confusing narrative and mangled ‘facts’; that is difficult to read unless you are prepared to abandon objectivity and surrender yourself to the zeitgeist.  Pascoe’s sources are, for the main, both secondary and obscure.

I did not have to wade very far to get my answer.  This article covers only a small part of the first chapter, much of which is devoted to a discussion of the way in which John Batman acquired his land at Port Phillip, the motivations and machinations of those who followed him and the role of William Buckley.  Much of this material comprises unsupported assertions on Pascoe’s part.  These are not areas upon which I feel qualified to comment so I have confined my interest to specific instances of massacres of Aboriginal people. Courtesy of taxpayers and the Australian government, the chapter can be read in full here.

Convincing Ground commences in dramatic style:

Franks is Dead

Everybody agreed that this is what happened. Franks and Flinders were killed by blows from steel hatchets landing so heavily that Franks’ skull was driven into the turf. And that’s the point at which agreement stops.

Thus are we prepared for a narrative in which the blame for this killing is sheeted home to the true villain – Franks himself. 

The background, as Pascoe explains it, is that George Smith and his partner, Charles Franks, arrived from Tasmania at Port Gellibrand (now Williamstown) on June 23, 1836, and disembarked with 500 sheep.  They spent the next nine days travelling to a selection on the headwaters of the Barwon River at Mt Cottrell.  George Smith immediately returned to Point Gellibrand for more stores.  He returned on the July 8 to find no sign of Franks or his shepherd, Flinders, but, as Pascoe records:

The stores appear to have been ransacked.

Pascoe records that Smith ‘takes fright’ and returns to Point Gellibrand, where he recruits a party of men to return and investigate. Pascoe describes this as:

… a party of well over 23 people are curious enough to drop what they are doing to investigate the upsetting of a cask of flour at Mt Cotterill. (emphasis added)

Pascoe has suddenly, in the space of two paragraphs, reduced the disappearance of two men and the ‘ransacking of stores’ to an upset cask of flour. He develops the theme that the men were not primarily concerned with coming to the rescue of beleaguered countrymen but, rather, seizing the opportunity to go to war with the natives:

These men do not believe a delinquent possum is rampant, they mount a volunteer force of heavily armed volunteers.  They are not involved in casual reprisal but a calculated vigilante campaign.

As it turns out, and, I’m guessing to no-one’s surprise, a possum was not, after all, involved.  According to Pascoe:

The party followed a trail of flour and discarded stores and came across a band of about seventy to one hundred Wathaurong people.

He goes on to cite the claims of a number of the party that shots were fired but no natives were killed.  Oh, and before I forget – one small detail – the bodies of Franks and Flinders were found near the stores.


William Lonsdale receives the evidence and advises the Colonial Secretary that no harm had been inflicted on the Aboriginal people despite it being common knowledge in the colony that at least twelve were killed.  The Wathaurong said over 35 but, of course, they were never invited to give evidence.  No investigation is made of other attacks which follow the first punitive expedition.

Pascoe provides no evidence it was ‘common knowledge’ a dozen Aborigines had been killed.  He claims the Wathaurong said there were at least 35 but that their evidence was not sought, which presents the question: to whom did they make such a claim, and where is it recorded?  He tells us that the colonists then set out to forestall any suggestion Franks might have provoked the assault on himself and Flinders:

Mr Franks was ‘very mild and gentle in his general conduct and I do not think he would molest anyone’ , concluded his partner Mr Smith, but Robert William von Stieglitz, in a letter to his brother, casts a different light on Franks’ gentle Cristian demeanour.  Stieglitz went to Franks in order to buy lead which all knew Franks had in great supply.  Franks told Steiglitz that the lead was excellent for ‘making blue pills for the natives’.  Some historians take the word pill literally and assume it is a euphemism for the manufacture of strychnine to lace bullock carcasses in order to poison Aborigines, a common practice in the colony and further refined in Port Phillip. When challenged about this practice it was common defence to say that the poison had been for the crows.  This was a popular jest in Port Phillip because at the time many referred to the blacks by the American euphemism ‘Jim Crow’.  It’s more likely, however, that Franks was making his own shotgun balls.

As you can see, Smith’s defence of Franks crumbles in the face of Pascoe’s forensic examination of the counter evidence.  The famous ‘blue pills’.  The purported transaction and conversation between von Stieglitz and Franks is sourced, firstly, to TF Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, 2nd edition, 1969, p88 note 2, and secondly to P James (ed) Werribee: The first 100Years, p12.    Pascoe’s bibliography does not include James and actually describes the Bride source as TF Bride (ed) Letters from the Victorian Pioneers, Trustees of the Public Library, Govt Printer, 1898.  I have read the original Letters from the Victorian Pioneers and there is no reference therein to a letter from Steiglitz or to ‘blue pills’.  The 1969 reprint of Bride, edited by CE Sayers, contains an editor’s note the effect that:

Was Charles Franks entirely blameless? An editor’s note on p112 of George Russell’s Narrative quotes Robert William von Stieglitz as saying: ‘On my way (to the Werribee) I met with a Mr Franks and got some lead from him to make what he called blue pills for the natives who were very fierce. (emphasis added)

This reference does not support Pascoe’s assertion that ‘all knew that Franks had lead in great supply’ (which suggests he was armourer in chief to vigilantes) or that he remarked that lead was ‘excellent’ for making shot or ball (which suggests he took some sort of perverse delight in the manufacture of ammunition to be used against Aborigines).   And, of course, Pascoe did not see the need to include the reference to ‘very fierce’ natives, which suggests that both Franks and Von Stieglitz probably wanted the ammunition for their own protection.

Pascoe goes on to say:

Either way, it seems this mild Christian had been murdering Aborigines to secure the ‘selection’ he and his partners, George Smith and George Armytage, had decided upon. It seems he came upon his ‘great aversion to the blacks’ in a very short space of time, perhaps even in advance of meeting them, so that he thought it necessary to bring the ingredients of their destruction in his first stores.

That is a very long bow to draw simply on the basis of the ‘blue pill’ reference.  Talk about victim-blaming!  In fact, Franks may have acquired his ‘great aversion to blacks’ on the occasion that his assigned servant, William Scott, and another man were brutally killed by natives, as reported in The Tasmanian on September 12, 1828.

But let’s look at the details of Pascoe’s claim.  According to Tasmanian archives, Franks actually departed Launceston on May 16 so he must have spent sometime around Point Gellibrand before he went to Mt Cottrell.  Von Stieglitz left Launceston on June 7, so the encounter between Franks and Von Stieglitz must have taken place in a roughly two week window.  It is unlikely Franks would have embarked on a killing spree during that period.    But we know nothing of Franks’ activities in Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then known.  He could not have been a significant figure there because he has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.   That a settler might own a musket or shotgun in Australia in 1836 and that he might manufacture his own ammunition should hardly strike us as unusual.  When he talked about those ‘ blue pills’ he might well have been referring to his own protection.  That does not, of itself, suggest murderous intent.  It would take a man of extraordinary fortitude to head off into the wilderness without any means of self-protection.  Other than the ‘blue pill’ reference there is nothing to suggest he was other than described by his friends and acquaintances.

Which brings me to the subject of toxicology.  It’s not clear how lead is useful in the manufacture of strychnine, a naturally occurring toxin from the strychnos nux vomica tree of India and southern Asia. As to it being common practice to poison Aborigines with strychnine, Pascoe offers no evidence to support this claim.  And finally to the suggestion that many colonists in 1836 referred to Aborigines as Jim Crow.  Here is Wikipedia’s entry concerning the etymology of the term:

The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of Black people performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1828 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson’s populist policies. As a result of Rice’s fame, “Jim Crow” by 1838 had become a pejorative expression meaning “Negro”.

How likely is it that a term that had only become popular in the US in 1838, would have made its way into common usage in Port Phillip in 1836?

Finally, at least on the subject of Franks:

Joseph Tice Gellibrand, Attorney of Tasmania until recently, and now the token representative of law and order for the Port Phillip Association, wrote of the Franks murder on 7 August 1836: ‘Several parties are now after the natives and I have no doubt many will be shot and a stop put to this system of killing for bread’.  The press were also phlegmatic in their understanding of the true nature of the conflict.  The Cornwall Chronicle records the event thus: ‘The avenging party fell on the guilty tribe … and succeeded in annihilating them’ .

It’s only twelve months since the arrival of the colonists and yet it is a matter conversation, among men meeting for the first time, how to eliminate the annoying insistence of the Indigenes to protect their land.

The last paragraph is nothing more than gratuitous and insulting speculation.  The two quotations in the first paragraph are attributed to Alistair Campbell in his work John Batman and the Aborigines, to which I do not have ready access. I cannot find any reference online to any correspondence by Gellibrand, who disappeared in the hinterland of Victoria in 1837. 

Pascoe seems to have taken quite a set against Gellibrand, presumably because he was the legal draftsman of the  agreement that John Batman struck with the natives of Port Phillip.  Later in the chapter Pascoe claims:

Gellibrand’s correspondence conveys similar calculation (to Batman’s): ‘we are about to enter a war of extermination, for such I apprehend is the declared object of the present operation and that in its progress we shall be compelled to destroy the innocent with the guilty’. (emphasis added)

Well that certainly sounds very cold-blooded.  Pascoe’s footnote sources attribute this quote to ‘Gellibrand’s Tasmanian newspaper correspondence, 1831’.  Those words – they sound murderously authentic, which is good enough for Pascoe – but they do not appear in any 1831 edition of The Tasmanian.  Displaying his customary disregard for accuracy, the newly named Professor of Indigenous Agriculture at Melbourne University gets the newspaper wrong — it is The Colonial Times — and the year as well, the correct date being September 24, 1830. Beyond those basic errors, the quote is not drawn from “Gellibrand’s correspondence” but from The Tasmanian‘s  report of a public meeting at which the legality and morality of launching a campaign to suppress attacks by Aborigines and, in accordance with Governor Arthur’s plan, confine them to the Tasman Peninsula, are debated at some length.

Indeed, while Pascoe selects a few words to paint Gellibrand in the worst possible light, his sentiments as reported by The Tasmanian are highly qualified. He warms his fellow colonists that anyone who kills “a black” would place himself in “a very dangerous situation”, further stating that

…by no inducement whatever shall I ever take away the life of a fellow creature unless that is in repelling aggression or in a struggle. I shall do my utmost to capture these people, to the utmost of my ability, but I repeat I will never shed their blood if I cannot succeed in taking them…

Of course, the Cornwall Chronical archive is available and here is the entry for July 30, 1836:

The arrival of the Gem has put us in possession of recent facts, connected with the Settlement at this place. The barbarous murders of Mr. Franks and his shepherd, have been, in some degree, revenged, which, we trust, will be a warning to the natives not in future to commit wanton excesses upon our countrymen. We learn that a party of the settlers, assisted by the Sydney natives, connected with Mr. Batman’s establishment, and a few domesticated natives of the Settlement, started in quest of the murderers, whom they were fortunate enough to fall in with, at no great distance from where the bloody deeds were perpetrated. We have no positive assurance of their number, but learn, that it was considerable, and that many of them were clothed in the articles of dress they had plundered from their victims. A quantity of provisions and other stores were, likewise, in their possession, which left no doubt as to their identity. The avenging party fell upon the guilty tribe, about daylight in the morning, having watched them from the previous night, and, putting into effect a preconcerted plan of attack, succeeded in “ANNIHILATING THEM.”

This tribe, which we may now presume to be —if not in toto, swept from off the face of the earth—sufficiently chastised, to be no longer troublesome, were, it appears, a particularly treacherous people —less numerous than any of the others — and despised by all.

The principal tribe — that of “Jagga Jagga” – came from their ground, which lies considerably inland, upon hearing of the outrages committed, and solicited permission of the company to go after and destroy the miscreants — of course, sanction could not be given to their offer — yet, it evinced a better feeling on their part, and confirmed the general opinion, that they were in no wise connected with the murders.

It will be said, as a matter of course, that, in this instance, as in all others, some insult must have been conveyed to the natives, on the part of the unfortunate victims, or they could not have been guilty of so great violence ; the character of Mr. Franks, however, is well known throughout the Colony, and must be satisfactory to every reflecting mind, that, in this case, the aggression was not afforded on his part. Bare suspicion of it, in this case, cannot exist, because of all men, perhaps, that unfortunate gentleman was least likely to provoke his fellow creatures to acts of violence. In the death of Mr. Franks the Colony has to deplore the loss of one of its brightest ornaments ; his strict integrity, gentlemanly deportment — his docile and compassionate disposition, insured to him the respect and esteem of everyone who enjoyed his acquaintance. The “ANNIHILATION” of the whole body of Port Philip natives, in our opinion, would afford an insufficient revenge for the murder of such a man.

Buckley is spoken of by our informant, in rather favourable terms.— He cautioned the settlers upon their first intercourse with the natives, against making too much of them — stating, that they would, if opportunity offered, murder any of the whites, for the sake of the articles of food, or of other description, they might possess. Unacquainted with this man, and with the localities of the Settlement, we cannot offer an opinion—we would, however, suggest, at all times, a peaceable deportment, and a forbearance, so far as is consistent with common courage, and the preservation of the property at stake[1](emphasis added)

So, yes, there is a strident tone to this article, but two things stand, out as I have emphasised.  Firstly, that the editor anticipated that Franks would inevitably be blamed, because that was apparently the normal public reaction.  This gives the lie to the suggestion that colonists were a uniformly bloody-minded lot intent on wiping out the Aboriginal population.  And secondly, the conclusion urges, not annihilation but ‘peaceable deportment and forbearance’.  I would suggest that the rhetoric about annihilation is just a sop to the hotheads among the Chronicle’s readers. 

And as a counterpoint, the Tasmanian Colonial Times editorialized:

This will not end here – a tribe swept off from the face of the earth so illegally – so diabolically – will require retributive justice. Good heaven! Is a whole community to be murdered in cold blood for the offence of three? — this is indeed visiting the sins of the father upon the children. Every human being, save the Port Philip jobbers, will look with horror on such proceedings; and this very act alone ought to destroy the settlement.[2]

Nowhere in Convincing Ground do we find any concrete evidence of exactly how many died as a direct reprisal for the killing of Franks.  All we have are estimates from various modern historians.  The Guardian hosts a site called ‘The Killing Times’ which provides an estimate of the number killed at 55. This is calculated as a mean of a maximum estimate (unsourced) of 100 and a minimum (unsourced) of 10.   That is hardly a rigorous methodology and, if applied uniformly across all incidents of conflict between colonists and Aboriginals is likely to result in a grossly inflated death toll.  Another website, maintained by Professor Lyndall Ryan, attributes 10 deaths, based on a letter from John Montagu, Colonial Secretary in Van Diemen’s Land, about the incident to his counterpart in New South Wales on August 18, 1836.  He said, inter alia:

It is not stated however what resistance the natives made, but none of the opposing party were injured, although it is feared that there can be little doubt that ten of the tribe of Port Phillip natives were killed.

Incidentally, although the University of Newcastle site is obviously more rigorous than the Guardian’s, it still, somewhat disingenuously, counts Franks and Flinders among the ‘attacker’s’ dead, rather than the object of the reprisal. 

From my reading of readily available sources, I am prepared to accept that some Aborigines were killed in reprisal for the killing of Franks and Flinders and that the members of the reprisal party did not bother to conceal that fact until Governor Bourke instructed Police Magistrate William Lonsdale to investigate the matter.  I suspect that 10 deaths would be closer to the mark.  But my main point is that this was a reprisal – and no less invidious for all that – not an unprovoked attempt at genocide.

Based on the forgoing, later in his book (Chapter Nine – The Raised Sword) , Pascoe ranks Charles Franks alongside such other monsters as Angus McMillan, the purported ‘Butcher of Gippsland (whose story I discuss in Bitter Harvest), and, gasp of horror, John Winston Howard.  Pascoe’s evidence might be sufficient to convince the Victorian Court of Appeals of Franks’ guilt but to me, poor Mr Franks seems rather more sinned against than sinning for having had his head stove in by a club.

My point in all the foregoing? There were atrocities committed against Aborigines.  No one disputes this.  But to suggest, as Pascoe does, that the whole ethos of the colonies was based on extermination of the Aboriginal population flies in the face of real history.  Pascoe, in all his work, will take a sow’s ear and turn it into a complete rotting carcass if it discredits the colonists and, more importantly from his perspective, the provenance of the country itself.  Ironically, the dedication of Convincing Ground reads:

‘This is not a history, it’s an incitement’

Just for once Bruce Pascoe is telling the truth.

Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest can be ordered here


[1] Cornwall Chronicle, Tasmania, 30 July 1836 p 1

[2] “Horrid Murder”, Colonial Times, Tasmania, 2 August 1836, p 6

  • Stephen Due

    RE “Jim Crow”: There is a reference in the Sydney Gazette 5 October 1833 to the song being performed by Mr. Rice at a theatrical event in New York.The Hobart Town Courier 27 January 1837 has a reference to Mr. Rice singing his celebrated song “Jim Crow”. There are several other reference from English papers in the Sydney and Hobart press during 1837. Finally the Colonial Times (Hobart) 9 January 1838 carries an advertisement for a theatrical performance to include the “far-famed song Jim Crow”. So it is possibly not far-fetched to suppose it was a popular expression in Victoria in 1836. There may be other newspaper examples.

  • Peter OBrien

    Stephen Due, I take your point, but which is more likely – that an expression that did come into popular use in the US as a pejorative until 1838 was in common use in Victoria in 1833 or that Pascoe just made it up. My money’s on the latter. And I don’t recall any reference to it being use in this way at anytime in Australia.

  • Peter OBrien

    Stephen Due, I take your point, but which is more likely – that an expression that did not come into popular use in the US as a pejorative until 1838 was in common use in Victoria in 1833 or that Pascoe just made it up. My money’s on the latter. And I don’t recall any reference to it being use in this way at anytime in Australia.

  • Biggles

    The granting of Pascoe to a Chair at Melbourne is part of what von Mises called ‘destructionism’; the deliberate reversal by the Left of Western thought and ethics. No better video explaining this process is that made by Yuri Besmenov in 1984 q.v. None of you poor Quadrant dills will watch it of course. Heads back into the sand people.

  • Ian MacDougall

    Besmerov appears to me to be arguing against popularly elected governments and for military dictatorships: which I suppose is understandable, given his Stalinist background.
    But one of his examples was Chile, where a popularly elected government was overthrown by a military putsch, the latter supported by the CIA. The Vietnam War was fought to PREVENT democracy: Eisenhower expected the Viet Minh to get 80% of the popular voteif the 1956 election was held..
    But back to Pascoe. He is as far as I can see, 100% European in his ancestry, so at best he is an ‘aboriginal advocate’; not what he presents himself as. Could be that he is part of the push for ‘Treaty’: if it can be shown in the right places that Australia pre-1788 was an agricultural, as distinct from hunter-gatherer society, then I think the reasoning goes that the invaded farmers have a case for compo: big compo. And in anticipation of success with that, he will be in the box seat for a whole list of jobs: beyond even Professor of Dreamtime Farming or whatever it is he has now.

  • GH

    Ian McDougall, your suggestion “if it can be shown….” is moot. It cannot be shown. The Aboriginal people were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, as all credible anthropologists will attest. The benchmark is whether they crafted in metals and made pottery, and they did neither. Early societies everywhere else including Africa and the Americas had abundant fired clay vessels, (pottery) for food storage, and metals in use for thousands of years prior to 1788, but the Aboriginal people, nothing. Pascoe is a fabricator of politicised fiction for profit.

  • Ian MacDougall

    GH: “It cannot be shown.” Agreed.

  • Biggles

    Ian MacDougall. I can only assume that you watched only a few minutes of Besmenov (not Besmerov) before drawing your ridiculous conclusion. Either that or you were standing on your head while watching the whole thing. You have got the message completely upside-down. Besmenov explains the KGB’s method of subversion of a country. There are four stages: Demoralisation, which began here with Whitlam; Destabilisation, the stage through which Australia is now going,(e.g. the Pascoe nonsense); Crisis, the prelude to Socialist takeover and, Normalisation, when Australia becomes an entirely Socialist state. For a glimpse of your Socialist future, look no further than the current behavior of the Trotskyite Premier of Victoria.

  • Ian MacDougall

    Whatever you say, Biggles; whatever you say. And please give my regards to Algy.

  • Tricone


    “the headwaters of the Barwon River at Mt Cottrell.”: something’s not right about that.
    the Barwon rises in the Otways, with northern tributaries Leigh and Moorabool rising to the west of the You Yangs, and reaches the sea southeast of Geelong.
    Watercourses rising near Mt Cottrell, such as the Werribee River and creeks emptying into Skeleton Creek, enter the sea north of Geelong.

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