“Tenderness these characters are entitled to, as are all that have gone their way to silence after gallant discharge of life, but it is not meet that they should be subjected to caricature or exaggeration.”
Brent of Bin Bin
convincing ground. A place at which prize or grudge fights are held.
Australian National Dictionary
How the story of the Convincing Ground massacre was created:
From March until August 1841, George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of the Aborigines, travelled through Victoria’s Western District. The purpose of his expedition was to make contact with local Aborigines. The records he kept were preserved amongst his writings in library archives. In the late twentieth century praiseworthy efforts were made to transcribe and publish these writings. Less praiseworthy was the way parts of them were used by historians to invent a massacre.
When Robinson visited Portland he was told a story by pioneer Edward Henty and took part in a conversation about a nearby locality known as the Convincing Ground. Several times he referred to the story in his writings and unfortunately added some decorations of his own. Although we can’t even be sure where the Convincing Ground was historians, since 1990, have claimed that it was the site of a massacre in which between 30 and 200 Aborigines were slaughtered – presumably by a whale boat crew of 6 to 8 men.
The following study examines the texts academic historians used to create the massacre story. Here, in chronological sequence, are my transcriptions (unless otherwise noted) of Robinson’s writings – each dated extract is preceded by an introduction and followed by a brief commentary.
Sunday 16 May 1841:
Robinson had arrived at Portland the day before and met some of its residents. On this day his Journal records a dinner at the house of surveyor Charles Tyers. The other people present were Edward Henty, Police Magistrate James Blair, and post master Daniel Primrose who is not mentioned in this discussion:
Mr Edward Henty and Mr Blair called and spent the afternoon. We had tea and coffee, wines and dessert after dinner. Mr Henty said the blacks at Mt Clay are a bad lot and he did not think I should get a communication with them. I said I did not lay wagers but I would venture to do so in this case; that I should get to them.
He related one story of their badness. He said [the words “a year or” have been crossed out] that some time ago, I suppose two or three years, a whale broke from her moorings and went on shore. And the boat went into get it off, when they were attack by the natives who drove them off. He said the men were so enraged that they went [“home” crossed out] to the head [the next word is indistinct. It may be “flenser”] for their firearms and then returned to the whale, when the natives again attack them. And the whalers then let fly, to use his expression, right and left upon the natives. He said the natives did not go away [another crossing out] but got behind trees and threw spears and stones. They, [short crossing out] however, [‘however’ crossed out] did not much molest them after that.
There is a spot on the north shore, where the try [tri] works are I think, which is called the ‘Convincing Ground’ and I was informed that it got its name from some transactions [another crossing out] with the natives of the kind mentioned. [another crossing out] So Mr Blair said.
Mr Tyers however said it was because when the whalers had any disputes they went on shore and there settled it by fighting. I however think the former the most feasibly, especially after what Mr Henty himself stated.
Edward Henty made some remarks about the local Aborigines and then told a story to illustrate their “badness”, not that of the whalers. His story was followed by a discussion with Blair and Tyers, but not Henty or Primrose, about the origin of the Convincing Ground placename.
This recording of Henty’s story is the only documentary account of this incident – no other supporting historical record has so far been found. No nineteenth century history told this story and no twentieth century historians mentioned it until 1990, when two writers referred to Robinson and wrote of a massacre at the Convincing Ground.
My transcription varies in several places with the well known transcripts published by Gary Presland and Dr Ian Clark. Their texts state that the whalers went to the “head station” for firearms. The word “station” is incorrect. Robinson’s writing is unclear and I suggest the word may be “flenser”, so that the men went to the “head flenser” for arms. If this reading is correct, it suggests that in this whaling station guns were secured by a responsible person. It also suggests that Henty had reasonably detailed knowledge of the event.
Robinson was unsure exactly when the incident had occurred but placed it in the recent past – “two or three years” before, that is, in 1838 or 1839.
After this story came a discussion about the origin of the Convincing Ground place name. Guesses were made by magistrate Blair and surveyor Tyers. Neither of these men really knew the reason the placename had been adopted and neither had been in Portland very long.
Blair suggested that it was because of “some transactions with the natives of the kind mentioned”. He did not say, and this must be emphasised, that the specific story told by Henty was connected with the site.
Tyers suggested it was a place where the whalers went to settle their disputes. This is a completely feasible suggestion. Convincing Ground was a common term for such a place and has been used in this sense in other parts of Australia.
Robinson preferred Blair’s suggestion. Henty, who may have known the reason for the name, is not mentioned.
If the whale fight happened, as Robinson supposes, in 1838 or 1839, then this was well after the Convincing Ground had been named. The first recorded reference to the Convincing Ground appears in Edward Henty’s Journal on 27 September 1835.
Monday 17 May 1841:
After dinner Robinson got lost in the dark and had to sleep under a tree. The next day he rode back to his camp at Double Corner and then set out, past the Convincing Ground, to make a new camp closer to the Surry River. His Journal continued the discussion of the Convincing Ground story:
Descended a very steep and abrupt bank which the horse was barely able to get down and came to the beach. Passed several small weatherboarded buildings belonging to the whaling establishment. Two miles from the Double Corner was a small creek of fresh water. [Blank] miles from Double Corner is the Messrs Henty’s fishery. This spot where the buildings are is called the Convincing Ground, see note for Sunday and Monday.
It is stated that the natives fought the whalers. Now, the cause of this fight, if such an unequal contest can be so designated, firearms [are] certain death against spears, was occasioned by the whalers going to get the whalebone from the fish, when the natives, not knowing their intentions and supposing they intended to take away the fish which the natives considered theirs and which it had been for 1000 of years previous, they of course resisted the aggression on the part of the white men. It was the first year of the fishery, and the whalers having used their guns beat them off and hence called the spot the Convincing Ground. That was because they convinced them of their mistake and which, but for their firearms, they perhaps could not have done.
In the first paragraph above Robinson described the countryside he passed through. This is drawn from personal observation. In the second paragraph he adds detail to the whale fight story. Though he has not yet met any local Aborigines and mentions no other possible sources he deals with the thoughts and intentions of the Aborigines and whalers. He also changes the emphasis of what he had previously written. Henty, according to Robinson, told his tale to illustrate the “badness” of the Aborigines who attacked the whalers but this now becomes an “aggression on the part of the white men”.
Robinson’s statement that “It was the first year of the fishery” may be important in dating when the event happened. Was it a detail he invented? or something he remembered from Henty’s remarks? It does not explain which fishery is being talked about, and if it is linked with the Convincing Ground then it is again a reference to the recent past, for the fishery in that location was new and would suggest that the incident had happened not long before. But it also may be a misunderstanding on his part and could have been a reference to the fishery at Double Corner.
Robinson claims the placename was given to Convincing Ground because it was where the whalers had “convinced” the natives. Possibly based on Blair’s conversation this is simply speculation.
Wednesday 19 May 1841:
Robinson made contact with local Aborigines and that night more of them arrived at his camp:
This party of natives were chiefly males, young men and were extremely wild – jumping up and pawing me about and after saluting them I commenced to take down their names by torchlight, as under.
Yare.rer.yare.rer.mer.nite, 18, and Pol.like.un.nuc, 18, the wild young man who was troublesome to me, are Kil.care.rer conedeet, country between Surrey and Double Corner. These are all that is left of that tribe, so they stated.
Were these two young men the only remaining members of their tribal group? Though we don’t know if this is entirely accurate historians have leapt to the conclusion that all other members of the clan (of unknown size) had been killed in the whale fight. Strangely Robinson does not question them about the incident – possibly (as we shall see) because of language difficulties. And if communication was a problem how accurate is the information he claims to have gained from them?[i]
It is never considered that the Aborigines involved in the fight over the whale could have been strangers from an inland clan.
Thursday 20 May 1841:
Robinson dealt with the Aborigines through translators and this entry contains a criticism of their ability:
The strange natives were all on the alert at my movement. I told Eurodap to explain to them the nature of my business. He was not the best interpreter but was the best I had. Gave orders for my servants to break up the camp and remove to the creek, two miles east of the Double Corner.
Had Robinson stumbled on a massacre? If so surely he had a professional duty, and interest, in collecting evidence and informing the colonial authorities. Coming several years after the Myall Creek massacre this is not a matter that would have been silenced, especially not by Robinson. And now was the ideal time to report the matter.
At this moment in Portland he had Edward Henty, who told him the story, and two young men from the local clan. Also present was Charles La Trobe, the Superintendent of the Port Phillip District. The reason for Robinson’s early departure from his camp was to go and meet La Trobe. The timing for reporting and calling for an investigation of the incident was ideal – yet Robinson did nothing.
A serious contemporary argument against the massacre story is the behaviour of the Aborigines later that day. Travelling to a camp closer to Double Corner they showed absolutely no fear of crossing the Convincing Ground site, or of the whalers. In fact Robinson and his attendants had a difficult time in keeping the Aborigines and the whalers apart. The young whalers they encountered, both at Convincing Ground and in the bush, tried hard to attract the attention of the Aboriginal women.[ii]
Shortly after Robinson’s visit there was further evidence that Aborigines did not treat the Convincing Ground with any sort of dread. On 2 June 1841 James Blair sent a report to La Trobe in Melbourne that “A messenger has just arrived from the Convincing Ground with the intelligence that upwards of 200 Blacks have assembled there & the whalers are in consequence obliged to remain on shore, being in momentary expec- of an attack on their huts.”[iii]
Thursday 20 May 1841:
The contact with the whalers at Convincing Ground and in the bush led Robinson to write this:
I have reason to suppose that the natives of this party have not been properly treated by the whites. My acquaintance with the natives is not so intimate as to ascertain the extent of the injuries to which they have been subjected but it has not been of the best description as the admission of E. Henty and others of the attack made in consequence of the whale will shew. There is only two of the tribe who once inhabited the country at the Convincing Ground now alive (see vocabulary), and only one old man who belonged to the tribe belonging to the country where the township of Portland now is.[iv]
This is an admission by Robinson that he does not really know very much about what has happened between the whalers and the Aborigines in Portland. Obviously little real communication was possible between the local Aborigines. Pol.like.un.nuc, one of the two surviving members of the local clan would have been about 14 or 15 at the time Robinson believed the incident happened. Instead of treating him as a valuable witness to a massacre he describes him as a “wild young man” and he finds his behaviour particularly annoying.
His source of the story was Henty and though he refers to “and others” he never demonstrates that anyone except Henty talked to him of this matter.
Wednesday 23 March 1842:
The next reference to the Convincing Ground appears ten months later in Robinson’s Journal when visiting Port Fairy. Two sentences are of importance but I have given the whole paragraph to show the context, and added italics to mark the relevant words:
At Mr. Campbell. Fine day. Fine. About 30 natives came to see me. I requested Sievwright to give them flour. A sack was distributed. Mr. Campbell spoke in great terms of the natives. Tartil, alias ‘Old Man Charley’, went and brought a quantity of craw fish, 12 at least. Mr. Campbell said the blacks do him no injury. His potatoes are now safe, he can be at ease. At one time he had to watch; he does no watching now. This is more remarkable as the paddock is close by the natives township. They stole no potatoes when they watched. South Western was shot some time ago when stealing potatoes – this S.W. told me. They stole Kilgour’s potatoes whilst they were watching. It was eight or nine years ago the collisions between the whalers and blacks took place at the Convincing Ground. MacDonald, the headsman, said some got among the native women. A convict stole a horse from Campbell and turned it loose up the country or the horse got away. The natives found it and took it to Kilgour. The whites at Kilgour wanted to lay it to the blacks. Mung and others used to find Mr. Campbell’s horses in the bush and bring them to Campbell. There was a bad set of men at Dr. Kilgour’s and they instigated the natives to do mischief; told Robertson they would do so. Sievwright to buy […] of Campbell £20. Campbell will lease therefore an overseer. Between 30 and 40 natives present at Campbell’s. Mr. Campbell in communication with 150. I wrote Mr. Campbell’s statement about natives. Took down natives’ names …
Without the first of these two sentences (in bold type above) the historians’ massacre story as the origin for the placename dissolves: “It was eight or nine years ago the collisions between the whalers and blacks took place at the Convincing Ground.” Taking the dating from this sentence has allowed academics to claim that the whale incident occurred “eight or nine years” previously, in 1833 or 1834. Only by misusing the reference in this way is it possible to place the event before Henty’s first usage of the placename.
Who was talking? Was it Campbell, who had been a whaler, or MacDonald? MacDonald is described as a Headsman – which is a position on a whaleboat. This is the only mention of MacDonald and it is not certain that he was present or whether another speaker such as Campbell was repeating what he had supposedly said. Almost certainly the source was not Aboriginal. We are also taking on faith that the locality of Convincing Ground was cited and not a reference to Portland or a more general geographic term for the coast which Robinson has changed to a locality he personally knew.
Are these two sentences evidence for the whale story? or a different and probably very accurate account, for which other evidence exists, of violence between whalers and Aborigines at the beginning of the whaling industry? Probably the latter.
Friday 7 October 1842:
Robinson’s last reference to the Convincing Ground appears in his official report which was not written until October 1842 – some 17 months after he had visited Portland. The following text from the "Chief Protector’s Report of an Expedition to the Westward", when considered in isolation, seems to leap off the page – in context it is in the middle of a long paragraph in a 325 page densely written report with appendices. This text has sometimes been given out of chronological order by historians, including myself[v], and I have included the sentence which follows it:
Among the remarkable places on the coast [“mentioned” is crossed out], is the “Convincing Ground”, originating in a severe conflict which took place a few years previous between the Aborigines [“Natives” crossed out] and Whalers on which occasion a large number of the [“latter” crossed out] former were slain. The circumstances are that a whale had come on shore and the Natives who feed on the carcase claimed it was their own [“and resisted” crossed out]. The whalers said they would convince them and had recourse to firearms on this spot a fishery is now established. The distressing news of the fate of Mr Morton a respectable settler on the Glenelg [“and his servant” crossed out], also Gibsons Shepherd who had been barbarously murdered by Blacks reached me at this time.[vi]
The first part of this text selection has an irresistible appeal to historians, journalists and political activists. It is dramatic and has been used to make the case for a massacre. Instead of asking how Robinson knew this, or what supporting evidence there was, it is taken as the proof that a massacre took place. And usually the first words are interpreted as meaning that the Convincing Ground was one of many remarkable sites of massacre on the coast, rather than simply being a remarkable place on the coast.[vii] No one, to support this argument, has yet provided a list of those other “remarkable” coastal localities named as massacre sites.
Placed here, in its correct chronological sequence, it is important to note that Robinson, unlike the historians, has not referred to the dating given to him at Mr Campbell’s – possibly because the “collisions” he had noted were over women and had nothing to do with the whale fight. In this Report Robinson again suggests the incident happened only “a few years previous”.
When this text is used out of chronological sequence it seems that Robinson changed the dates in a step by step fashion so that the last piece of evidence in the sequence was the dating given at Mr Campbell’s. Unfortunately it is usually used in this way because that follows the order given in Ian Clark’s 1995 book Scars in the Landscape.[viii] In this book Clark begins his account with the May 1841 Journal entries, then gives the much later Report which he refers to as the “official report of his 1841 journey”, and follows it with his March 1842 visit to Campbell’s. Of all of us who have made this error in presentation Clark had the least reason to do so because he had previously transcribed and published the text, and pointed out that it had been written late in 1842.[ix]
Using Robinson as a primary source we are trusting that he is accurately recording what he has been told. Is it possible to test his reliability? There seems no way of comparing what he was told by colonists and what he recorded, though a hint of possible problems is contained in a letter Blair wrote to La Trobe when Robinson left Portland: “I find he has described the natives, since leaving Portland in terms directly the reverse of what he described them when here”.[x]
However, it is possible to compare what he wrote in his Journals with what he wrote in his Official Report. The Journal entries were the base of his Report and the following examples show a willingness to inflate his own importance, and occasional carelessness with detail.
In the entry for 19 May 1841 in his Report Robinson wrote: “His Honour the Superintendent [La Trobe], on a visit to Portland, came to the Surry River to my camp and expressed his entire satisfaction with my proceedings and the success which had hitherto attended my mission.” The detail in the Journal entry is slightly different. Robinson learnt that La Trobe had come to Portland and been to his camp in his absence. He set out to find him and found the Superintendent riding in the bush. La Trobe said “he was glad to hear I had been so successful”. Between the two texts there is a slight change of emphasis to make Robinson appear a little more important – but in the following incident the facts themselves were changed.
It was arranged for Robinson and the Aborigines to meet La Trobe the following morning before he left but, so Robinson’s Report states, “in consequence of the heavy rain the Natives were prevented from seeing the Superintendent.” In his Journal the story is different: “as the natives did not arrive until after dark [and had been dancing and singing until morning], the camp in consequence could not be removed and the meeting could not take place. I however resolved to go myself and ordered my servant to call me before day light.”
Robinson sometimes adds a little colour: “Whilst with these Natives I narrowly escaped being killed; on one occasion a spear accidentally thrown grazed my person. The other designed was by a reckless young man. He was in the act of throwing his spear but was prevented by other Natives, and my coming out of the tent at the instant.” Presumably the first incident refers to this Journal entry: “One of my men who was displeased with another black because he had more bread than himself threw a spear at him; it past near me.” In the second the would-be spear thrower was led away by the wild young man who had so annoyed him – Pol.like.un.nuc.
These last two examples come just before he deals with the Convincing Ground as a “remarkable place” and that text may also be checked against the Journal for accuracy:
“Among the remarkable places on the coast, is the ‘Convincing Ground’”: personal observation; perhaps an example of colourful writing intended to add interest to his text.
“originating in a severe conflict which took place a few years previous between the Aborigines and Whalers”: there is no evidence for these claims. James Blair guessed that Convincing Ground “got its name from some transactions with the natives of the kind mentioned [by Henty].” There is no evidence to suggest how “severe” the incident was. The claim that it happened “a few years previous” agrees with his Journal entry made at the time he was told the story.
“on which occasion a large number of the former were slain”: supposition on the part of Robinson. There is no evidence in his Journal to support this accusation.
“The circumstances are that a whale had come on shore and the Natives who feed on the carcase claimed it was their own. The whalers said they would convince them and had recourse to firearms”: Robinson has added unsupported comments to the story told by Henty.
The text mixes the Henty story with unfounded and largely unsourced personal additions by Robinson.
Before considering how this material was used by historians consider this text by Major Mitchell, written after visiting Portland in 1836. It suggests not violence but co-operation between whalers and Aborigines to the benefit of all. Mitchell met the Hentys and they may be the source of his information:
I understood it frequently happened, that several parties of fishermen, left by different whaling vessels, would engage in the pursuit of the same whale, and that in the struggle for possession, the whale would occasionally escape from them all and run ashore, in which case it is of little value to whalers, as the removal, &c, would be too tedious, and they in such cases carry away part of the head matter only. The natives never approach these whalers, nor had they ever shewn themselves to the white people of Portland Bay; but as they have taken to eat the cast-away whales, it is their custom to send up a column of smoke when a whale appears in the bay, and the fishers understand the signal. This affords an instance of the sagacity of the natives, for they must have reflected, that by thus giving timely notice, a greater number will become competitors for the whale, and that consequently there will be a better chance of the whale running ashore, in which case a share must fall finally to them. The fishers whom I saw were fine able fellows; and with their large ships and courageous struggles with the whales, they must seem terrible men of the sea to the natives.[xi]
In 1990 two historians used Robinson’s texts to produce the Convincing Ground massacre – though with variations in their storytelling.
Ian Clark 1990:
This clan [Kilcarer Gundidj] had been decimated and dispossessed from their country by whalers at a location which came to be known as the ‘Convincing Ground’. Robinson considered this to be one of many remarkable places on the coast whose name originated from a severe conflict which took place at that site in 1833 or 1834 between the Kilcarerer conedeet and whalers, in which large numbers of the clan were slain. Apparently, a whale had come on shore and the Aborigines, who fed on whale carcase, claimed it as their own. The whalers, who had recourse to firearms, said they would convince them otherwise, and a massacre ensued.[xii]
Clark has uncritically accepted the Robinson material and has been very specific about the actual clan concerned. The Journal entries and Report have been ransacked to produce his narrative. Clark writes with assurance and without ambiguity and a reader is left without any suspicion that the primary source material being used is untrustworthy.
Jan Critchett 1990:
The strongest evidence of violence on the coast is the story of an incident at the Convincing Ground. Robinson was told the following by Edward Henty [the story is given but not the supposition about the place name]. The details of the story are vague. How serious was this clash? When did it occur? How many Aborigines were killed? Why was it not mentioned in Henty’s Portland Journal? Why was Fyans not given details when he travelled to Portland to investigate allegations by Dr Collier that the Hentys and their men had been involved in a massacre of Aborigines?
The incident occurred before 27 October 1835, much earlier than Robinson thought. On that date Edward Henty referred in his Journal to the stretch of beach as the Convincing Ground. The incident could have take [sic] place any time from 1832 onwards, as at that time the supply of fur seals in Bass Strait and Victoria was becoming depleted and the shipowners began concentrating on whaling. It is likely, however, that it occurred in 1833 or 1834. At Port Fairy in early 1842 Robinson met MacDonald, a Headsman, who told him the incident had happened eight or nine years previously. The cause he gave was quite different from that suggested by Henty: ‘some whalers’, he said, ‘had got among or with the N-[Native] women’. The incident, then, occurred in the earliest period of European settlement on the coast and no later than the 1835 season – at least five years before Robinson visited the area.[xiii]
Critchett also combines the various Robinson texts to make a coherent narrative. Her claim that the Convincing Ground massacre is “the strongest evidence” for an argument about coastal violence should make us cautious in considering the other accounts of violent incidents she relates.
Using the Port Fairy Journal entry Critchett correctly notes that it concerned women not a whale. However, her discussion is compromised by her reference to “the incident” even though the transcription she used spoke of “the collisions” – suggesting not a single event but a series of conflicts.
Critchett poses some important questions:
“How serious was this clash?”
It was probably not very serious at all. Henty told it to illustrate the “badness” of the natives, not the whalers. Henty was not a psychopath. This is not a story of massacre and mass murder.
“When did it occur?”
The dating suggested by Robinson may be correct – “some time ago, I suppose two or three years” – that is between 1839 and 1841. See below for a further discussion of this point.
“How many Aborigines were killed?”
Henty’s story did not refer to any Aboriginal deaths – the bloodshed is supposition added by George Robinson. Some historians have read the comment, “They, however, did not much molest them after that”, as indicating the complete destruction of the Aboriginal group. The words probably mean exactly what they say. That after this show of strength the whalers were left in peace by the Aborigines – the Aborigines may have continued their seasonal wanderings to another part of the territory.
At the same dinner where Henty told his story Tyers related an account of a “collision” with the natives. Members of his survey party had been attacked by Aborigines and four shots were fired, but it wasn’t thought that any of the Aborigines had been hit. It seems odd that Robinson did not ask the obvious question about Aboriginal injuries when Henty told his story for the Tyers story was followed-up and later Robinson received, through Tyers, written statements from the two men who had fired at the Aborigines.[xiv]
The fact that Robinson met few remaining local Aborigines is also read by Critchett as meaning that the others were all killed in this incident.[xv] This is very questionable reasoning which ignores other possible causes for the population decrease. Assuming always that Robinson, on his brief visit to the district, really did come in contact with all the remaining clan members.
Something else not considered is the effectiveness of contemporary firearms in the hands of a whaleboat crew. A comment made at the time by Captain Phillip Parker King when he visited Port Phillip is worth remembering: ‘The shepherds all carry firearms and have dogs, but as the natives know the uselessness of a musket after being fired, until reloaded, they would greatly have the advantage if they wished.’[xvi]
Robinson turns the Henty story from an initial attack by the Aborigines into a unprovoked assault by the whalers and consistently relativises Aboriginal violence. In one instance, for example, he is afraid to leave the whalers’ hut at Double Corner in case the Aborigines with him should attack the hut: “And as the natives had been offended with these people I was fearful lest, finding the hut in a defenceless state, they might have done mischief.” The hut was being looked after by the whalers’, presumably, Aboriginal women – possibly they are the bodies to whom the mischief would have been done.[xvii]
Yet when he is personally threatened the reasoning swings in another direction: “My conscience told me I had done nothing to cause an attack. At the same time, knowing the capricious disposition of the natives, I thought they might have taking offence without just cause, perhaps conceived an offence and which is quite common among white people, much less savages.”[xviii]
“Why was it not mentioned in Henty’s Portland Journal?”
If these events happened, as historians suggest, in 1833 or 1834 then this was before Henty arrived in Portland. If, on the other hand, Robinson is correct and it happened between 1839 and 1841 then this period is not covered by the Henty Journals which have so far been discovered and preserved.
“Why was Fyans not given details when he travelled to Portland to investigate allegations by Dr Collier that the Hentys and their men had been involved in a massacre of Aborigines?”
This refers to false claims made by Collier which were investigated by Captain Foster Fyans in 1839. At the time Edward Henty made the following sworn statement: “From my first arrival in 1834 to October 1838, we were on the most friendly terms with the natives, with the exception of a disturbance in June 1838 at one of our out-stations.”[xix]
If we accept this direct testimony by Henty, even as we have accepted the hearsay evidence of his storytelling, the whale fight may have occurred between June 1839, when he made this statement, and 1841 when Robinson wrote down his story. As the incident obviously occurred during a May to November whaling season it could have happened later in the 1839 season or at some time in the 1840 season – the 1841 season had just begun when Robinson visited Portland. This timing agrees with what Robinson recorded at the time: he crossed out “a year or” and wrote “some time ago, I suppose two or three years”.
“a case study in the misuse of historical evidence”
When the documentary history was considered at a hearing of the Victorian Heritage Council Damien Cash, the only historian on the three person committee, offered an opinion which dissented from the mistaken majority finding: “the massacre claim was revealed as a case study in the misuse of historical evidence, beginning with a series of errors made by Robinson in 1841-42, and then perpetuated through a series of unreasonable conclusions and other errors made by historians and consultants.” It seems a sensible summing up of what has taken place.
© MICHAEL CONNOR 2007
[i] Historian Jan Critchett refers to 6 members of this clan mentioned by Robinson: Jan Critchett, A ‘distant field of murder’: Western District Frontiers 1834-1848, Carlton, 1990, pp 78, 264 note 42
[ii] Journal entry 20 May 1841
[iii] Blair to La Trobe, 2 June 1841, VPRS 10/P Inward Registered Correspondence to the Superintendent of Port Phillip District, relating to Aboriginal Affairs, unit 3, item 41/830
[iv] Transcription taken from Ian D. Clark, (ed.) The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate: Volume 2: 1 October 1840 – 31 August 1841 (Melbourne, 1998) p 222
[v] Michael Connor, The Invention of Terra Nullius, Sydney, 2005, pp 147 – 148
[vi] G.A. Robinson, “Chief Protector’s Report of an Expedition to the Westward: 7 October 1842”, Mitchell Library, ZA7047, entry dated 20 May 1841
[vii] See, for example, Ian Clark, Scars in the Landscape: a register of massacre sites in western Victoria, 1803 – 1859, Canberra, 1995, p 17: “he [Robinson] considered it one of the many ‘remarkable’ places on the coast whose names originated from severe conflicts.”
[viii] This is a book that needs to be used with extreme caution. Clark, Scars in the Landscape, pp 17 – 21. For a fuller discussion of this book see Connor, The Invention of Terra Nullius, pp 126 – 158
[ix] Ian D. Clark, “In Quest of the Tribes”: G.A. Robinson’s unabridged report of his 1841 expedition among western Victorian aboriginal tribes; Kenyon’s “Condensation” reconsidered” in Memoirs of the Museum of Victoria 1(1): pp 97 – 130 (1990)
[x] Blair to La Trobe, 1 June 1841, VPRS 10/P Inward Registered Correspondence to the Superintendent of Port Phillip District, relating to Aboriginal Affairs, unit 3, item 41/830
[xi] Major T.L. Mitchell, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, London, 1839, pp 242 – 243
[xii] Ian D. Clark, Aboriginal Languages and Clans: an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800 – 1900, Monash University, 1990, p 63
[xiii] Critchett, A ‘distant field of murder’, pp 121-122
[xiv] See Journal 21 May 1841.
[xv] Critchett, A ‘distant field of murder’, p 130: “As Robinson found the Aboriginal clans of the area almost extinct or extinct in 1841, it would seem likely that at least the equivalent of a large Aboriginal group was killed.”
[xvi] Captain Phillip Parker King’s Diary in Pauline Jones, editor, Historical Records of Victoria, Volume One, Beginnings of Permanent Government, Melbourne, 1981, p112
[xvii] Transcription taken from Clark, The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Volume 2, p 225
[xviii] Transcription taken from Clark, The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Volume 2, p 226
[xix] Michael Cannon, editor, Historical Records of Victoria: Volume Two B: Aborigines and Protectors, Melbourne, 1983, p 631