When I grew up in the 1950s I absorbed an unspoken but powerful message. Aboriginals were part of another world – not mine. The closest my mother came to verbalizing this was when I met and played with a young Aboriginal girl at South Grafton Caravan Park in 1958. “East is east and west is west,” my mother explained. And I knew what she meant, and what she meant me to do. For decades after, I was bogged down in the fear, caution and aloofness of my white Anglo culture, lacking the capacity or courage to make contact.
In the past few years, as I probed local and family history, I have discovered that our worlds, white and Aboriginal, were not separate but melded – in family, work and farm life. Those connections with Indigenous Australians through eight generations, have been at times shameful and murderous; at times intimate and familial; at other times paternalistic.
A great, great, great uncle Thomas Coutts, shipbuilder and whaling captain, adventurous and ambitious man, turned to pastoral pursuits in the 1840s and 50s. In Australia they were decades of great change and confidence. Transportation was coming to an end, immigrants were crowding in, gold fever was rising, the wool industry was thriving, and squatters were establishing large sheep and cattle runs beyond the settled districts, beyond the Limits of Location. On that same land Aboriginals continued to see their food sources diminish and their country taken. They responded by raiding crops, stealing sheep and cattle and spearing intruders.
Things came to a head following the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, when twenty-eight Aborigines were slaughtered and set alight by twelve men led by John Fleming, son of a local squatter. According to historian Manning Clark, “The terror of black against white and white against black redoubled in fury”. John Fleming escaped but the other eleven were charged with murder and found not guilty. One juryman apparently later disclosed: “I know well they are guilty of murder, but I for one would never consent to see a white man suffer for shooting a black one”. In a second trial seven were found guilty and executed.
Newspaper reports suggest that Thomas Coutts had several deadly clashes with blacks on his run, “Kangaroo Creek” in the Clarence River area, where he put two shepherds and a hutkeeper to look after his 5,000 sheep and 800 cattle. He moved between that run and his “Bald Hills” run, also on the Clarence, and his residence in O’Connell Street Sydney, where his wife Maria née Bloodsworth maintained an increasing household of children. In 1848 he was committed on a charge of poisoning a group of Aborigines. Thomas was to answer charges in the Supreme Court in Sydney, however the Attorney-General “declined exhibiting any information” and he was not brought to trial.
Another great, great, great uncle settled in 1862 within the Limits of Location at “Gobolion”, on the fringes of Wellington. The Australian Town and Country Journal was lyrical in its description of this established property, where the Macquarie River flowed past and the Wellington Range provided a backdrop. The handsome homestead with its spacious verandah and marvelously constructed furniture was, we are assured, surrounded by fine grassed paddocks, tastefully laid gardens and well-stocked orchards and vineyards. John Andrew Gardiner and his wife Mary Anne née Bloodsworth with their bevy of daughters and couple of sons, were gentry. He was referred to as Lord or Squire of Gobolion, sometimes even, Lord of Wellington.
As for the Aborigines, they were no threat, having been subdued in the 1820s when Captain Allmond and sixty troopers were stationed at Mount Arthur, where many “sanguinary encounters took place” (ie blood-stained). They were domesticated by now having been “civilized and Christianised” at the Wellington Valley Mission from 1830 to 1842, where one missionary acted inappropriately to Aboriginal women and the founder gained a reputation as an abductor of black children. I was gratified to learn that John Andrew had an affectionate, if paternalistic, relationship with local Aborigines. He employed them and formed the Gobolion black cricket team. In February 1883 they beat the Wellington team in the first innings but the Wellington team (champions against Dubbo, Orange and Mudgee) declined to finish the match. The following week, “the dusky sons of the soil marched off triumphantly victorious”. At the opening of the Orange to Wellington railway line Gardiner lead the parade “with a Gobolion black at either hand”; and on arrival at the Terminus Hotel the Gobolion Aborigines performed “various grotesque sablatory evolutions to the music of the band” (sablatory I think is the reporter’s made-up word from sable).
A few years ago I attended the Dabee Exhibition which many of you would be familiar with. It records the history of the local Dabee tribe of the Wiradjuri nation. It was then I discovered that my great great grandfather, who already had fathered nine children by his wife Ann née Thompson (including my great grandmother Mary Anne), fathered two more children by their Aboriginal servant Rose Lambert. She was the daughter of Peggy and Jimmy Lambert, notable elders of the Dabee tribe. James and Rose’s children were George William and Ann Marey. I soon discovered that Lyn Symes (local Aboriginal elder now sadly deceased) and I were related through paternity, she being a great grand-daughter of George William. Our great grandparents shared the normal interactions of farm and family life. I imagine Mary Anne, then an adolescent, played, soothed and coached those youngsters until around the age of seven. That’s when their mother Rose married John Green and they became part of another family. I ask myself: why did my Aunt Meg, an openhearted, gregarious woman, who set me on the path of family history, and recorded so much of it, not tell me about my Aboriginal connections?
I am proud and glad to say that James Morrison provided for Ann Marey and George William in his will. To his son he left land on Coxes Creek – 160 acres freehold and 40 acres conditional purchase, two mares with harness, dray, plough and harrow, and twenty pounds. To his daughter (then Mrs Hobby I think) he left a mare, her pick. His children being already settled, he left the rest of his estate to his grand-children.
It was Lyn Syme who introduced me to Madge Green’s memoir (her grandmother). Madge records the story that Rose told George, of the massacre of the Dabee tribe by the Red Coats, mainly women and children. She also writes of her “big laughing uncles…it is sad to think of them dying comparatively young, drunk sodden derelicts; they were parted through racial prejudice from the women they each wished to marry…”
The truth is that ten or so generations of white Australians have thrived because the Aboriginal race, that was here thousands of generations before us, was decimated, dispossessed and dehumanized. And the disadvantage continues.
I decided to choose this subject to blog after I watched The Australian Dream last week. You can still catch it on ABC IView. It has had excellent reviews.
The featured image is an extract from The Dabee Exhibition and gives us something of Rose’s history.