Living with lo­cals

His­to­ri­ans John May­nard and Victoria Hask­ins un­earth sto­ries of Euro­pean run­aways and cast­aways who lived with Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing Aus­tralia’s early colo­nial pe­riod.

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

Sto­ries of Euro­pean run­aways and cast­aways who lived with Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing Aus­tralia’s early colo­nial pe­riod.

Tra­di­tion­ally, pub­lished ac­counts of Euro­peans living with Indigenous peo­ple were told wholly from the Euro­pean per­spec­tive. Writ­ten for colo­nial au­di­ences, they were highly sen­sa­tion­alised and of­ten ex­pressed harshly neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards Indigenous peo­ple. In spite of these f laws, these ac­counts are in­valu­able to our shared his­tory. They pro­vide a rare glimpse into Indigenous life­styles and views of the world at the point of first con­tact and, with care­ful read­ing, they of­fer unique in­sights into Indigenous per­spec­tives on the world of the Bri­tish colonists.

Af­ter ex­ten­sively re­search­ing these ac­counts, we co-wrote Living with the Lo­cals: Early Euro­peans’ Ex­pe­ri­ence of Indigenous Life, which was pub­lished last year. The book re­counts and in­ter­prets sto­ries we found in the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia archives of 13 men, women and chil­dren who found them­selves “living with the lo­cals” dur­ing the late 18th and 19th cen­turies. As an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous his­to­rian re­spec­tively, we set out to bring fresh in­ter­pre­ta­tions to these sto­ries. Our aim was to un­der­stand what the ex­pe­ri­ences were like not only for the Euro­peans, but also for the Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties who wel­comed the out­siders into their lives.

We found that the run­aways and cast­aways were al­most al­ways in des­per­ate straits when they were f irst found by Abo­rig­i­nal or Is­lan­der peo­ple. They were in press­ing need of food, shel­ter and com­pan­ion­ship, which they, by and large, re­ceived from their star­tled hosts. The kind­ness of the Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties was strik­ing. They typ­i­cally adopted the new­com­ers, treat­ing them as re­born kin – as fam­ily mem­bers who’d re­turned from the realm of the dead. Un­doubt­edly, this re­sponse en­sured the sur­vival of many of those lone, lost strangers who were de­pen­dent upon their Indigenous hosts and, in turn, ap­pre­cia­tive of their gen­eros­ity.

READ­ING HIS­TOR­I­CAL AC­COUNTS of Euro­peans’ ex­pe­ri­ences living with Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties re­quires a healthy de­gree of scep­ti­cism. Colo­nial au­di­ences were ea­ger for tit­il­lat­ing ex­posés of the cus­toms of ‘sav­ages’ and lurid de­pic­tions of Indigenous life.

As such, many of the sto­ries we un­cov­ered fea­tured con­fronting de­scrip­tions of vi­o­lent ‘war­fare’ be­tween clans, and many of the sto­ries’ authors (most of the sto­ries come to us sec­ond or even third hand) took great li­cence in their dis­cus­sions of sav­age ‘can­ni­bal­ism’. These ref­er­ences tended to em­bel­lish, ex­ag­ger­ate and mis­in­ter­pret cul­tural pro­ce­dures and an­cient cus­toms, serv­ing to jus­tify the ex­clu­sion of Indigenous peo­ple from a com­mon hu­man­ity.

In re­search­ing the sto­ries, we were struck by the ab­sence of the voices of the dis­placed Euro­peans them­selves. The com­mon com­plaint was that those who re­turned to set­tler so­ci­ety would not will­ingly talk much of their ex­pe­ri­ences. To the frus­tra­tion of their colo­nial con­tem­po­raries, the ma­jor­ity of the in­di­vid­u­als who re-en­tered Euro­pean life kept their si­lence on Abo­rig­i­nal re­li­gious and spir­i­tual be­liefs, sub­jects that re­main sa­cred and se­cret today.

There was the fa­mous William Buck­ley (‘Mur­ran­gurk’), for in­stance, from whom “it was im­pos­si­ble to get any con­nected or re­li­able in­for­ma­tion”. And James Davis (‘Du­ram­boi’), who de­clared, “No-one will get any­thing from me about the blacks.” And the French­man Nar­cisse Pel­letier (‘Anco’) who lived with the peo­ple of Cape York for 17 years from the age of 14 and cer­tainly “knew more than he chose to con­fess”.

Per­haps this ret­i­cence was a way of pro­tect­ing the cul­tural in­tegrity of the peo­ple who had shel­tered and be­friended them – at the very least, it was a mark of re­spect for the Indigenous ap­pre­ci­a­tion that not all knowl­edge is open and avail­able for shar­ing. But it’s hardly surprising that so many of the Euro­peans who lived among Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were tac­i­turn, given the inces­sant bad­ger­ing they endured from their in­ter­roga­tors for the gori­est de­tails of life “among sav­ages”.

COM­PELLING STO­RIES OF con­vict es­capees and ship­wreck sur­vivors who found them­selves living with Abo­rig­i­nal or Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der com­mu­ni­ties in the early colo­nial pe­riod, some­times for decades, have long had a hold on the Aus­tralian imag­i­na­tion.

THERE IS LITTLE EV­I­DENCE to sug­gest white colo­nial Aus­tralians were in­ter­ested in the full­ness and im­por­tance of Indigenous so­cial and cul­tural life. In­stead, those who lived with Indigenous peo­ple for any length of time were re­garded by colo­nial so­ci­ety with a mix of fas­ci­na­tion and re­vul­sion, for­ever marked as un­trust­wor­thy out­siders, whose loy­al­ties were per­ma­nently di­vided. Those who had re­turned to the white world of­ten seemed un­happy and out of place.

But most sto­ries we found are rich with ac­counts of friend­ship and en­joy­ment of Indigenous life­styles. From the f irst­known white peo­ple to re­turn from “living with the lo­cals” – four run­away con­victs found in 1795 living with the Worimi at Port Stephens – to French­man Pel­letier, who in­sisted he’d been kid­napped, not res­cued, by Euro­peans who found him in 1875, it is clear most of those who ex­pe­ri­enced life with Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­ders were very happy with their hosts and re­turned to their own so­ci­ety with re­luc­tance.

What we saw, in re­peated in­stances, was that Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der peo­ple treated the lost, the ship­wrecked and the run­aways with great kind­ness and com­pas­sion and, for the most part, openly lamented when their guests re­turned to the world of the ‘ghosts’ (as white so­ci­ety was of­ten seen). And here we feel is a great tragedy of the Aus­tralian his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. The Euro­pean men and women who lived with Abo­rig­i­nal and Is­lan­der com­mu­ni­ties wit­nessed the beauty and rich­ness of Indigenous cul­ture in ways that no other out­siders have since. They stood on the cusp of a future in which their Indigenous hosts were to be bru­tally ex­cluded for many, many years, and a his­tory that we are only now just start­ing to try to un­der­stand.

The sto­ries in Living with the Lo­cals range across time and place – from the 1790s to the 1870s, from the Tor­res Strait in the north to Port Phillip Bay in the south. Here is a sam­ple of three of them.

Es­caped con­vict ‘Wild White Man’ William Buck­ley fa­mously lived for 32 years with Victoria’s Wa­tourong.

This il­lus­tra­tion, en­ti­tled The White Cap­tive, ran in an 1872 edi­tion of

The Il­lus­trated Syd­ney News to sup­port an ar­ti­cle ques­tion­ing a view at the time by phys­i­ol­o­gists that “ranked the abo­rig­ines of Aus­tralia among the low­est of the var­i­ous types of the hu­man fam­ily”. The ar­ti­cle went on to re­port that “Early set­tlers, how­ever, who have resided more or less among the blacks have been re­peat­edly com­pelled to ad­mit that such gen­eral con­clu­sions are es­pe­cially un­just.”

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