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.
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.”