This blog was first published by the State Library of New South Wales on 7 April 2017: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/trip-australian-museum
It is a dark and stormy day in Sydney ... so my plane is grounded for over an hour in Melbourne. I am going to be late for my meeting at the Australian Museum! Finally I emerge from Museum Station and dash across Hyde Park under leaden skies. Waiting impatiently to cross College Street I see that there are huge spiders on the outer walls of the Museum across the road. I find them moving across an enormous screen as I enter the foyer. It’s all part of the new Spiders Alive & Deadly
exhibition. The massive beasts add to the ominous morning. So it is a relief to receive such a friendly welcome from Sydney-based Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones
and Australian Museum Collections Officer, Rebecca Fisher, who have agreed to assist me with my research.
I have come to the Museum as part of my research as the Coral Thomas Fellow
at the State Library of New South Wales. My project explores the history surrounding the Wedge Collection in the Saffron Walden Museum in North Essex, England which includes a significant number of rare south-eastern Aboriginal wooden artefacts dating from the 1830s.
John Helder Wedge, surveyor and explorer, ca. 1860-1872, photograph by H.H. Baily, State Library of NSW. Call number: P1/83, Digital file number: FL3268549
John Helder Wedge
(1793-1872) was assistant surveyor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1824 until he resigned to assist his friend, John Batman, found a new settlement in Port Philip (later Melbourne) in 1835. Wedge seemingly collected some of the Indigenous artefacts before he left Tasmania, and some after he arrived in Port Philip. He sent them to the Saffron Walden Museum, which was close to his original family home, in 1835 and 1838.
What is intriguing about the Wedge Collection is that while Wedge lived in Tasmania and travelled in Victoria, many of the wooden artefacts in his collection appear to be from New South Wales. This may be explained by the fact that around ten young men were living at the homestead of Wedge’s friend and neighbour, John Batman from 1829. Batman brought the men to Tasmania to work on the 'roving parties' which hunted down Tasmanian Aborigines for government cash rewards. In 1835, some of the NSW Indigenous men travelled to Port Philip with Wedge and Batman to help negotiate the supposed ‘treaty’ between the Port Phillip Association and the Kulin people. They were known collectively as the 'Sydney Natives', although it seems they more likely originated from the NSW South Coast.
Portraits of the Aborigines of New South Wales Sydney, 1843, no. 5 Johnny Crook, Yunbai Native Name, Five Islands, State Library of NSW. Call number SAFE/PXA 74, Digital file number: FL3166098 Crook’s Indigenous names have also been recorded variously as Kan.nin.bay.er (Janingbaya, Jonninbia*), and he was said to have been a ‘native of the Bar.wurrer tribe (Bereworrah) (near Five Islands)’. NJB Plomley considers that his English name was derived from missionary William Pascoe Crook with whom he may have had lived at Parramatta as a child. (Friendly Mission, note 277, page 506).
There has been some historical work done on the 'Sydney Natives' involvement on the Tasmanian and Victorian frontiers, but there has been little research done into their earlier lives, and seemingly none exploring their possible connections to the weapons in the Wedge Collection in Essex.[i] Could they be the makers? Batman had asked them to bring traditional weapons to Tasmania, and it seems they did.[ii] Van Diemen’s Land Government ‘conciliator’ GA Robinson saw the NSW men ‘dance’ with their shields and spears and throw their spears in displays of prowess in October 1831.[iii] If they were the makers of the Wedge Collection weapons, what might the artefacts reveal about their life stories?
At least two of the 'Sydney' men had worked in the sealing trade that employed (and often abducted) Indigenous children and women and took them far from their homes. At least one of the men, ‘Johnny Crook’, had spent some time in the Native Institution
in Parramatta. It seems many of their lives had been disrupted by colonial invasion, possibly from childhood. But might the weapons suggest that they had nonetheless learned and retained their traditional skills?
Many of these questions seem tenuous and challenging to answer. Going to the Australian Museum, to look at similar artefacts in their collections is a step to better understand the Wedge Collection artefacts.
marri ngalaya/many friends Australian Museum, curated by Jonathan Jones
I was very fortunate to have Jonathan Jones as my guide. His knowledge of south-east Aboriginal wooden artefacts is extensive and detailed. Jonathan curated the Museum’s marri ngalaya/many friends
exhibit of nearly 100 wooden shields, a beautifully designed display mounted upon a white wall that explores the consistencies and differences between various traditional patterns and shapes. Both contemporary and historical artefacts are placed side-by-side, challenging any notion that traditional cultural knowledge is confined to the past.Jonathan and I find several comparable examples in the displayed weapons with those in the Wedge Collection: the same style of ‘parrying’ shields; slender but solid guards with inbuilt handles and engraved patterns along their sides.
In the Museum’s conservation laboratory Jonathan and I are shown one of the oldest NSW shields from their collections. Crafted from a thin piece of bark cut into an oval shape, it is painted with crossed, straight red ochre bands on both sides and has a bent-wood handle inserted into two holes. It is very similar to a shield in the Wedge Collection, offering a clear indication that it is also from NSW.
Rebecca leads us to Indigenous collections store. Rows of tall, dense shelving are filled with artefacts. It is cool, quiet and dark. I can’t imagine finding anything here quickly! But Jonathan moves dexterously between shelves and up and down footstools and ladders. ‘Do you know this store well?’ I ask. ‘Well about three of the bays, yes’. These are the bays that contain south-east Aboriginal artefacts. Jonathan has spent many hours in here for his research. His work
is inspired by his knowledge of material culture, historical archives as well as local knowledge systems.
I show Jonathan photographs I have brought of the Wedge Collection, along with digitised pages from the Saffron Walden’s original museum register. The register was created from 1880, nearly fifty years after Wedge sent the artefacts. The first acquisition of artefacts was in March 1835, months before Wedge went to Victoria, so I say that those weapons – a club, two shields and a spear must all be NSW. But Jonathan doesn’t agree on the club. "It looks more Victorian", he says. "It looks like one made by William Barak". He is right.
Club made by William Barak, Koorie Heritage Trust. 'Made by King Barak Last of the Yarra Tribe 18/12/97' is inscribed on the club in cursive script in black ink.
Jonathan observes that a nineteenth-century English curator was unlikely to know the differences in regional designs of artefacts, and the provenance of items in the Wedge Collection may have been muddled, even several times even, over the years.
This is an important lesson. Like historians so often do, I had given precedence to the written records. I was being asked to look beyond the paper and to trust the authority of wood! Indeed these artefacts have their own stories inscribed on them by their makers. Their designs and manufacture offer a more accurate a record than the assumptions made by an English curator distanced by time, culture and geography.
And so it seems my attempts to understand the wooden weapons in the Wedge Collection are just as awkward and humbling. Perhaps I can try to bring the story of the artefacts’ acquisition and the lives of their possible makers some life, and I will certainly do my best. But the more complete exploration of the collection, hopefully by community members and other experts, will probably unfold over several years and into the future. It will be an honour to have facilitated that exploration.Dr Rebe Taylor, is the State Library of NSW inaugral Coral Thomas Fellow. This Fellowship is the most significant Fellowship offered by the Library, established in honour of Coral Kirkwood Thomas née Patrick (1920-1996). The Library gratefully acknowledges Rob & Kyrenia Thomas and family, whose generosity has established it. Fellowship applications for the Coral Thomas will open 8 May and close 17 July. For more information see our frequently asked questions.
[i] Harman, Kristyn, ‘Send in the Sydney Natives! Deploying Mainlanders Against Tasmanian Aborigines’, Tasmanian Historical Studies, v.14, 2009, pp.5-24; Campbell, Alastair H, John Batman and the Aborigines, Kibble Books, North Fitzroy, 1987.
[ii] John Batman to Thomas Anstey, 18 March 1830, CSO 1/320/7578 Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.
[iii] Entries in the journals of GA Robinson for 12 and 13 October 1831, from NJB Plomley, Friendly Mission, The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829–1832 (2nd edn), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and Quintus Publishing, Hobart and Launceston, 2008, p. 518.
Ernest Westlake, around 1910 from Delair, Justin B., 1985: ‘Ernest Westlake (1855-1922) Founder Member of the Hampshire Field Club’, Hampshire Field Club Archaeological Society, 41, 37-44. Rebe Taylor
The first time I encountered Ernest Westlake’s papers was in the archival reading room of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in January 2000. I remember thinking, ‘How do I start? Which box, which folder?’ I knew almost nothing of the archive, or of the man who created it.
I decided to begin with Westlake’s letters
to his children, for they trace his journey from England to Tasmania, and they were written to those he loved. In these delightful and personal letters I felt got to know Westlake; a tenacious, passionate and eccentric man. They make engrossing reading in their own right.
Letter from Ernest Westlake to Margaret and Aubrey Westlake, begun 24 September 1908, copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers, Box 2, Folder 1a, folio 6 recto. Accessed online via: Stories in Stone: an annotated history and guide to the collections and papers of Ernest Westlake (1855-1922).
When I turned to Westlake’s six field notebooks
, I was surprised and pleased anew. He collected not only stone artefacts, but memories! Westlake spoke to many settler Tasmanians; his notebooks are filled with accounts of massacres, warfare and shame. Westlake spoke to many Tasmanian Aborigines as well who shared with him their continuing cultural practices and language. In Westlake’s little field notebooks beats the archival ‘heart of Tasmania’ of the book’s title.
Ernest Westlake’s notes from Oyster Cove, January 1909, copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers, Box 1, Notebook 2, pp. 42–43. Accessed online via: Stories in Stone: an annotated history and guide to the collections and papers of Ernest Westlake (1855-1922).
The photograph that Westlake sketched in his Notebook 2, page 42: ‘The last Aboriginal people of Tasmania’, Henry Albert Frith, Hobart, around 1864. From left: William Lanne, Bessy Clark (Plangernowidedic), Mary Ann Arthur and Truganini. National Library of Australia, nla.obj-133844253.
Stories in Stone
includes more than 8000 images of records. Not all of these relate to Westlake’s Tasmanian journey, for he was a man of many and multifarious interests. Also included are the papers of those esteemed scholars who studied Westlake’s collections after his death.
As Mike Jones notes below, there are many reasons why researchers might explore Stories in Stone
. Westlake’s lifework could never be captured in one book! Its breadth is why I wanted to digitise his papers before I began a narrative history. As I reflect in Into the Heart of Tasmania
“It is rare that a historian has their chief archive available online for readers. You can go and query my interpretation, or travel beyond my focus on [Westlake’s] Tasmanian journey to carry out your own exploration of Westlake’s life and work. Indeed, I hope you do.”
Having my ‘chief archive’ online is humbling, but it has also been liberating. It has allowed me to write more imaginatively, knowing that readers can substantiate my text; that I didn’t ‘make it all up’! So it is that I felt able to write as if I could ‘see’ Westlake; watch him walk up the stairs of British Museum, cross a busy Swanston Street in Melbourne, or fall off his bike in Tasmania.Into the Heart of Tasmania
recounts not only Westlake’s journey, but also my journey of following in his footsteps, trying to hear and see that which he failed to understand: a living Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. It is a book of two, entwined journeys. In the same way, the book and the web resource are also entwined. They can be explored in parallel so that they inform and enrich each other.Mike Jones
In 2006 Rebe Taylor began conversations with Gavan McCarthy, Director of the University of Melbourne’s Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, which became the eScholarship Research Centre (ESRC) in 2007. Gavan agreed that the archive deserved a full digital guide to make the collection more discoverable and accessible to users. He began working with Rebe to bring her notes and paper listing into the Heritage Documentation Management System (HDMS), a standards-compliant archives collection management system developed and used by the ESRC and its predecessors.
However, Gavan and Rebe knew that to truly make the collection accessible – including to Australian researchers and Tasmanian communities – the archive needed to be digitised. The first stage took place in 2008, when Gavan and Rebe travelled to the Pitt Rivers Museum and digitised the Westlake Papers and related documents (3678 images) using a portable overhead camera, tripod and lights. Two years later, Mike Jones visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers and created an additional 4586 images including material related to Westlake’s French eolith collection and papers related to his interest in psychical phenomenon.
The resulting guide contains full inventory-level descriptions of these collections – papers from five collections, four listed in their entirety – as well as the access images. But Stories in Stone
is also much more than a basic archival finding aid. Drawing on her deep knowledge of the collections and her research into Westlake’s life and travels, Rebe combined archival description with detailed contextual information, biographical notes, cross-references and more to produce a rich, scholarly digital publication.
Innovative, comprehensive and generous in its approach, Stories in Stone
was recognised by the Australian Society of Archivists in 2013, winning the Mander Jones Award
for ‘Best finding aid to an archival collection held by an Australian institution or about Australia’. It is both a companion piece to Into the Heart of Tasmania
and a significant achievement in its own right.
The Stories in Stone homepage
The Stories in Stone online archive was first published in 2010 by the eScholarship Research Centre, The University of Melbourne in conjunction with the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. You can explore the archive at westlakehistory.info.Into the Heart of Tasmania is out now.
Was Australia settled or invaded? Both.
That's is what I argued in a letter published in The Age
The letter was in response to an article by Henrietta Cook: ‘Calls for curriculum to say Australia was invaded not settled’
It was a good article that began by stating: ‘Education Minister James Merlino has reignited debate about whether the curriculum should refer to Australia being invaded rather than settled.Here's what I wrote in response:The Letter: "
Accept Both Terms
The debate on how to teach Australia’s colonial history should not be a question of choosing between the terms settlement and invasion, but by accepting both. (‘Calls for curriculum to say Australia was invaded not settled’ 5/5/1). Settlement was a form of invasion. It was a major cause of conflict with, and arguably the genocide of, many Indigenous Australians. Free settlers took up land grants legally, but also swiftly and expansively, denying Aboriginal people access to land, resources, and culture. Tasmania offers a key example. As a small penal settlement (from 1803), relations with Aboriginal people were relatively peaceful. By the time pastoral settlers had taken over one third of the island in 1830, relations with Aborigines had reduced into a violent conflict funded and partly condoned by the colonial government. By 1834 the remaining Aborigines were forcibly incarcerated and declined rapidly. Tasmania has been recognised as a case of historical genocide since the definition of the term in 1944. But it was a genocide defined not by mass killings or extinction. The Tasmanian Aboriginal people remain a living community. It was genocide defined by denying Aboriginal peoples access to adequate food, culture and social stability; a genocide caused by settlement.” - Rebe Taylor, Yarraville Putting credit where credit is due
I was very conscious that my letter was filled with, and fuelled by, the ideas of other historians. The point of this blog is to unpack ‘my’ ideas and give them proper credit.
1. ‘Settlement was a form of invasion’.
It was Australian historian Patrick Wolfe who wrote in 1992 that settler ‘invasion is a structure not an event’ (Wolfe, 1992, p 3) Unlike colonies where Europeans sought indigenous labour, Australian colonists sought foremost Aboriginal land, and thus for the Wolfe the ‘primary logic of settler colonialism can be characterized as one of elimination’ (quoted in Moses, 2004, pp. 31-31). In the framework of settler colonialism genocide becomes, as A. Dirk Moses puts it, ‘implicitly intended in the sense of the silent condoning, in … a chain of events for which [the colonists] were … not prepared to rupture’ (Moses, 2004, pp. 31-31)
2. ‘As a small penal settlement (from 1803), relations with Aboriginal people were relatively peaceful’.
In his history, Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce explores how Tasmania’s first generation of convict- culturally ‘changed’ by their island’s unique environment, and through the settlers was peaceful exchanges with Aboriginal people (Boyce, 2010, pp. 10-11, 101).
It is an idea at the heart of Aboriginal Elder Patsy Cameron’s 2011 book, Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier which explores the emergence of a new Aboriginal community on the islands of the Bass Strait that grew out of reciprocal relationships with Aboriginal women and white ‘Straitsmen’ from the early 1800s. The ‘mix of cultural groups from which I was born’, explains Cameron, instigated ‘the coming into being of a new lifeworld and a new people of the islands’ (Cameron, 2011, pp. , ix, xiv).
3. 'By the time pastoral settlers had taken over one third of the island in 1830, relations with Aborigines had reduced into a violent conflict …'
Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 offers, without doubt, the best account of Tasmania’s Black War. Ryan explains so clearly how its chief cause was the speed of pastoralism and how settlers transformed the character of the Tasmanian colony. In 1817 the population free colonists numbered around 2000 people: agriculturalists, sealers and whalers who lived in sparse populations and largely in peaceable accord with the Aborigines. By 1830, however, the population of Van Diemen’s Land had grown more than ten-fold. Pastoral land had been granted at an alarming pace, spreading in a corridor from Hobart, through Tasmania’s midlands, along the east coast, and west of Launceston until a third of the Island was invaded. These were the ‘Settled Districts’. But there was little settled about them. From 1826 the Aboriginal clanspeople began to demand the return of their Country. The government responded with the declaration martial law, the deployment of several hundred armed soldiers and civilian ‘roving parties’. In 1830, the Black Line mobilized when over 2,000 military and settlers who moved, pincer-like across the island’s southern settled districts the goal to capture Aborigines in its sweep. Finally, government appointed Conciliator George Augustus Robinson removed the remaining Aboriginal peoples from their Country and enforcedly incarcerated them on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait (Ryan, 2012, Part II, pp. 87-142),
4. 'Tasmania has been recognised as a case of historical genocide since … 1944. But it was a genocide defined not by mass killings or extinction.' Bark canoe, Tasmanian Museum, ABC TV
The term genocide, meaning the killing of a people, was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin to define the crimes of the Holocaust.If the word genocide was new, however, Lemkin understood that ‘the phenomenon was as old as history itself’ . Lemkin considered the policies and actions in the 1820s and 1830s of the British in the colony of Tasmania as one of the clearest cases of historical genocide (quoted by Reynolds, 2001, p. 3, 50-52).
But not all have agreed. Henry Reynolds, an esteemed and pioneering historian of Aboriginal Australia, has argued that Tasmania witnessed colonial warfare, but not genocide. He considers that George Arthur, Governor of Tasmania, was responding a ‘fierce guerrilla warfare’ waged by the Aborigines, and which ended only because Robinson was able to induce the Aborigines to follow him was the promise of eventual return to their homelands.What occurred in the 1820s and 1830s in Tasmania was a war, Reynolds argues, that was ended by negotiation (what might be argued was a type of treaty), and it that ought formerly to be memorialized (Reynolds, 1995, pp. 119, 122-123, 191-213).
Australian historian Ann Curthoys’ does not agree. In her 2008 essay on the question, she wonders why internationally, scholars have agreed that colonial Tasmania offers a ‘clear-cut’ instance where genocide occurred, but ‘such a characterization is rarely adopted within Australia’ (Curthoys, 2008, p. 229). Curthoys’ understanding of genocide in the Australian context draws on the work of Wolfe, and also that of Tony Barta, and A. Dirk Moses among others. They agree that as a settler colony Australia had less a ‘genocidal policy’, than a ‘genocidal relationship’ in which Aboriginal people were denied access to their lands and thus a sustainable social and economic existence. Curthoys concludes that the colonial history of Tasmania does present a case of genocide, but without reference to ‘state planning, mass killing, or extinction' (Curthoys, 2008, p. 230, 244).
5. 'The Tasmanian Aboriginal people remain a living community'
Lyndall Ryan’s was the first Australian historian to acknowledge that ‘the Tasmanian Aborigines have survived’ (Ryan, 1981, p. 257).[i]
The idea contradicted widely the wide-spread and longstanding idea when Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, Truganini, died in 1876 her race became extinct.
By then the Commonwealth Government of Australia had already recognised the Tasmanian Aboriginal people as a living community. They included, amongst other Indigenous peoples across Tasmania, the descendants of the nineteenth century Bass Strait Island pioneers.
But just as this recognition came Australian popular media reiterated the idea of extinction loudly and widely in film, books, songs and art. It was part of a broader revision in Australian historiography that aimed to invoke a sense of national Australian historical shame over the colonial past. Truganini became the face of Australia’s shame. In this context, the idea of genocide came not merely to replace that of extinction in such contexts, but to promulgate it. Such representations directly undermined an emergent movement for Tasmanian Aboriginal self-determination. Further reading:
I have written these ideas in two articles:
- ‘Genocide, Extinction and Aboriginal Self-determination in Tasmanian Historiography’, History Compass, Vol 11, No 6, 2013, pp 405-419.
- ‘The National Confessional’, Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 22-36
J. Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land
, (Melbourne, Black Inc., 2010).
P. Cameron, Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier
, (Hobart, Fullers Bookshop, 2011).
A. Dirk Moses, ‘Preface’ and ‘Genocide and Settler Society in Australian History’, in A. Dirk Moses (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society,
(New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2004): 1-3, 4-48.
H. Reynolds, Fate of a Free People,
(Melbourne, Penguin, 1995).
H. Reynolds, An Indelible Stain?: The Question of Genocide in Australia
, (Melbourne, Viking, 2001).
L. Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians
, (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1996, 2nd ed.).
L. Ryan, Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803
, (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2012).
P. Wolfe, ‘Settler colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, Journal of Genocide Research
, 8/4 (2006): 387-409.