When Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe sailed home for England on 6 May 1854, he carried with him a series of letters which he hoped to use when writing a history of the Port Phillip district in his retirement. He had officially approached a number of the early pastoral pioneers and asked them a number of questions, and as you might expect, they answered his survey letter fairly promptly. I’m not sure what the official letter said- one of his respondents referred to a section that asked “If preceded, accompanied or immediately followed, by whom and when, and the general state of the district around and in advance of me at that period.” He obviously also specifically asked about encounters they had had with aborigines in their area, and their opinion of the future facing the aboriginal tribes.
He had big plans for these letters. He intended his book to start with Captain Cook’s discovery of the Gippsland coast, then move to the early futile attempts at settlement. It would then go on to record the effective colonization of the region by pastoralists, ending with the discovery of gold in 1851. Part II would deal with the geology, botanty and zoology of the land; the aborigines and the human aspects of the spread of settlement. He would then pass on to separation and the consequences of gold discovery, where he would rebut the criticisms that had been levelled against him for his administration of the gold fields. He would then finish with ‘My Australian Home, a walk around my garden’. (Gross, p. 131)
It was not to be. He was increasingly afflicted with blindness, and realizing that he would never write this book, he returned the letters to Victoria in 1872 , where they were preserved in the public library. Times had moved on: people were ‘moving forward’ then too, and not all that interested in the preceding generation. It was not until 1898 that the 58 letters were published by the Trustees of the Library under the name ‘Letters from Victorian Pioneers’.
Because they were responding to an official request with guiding questions, there is a sameness about the responses of his correspondents. But there’s also quite a bit of similarity in their experiences as well, which is what I expected. In fact, my impetus for reading this book was the suggestion in Robert Redfield’s book that people living in a small community often held a common biography. Even though Redfield specifically states that his approach does not hold for frontier communities (which of course Port Phillip was), I was interested to see if the early pastoral settlers of Port Phillip could be said to have a common life story.
And yes, they could. All his respondents were male, and many of them were young when they settled in Port Phillip- usually in their early to mid 20s. Many of them came over from Van Diemens Land from where they had initially emigrated (none admits to convict origins). Many of them had brothers with them. And they held in common sheep and cattle– hundreds and hundreds of them, trotting along, being slaughtered by marauding natives (and what a dispiriting and expensive loss of life that must have been), moving from run to run. Some time ago I read Roger McDonald’s book The Ballad of Desmond Kale, and was frustrated by the sheep-sheep-sheep emphasis of it, but sheep-fever is amply demonstrated here too. It’s not as exotic and alluring as gold, but the sheep-rush obviously drove the early settlers of Port Phillip.
They all mention the 1840s depression- although one canny Scotsman seems to have escaped it because he had savings still in Van Diemens Land. There are names of landholders that spring up again and again- obviously big stockholders held land in several districts. Many of them moved from station to station.
Some of them were quite observant about the changes wrought on the land after settlement. Several mentioned that it was very dry when the area was first opened up, and that the rainfall had improved in the last few years of the 1840s, drawing later settlers to land that had seemed uninviting when the first settlers passed it initially. One or two mentioned changes in the grasslands, and some were quite nostalgic for the beauty of the unsettled areas.
Most fascinating of all was the range of responses to the question about aborigines. Most of them knew of “other people” who had gone on shooting reprisals- as perhaps might be expected when the Lieutenant-Governor asked you such a question. Several of them mentioned the Whyte brothers by name as being particularly responsible for aboriginal deaths, one respondent attributing 51 deaths to them compared with the official count of 30 aboriginal deaths. A couple of respondents mentioned that they had shot aborigines in reprisal- just one or two, mind you, and always because the aborigines started it first. Another settler was named as responsible for several deaths, but he protested (too much?) his innocence. George Faithful of Wangaratta, however, reported quite openly his actions after suffering several attacks from surrounding natives:
At last, it so happened that I was the means of putting an end to this warfare. Riding with two of my stockmen one day quietly along the banks of the river, we passed between the anabranch of the river itself by a narrow neck of land, and, after proceeding half a mile, we were all at once met by some hundreds of painted warriors with the most dreadful yells I had ever heard. Had they sprung from the regions below we could have hardly been more taken by surprise. Our horses bounded and neighed with fear- old brutes, which in other respects required an immense deal of persuasion in the way of spurs to make them go along. Our first impulse was to retreat, but we found the narrow way blocked up by natives two and three deep, and we were at once saluted with a shower of spears. My horse bounded and fell into an immense hole. A spear just then passed over the pummel of my saddle. This was the signal for a general onset. The natives rushed on us like furies, with shouts and savage yells; it was no time for delay. I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at. Unfortunately, the first shot from one of my men’s carbines did not take effect; in a moment we were surrounded on all sides by the savages boldly coming up to us. It was my time now to endeavour to repel them. I fired my double-barrel right and left, and two of the most forward fell; this stopped the impetuosity of their career. I had time to reload, and the war thus continued from about ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. We were slow to fire, and I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust. (p. 220)
Several of the respondents noted that they had taken young aboriginal girls and boys to live with them, but that once they reached adulthood, their tribes came and took them away. One settler commented that he gave a baby back to its mother after he had taken it because the servant wasn’t prepared to look after it, and seemed rather put out that she refused to give it to him a second time. Several reported infanticide, especially where there was a white father and a black mother. There were several allegations of cannibalism, although interestingly one settler reported that the aborigines thought that the whites were cannibals!
Where aboriginal deaths had occured, several claimed, it was because the blacks had become over-familiar. White men didn’t take lubras, they claimed- the black men offered their wives to them freely.
Even amongst those who were most positive about the aborigines working for them on their stations, or their quickness and willingness to forgive, there was overall a deep sense that influenza, smallpox, VD or alcohol would decimate their numbers. They all reported that there weren’t as many aborigines on their stations as there had been years earlier- strange that.
‘Letters from Victorian Pioneers: being a series of papers on the early occupation of the colony, the aborigines etc addressed by Victorian pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph La Trobe Esq. Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria’. Edited with an introduction and notes by C. E. Sayers from the original edition edited for the Trustees of the Public Library by Thomas Francis Bride L.L.D during his period of office as Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria. (Phew!), 1969.
Alan Gross ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District 1839-1851 Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria 1851-1854’. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1956.