‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40’ by Marie Hansen Fels

There is a somewhat elegaic, wistful tone to this book, hinted at by its title. It is a quote from the journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas as he was about to re-locate his Protectorate for the second time in three years under official instructions.  He had been forced to shift from the Mornington Peninsula in 1840 to Nerre Nerre Warren, then forced again to shift to Merri Creek in 1843.  There were many reasons that he had failed, he said, but there was one time when he could have been said to have succeeded- and that was at Arthurs Seat between 1839 and 1840.

In the Afterword to the book, the author admits that there is “no conclusion, no grand summing-up” in her work.  She evokes the late Greg Dening, who taught that “the historical effort was to understand and to explain: not to judge, not to label, not to take sides.” (p. 397).  In many ways, it would have been helpful to have her afterword as a preface, because I found myself somewhat puzzled about what this book actually is. It is part of ANU’s Aboriginal History Monograph series, which presents “studies on particular themes or regions, or a series of articles on single subjects of contemporary interest.”  In this case, it focuses minutely on a relatively small area of land, over mainly a one-year period, although it does spill out of this chronological limit at times.

The book won the ‘Best Community Research, Register, Records’ category of the Victorian Community History Awards in 2011. The typographic layout of the book is more suited to a records-based document than a narrative history: it has the appearance of a work-book or training manual, and the headings and boxed biographies of individual aboriginal people feel as if they are the product of a word-processor rather than a commercial print layout.   It is thoroughly commendable that the book is available free as a download through ANU e-press here.  I suspect that I might have felt short-changed had I paid $29.95 for a print-on-demand copy (although, admittedly that is not a high price).   The rather thin covers of my book are already curling.

But the value of this book lies in its contents, not the layout.   As a Melburnian, and one who holidays on the Mornington peninsula side of the bay (rather than the “other”, western side), it was as if my January canvas of caravans and holiday houses had been stripped back to another, earlier frontier time.  Names were familiar, but distorted (like Moody Yallock for what I assume is now Mordialloc, and Kullurk for Coolart).  Although I was of course aware of McCrae Homestead, it had never occurred to me that there were other pastoralists down on the peninsula as well. I hadn’t thought of my caravan site down at Capel Sound as part of a squatter’s run, but I think that I sensed, just a little, an older history of the peninsula when I was down at Balcombe Creek a month or two back.

Her book is, as she admits, a contrarian view to the prevailing orthodoxies of confrontation, massacres and victimhood.  Instead, hers is a story of an “amiable, intimate, non-violent coexistence”, but this is not explained by the facile “our lot were a peaceful lot” with “mild and inoffensive” men. Instead, she argues:

That there was no conflict at all on the Mornington Peninsula is to be explained in the same terms as conflict is explained in other regions of Victoria, that is, in terms of individual leaders, of social and political agendas of groups, of the tone of relationships between both Indigenous and European. (p.177)

And this is what her book is- an exploration of the tone of relationships between Assistant Protector William Thomas and the squatter farmers of the Mornington Peninsula, and the men and women of the Bunurong people who ranged over it as their traditional lands.  Just as she did in her earlier book Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District, Fels delineates, names and gives a life trajectory and agency to aboriginal people who otherwise remain as the shadowy ‘other’. In text boxes headed with the variations of their names- both aboriginal and conferred-  (e.g. Nunupton/Nunuptune/Nalnuptune/Naluptune/Nunnapaton/Nunupthen/Namapton/Billy Langhorne/Mr Langhorne p. 266), you sense the white informants grappling with unfamiliar sounds, trying to render them into writing and to somehow capture individuals within a bureaucratic report and a census system.  She traces the appearance of individuals at different locations throughout the district as recorded in musters, reports and official letters, their family connections, and their all-too-often premature deaths.

She brings Assistant Protector William Thomas to life for us as well.  The Protectorate scheme was devised in Britain in response to humanitarian concern over the decimation (a term that under-estimates) of indigenous people across the empire.  The Protectors were greeted by many settlers with disdain and derision, and by humanitarians with frustration and annoyance at their various shortcomings.  Rather than being mobile, single men able to follow tribes ranging across country, they were family men operating on a model of establishing a mission in a central location.  I’ve mentioned Robinson before here and here, and Sievewright here.   Assistant Protect William Thomas was a family man as well, and shared with his fellow protectors the curse of execrable handwriting, although the depth and range of his private and public writings has been invaluable for historians (especially now that someone else has grappled with the handwriting!)

And so we see Thomas trying (not always successfully) to enforce Sunday observance; we see his powerlessness to stop a raiding party; the pettiness of Protector Robinson and the futility of railing against bureaucracy, and his sense of bewilderment and sinking disappointment as he returns to the Peninsula after the enforced and much-resented shift to Narre Narre Warren, only to find the peninsula deserted.

Although the focus of the book is on 1839-40, this one year did not happen in isolation.  Actions which took place in this focal year had antecedents, and when the Bunurong men took off on a raiding party towards Gippsland, it was yet another episode in a long-running distrust between the two nations that long predated white settlement.  She works hard to uncover the context and rationale for this feud, exploring a number of hypotheses that take her beyond tribal and cultural factors into a consideration of geological and archaeological evidence of sedimentation, inundation and earthquakes in millenia past.

Moreover, there had been contact between the Bunurong people and white sealers and timber gatherers along the coast and the Bass Strait islands in the decades before Fawkner/Batman claimed possession of the district.  Fels devotes a considerable amount of time tracing the kidnapping of particular individuals, both men and women, who ended up in the Bass Strait Islands, South Australia and even Western Australia,  far from Bunurong country.  This is important: as we speak, there are competing custodial claims from the Boonwurrung Foundation and the Bunurong Land Council based on the status and identity of Louisa Briggs, one of several women abducted.  The contentiousness of such issues is highlighted by the heavily censored and blacked-out reports generated by archaeologists and ethnographers as part of this twenty-first century dispute.

There is a sense, too, of the clock ticking over several of the sites that she describes here.   A footnote questions the expertise of the author of the archaeological report for the Martha Cove development, and a planning permit has been granted on a mission site, extended to 2013, for a Holiday Resort incorporating a winery, function centre, restaurant, hotel, camping park and golf driving range. Another mission site has been identified on private property, but she does not disclose the location.

This is not a ‘straight’ narrative history.  She rebuts a number of local history myths, and she challenges other written histories, for example Bruce Pascoe’s The Convincing Ground.   There is not a smooth narrative flow and it is certainly no coffee table book (and I’m sure was never intended to be).  It is history with its sleeves rolled up.

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5 responses to “‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40’ by Marie Hansen Fels

  1. Very interesting. I wasn’t aware of the place name origins. The Balcombe family were significant in the area. http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/73.htm

    • Have you been down to Balcombe Creek? Someone has done a lot of work there, and on the day that I went there, it was very tranquil.

  2. A well written review. You outline the challenge this writer is making to current historiography very well.

  3. A fascinating review. I am glad to know both that these events happened and that they are being written about today. I love histories of roads not taken.

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