The relationship between indigenous groups and convicts in Australia is somewhat understudied, despite convict experience, and Aboriginal experience, being heavily saturated fields in their own right. Revisionist works on convict transportation and labour studies have focused on issues such as prisoner resistance, and issues of gender and class. Aboriginals have been seen by historians of convict studies as inhabiting a space mostly outside of the convict system, physically and legally, and interaction between the two has gone mostly unnoticed. Aboriginal studies, on the other hand, often use generalised terms such as ‘settlers’, ‘colonists’, ‘whites’ or ‘the British’, to describe reciprocal or violent incidents experienced by indigenous groups, without noting distinctions between free and bonded individuals. The convict was legally distinct to other settlers; the suppression of their legal rights under colonial law, which saw them suffer continued cruelty, and more importantly coercion, was fundamental in shaping convict-Aboriginal relations.
In an unpublished paper commissioned by the Australian government in 2006, on relations between convicts and Aboriginal groups, Dr Cassandra Pybus raised a similar point:
‘‘Clark…, McKenna…, Frost…, Hirst…, Robson and A.G.L. Shaw have nothing much to say about the subject. The big exception is found in the popular history of Australian convictism, Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore… [Within the work of] Reynolds, the subject is given little more than passing mention. The conclusion to be drawn from the secondary literature is that convicts and convictism did not impact in any significant way on the indigenous people’.
The aim of this study is to assess how colonial officials regarded, and manipulated, the interactions between their convict subjects and the Aboriginal population. During the tentative days of early settlement, to what extent was association encouraged, feared or overlooked by superiors living amongst the two groups, and how did the relationship shape colonial beliefs on the archetype of the convict?
The diaries of David Collins, George Barrington and Watkin Tench will form the main primary source base. The views of officials are more extensive and, importantly for this paper, easily accessible, so they can be compared against one another more successfully to form a more conclusive assessment. While these sources have been heavily deconstructed, and reconstructed, by historians, there is still ample room for reinterpretation. The limitation of this approach is neglecting the convict and Aboriginal voices, but Aboriginal accounts in particular are extremely scarce.
An extended programme of frontier violence and racism against Aboriginal people, or what Dirk Moses describes as genocide, has tarnished Australia’s colonial history. While this continued long after transportation, Karskens argues that historians ‘cannot… so easily exonerate the British officers in the way they wanted us to’ from the brutal outbreaks of racial violence, much of which they instigated or aggravated with the help of the convicts in their control. Any recording of events by British officials must be treated with caution, as the superiors feared and despised convicts in equal measure, so any outbreaks of violence saw prisoners demonised in colonial reports and the press.
Harman stresses that ‘unofficial agents of Empire preceded the cumbersome and official machinery of the state by several years.’ The Australian colonial venture was no exception. While the Botany Bay decision and First Fleet may have been sanctioned and orchestrated by the Government, in reality it was the numerous convicts who most regularly initiated first encounters with Aboriginal groups in the early days of the colony. Grace Karskens asserts:
‘Arthur Phillip and his successors found they could not keep convicts, or anyone else, fixed and controlled in one spot. The absence of walls and warders meant that movement, exploration and encounters occurred out of sight and control. The consequences were both liberating and tragic.’
Convicts, as a cheap labour force, whose well-being and rights were held in low regard, were placed in ‘the most dangerous of situations eschewed by most free labourers… charged with protecting their master’s property, with the prospect of cruel punishment to compel vigilance.’ Convicts were the agents forced to perform tasks that frequently, even if inadvertently, vandalised sacred sites and encroached onto hunting grounds and natural resources. It was the convicts, therefore, who appeared to be the aggressors and, in their frequent vulnerability in the bush, ‘bore the brunt of Eora anger’.
Winning the support of ‘natives’ within the Empire was a cornerstone of British imperialist thought. To legitimise their presence, colonial officials tried to forge positive relations with the indigenous population. However, this was also done for more pragmatic and necessary concerns which arise when founding a colony on the other side of the globe, in a hostile and alien environment. In the colony’s infancy, the Aboriginal population was large enough to present a serious threat to the exposed settlements, and indigenous knowledge of tracking and the landscape was valuable. Officials were already deeply suspicious and unimpressed with the mostly unskilled convict population that they had been assigned to live amongst. They were astute enough to realise that fostering good relations between all three groups would go some way to ensuring their personal safety and the fate of the colony. Creating positive links between convicts and Aboriginals would reduce the number of convict fatalities, and raise the morale of prisoners in the bush, increasing the productivity of the workforce.
While the authorities were not willing to directly admit their initial vulnerability, superintendent George Barrington declared ‘we wished to live with them on the most friendly footing’ , and David Collins ensured convicts knew if there was, ‘in forming the intended settlement, any act of cruelty to the natives being contrary to his Majesty’s most gracious intentions, the offenders would be subject to criminal prosecution.’ Gordon Briscoe coined the term protectionism to describe this approach; ‘a series of policies that attempted to protect Aborigines from the abuses of the European settlers’ world’. Drawing upon romantic views of the savage, and notions of racial science, colonial authority would certainly have regarded the morals, culture and behaviour of the imported criminal class as a severe threat to indigenous innocence.
Officials initially believed the vast majority of violent incidents with Aboriginal groups were the result of unacceptable convict behaviour. High levels of violence and depravity were common, especially in the harsher penal establishments which housed re-offenders. David Roberts notes that in the case of early Newcastle, contemporaries acknowledged it as a place of the reception of desperate characters; and that the population was;
‘overworked, inadequately fed, poorly housed, barely clothed and harshly punished… almost exclusively convict and predominantly male… It was not an environment capable of engendering amity and respect toward local Aboriginal society’
In Collins’ account of Botany Bay, almost every mention of hostilities with Aboriginals is accompanied by a verbal condemnation of all the convicts involved. ‘Every misfortune of the kind might be attributed, not to the manners and disposition of the natives, but to the obstinacy and ignorance of our people’ he quickly complained, and reiterated later ‘very little molestation at this time was given by the natives, and had they never been ill treated by our people, instead of hostility, it is more than probable that an intercourse of friendship would have subsisted.’ Collins did not trust the character of the convicts, and thus refused to believe their testimony – ‘Much credit, indeed, was not to be given to any of their accounts; but it must be remarked, that every accident that had happened was occasioned by a breach of positive orders repeatedly given’
Robert Hughes believes the conclusions of Governor Phillips’ Committee for Aboriginal Affairs ‘reflected Arthur’s own delusion that the only people to blame for murder and harassment of the Aborigines were escaped convicts, sealers and other colonial trash – never the respectable settlers.’ Convicts occupied a place as colonial scapegoats, a sub-human class with a corrupting influence. Their criminal culture and skewed morality required as much, if not more, civilising than the native culture.
However, the idea of the groups fraternising too closely was seen as an equal threat to the discipline and security of the colony. While there were some instances of Aboriginals and convicts working together to commit violent acts and robbery being reported in newspapers , more common was the aiding of absconders, unregulated trade, communal drinking and illicit sexual relations, all of which undermined the authoritarian and punitive purposes of convict discipline. Karsken suggests that while we have ‘detailed accounts of relations between the officers and the Eora… this other, larger, history of convict-Eora relations is far more shadowy.’ She argues that convicts ‘had more in common with the Eora than the officers… not to suggest any sort of true cultural commonality… [but] more recognition and resonances’ through dancing, storytelling, omens, opportunism and a fatalist world outlook.
The secret association between the two groups, sharing pleasurable activities, must be viewed as constituting a clear form of resistance. Hidden in the caves of Sydney, a realm was created where convicts could reclaim the pleasures which penal society denied them, amongst a people whose circumstance more closely resembled that of equals. This was most likely a realm from which cruel and over-zealous overseers and officials were purposefully excluded. David Collins observed that ‘In one of the adjoining coves [natives]…were visited by large parties of the convicts of both sexes on those days in which they were not wanted for labour, where they danced and sung with apparent good humour, and received such presents as they could afford’. But the officers could only comment on this phenomenon second-hand, noting perhaps disappointedly ‘none of them would venture back with their visitors.’
Rumours of Aboriginals sheltering and aiding runaway convicts were particularly troublesome, further encouraging others to try and escape the settlements. Some stories were true, most famously that of John Wilson, who lived with a tribe and took an Aboriginal name, ‘Bunboee’. Another tale of five convicts, Tarwood, Lee, Connoway, Watson and Sutton, was also recorded by George Barrington:
‘Having been hospitably received… [they] gave the natives a very high character for hospitality and kindness… wives also were allotted them, and one or two had children… and were supplied by the natives with fish…. The natives appeared to worship them… [as] the ancestors of some of them who had fallen in battle’
For the sexually starved, malnourished and subjugated convicts, such stories of copulation, plentiful food and a God-like status must have offered fantastic escapism from their monotonous work routine. Barrington noted that the men attracted ‘crowds of both black and white people listening to the adventures which befel [sic] them.’ However, colonial officials probably regarded the returning ‘adventurers’ not only as dangerously disobedient, but as individuals who, ‘prior to “rescue” and return to white society, were widely and popularly assumed to have regressed towards savagery.’
Watkin Tench chronicled the tragic story of several separate parties of Irish runaways;
‘[They] were certainly made to believe (they knew not how) that at a considerable distance to the north existed a large river, which separated this country from the back part of China; and that when it should be crossed (which was practicable) they would find themselves among a copper-coloured people, who would receive and treat them kindly.’
One of the escapees died at the hands of local, hostile Aboriginals, and another of fatigue. But, in a testament to the brutality of convict conditions, the escapees persisted, risking recapture and further punishment, in the vague hope that amicable tribes existed further afield. ‘Their reason for running away was on account of being overworked and harshly treated’ Tench commented, ‘and that they preferred a solitary and precarious existence in the woods to a return to the misery they were compelled to undergo.’ For colonial officials such as John Hunter, the emergence of the apocryphal myth of China only served to confirm the ‘ignorance of these deluded peoples’, especially the Irish.