Another matter of great concern amongst free settlers was sexual relations between convict men and Aboriginal women. It was unavoidable that such a situation would arise – ‘The gross sexual imbalance among convicts meant that Aboriginal women were desired by white men from the start’. Alan Atkinson briefly notes that in 1786, the Home Office hoped ‘indigenous women might marry convict men’ , but this may have been grudgingly seen as a necessity for the colony’s survival, as it certainly ran contrary to popular views on race relations at the time. Was it desirable that a British colony should be founded on what authority saw as the dregs of British society, and the uncivilised and racially inferior peoples of a savage land?
Hughes believes convict men were represented in official sources as ‘animalistic savages whose unrestrained sexuality was a prime cause of violence.’ Missionaries and humanitarians such as George Robinson evoked this image of the convict when persuading the British public about the evils of the convict system. Pybus argues that, for Robinson and other religious missionaries, sexual relations between Aboriginal women and convicts was ‘beyond comprehension’, and created something of a ‘moral panic’.
A number of contradictory views were held by colonial men on sexuality amongst Aboriginal and convict women, because both were regarded as mysterious and unrefined, inhabiting very different worlds to civilised Britain. Damousi attributes the rise of phrenology to convict and Aboriginal women being placed within a shared discourse of being ‘a race apart’. She argues both were seen by colonists as inhabiting a state of ‘savagery’, to which convict women had regressed, but Aboriginal women were naturally induced, because of their relations with convict men.
Conversely, Karskens believes officers wanted to see Eora women as ‘“Eves”, fresh from the dawn of time, and not like convict women; wanton, knowing, bossy, foul-mouthed.’ Pybus argues that ‘intercourse between Aboriginal women and convicts was a cause of concern for employers’, but it ‘had nothing to do with a paternalistic regard for the welfare of women and everything to do with a fear of economic and social dislocation created by the rapid spread of venereal diseases.’ Hughes, on the contrary, found that north of Hobart, many convict stock-keepers were willing to keep Aboriginal women as sexual slaves.
Amongst the military, a ‘common point of disgust was alcoholism which men abhorred in convict women, and was also viewed with scorn as practice amongst Aborigines’. Convict women who slept with Aboriginal men were ‘seen as having themselves transgressed sexually, [and] they were also assumed to have suffered sexual abuse… in dire need of rescue by heroic white men.’
While Aboriginal girls and convicts exchanged sex for food or blankets , trade amongst the two groups expanded into other areas. Roberts suggests that ‘communication between convicts and Aborigines on the settlement would have been discouraged but probably could not have been prevented without giving some offence… Aborigines welcomed the opportunities for trade and material acquisition.’ During the early settlement of Botany Bay, food sources were scarce, and David Collins stressed the importance of establishing trading relations between natives and the prison settlements:
‘The natives frequently caught more fish than they could immediately use, great pains had been taken to induce them to barter it with the settlers at Paramatta for bread, vegetables… and there was reason to hope that a tolerable fish–market would soon be established’
One assumes that ‘settlers’ refers here to free members of the Parramatta settlement, as convicts were not supposed to have access to excess bread or vegetables, or indeed anything. However, theft of such items by convicts was not uncommon, sometimes detected, sometimes occurring without notice or mention. It is fair to assume that some kind of black market for foodstuffs in exchange for sex, food, alcohol and so forth did occur. Native artefacts were also valuable commodities back in Britain as anthropology began to emerge, and there are suggestions that officers were as complicit as they were opposed to the black market which convicts established in order to obtain such items.
Convicts and Aboriginals engaging in sexual relations, trading, drinking and the aiding of absconders were all officially disapproved of by colonial officials, and indeed the very idea of the two groups working together outside of official control was seen as a threat to authority and penal supervision. However, it was safer for colonial officials to maintain good relations than bad between Aboriginals and convicts while the colony was still vulnerable. This created two dichotomous rules of conduct for convicts; they were punished for aggression and offence to indigenous groups, but also for establishing close social relations.
However, within a few years the colony became secure, and it became viable to use the two groups as control mechanisms against one other. Kociumbas noticed ‘that as early as the 1790s, the civil and military authorities saw the utility of cultivating enmity between convict and Aboriginal and sought to break up any developing alliances’ As Aboriginals continued to be displaced and outnumbered by the increasing settlers, attacks became more commonplace, sympathy for their plight waned, and relations steadily deteriorated. At the same time, convict discipline was an ever-present problem of increasing concern for officials, especially after the publication of Bigge’s Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry.
As a cheap labour force, various figures of authority and many settlers approved of rewarding and employing Aboriginals for tracking bushrangers and other escaped convicts to stop desertion. Deaths of escaped prisoners at the hands of Aboriginals also went unpunished. In 1818, Sorrell offered a reward for anyone who captured Michael Howe in Van Diemen’s Land; two male Aboriginals and one female were amongst the volunteers. Bigge’s commented in his report that Aborigines ‘were not afraid of meeting the fugitive convicts in the woods’ , and in a letter to Campbell in 1816 he stated ‘I consider this fortunate for the settlement.’ Wallis was also said to have rewarded Aboriginals ‘with tobacco, blankets and similar items for such services.
However, Pybus’ directly opposes the views of historians such as Roberts and Harman on the prevalence of using Aboriginals against convicts, arguing ‘the records of penal colonies do not necessarily support the view that this was commonplace or that it was the cause of mutual hatred.’ It may not have been common practice, but stories of Aboriginal figures and colonial authority working together would have rapidly transmitted through convict populations. Such rumours could have created vastly disproportionate feelings of mistrust and hatred towards Aboriginal people.
Many settlers also encouraged convicts using traditional Aboriginal tracking skills against the natives, as they became increasingly aggressive in their guerrilla tactics against the white settlements. Hughes finds multiple instances where settlers believed depraved and vicious convicts were more effective against Aboriginals than professional soldiers, and should be motivated by tickets-of-leave or other rewards, such as 700 convicts being used to attack the Big River and Oyster Bay tribes in 1830. Pybus concludes that the Myall Creek massacre, ‘rather than being the rouge action of brutalised convicts… appears to have been part of a policy of violent retribution that was instigated by free settler and was understood to have tacit official sanction.’ By turning the convicts and indigenous groups against each other, it created a vicious circle. It became easier for the colonial officials, for whatever reason, to coerce the two groups into attacking each other on their behalf, because it offered those in question a chance of reward or reprisal for previous grievances. A side effect was that it increased the chances of spontaneous violence between the two groups outside of official supervision.
The ways in which colonial officials dealt with convict-Aboriginal relations give valuable insights not just into the nature and reality of convictism in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also British imperial tactics of ‘divide-and-rule’, and elite notions of race and phrenology. It is surprising that there are so few books and journal articles dedicated to the ideas raised in this essay; the growth of subaltern studies within the British Empire throughout the last 40 years, as well as the availability of sources on convictism, and the desire to give agency back to convicts and Aboriginals seem to have strangely passed by this topic. However, due to unfortunate limitations during study, some valuable secondary literature on the subject was not utilised such as Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen.
The accounts of colonial officials reveal that convicts and Aboriginals frequently came into contact, either for prolonged periods of time or in the context of fleeting encounters. Friendly collaboration and violence between the two was unpredictable and often expected. However, there certainly was a degree of positive relations between Aboriginals and convicts. The two groups could gain access to resources and knowledge to mutual benefit, and convicts could engage in forms of resistance this way. Colonial officials were placed in a difficult situation, needing to avoid the outbreak of dangerous alliances or violent incidents between the two groups. The two subordinate sections of early Australian colonial society could exercise a surprising degree of power through one other, but also be used to suppress one another if colonial state offered rewards and authorised violence. Relations between convicts and Aboriginals would not have been uniform throughout Australia; the relationship was disjointed and dynamic even between separate Aboriginal tribes.
Sadly harmony between convicts and Eora people probably did deteriorate throughout the period of transportation. While violence against indigenous people dominates popular the historiography of Aboriginal experience during the age of the Australian frontier, the reality is clearly far more complex and thus perhaps not so depressing. The nature and extent of serious violent incidents is easier to establish, because they were regularly commented on by figures of authority. Hostility between prisoners and Aboriginal men, as well as sexual violence against women, was a detailed cause of concern at the time. Such events tend to get more focus because of a morbid fascination with the darker aspects of history.
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Collins, D., ‘An account of the English colony in New South Wales’, London (1798)
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