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Critical analysis of written historical sources

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Critical analysis of written historical sources

In the colonial era, Aborigines and Convicts constituted the bulk of the Australian population, but both groups were mostly illiterate thus unable to record their version of events. As a consequence, the written records of the time largely come from the wealthy class and reflects their biases. Historians have thus been using an unrepresentative class to draw most of the conclusions of the colonial era, and homogenising both Aboriginal and colonial societies in the process. In the compilation of this site, the deficiencies in the written sources were acknowledged, which in turn shaped how they were analysed.

Sometimes the written sources were judged to be objective and taken literally; however, speculation was used to fill in the gaps about what was not said. One such example came from the memoirs of JF Mortlock, who wrote how “disgusting language” was more likely to be used around educated people.

Unfortunately, Mortlock's disgust with the language prevented him from writing it down. As other educated people probably had a similar response, a whole genre of colonial profanity has potentially been lost. These profanities could have revealed a great deal about what was considered taboo to some but socially acceptable to others, how language was used to signal group membership and how values were challenged through language. Admittedly, the digusting language may have actually be quite tame by today's standards. In Victorian England, if a gentleman felt compelled to refer to his leg coverings, instead of using profane words like ‘trousers’, he was expected to use euphemisms like ‘the southern necessity.' Mortlock may have just been offended by Australians using words like trousers.

Sometimes the written sources were judged to be biased or dishonest because they proposed things that were implausible and/or background information on the author gave reason to question his or her credibility. One such account came in the story of an Aboriginal woman named Bulrer, who the missionary GA Robinson alleged had been kidnapped by sealers when she was learning to crawl. According to Robinson, Bulrer remembered men rushing her campfire and carrying away 6 women. Robinson also told of her mistreatment and quoting her saying,

"the white men tie them and then they flog them very much, plenty much blood, plenty cry." (2)

There are numerous reasons to doubt Robinson’s account. Firstly, Robinson's story proposed that Bulrer was stolen when she was learning to crawl. If true, she probably would not recall her theft. Secondly, if stolen as a baby, she would have been raised by the sealers. In which case, she would probably speak cockney English rather than Aboriginal pigeon English.

Aside from its implausible aspects, the story can be doubted due to Robinson’s attitude to Aboriginal women. Specifically, Robinson was a deeply religious man who wanted to relocate Aborigines to a closed religious community on Flinders Island. He managed to convince some Aboriginal men to move to the Island and then decided that they needed some women for the mission to have a future. To provide the women, in 1830, Robinson seized 14 Aboriginal women who were living with sealers with the plan of marrying them to Aboriginal men on his Flinders Island mission. The sealers responded by sending a representative, James Munro, to appeal to Governor Arthur for the return of the women. Munro argued that the women wanted to stay with their sealer husbands and their children rather than marry Aboriginal men unknown to them. Arthur ordered the return of the women.

The fact that the sealers would appeal to the governor indicated that they didn’t fear what Robinson accused them of - most likely because the accusation was not true. Furthermore, Governor Arthur’s decision for the women to return to the sealers perhaps indicated that the women had corroborated what Munro had said. The women themselves were not literate so they did not write their own views; however, Robinson's accounts indicate that they did ndeed want to live with sealers. For example, after gaining four women and marrying them to Aboriginal men on Flinders Island, the women took off to the bush. Robinson reacted reacted by denying them rations and the women in turn reacted by robbing the camp at night. Robinson then wrote of their conduct:

‘these four women have been living these years with the sealers and are incorrigible.’(2)

As well as using primary sources, the site has also made use of secondary sources. These sources can be useful when the author has researched primary sources and secondary sources, made decisions about relevant materials, assessed for bias, filled in gaps, made conclusions and finally compared those conclusions to the conclusions of others. Using the secondary sources is therefore an efficient way to gain benefit from the intellect and work of others.

Of course, quite often the secondary sources have not followed such a method and have instead made poor assumptions or derived their conclusions from the conclusions of others without critically assessing them. In such cases, their words still have value, not because of what they reveal about the past, but because of what they reveal about the present. Two contemporary sources dealing with the cultural legacy of the Myall Creek massacre of 1835 are good examples of such sources. The first comes from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, which stated:

"The Myall Creek massacre, the subsequent court cases and the hanging of the seven settlers for their role in the massacre was pivotal in the development of the relationship between settlers and Aboriginal people. It was the last attempt by the colonial administration to use the law to control frontier conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. Instead of setting a precedent that Aboriginal people could be protected under the law, it hardened settlers' resolve to use whatever means were available to clear Aboriginal people from the land on the frontier." (3)

The second comes from the website Friends of Myall Creek states:

"The Government hoped that the lesson was ‘Don’t kill Aborigines’. The message received on the frontier was translated as ‘if you kill Aborigines don’t, under any circumstances, let the authorities know’. And so it was that arsenic-laced flour was distributed to Aborigines and waterholes were poisoned. The mode of murder and massacre may have changed but still many thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children continued to be slaughtered well into the twentieth century." (4)

The claim that the execution of ‘hardened the resolve’ had to be an assumption since the settlers had kept their resolve from the authorities. Likewise, how the executions were "translated" to mean that killings should continue in secret was an assumption since killings had to be done in secret.

Although assumptions of the past can be made even when there is no evidence backing them up, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the executions did in fact succeed in their intention of publicly countering the dehumanisation of Aborigines that had occurred amongst some sections of the population. In other words, the wrong assumptions were made based on the available evidence. Firstly, the lawyer who defended the Convicts, Richard Windeyer, subsequently portrayed himself as an advocate for Aborigines as he helped create the NSW Aboriginal Protection Society. Furthermore, his biographies omitted his role in defending the murderers, which would suggest there was embarrassment for the role he had played. Secondly, Aborigines were not cleared from the land. To the contrary, many became drovers, fencing contractors, bullock drivers and had children while on farms. Thirdly, much of the ‘bush’ culture was infused with Aboriginal words, inventions, and perhaps ideological approaches to life. Finally, before the executions, colonists named Vinegar Hill, Slaughterhouse Creek, and Gravesend in tribute to themselves for killing Aborigines in those locations. After the executions, such naming stopped and instead, much of rural Australia started adopting Aborigial names in a mark of respect. At the very least, public morality had changed, which would suggest that some private morality probably changed as well.

Because the secondary sources on Myall Creek made assumptions that were in contradiction to evidence, it needs to be asked why the assumptions had been made? Were the authors hoping for status by showing their awareness of what “we” did? Had they simply assimilated an intellectual trend without critically reflecting upon it? Were they trying to sex up the study of Australian history by increasing the casualty count in the belief that the more people who die, the more Australian history becomes? Were they so in fear of being called a "denier" if they critically engaged with the work of historians so instead they instead became cheerleaders? Were they part of advocacy tradition dating back to the colonial period whereby support is shown for Aborigines by caricaturing injustices against them? Did the authors fear that capital punishment had to be defined as a failure in the past to dissuade anyone from supporting for its return today?

As with assumptions of the past, such assumptions on the present are subjective and sometimes more information is needed as is a methodology to analyse that information.

1)J.F Mortlock, Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)

2) Kay Merry  The Cross-Cultural Relationships Between the Sealers and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Women at Bass Strait and Kangaroo Island in the Early Nineteenth Century

3)Australian Heritage Database;place_id=105869

4)Friends of Myall Creek



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