Cemeteries are landscapes of the dead, places in which we hide our memories for the living to stumble across while they’re stretching their legs in small country towns. Some time ago I stumbled across a remarkable memory at Camperdown, in Victoria’s Western District. Or, rather, it loomed over me. Erected in the late 1880s, the seven-metre obelisk of grey granite marked the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun, or Oombete Pooyan, known locally as Camperdown George, who was believed at the time to be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.
Its front inscription read: ‘In memory of the Aborigines of this district. Here lies the body of the Chief Wombeetch Puyuun and last of the local tribes.’ The two dates inscribed on the obelisk, ‘1840–1883’, indicate the 43 years it took Europeans to displace the Djargurd wurrung from the area.
The French cultural historian Pierre Nora theorised these places of remembrance as lieux de mémoire, or sites of memory where ‘memory crystallises and secretes itself’ because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, or real environments of memory. When memory and history are made permanent, a public and enduring legitimacy is given to some narratives but not others. Monuments can settle cultural competition, but although they act as a homogenising force, they are often later subject to renegotiation and challenges.
This monument, however, seems incongruous. ‘In memory of the Aborigines of this district.’ Someone had allowed this memory to become set in stone upon a scarred landscape that white Australians would otherwise refuse to acknowledge for much of the nation’s modern history. Who had chosen to remember Wombeetch Puyuun and the Djargurd wurrung, when so many thousands have been forgotten in the violence that accompanied the arrival of Europeans in Australia?
The Western District of Victoria—the heart of Thomas Mitchell’s Australia Felix—is a place once described as ‘a distant field of murder’. More than 100 separate massacres and killings have been recorded in this part of the state alone, many of which occurred in the initial stages of colonisation between 1839 and 1842. In early 1839, for instance, by a creek just west of Camperdown, now called Mount Emu Creek, Fred Taylor and his shepherds slaughtered 35 to 40 men, women and children in their sleep. So horrific was the massacre—wiping out the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan of the Djargurd wurrung—that local Europeans changed the name of the waterway from Taylors River to Mount Emu Creek. Fearing a government inquiry, Taylor fled to India. The site of the massacre is still known as Murdering Gully.
In the nineteenth century there were no doubts among Europeans about the extent and viciousness of violence on the Australian frontier. It was well understood by pastoralists that Aboriginal Australians would need to be removed from the land. Niel Black, a squatter in western Victoria, advised in 1839 that:
The best way [to acquire land] is to go outside and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left. It is universally and distinctly understood that the chances are very small indeed of a person taking up a new run being able to maintain possession of his place and property without having recourse to such means—sometimes by wholesale…
Black himself was unwilling to slaughter Aboriginal people, and instead purchased a property where the slaughter had already occurred—Fred Taylor’s Glenormiston run.
Historians in the nineteenth century recognised violence as the corollary of pastoral expansion in the colonial era. Without hesitation, John West observed in his 1852 History of Tasmania:
The smoke of a fire was the signal for a black hunt. The sportsmen having taken up their positions, perhaps on a precipitous hill, would first discharge their guns, then rush towards the fires, and sweep away the whole party. The wounded were brained; the infant cast into the flames; the musket was driven into the quivering flesh; and the social fire, around which the natives gathered to slumber, became, before morning, their funeral pile.
Ernest Scott’s 1916 A Short History of Australia even remarked: ‘Black hated white, and white thirsted for the blood of black. But the whites had the better weapons. Waddies and spears were no match for muskets. Blacks were shot in groups, as they bathed or sat round their camp-fires at night.’ By the time Scott was writing, however, a fog had begun to settle upon the memory of frontier violence. At best, historians expressed regret at the ‘dying race’. Thus, wrote Scott of Aboriginal people on Van Diemen’s Land, ‘all efforts to keep the race alive failed. They sickened and pined and died. Some half-castes still remain, but the last pure-blooded homo tasmanianus died in 1860.’ It was a comforting myth for white Australia. Indigenous Australians were written out of history, and so was the brutality of colonisation.
Aboriginal communities had never forgotten the violence, of course. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that the conspiracy of silence broke and academics finally turned their minds to frontier violence. As Henry Reynolds writes:
The earliest accounts were sweeping in scope and broad in generalisation. Moral condemnation flowed together with political radicalism to highlight the hidden history of atrocity and dispossession. Following close behind were regional studies of many and widely separated districts. The fine detail varied significantly but the overall assessment was virtually unanimous. Settlement occasioned mass violence. It grew out of the barrel of the gun.
Now we have detailed accounts of frontier violence—meticulous studies of massacres across Australia that offer a significant rebuttal to the increasingly small number of Australians who doubt the severity and intensity of conflict between Indigenous Australians and Europeans. In archives across the country are harrowing accounts of a bloody war that has so far evaded such characterisations in the popular imagination. While historians may openly describe European settlement in Australia as a violent invasion, language and attitudes more broadly have been slow to adapt.
In light of what the anthropologist William Stanner dubbed in 1968 ‘the great Australian silence’, the monument at Camperdown seemed all the more remarkable. This is a society, after all, that has erected a memorial to 19 whites killed in 1861 at Cullin-la-ringo in Queensland, but remains largely silent with regard to the fate of 60 or 70 Aboriginal people killed as payback. Or, on the southern coast of Victoria, near Port Fairy, where for many decades the only reminder of violence was the gravesite of George Watmore who died in 1842, ‘speared by blacks’. If the victors write the history, they also build the monuments—but not always. Upon inspection of the obelisk, I discovered one James Dawson, the local ‘protector of Aborigines’, was responsible for having the memorial erected in 1885. To honour him, the Camperdown Historical Society had attached a plaque to the base of the monument in 1983.
Dawson was born in 1806 at Bonnytoun, West Lothian, in Scotland. The ill health of his wife, Joanna, motivated him to migrate with her to Port Phillip. They arrived in 1840 and took over a property on the Yarra above Anderson’s Creek, and later moved to a cattle run near Port Fairy in Victoria’s south-west. The 1840s depression brought about bankruptcy in 1845, but success on the goldfields several years later provided Dawson with the means to lease land near Camperdown in 1866, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In 1876 Dawson was appointed protector of the local Indigenous people. Giving evidence to the 1877 royal commission on their condition, he was critical of the assumptions upon which Indigenous policy was based and equally condemned its outcomes. Dawson argued that Aboriginal people were entitled to unconditional government support, and felt that it was unfair to restrict their movements and to impose employment and religion upon them.
His chief hobby was amateur ethnography. In 1881, Dawson’s study of local Aboriginal communities was published in Melbourne as Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia. While this monograph has a ‘muted and scholarly tone’, his letter writing is more polemical. In early 1881 Dawson sent to the Scotsman a letter that indicated genuine dislike for the colonial governor and secretary of the colonies for their complicit involvement in massacres of Indigenous people:
As a local guardian of Victorian aborigines, and as one who has always taken a deep interest in their welfare, I have been solicited to assist in drawing the immediate attention of the British public to massacres of the Queensland natives; and also to point out that they are executed in the most cruel and barbarous manner by black troopers, mounted and armed in the most approved fashion, and commanded by white men commissioned and paid by the Queensland Government.
For Dawson publicly to condemn colonial authorities (indeed, he directly accused them of criminality) and to take up the issue of frontier violence with such vigour distinguished him as an unusual character in his time.
Though a pastoralist himself, Dawson’s letters revealed a rare appreciation of the relationship between land and Indigenous Australians. He was a staunch Presbyterian and a student of the Scottish Enlightenment. Historians note that his writings ‘were shot through with the confidence of the Scottish enlightenment and the righteousness of Presbyterian piety’. He was a ‘stern and moral Presbyterian Scot’, and he considered that Irish Catholics were ‘all things an enlightened man of scientific curiosity and a staunch Presbyterian found repugnant’.
Prior to his migration to Australia, Dawson had spent more than 30 years in Scotland. He had lived there during the time and influence of the Scottish Orientalists—a group of scholars centred at the University of Edinburgh influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and who applied their views to the culture and administration of the Indian subcontinent. Central to their thinking was tolerance for and non-interference with traditional cultures; they opposed attempts to assimilate indigenous peoples according to the norms of Western Christianity.
The Scottish Kirk, too, was for a long time one of the main opponents of assimilation and interference by colonial authorities—the Calvinist ideals of the elect and predestination were at odds with Christian conversion by missionaries until the early nineteenth century. The Disruption of 1843 would see the mass mobilisation of evangelical Presbyterian missionaries across the empire in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Dawson recognised an internal logic of Indigenous culture and society, and promoted an ‘insider’ perspective uncommon for his time and location. He wrote:
… in censuring [Aboriginal] customs and practices which we may regard as repugnant to our notions and usages, we should bear in mind that these may appear right and virtuous from the stand-point of the aborigines, and that they have received the sanction of use and wont for many ages. If our habits, manners, and morals were investigated and commented upon by an intelligent black, what would be his verdict on them?
His sympathies did not extend to the Irish. They were, in his mind, ‘feckless, rebellious, lazy, unintelligent and irrational’. On the subject of land reforms in both Britain and Australia that were favourable to the Irish, he wrote the following to the Oban Times in Scotland in the early 1880s: ‘My colonial experiences teach me that as a race the Irish are incapable of progression beyond policemen and potato growers … I can safely declare that for the many hundreds of prosperous English and Scotch squatters I do not know half-a-dozen Irish.’
Although he was vociferous in warning against the Irish taking property of their own, he readily and consistently chastised English and Scottish pastoralists for dispossessing Aboriginal people of their land. By this time an old man, Dawson wrote to the Camperdown Chronicle in 1896:
Sir– I read in the Chronicle of to-day that the late John Thompson, of Keilambete, by his will left one hundred and twenty two thousand pounds sterling, to be distributed according to it. This amount of money was made chiefly at Keilambete by his occupation of country the legitimate property of the Aborigines, who were disinherited by him without the slightest compensation, except an occasional ‘Bite and buffet’. It is truly pitiable that owners of such large sums of money, chiefly derived from such a source, do not remember in their old age the condition and half-starved state of the evicted Aborigines.
When Dawson took a trip home to Scotland in 1882, he returned two years later to find the last of the Djargurd wurrung ‘dead and buried’. Most of those who had survived pastoral expansion in the middle of the century had been forcibly moved to the Framlingham mission station, which had been established in 1865 near Warrnambool. By the late 1870s there were some ageing Djargurd wurrung men still living near Camperdown. They had refused to go to Framlingham. Dawson had built a hut for them, and they were cared for by town residents.
Upon visiting the Camperdown cemetery, Dawson wrote, ‘a boggy, scrubby spot was pointed out to me—outside the area assigned to white people—as the burying-ground of the aborigines, and a hole, among the scrub, wherein the hind legs of a horse got bogged, as the grave of Wombeetch Puyuun’. A journalist recorded that:
He was so shocked on seeing the spot in which the last of the original owners of that fine country had been buried like a dog by a so-called Christian community that he determined to take steps to remove, if possible, a blot from the occupiers of the country of which the aboriginals had been dispossessed, by raising an obelisk.
Dawson drew up a sketch of a monument he had seen during his trip to Scotland, and called on local landowners to contribute money—he would build a more fitting memorial. The obelisk was sculptured in Geelong in 1885, and placed on the central plot of the Camperdown cemetery where it still stands above the place in which Dawson himself reburied the body of Wombeetch Puyuun. Dawson had covered the expenses himself, for the local landholders were largely uninterested in memorialising Camperdown George and the Djargurd wurrung.
The responses he received speak to the kinds of memories and histories Europeans in Australia wished to legitimise, and those they sought to erase. ‘Your proposal does not meet with my sympathy,’ said one. ‘I have always looked on the blacks as a nuisance and hope the trustees will forbid its erection,’ wrote another. ‘My wife wants her drawing-room papered.’
As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in so many country towns. We want to choose when and how we remember. We are reluctant to preserve some memories at all, lest they return to torment us one day or to disturb the stories we tell ourselves about our history. ‘Fail to see the use,’ replied one pastoralist to Dawson’s call for support. ‘It will point for all time to our treatment of this unfortunate race—the possessors of the soil we took from them, and we gave in return the vices belonging to our boasted civilisation. I decline to assist.’
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