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Pondering the Abyss is a study of how the Language of Settlement shaped a collective forgetfulness and subverted understandings of Aboriginal responses to the settler invasion of the Hawkesbury.

The historical truth of settlement on the Hawkesbury is a blur of history and myth. A close study of the written sources shows a self-reflective relationship between the process of settlement and the Language of Settlement. Most of the records were written by opportunistic, often self-made men; thwarted by the barriers of class and inherited-wealth from realising their ambitions in Britain. Self-interest, silences, omissions, obfuscation, denial, distortion, rationalisation and blame-shifting darken and define the Language of Settlement. Records of early settlement manifest a number of reoccurring themes that elevated Europeans and their way of life over all others and doomed all First Peoples to extinction as a validation of Civilisation. The language of settlement reveals a sequence of four overlapping parts: records; romantic metaphors; apologia; and wilful blindness.

An analysis of the complex interactions of Aboriginal people and settlers suggests that:

  • Fighting corresponded with the expansion of settlement, drought and flood.
  • Aboriginal people thought the settlers were their dead returning, albeit in a somewhat washed out form. In maintaining The Law Aboriginal people attempted to accommodate the settlers and punished them in a hierarchical manner when they broke it.
  • The steadfast resistance of Aboriginal people to being forced or seduced into civilisation was particularly frustrating for settlers and only reinforced settler perceptions of difference.
  • Settlers responded to the Aboriginal presence in a variety of ways. Some settlers encouraged the presence of Aboriginal people on farms as a source of protection, labour and sexual satisfaction. Some deliberately embraced a Aboriginal lifestyle. An unknown number of runaway convicts found shelter on isolated farms or with Aboriginal people and raised families with them. Some settlers killed Aboriginal people for a variety of reasons.
  • Most killings of Aboriginal people by settlers on the Hawkesbury were in an organised manner. The killing of Aboriginal youths in 1794 and 1799 were by groups of settlers. The killings from 1795 onwards were mainly by soldiers with some assistance from young settlers and native guides, some of whom were coerced. The stand-alone military expeditions of 1816 were not effective. William Cox probably led the most organised and sustained punitive expeditions involving soldiers, young settlers and Aboriginal guides in mid to late 1816. To the best of my knowledge, Cox's expeditions remain unaddressed outside this work.
  • Younger generations of Hawkesbury settlers replicated the behavours of their forebears on ever expanding frontiers. In 1838 Oscar Luttrell was killed near Melbourne, William and George Faithfull were driven back from the Broken River at Benalla; and John Henry Fleming led eleven stockmen in carrying out the Myall Creek massacre. Of the seven men hung after the second trial, five were assigned servants to prominent Hawkesbury families.

It is a sad fact that in this study, only a few people stood out for their moral courage: Watkin Tench who recognised a common humanity with Deedora; Mary Archer who reported the murders of Little Jemmy and Little George in 1799; Edward Hyland and William Johnston, a Richmond landholder and a Pitt Town blacksmith, who both served under enormous pressure on the jury in the second Myall Creek murder trial; and Maria Lock, who proudly asserted her identity as an Aboriginal native of New South Wales . It is even sadder that they are largely forgotten.

As the early settlers passed on, Heritage became a tangible symbol of the legitimacy of settlement with the centenary of settlement in 1888, Federation in 1901 and the Macquarie Towns centenary in 1910. Heritage, originally the Old French word Eritage, meaning that which can be inherited, came with the Norman Conquest in 1066 . Heritage continues to sanitise the actions of early settlers and hide the unpalatable truth that murder and theft do not constitute proof of ownership.