Tag Archives: Robert Dawson

Inheritors of the consequences

When the British Government took possession of territory on the continent of Australia, it did so confident in its strength of arms and documentation. These were capabilities which the Aborigines lacked. The battle was very uneven and the outcome predictable. The newcomers, believing that they had the superior and stronger culture and resources, were not minded to negotiate a general agreement with the Aborigines over matters of ownership and government of the land and its peoples.

A notable exception to this attitude was the attempt by John Batman to establish a form of treaty with Aborigines in the Port Phillip area, where he wanted to take up grazing lands. The treaty document survives, with its symbols supposed to represent marks of agreement by Aboriginal chiefs. The treaty was a device designed partly to demonstrate peaceful co-existence with the Aboriginal population, but partly also to assert private rights over land not granted by the Crown.

Batman’s treaty with the Aborigines is dated 6 June 1835. On 26 August His Excellency Major-General Sir Richard Bourke, K. C. B., Commanding His Majesty’s Forces, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies, and Vice-Admiral of the same, &c. &c. &c., issued a Proclamation to make clear that he was having none of John Batman’s stratagems:

Whereas, it has been represented to me, that divers of His Majesty’s Subjects have taken possession of vacant Lands of the Crown, within the limits of this Colony, under the pretence of a treaty, bargain, or contract, for the purchase thereof, with the Aboriginal Natives; Now therefore, I, the Governor, in virtue and in exercise of the power and authority in me vested, do hereby proclaim and notify to all His Majesty’s Subjects, and others whom it may concern, that every such treaty, bargain, and contract with the Aboriginal Natives, as aforesaid, for the possession, title, or claim to any Lands lying and being within the limits of the Government of the Colony of New South Wales, as the same are laid down and defined by His Majesty’s Commission; … is void and of no effect against the rights of the Crown; and that all Persons who shall be found in possession of any such Lands as aforesaid, without the license or authority of His Majesty’s Government, for such purpose, first had and obtained, will be considered as trespassers, and liable to be dealt with in like manner as other intruders upon the vacant Lands of the Crown within the said Colony.

This was a unilateral assertion of rights which took no account of the Aboriginal view of the matter. The concept of ‘vacant lands of the Crown’ ignored the very existence of Aborigines, let alone their needs and rights. In these respects Governor Bourke’s Proclamation arguably had even less moral authority than Batman’s treaty, particularly if Batman had indeed managed to secure a meaningful expression of good-will and co-operation from the Aborigines with whom he sought to deal.

To what extent might Aborigines of that time be amenable to letting the newcomers use the land over which they had roamed for thousands of years? Robert Dawson, in his Present State of Australia (page 12), offers some interesting evidence, which reflects the psychology of the Aboriginal who guided him from Newcastle to Port Stephens and whom he named Ben. He had promised Ben rewards for his efforts and Ben was delighted with the gifts, so much so that, in uplifted and expansive mood, he offered Dawson a great deal in return:

On the following morning I went on board the schooner, and ordered on shore a tomahawk and a suit of slop clothes, which I had promised to my friend Ben, and in which he was immediately dressed. They consisted of a short blue jacket, a checked shirt, and a pair of dark trowsers. He strutted about in them with an air of good-natured importance, declaring that all the harbour and country adjoining belonged to him. “I tumble down pickaninny here,” he said, meaning that he was born there. “Belonging to me all about, massa; pose you tit down here, I gib it to you.” “Very well,” I said: “I shall sit down here.” “Budgeree,” (very good,) he replied, “I gib it to you;” and we shook hands in ratification of the friendly treaty.

Dawson does not represent this as a legal transaction, as Batman might have. He would have been less than honest to do so, given the naïveté of the Aboriginal inhabitants, ignorant as they necessarily were of European habits of mind and techniques of diplomacy. But he was no doubt encouraged by the level of good-will which had been generated.

However, whether there was good-will or ill-will, the fact remained that the newcomers were not going to relinquish their plans for possession and use of the land, whatever the Aborigines might think; and the Aborigines were not equipped to develop the sort of strategies needed to beat the British at their own game.

Robert Kenny has argued that Batman’s treaty need not be interpreted (as it usually is) as a mere ruse. Batman’s dialogue with the Aborigines raises the question of whether the usurpers of the land could have entered into genuine negotiations with the traditional occupants, as Batman did to an extent, so as to make the outcome fair. What was actually done, Kenny argues (p. 38.10), poses moral problems for all concerned then and now, since we are all ‘inheritors of the consequences.’

State Library of Victoria, Batman’s treaty (including images). National Archives of Australia, Documenting a Democracy, Governor Bourke’s Proclamation 1835 (UK) (including images and transcription). Cf. ‘Government Gazette’, Australian 8/9/1835, p. 3. Robert Dawson, The Present State of Australia, London, 1830, p. 12. Robert Kenny, ‘Tricks or Treats? A Case for Kulin Knowing in Batman’s Treaty’, History Australia 5 (2), 2008, 38.1 to 38.14.

Robert Dawson and Port Stephens

The Australian Agricultural Company was formed in London in 1824 and was to take up a million acres in New South Wales, mainly for sheep farming. The work was to be guided by a local committee, in which the Macarthur family was influential. Robert Dawson (1782-1866) was appointed the Company’s first agent.

The committee was able to choose where to take up land. John Oxley, Surveyor-General and explorer, recommended in order of preference the Liverpool Plains (in northern New South Wales), or alternatively the head of the Hastings River, or the area between Port Stephens and the Manning River. The committee at first declined to follow Oxley’s advice regarding the suitability of the Liverpool Plains, and sent Robert Dawson to examine the area around Port Stephens, which had the advantage of being nearer the coast.

In 1826 Dawson inspected the area and established the Company’s headquarters on the northern shores of Port Stephens, where Carrington and Tahlee stand now. From the Company’s point of view it turned out to be an unfortunate decision, as the area did not prove suitable for sheep farming. In 1830 the Company was able to give up portion of its grant in that area in exchange for a similar acreage at the Liverpool Plains, where as Oxley had predicted the conditions were favourable.

Oxley had explored the Liverpool Plains in 1818 and had discovered the Peel River on 2 September. On the occasion of the centenary of that event, an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recalling Oxley’s achievements and the role of the Australian Agricultural Company in opening up the Tamworth area to farming and settlement. The writer commented:

In these days of land hunger and Government resumptions it is hard to look upon any huge land monopoly with feelings of reverence or gratitude; but in those days the outlook was vastly different, and what would to-day be denounced by many people was 90 years ago considered to be a blessing. The colony was then a wilderness. Many parts of it had not been explored. There was no settlement outside the fringe round Sydney. The prospect of opening up the trackless forest and raising “fine wool, and cultivating the vine, olive, flax, and other productions” was too appalling for ordinary settlers to contemplate.

Dawson had to bear some of the blame for directing the Company’s time and resources towards an area that proved unsuitable, and he was recalled. Conscious of having his reputation unjustly blackened, he undertook newspaper publication of some relevant correspondence, and wrote a book, published in London in 1829, explaining matters from his point of view.

In 1830 appeared another book by him on The Present State of Australia. This book is especially interesting in its sensitive insights into the lives and attitudes of Aborigines whom Dawson encountered in the course of his travels and work. Early in the book he gives a detailed narrative of his journey overland from Newcastle to Port Stephens, describing the country and the assistance rendered by local Aborigines. He comments (p. 11) on a meeting between their guide ‘Ben’ and another aboriginal:

I was much amused at this meeting, and above all delighted at the prompt and generous manner in which this wild and untutored man conducted himself towards his wandering brother. If they be savages, thought I, they are very civil ones; and with kind treatment we have not only nothing to fear, but a good deal to gain from them. I felt an ardent desire to cultivate their acquaintance, and also much satisfaction from the idea that my situation would afford me ample opportunities and means for doing so.

Centenary of Oxley’s discovery of the Peel: V.T., ‘The old A.A. Company’, Sydney Morning Herald 7/9/1918, p. 11. E. Flowers, ‘Dawson, Robert (1782-1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 298-300; and online. Correspondence: ‘The Australian Agricultural Company and Mr. Dawson’, Australian 27/6/1828, p. 4. Robert Dawson, Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company, with a Narrative of the Treatment He Has Experienced from the Late Committee at Sydney, and the Board of Directors in London, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1829; idem, The Present State of Australia: A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration; and a Particular Account of Its Aboriginal Inhabitants, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1830.