Thursday, May 07, 2009

Battles of the Aborigines 1846

Here is an 1846 account of an Aboriginal battle in what is now suburban Melbourne (in Coburg North or Fawkner):

Battles of the Aborigines: A pitched battle took place between a tribe of the Melbourne and the Goulburn blacks. The scene of warfare was in the vicinity of Sydney Road, about seven miles from town; about 80 blacks on either side placed themselves at a distance of about ten yards apart, two ropes placed at that distance, separating them from each other; the more courageous of either party occasionally advanced within the open space intervening, and were immediately selected as targets by their opponents.

At a short distance from this scene, some forty or fifty women and children, belonging to the respective tribes were also engaged in a similar occupation.

Mr Robinson, the Protector, upon being informed of the circumstance hastened to the spot, and immediately despatched a messenger to town for Dr Thomas, who upon his arrival found between thirty and forty wounded, some dangerously, and one man, belonging to the Melbourne tribe, hopelessly so, having received a spear in his breast, which had penetrated a considerable depth, inflicting a frightful wound. A lubra, belonging to the Melbourne tribe, also received a dangerous wound on the cheek with a boomerang.

Mr Robinson's horse was speared, and when our informant left, the courage and animosity of the belligerents appeared unabated, notwithstanding the severe injuries received on either side. (Bell's Life in Sydney, February 7th, 1846)

I found this little item some years ago when I had the opportunity to browse through the colonial papers held in the State Library of Victoria.

The Aborigines appeared to have had a ritualised kind of warfare. If I remember correctly, similar battles, with the warring tribes lined up at a set distance from each other, were still taking place in the Northern Territory in the 1930s. The injury rate from these battles was considerable; in the case of the Melbourne battle, 30 or 40 were injured in a battle involving 160 men and 40 to 50 women and children.

Young Australian readers should take note of the response of the white settlers. The Aboriginal Protector, George Augustus Robinson, was summoned and he rode close enough to the battle for his horse to be speared. He called a doctor to treat the Aboriginal wounded. The newspaper report is sympathetic both to the courage of the combatants and to those who sustained injuries.


  1. Ah, but isn't war organised chaos anyway? Accounts of many western European battles pre-19th century sound similar, with opponents lining up on opposite sides of the battlefield first thing in the morning and then charging murderously at one another.

    It seems contradictory, this having laws in the most lawless of situations, but perhaps there is a deeper reason for it.

  2. Tim T, you're right that Western battles were ordered along certain lines as well.

  3. I think the significance of the 1846 report is that it challenges a left-wing view of race.

    The current left-wing view is that race was invented by Europeans in order to dominate, and gain unearned privilege over, other people - i.e. as part of the colonial enterprise.

    Therefore, the left will seek to find this theory proven within Australian colonial history - they will look for examples in which white settlers were racist oppressors of Aborigines.

    Over time, you get a distorted, filtered picture of the past - one in which the colonial settlers are always playing a cold, negative, violent, unsympathetic role.

    Which means that taking the time to read the original documents is an eye-opener. The gap between the modern portrayal of events, and how people of the time acted and thought, becomes very clear.

    The report of the Aboriginal battle is just one small example of this. In this case, it is the Aborigines who are engaging in a violent acts, with whites acting sympathetically out of concern for the welfare of the Aboriginal participants.

  4. Oh, good point. We never hear stories like this in the media. It's quite refreshing to read even one story like this, as it reminds how much history has been forgotten, or ignored, in the service of present-day political agendas (ie, most of it.)

  5. Mark that's an excellent article. Send it to SBS.

  6. I dont think anyone with any common sense would argue that every human group hasnt at some point engaged in violence, and if anyone would seek to idealize cultures I would certainly disagree with them. Furthermore, I would argue that anyone who thought settlers were evil or bad is not just simplifying the issue but actually being stupidly naive.

    However, highlighting cases where someone acted decently does not justify colonialism and doing so serves to potray colonialism in a more favouable light that i believe falsifies what it was. Or perhaps it serves to alleviate guilt. The point is horrible acts were committed. Moreover, this example also highlights and could reinforce patriarchal attitudes - 'look at these primative natives engaging in violence while the good colonist prevents them'. This for me is a larger underlying problem with contemporary and colonial attitudes - that we could and should 'civilize' them. As pointed out in a previous comment this sounds remarkably similar to European warfare.

  7. Anon,

    The point of blogging on this incident was not to suggest that it encapsulates the colonial experience. It was to show how distorted the usual filtering of colonial history is.

    Colonial history is filtered so that we only learn about incidents in which whites are the aggressors and Aborigines the victims. This then creates a misleading impression of how things stood back then.

    So when you learn of an incident in which whites tried to prevent violence between blacks the filter is directly and starkly challenged.