Criss-cross history hidden in a letter
A colonist’s letter of 1839 is crammed with adventure, but holds a deeper and unsettling insight into the history of Australia’s frontier conflict
In July 1839 a young man wrote a letter home to Fife, Scotland from his house on the “Yarra Yarra River, Melbourne, Port Phillip”. Paper was scarce, so he utilised one of the many paper-saving techniques of the time: cross-writing horizontally, vertically and diagonally to fill two large leaves of heavy paper with words that would later add up to forty pages of typed transcription.
The young man, James Graham, was writing home to his father for the first time in many months, and the first few paragraphs of his letter are testimony to the scarcity and value of news from home. “Nine months passed away without receiving the least intelligence”, he wrote, “an awful and lonely feeling of being forgotten [stole] over my mind”.
Having finally received word from home, he now had a lot to tell his family about the business opportunities offered by the colony, the joys of an expertly-cooked ‘whang’ of damper and how he had changed. He found himself transformed by his new life in this new colony, so much so that an acquaintance from Scotland didn’t recognise him at all and “stared as if it had been a ghost that was speaking to him”.
He put his transformation down to the hardships of life in the colony, particularly those felt on the weeks-long overland trip from Sydney to Melbourne that the letter describes, but added “I never spent a happier time. I always had a fancy for a rough roaming life”.
Facing up to Frontier Violence
There are two histories woven into this letter, just as tightly as the penmanship itself.
There is the charming narrative of the successful young settler, poised on the brink of financial success, and there is the story of suffering and violence that would make that prosperous life possible.
Since the ‘history wars’ of the 1990s, frontier violence in this country has somehow become a subject for debate. In sources like this one, though, it is an unquestionable presence.
As historian Tracey Banivanua Mar once wrote of the Queensland frontier, in Graham’s Overland Letter violence has something of an atmospheric quality. “Here and there also was to be met with the grave of some poor white fellow, whose bones were doomed to be laid far from his fatherland,” Graham told his father.
We might also imagine his journey from Sydney to Melbourne mapped onto this record of colonial frontier massacres: the bones of many Indigenous people would have littered that very same country.
Four years earlier a renegade farmer called John Batman, fresh from the Tasmanian Black War had engaged in what is to date the only negotiated treaty between white settlers and Australian Aboriginal people, purportedly purchasing 600,000 acres from the leaders of the Kulin Nation — the Dja Dja Wurrung, the Boon Wurrung, the Wathaurong, the Woiwurrung and the Taungerong.
In his Overland Letter Graham described the people of the Kulin Nation as “a miserable, degraded race of beings”.
His account is full of references to cannibalism when there is in fact no evidence that any of the Indigenous nations which he might have encountered between Sydney and Melbourne ever engaged in this practice.
‘Dregs of Great Britain and Ireland’
He reports meeting a farmer whose eight employees were “cruelly murdered and eaten by the blacks”, the narrative of which “was enough to make one’s blood turn cold”.
In his account it is the settlers who should be afraid. In only one astonishing passage is he honest about the violence practiced by Europeans, admitting that “in nearly three cases out of five” the aggression was on the part of the invaders. “It must be remembered”, he told his father:
...what the generality of the white population of the Colony consist of, which is of the most debased and vilest dregs of Great Britain and Ireland…they never look on the Blacks in the light of human beings, but, would just as soon shoot them as they would a crow, or hunt them as they would a kangaroo. Indeed in some districts the dogs used to be thought good for nothing unless they could kill a Black as well as a kangaroo, and they used to teach them to do so, by giving them some of the poor Black’s blood.
Graham also noted that the settler practice of kidnapping and raping Kulin Nation women was an understandable prompt for violent retaliation.
This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme, ‘Don’t Keep History a Mystery’ invited all Australians to learn more about history ‘hidden just beneath the surface, ready and waiting to be uncovered.’
Reconciliation Australia’s own biennial survey has found that more than one in three Australians don’t accept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were subject to mass killings, incarceration, and forced removal from their lands. In response, there has been, understandably, some reluctance from Indigenous people to take on the task of educating white Australians about their own history.
As Karen Wyld argued ‘If non-Indigenous people choose not to listen or to see, that does not make pre-invasion or settler-colonisation histories a mystery.’
History digitised and accessible
With the increasing digitisation of historical sources anyone interested in the extent of frontier violence can do their own research. The Overland Letter is housed in the University of Melbourne Archives’ Graham Bros collection.
The archives are open to all researchers, not just students and staff of the University. Trove, the National Library’s newspaper database, allows easy keyword searching across countless historical newspapers. The National Archives of Australia has digitised thousands of government records pertaining to Aboriginal people.
The Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has an impressive online collections and exhibitions. Even the National Gallery of Victoria is in on the project.
Cross-writing aside, the violence is plain to read in the Overland Letter, and many other settler accounts which are freely available online, or in our libraries and archives.
Banner Image: Detail of James Graham’s Overland Letter, 1961.0014.00046, at the University of Melbourne Archives. Picture: Paul Burston