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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

An initiated man

I'm busy on Playwiths, of which more later.  Here's something from the pile to show that I Aten't Dead Yet.


Many convicts were accepted by the Aborigines at different times, but the original inhabitants were choosy. Watkin Tench wrote, probably about John Caesar:
One of the convicts, a negro, had twice eloped, with an intention of establishing himself in the society of the natives, with a wish to adopt their customs and to live with them: but he was always repulsed by them; and compelled to return to us from hunger and wretchedness. [1]
Tench also reported that Bryant’s party often had to flee when threatened by Aborigines along the coast. [2] Against that, we have the cases of William Buckley (who may be the original Buckley of “Buckley’s chance”), Eliza Fraser of Fraser Island, Barbara Thomson who was eventually rescued from Torres Strait by the crew of HMS Rattlesnake, Clarke the Barber and Tarwood’s party, taken in by the Aborigines at Port Stephens, north of Newcastle.

Nearer to Sydney, the local inhabitants knew about these invaders who failed to understand that Aboriginal tools and possessions, left in the open, were not abandoned. They were also aware that these pale people with their different smell were unable to catch food or be of any use. They must have asked themselves “who would want them?”—and equally reasonably, answered “not us”.

John (called James by Collins) Wilson, a Lancashire thief, probably the same one who is listed by Governor Phillip as being sentenced at Wigan in 1785 to seven years. He must have had some good qualities or skills, because when he had served his sentence, he was accepted among the Aborigines on the Hawkesbury River, who gave him the name Bun-bo-e.

David Collins did not approve of this at all, and later claimed that Wilson tricked them into accepting him as a former black man, pointing out “… a very old woman as his mother, who was weak and credulous enough to acknowledge him as her son.” [3] Collins described him as:
“… one Wilson, a wild idle young man, who, his term of transportation being expired, preferred living among the natives in the vicinity of the river, to earning the wages of honest industry by working for settlers. He had formed an intermediate language between his own and theirs, with which he made shift to comprehend something of what they wished him to communicate… [4]
Wilson was taken on one exploration trip to Port Stephens, not long before Tarwood and his companions were found. Tarwood and his companions said later that at the time of Wilson’s visit, they were some distance inland. That meant he mnissed his first chance to gain a small place in the history books. He won, though, when he was used as a tool to educate some of the more ignorant convicts.

In the earliest days, the convicts had little idea of where they were. For much of the voyage, they would have been kept below-decks, but they were Britain’s poor, and that meant they were badly educated, and often could not read.

Books were expensive, so even the ones who could read, they would be unlikely to have read any books about Australia. There were really only three to read in 1788: William Dampier’s two books, written almost a century earlier and Captain Cook’s journal, almost twenty years earlier. None of them was written as a handy guide for convicts wanting to leave Australia.

I grew up on tales of convicts who thought China was just up the coast a bit, or just over the mountains—somewhere in easy walking distance, in any case. I always thought these yarns made no sense at all, that they were just made-up tales, but a bit of checking made me realise that they were real. Watkin Tench reported that in November 1791, twenty men and a pregnant woman took off into the bush, believing that China was “… not more than 100 miles distant, and separated only by a river…” [5]

One or two of that group never returned, and must bave died in the bush, A some of the others had been wounded by Aborigines, it was assumed that the dead were killed by “natives”. Aside from those who believed in escaping to the north, there were those who believed:
… that there was a colony of white people, which had been discovered in this country, situated to the SW of the settlement, from which it was distant between three and four hundred miles, and in which they were assured of finding all the comforts of life, without the necessity of labouring for them. [6]
A look at a map shows that path would cross the upper Murray, going close to Mount Kosciuszko, ending up in Victoria, somewhere between Albury, Shepparton, Sale and Mallacoota, probably between Falls Creek, Eildon, Sale and Lakes Entrance! In either case, there was a lot of rugged territory to get through.

The governor, John Hunter, formerly of HMS Sirius, worried that many gullible convicts would die in agony or end up returning to an almost equally agonising punishment. He declared that four men, picked by the convicts, were to be taken on the route shown on the map by three experienced bushmen, so they might see that the hope was forlorn.

The convicts were determined not be fooled by the governor. They conceived a cunning plan to hijack the expedition, with a larger body absconding, murdering the guides and then proceeding to the safety of the fabled white colony. Luckily for them, this scheme was uncovered and four soldiers were added to the party, scotching the plot.

Among those sent with the party were Hunter’s servant, the 19-year-old John Price, and Wilson. They set out on 14 January 1798. Ten days later, the soldiers returned with three of the convicts. The soldiers had been instructed to return when they reached the foot of the mountains, but the three convicts said they had seen and suffered enough, and begged to be allowed to return with them. [7]

The rest of the party arrived at Prospect Hill, on the outskirts of the settlement, on 9 February, praising Wilson for keeping them alive. The expedition achieved little. They kept no clear record of where they had gone, though they said they had seen creeks and a large river.

They claimed to have met few natives, but those they saw were dressed in skins from head to foot (unlikely in summer), and they reported seeing a fat mountain wallaroo. They returned with a specimen of a lyrebird and reported dining on ‘a kind of mole’, apparently a wombat, but that was the limit of their achievements. They said the meat tasted like pork, but that it was red meat, coarse and very fatty.

We know very little about Wilson. He was probably associated with the Darkinyung people. He and another white man called Knight were accused of helping Aborigines mount attacks on settlers. David Collins claimed that these two had explained that a musket, once fired, was of no use until it was reloaded, “… and this effectually removed that terror of our fire-arms with which it had been our constant endeavour to inspire them.” [8]

We have Collins to thank for the information that Wilson had been scarred on his breast and shoulders as a sign of initiation, adding that Wilson said it was very painful. Collins also added that Wilson had “… made his appearance with no other covering than an apron formed of a Kangaroo’s skin, which he had sufficient sense of decency remaining to think was proper.” [9]

Collins also gave us the best account of the man’s death. Wilson had taken liberties, laying claim to a young girl in a way that was culturally unacceptable, though we have no way of knowing the details. Perhaps the girl was considered a close relative of the man whose spirit he claimed to be, or maybe it was just that he had not asked in the right way. The result was that her friends speared him, “… and left them to expect his return at some future period in the shape of another white man.” [10]

The story of the First Fleet has to be understood as a clash between cultures and cultural expectations. The free people mainly had a common set of expectations about honesty, the convicts had in most cases, another view, and the people who had been living happily around Sydney Harbour for thousands of years had another. Quite a few Aborigines and a rather smaller number of white people died because others could not understand that no culture is better than any other: each has its rightful place, given the right conditions.

[1] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 144.
[2] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 147.
[3] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 199.
[4] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, online at, p. 341.
[5] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, chapter XV.
[6] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 57 (54 in the print edition).
[7] Extracts of Price’s journal are online in the State Library of NSW’s digitised collection of Banks papers at
[8] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, online at, p. 377.
[9] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 47.
[10] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume II, online at, p. 199.

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