EARLY COLONIAL ETHNOGRAPHY

by David Andrew Roberts

There are numerous early nineteenth century sources bestowing evidence of Aboriginal people and culture at the time of first contact, written by an array of settlers, travellers and colonial officials. These studies were of course inherently deficient and biased, produced in the context of colonial invasion and anchored in the myopic and often bigoted views of the period. Generally speaking, the early colonial records offer little insight into the real depths and intricacies of traditional Aboriginal culture. Some critical religious information was recorded, much of it offered by senior local Aboriginal men like Birabahn  and Gorman, but in the main the records are more explanatory of culture-change during the frontier decades. They can at least be mined for crucial information on Aboriginal material culture, demography, settlement patterns and economy.

The principle sources are the papers of Reverend L.E. Threlkeld, which have been used and cited extensively throughout the Awaba project, and are listed in the Bibliography. An enormous quantity of historical and cultural material can be gleamed from Threlkeld's voluminous correspondence and mission reports, his reminiscences and memoranda, and his language studies. Much of this material was published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1974 (Gunson 1974 ). Threlkeld was one of the few colonists to seek and record Aboriginal knowledge and wisdom. Though there are naturally limitations on the content and quality of his work, Threlkeld was, for all his faults, an educated, professional and exceptionally dedicated man who wrote with the authority of first-hand experience and observation.

The earliest observations of Newcastle Aborigines were made a quarter of a century before Threlkeld's arrival, by Col. William Paterson of the NSW Corps, Lt. James Grant, the surveyor Ensign Francis Luis Barrallier and the surgeon J. Harris, who explored lower the Hunter River on the Lady Nelson in June 1801. Their descriptions include remarks on Aboriginal fishing nets, middens, canoes and campsites (Paterson 1801aPaterson 1801bHarris 1801Grant 1803Barrallier 1802). Later that year, the superintendent of a coal mining expedition at Newcastle, Mr. M Mason, met some large parties of Aboriginal men, women and children, who "manifested the most friendly dispositions" (Mason 1801 ).

In later years, important observations were bequeathed by men such as Lieutenant Coke, Tyerman and Bennet, William Henry Breton, Ludwig Leichhardt, John Askew and many others. The historical data relating to the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area can be supplemented by evidence concerning the Worimi peoples of the Port Stephens area, especially from the detailed observations made by Robert Dawson while examining the Australian Agricultural Company's holdings (Dawson 1830), and the Recollections of William Scott (Bennett 1929 ).

The Newcastle region, and particularly Threlkeld's Lake Macquarie mission, attracted a number of touring delegations, including James Backhouse and George Washington Walker of the Society of Friends who made an extensive tour of the Australian colonies between 1832-37. During a visit to Newcastle in 1836, Backhouse and Walker spent time at Threlkeld's Ebenezer mission, recounted in Backhouse's A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (1843), which describes meetings with "Beerabahn" and Boatman, and details Aboriginal methods of obtaining honey, the preparation of roots, fishing, tree-carving, trade with Europeans and the use of boomerangs. (Backhouse 1843: 379-84).

Threlkeld's mission was visited three years later by members of Capt. Charles Wilkes' United States Exploring Expedition. In December 1839, shortly after arriving in Australia, the ethnologist Horatio Emmons Hale (1817-1896) and the artist Alfred T. Agate (1812-1846), journeyed to Lake Macquarie, meeting with Threlkeld and "remnants of the tribes which about forty years ago wandered in freedom over the plains of the Hunter and around the borders of Lake Macquarie". An overview of the Lake Macquarie tour was given in the second volume of the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1845), containing a detailed account of the mission, notes on Aboriginal bark cups, huts and implements, and makes reference to local Awabakal identities, Big-headed Blackboy, Jemmy, and Birabahn, King Ben, King Shingleman, and Dismal (Wilkes 1845: 245-56). Hale authored the sixth volume of the expedition's published report, Ethnology and Philology, which includes linguistic material acquired from Threlkeld and Birabahn. Alfred Agate made the famous portrait of Birabahn (Wilkes 1845: 254) that was used in Threlkeld's Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language (1850). A possum skin rug collected by the expedition is housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington (Maynard 2002 ).