Aborigines, Commandments and Convicts: The Newcastle penal settlement

by David Andrew Roberts

For around twenty years from 1804, the penal settlement on the Hunter River at Newcastle spearheaded the English takeover of the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Hunter Valley districts. State controlled settlements like that at Newcastle were frontlines in the strategic and military invasion of Aboriginal land, opening the doors for a rapacious imperial capitalism that would forcibly dispossess and decimate Aboriginal society. The concentration of large numbers of felons in settlements such as Newcastle placed considerable strain on local Aboriginal populations, and posed significant problems for those administrators charged with maintaining law and order. The following notes summarise the complex and multifarious relationships between Aborigines and Europeans on the Newcastle penal settlement, using the settlement records that are listed in the Bibliography under "Newcastle Convict Settlement ".

The character and tone of race relations around Newcastle were informed by a number of key forces and circumstances. As elsewhere on the early frontiers of settlement in colonial NSW, the first contacts were prefaced by a demographic and cultural catastrophe immediately proceeding the arrival of Europeans. A devastating virgin soil outbreak of smallpox among Australian Aborigines, witnessed by the First Fleet on the shores of Sydney Harbour in 1789, probably killed up to one-third of the population of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie region. Though Aboriginal smallpox did not originate with Europeans, there is no doubt the disaster plunged Aboriginal society into a serious and decisive crisis. Historians are only beginning to comprehend the social and cultural aftermath of the epidemics, though it can be said with certainty that smallpox weakened Aboriginal resistance to European conquest, and was a key factor shaping Aboriginal responses to the arrival of Europeans.

Another factor pertinent to the character of race relations was the penal nature of the European establishment, which in the case of Newcastle was particularly harsh. From its beginnings, Newcastle was a "place for the reception of desperate characters", originally thirty-four Irish convicts implicated in the Castle Hill uprising of 1804, and thereafter a place of secondary punishment for those exiled by the Sydney magistrates, the Criminal Court or the Governor. Newcastle was infamous as a place of deprivation and hardship, epitomised by the gruelling routines of coal mining, lime-burning, timber-cutting and public works programs endured by the convicts. The population of early Newcastle was overworked, inadequately fed, poorly housed, barely clothed and harshly punished (Turner 1973: 13-34). With the exception of a few officials, soldiers and their families, the local population was almost exclusively convict and predominantly male, all precariously isolated from the safety, comforts, indulgences and opportunities of life around Sydney. It was not an environment capable of engendering amity and respect toward local Aboriginal society, nor was it a model of civilised society likely to endear itself to Aboriginal observers.

The relationships between Aborigines and Europeans at Newcastle were, on the whole, relatively harmonious. The first Newcastle Commandant, Lt. Charles Menzies, forged a relationship "on the most friendly terms" with Newcastle Aborigines, assisted by Bungaree, who was victualled from the government stores during the early months in the expectation that "should a misunderstanding unfortunately take place he [Bungaree] will be sure to reconcile them" (Menzies to King, 1 July 1804). The later Commandants managed to maintain the ordered relationship, still evident when Governor Macquarie inspected the settlement in 1818 and 1821. As a rule, communication between convicts and Aborigines on the settlement would have been discouraged, but probably could not have been prevented without giving some offence or provocation to Aboriginal people. Clearly, Aborigines welcomed the opportunities for trade and material acquisition. While convict labourers shovelled the ancient middens into lime kilns on Stockton Beach, Aborigines traded meat and fish for blankets and clothing (Harris 1961: 109-110.). The Newcastle settlement became a principal site of cross-cultural trade that was quickly and firmly embedded in the Aboriginal economy.

However, these mostly peaceful transactions were fraught with tensions, arising from misunderstandings and misdealings on both sides. Commandant Morisset reported in 1820 that Aborigines were "sometimes both troublesome and formidable" (Morisset to Bigge, 17 January 1820). Most disturbances and instances of violence occurred outside the main settlement. In 1804, for example, escaped convicts attempting to make their way to Sydney murdered the father of Bungaree "in a most brutal manner" (Menzies to King, 30 April 1804). The small sawyer parties felling iron bark and gum upriver from the settlement from 1804 frequently clashed with local Aborigines, and had to be armed for their own protection. As early as November 1804, a convict was "severely beat" and a rifle stolen (Menzies to King, 5 November 1804, 28 November 1804). Attacks on the timber-getting parties were still occurring in Morisset's time (Morisset to Bigge, 17 January 1820; Macquarie Journal, 31 July 1818). Similarly, there were problems on the small farms established at Paterson's and Wallis' Plains after 1812. Despite the presence of military detachments, the settlers were "annoyed" by Aborigines during the corn season "when they steal large quantities", though they also assisted in bringing in the harvest (Harris to Bigge, 17 January 1820; Allen to Bigge, 21 January 1820).

Most of the conflict and violence arose from the decision to allow Aborigines to act as trackers and apprehenders of escaped convicts. Desertion was rampant throughout the life of the Newcastle penal settlement, and the services of Aborigines in tracking escapees and returning them to the settlement was invaluable. Under Commandant James Wallis (June 1816 to December 1818) it was a common for gangs of around a dozen men to desert during the night, surviving for up to three months in the bush (Evans to Bigge, 18 January 1820). Wallis had learnt the value of Aboriginal guides during his campaigns against the peoples on the Hawkesbury in 1816, and at Newcastle he actively encouraged Aborigines to act as trackers and hunters of escapees. Working in groups, Aborigines apprehended the convicts, stripped them naked and brought them into the settlement, and were rewarded with tobacco, blankets and similar items. Those convicts not brought in by Aborigines were generally driven to return voluntarily on account of a hostile reception. Others were presumed to have been killed by Aborigines, probably in retaliation for some offence given at the settlement (Evans to Bigge, 19 January 1820). "I consider all this fortunate for the Settlement", Commandant Wallis wrote (Wallis to Campbell, 24 August 1816).

The Newcastle Commandants used the terror of Aboriginal attacks to prevent desertion, and were prepared to accept the death of escaped convicts without consequence to the Aborigines, for the sake of maintaining order on the settlement. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge praised the use of Aborigines at Newcastle in his landmark report into the state of the colony of New South Wales, and made key recommendations relating to the use of Aborigines in the administration of the convict system that would thereafter be implemented on penal establishments at Bathurst, Wellington Valley, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay (Bigge 1822: 117, 186). There is little "history from below" in the way of convict records, but it can be expected that the role adopted by Aborigines as allies of the officials weighed heavily on the convicts, breeding a hatred and resentment that lingered long. That enmity was manifested and intensified by the willingness of the Commandants to punish convicts for assaulting Aborigines. In August 1819, Morisset had the convict Henry Langton receive 75 lashes for "Cutting a black man with a knife". The following year, three convicts shared 100 lashes for "Inhumanly ill treating and cutting a black native and intimidating him against bringing in bushrangers." In one remarkable incident of early Newcastle history, King Burrigan was fatally wounded during an attempt to arrest an escaped convict, John Kirby. Kirby was tried and executed in Sydney in December 1820.

While the broader story of race relations in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie region must be seen in the context of what was effectively a process of land theft, the tensions and tragedies arising from that fundamental conflict were not clearly evident during the years of the Newcastle convict settlement. The penal establishment was a confined and reasonably well supervised operation, posing little threat to the freedom and survival of local Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, the penal function of the settlement, requiring isolation and strict government/military control, stalled a more intensive exploitation of the region by private capitalists for almost two decades. It was after the closure of the settlement, with the onset of an effusive, unregulated and extremely destructive private pastoral frontier, that the violence and dispossession ensued. This is discussed in the following contribution on Dispossession and Violence  by Greg Blyton.


David Andrew Roberts