State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Using Colonial Newspapers To Research Aboriginal History

Historians of colonial America have demonstrated that new perspectives on race relations can be gained through tracing the web of interaction between individuals of different races and classes.1 There have been some sporadic attempts to do so in Australian history as well. I found that nineteenth century newspapers — because of the incidental detail in their reports of social happenings, and their strong evocation of local geography — were an excellent source to begin such a study. The La Trobe Collection of the State Library of Victoria holds the finest newspaper collection in the country, and this was where most of my work was done.
My study focused on the Gunditjmara and Kirrae peoples of Western Victoria in the colonial period.2 By undertaking a thorough investigation of the main Western District newspapers from 1850 to 1880, I was able to trace the interaction of Aboriginal groups with different classes of whites, predominantly bush workers and pastoralists. Regional Victorian newspapers, of which there were many by 1860, were produced generally two or three times weekly in time to catch the country mail coaches, and they told settlers of the outlying districts the news of happenings in town as well as the great events in Europe and at ‘home’. A careful reader can glean a vast amount of information about the social structure of colonial society and the burgeoning elites of country life.
At the bottom of that social scale were the Aborigines. Because of their marginal status, it was most often in newspaper accounts of cases in the Police Court or Supreme Court circuit that details of the activities of town-dwelling Aborigines and their white associates could be found. Reports of inquests, and newspaper accounts of crime and disorder, also furnished information about Aborigines. However, there was frequent evidence of more stable activities in the incidental mention of an Aboriginal presence at race meetings, or in descriptions of visits to Portland or Warrnambool of Aborigines from the reserves at Lake Condah or Framlingham.
To properly balance the limitations of newspaper research, it is essential for any researcher to be thoroughly steeped in other primary sources of the period. However, on several issues I found that newspapers were a unique source, enabling new insights into race relations. For example, a close reading of the Portland Guardian in the 1860s exploded the myth that Aborigines were unable to move easily from the Lake Condah reserve. The newspaper documented the movements of Aborigines from the reserve to nearby farms and towns in order to work or pursue their own activities, and they were actively assisted in doing so by some local pastoralists.
The reports from the Portland Police Court, inquest proceedings, and accounts of social events around Portland also revealed that a small group of Aborigines lived at Narrawong, near Portland. Members of this group sold fish in the streets of the town and worked on pastoral stations, including that of a Local Guardian of the Aborigines, John Norman McLeod. In 1867 an Aborigine, Tommy McLeod, was charged with the murder of another member of the group, Jacky Shepherd. His trial was reported in detail, and from this account and other reports one could trace the movements of the Narrawong blacks and their associates. Indeed, the Portland Guardian reported that, when mortally wounded by Tommy McLeod, Jacky Shepherd had lurched his way to the home of the Local Guardian to seek help.
My study of selected colonial newspapers in the La Trobe Collection revealed far more interaction between Europeans and Aborigines in the towns and bush shanties of the Western District of Victoria than had been recognised previously by historians. Newspaper accounts drew attention to the often crucial role of Local Guardians, and their conflict with other groups involved with Aborigines, especially Reserve Superintendents. It was possible to produce a careful matching of newspaper accounts of events with the excellent collection of Aboriginal records maintained by the Commonwealth Archives. Colonial newspapers, and their often fresh and vivid reports, reveal a level of cross-cultural mobility and interaction which may fundamentally alter our picture of race relations in early Victoria.
William Kerley completed a Masters thesis in History at La Trobe University, and is now a public servant in Canberra.


For example Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).


William Kerley, “‘In my country”: Race relations in the Portland — Warrnambool district of Victoria, 1835–1888’, M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, 1981 (copies in the La Trobe University Library and the Library of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra).