State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


The La Trobe Library Collection Of The Papers Of Assistant Protector William Thomas

The set of manuscripts in the Library's collection is but a fraction of the records which Assistant Protector William Thomas constructed during the course of his official appointments, and even by comparison with what has survived and is preserved elsewhere, it is a small set. But it is an important set — it so happens that the La Trobe papers are crucial in understanding the larger volume of Thomas material held at the Public Record Office, Laverton, Victoria, and in the Mitchell Library.1 The PRO holds Thomas's official reports and returns — monthly, quarterly and half-yearly.2 The Mitchell Library holds his personal journals and diaries and a few official returns.
William Thomas was one of the four Assistant Protectors of Aborigines who were appointed in England in 1838, and took up their duties in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales in January 1839: Thomas was assigned to the Central Protectorate District (Western Port), his primary responsibility being for the Warwoorong (Yarra) and Boonwoorong (coastal Port Phillip and Westernport) tribes. When the Protectorate was abolished at the end of 1849 only Thomas remained in government service, his new position being Guardian of the Aborigines. Of all the government officials engaged in relationships with, or positions of responsibility for the Aboriginal people of Victoria, Thomas had the longest and most intimate association with them.
The Library's set of Thomas material consists of two discrete ‘portions which require separate consideration — the material supplied to Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe for inclusion in the history he planned to write, and the material which is now contained within the Robert Brough Smyth collection. There is also a lexicon of some Victorian Aboriginal languages, a source not considered here.
Of all the treasures which the Library holds in its Australian Manuscripts Collection, Box 60 would be one of the best-known: this box holds the original manuscripts penned by the early settlers and subsequently published by the Library as Letters from Victorian Pioneers.3 Thomas's contribution was a brief description of the Aborigines of Australia Felix, a list of men in the Native Police Force a year after its inception, a number of returns, and a small ethnography. It is fair to say that this is Thomas writing for publication, for posterity, almost knowingly institutionalising his views. He gives La Trobe (for whom the documents were meant) the key to placing these works in the context of the major generalising reports and returns which he had furnished to the government earlier, either at the close of the Protectorate in 1849, or in his subsequent capacity as Guardian of the Aborigines. He makes the claim that, taken together, these documents ‘will put His Excellency in possession of the whole of the history of the aborigines of the Melbourne tribes’.4 They couldn't, of course, but the trouble is that in the past, writers on matters Aboriginal have sometimes read Thomas as though he was the repository of truth.
A glaring illustration of how misleading an innocent reading of Thomas can be relates to my own work on the Native Police. Only a small amount of research had been done on this institution, and what there was accepted uncritically that there were twenty Aboriginal men who constituted the Corps. It was simply overlooked that Thomas had headed his list ‘… in 1 January 1843’, so that the existence of all the other men who served was overlooked.5 There is worse to come. The Mitchell Library holds the original letter from N. Campbell, La Trobe's private secretary, to Thomas dated 3 April 1854, transmitting a list of men comprising the Native Police on 1 January 1843, asking Thomas to have the goodness to fill up the blank spaces with such particulars as he had, or could obtain, relative to the individual or his character, as well as his subsequent fate — death or otherwise.6 Thomas did not fill in this ruled sheet with the list of names: it remains blank to this day. Instead, he ruled up another sheet, copied the names, and wrestled with his faulty memory. This sheet is powerful testimony to the passing of time and human forgetfulness — poor Thomas scratched out, scribbled in, started again, jotted down his frustrations: ‘I cannot remember this man! The list in Box 60 is a sanitised version of the draft in the Mitchell Library. The list in Box 60 has been published three times, accorded all the respect merited by a primary source, and it has been widely quoted. But not only has it been misunderstood, it is itself flawed and we need to recognize its limitations.
On the other hand, Thomas has been ill-served by his publishers in relation to his drawing of an Aboriginal encampment.7 This drawing is a representation on one plane of a birdseye view of an encampment when different tribes congregated together. Its huge significance lies in the fact that the map on the ground stands for or represents existing relationships of country, and, within relationships of country, social distance relative to family and powerful leaders.8 Thomas's original drawing depicts groups of mia-mias, each labelled. The original publishers reduced this drawing to a series of sequentially numbered labels of tribes, and in the

Drawing of an Aboriginal encampment by William Thomas (above), and as reproduced in “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” (below).

process, slightly re-aligned some, thereby invalidating the information contained. Whether Thomas meant to convey information about relative strengths of the tribes by means of the clusters of hatchings is hard to tell. It is interesting though (and puzzling) that he locates the Westernport tribe so far away from the Yarra tribe, and to the west. His original drawing merits further study. A photographic copy of the original is reproduced here.
The material contained within the Brough Smyth collection is quite varied. There is a 129 page notebook (about 10 by 25 cm, with an index at the back) which is Thomas doing anthropology. It is not at all like a ‘typical’ Thomas notebook — awful handwriting, text interspersed with personal judgements, at times, prayers, often written on homemade books constructed of pages of blue, official stationery handsewn together. Perhaps he was thinking here of publishing his own book, for this notebook is a compendium of facts about the Aboriginal people from many sources, published and unpublished; he quotes Dredge, Tuckfield, official reports on the Buntingdale Mission, W. H. Baylie's article on Aborigines in the Port Phillip Magazine, the Geelong Advertiser, and Major Mitchell. It is particularly interesting that Thomas, who was no scholar, is aware of other models of treating indigenous peoples (the North American model), and other contact histories (the Society Islands, the Marquesas). It is an interesting notebook, not so much in its factual content, but in its revelation of the interesting anthropological questions of the times contained in James Dredge's circular — standard questions about origins, numbers, languages, marriage customs, followed by questions about those subjects irresistibly fascinating to these Victorian men — polygamy, infanticide, revenge of the dead and cannibalism.
Loddon Blacks.
Campaspe Blacks.
Goulbum Blacks.
Mount Macedon Blacks.
Yarra Blacks.
Barrabool Blacks.
Western Port Blacks.
Many of Thomas's drawings of Aboriginal persons have been reproduced in Historical Records of Victoria, volumes 2A and 2B.9 I am, myself, in two minds about this. On the one hand, ordinary citizens through the public library system have been enabled thereby to get a glimpse at how some Aboriginal people looked in the early contact years, and how they acted. On the other hand, to reproduce the pictures without the stories that could go with them, i.e. individual Aboriginal biographies, can have the effect of reducing persons to the status of objects of curiosity. With the single exception of Nayoom, whom I cannot place, every one of the individuals was reasonably well known within both Aboriginal and European society. Their stories could be written, their lives recovered.
The most interesting drawing (and, possibly the least known) are the ‘Blacks drawings’ as Thomas lists them. The problem for the present is that the collection has been through so many hands, that the actual drawings are no longer securely tied to Thomas's descriptive list, so that it becomes a matter of deduction which are the blacks’ drawings. The friezes have been recognised as such and the originals are now preserved in a glass case. The sketch by Chief Billibellary is unlabelled, but it includes his own country. If only we knew what question Thomas asked him, in particular, whether the sketched area embraced the limits of his country! It is bounded on the west by the Sydney Road, and depicts the Yarra and Goulburn rivers as parallel lines at right angles
to the Sydney Road, with the creek tributaries of these rivers. There is a blank space between the two major rivers (corresponding to the mountain range) and the drawing agrees well with Thomas's written description elsewhere that this watershed was the boundary between the Yarra and Goulburn tribes, with the Yarra people claiming all country surrounding the south-flowing creeks, and the Goulburn people claiming all country surrounding the north-flowing creeks. Thomas has written on the drawing that the Corrhanwarrabul Ranges (Dandenong) are ‘marginal’ and this too, agrees with contemporary understanding of the boundary between the Yarra tribe and the Westernport tribe. The drawing is constructed with small, hesitant pen strokes, and it may well be Billibellary's own physical construction. If so, it too, probably merits special measures for security and preservation. As Billibellary was a signatory to the Batman treaty, it would be interesting to compare the style and technique with the tribal marks on the Library's copies of the treaty.
Another drawing which may well be an actual Aboriginal artefact is the ‘View from Mr Riery's (sic)10 Upper Yarra’. This drawing, too, is done with short pen strokes, and is not European in style. Thomas writes that it was done by ‘an old wandering black, Kurburra, alias Ruffy.11 It depicts a panoramic view of fourteen mountains, starting on the left to the west of the viewer. All peaks are named and in some cases, the owner of the country is named: ‘all gone dead’ doubtless refers to the owners. This drawing too, probably merits special care as regards security and preservation.
Two other drawings are of particular interest to historians, one being a ‘Plan of Osbery's (sic) Home Station’,12 and the other being a portion of a sketch described as ‘Mr Jemmison's (sic) House.'13 Both plans relate to violent incidents in the early cross-cultural contact period. On, or just before 25 February 1842, three Aboriginal women (one of whom was ‘big with child’) and a three year old male child were shot and killed, and another Aboriginal woman was wounded, on Smith and Osbrey's station.14 The sketch shows the place, and it seems that the details came from an Aboriginal informant. Three men, Belts, Hill and Beswick, were tried for murder in July 1843 and found not guilty.15 Jamieson's station at Westernport was ransacked in October 1840 by an Aboriginal group ‘from the east’ in retaliation for the killing of nine Aboriginal persons at Wilson's Promontory earlier that year, in February, by local Yarra and Westernport men.16
The Thomas manuscripts in the La Trobe Library contain a wealth of information which is only beginning to be utilised, as life histories are written about Aboriginal people in the early contact period (as opposed to general histories about the category ‘The Aborigines’). The problem for the Library, of course, is how to conserve the fragile material and still make it accessible.
Marie Fels holds a doctorate in History from the University of Melbourne. Her publications include Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District, 1837–1853 (1988), The Dandenong Police Paddocks (1986), and a report for the Victoria Archaeological Survey on the subsequent history of the Police Paddocks.


In addition to the major collections in these two repositories, there is a small amount of Thomas material in both the Archives Office of NSW and the Dixson Library, State Library of NSW.


The Thomas material forms a considerable portion of the Records of the Protectorate held by the PRO. The documents have been microfilmed (there are 22,000 frames) and the collection is now closed, i.e. the originals will not be issued except in special circumstances.


The first edition was edited by Thomas Francis Bride, (Melbourne: Trustees of the Public Library, 1898). A second edition was edited with an introduction and notes by C. E. Savers, (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1969). A third edition, (Melbourne: Currey O'Neil, 1983), used the same text as the 1969 edition but added illustrations, some of which are misleading in that they depict Aboriginal persons at a considerably later date than the text: one illustration, No. 66 facing page 395 is not even an illustration relating to Victoria — it is of the later Queensland Corps.


Box 60; for a published version see Thomas F. Bride, 1983, p. 418.


In all, more than 140 men served with the four institutions of Native Police over the period 1837–53, see Fels, M. H. Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837–1853, (Melbourne: MUP, 1988). Thomas's 1843 list included 25 names.


Thomas Papers, uncat. ms. Correspondence, Returns, etc. 1854–58, set 214, item 14, ML.


Thomas F. Bride (ed), 1983, p. 433. (Exactly the same illustration was reproduced in each of the earlier editions).


Ibid, pp. 429–30, 433.


Cannon, M. (ed.) The Aborigines of Port Phillip 1835–1839, (Melbourne: Victorian Government Printing Office, 1982) and Cannon, M. (ed) Aborigines and Protectors 1839–1849, (Melbourne: Victorian Government Printing Office, 1983).


This was the station of William and Donald Ryrie, about thirty-five miles from Melbourne, subsequently named Yering by Paul de Castella (R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, 1974, p. 306).


Kur-bo-roo (Ruffy) was a well-known Westernport Aborigine, whose name meant ‘bear’. He was held in high esteem as a sorcerer, dreamer, diviner (R. B. Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1878) vol ii, p. 448).


Caramut, the station of Thomas Osbrey and F. Smith: it is near Penshurst in the Western District (R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral pioneers of Port Phillip (Melbourne: Stockland Press, 1974), p. 122


Robert Jamieson's station at the head of Westernport Bay.


C. W. Sievewright, enc. no. 3, Gipps to Stanley, 16 May 1842, NSW Leg. Co. V&P, 1843.


Edmund Finn, Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835–1852, (Melbourne: Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888), vol. 1, p. 360.


Assistant Protector William Thomas to Chief Protector G. A. Robinson, 15 Oct. 1840, VPRS 11, unit 7/336.