State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 61 Autumn 1998

Sarah Dredge outlived her husband, James (of whom no photograph is known to survive), despite the ‘shock to her health’ that she experienced in the colony. [H31165, PNF 1009. Picture Collection, SLV.]


‘An awful silence reigns’: James Dredge at the Goulburn River

Each family has its own collection of stories — of the heart and imagination, of exploits and loves, of feuds and dark corners. This collection forms the narrative grid through which we read the world. My family's history in Australia began in 1838 with the arrival of my great-great-great grandfather James Dredge. We are lucky, for he was an avid diarist and left us abundant accounts of his dreams and disappointments, recorded in beautifully crafted sentences in four leather-bound volumes.1
James was a Methodist preacher and part of the Port Phillip Protectorate experiment under the direction of George Augustus Robinson. From May 1839 until June 1840 he lived in a bark hut by the Goulburn River with the Tongeworong people. Many of us today would love to step back into his shoes to experience this country as it once was and to meet its original owners. Strangely, despite the colour of his life and the elegance of his pen, no stories of James have leapt from the pages of his diary into family lore.
Recently I visited 89-year-old Lallah Ellerton, whose father Lal Dredge was custodian of the diaries handed down through the family. She remembered that ‘the aunties were upset because Dad gave the diaries to the church to make copies.’ We spent six hours with her listening to family stories, but she could not recall a single incident from James’ life. I was tempted to think that this family reticence is but a symptom of the past mission of Australian history — to remember only those who triumphed in colonising a continent. For James was a failed colonist, a lonely figure who attracted derision as he stood against the weight of colonial opinion on Aboriginal rights. After just seven months on the Goulburn he tendered his resignation under controversial circumstances which highlight the rift between his humanitarian views and the Port Phillip of 1840, which has been described as a ‘money-making place where bedlam reigned’.2 Those people who opposed the destruction of Aboriginal society have not received sufficient attention, says historian Henry Reynolds. ‘Their careers have intrinsic interest but could also be studied to avoid the temptations of thinking that there was only one view about the blacks in nineteenth-century Australia or that the debate concerning Aboriginal rights was the invention of the present generation.’3
Since what anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner called the ‘Great Australian Silence’ about Aborigines was broken in the 1970s, the stories of the violence and dispossession done to Aboriginal people have been heard, if not heeded. Part of the retelling has focussed on the Protectors, who mediated between indigenous Australians and the white invaders. Australia's first Protector, Robinson, may have saved many Tasmanians from massacre but his name has become synonymous to some with the more insidious imperialist impulses concealed behind the rhetoric of altruism and the
mantle of Christianity.4 This century Chief Protectors in Western Australia and the Northern Territory exercised almost-complete control over Aborigines and initiated policies to breed out Aboriginality.5 Even where Protectors did their best to prevent acts of oppression, cruelty and injustice, they generally saw their task as conversion and civilisation.6
This article looks at James Dredge in the context of this retelling. Extracts from his diary scatter a few history books. Several writers have tried to explain why he resigned from his post. This is an important question because his experiences led him to publicly criticise Government policy towards Aborigines in the Port Phillip Gazette of 16 December 1840, which devoted almost the entire issue to his resignation. Was he taking the high moral ground because the post had not lived up to his financial expectations? That is the view of Vivienne Rae-Ellis who maintains that the censorious words of this ‘embittered’ man have been unduly influential.7 Or was it fear for his life when surrounded by 200 hungry blacks carrying weapons that forced him to flee, as suggested by Michael Cannon.8 Alex Peart, who devoted his Honours thesis to exploring James’ religious world view, suggests that his peace of mind collapsed because of the lack of a supportive religious community on the Goulburn Protectorate.9 A contemporary theory was proposed by the Port Phillip Gazette: that James Dredge was physically incapable owing to his sedentary pursuits, which rendered the ‘privations and fatigues attendant’ upon his duties ‘irksome and unnatural.’10
James Dredge was born in the small English village of Britford, within sight of Salisbury Cathedral, in 1796. When he was nine years old, his parents converted to Wesleyanism, the non-conformist religion that was strong in Salisbury. Thirty years later, while in the strange Australian wilderness, James recalled in his diary this important founding narrative in his family's life, when his mother slipped into the fateful Methodist meeting by the back door to avoid detection. He wrote on 5 October 1839: ‘It is rather remarkable that both my parents were awakened under the same Sermon, my Father in the preaching room, and my Mother in the passage. They both immediately joined the Methodists’ Society.’11
Growing up in the ferment of this evangelical religious revival, James underwent his own conversion experience in 1817. His early diaries reveal a yearning for religious fulfilment as well as many soul-searching doubts. On 14 May 1817 he wrote: ‘Though I at times feel many unpleasant things, and though the winds seem to blow contrary and storms arise and beat against this tottering bark, yet the Lord Jesus Christ sits at the helm and in Him is my confidence.’
Soon after his conversion Dredge began preaching in the Salisbury district and was swept up in the fledgling missionary movement. ‘I long to quit my native shores and preach the Gospel to the heathen,’ he wrote in July 1818. In 1820 his name was submitted to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, but he was to marry, father five children, undergo two operations for a tumour in his left arm,12 open a religious school and a haberdashery store, before he was recommended for the position in the newly-created Port Phillip Protectorate. This move to improve the situation for indigenous
people was instigated by progressive social leaders in England who had successfully campaigned for the abolition of slavery and convict transportation. Dredge was assured by Sir George Arthur, the former Governor of Van Diemen's Land who was on the interviewing panel, that he had been selected because of his experience with religious teaching and because he was a family man who could set up a permanent dwelling among Aboriginal people to induce settlement. This was to be the first of many misconceptions James Dredge had about the job.
In April 1938 the Dredge family — James, his wife Sarah and four surviving children — left England on board the barque Elizabeth, bound for Australia. After three months in Sydney, the Protectors were formally gazetted and travelled by boat to Port Phillip. Four Assistant Protectors were assigned districts where, with the aid of two convicts, they were to protect the native people from ‘any encroachment on their property and from acts of cruelty, oppression or injustice’.13 They were given the powers of a magistrate to help in this work. James Dredge's district covered more than a quarter of the present state of Victoria, stretching an unspecified distance to the north-east of Mount Macedon. If he had time, he was also to induce the Aboriginal people to assume more settled habits; to teach them how to cultivate the ground and build habitations; to educate the children and to instruct them in elements of the Christian religion.
By the time he left Sydney, Dredge was beginning to suspect that while humanitarian support for the Protectorate may have been high on the agenda back in Britain, economic rationalism ruled the roost in the colonies. The Government refused to fund the transportation of his family so that on the ship his sons were forced to ‘sleep in a lumber hole of a most wretched condition’. From the moment of their arrival, Dredge and the other Assistant Protectors were given little support by the administration. No accommodation had been arranged for them. Instead, Captain William Lonsdale showed the four Protectors, their wives and 20 children, a spot where they could camp on the south side of the Yarra, then he disappeared.
Nearly five months passed before Dredge was able to reach his district, and then the ‘means were not furnished by the Government.’ This was despite public disapproval of the delay. The Port Phillip Gazette and the Sydney Herald were ‘keeping up a continual clamour about our long stay in the vicinity of Melbourne’. These delays caused him great anxiety because he believed the poor Aborigines were dying without knowledge of Christ. The Government supplied only one oxen to each Protector for transporting them into the field, 80 miles in Dredge's case. So he had to borrow money to buy three more oxen and was never to be reimbursed for this purchase. The annual allowances of the Protectors were kept purposely low, according to Superintendent La Trobe, to avoid ‘the bad practice of giving presents to the aborigines which, in general, instead of exciting in them a desire to earn money by labour or by making themselves useful, tends to confirm them in their habits of idleness.’14
Dredge arrived at the Goulburn River at the end of May 1839. Within two months, the bank informed him that he had overdrawn his account and that it would cease cashing his orders. Much anguish followed as his son Theo had already left for
town to buy provisions. ‘Imagine his chagrin, 83 miles from home, and his father in such circumstances as not to admit of his getting the paltry sum of 4 pounds from his banker. … Surely the poor fellow was never in such a plight before. And whence originated this sad state of things? Has his father become loose in living and profuse in expenditure?’ he wrote on 20 September 1839.
Government reluctance to fund the Protectorate was exacerbated by the poor administrative skills of Robinson who awaited constant direction from Superintendent La Trobe. He would head off into the bush for months on end and was slow to distribute supplies from Melbourne to the outlying posts.15 James Dredge was forced to provide rice, flour and sugar to up to 200 Aborigines from his own private supplies. On 7 September 1839 he wrote:
It is to me a source of deep regret and discouragement that I am not furnished with supplies, by the Government, as would enable me to secure the confidence and minister to the good of these quiet and interesting people. I do hope, even against hope, that justice will at length be rendered to this plundered and injured race of men.
On one memorable occasion 400 pounds of fresh beef and two carcasses of mutton were sent from Melbourne but by the time they arrived they were ‘spoiled and stinking horribly’. Despite protests, the cost was debited by Robinson to Dredge's account. By January 1840 food supplies were so low that he was forced to hunt to sustain his family, not the kind of activity that came naturally to a middle-aged preacher. A hunting episode he relates in September 1839 strongly evokes the classic bumbling Englishman clashing with the wild Australian landscape. As he tried to shoot a ‘Large Bird’ which alighted by the hut, he fell down a steep bank while eluding its observation. But for Divine Providence, he would have drowned in the Goulburn River. ‘Providentially I was enabled to stick my foot into a projecting nook and caught hold of some loose tufts of grass, by which means I got upon firm footing and escaped at least a ducking, perhaps drowning, for the river just there was very deep, and I am no swimmer.’ A month later he rejoiced over a gooseberry pie: ‘This being my dear wife's birthday we had the luxury of a gooseberry pie.’ Four bushes yielded enough fruit for a pie in a tea saucer.
Needless to say Robinson stalks the pages of Dredge's journal just as he dashed across the terrain of Victoria. In May 1840, the two men journeyed together along the Murray where circumstances forced them to share a bed on the night of the ninth. Dredge complained ‘in consequence of a monopoly of clothing by my distinguished accomplice, I was cold and uncomfortable.’ This was to be an apt metaphor for their relationship. After a year as Robinson's subordinate, James Dredge formed very unflattering opinions of him. ‘I am sorry to record it, but I was never more glad to get rid of the company of an individual than of G. A. R. — C. P. of A’, he wrote on the 28 May after the Murray trip. Hogging all the blankets at night was the least of his concerns. Robinson insisted on travelling on the Sabbath, leaving Dredge trembling ‘at the thought of spending the day of sacred rest in so sinful a manner’, he made promises to Aboriginal people that were ‘empty air’ and worst of all, employed language towards
him that he could not put down on paper but it was such that ‘usually proceeds from a little, mean, low-lived and base soul’. Robinson clearly offended the Christian morality that Dredge held so dearly. Ironically, Robinson — the man who, bent on Christianising, had transported most of the Tasmanian Aborigines to a bizarre Christian camp on Flinders Island — was condemned for his lack of Christian principles.
James Dredge and his family lived by a bend in the river at what is now Michelton, where he was visited by up to 400 Aboriginal people. The Dredges planted a garden, built their bark hut and distributed blankets and food to the local people. Nearby were an inn, a police barracks and a bark homestead. These seemed to yield an endless stream of ‘lawless villains’, particularly those seeking native women. ‘Thus in one evening, at four different times, I detected four different parties of whites seeking out these blacks, no doubt all actuated by the same motives, their object being intercourse with the women. … Who can tell the amount of wickedness practised by this class of whites on the Aborigines in this country. I do not wonder at the spearing of cattle and murder of Shepherds now and then taking place’, he wrote on 16 December 1839. The abuse he attracted on 10 December 1839 when he evicted one such intruder was typical of the response. ‘He went away pouring forth heaps of abuse, calling me a “Methodist”, a “bloody rogue” and robber of the public purse’.
While there may have been a range of opinion on Aboriginal rights in colonial Australia, debate on the frontier was far from sophisticated. Dredge's attempts to change attitudes seldom met with success. On 6 September 1839 he wrote after one such encounter with a young man named Macdonnell: ‘He ridiculed the idea of their being “Fellow creatures” as I ventured to call them, and scouted them as a race of Cannibals’. Again on the 18 March 1840, he recorded a conversation with a nearby settler, Dudley. Dredge found him, though a sensible youth, ‘strongly tinctured with the usual unreasoning prejudices against the blacks, declaring that if he found a black taking away one of his sheep, or even looking at them, he would shoot him’. Reflecting on the encounter, Dredge wrote:
And what have these people done to excite the extirpating hate of these white gentry? Surely, they are entitled to the Protection — not the mockery — of the Government, who, without their consent, has usurped authority over them. What an awful reckoning awaits these destroyers of mankind and the Government which suffers such things.
Such views did not make Dredge popular. He rapidly became an outsider and a figure of fun for the local community of whites. ‘They laugh me to scorn in my own neighbourhood and treat my authority with contempt’, he wrote despairingly on 17 December 1839.
The local Tongeworongs, however, were more impressed. Many set up semi-permanent camp nearby and came to him for protection, as well as food. As for the Dredge family, food was a major preoccupation of the Aborigines. Already the stocking of the land around Port Phillip with sheep and cattle was wiping out the supply of yams and other staple plant foods. On 18 October 1839, he recorded that when hungry Aboriginal people would ‘part with anything for a trifle to eat or drink’. That

Right: Rhonda Dredge, great-great-great-granddaughter of James Dredge. [Mario Borg, Photographer]

Below: James Dredge's Diary, open at entries for 27, 28, 29, 30 April 1840. [Mario Borg, Photographer]

morning Warum gave his new possum rug to a white man for a bit of sugar and an old blanket. These rugs could contain as many as 40 pelts. ‘It is thus that these poor fellows are often pillaged, in as much as they receive nothing like an equivalent for which they get with much labour.’
One of Dredge's major campaigns was to stop the local Aborigines from incurring the wrath of farmers by killing their sheep and stealing their potatoes. On 29 January 1840 he described a typical incident in the potato saga. As he approached the women's camp he saw them quickly scrape something from the fire and hide it under the blankets. ‘By the time I had come up to them, some of them had lain down as if asleep. I laughed at them and they addressed me with all the finished hypocrisy imaginable’. The next day, the men sent the women back to the farm with the potatoes, in an elaborate farce as ‘a means of throwing dust into my eyes. No doubt their plundering abilities will be employed again forthwith with renewed energy and adroitness’, he concluded.
In his diary Dredge records many incidents in which he tried to instil Christian values. Almost inevitably these efforts backfired as the Tongeworongs humoured him in his effort to change them. Today these reports read with a good deal more humour than he probably intended. On 13 October 1839, for example, he tried to stop a party of Aboriginal men from going on a killing raid by emphasising his concern for their welfare. They reassured him that they would return safely for they would kill their enemies. ‘One of them, War-rum, showed me that he could steal upon his foe when he was asleep and pierce him with his spear’. When one man offered to bring back a head as proof Dredge hurriedly backed off from his reprobations. Rain ostensibly prevented the raid and on the men's return Dredge questioned them whether they had been near any settlers, which they denied. ‘I, however, feel somewhat doubtful of the truth of this, especially as one of them, War-ra-wul, had the spout of a china teapot tied to his hair, which I had not seen before.’
On another occasion, a small orphan boy Moonin Moonin was left in his care, so Dredge seized on the opportunity of evangelising. Within a few days the family had taught him to sing ‘Praise ye the Lord — Halleluja’ very accurately and prettily and to count in English. ‘I was highly delighted with this spontaneous manifestation of a desire to adopt — though only in a rude manner — the customs of the white people’, he wrote on 16 September 1839. Moonin Moonin was soon helping him learn the local language but was advancing slowly with the Lord's Prayer, his understanding limited to just one word — bread. Dredge helped him make a bark hut and all seemed to be going well until a terse entry declared that Moonin Moonin's clothes were torn to pieces, he had become so fat and lazy that his rations have been suspended and that the boy's mother had returned to claim the so-called orphan.
During Dredge's short time on the river none of the Goulburn Aborigines were ever charged with any offences. He covered up for their thefts and was reluctant to interfere in Aboriginal disputes. He also refused to use his powers as a magistrate ‘against the blacks at the complaint of the whites’. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Melbourne. During a visit on 22 November 1839 he refused to give testimony
against an Aboriginal man who had been charged with stealing beef and bread. Later, he recorded that 35 men and boys from the Goulburn were locked up on suspicion of a robbery at the station of a Mr Snodgrass. One man was shot dead while trying to escape. ‘It is quite clear that the detention of these people against whom there was no charge, is an illegal act. They were justified in making their escape, shooting them for so doing is cold-blooded Murder’, he wrote on 12 October 1840. On 6 January 1841, nine were convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years transportation. ‘To hold these people amenable to our laws of which they know nothing at all is infliction of the greatest cruelty.’
By the end of February 1840, after just seven months in the field, James Dredge despatched his resignation. His diary entry on 26 February outlines the impossibility of the situation.
There are now upwards of two hundred persons here, and I am entirely without supplies for them — it cannot be wondered at if robberies and other depredations occur, for the poor creatures must live some way or other. …A little flour is placed in my hands for their use, just sufficient to draw them together and make fools of them by its immediate exhaustion and the impossibility of getting more for some time. …Thus they are driven to seek their subsistence in any way, most likely in some instances by theft, and when the Whites are displeased and expect one to prevent it, which, not being able to do, I fall into disgrace with them. Shame upon the Government who can permit such a state of things in reference to the blacks, by the sale of whose lands they are aggrandising themselves.
His despair reached a peak in March when a painful nervous condition, tic doloreux, paralysed the right side of his face. On March 15 1840 he wrote:
A Sabbath, but no Ordinances, no multitude keeping holy day, no songs of praise from well tuned hearts and voices, no sacrifices of prayer, no living witnesses of the triumph of the Cross — all, all is solitary and lonely, an awful silence reigns around. O, when shall I come and appear before God.
This is a moving cry from the wilderness — a thinker with only his thoughts to keep him company, a preacher without his community. It is clear that James Dredge was never able to adapt physically to this new unexplored, mysterious land nor reorder his interior psychological universe. He railed against the weather which fluctuated by up to 30 degrees in a day. ‘The human frame had need to be something stronger than ironbound to sustain it’, he wrote. He complained about his abode in which ‘few people in England would think of lodging their cows or horses’, and about the oppressive work load for Sarah, who had been unused to heavy domestic labour. Where he had been expecting to save souls and to advance the ‘civilisation and moral improvement of the poor Aborigines’ he found himself in a secular job with little Government and no community support.
While his religion made it difficult for James Dredge to adapt to the conditions on the frontier, the blame for his resignation lies just as squarely on the Government.
According to Michael Cannon, the Protectorate ‘began under chaotic conditions in 1839, and never lost its aura of baffled crisis’.16 Most of the Protectors found their jobs impossible tasks. One Protector was dismissed for misappropriating government funds, another was noted for immorality and another, the son-in-law of Robinson, tried to murder his wife three times.17 What a circus!
In June 1840 James Dredge returned to Melbourne to settle back into his beloved Methodist community. He returned to preaching but maintained a strong desire to help the Aboriginal people. He kept close contact with the Wesley Mission and by 1842 had begun to appreciate the importance of the land not just as a source of food for Aboriginal people but as a place of immense cultural significance.
For instance, each tribe has its own territory, well defined by natural boundaries, and amongst themselves well understood and sacredly recognised from one generation to another. Within these boundaries of their own country, as they proudly speak, they feel a degree of security and pleasure which they can find nowhere else — here their forefathers lived and roamed and hunted, and here also their ashes rest. And this is the scene of their fondest and earliest recollections, their childish gambols and their youthful pleasures — with every nook they are familiar, they know just where their favourite roots are most abundant, the haunts of the kangaroo, emu and opossum — in short, it is their home.
He never went so far as to acknowledge that these people and this new country might require a different set of beliefs and myths to those imposed by Christianity. He concluded his analysis on 6 June 1842 by suggesting that by moving to tribal land ‘the Missionary may pitch his tent, erect his hut, cultivate the soil, unfurl the banners of the Cross, and achieve bloodless victories’.
Dredge was appointed head teacher of a new Methodist school and opened a small chinaware shop in the front room of his Collins Street house in August 1840. Financial problems still plagued him, however, and he was advised to declare himself bankrupt in October 1841. He died in 1846 on board the Arab, two days before reaching Land's End. Where Robinson acquired wealth and prestige through his work with the Aborigines, returning in comfort to Bath, Dredge lost both his health and his livelihood.
Rhonda Dredge


Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16]. The diaries contain daily and weekly entries from 1817 to 1833 and 1839–1843. The fourth volume of the diary, from 1 September 1839 to 8 October 1843, remains in the possession of the Dredge family.


Richard Broome, The Victorians Arriving, Sydney: Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Assoc., 1984, p. 26.


Henry Reynolds, Frontier, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987, p. 104.


See the powerful fictional account of Robinson in Mudrooroo, Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World.


Robert Manne, ‘The solution that left a lasting sense of shame’, The Age, 1 December 1997, p. A15.


Henry Reynolds, Dispossession: Black Australians and White Invaders, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989, p. 160.


Vivienne Rae-Ellis, Black Robinson, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988. p. 187.


Michael Cannon, Who Killed the Koories? Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1990.


Alex Peart, ‘The Self-Denying Task: James Dredge’, Honours Thesis, La Trobe Univ., 1987, p. 54.


Port Phillip Gazette, vol. 3, no. 200, 16 December, 1840.


MS 11625. James Dredge diary, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, 5 October 1839.


This tumour was the first of many incidents of bad health that plagued James. The tumour was diagnosed as scrofulous, a diagnosis consistent with tuberculosis or osteomyelitis, according to Alex Peart.


Sir George Grey to Assistant Protectors, 6 February 1838. Michael Cannon, Historical Records of Victoria, Aborigines and Protectors, 1838–1839, Melbourne: Victorian Government Printing Office, 1983, p. 378.


Port Phillip Gazette, 12 December, 1840.


Rae-Ellis, p. 179.


Cannon, p. 8.


Ibid., p. 130.