State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 85 May 2010


Lynette Russell
Repressed, Resourceful and Respected

OVER TWO DECADES ago the (then) La Trobe Library Journal published a special volume on Koori History which become a standard text for anyone interested in Victorian Aboriginal history and culture. The 1989 issue1 was devoted to the sources for Aboriginal studies at the State Library of Victoria and stands as an important document of then 'state of play'. Demand for copies was such that a reprint was necessary soon after publication.
It is timely that the La Trobe Journal now revisits the topic as since then there has been a flurry of research on Indigenous Victorians, much of it stemming from Native Title claims and the subsequent anthropological, archaeological and historical research. The nineteenth-century sources for this research are often the observations of missionaries, humanitarians, government appointed officials including police and members of the judiciary. As such, they are a kind of surveillance record and are frequently seen as such by contemporary Aboriginal people and their communities.
Over the past few years there has emerged in Victoria a movement of 'writing back' as Indigenous Victorians engage with, annotate and correct these sources. Since 2004 I have been involved in a large, multidisciplinary research project which has endeavoured to determine both the range of interactions contemporary Aboriginal people have had with libraries and archives to ascertain how they would like their information recorded, stored and accessed, and how they would like to respond and add to materials already held in various repositories.2 Throughout this research process, it has become increasingly clear that Aboriginal people want to be considered as equal intellectual and collaborative partners. They acknowledge the libraries and other archives as the legal custodians of these materials but the knowledge (and sometimes the images) are owned by them.
Informed by these findings and rather than just figuring in an addendum, this issue of the La Trobe Journal has several papers by Indigenous authors who are working in universities, community organizations and the State Library of Victoria. Other contributors have a close relationship of working with the relevant Aboriginal community and hence the essays here are collaborative and inclusive.
Since the beginning of British colonization in the 1830s, Victorian Aborigines have been the subjects of both study and bureaucratic control. While colonial administrators grappled with the logistical, practical, fiscal and moral complexities of managing an Indigenous population, the disciplines of ethnology and anthropology were developing alongside the 'need' to govern and understand Indigenous Victorians. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of the early settlers, missionaries and

Megalo Unemployment Project, Rock for land rights, Megalo Screenprinting, 1986 H2003.90/846, Pictures Collection

Jillimablu, A new partnership RedPlanet, 1992 Silkscreen poster print on brown paper H94.112/50, Pictures Collection

Bob Clutterbuck, Stop the merchants of nuclear death Red Letter (Brunswick Work Co-operative), ca. 1983 Screenprint poster on white paper H84.221/5, Pictures Collection

Colin Russell, White Australia has a black history Another Planet Posters, 1987 Screenprint poster on white paper H90.95/30, Pictures Collection


6th National Aboriginal Education Conference 1981 Walker Press, 1981 H93.383/4, Pictures Collection

Our land our right Red Letter Press, ca. 1980-1991 Colour screenprint postcard on white card H2004.32/27, Pictures Collection

administrators turned their hand to anthropology as they wrote their observations and reflections.3 In many ways, the colonization of Victoria and the governance and control of Aboriginal people was unusual, and often became a template for the rest of the country.4 Early Victorian observers such as George Robinson, Robert Brough Smyth, Edward Curr and Alfred Howitt all conducted ethnographic work and wrote their observations while developing and administering government policies that controlled the lives of Aboriginal people. Thus the two spheres have always been intimately entwined and both their 'official' and 'private writings' are housed in the State Library of Victoria's world-class collection of published and archival materials that have formed the basis of many of the articles in this volume.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Melbourne was arguably the cultural and intellectual capital of Australia. From its beginning in 1856 the Melbourne Public Library (later the Public Library of Victoria and later still the State Library of Victoria) collected all publications on Aboriginal Victoria. The subsequent donation and acquisition of unpublished archival materials, notebooks and correspondence means that the collection is simply remarkable. And the role the State Library had in shaping the intellectual culture of Melbourne should not be underestimated: by the latter decades of the nineteenth century around 650 readers every weekday evening and who read 'serious books (because) the library had little else'.5 This intellectual milieu provided the context for what Tom Griffiths observed to be a rise in the study of antiquarianism6 which focused on Aboriginal culture and its place in the story of human kind.
Today this material is used by researchers in history, anthropology and archaeology and, importantly, Aboriginal people either as individuals or on behalf of their community. As a regular user of the State Library's collections I can vouch for the fact that Aboriginal people also use these resources. Indeed, over the years I have conducted classes and tutorials in using the collections (at both the State Library and the Public Record Office). Although far from straightforward or unproblematic the historic, anthropological and ethnological resources at the State Library have nonetheless been found to be useful for the recovery of Indigenous genealogies, histories, languages and cultures. Of particular note have been the writings of those early observers noted above: George Robinson, Alfred Howitt, Robert Brough Smyth and Edward Curr. It is worthwhile briefly considering these men and reflecting on the State Library's collection more generally and its value to Aboriginal Victorians.7
George Augustus Robinson8 was the chief protector of the Aborigines in the early days of the Port Philip colony. Robinson was a prodigious journal writer and there are extant several massive archives of his official and personal materials. Although his original journals and notebooks are housed at the Mitchell Collection, State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of Victoria nonetheless has an important and valuable collection of materials which is regularly accessed by Victorian Aboriginal
people and those doing research on their behalf. Robinson arrived in the Port Phillip colony in February 1839 and for over a decade he made daily recordings on his life with the Victorian Tribes. This material is valued by many Aboriginal communities as some of the only known observations of their culture at the time of first European contact.
Some of his writings are deeply biased written as it were from a Christian, humanitarian perspective that did not really appreciate traditional Aboriginal society but saw it rather as needing Christian conversion. Several Victorian scholars have made detailed transcriptions of his Port Philip journals and these have been used to recreate clan and tribal boundary information.9 These have formed the basis of several Native Title claims and language revival programmes. Historians and archaeologists especially have used Robinson's notes and observations. In this issue, Ian McNiven and Damein Bell, Ray Madden, and Ian Clark all reflect on or use Robinson's writings. Significantly the work of McNiven, Bell and Madden all had their genesis in Native Title research. Several of the land use and land ownership agreements that have been successfully negotiated in Victoria have drawn on Robinson's materials.
Robert Brough Smyth10 was another important observer and writer whose materials are housed in the State Library of Victoria. Smyth was a geologist and mines inspector who encountered Aboriginal people in his travels. He brought a scientific curiosity to his particular ethnography and the material he created has been of immeasurable value to anyone studying Victorian Aboriginal culture. Recently Brough Smyth's word lists have been used in language reclamation projects. Victorian Aboriginal languages once thought to be extinct are slowly being revived, lists of words and grammatical rules are painstakingly being reconstituted into sentences, narratives, stories and songs. Brough Smyth produced one of the first major anthropological texts11 on Aboriginal Australians which was based on extensive survey-questionnaires which he sent out to literally hundreds of people in the colony and elsewhere.
The State Library's collection includes Smyth's publications and those archival materials that remain (history records his wife destroyed his primary records). Amongst his unpublished materials are subtle pen and ink drawings of known Aboriginal people (possibly drawn by William Thomas).12 These depict individuals, they are not merely drawing of a type, but images of known and named people. These are regarded today by descendant communities as great treasures, and I have seen several reproduction framed copies in Aboriginal co-operatives and other organizations. Similarly the shield designs which Brough Smyth reproduced in his two-volume opus regularly feature in contemporary Aboriginal art and design.
The writings of nineteenth century ethnographers should not be seen as informing contemporary Aboriginal culture but rather it is an adjunct to their own knowledge. There are limitations for using the observations and musings of missionaries, humanitarians and squatters. Unfortunately within the legal context of the

Tom Roberts

Portrait of A. W. Howitt 1900
Oil on canvas, 43.2 × 35.6 cm
Monash University Collection
Courtesy of Monash University Museum of Art
Native Title court cases, much of the anthropological and cultural detail in these claims has been scrutinized to determine if contemporary Aboriginal people 'know' this information or they have merely read about it. Indeed Justice Olney's negative determination in the Yorta Yorta Native Title case relied on him assuming that:
All cultural knowledge has been lost (washed away by the tide of history) or, alternately;
Contemporary cultural knowledge owes more to European observers than tribal tradition.
The source Olney saw for much of this information was (I believe) erroneously claimed to be Edward Curr,13 a squatter and later public servant. Curr served on the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines and played an important role in the administration of Victorian Aboriginal policy in the 1880s. He produced the monumental and influential four-volume The Australian Race: its origins, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over the continent (1886-87). Presentation copies of these books can be found in the rare book collection of the State Library. For me these, along with the catalogue of Curr's personal library are some of the real gems of the collection.
Perhaps the best known and most influential of all the nineteenth century Victorian ethnographers was Alfred Howitt.14 Howitt was born and raised in Nottingham, UK, the oldest son of authors, social reformers and radical Quakers William and Mary Howitt. He arrived in Australia in 1852 and true to his upbringing he immediately began to engage with public life at various levels. He developed a life-long fascination with Aboriginal culture, customs and manners. From 1863 he commenced a career spanning thirty-eight years as a public servant. More than twenty-five years were spent as magistrate, based in the tribal lands of the Kurnai of Gippsland. Over the course of his working life he published dozens of academic anthropological papers and two key monographs. Deeply influenced by his readings on human evolution and 'primitive' society in the literature of Charles Darwin, John Lubbock and E. B. Tylor, he became a highly sophisticated and theorised anthropologist. In the 1870s Lorimer Fison, Wesleyan missionary and kindred ethnographer, and Howitt began a long and fruitful collaboration. In 1880 he and Fison published the groundbreaking Kamilaroi and Kurnai, which is recognised by many as introducing the formal study of 'anthropology' replacing the previous observational study known as 'ethnology'.
Much of this material, his correspondence with many other ethnographers along with wonderful letters to and from England, where his family remained, are housed at the State Library. This represents a remarkable and comprehensive archive of knowledge. These resources have a wealth of material about the Kurnai people of Gippsland where Howitt lived. The Native Tribes of south-east Australia,15 his major work, stands to this day as a definitive exploration of Victorian Aboriginal culture. Indeed this
text features frequently in Native Title and other land claims.
Howitt like Robinson, Brough Smyth and even Curr believed they were studying the remnant population of a 'dying race'. Even as recently as twenty years ago, researchers often repeated these assertions, assuming that the traditional knowledge which these various authors had produced (and the State Library housed) was inert, stable and unchanging. Contemporary Aboriginal people have engaged with this material through Native Title cases, art and design, literature and, via sustained critiques, they have added value to it and demonstrated that, although at times problematic, this material is important to Indigenous and settler Victorians alike. As such the resources of the State Library have become a locale for a new type of reconciliation.
So too, the essays in this volume might be thought of as a kind of intellectual reconciliation process. Two papers stand out as examples of how contemporary Aboriginal people have interacted with the State Library of Victoria's collection. Helen Gibbins in her analysis of the re-emergence of the possum skin cloak tradition has shown how a new and modified version of a pre-European tradition has been built on knowledge both oral and handed down and that which comes from nineteenth century observers.
In the essay by Maxine Briggs, Jane Lydon and Madeleine Say on nineteenth-century photographs and the way that the State Library is now collaborating with Aboriginal people to improve interpretations, access and context, co-author, Maxine Briggs, Koorie Liaison Officer at the State Library, describes the importance of these photos, not as mere records of the past but rather, as 'real objects', a frozen moment of a person's life. Interacting with these records has become an important way of re-working the colonial archive and is a further example of Aboriginal people writing back to colonialism. Photographs re-presented, re-contextualized and re-imagined are being used to reclaim the old people and their culture. Although we only infrequently get a sense of the relationships Aboriginal people had with the various photographers, the images at least give the opportunity to theorise and contemplate what these may have been like.
Another form of collaboration can be found in the essay by Ian McNiven and Damein Bell on the Gunditjmara freshwater eel fishery. McNiven and Bell (and other Gunditjmara) have been collaborating for over 15 years as they have waded through the morass of Native Title research. The different voices (archaeologist and community) are juxtaposed though not in opposition or tension. This essay shows the great value that creating partnerships between researchers and Aboriginal communities to produce something that is ultimately greater than the 'sum of the parts'.
In an analysis of the complex relationship George Augustus Robinson had with his superior, Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe, Ian Clark shows us that understanding the interpersonal relationships can often give profound new insights. In
his essay on James Dawson16 'scrapbook', Ray Madden indicates the complex and often contradictory elements that made up the early ethnographers. Dawson was no mere impartial observer: he wrote from the position of someone with close, almost familial ties, into the Aboriginal community. He was a committed champion for Aboriginal people, his admiration based on years of close affiliation. He might be seen today as someone who embraced a kind of reconciliation, perhaps even pre-empting later movements by over 100 years. Madden reminds us that Aboriginal people exerted influence and affected change in similar ways to the way the contemporary Indigenous Victorians write back and challenge the sources.
This influence and challenge takes an unexpected turn when Barry Judd begins his exploration of cricket at Coranderrk with the unflinching gaze of an 'unidentified Aboriginal man' staring down the lens of Fredrick Kruger's camera. In this bitingly clever paper Judd suggests that what happened to Victorian Aborigines was, to use a quintessential English colloquialism, simply 'not cricket'. The Aboriginal people at Coranderrk emerge from Judd's essay as provocative, challenging and decisive. This was not a dying race, nor were these people remnants and the passive recipients of colonialism. They may well have had a reduced number of options and choices, but where they could they made decisions that were in their best interests.
This agency and independence can also be seen in Fred Cahir's exploration of Aboriginal guides on the Victorian goldfields. Aboriginal men and women acted as guides, their reasons for so doing were complex and varied and possibly for us ultimately unknowable. Yet what comes through in this essay is that Aboriginal people have always engaged with settler-society (wherever possible) on their own terms.
Because the records are frequently mute on such detail it is often difficult to fathom the types of relationships settlers and Aborigines shared but Victoria Haskins and Shannon Schedlich-Day have found friendship between a young white domestic servant, Minnie Brewer and an Aboriginal girl she calls her mate, Ellen. Despite the class and racial complexities of this cross-cultural friendship, Haskins and Schedlich-Day show that real connections, friendship and relationships did occur. Yet the trajectory for these two women could not have been more different. One had a long life and relative happiness, the other a violent death reminding the reader that colonial experiences were very different for settlers and Indigenous people.
The experiences of the frontier, colonialism, discrimination and disadvantage politicised the Victorian Aboriginal community from the early period through to more recent times. In the tradition of the nineteenth century Coranderrk petition (1886) and the twentieth century Cummergunga walk off (1939) Aboriginal people have never given up on their claims for fair treatment and autonomy. In some cases non-Aboriginal people have also been active champions for change and self determination. In her contribution to this issue, Sue Taffe shows how the fight for Lake Tyers mission united
(some) black and white Victorians and resulted in the successful hand over of the title to the land in 1971. Similarly Richard Broome's essay examines the support 'white' people gave to the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League. It is clear that some of the most successful campaigns for rights, land and self-determination have involved settler and Aboriginal Victorians working together.
In addition to the many illustrations accompanying the various articles, this issue contains reproductions (see pages four and five) of some of the many posters relating to Aboriginal activism held in the Pictures Collection of the State Library of Victoria. Finally, in an extension of the foundation work of the 1989 Koorie issue, State Library staff member Jane Miller, under a Library Staff Fellowship, is compiling a detailed guide to the rich sources for Indigenous studies at the State Library of Victoria. This will be of tremendous benefit to scholars and Aboriginal people as they wade through the massive collection of materials that the State Library now houses. A section of her guide covering government and official publications relating to the management and control of Victorian Aboriginal people concludes this issue of the La Trobe Journal.
It is my hope that this volume might make an important contribution to our understanding of Aboriginal Victorian History and perhaps in time become, like its 1989 predecessor, a 'classic'.

Title page of volume 1 of Edward M Curr's monumental four volume The Australian Race: its origin, languages, customs ..., Melbourne: John Farnes, Govt. Printer; London: Trubner, 1886-1887.


Tom Griffiths, 'Sources for the study of Koorie history of Victoria', La Trobe Library Journal, no. 43, Autumn 1989. Copy available on-line at


This project was the ARC Linkage Project 'Trust and Technology: Building Archival Systems for Indigenous Oral Memory'. Others working on this project have included my Monash colleagues Professor Sue McKemmish, Associate Professor Graeme Johanson and Dr Shannon Faulkhead, while Professor Don Schauder and Dr Kirsty Williamson were invovled in the earlier phases.


As Edward Said noted in his 1978 seminal study, Orientalism, anthropology has often been the 'handmaiden' of colonialism.


Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: a history since 1800, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005.


Geoffrey Blainey, A History of Victoria, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 85.


Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Similarly, Carolyn Rasmussen has shown in her history of the Museum of Victoria that by 1860 annual visitors exceeded 35,000, nearly 7% of the colony's population. See her A Museum for the People: a history of Museum Victoria and its predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton Vic: Scribe Publications, 2001.


I am currently engaged in a large collaborative project with Dr Gareth Knapman (Melbourne Museum) and Dr Leigh Boucher (Macquarie University) examining this group of Victorian ethnographers. My musings here are drawn from our discussions on this topic.


George Augustus Robinson (17911866). See


Gary Presland, (edited and introduced), Journals of G. A. Robinson, May to August 1841: extracts of manuscripts held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, Melbourne: Ministry for Conservation, 1980. Also Journals of George Augustus Robinson: January-March 1840, Melbourne: Ministry for Conservation, 1977, and Journals of George Augustus Robinson: MarchMay 1840, Melbourne: Ministry for Conservation, 1977. Ian D. Clark (edited and introduced), The Port Phillip Journals of George Augustus Robinson: 8 March7 April 1842 and 18 March29 April 1843, Melbourne: Dept. of Geography, Monash University, 1988. Also The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, vols 1-4, Melbourne: Heritage Matters, 1998-2001.


Robert Brough Smyth ((18301889). See


R Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria..., 2 vols, Melbourne: Government Printer, 1878.


William Thomas (17931867). Assistant Protector and Guardian of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District. See


Edward Micklethwaite Curr (18201889). See


Alfred William Howitt (18301908). See


A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, London: Macmillan, 1904. Reissued in facsimile, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996.


James Dawson (18061900). See