State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Squatters’ Journals

The La Trobe Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection holds many documents of Victoria's pastoral era — squatters’ diaries, memoirs, correspondence and station records. They represent a body of sources which enable a reconstruction of the development of race relations in that period, and an analysis of many of the issues currently demanding scholarly attention. These range from studies of Aboriginal social formation, modes of production, population density, territoriality and spatial organization, to Aboriginal attitudes and reactions towards Europeans and invasion, the squatting mode of occupation, and the morality of conquest.
This article will highlight a select few of these ‘squatting records’. Niel Black's journal of his first months spent in Australia, from September 1839 to May 1840, contains a candid comment on the practicalities of occupying Aboriginal land.1 On the 9th of December 1839, Black wrote the following entry:
The best way [to procure a run] is to go outside and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left. It is universally and distinctly understood that the chances are very small indeed of a person taking up a new run being able to maintain possession of his place and property without having recourse to such means — sometimes by wholesale — but I do not think that this is by any means common, and it its only outside that they are ever called upon to act in so brutal a manner, it, however, seems to be little thought of here as it is only done in defense of self or property … I believe, however, that great numbers of the poor creatures have wantonly fallen victims to settlers scarcely less savage though more enlightened than themselves, and that two thirds of them does not care a single straw about taking the life of a native, provided they are not taken up by the Protectors.
Henry Meyrick in a letter to his mother dated 30 April 1846, confirmed Black's comments.2 He noted that ‘no wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverence’ as the Aborigines were. Men, women, and children were shot wherever they were met with. Despite the fact that these things were kept secret, he had protested in the strongest language at every station he had visited in Gippsland. He was proud that he had never participated in any atrocities, but as he was powerless to prevent them, had decided to remain aloof and know and say nothing.
In several diaries and letters the writers discuss Aboriginal languages and place-names. Squatters’ opinions of Aboriginal linguistics ranged from disdain to respect. An example of the former is Charles Burchett, who wrote to his father on the 23rd of November 1839 informing him that the language of the Aborigines displayed, in its paucity of words and expressions, the primitive condition of their intellectual powers.3 He reproduced the extent of his knowledge of Aboriginal vocabulary and stated emphatically that he had no wish to increase it. Henry Meyrick, on the other hand, in a letter to his mother dated the 20th of June 1840, wrote that‘… instead of Greek and Latin, I am learning Bonwrong [Bun wurrung] and Colonial’.4 Lists of vocabulary and place-names are found in the diaries of Alexander Brock (Djadja wurrung and Daung wurrung), Charles Griffith (Watha wurrung and Woi wurrung), George Hobler (Ladjiladji), and Seutonius Officer (Jardwadjali).5 On the 31st of April 1848 Hobler wrote the following entry in his diary:
It is to be regretted that no person of ability has attempted to place on record any account of the various tribes of blacks indigenous to this great island, they learn our language when we come upon a fresh tribe of them and the white man adopts a few of their words so as to form a jargon by which communication upon simple subjects can be kept up — but we acquire no knowledge of their history, or religions or superstitious feelings.
James Butchart, in a letter dated the 4th of September 1842, from ‘Bullawara’ on the Moorabool River, described Aboriginal dwellings in his neighbourhood as being of very simple construction, made of bark of one or two inches in thickness, erected in a few minutes and seldom used for more than two or three days.6 He noted that the Aborigines ‘are far from being so low in the scale of civilization as they are generally represented to be’.
The manuscripts which deal with some of the earliest years of European occupation of Victoria and the earliest phases of contact include the journals of Edward Henty (19/11/1834 — 5/7/1839), William Todd (8/6/1835 — ?/11/1835), James Flett (11/2/1836 — 15/5/1836), G. F. Read (5/5/1837 — 17/10/1840), and the reminiscences of Robert W. von Stieglitz.7 Henty's diary instances the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women and contains a passing reference to the ‘Convincing Ground’. The convincing ground is a site on the coast near Portland that took its name from a massacre of the Kilcarer gundidj, the local clan, by a party of whalers, in 1833–34. Apparently a whale had been beached, and the Kilcarer people, who fed on whale carcase, claimed it as their own. The whalers, who had recourse to firearms, said they would convince them, and the massacre ensued.8 Todd was one of several servants who accompanied John Batman to Port Phillip in June 1835. Batman
established a settlement at Indented Head, near present day St. Leonards, and left James Gumm in charge. Fortunately Todd kept a journal, and it is of particular interest because it contains a list of names of the Aboriginal men he met on the Bellarine Peninsula, and identifies the Watha wurrung clans they belonged to. Captain J. Flett, of the ship ‘Caledonia’, kept a journal from February until May 1836, while staying at Port Phillip. His journal contains a reference to ‘Belt Benger’ (1814/5 — 1847), the ngurungaeta (clan-head) of the Kurung-jang-balug clan at Mt. Cottrell (Woi wurrung). Bett Benger had shot and wounded a fellow Aborigine with a fowling piece given to him by John P. Fawkner. The wounded person was attended by Dr. Alexander Thomson. George F. Read arrived in Port Phillip in April 1837. His journal begins on the 5th of May, and contains many references to the Watha wurrung Aborigines from around Geelong. Robert William von Stieglitz arrived in Port Phillip in July 1836 and occupied land on the Werribee River near Ballan. His reminiscences were written in 1875–6. He refers to ‘Murrydenneek’, the clan-head of the Yawangi clan of Watha wurrung at the You Yangs, who died in 1839. Murrydenneek had, on one occasion, saved Stieglitz from perishing in the bush, and the two remained friends for a number of years.
Several manuscripts mention the work of the Port Phillip Protectorate, the Buntingdale Mission, and the Native Police Corps. These include the diaries and journals of Ann Drysdale, James Hamilton, Thomas and Somerville Learmonth, Charles H. Macknight, Henry Mundy, Robert William Pohlman, Robert Scott, Mackworth C. Shore, and Robert Simson, and the correspondence of Charles Burchett, Henry H. Meyrick, H. W. H. Smythe, and Dr. David Henry Wilsone.9
Many diaries record examples of Aboriginal station employment. Entries often discuss the type of labour performed and the rates of pay given to the Aborigines. The following list of diaries and journals represents the range of chronology and region covered by the La Trobe collection. The journals and diaries of William Adeney (1843, Geelong), Thomas Clowes (1845, Mt. Macedon), Cecil Pybus Cooke (1846–56, Harrow), James Hamilton (1851–2, the junction of the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers), William Learmonth (1844–6, Etterick), William McGregor (1849, Buninyong), James Richardson (1854–5, Gorrinn), Mackworth Shore (1846–7, St. Arnaud), Robert Simson (1843–4, Carngham), and Dr. Adam Turnbull (1858, Mt Koroite).10 The diary of William Adeney, for example, is concerned with his arrival in Port Phillip and subsequent journeys in the Western District in search of land. In his diary Adeney describes how two Aboriginal men belonging to the Watha wurrung balug clan of Watha wurrung, were employed as cattlehands on William Roadknight's ‘Gerangamete’ station near Colac, and were considered to possess the same ability as Europeans.
The diary of Charles Griffith, a squatter on the Werribee River from 1840–8, contains his thoughts on the morality of European occupation of Aboriginal land11 On the 18th of December 1840 he had his first encounter with Aborigines outside of Melbourne. That evening he wrote the following entry:
[H]ad a very warm argument at dinner on the subject of the treatment of the natives and of the injustice of Englishmen coming out and depriving them of their country. If civilized men have no right to take possession of a country which savages have for centuries left uncultivated and in its unimproved condition incapable of maintaining more than a few miserable hordes and even those in the lowest state of social existence — if this be the case no treatment of them can cure our original defect of title and the sooner that every Englishman packs up and returns home the better — but I maintain that this is not the case. I conceive that by their lacks they have forfeited their original right… . The contact of extreme civilization and absolute barbarism must always be productive of an immensity of mischief. Even in Ireland you see much of the misery resulting from a state of things something similar.
Given that squatters had long periods of contact with Aborigines and frontier life gave them many opportunites for observing Aboriginal society, this source material would be expected to prove most valuable. Unfortunately most of the writers reveal more about their own, or the local or prevailing, attitude to Aboriginal culture. Many of these sources contain little more than accounts of conflict between Europeans and Aborigines or anecdotes about particularly colourful characters. One disappointing feature is the failure of some writers to give the clan and tribal names of the Aboriginal groups they are describing or even the precise location of the area itself. Another problem confined to reminiscences and memoirs, is that they are written long after the events and occurrences that are described. In these cases it is difficult to counter the possible distortion and selectivity of the writer's memory. However, despite these shortcomings a meticulous sifting of this source material not only demonstrates the existence of conflict between Aborigines and Europeans, but also enables discussion of the nature and extent of Aboriginal resistance. Furthermore, they reveal that the responses of Europeans and Aborigines varied so much that a homogeneity of response cannot be assumed.


A range of prefixes are used to identify material in the Australian Manuscripts collection: they include ‘MS’, ‘H’ and locations such as ‘Box’, ‘mf’ (microfilm) and ‘safe’.
Ian Clark is currently completing a doctorate in Aboriginal historical geography at Monash University. His research is concerned with establishing western Victorian Aboriginal land tenure and with reconstructing the process of dispossession in the region.

Henry Godfrey (1824–1882), “November 1st/43. Loubras,” watercolour, f.77 of the “Godfrey sketchbook” (being purchased with the assistance of a number of donors and the Library Council of Victoria, 1989).


N. Black, Journal of the first few months spent in Australia, September 30 1839 — May 8 1840, typescript copy of original, MS 11519.


H. H. Meyrick, Twenty-eight letters to his family in England 1840–7, H15789–15816.


Burchett Letters, 1839–75, Box 92/5.


Meyrick op cit.


A. Brock, Lettercopy book, diary and notebook, 1846–52 in Brock Family Papers, MS 10554; C. J. Griffith, Diary, 1840–1, MS 9393; G. Hobler, Diaries, December 1825 — March 1879, PA 720; S. Officer, Diary, 1856–64, MS 7891.


J. Butchart, Letters, 1841–53, Box 15/7.


E. Henty, Daily journal kept by Edward Henty at Portland Bay, from his arrival on 19 November 1834 until 5 July 1839, MS Coll. Safe; W. Todd, Journal, June — November 1835, MS 11335; J. Flett, Journal, 11 February 15 May 1836, MS 9219; G. F. Read, Journal, MS 8912; R. W. von Stieglitz, Reminiscences, written 1875–6, H15945.


I. D. Clark, An historical atlas of western and central Victorian Aboriginal dans and languages, (forthcoming, 1989).


Burchett, op cit.; A Drysdale, Diary, 1839–54, MS 9259; J, Hamilton, Memorandum book, Narung, 1 August 1851–4 July 1868, MS 10261; T. & S. Learmonth, Station diary, 1 January 1839 — 2 February 1844, H15788; C. H. Macknight, Diary, 14 October 1841 — 5 March 1873, MS 8999; Meyrick, op cit.; H. Mundy, Diaries, MS 10416; R. W. Pohlman, Diary, 1840–8, MS 10303; R. Scott, Diary, in Scott Family Papers, MS 8853; M. C. Shore, Journal of settler's life in Australia, Avoca Forest, Avoca, 17 December 1845–30 May 1847, MS 8260; R. Simson, (Carngham) Farm Diary, August 1843 — December 1847, MS 12159; H. W. H. Smythe, letter to Mrs Allan, 12/11/1841 in Edward Doyle Correspondence, 1841–1917, MS 11642; Dr. D. H. Wilsone, Letters from Port Phillip district, MS 9825.


W. Adeney, Diary, 19 August 1842–17 March 1843, MS 8520A; T. Clowes, Journal, 1840–8, MS 10759; C. P. Cooke, Diary, in Winter-Cooke Family Papers, MS 8862; Hamilton, op cit.; W. Learmonth, Journal leaving Tasmania and my arrival at Etterick August 1844, and Diary of William Learmonth, August 1844–26 May 1846, MS 7932; W. McGregor, Diary, MS 8563; Shore, op cit.; Simson, op cit.; Dr. A. Turnbull, Mt Koroite Station journals, MS 10457.


Griffith, op cit.