Early Involvement in European Economic Activity

During the 1840s and early 1850s the Commissioners for Crown Lands provided annual reports on the ‘Condition of the Aborigines’ in their districts. The reports of the Commissioners for the Moneroo [Monaro] District show that the Aboriginal people of the coastal zone were, in addition to their involvement in the whaling industry in the far south, working as labourers in European pastoral and agricultural activities. In his report for 1844 Commissioner Lambie stated:

I have the honor to report, for the information of His Excellency the Governor, the Substance of what I have on former occasions Stated, namely that no material change has taken place in the condition of the natives during the past year ; they continue to assist the Stockowners, particularly those whose Stations are situated near the Coast, in Sheep washing, hoeing, and reaping; but, Since labor has become more plentiful and consequently a reduction in the rate of Wages, their Services are less in demand than formerly.

In his report on the ‘Condition of the Aborigines’ for the year 1845 Commissioner Lambie stated:

The Natives, as heretofore, continue, to assist the Stock Owners in Sheep washing, reaping and hoeing, but their desire thus to make themselves useful does not seem to increase, notwithstanding the reward that invariable accompanies such services in articles of food and Clothing.

Working relationships had been formed between some of the Indigenous people of the area and individual Europeans from the earliest days of European intrusion in the late 1820s and early 1830s. An example of one such relationship is that between the local Indigenous people and the European John Hawdon in Moruya around the mid 1800s:

Several of the natives became servants about the place, one, Campbell, being the coachman for many years. The writer can recall being driven in the carriage with Campbell, “got up regardless” in black livery, on the box, while Benson, a faithful servant for many years, always hovered round to see that everything was in good order before a start was made. Both Campbell and Walker, another aborigine, were called “Mr.” Campbell and “Mr.” Walker by the tribe, after the gentlemen for whom they were named. Evidently “Mister” was regarded as a sort of Christian name.

They always regarded Mr. Hawdon’s word as law, and he was called upon to settle many a dispute. One, who had done him a good turn, he made king of Bergalia, and this fellow assumed for ever afterwards a royal arrogance which was very amusing. A stranger black at one time speared several sheep, and Mr. Hawdon gave orders that he was to be brought to him. As no more sheep were speared, he forgot all about the matter. Not so the blacks. Some weeks later he was surprised to see a crowd of them coming towards him, carrying something, and jabbering loudly. He found that the object they had brought was the stranger’s head. They had tracked him to Captain Mackellar’s estate at Braidwood and told him to come “one time, two time, three time,” but as he did not seem inclined to come, they said they could not wait, so brought his head.

The man referred to in the above quote as Benson is almost certainly Wynoo William Benson. Wynoo William Benson applied for a reservation of land for his use on the shores of Tuross Lake near Turlinjah in 1880, in his application he made reference to having worked for John Hawdon of Kyla Park for many years. The Mr. Campbell referred may be the Campbell for whose use a reserve was formed at Moruya Heads in 1875.

In 1845 in answer to questions from the Select Committee inquiring into the ‘Condition of the Aborigines’ Francis Flanagan provided the following information on labour in the wider Broulee area:

Those who choose to work can obtain plenty of food and clothing, and they seldom have of necessity to depend upon fishing or hunting for subsistence… Both males and females are employed by the settlers in gathering the maize and potatoe (sic) crop, and some of them in reaping. They have commonly been remunerated in provisions, clothes, tea, sugar, tobacco, &c., but many of them now insist upon being paid in money. They are always employed for stripping bark… They will only work when the fancy seizes them, and always go off without warning.

Two years later Commissioner Lambie stated:

… no material change has taken place in their condition during the past year. In their disposition and conduct, they continue quite harmless, and live on friendly terms with the settlers. A few of the Blacks accompanied some Graziers, who removed their stock into Gipps Land, and indeed great numbers now pass the greater part of the year in that District…The Blacks continue as heretofore to assist the Settlers in Hay making, reaping, sheep washing, and other kinds of work; but they cannot be depended on as the means of supplying labour, the deficiency of which is beginning now to be so severely felt.

For the year 1850 Commissioner Lambie again referred to Aboriginal people being
willing to work for Europeans only on a casual basis:

Many of them make themselves useful at several of the Stations, at the periods of sheep washing and harvest, and are always well treated, and well paid by those who employ them. But they still exhibit their old aversion to constant and settled employment.

The following year, 1851 saw a change of Commissioner, the new Commissioner being Manning. Commissioner Lambie’s comment in the 1850 report that the people were always ‘well paid’ was directly contradicted by a comment made by Manning in his report for 1852. To the now standard comment that the Aboriginal people of the area continue to act as a labour force for the Europeans Manning adds the recognition that the popularity of Aboriginal labour with the Europeans is a result in part of the inequality of the wages paid to them:

From constant and intimate connection with Europeans their habits are gradually becoming assimilated. Quiet and orderly in their deportment, when not ill used, they are willing to labor for wages so small that their services are in general demand. Their earnings are very generally expended in procuring clothing and other comforts which they begin to regard as necessaries. Though in some instances the fruit of their labour is wasted in the purchase of intoxicating liquors, I think the evil is on the decrease – certainly not extending [emphasis original].

Commissioner Manning, in his first report that was for the year 1851, provided his understanding of the basis for Aboriginal people’s willingness to labour for Europeans. He perceived it as being seasonally based, that is that Aboriginal people were willing to work for Europeans only at the harshest time of the year when other resources were few:

The inveterate habit of rambling [emphasis original] in small parties during all the warmer months of the year makes it difficult to arrive at a correct estimate of the number of the Aboriginal natives or to become properly acquainted with their actual condition. It is only during the severer portion of the winter that they congregate in any numbers in the neighbourhood of towns or large Squatting establishments; and at that time they are seen under the greatest possible disadvantage. Without clothing to protect them from the inclemency of the Season, and unable to subsist by hunting, fishing, or their other usual modes of gaining food, they swarm to the settlements in the expectation of procuring both, and are generally willing to give such labor as they are capable of in return for what food or portions of raiment they may receive. Cutting wood for the winter supply of the settlers seems to be the general use to which they are put;- both males and females.

It would appear from this statement that the people of the area were continuing to follow their pre-existing patterns of existence and attempting to incorporate the European presences within this pattern. However, the disruption brought by Europeans, through disease, pastoralism and increasing land alienation, grew dramatically in the following decades.

Taken from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales. View the full study.

Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.