22 10 06_Living with the Dead 

*Speakers: Luke Hickey (L) Paul Turnbull (P) 

*Audience: (A) 


*Date: 6/10/22 

L: Yuma. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Luke Hickey, I’m the Assistant Director General of the Library’s Engagement Branch. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s First Nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

Thank you for attending this event. For those of you who’ve braved the weather and come in from outside and also for those of you who are joining us online on our stream, we’re coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. 

The Library has custodianship over rich collections documenting the experiences, culture and language of First Nations people. Whilst our collections have been collected and created by Indigenous and non Indigenous people alike the Library recognises First Nations people are the primary guardians, interpreters and decision-makers of their heritage and with deep cultural connections and authoritative values and perspectives.  

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and other First Nations people are advised that this presentation contains content that may be culturally sensitive. Please be aware that you may see or hear certain words or descriptions that reflect the attitudes of the historical period in which they were spoken, written or created and that may now be considered offensive. 

This afternoon’s presentation, Living with the dead: exploring First Nations settler relations through the lens of mortality in colonial Australia is by Professor Paul Turnbull, a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow. Our distinguished Fellowships programs supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s rich and varied collections through residencies of three months. These fellowships are made possible by the generous philanthropic support and Professor Turnbull’s fellowship is supported by the Stokes family and we’re very grateful for their support. 

Paul Turnbull is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Tasmania and holds an honorary professorial appointment with the Centre for Critical Heritage and Museum Studies of the Australian National University. He’s known internationally for his research and for writing on the theft, scientific uses and repatriation of the ancestral bodily remains of Australia’s First Nations and other Indigenous peoples.  

Paul tells us that over the past 20 years the collections of the National Library have been essential in enabling this valuable research. His 2017 book, Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia has won acclaim for demonstrating that no effort at deciding on the present and future of museum collections of human remains can ignore serious historical research. 

Since the early 1990s Paul has served as a consultant researcher for Indigenous Australian representative organisations, Australian and overseas museums and recently the Australian Government’s international repatriation program. 

In his presentation today Professor Turnbull will share some of his findings from the Library’s rich and largely unexamined visual and documentary records of settler encounters with and reactions to first nation burial places. Among other things he has sought to explore how relations between first nation and settler communities and rural and remote colonial Australia were influenced by the presence of the Indigenous dead. Please join me in welcoming Professor Turnbull. 


P: Thank you. This is on? It’s on, good. You can hear me okay? Good, good, great. I want to begin by saying that I’m conscious that I stand on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. I guess now I’m an elder in my own community, that’s historians of Australia and I offer my greetings to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I hold in esteem these men and women of high degree past and present for ensuring the vitality, wellbeing and confidence of the generations to come. They in their turn will care for Ngunnawal and Ngambri ancestral country, the ancient sovereignty of which has never been ceded and its country which is a source of life for us all. 

It's also hard for me to say in a few words, to express my gratitude to the Stokes family for the trust they put in me to advance our shared aspirations, to see we Australians, we peoples of very diverse ancestries and cultures, know more about our history. To be able to spend three months immersed in the collections of the National Library as William Blake would say, it’s a swim in the tide of time. That’s a rare gift for which I will ever be thankful. Of course, I’d like to thank the staff of the Library, especially Rebecca, Kelly, Sharon, Kathryn, Andrew and Adrian and all of the Indigenous Engagement team who have been unfailingly helpful in what at the moment are challenging times. 

Challenging times, well I just want to say in a personal capacity, as someone who’s been a reader in this library since 1979 and has seen the Library change, grow over the years, someone who’s also written about the Library’s remarkable achievements in fostering knowledge and understanding of our history and the histories of our neighbours in Asia and Oceania.  

The National Library’s been a world leader in providing access to knowledge essential for our understanding and addressing the great challenges of our times. It’s sought to provide us with resources to understand that many of our greatest challenges have deep historical roots but it’s been a victim of neglect. I would dare even go as far as to say ignorance on the part of our elected leaders for far too many years now. This must change. I hasten to add that these are my personal views and certainly not the view of the Library itself.  

I want to talk for about 40 minutes to share some of the findings of my research. It’s a talk, it’s not a lecture. It’s not a prepared script as it were that has already been sent off for publication. I’m still trying to work through all of the things that I have encountered over the last three months and I’m going to try and at least leave a fair bit of time for kind of commentary, questions and maybe debate about some of these findings. 

I want to start off by talking about this memorial. Now some of you will have visited Camperdown. It’s a rural town in southwestern Victoria. It’s a town with an interesting history. If you’ve been there, you’ve perhaps visited the town cemetery. If you have been to the cemetery, you could hardly fail to notice that in the centre of the cemetery there’s this striking memorial. Takes the form of a 7m obelisk. The memorial bears the inscription, in memory of the Aborigines of this district. Here lies the body of the Chief, Wombeetch Puyuum, and last of the local tribes, 1840 to 1883.  

Now Wombeetch Puyuum or [Umbeti Poyan] 7:48 as we find him referred to in other sources was better known to settlers in the district as Camperdown George. Wombeetch Puyuum was imagined at that time, at the time of his death, wrongly, of course, to have been among the last of the Djargurd Wurrung people. Certainly, by no means was he the last.  

The memorial was erected by one James Dawson. Dawson was a Scot by birth who arrived in the Port Philip district in 1840. Now with money that he’d acquired on the goldfields he bought land near Camperdown, probably around about 18 – in the mid-1880s. 

Now Dawson took a keen interest in the Djargurd Wurrung people, the sovereign owners of this part of western Victoria. In 1881 he published a book-length ethnographic study at the First Nations of the Western District of Victoria. There are copies here in the Library. Also remarkably there are a couple of reprint copies out at Cantly’s Books in Fyshwick. The book’s entitled Australian Aborigines, the Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia.  

Dawson however was also very concerned for local Djargurd Wurrung people’s welfare in the wake of dispossession. In 1876 he sought and was appointed, it seems without much or any opposition, he was appointed to the office of Protector of Aborigines for the Camperdown District. Now from the outset he was critical of the government’s removal of Djargurd Wurrung people to a reserve at Framlingham near Warrnambool which was originally run by Anglican missionaries. They abandoned it leaving to government to run. We find him voicing his criticisms of the way that the Djargurd Wurrung people were being treated before a Royal Commission on the Condition of Aborigines in Victoria which was held in 1877.  

As he told the Commission about the Djargurd Wurrung families that had been forcibly removed from Framlingham, in dealing with them my long experience and full possession of their confidence enabled me to state that it’s a mistake to imagine that they are not fully aware of the position of the occupation of their country by the white man and the position it’s placed them in and they have strong claims on them for proper maintenance and protection. They are very sensitive on this point and assert that they are entitled to be well housed, well clothed and well fed in consideration for the loss of their hunting ground. They ought not to be called upon to work on the Aboriginal farm without fair wages - this is the Aboriginal farm that was down at Framlingham – without fair wages any more than a hired white labourer. Well so argued Dawson. 

It seems however that there were a few Djargurd Wurrung men who were left at Camperdown. They lived doing chores for small amounts of money on local properties. Dawson was naturally concerned for their wellbeing. He had a hut built for them to see them through the winter, ensured that they had enough to eat and that they had clothing to keep warm during the colder months of winter. 

Among these men was Wombeetch Puyuum. He was only 43 when he died in 1883. As with other Djargurd Wurrung who lived at Camperdown he was buried in the so-called black section of the cemetery reserve, on the far edge of the burial ground, well away from white graves in boggy scrub. I think this is one of the kind of issues that I’ve come to explore in greater – or been alerted to going through the sources - is the extent to which we would do well to think about how we deal with a situation such as that which led to the burial of Wombeetch Puyuum. 

Returning from a visit to Scotland after Wombeetch Puyuum’s death Dawson was appalled to learn how he’d been buried. He was determined to give him a decent burial. Indeed he envisaged his grave as memorialising both Wombeetch Puyuum and the Djargurd Wurrung whom Dawson in the racialised imaginary of the time believed were doomed – wrongly believed were doomed to extinction. 

The 7m obelisk and its base were sculptured in Geelong and it was erected on a plot bought by Dawson in the centre of Camperdown Cemetery to which he personally removed the remains of Wombeetch Puyuum. Now it cost Dawson more than £185. This was no small sum of money in the 1880s and Dawson sought to defray the cost of the memorial by approaching the wealthier landowners in the Camperdown district for subscriptions. As he was to recall in a letter to the Australian Town and Country Journal a year or so after burying Wombeetch Puyuum, in response to my applications, he wrote, for contributions to the memorial gratifying and sympathetic replies accompanied with subscriptions were sent to me by many landowners, all of olden time.  

But Dawson found that not every established landowner in the district was so generous. As he also informed the Town and Country Journal and I quote, from eight others owning vesting estates valued in the aggregate of upwards of £850,000 Sterling he had met with refusals such as, and he lists these refusals. One, I decline to assist in erecting a monument to a race of men who we’ve robbed of their country. Two, your proposal does not meet with my sympathy. Three, I’ve always looked on the blacks as a nuisance and hope the trustees will forbid its erection. Four, have a strong dislike to hand over any portion of my hard-earned increment for another spend – to spend. Five, I cannot see any use for it. Six, my wife wants her drawing room papered. Seven, may subscribe a little out of respect for you. It’s eight, the last one, fail to see the use, the obelisk will point for all time to come to our treatment of this unfortunate race, the possessors of the soil we took from them and we gave in return the vices belonging to our boasted civilisation. I decline to assist. 

Dawson incidentally also told the paper that there were 14 fine estates in the district, the owners of which of these estates which came to over £2 million Sterling in value did not give him one penny and in many instances, he says, I got no replies from men holding the position of gentleman although they were twice written to me in a friendly spirit.  

Now I found Dawson’s account of his efforts to fund this memorial to Wombeetch Puyuum and the Djargurd Wurrung shortly after I began this fellowship. What struck me is the eighth response that Dawson received, the one that you can see here from one of the wealthier pastoralists in the district, the respondent who was concerned that the obelisk would point for all time to come to our treatment of this unfortunate race, the possessors of the soil we took from them and we gave in return the vices belonging to our boasted civilisation. 

Did Dawson really receive this response? We don’t know. I suspect he did but whether he did or not the sentiments allegedly expressed by this unknown pastoralist are towards one end of what I found to be a spectrum of responses to the ancestral dead of the First Nations of south-eastern Australia that are to be found in published personal reminiscences of settlers and in books and journals published during the last 30 or so years of the 19th century. Many of these books are only available in the collections of the National Library of Australia.  

Now the care with which first nation communities remembered the dead in their ancestral country is confirmed by a remarkable wealth of written and visual sources by colonial observers in various walks of life and many of these sources again are to be found in the National Library of Australia. Among them are the reminiscences of Gideon Scott Lang who was a Scottish-born pastoralist who was settled at Narmbool south of the modern-day city of Ballarat in Victoria. Lang wrote of participating in a punitive raid in the 1830s against men of the Wathaurong Nation, the land’s sovereign owners in retaliation for allegedly killing two white shepherds. The raid which undoubtedly would - resulted in the massacre of innocent Wathaurong people was prevented by them being discovered when honouring the dead. 

Lang was later to write that they – the Wathaurong were found, and I quote, to have peculiar chants which they sing in honour of the recently dead, generally just before daybreak and some of these are very touching. I was told an instance of this by a gentleman who formed one of the party who went out in pursuit of a tribe among whom were the murderers of these two shepherds. They reached the black camp before dawn and while waiting for daybreak one of the natives rose, lit a fire and commenced to sing one of the chants for the dead. Almost immediately afterwards one fire was lit and one voice joined another until a line of fires gleamed down along the edge of the scrub and the whole tribe joined in this melancholy dirge. A hurried consultation took place during which one of the party urged that whether the blacks sang at daybreak or not the shepherds had been nonetheless murdered. But imagination carried the day against the matter of fact and the party crept back to their horses and gave up the attack. 

Now some of you may know that Lang’s account was also incidentally to inspire Judith Wright and it provides the title for her brilliant 1981 telling of the story of her family in the context of the history of the pastoral invasion of Australia, Cry For The Dead. If you haven’t read it please get a copy and do so, it is a magnificent book. 

Now many similar firsthand testimonies confirming the burials and their surroundings were sacred places. They required strict observance of custom, respecting their creation, visitation and preservation. One typical testimony is that of Emma McPherson which is to be found in her published recollections of managing a sheep station in the New England district of northern New South Wales in the 1860s.  

McPherson tells of how shortly after she and her husband, Allan, arrived to take over running the station they learnt that a burial place of a clan of the Kamilaroi people, the land’s sovereign owners, lay a short distance from the station’s homestead. After several fruitless attempts to find it they tried to persuade one of the elders of the clan to reveal its whereabouts. McPherson recalled that, and I quote, he shuddered and literally turned pale when we broached the subject. But the McPhersons persisted, questioning him as to which of his former acquaintances were there interred. Eventually the elder gave in. Traditional food sources were now scarce due to intensive grazing by sheep. The men and women of the clan, the children of the clan, were dependent upon the men and women doing work on the station in return for rations of flour and the occasional butchered sheep. 

Making sure that none but McPherson and her husband heard, the elder whispered the names of the dead, and I quote, scarcely above his breath, at the same time looking around fearfully. The McPhersons similarly pressured younger Kamilaroi men working on the station, one of whom agree to guide them to within a kilometre or so of the site where we are told he stopped abruptly, pointed with his hand to a very tall tree some few yards off and darted away like an arrow, unwilling to linger near the spot. 

The McPhersons walked on to discover a number of burial mounds surrounded by trees adorned with intricate carvings. One in particular bore the appearance of being tended with no little care, Mrs McPherson was to recall. Both the McPhersons were struck, and I quote, that however much they disliked to name the dead or visit their last abodes they do not allow the tombs of their friends and family to suffer from neglect. Here we have an illustration which is to be found in McPherson’s Experiences in Australia.  

Now the McPhersons incidentally were in no physical danger in visiting these burials although local Kamilaroi people I suspect would have lamented that the white boss and his missus had put themselves in serious spiritual danger by transgressively intruding on the dead. Sickness and misfortune would surely follow. But in many parts of the country in the mid-19th century there were first nation communities of course who were still in control of and able to defend their ancestral country from white occupation. Settlers who were discovered trespassing on burials in those parts of the country, in frontier regions ran a serious risk of being killed. 

As colonial settlement spread across the Australian continent during the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century the rights and obligations of First Nations to care and protect the dead were generally ignored. Lawrence Struilby, a native of Ulster, who managed a sheep station on the plains west of Bathurst in the late 1830s was to recall in later memoirs asking one local Wiradjuri elder to assist in getting possums to skin for a winter coat. The elder is said to have replied, and I quote, yes, yes, you white men gallop horses over my father’s graves. You white men come on my hunting grounds and eat my possums but if I eat the white man’s sheep or heifer he’ll hang me or he’ll shoot me. You fool, fool but come over the sea and want more, more, more. 

Now what I find noteworthy about this recollection is that this Wiradjuri elder should first and foremost speak of the white man’s disregard for the sanctity of his ancestral burial places as among the gravest offences committed in the invasion of Wiradjuri country. Burials were not just ridden over, they were destroyed when land was cleared of native shrubs and trees to run sheep or cattle or to enable the ploughing of cereals and other crops. Mounds marking burial – marking earth burials were flattened. In regions where communities laid the dead to rest on burial platforms, these structures were lost in the felling of trees.  

Sometimes the destruction was inadvertent, other times it was knowingly done. Wanton destruction of burial places also troubled some settlers. Among them was James Demarr who would publish reminiscences of travelling in south-eastern Australia between 1839 and 1844, described what he saw as the inevitable desecration of burial places. He spoke in particular of burial places, burial grounds at Milmeridien near Nyngan in southwest New South Wales which had first been encountered by the Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell on his second survey expedition of 1835. 

Demarr wrote, and I quote, did the colonial government of that time or the white settlers do anything to protect and preserve in the interest of the black natives these simple but touching records of humanity? Although I have no direct proof that they did not I am certain and am sure as I am of writing this that nothing of the kind would be done. This district would in a short time be occupied as cattle or sheep stations and this burial ground which these blacks would be wishful to visit occasionally, perhaps to decorate in their own unconventional way and shed tears over, would be trampled over, desecrated and destroyed and they would be driven away and by a people calling themselves Christians. These civilised whites care nothing about the blacks when living and they were not likely to care about them when dead, or their burial grounds either. 

But however there were settlers who avoided desecrating burial places, knowing that they were subject to observances and ritual governing their creation, visitation and preservation. Often they learnt of First Nations obligations firsthand, to care for the dead and their resting places, by actually attending funerals of dependents of men and women who had worked as stockmen or domestics on stations.  

Saul Samuel held pastoral lands in the Wellington district of western New South Wales between 1841 and 1852. At a meeting of London’s Royal Colonial Institute in the 1890s as an old man he recalled being approached by local Wiradjuri men on the death of a man known to the whites on the station as Jackie. He was said to have been an especial favourite with the white men as well as his own people. Samuel told how he was asked to provide a barrow to take the dead man to his burial. Asking why they wished to use a barrow rather than carrying him to the grave the men allegedly replied that they wished to follow the custom of the white people in using a dray as a hearse. Well Samuel lent them a barrow and the deceased was wheeled to the grave. 

Saul Samuel went on to explain that when we were approaching – that he attended the funeral and I believe he had – that he was now being buried by people who really loved him. Samuel was, and I quote, I must mention that when we were approaching his last resting place the blacks asked the white men to retire, evidently not wishing that we should be present at their funeral at a certain part of their mystic funeral rites.  

Now Samuel was in fact one of a number of pastoralists and station workers to record actually participating at least to some degree in the funerary ceremonies for the dead of first nation communities. What is noteworthy is his reflecting on afterwards visiting the burial place and seeing its transformation into a sacred place in country and one that testified as I quote him, to the Wiradjuris’, and I quote, intelligence and their good qualities.  

Others respected the resting places of first nation communities more out of self-interest and on this score I’ve been put in mind by a recent observation by historian, Tim Rowse, in the context of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of current historiography on Indigenous settler relations in Australia. Tim Rowse suggested there’s much to be gained by seeing that by the turn of the 20th century, by the time of federation there were in fact two Australias, north and south, and let me quote Rowse on this. He says, the north, in which I include the arid centre as it became available to British Australian occupation, was different. It was different in its more demanding geographies, in its more limited opportunities for private and public investment, in its sparser population and in the ethnic composition of that population.  

Now prior to the 1850s across southern Australia the viability of farming sheep or cattle depended upon peaceable relations with the land’s traditional owners so as to allow pastoralists to exploit the labour of men and women of local clans. 

The desire to ensure the economic success of pastoralism through maintaining peaceable relations with First Nations was undoubtedly a factor in the British imperial government explicitly requiring in the case of the foundation of the new colony of South Australia established in 1834 that land within its boundaries that was known to be used by First Nations for funerary purposes was to be excluded from sale or pastoral leasehold. 

Avoidance of trespassing on burial places occurred however out of necessity likewise in the Northern Territory and north-western Queensland, especially from the mid-1860s in the case of north-western Queensland and the Kimberley region – and from the 1880s in the Kimberley region of north Western Australia. Whereas by this time in southern Australia responses to the presence of the dead of First Nations was now less influenced by economic necessity and we find that in fact it gave rise to often very conflicting ideas and sensibilities about the destiny of Australia’s First Nations.  

The McPhersons I would argue were in this respect typical of many pioneer settlers in rural and remote colonial Australia by the last third of the 19th century in that their curiosity about Indigenous culture was tempered by respect for the sanctity of burial and the belief that they were witnessing events that would be lost to history, believing as was the prevailing view in settler society of the time that the continent’s first peoples were doomed to extinction. The power of this extinction myth has been investigated and written about by my colleague and friend, Russell McGregor, in what is a very important book called Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory. 

Now I’ve discussed elsewhere the conviction that First Nations were destined to extinction was a powerful stimulus for scientific collecting of the bodily remains of their ancestors and as early as the 1830s we find that the consensus in western scientific and wider intellectual circles was in the words of George Bennett, the first Secretary and Curator of Australia’s – Sydney’s Australian Museum, that, and I quote Bennett, Australia’s natives, no distant period would be known only by name.  

Now this construal of the Indigenous dead as a rare and rapidly disappearing scientific resource which promised to disclose new insights into the natural history of humanity encouraged settlers to plunder burials, to secure skulls and other remains for scientific collections in the belief that doing so served a greater good which absolved them of what their peers, many of their peers would have condemned as sin or moral transgression. 

But we find belief in the inevitability of First Nations’ extinction was also to stimulate the preservation of first nation burial places and was to see them – actually inspire public reflection such as to imbue them with ambivalent and sometimes troubling significance. Now we become accustomed to talk about the great silence within Australian history about the violent dispossession of First Nations’. I’ve always had a difficulty with that because it seems to me that when one starts looking more closely at the record, the visual records, the literary records, the historical records of the time we find that the Indigenous dead figure within popular media in southern Australia from the 1880s to the eve of the first world war. We find them there.  

What is more, we find what is especially noticeable is how they inspired visual imagery and poetry in the genre of elegy and within this body of verse we find people of First Nations spoken of in terms of grief and sadness of their supposed loss while variously attributing their passing, their demise, which of course is one of the cornerstones of thinking of the time, white thinking at the time, they variously attribute their passing to various causes, be it settler aggression, supposed incapacity for improvement or even providence working through natural law. 

What I want to share with you is some of the instances of this. Here we have an illustration, burial place of the last of the native kings at Wallerawang and it’s a kind of very interesting elegiac scene. Unfortunately I can’t get a better copy of this ‘cause I have to work with as good a copy as I can get from Trove but the fact that I can get this via Trove I think is very important.  

This burial place of a native king and we find it’s accompanied by this commentary. Our illustration represents a somewhat historic interest about three miles from Wallarah, the mound in the centre being the burial place of a native king, the last owner of regal authority over the tribes of the district. The nature of the place is further indicated by two trees, the trunks of which are covered with root carvings by Aboriginal artists. Considering the character of the memorial some steps should be taken to secure its preservation if only by surrounding it with a [scalloped] 36:24 palisading, [scalloped] fencing.  

It was also to inspire poetry, poetry which again can be placed almost on a spectrum of response to what is believed to be the passing of First Nations’. This poem on the grave of the last native King, tread lightly on that little heap of earth for it is sacred, there is dust beneath, that from a royal chieftain drew its birth. What though no diadem or jewelled wreath, did sire to son of that dark line bequeath, full many a tribe their sway bowed down before – all owned the power of one man’s little breath, and of each son succeeding would implore, his wisdom in their wild debate on peace or war. 

But we find the poem goes on to essentially try to engage with this question of why is it that we should be meditating supposedly on the grave of the last King of the Wallerawang. In this particular poem of course settlers are absolved from their complicity in the demise of the Wallerawang people. They’ve all passed - the pale-faced conqueror came, he slew them not nor challenged them to fight, that they are gone then can he be to blame, if more his energy and more his might, the fields he has obtained were his by right. The grain of wheat is better than nardoo, it nourishes far more while to the sight, its blade is much the fairer of the two, and should their oxen starve to feed the kangaroo? 

Another example from the Kapunda Herald and Northern Intelligencer, 1864. It begins, they sleep beneath the glassy springs where pensive Wirra bends the head to every breeze that nightly sings a requiem o’er the dusky dead. And shapes in emblematic guise, each lowly mound that swells the sod seems to passing strangers’ eyes a footstep where old time have trod. 

But here interestingly we find the complicity of settler society in the vanishing as it’s perceived of First Nations. Busy your life’s dreams ebbing away, oh on shadowy dream a fear of hate with stern awakening is the grave, yet though the white man spurned your race and deemed you framed of better clay there waits a shore, a narrow place where all his glory fades away. And those grey boughs that sadly wave over the dead sons of want and care, a light shall shade the stranger a grave and he and they will be equal there. 

Now obviously the kind of Christian humanitarian sentiments come through in this particular poem but again there’s a recognition of the complicity of settlers within the supposed passing of the First Nations, the original sovereign owners of the soil.  

Another example, the last of his tribe. Again the similar kind of sentiments about how it is that passing is inevitable, sad, melancholic and interestingly again of all that life held dear, bereft, what boon had the white man’s kindness left. A blanket is cover, a brazen plate in mockery of his falling state and the fire drink in which he sought in vain to find oblivion from want and pain, the visions of lone departed days seem to pass like shadows before his gaze and the ghosts of those comrades long ago rose and beckoned to him from the veil below. 

Now I could go on I think and give other examples but you can see that there is a kind of way in which there’s a sort of complexity of seeking variously to understand what is happening. Is the cause of the supposed passing of first nation settler aggression, is it their own incapacity for improvement somehow? Is it problems working through natural law? What is the causation? How are we going to come to terms with this? He stood alone within the forest shade, sole remnant of a tribe long passed away. The summer air breathed softly through the glade, amidst the leaves the locust sang its lay and here further on, but now the white man held the natives right, pressed down their graves with harsh unfeeling tread and in the furrow with which the ploughshare bright turned up sad relics of the heroic dead. 

Now I hasten to add this is not the most polished or gifted of verse but nonetheless it’s really I think - really very kind of interesting and the insights it gives us, the complexities of responses within settler society to what is believed, erroneously of course, to the passing of First Nations. 

I finish with this one here which actually comes from the diaries and papers of Daniel Matthews. It’s a little bit hard to read and actually is inspired by the horrendous death of a man working on a station for an appallingly brutal and violent station owner. But it’s one that kind of strikes to me – speaks to me at any rate. Hark, I did hear a sound as if from the ground coming from yonder mound where lies the blackfella. Oh God, avenge my blood on him who madly stood on my poor dying clod, ‘though I’m a blackfella.  

Well I’m going to leave it there because I think it’s time I think to kind of open it up to some commentary or questions rather than continue to give myself the chance to speak more about this. But I hope to do so in the near future and to be able to present these findings in a perhaps more – little bit more coherent way. I also should add of course that as Luke said at the beginning we have to grapple I guess with the language of the 19th century and one of the kind of difficult things I guess in coming to terms with our colonial past is indeed the need to encounter or the – and negotiate our way sensitively around the language of the time which thankfully is now lost in the tide of time. Thank you. 


L: Thanks Paul. As Professor Turnbull mentioned we do have time for some questions now from the audience. As we are recording this presentation, we would ask you wait for the microphone to reach you before asking your question. We do have a question from our online audience that I’ll start off with you and give you all an opportunity to warm up your questions. 

So the first question here which has come from our livestream. I am currently working on a masters thesis focusing on the expression of identity in colonial Australian cemeteries. Among other things I’m very interested in examining how First Nations people were buried in European-style cemeteries, what names were they given? What style of monument if any did they use? I’m also trying to identify why some First Nations’ people were buried within Christian cemeteries while others were buried outside the boundaries of the same cemeteries which you did touch on earlier. I’d be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to discuss this with you in person somehow. 

P: Yeah, thank you. Actually it’s a very, very good question and one that I guess has much exercised me over the time that I’ve been here and also recently because I’ve been involved with the Australian South Sea Islanders’ Association in Queensland who are currently in the process of seeking out their ancestors who are buried in the so-called heathen section of cemeteries in Queensland in order to give them the proper headstones, the proper memory, memorialisation that they never had.  

It's an interesting question, I think and one which really deserves greater exploration. A recent report going back – published a few years ago by Heather Goodall and people talking about the situation in western New South Wales out near Collarenebri where there is kind of a long history of continuity in the way that the memorialisation of first nation peoples within the cemetery, those graves have been cared for and looked after and continue to be cared and looked after by the first nation communities of the region and descendants of those people.  

I think there’s a kind of interesting study to be done, I guess, which I’m kind of beginning to sense where for a very long period after dispossession people do try to maintain the graves of peoples who are buried within white cemeteries. Some luckily enough are interred and memorialised. But sadly too what we find is that the standard practice of authorities in the colonial era of course is to just bury first nation peoples in the so-called black section of the cemetery, many of which are now subject to erosion or being encroached upon by the spread of kind of urban development. Probably we do need to kind of think I think about this and whether in fact within the process of reconciliation that we do more in this direction so I’d love to talk to you about this at some stage and the Library has my email address. You can probably find the email address on the web easily enough and it’d be great to talk about that and I think I’ve got some things to learn from you as well, whoever you are. 

A: Thanks Paul, that was a really interesting paper. The poetry you quoted in the illustrative material you used there I think sort of shows that in the colonial period there was a really clear understanding that there was an act of dispossession, that the colonisers weren’t kidding anybody, they knew what they were doing and people were well aware about what happened. That runs a little bit counter to the kind of – the empty land or terra nullius idea that sometimes we hear about, that Europeans had a strong view that this was an empty place. I’m just interested how you – I think perhaps later on that mythology became stronger in the coloniser’s mindset but just your reflection on what are the implications of how European settlers were so aware of exactly what was going on and of course that made some feel uncomfortable and others feel that’s part of the broad movement of European history. Of course in Europe is countless invasions and conquests so they sort of thought it was more the norm but I just sort of wonder how you – how we should process that strong consciousness of what was going on amongst the colonial settlers at the time. 

P: That’s a really, really good question, isn’t it, and a thing to mediate on. I forget when it was but I remember reading some arguments by some – I have to confess I read Quadrant, I think it’s one of the things that kind of keeps me alive and Quadrant kind of always ran this line about oh this whole thing about terra nullius, nobody ever talked about terra nullius in the 19th century, this is all a fiction, da, da, da, da. Interestingly enough I went back to have a look – thanks to Trove, to actually look at the way that terms like terra nullius, res nullius actually turn up in these debates and of course it doesn’t. The debate is about the legitimacy of occupation and that ultimately it boils down to almost a kind of Lockean argument about rights to occupation on the basis of ability to improve as it were which is a view which finds its quintessential expression in John Locke and can be found in American discourse on the dispossession of First Nations in north America.  

I think you’ll find the same thing here, that there’s a kind of very similar kind of debate goes on – the legitimacy or otherwise and much of the debate kind of hinges around questions like well are First Nations capable of improvement in the European [state] 50:43? The usual thing is to sort of say well is the test of native title should be – is agricultural practice. Are there permanent dwellings? I mean so there’s kind of very obviously long, deep Eurocentric account of how you legitimate occupation and so it’s kind of the idea that somehow there’s – and this feeds into the arguments about well there are no real structures or institutional governance etc, etc. But I think that doesn’t come from any kind of sense of terra nullius so much as a debate which has been long going on within the whole process of British colonisation which can be traced back obviously to the charter companies in north America. 

The issue – I think what I find interesting is something which almost parallels what I argued with regards to scientific plundering of the Aboriginal dead, there’s been a tendency to actually sort of say oh this was all pseudo-science, oh this was - they were trying to prove Indigenous inferiority and this is why they did it. They wanted to justify taking the land. Well no and when you kind of look at it you find that there’s very disturbing relationships between scientific ambitions and colonial aggression but it can’t be seen simply in terms of science being the kind of – the handmaiden of colonial dispossession. It’s the case that – when people say to me well why did they do it? The first thing I say is well [tenure] 52:29. In a sense science is prepared to capitalise on the ability to secure remains but it’s science, it’s the mainstream science of the day. It’s not pseudo-science, it’s not something out there. It’s actually – it’s people like Thomas Henry Huxley, it’s people who are at the vanguard as it were of the development of human evolutionary studies in the 19th century. 

What you also find too is that there’s a moral debate about this. Is it right to go ‘round plundering graves for scientific purposes? You get a difference of opinion. Now I think there's a similar kind of thing in terms of - which rises up when you look at the encounters with the Indigenous dead, that it raises these issues about the legitimacy of what’s happened and it’s an attempt to try to come to terms with what is for many people a very distressing thing. It seems to me that there there are parallels between then and now. The debate – I mean Henry Reynolds has made this point when he’s talked about Christian humanitarians of the 19th century and he points out that in a sense we have our counterparts in the 19th century. 

Sure there are significant differences but those debates are there and they’re uncomfortable debates in lots of instances. There are debates which some people can easily kind of resolve like as you get people today who will resolve it. I mean you can think of politicians for example who think it’s quite easy to resolve these issues and some of those are appalling arguments which almost echo the 19th century. But I think that’s the issue, that the lesson to be learnt from this is that these debates have always been there. The question is how do we progress them? Do we fall in that kind of elegiac sentimentalism and the attraction for example of thinking that it's all providential, that it’s all to do with the inevitability of some design of civilisation or some workings of natural law or something that was inevitable, regretfully ‘though it may have been? What lessons does that have for us today when we confront the demands of First Nations for a serious voice which may be constitutionally enshrined? Do we kind of shy away from that? I mean how do we handle that or do we kind of fall back now that we’re having – that debate is occurring today? 

I think looking at the past like that sees that these issues have always been with us and in the past perhaps we have something to learn from the failures which ultimately were connected to things like the ongoing movement to protectionism, to assimilation. I don’t know, I mean but it seems to me that you’re asking a very good question which kind of really just shows that we’ve got a very complicated past that kind of really gives us some resources for some very serious debates, I think, about – and hopefully some very fruitful debates about how we move forward. So I mean this is a long answer but you got me struggling there, actually ‘cause it’s a good point, it’s a very good point. 

A: Thanks Paul. Just to jump off from that. I enjoyed your talk; I enjoy what you’re doing. In the National Library, and you’ve talked a lot about the value of the National Library collections represent what the National Library has traditionally collected, what would happen if you were to – could you engage with Indigenous sources of knowledge around burial spaces and places and memories and oral histories to amplify what you’re trying to do and is that something you’ve thought about doing? 

P: I have, actually. I spent – I squirrelled away a few hours last week to write an application to engage in that very topic. I mean I’ve been blessed over the last 10 years of working in the context of what is now the Return, Reconcile, Renew – there was a network, we’re now a centre at ANU and that’s kind of brought with it a wealth of testimony to the importance of repatriation. But I think what’s also come out of that is the importance of capturing this – again a kind of long history to do with the memorialisation of First Nations and its ongoing importance. So yeah, I mean I would love to see – I’d love to do more of that work and God willing I intend to. But what I’ve been told so far and I'm – as I say I’m blessed to be able to kind of have Indigenous research partners who’ve been prepared to talk about these things to a great degree and far more eloquently than I ever could. Yeah, I think we do. 

The real worry I have of course is does the National Library have the resources to do it? I mean this is – I touched on this to begin with. I do think that our cultural institution’s at a crucial time. I mean when you think of repatriation for example and its importance and the people who were involved in really the first successfully organised campaigning of the 1970s, a lot of them are not with us any longer and they in many instances are the people who were told by their parents and their grandchildren about how it was that the graves had their horses run over. I think we really do need to ideally – something for younger scholars, I suspect too ‘cause – yeah. But a good question, good question. 

A: Thank you, Paul. I was wondering whether you had come across any evidence, and it seems like your research is in early stages, as to whether there was any palisading on – when First Nations’ burial sites were discovered on land that was later settled. 

P: There are a couple of examples. Hello Margie. Good to see you. Yeah, there are a couple of examples that are actually happening. This is very early days but I have this kind of wild idea that there is – there may be some continuities as you go forward with the development of heritage legislation in the 20th century, the first attempts to create so-called Relics Acts and the kind of informal protections which are offered to places of significance and it's not just burial places but [bora] 00:16 areas and ceremonial areas.  

There is a history there to be told and yeah, there are one or two concrete examples that I’ve come across. Also more recent examples. I mean this is the interesting thing, that in the – the folks up at Fitzroy Crossing, for example, the river’s kind of eroded the so-called – the place where the local traditional owners have been buried and they’ve been relocated and there’s a big kind of attempt now to actually identify who they are ‘because they were never identified before and to kind of give them the decent resting places that they’ve long deserved. So it’s a kind of thing that was happening at the time and I’ve got one or two pieces of it but interestingly it's something which there seems to be in a number of communities now desire to kind of do that now as well. 

But it’s early days and I don’t know how much you’ll find of this recorded ‘cause a lot of these things – you come across them by accident. I mean the one that always struck me was to be up at Greenvale, the old Greenvale Station in north Queensland where one of the people who was on Greenvale sort of took me to the local cemetery there and there you find that there’s no real differentiation between the whites, manager, family, owners of the station and then the memorialisation of stockmen from the Gugu Badhun people who worked up there, so much so that in some instances they’re actually given the surname of the family and buried almost – well in one instance actually next to members of the family. So, it’s - you find these surprising things but I think the difficulty is that you don’t always find them in the records as you don’t find a lot of important first nation history in the conventional records.  

L: Unless there’s any last questions – 

P: I can escape. 

L: Alright. Thank you, Professor Turnbull, again. Thank you for sharing particularly the importance around that spiritual and cultural connection and I think that conflict that colonisation caused, there is a lot more to be had in that conversation. 

As we draw to a close today a couple of quick plugs before we leave. Hope you can join us for our next fellowship lecture by Dr Sugata Nandi titled Spiritualist West, Magical Orient: Theosophists and India from 1875 to 1950 which will be on Thursday, the 27th of October. Our website, the National Library of Australia website is the place where you’ll be able to find recordings of our very interesting and very diverse recent talks and performances from our fellows and these are also available on our YouTube channel as well. 

If you’d like to know more about some of our formed collections such as the ones that Professor Turnbull has been using please search the guide to our collections which is available on our website. I’d again like to thank the Stokes family and our other generous philanthropic supporters who make these fellowships possible. Thank you all for attending either in person or online and please join me once again in congratulating Professor Turnbull for today’s thought-provoking presentation. 


End of recording 

Join Professor Paul Turnbull as he presents his 2022 National Library Fellowship research on First Nations-settler relations through the lens of mortality in colonial Australia.

As is well known, colonial dispossession of this continent’s traditional owners rested on the lie that they neither used land for cultivation of any kind, nor dwelt in particular places. And yet, from the early years of European invasion, explorers, pastoralists and bush workers knew well that the peoples whose lands they occupied used particular places to lay their dead to rest.

In this talk, Professor Paul Turnbull shares some of his findings on investigating the National Library’s rich and largely unexamined visual and documentary records of settler encounters with, and reactions to, First Nation burial places. Among other things, he has sought to explore how relations between First Nations and settler communities in rural and remote colonial Australia were influenced, not just by the presence of the Indigenous dead, but also, as time passed, by settlers’ experiences of death and burial.  

Professor Paul Turnbull is a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow supported by the Stokes Family.

About Professor Paul Turnbull

Professor Paul Turnbull is an emeritus professor at the University of Tasmania and holds an honorary professorial appointment with the Centre for Critical Heritage and Museum Studies of the Australian National University. He is known internationally for his research and writing on the theft, scientific uses, and repatriation of the ancestral bodily remains of Australian First Nations and other indigenous peoples. His 2017 book, Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia, has won acclaim for demonstrating that no effort at deciding on the present and future of museum collections of human remains can ignore serious historical research. Since the early 1990s, Paul has served as a consultant researcher for Indigenous Australian representative organizations, Australian and overseas museums, and recently the Australian Government’s International Repatriation Program.