A note on Sources

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1808: An Overview

There was one act of hostility on the Hawkesbury in 1808. Three Aboriginal men attempted to destroy a crop of hops. One was shot dead, the remainder wounded and a convict servant wounded in the exchange. The letters of A Woodman and the account of Tedbury’s visit to John MacArthur point once more that personal links cut right across divisions of racial identity.

27th of January, 1808

On the 25th of January 1808 John MacArthur senior, was briefly imprisoned by Bligh over his mercantile activities. Governor Bligh was arrested by the NSW Corps on the following day. On the 27th Tedbury came to Macarthur, threatening to kill the Governor. This account comes from A few Memoranda respecting the aboriginal (sic) natives, apparently written by John Macarthur, Junior, sometime between 1817 and his death in 1831. As young John was in England at the time and never returned, one can only assume that the story was recounted to him by his father in 1810 on his visit to England, or mistakenly attributed to young John. The account is important in showing the complex nature of relations between Aboriginal people and settlers.
On one occasion the day after the arrest of Governor Bligh, in 1808, he made his appearance in Sydney, armed with a bundle of spears. And on finding my father safe at his cottage, expressed his joy in the most extravagant manner, saying “Master they told me you were in gaol”. My father had been confined in the common gaol for a few hours the day previously. “Tjedboro, what has brought you here with your spears.” He replied with eyes flashing “to spear the Governor.”’223

August – September, 1808

The following two letters were probably written by George Caley, the botanist. The first provides an overview where he cleverly undermines the “tabula rasa” argument and denies the common assumption that the inland tribes were cannibals. His second letter provides the proof of his defence.
To the Printer of the Sydney Gazette.

Mr. Printer,

If, notwithstanding the little attention which we pay to the customs of the native inhabitants of this country, you may consider a few remarks upon such a subject worthy of insertion, I shall consider myself much gratified in your acceptance of the following:—

Upon our first acquaintance with a people who have never enjoyed the advantages of civilization, we endeavour, as much as possible, to make our-selves acquainted with their manners, customs, and the means of subsistence with which nature has provided them. The civilized adventurer and the uncultivated barbarian discover in each other perhaps a universal difference, save only in the human shape ; and what the one considers an improvement upon man's condition, the other may reject as prejudicial to his native habits, or as contradictory to the nations which he first imbibed, and which are generally very difficult to efface. Even the Friendly Islanders themselves, who upon all occasions appear highly gratified with our intercourse, we have to regret, still retain their superstitions as infrangible, and still continue in the horrible persuasion that human sacrifices are essential to their insular prosperity.
The natives of this country appear to have benefitted as little as could possibly have been expected from their acquaintance with European customs. — Though willing to accept, yet they shew no inclination to procure by exertion any addition to the means which unassisted nature has pointed out for their support; and some of which would seem but little entitled to dream(?), if described. Truly they may be said to have inherited an unconquerable attachment to a state of nature, an insurmountable aversion to innovation, notwithstanding the flattering possibility of advantage from the change. — Acutely susceptible of every unfavorable change in the atmosphere, they are still too indolent to contrive a covering of any kind, though the skins of animals would amply supply their wants in this particular, with little recourse to ingenuity, which they so rarely call into action, as to be considered entirely destitute of. That they associate in tribes has been well ascertained; which may be attributed with respect to the islanders, to an utter dependence on the woods for their support and the inadequacy of any one spot to the sustenance of a large number. It is known also that those upon the sea coast subsist chiefly upon fish ; but how those who are less fortunately situated procure a livelihood at all, must almost appear a mystery:— In this respect the natives of the interior exhibit much stronger proofs of ingenuity than the tribes upon the sea coast have occasion to exhibit as the latter depend more upon the dexterity of their women in their mode of fishing than upon any exertion of their own. This is I believe a fact with which most of us are acquainted ; but the case is very different with the tribes of the interior, with whose resources against want, we are hitherto but partially acquainted. If, however, you consider these observations calculated for the attention of your readers, I shall as soon as they appear furnish you with their continuation, in which I will explain, as far as has come within my personal observation, the modes of life adhered to by the woodland tribes, which I believe have never yet appeared in print.

I remain, &c.

A Woodman.’224

18th of September, 1808

To the Printer of the Sydney Gazette.


My occupation having imposed a temporary absence, I have not before had an opportunity of returning my information relative to the modes of life of necessity resorted to by the inland natives of this territory. In obedience to my promise, however, I transmit to you the following continuation of a subject, which, as I have previously observed, has hitherto escaped typographical attention.

As my remarks are chiefly the effect of personal observation, I shall have little to advance that some individuals are not as well acquainted with as myself; but as this knowledge I know to be very far from general. I am encouraged to proceed from a consciousness that I shall find a few vouchers for the authenticity of my report.

I have had frequent occasion to traverse the interior to a considerable distance, and finding the utility of a native guide, always made election of such as I found most tractable and obliging. On these excursions they never burthen themselves with any other luggage than a spear or two, and a short club, unless they have been fortunate enough to get possession of a tomahawk, which they very much prize. Unprovided with food of any kind, their dependence is on chance. Necessity has habituated them to a relish for whatsoever they can procure, that can at all be used a food, and worms almost of any kind they devour with a hearty relish. With an eye astonishingly acute they discern among the shrubbery as they pass the minutest trace of any object they are in search; which by a sort of mechanical instinct they immediately dart upon, and devour without any kind of cookery. A short white worm, weighing sometimes two ounces and perhaps more, they search after with avidity between the exterior and inner bark of the gum tree. At the distance of many paces they discern a slight protuberance occasioned by its residence, though scarcely if at all discernable to me upon a near approach. A single stroke with the club they carry, in general drags the reptile from its confinement, and in an instant it exists no more. Hence we must still acknowledge that Nature has been bountiful to all her children; for although I could myself have submitted to death or famine rather than have partaken of a repast which upon a short experience sickened me to look at, yet he has providentially moulded their appetites to such subjects as he has provided them, and for which, I have no doubt, they would forego the nicest dainties, and give to the humble grub a decided preference to the costly calipee.225 The hive in its proper season, frequently affords to them a delicious solace ; the bees which they contain are small but numerous; and so regardless are their captors of any future benefit that might be derived from the labours of the swarm, that few, if any, escape the general massacre. The hives are formed in the hollow branches of trees; near to the butts of which some traces are perceived which betray the devoted hive, though not at all perceptible to me, even when pointed out. By casting the eye with minute attention gradually upwards, keeping the tree between the sun and their own persons, they perfect the discovery, and then proceed to take possession of the hive, by lopping off the branch, if otherwise beyond their reach, and this sometimes is a work of patient labour, as they seldom are in possession of any implement better adapted to the purpose than a kind of axe formed from a piece of hard stone, ground to a sharp edge.

The hive brought within their reach, their next object is to secure the whole commonwealth ; which they effectually accomplish by reducing all to a round mass, so that none escape ; this performed, the festival commences, which of all others appears to gratify their appetites the most. This honey I have very often tasted of, and its flavour exquisite; but I could not be persuaded to try the flavour of the bee itself, which my accidental companies appeared to be highly delighted with.

I shall now venture to describe another delicacy, which perhaps will find but very few inclined to treat it otherwise than as fiction, though convinced I am that many at present in the colony have borne testimony to the fact. This is the ant feast, and not the least disgusting of their customs to a stranger. In the various parts of trees that are decayed, prodigious nests of ants are frequently to be found; and after these they search with unexampled assiduity. A glutinous substance, upon which I am inclined to think the ant itself subsists, oozes from the wood, and is sometimes hardened by exposure to the wind. Upon disc very of a nest, they carefully lay it open, and with a little trouble mould the gum, with perhaps whole millions of living subjects into one general mass. While some are thus employed, others are rending from the white gum tree the inner bark, which is remarkably fine; and having procured a sufficient quantity they beat and rub it through their hands until it is reduced to the softest state possible. This with the nest is seated in the center of the group, who indiscriminately separate small pieces from the coagulated lump, which carefully wrapped in bark, they hold in their mouths until divested of every particle of moisture. What portion of real nourishment they could derive from so unaccountable a process I am at a loss to imagine; but I nevertheless perceived, that they appeared as well satisfied with this repast, as any of the guests of Epicurus could have been at his most sumptuous entertainments.

With a repetition of my former promise

I remain, &c. A Woodman’226

25th of October, 1808

The Sydney Gazette reported an attack on William Singleton’s farm in which his servant was wounded by a tomahawk and one of the attackers shot dead by his sons, Ben and Joseph. Singleton and his children had two farms close to each other, one on the left bank of Lower Freeman’s Reach and another at Bushell’s Lagoon. The description of the attackers as “a few stragglers” signals that active Aboriginal resistance on the Hawkesbury had largely ceased after 1805. The incident is almost unique in that most fighting tended to be on the edge of settlement, not in relatively closely settled areas. As well, the attempted destruction of a hops crop is also unusual as most attacks appeared to have been on corn crops, or sheep and pigs. It is possible that the reason for the violence may not have been that which was reported. The disparaging tone of the passage may well have encouraged settler reprisals.
The second paragraph in the article is important in that it shows the increasing numbers of horses in the colony. Horses would give settlers greater mobility in dealing with hostile Aboriginal people.
On Monday last a servant on the Farm of W. Singleton at Hawkesbury observing Several natives wantonly destroying some hops growing near his master's house, desired them to desist; at which they became enraged, and with a tomahawk wounded the man severely on the legs, so as to cripple him. The sons of Mr. Singleton, hearing his cries, came to his assistance; and on learning the cause of his disaster, with muskets pursued three of the assailants, whom they fired at; and, as we are informed, shot one dead:— the others made off, but were supposed to be wounded. We should be sorry to predict any further consequences from the above circumstances; but we know from experience that when these people are inclined to mischief, it becomes the settler's duty to guard with every vigilance against them; and to be cautious of their intercourse, lest they be deceived by counterfeited familiarity designed to throw them off their guard,

and then treacherously to take advantage of their presumed security. From their friendship we can gain nothing; but from their enmity we have much to apprehend. It is to be hoped, however, that from the above act of aggression of a few stragglers we

are not to anticipate the revival of excesses, at the recollection of which the imagination shudders.
On Monday last Mr. Matthew Lock, settler and district constable at Hawkesbury, had the misfortune to have his left leg broken, near to the ankle, by a fall from his horse.’227
In 1808 there were no land grants in Mulgrave district and one grant of five hundred acres at Richmond Hill in July.

1808: Conclusion

After 1805 there were no more gatherings of large numbers of Aboriginal warriors on the Hawkesbury. Whether this reflected the impact of the 1805 peace or declining numbers is unclear, however, the term, “stragglers”, and later correspondence points to the latter.

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