Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region

Corrobborree, or Dance of the Natives of New Sout Wales, New Holland by W. Preston (1820)

ABC Newcastle (Newcastle)
Day Shift -19/02/2008 – 01:30 PM
Presenter: Carol Duncan
Producer: Jeannette McMahon
Interviewee: Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, Newcastle University

With the recent Apology to the Stolen Generations delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last Wednesday (13 February 2008) Newcastle University Archivist Gionni Di Gravio discusses the Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region: an online digital resource containing thousands of scanned documents and manuscripts relating to local Aboriginal Culture.

Broadcast Notes:

Today I wish to promote our University’s Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region located here:

It contains thousands of scanned documents and images relating to the Region and I want to encourage local people to learn more about the Aboriginal Dreaming and culture right here, underneath their feet.

The problem we now face post Apology with many Australians is an education issue. I recently wrote to the Prime Minister to thank him for what he did last Wednesday, it was a magnificent day. It changed the country.

But, if you read the newspapers, or listened to talk back radio you would see that many people in the wider community either didn’t get it, or wondered why it was necessary.

So I suggested to the Prime Minister that he sponsor an advertising campaign. We have had millions in the past spent teaching us why we need a GST, an air force, army and navy, how to vote, the dangers of AIDS, etc and yet, not a cent educating us about our history with the Aboriginal people, and what has happened since colonisation.

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to enrol at the University and study an Australian history course that blew my mind especially about Aboriginal people, learning much that was was not taught at school. From what I can gather listening to people, many are still in that boat, making up assumptions on Aboriginal people based upon childhood impressions. There’s always so much to learn.

It’s really important to be informed about the Aboriginal world, as it’s fundamental to understanding the land. Once we get over this hurdle I believe we will be much better able to look after this land and its people. Locally I think we should do our bit, and the Sourcebook has been our modest contribution towards bridging the divide.

This site was originally created to assist the Awaba project, a collaborative venture by the University of Newcastle’ s School of Liberal Arts and the Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies.

Prior to this, I had become fascinated with the ancient Aboriginal landscape, tracking down hundred year old obscure accounts by surveyors in the field relating to what they came upon in their travels in the Hunter Region. I found myself running down to the stacks in my lunch breaks to comb over old volumes and copy them. It got quite fanatical, until one day I collided into this researcher called Bobby from engineering who was doing the same thing, only over a later period. We decided to exchange articles and I can still remember bringing this massive stack of copies 1 foot together for the first time. Once we started scanning Threlkeld’s material for the Awaba Project, I went berserk scanning all the articles we had collected during those lunchtime sojourns. I remember my poor scanner at the time was like my mother’s pasta machine, I was churning out articles and putting them online like an Italian chef rolling out fettuccine.

The original brief with the Awaba Project was to digitise the works of Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, but we continued to identify materials from the collections relating to Aboriginal people throughout Newcastle and the wider Hunter Region. Due to the assistance of scholars and members of the local indigenous and non indigenous community the site grew rapidly to include many hundreds of sources. It was all very exciting for us, and I felt like we were creating an online Black encyclopedia for the local Regions.

We hope that all this work will inspire people to a better understanding and respect of the richness and beauty of the Aboriginal view.

Percy Haslam examining the only known site of a yellow ochre painted hand. All others are of the familiar stencil type. Circa 1980.
(A7771_i) Percy Haslam examining the only known site of a yellow ochre painted hand.
All others are of the familiar stencil type. Circa 1980.

(A7771) Percy Haslam with a group of students examining a cave
(A7771) Percy Haslam with a group of students examining a cave

In addition the Aboriginal Collections held in the University’s Cultural Collections Unit are vast and of strong research interest, being records of local Koori culture and traditions, rock and cave art in the Hunter Valley, as well as a unique collection of weapons from the estate of the late Percy Haslam, renowned scholar and lover of Aboriginal culture. For further information on the University’s archival holdings relating to Aboriginal Dreaming and Culture:

See the website finding aid:
Aboriginal Dream Time of the Hunter Region

and guide:
Guide to the Collections relating to Aboriginal History and Culture. University of Newcastle Archives Rare Books & Special Collections, Auchmuty Library, 1996

Featured Digital Gallery:
Early Newcastle in the Newcastle Region Art Gallery: A Selection of Digitised Works

For further information on studying Aboriginal Dreaming and Culture at the University of Newcastle visit:
Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies

John Skinner Prout (1806 - 1876) - Near Newcastle on the Hunter, New South Wales. (c.1874-76)
John Skinner Prout (1806 – 1876)
Near Newcastle on the Hunter, New South Wales. (c.1874-76)
Courtesy of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery

Notes on Threlkeld’s First Year in Newcastle 1825 – By Gionni Di Gravio

Joseph Lycett (c1774/75 - 1828) - Newcastle, New South Wales, looking towards Prospect Hill.

Joseph Lycett (c1774/75 – 1828) – Newcastle, New South Wales, looking towards Prospect Hill
(Courtesy of Newcastle Region Library)

The item above is a painting that is located in the Newcastle Regional Gallery. All photographic reproductions of this painting cut off the right hand side showing a dob of white paint, which we understand is the Government cottage that the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld occupied upon his arrival in Newcastle in 1825.

This was the Government cottage we believe was located on the current site of the ruins of the Palais Royale. It was our foundation University Archivist who drew my attention to it back in 2003. No published version of the painting showed the white dab. I rang their curator Donna Robson for permission to bring in a photographer to the Gallery to photograph the whole thing including the extra inch. We were so excited to be able to get the thing photographed and up online.

Soon afterwards I was contacted for information relating to the Newcastle’s West End, especially the Aboriginal connections. I prepared the following notes mostly from the Diaries of Threlkeld published by Niel Gunson in 1974.

Threlkeld sailed from Sydney aboard the Eclipse with his family on the 7th May 1825 and arrived in Newcastle the following day on the 8th May 1825.

On Monday 9th May he made a journal entry that the Commandant had informed him that his cottage was ready. He moved into his cottage which was located “in a very lonely situation a mile and a half from the town” on the Tuesday evening. We believe this was adjacent to Cottage Creek and the site of the present ruins of the Palais Royale.

During the period, besides his preparations for his new abode at Bahtabah, he recorded a number of occurrences at Newcastle in the vicinity of his cottage. (This cottage was painted by Lycett entitled “Newcastle, New South Wales, looking towards Prospect Hill. ”

Look for the little dab of white paint on the right hand side of the painting:

Detail from Lycett's painting

Detail from Lycett's painting

White Robbers
Firstly, on his arrival he said that his greatest fear was from robbers that had burgled him on three occasions, and that he was in fear of being burgled every night. Newcastle having just emerged from being a penal settlement.

A Native Welcome Dance
On the Wednesday evening, 11 May 1825, Threlkeld records that natives had assembled around his house cooking a kangaroo. After they had eaten, they came to invite him and his family to see their dance “which was on account of our arrival among them.” He noted that they were naked and that when “they had concluded they thanked us for our visit and wished us good night.”

Jemmy tells Threlkeld a creation story
Threlkeld on Sunday 15th May 1825 [Gunson p.88] recorded a local creation story in his public journal that he:

“Had some conversation with 4 or 5 Natives who could speak a little broken English, questioned them concerning who made the Sun, moon, stars &c. One of them replied that long while ago one Black fellow threw the vermin from his head into the fire and they jumped up (for became) these things. When they were informed God made them, Me don’t see was the reply for I do not know. Endeavoured to make them understand the object of my mission. They appeared pleased and asked where we should reside in the interiour.” In a retelling of this story in an installment of his Reminiscences published in the Christian Herald 8th July 1854 pp174 – 175 [Gunson p.46] he reveals the name of the Aboriginal who related the story:

“Conversing with an interesting Black, named Jemmy, I endeavoured to ascertain their ideas respecting the creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars. The answer was that a black fellow, a long time ago, made them by throwing vermin from his head into the fire which became a black fellow who made them!”

Native Healing
On the 22nd May 1825 he witnessed a healing ritual performed upon a young girl.

Natives Camped Nearby
On the 29th May 1825 he said that the natives had encamped around their dwelling in Newcastle and had moved around three times previously due to the infestation of fleas that had been attracted to them on account of their dogs.

A Native Burial
On the 3rd June 1825 [Gunson, p.89-90] Threlkeld was invited to witness the burial of a young girl. The location was at a spot in the bushes on a barren sand hill covered with bushy scrub. “After the ceremony of interment was over one came to me and in broken english begged I would not disclose where the body was laid. On enquiring for the reason of this injunction they told me that they were afraid the white fellow come and take her head away.”

Threlkeld reports the atrocities of Whites against Blacks
On 5th Decemeber 1825 he writes to the Attorney General that he had “heard at night the shrieks of Girls, about 8 or 9 years of age, taken by force by the vile men of Newcastle.” He had also seen a man with his head beaten with the butt-end of a musket for not handing over his wife. And also that there are now “two government stockmen, that are every night annoying the Blacks, by taking their little Girls, and I am now waiting to be informed, when they are in the native camp to get them apprehended, but then, as was the case once before, the evidence of the Black cannot be admitted, and indeed they are really terrified to speak. My wonder is, that more Whites are not speared than there are considering the gross provocation given. At this time we resided at the Government Farm Cottage about a mile, or so, from Newcastle.”

On the 12th December 1825 Threlkeld reports that he witnessed an Englishman beating the blacks. Upon inquiring, the Englishman said that they had insulted him, but that he learned that a girl of 10 years old was hiding in the bushes away from the Englishman’s “violence”, and that the person being beaten was the father of the girl who refused to allow her to be taken away by him.

Threlkeld came to Newcastle in 1825 to set up a mission for the Aborigines of the region. Where did the powers at be locate him upon his arrival, but on the outskirts of town, customarily the place where the Aborigines were.

Also generally located on the outskirts of towns are cemeteries, and general white rabble. Nearby was the Honeysuckle corroboree grounds as well as burial grounds.

The official burial ground for whites at that time was Christ Church, but it is a possibility that since Threlkeld records witnessing an Aboriginal burial in the vicinity of his cottage in Newcastle, that it was also an informal burial site for whites as well, especially those who had been executed or for some reason could not be buried at Christ Church.

Honeysuckle Point (or Cottage Creek) cemetery was officially dedicated on the 25th October 1841, with the first recorded Catholic burial being on the 11th May 1842.

It is also possible that ‘Cottage Creek’ got its name from the Government cottages that were located there, and occupied by Threlkeld on his arrival. His record of what he witnessed while living in Newcastle is what I have aimed to present.

It is also interesting that late last year we discovered the actual date of Biraban’s (M’Gill) death, which has remained a mystery until now. Biraban was the famous Awabakal chief who assisted the Rev Threlkeld compile the first grammar of an Aboriginal language in Australia. Scholars have estimated his death as occurring between c.1842-1850. He actually died on the 14th April 1846.

This was made possible by chance clue found in the Rev Wilton’s reply (dated the 1st May 1846) to the Circular ( i.e. Aborigines. Replies to a Circular Letter, addressed to the Clergy, of all Denominations, By Order of The Select Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines. Ordered, By the Council, To be Printed 31st October 1846. Sydney: Printed by W.W. Davies, At the Government Printing Office.). He said that:

“McGill, the Aboriginal Chief of this tribe, by whose assistance the Rev. L.E. Threlkeld compiled his grammar of its dialect, on my speaking to him lately, but a few days before his death, upon this subject, remarked “they died off like sheep.””

Could it be possible that Biraban, who was speaking with Wilton (who incidently was stationed at Christ Church Newcastle) at the time, just days prior to his death, was also buried at the Aboriginal burial grounds in the Newcastle foreshore area. It could be the burial place of one of this region’s most important and influential Aboriginal figures.

Where were the Aboriginal Burial Grounds?
From the Article entitled “Early Burial Place – Borough Market Site” from the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate, 13th November 1915 p.3. Mr Peter Streit (who arrived in Newcastle in 1857) said that the location of the School of Arts in Newcastle was a burying ground for the Blacks.

“Mr Streit avowed that the site of the Newcastle School of Arts was a burying ground for the blacks, but he could not say whether the old market site was similarly used, although it was quite probable, especially as bodies had been found there. Mr Streit said that when he arrived in 1857 the West End Cemetery had just been opened. He remembered at the time old pioneers of thirty and forty years living in the place who referred to the new cemeteries in such a phrase as “What a fuss people make of burying nowadays. Why we used to nail a box together, and put them in the ground.”

Another informant in the same article, Mrs J.S. Rodgers (born in 1843) said that a paddock existed on the present site of the Newcastle School of Arts and that: “The tide came up to that point, and a sandy beach ran along the harbour front to the Queen’s Wharf, which was a squared mound made of ballast.” And also:

“In those days there were many blacks, and they numbered nearly, or quite, as many as the white population. She always understood that the Aborigines were buried in the paddocks in the vicinity of Hunter Street, but they were very reticent as to the actual places where they buried their dead. Mrs Rodgers had no recollection of any white person having been buried in the paddocks, and had never heard of any such internments.”

Then later in the article it says, and I am not sure if this is Mrs Rodgers’ opinion or the author of the article, but:

“It was quite possible that in the very early days, prior to the existence of any actual cemetery grounds, that white people had been buried in the paddocks, where the aborigines had found their last resting place.”

There’s so much in a little dab of paint, isn’t there.

Gionni Di Gravio
18 February 2008

See the story by Mike Scanlon in the Newcastle Herald:
Fear and Loathing – Mike Scanlon Newcastle Herald 21 July 2007 pp.12-13

3 thoughts on “Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region

  1. –We hope that this will lead to a better understanding and respect of the richness and beauty of the Aboriginal view.–

    Well, think how more more understanding and respect would be fostered if the material were presented in html format and not as pdfs. I’m not sure if there are any stats out there but one might suppose a 100-fold reduction in exposure because people are unwilling to download whole unseen documents.

  2. Thankyou Peacay for your comments. We provide access to a variety of delivery formats depending upon the original and and economy of getting it up there. PDF format was the most economical way of getting the whole article up there and making it searching through OCR. It is one of my favourites, but I agree that it doesn’t suit all things. Some items are in HTML format as well as images. With at times limited resources and staff time we do the best we can with what we have. We also have many links to the work of other individuals and organisations that have digitised material of interest to our region. The aim of the exercise was to raise awareness and provide access to historical resources that we beyond the reach of many people in our wider community.

  3. Thanks for your response. I have been thinking about all this without reaching any conclusions. It does raise for me the idea that there is an impediment in the online world to the public having more of a say in the way digital collections are established. I’m not saying specifically that I think that this collection was managed poorly or the like: I accept the mitigating circumstances; rather, I’m just riffing on the idea that whether or not a greater duty having been served flows from converting pdfs to html pages relies soley on resource allocations in your administration and, in effect, does not necessarily reflect what needs will be served in the community or indeed what priorities the community may have with respect to the digitisation sequence, format and presentation. I’m making the bald assumption – which may be wrong I concede – that the decision comes without much in the way of outside consultation.

    Forgive me, I’m not articulating ideas very well and I’m grasping, poorly, for more general ideas than harping on about UoN Library policy, per se.

    I guess what this brings to my mind is that pre-internet we (the public or the student body perhaps) could have at least some influence on, say, what books were bought. It was a question of making such desires known by communicating with the staff. But now, it’s very difficult to know how to contribute to the debate in relation to the priorities and allocation of digital resources in libraries and institutions that hold works of cultural importance.

    I accept that your employees are professionals and that resource allocation and priority setting is part and parcel of the job, but this half thought tickle in the back of my mind wonders if institutions wouldn’t ultimately benefit from, I don’t know, having some sort of a public panel give some input or response to agenda?

    Flowing from this too, is the idea that developing ways to engage with the public could be tailored towards raising capital to establish or fund ongoing projects.

    I seem to recall one or two US university libraries (also big UK public libraries I think) having lists of material that could be digitised and prices they would cost. My marketing knowledge may approximate to zero, but I sense such pragmatic announcements or engagements or whathaveyou with respect to connecting to the community could be tweaked in such a fashion to attract sponsorship and competitions or the somesuch (ethereal, unthoughtout, yes). Similarly, some places have adoptabook programs with sponsorship by people in the community for such things as restoration costs.

    I know, I know….rabbitting on and not wholly relevant to the post at hand. I struggle with all of this because I am an outsider and am admittedly at best only vaguely familiar with some of the issues affecting library policies. But I also have a very strong interest in the availability of cultural and historical material on the internet which, as a hobby, occupies a great deal of my time. In my ignorance I see sparks of opportunity in the library and cultural online community in which innovative approaches may have great potential benefits. But innovation is not always the first word that comes to mind when contemplating online cultural repositories (digital exhibition and presentation sites with exceptional coding styles or similar notwithstanding).

    Just thinking out loud..

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