Fragments of a Song - A Brief Search for Historical Truth

David Tranter will be giving the "Fragments of a Song" talk at the Wingecarribee Reconciliation Group Meeting on Sunday, March 19, then at the Southern Highlands History Association on Thursday May 25, 2000.
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The words Fragments of a Song come from Judith Wright (1), one of Australia's most distinguished living poets

"Where now outside the weary house the pepperina,
that great broken tree with its blind hands
and sings the moment in the magpie's voice, there he stood once
that redhaired man, my great-great grandfather,
his long face amiable as an animal's,
and thought of vines and horses.
He moved in that mindless country like a red ant,
running tireless in the summer heat among the trees -
the nameless trees, the sleeping soil, the original river -
and said that the eastern slope would do for a vineyard.

In the camp, by the river, they made up songs about him,
songs about the wagons, songs about the cattle,
songs about the horses and the children and the woman.
These were a dream, something strayed out of a dream.
They would vanish down the river, but the river would flow on,
under the river oaks the river would flow on,
winter and summer would burn the grass white
or red like the red of the pale man's hair.
In the camp by the river they made up those songs
and my great-great-grandfather heard them with one part of his mind.

And in those days
there was one of him and a thousand of them
and in these days none are left neither a pale man with kangaroo-grass hair
nor a camp of dark singers mocking by the river.
And the trees and the creatures, all of them are gone.
But the sad river, the silted river,
under its dark banks the river flows on,
the wind still blows and the river still flows.
And the great broken tree, the dying pepperina,
clutches in its hands the fragments of a song."

Early New South Wales Governors received the following instructions from the Crown (King George III) (2)

"You are to endeavour by all possible means to extend your intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence."

Early contact between Europeans and Aborigines in the NSW Southern Highlands was made by the French explorer, Francis Barrallier, a young man with a lot of heart and courage (3). In 1802, his party moved through "The Cowpastures" southwest of Sydney, through the Nattai to the Wollondilly River and up to the heights above where Yerranderie now stands.

Along the way he met and befriended the Gundungara people.

" The place where I decided to spend the night was the territory of the mountaineer Bungin, he wrote in his Journal. " He gave proof of his friendship and gratefulness for my good treatment by building a hut for me and I was thankful of his kind attention. The natives do not allow a stranger to inhabit the territories they have appropriated to themselves.

They themselves build huts for the strangers they wish to receive as friends."

Two Illawarra settlers who took a personal interest in the welfare of Aborigines with whom they came in contact were Alexander Berry of Shoalhaven Heads, and Charles Throsby of Bong Bong -

"The first Native in whom I took an interest", recalled Alexander Berry (4), "was old Bungaree in the year 1819....... About the same time I had a great deal of conversation with another intelligent native at the country house of Mr Oxley, the late Surveyor General. I asked him if they could not erect houses for themselves like the men's huts which would afford them more protection from the weather than a sheet of bark. He replied that no doubt they could do so and that such huts would afford them better shelter, but that it would not suit their mode of life. That it was necessary for them constantly to change their place of residence in search of their subsistence and that their means of subsistence had become more scanty since the country had been occupied by white men. That the sheep and cattle eat all the grass in consequence of which Kangaroos had become very scarce and that they now lived chiefly on squirrels and opossums and such small animals."

Michael Organ of Wollongong University (5) , outlines in more detail the sequence of events that led to this unhappy state of affairs

"Following initial sorties by European `explorers', soldiers or adventurers (who were usually treated kindly by the local natives and often assisted on their way), itinerant lawless white men and convicts would move onto the traditional lands of the Aborigines to cut cedar, graze sheep and cattle, and prepare land for pasture and farming; they were shortly thereafter followed by squatters and settlers who erected stockyards, huts and fences, and planted crops, customarily close to areas where fresh water was abundant - which also happened to be where the Aborigines traditionally camped and were often considered sacred sites.

"The Aborigines would initially protest, he continues, "wherein they would be forced away by the power of the gun and/or slaughtered - or accept the strangers and gladly share their resources. Perhaps they would move on for a couple of months, hoping the Europeans and their strange animals would be gone when they returned. Unfortunately the white people stayed , and when the natives returned they either came into conflict with the whites or tried to co-exist. The Europeans now considered the land theirs alone, and would erect fences and install vicious guard dogs to keep away all strangers, including the local Aborigines. Sharing crops with the natives was not considered a moral or social duty.

"The Europeans' farming and grazing practices resulted in the destruction of traditional Aboriginal food supplies. Kangaroos, wallabies and opossum, along with many other native birds and animals were frightened away by the cattle and sheep, and hunted by the Europeans with their guns and dogs; native grasses and plants were destroyed by stock feeding, to be replaced by crops of corn and wheat; and vast deforestation programs were carried out by settlers and convicts. The often scarce water holes and creeks supplying fish and fresh water, were polluted by man and beast, or dried up. The landscape became scarred with the effects of erosion and incompetent farm practices. The land which the Aborigines had nurtured and revered for thousands of years was now being ravaged.

"With such a degradation of their traditional environment in usually a short space of time, the Aborigines were placed in dire straits. Their very survival was threatened. The only course of action was to obtain food from those new sources introduced by the whites, including wheat, corn, bread, meat, sugar, tea, milk, etc and as the whites would not freely supply these provisions, the natives were forced to `steal' them (at least that is how the settlers saw the situation), appropriating crops and occasionally killing sheep and cattle. As the Aborigines were traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, these items were taken for day-to-day survival only.

"This `violation' of the settlers' property was seen as the most dastardly crime .......Their raids usually resulted in violent retaliation by whites".

Clearly, frontier conflict was about land and food and survival. It was all a matter of interest - and the interest of the settlers prevailed.

A recurring theme in my story is the Cowpastures area, the region where Camden stands today. The first "settlers" in this area were the cattle that escaped from the hungry land around Sydney Cove to find lusher pastures.

Hard on their heels, and less than two years after Bungin formally welcomed Barallier as an honoured guest, John Macarthur settled down in the best part of the traditional lands of the Gandangara people to graze sheep (6)

" Macarthur presented a memorial to the Privy Council in 1804", the 1888 Atlas of Australasia records, "praying that he should be allotted 60,000 acres and thirty convicts as shepherds. Lord Camden, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, sent a despatch to Governor King under date 31st October 1804 in which he desired his Excellency to `have a proper grant of land, fit for the pasture of sheep, conveyed to the said John Macarthur Esq in perpetuity'. The land now known as the Camden Estate, which had been really selected by the cattle that had strayed from the settlement in the early days, and who had made tracks for the sweet grass in the whinstone country, was chosen for the purpose, ..... the scene of one of the most successful enterprises that ever blessed the industry of man."

History, it has been said, is written by the victors, not the victims.

Documented in the annals of the Macarthur family (7) are two key questions that the Privy Council asked of John Macarthur -

"Is there a very considerable quantity of grass land in New South Wales, in Common and unemployed?", the Privy Council asked............."There is a very considerable quantity of pasture land both clear of wood and covered with wood, fit for cattle and sheep," Macarthur answered.

"Do the natives mix with the settlers?", the Privy Council asked .......... "They come amongst the settlers familiarly, but have no fixed abode, and live upon what they can find for themselves", replied Macarthur.

Within 12 years of Macarthur's land grant, the Cowpastures was the scene of a bloody war, a frontier conflict that was repeated time and time again across the length and breadth of the Australian continent. In 1814, during the course of a prolonged drought, when food was short for everyone, Governor Macquarie issued this General Order (8) to white settlers

"It appears that the natives have lately shown a disposition to help themselves to a Portion of the Maize and other Grain belonging to the a Manner very different from their former habits; and the latter have of course just Grounds of Complaint for the Depredations committed upon them. But whilst it is to be regretted that the Natives have thus violated the Property of the Settlers, it has not appeared in the Examination of Witnesses that they have carried their Depredations to any alarming Extent, or even to the serious Prejudice of any one individual Settler."

But the damage had been done. The settlers retaliated and the Natives hit back. A war had begun. Governor Macquarie's instructions to his 46th regiment on April 9th, 1816 (9) were :

" On any occasion of seeing and falling in with the Natives, either in bodies or singly, they are to be called on, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon them and compel them to surrender, breaking and destroying their spears, clubs and waddies of all those you take prisoners. Such Natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on trees in conspicuous situations, to strike the Survivors with the greatest terror."

The Journal of one of Macquarie's officers (10) records his part in the 1816 war

" A little after one o'clock am we marched. A few of my men who wandered on heard a child cry. I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek. The dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs. A smart firing now ensued. It was moonlight. The grey dawn of the moon appearing so dark as to be able to discover their figures bounding from rock to rock. I regret to say some had been shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. Twas a melancholy but necessary duty I was employed upon.

Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions. I regretted the death of an old native Balyin and the unfortunate women and children from the rocky place they fell in. I found it would be almost impossible to bury these."

This is the stuff of dreams; the stuff of nightmares; the stuff of history - and that not so long ago either - only nine years, in fact, before the birth of my own grandfather. Clutched in the dumb branches of those broken trees on the precipice where innocent women and children rushed in despair to their death are half-forgotten fragments of Australian history.

In 1836, two Quaker visitors and their Aboriginal guides arrived in the traditional lands of the Bong Bong people and were put up at Throsby House.

At that time, this was still wild country, Wollongong was little more than a fort and Kiama only a few cottages. James Backhouse and James Walker were Quaker visionaries and thinkers, out in the colonies to observe how convicts and Aborigines were treated.. They had journeyed up from the Illawarra coast to Kangaroo Valley where Backhouse recorded in his Journal (11)

" Three tribes of Blacks were assembled here last night; one belonging to the neighbourhood, and the others to Shoalhaven and Bong Bong. There were 40 men in one of these tribes: they were going to the Cowpastures to learn a new song that had been invented by some of their country people there!

For an object of this kind, they often travel great distances. In the morning eight of them, in addition to the three we had engaged, chose to accompany us on our journey."

History does not record the Song that they learned from their Gundungara kinfolk, the survivors of the 1916 massacre, but it may well have scarred their minds and hearts and souls. Such stories are stories that we need to know. They are fragments of our history - a part of our Dreaming - and we need to put the fragments together from time to time if we are to understand the whole story.

Mick Dodson (12) tells the following tale about the Jawoyn people in the Northern Territory

"It's a story of ancestor heroes", he begins, "who did wondrous deeds, created rivers, created the landscape, the escarpments, and many, many other things - Not just the Jawoyn. It involves the Wardaman, and the Malak Malak and the Mangarrayi and the Alawa. Each group has a place in the story, each group has a share of the song, each group owns a form of the artwork, each group has a part to play in the dancing and ritual and ceremony that celebrates those heroes. They've all got a little different bit, but it's all part of one big story. Every now and then, every 7 to 10 years, all the groups come together, and they celebrate the whole story, the full story.

That's what I think we need to do as a nation", Mick said, " if we're to achieve an acknowledgment, a recognition of who we are, where we've come from, what we share, the good and the bad, the warts and all. We all have a story, we all have a song, we together have a history, some of it's sad, some it's glad, some of it we celebrate, some of it we pound our chest over, some of it we're deeply ashamed of. But nevertheless it's ours.

These are the important things to me in reconciliation. Recognising that we all have a little part, that we all share the story, that we're all accountable to the story, we're all responsible for the story. We acknowledge the terrible parts of the story, we recognise the truth of it so that we can go forward with optimism, celebrating our future, feeling secure in it, not excluding any one of us, regardless of how small our part is in the dance, how short our verse is in the song, how small the snippet we contribute to the rich portrait of our history."

In her 1999 Boyer Lectures, "True Stories" (13) , Inga Clendinnen said:

" We need history: not Black Armband history and not Triumphalist White-out history either. But good history, true stories of the making of this present land, none of them simple, some of them painful, all of them part of our individual histories......While the past is past, it is not dead.

Its hand is on our shoulder.

"As for what is to be done", she asks, echoing the words of the great historian E.P. Thompson (14) "This is not a question we can ask of history. It is, this time, a question history asks of us."

Contrary to what some leaders think, I do not accept that reconciliation is rooted in individual or collective guilt. The seeds of reconciliation are something else, namely pride and shame. Pride and shame go together, they are what they are - two sides of the same coin - day and night; birth and death; pride and shame - joint elements of our emergence as a nation.

Furthermore, they are not items of an accountant's balance sheet, like debit and credit, to be subtracted one from the other to calculate whether or not, on balance, we now have a proud or shameful past

The year 2000, give or take a few millenia, marks the fortieth millenium of human habitation on the continent we call Australia. This year, each one of us has an opportunity, according to one's own conviction and in one's own individual fashion, to embark upon a personal Journey of Healing. Are we content to continue as a diminished and divided nation ?




1. Judith Wright (1999), Half A Lifetime. Edited by Patricia Clarke, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 296 pp.

2. King George III, Phillip's Instructions. Historical Record of NSW, Volume 1, Part 2, p.89 and Macquarie's Instructions. Historical Record of NSW , Volume 7, p.135

3. Ensign F Barrallier (1897) Journal of a Tour to the Cowpastures and Menangle, 6 November-18 December 1802. Historical Record of NSW, Volume 5, Appendix A, 749-825

4. Alexander Berry (1838) Recollections of the Aborigines, Archives of NSW, Supreme Court Papers, Cod 294, Part B, pp 557-608. (Source: Michael Organ 1990, p 229

5. Michael Organ (1990) A Documentary History of the Illawarra and South Coast Aborigines, 1770- 1850. Aboriginal Education Unit, Wollongong University, 520pp.

6. Andrew Garran (1978) Australia, the First Hundred Years. Facsimile of Volumes I and II of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia 1888. 530 pp, 700 illustrations Gazette, 18 June 1914 (Source: Michael Organ 1990)

7. S.Macarthur Onslow (1914) Some early records of the Macarthurs of Camden. Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 496 pp

8. Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1814), Government and General Orders, Government House Sydney,

9. Governor Macquarie (1916) to Captain Schaw, 46th Regiment, Archives of NSW, Reel 6045, 4/1734, pp 149-168. (Source: Michael Organ 1990, p. 64).

10. Captain Walliss (1816) to Governor Macquarie, 9 May 1816, Archives of NSW, Reel 6045, 4/1735, pp 50-59. (Source: Michael Organ 1990, p.77)

11. Edgar Beale, Winifred Mitchell and Michael Organ (1991).- Backhouse and Walker in Illawarra and Shoalhaven, 1836 Edgar Beale Memorial Volume, Illawarra Historical Society, 108pp

12. Mick Dodson (1999) An Address to the NSW Reconciliation Convention, "Talkin' Up Reconciliation", Day 3 - Land and Culture, pp 31-32

13. Inga Clendinnen (1999), True Stories, ABC Lecture Series, 1999, 118 pp.

14. E.P.Thompson (1997) Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944, Stanford University press, Stanford

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