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Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840

Document 56

Original Document 56

Threlkeld's handwritten report for 1837 of mission at Lake Macquarie



December 30th 1837


Lake Macquarie

New South Wales



The period having arrived in which I am directed by the Right Honorable the Secretary of State for the Colonial Department, annually to report progress, it would afford me great pleasure could a more favourable statement be presented, consistently with truth, respecting the Aborigines than the one now submitted for the year 1837.

            The disappearance of so many of the Blacks laterally in this district; induced me to address a letter to His Excellency the Governor, stating the circumstance and requesting [note on side states "the honourable the Colonial Secretary"] [313] requesting the loans of the official returns of the black natives throughout the Colony for the years 1835, 1836 and 1837 in order to ascertain whether the decrease was merely local or general; and then to consider if, better measures should be discussed than those at present adopted, to make more effectual my employment amongst the Aborigines.   Two modes of proceeding presented themselves, namely, to remove to a more populous part of the Colony, as respects the Blacks, or, to alter my original plan of proceedings , on which I have hitherto acted to suit the   exigencies of the Mission . His Excellency was pleased to favor me with the official documents from which a tolerably correct general return of the Aborigines, within the four Divisions of the Colony, has been compiled, [314] and is attached to this report.   It appears clearly from the returns that the decrease of the black population is not local and temporary, but general and annual.   The returns shew that the greatest portion of the Aborigines is found in the North and North-West district of the Colony the majority being within my sphere of action, whilst there Language differs not materially from the Dialect in which I have made some progress.   Such being the case, it seemed preferable not to remove but rather suspend the translation for the present and endeavour to render available to the natives the works which are finished and have been mentioned in last year's report.   It would be very gratifying to possess printed copies of the four Gospels and the Acts, as originally contemplated, [315] previous to any attempt at oral instruction being extensively made;   but, the unexpected great decrease of the Blacks, and conviction that a further advance in the knowledge of their tongue, will improve the translation, reconciled to postponement of an application to " The British and Foreign Bible Society", to aid to print, until some further period when it may be found necessary to furnish the objects of our attention with the Inspired Epistles, which are "The commandments of the Lord", and the Sole rule of life for our conduct.   Having therefore deliberately considered the peculiar state of affairs, the only course that appear suitable to the pressing occasion is for me "To do the work of an Evangelist", in visiting the neighbouring districts during the ensuing year and endeavour to meet at stated periods, or as occasion [316] serves, the various tribes at Port Stevens and its vicinities the returns of which contain about 500 Blacks; Hunter's river and its dependencies having about 300, and other contiguous tribes, consisting of about 200 more, with whose dialect I am acquainted, and orally teach them the "First Principles of the Oracles of God." The Dialect of the tribes of the Southward being different to those of the Northwood, that Southward District is not contemplated in the present itinerant arrangement.   Circumstances occurred recently in which induces to hope that the attempts may not prove vain in their behalf: At all events no possible loss of time, or labor, can arise, should disappointment ensue on the part of the Aborigines, but good may result situated as we are amongst so many of our countrymen who do not refuse to have dispensed unto [317] them and their dependents " The word of Life." An unforeseen event occasioned my visiting Maitland last month, and being requested to preach at Morpeth, I subsequently met at Hinton, the junction of the River Paterson and Hunter, a small tribe of Blacks who exhibited much surprise at being addressed in their own tongue.   After a number of conjectures they concluded that the speaker must be the person of whom M'gill the Aborigine had spoken, and they appeared to be apprised of the nature of my pursuits.   After some conversation they were requested to attend again at the same place on the next full moon to hear of "The chief of chiefs" whose dwelling is in heaven.   Whether the refusal to accede to their solicitation for money to drink may prevent the fulfilment of their promise to assemble the event must determine.   I trust also to be [318] enabled to visit Port Stevens and surrounding districts early in the next year, to make if possible similar arrangements with other tribes.   Could my aboriginal assistant be induced to act with proprietary and accompany me in such efforts the results might be more pleasing, but like Brainard's in America my most useful Aborigine is the most intemperate in drink.   Years of painfully close application have been sacrificed to the injury of my site and health in endeavouring to acquire a knowledge of the native language, with a view, ultimately of pursuing the same course which at this juncture it becomes necessary immediately to adopt to save if possible the feeble remains of the native tribes.   The numerous disappointments and pecuniary losses to my family arising from the peculiar nature of my employment during the period necessary to [319] be spent in Qualifying for such engagements, have also severely exercised my mind.- Even now we can only endeavour in patience to possess our Souls, and hope almost against hope that "In due season we   shall reap if we faint not."   The present decreasing state of the Aborigines, whilst it urges promptness in our measures, presents a far from pleasing prospect for Missionary enterprise.   Their speedy annihilation being certain, unless it please God quickly to accompany with the influences of his holy spirit the means used of his own appointment to save them, "But how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?   And how shall they hear without a preacher?"

During this year one case only has arisen for trial in the Supreme Court to which I attended as Interpreter.   -- "Wombarty" [320] an aborigine belonging to the interior near Port Macquarie was charged with being concerned in the murder of four Europeans.   The Court humanely appointed Counsel for the Prisoner, and I visited the culprit in jail to ascertain his defence.   The dialect spoken by him being different, I could only elicit through the means of my assistant Black, M'gill, and he communicated partly through another Black belonging to Port Macquarie who was under confinement at the time.   It appeared from his disclosure that the Murder was committed by a strange tribe, which he named, he looking on, in revenge to blacks who were confined in a watch house charged with spearing and slaughtering cattle.   That the tribes were collecting for the purpose of further retaliation on the whites, but, that he only partook of the spoil. - His Excellency the Governor was immediately apprised of their movements [321] likely to take place in that district, that means might be adopted to secure the lives of the unprotected.   We thus ascertained the committal of a dreadful murder by parties named, elicited the occasion of such a Murder, and discovered designs for further atrocities: But when the same means of interpreting were attended in open court, the Black could not be sworn with myself as assistant interpreter and ultimately the prisoner was discharged.   Thus, that, just and equitable, principle which declares, that: "The Aborigines are subject to and under the protection of British Law", becomes a mere Legal Fiction in consequence of means not being duly provided to meet the case and afford legal protection to its subjects in its own courts, and thus the [322] strictness of the administration of the law becomes the height of injustice to all.   It cannot be denied that our circumstances, as a civilised people in connexion with these aboriginal barbarians, were never contemplated by the British constitution, but it remains to be ascertained whether this age of Intellect will provide a suitable remedy in some specific enactment, or, suffer, year after year, the Aborigines to be frittered away from the land by private vengeance injuries publicly sustained, The which injuries the Executive at present cannot punish, but by the horrors of Marshall Law !   Surely it is a matter worthy the prompt attention of   Legislators belonging to a professed Christian Nation, lest there be found those who shed [323] innocent blood and our "Heavens become brass and our Earth iron, and the rain of our land be made powder and dust," through the voice of a Brother's blood crying aloud for vengeance unto God!   The very weakness of the Blacks forms to noble minds the strongest appeal to justice, nor should Equity forget the price of the Land of their birth, which fills the coffers of our Exchequer with Gold, exults Britain amongst the nations; and establishes her Colonies in the destruction of the native inhabitants thereof, and thus presents a powerful claim to the tender sympathies of our Christian Charities.   Whilst the certainty of legal punishment to the guilty would save the innocent, be "A terror to Evil doers", and ultimately prevent the increase of crime.   Under present circumstances [324] the Guilty escape and human justice can only announce the Law as it exists, which bars the door of Equity against the Blacks and leads them to public vengeance, or, to the private revenge of injured Europeans, which steady to its purpose, will surely, secretly, and speedily annihilate the Aborigines from the face of this Land.   Generally speaking, however there is a kindly feeling, a friendly disposition manifested towards the Blacks by the Colonists, and many of the outstations prove places of refuge in cases of danger, whilst other stations are dreaded on account of the barbarity and Violence inflicted on the Aborigines.   A Black refused to conduct a European to one of such suspected stations, stating that he might be shot as many of his countrymen had been without any [325] provocation on their part.   But Aggressions of the most irritating nature have been committed by the Blacks in the interior, in destroying cattle, and in the destruction of human life, and a severe retribution has been made: But the mode of surrounding a herd of cattle, the Slaughtering of the beasts, the preserving of the flesh by smoke and the plaiting of whips from the hides, were the lessons of a convict Stockman, and under such tutors, soon numerous leaves scattered amongst the tribes in the interior, it is not marvellous that they become adept pupils in such arts: Upwards of eighty were shot in retaliation for this affair.

In accounting for the very great decrease in the Black population, it unhappily [326] occurs that the very means used by many to express their kindly feeling towards the Aborigines tends to their destruction, namely: Supplying that there wants with ardent spirits as the wage is most acceptable for any little service, which they are often required to perform.   Thus a first for more is excited, they are then urged on to maddening intoxication, the besetting sin of this Colony, too often to the loss of human life. A determination from the formation of the mission not to adopt the prevalent practice, may be assigned as a potent reason why the Missionary establishment is least likely to become the favourite resort of the misguided Aborigines in their Pagan state.   Divine authority for bidding to "Do evil that good may come," the mortifying circumstances of the frequent desertion of the few Aborigines left [327] alive, from the station must be borne with patients in the exercise of just and conscientious principles.   We are responsible for the means we employ, we are not for success.

Another cause of decrease amongst the tribes may be traced to the swelling tide of Emigration which has universally swallowed up the petty strains of Barbarism and the Aborigines have generally been either driven back to the forests, destroyed by force of arms or have become amalgamated with the overpowering people who thus: "Multiply, Replenish and Subdue the Earth." In this Colony, local circumstances have occasioned the total destruction of the Blacks within its limits, to be less rapid, but not more ultimately certain, than where Martial force has been employed.   - The un -matrimonial state of the thousands of male prisoners scattered throughout [328] the country amidst females, though of another color, leads them by force, fraud, or bribery to withdraw the Aboriginal women from their own proper mates, and disease, and death are the usual consequences of such proceedings.   The Official return from one district gives only two women to twenty eight men, two boys and no girls ! The continued ill-treatment and frequent slaughter of the Black women can only be deplored, perhaps, without remedy.   One Black of the number sentenced to work in irons at Goat Island had previously shot several females and chopped in pieces others with his tomyhawk. - On his return from confinement he joined his tribe sat with them around a fire in the bush, seized a woman, was about to dispatch her, when a black started up and cleft his skull with a hatchet, whilst another [329] was buried in his heart.   Frequently have I noticed in the retributions which have taken place amongst the Aborigines the fulfilment of that Divine decree which declares: "Your Blood of your lives will I require at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of Man. "   Of the surviving culprits, it is pleasing and not irrelevant to state that no depredations have been committed by them on Europeans since their release from irons in Goat Island , for which release they are indebted to the humane consideration of His Excellency the Governor Sir Richard Bourke.   The severity of their punishment, with necessity required, was such to them, that several died whilst under confinement on the Island .

The last, but far from least, calls to mention as occasioning the rapid diminution [330] of the Aborigines of this territory, is far above the control of Mortal man, and not confined to the limits of the Colony.   He who "Increasesth the nation", or, "destroys that there should be no inhabitant," has visited the land, and the Meazles, the hooping cough and the influenza have stretched the Black victims in hundreds of the Earth, until in some places scarcely a tribe can be found.   Of one large tribe in the interior, four years since, there were 164 persons, there are now only three individuals alive!   Many suffered from the ire of human vengeance for alleged acts of aggression, but the most died by the acts of God.

At our former residents on the Lake , upwards of sixty Blacks line mouldering into dust, of whom many were destroyed, by the effects of licentiousness, but more by the epidemic of the time.   The Providence of God having hitherto sustained [331]   us amidst many discouragements, through evil report and good report, in humble, but, firm dependence on his opening a door of usefulness, and a small remnant of the Aborigines being yet preserved to whom the glad tidings of good things may be reported, we can only Hope " That a little one shall become a thousand and a small one a strong nation," and that "the Lord will hasten in due season."

Having thus endeavoured faithfully to report the affairs of the Mission to the Aborigines, and stated the plan of operations for the ensuing year, which the present exigencies require in order to carry into effect the benevolent intentions of the British Government towards the Blacks.   It is with the highest assurance of respect, hoped that the abject state of the decreasing Aborigines of the Colonies may not be forgotten in the considerations and gracious sympathies [332] of Her Majesty the Queen, whose reign, May the Almighty God, Prolong, Bless, Protect, and govern, to the happiness of the Nation, and her own Royal Person, to the Glory of God, and to the Peace and goodwill of All.   -"

                                  I have the honor to subscribe myself


                        You Most Obedient and Humble Servant



[1] This transcription was made from a photocopy of the original document and compared with a transcription made in: Niel Gurson (ed) Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E. Threlkeld: Missionary to the Aborigines 1824 - 1859, Vol1 (1974) 135-137.

Published by the Centre for Comparative Law History and Governance of Macquarie University, and State Records NSW