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Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840


This site contains some of the most important documents in the history of indigenous and British peoples in Australia. These are the first documents to be published as a result of a joint endeavour between Macquarie University's Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance and the State Records NSW. The original documents are held by the State Records, with the title Miscellaneous Correspondence Relating to Aborigines (SRNSW: NRS 13696, [5/1161]). There are 867 pages in these files, most of them handwritten. Most of the documents concern NSW.

Covering the period between 1797 and 1840, the documents are a loose collection of materials which we believe were collected by Justice William Burton of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Justice Burton was one of the most important figures in the history of the relationship between the British and indigenous peoples of early colonial Australia. He was the trial judge in the second Myall Creek trial ( the person who sentenced the murderers to death), and he wrote the leading judgment in R. v. Murrell, 1836. Our reason for thinking these documents were collected by Burton are that they include correspondence to the judge, they include drafts of his judgments (including apparently accidentally a draft of a case on an unrelated issue) and that the documents frequently include examples of his distinctive (sometimes illegible) handwriting.

We think that these documents are as important for history as they are for law. Violence on the frontier is one of the most controversial aspects of Australian history, and here it is possible to read some of the most important documents transcribed as accurately as we can. Among thethe documents are

  • orders by early colonial governors concerning the treatment of indigenous people
  • draft judgments in important cases
  • correspondence with and reports by Rev Threlkeld, a pivotal figure in these documents and in the legal relationship with indigenous peoples
  • evidence of massacres and other violent interactions.
  • an attempt at a dictionary of an indigenous language.

We have published copies of the original images of all of the 867 pages of original files.

To make the material accessible, we intend to transcribe as much of the original material as we can, and to post it here. (Numbers in square brackets are page numbers in the original file.) We will continue to transcribe and proofread documents in order of their importance. We have created links between the transcribed material and the images of the original pages.

It is a gigantic task to transcribe and proofread over 800 pages of 200 year old handwriting. If any readers are willing to do some voluntary transcriptions and proofreading, please let us know.

We are most grateful for the agency's permission to reproduce these documents, and for Austlii's great assistance.

Those who worked on this project are: Christine Yeats (SRNSW), Brent Salter, Lisa Ford, Ashley Hogan and Bruce Kercher.

This project is part of a larger project aimed at uncovering and publishing the legal decisions of the colonial courts of NSW and VDL, as well as the pre-1850 decisions of the Privy Council, on appeal from the Australian colonies.

Bruce Kercher and Brent Salter, October 2006

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