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Sir George Grey Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands

Government of South Australia — 1841-1845. ætat 29-33 — Chapter IV — Native Policy

page 41

Government of South Australia
1841-1845. ætat 29-33
Chapter IV
Native Policy

Attacks on parties of Overlanders by the native tribes on the banks of the Murray River—Organization of relief parties in Adelaide—Captain Grey's instructions to Major O'Halloran—Reversal of the policy of Colonel Gawler—Battle of the Rufus River—Results of the inquiry in Adelaide—Captain Grey's schemes for the civilization of the natives— Regular work for adults—Boarding-schools for children—General observations on Captain Grey's native policy in South Australia.

Captain Grey's self-mastery, resourcefulness, and studious interest in the natives attracted the attention of the Imperial authorities, and when the necessity arose for the adoption and maintenance of a policy of rigorous retrenchment in South Australia he was sent to supersede Governor Gawler, under whose administration the Colony had become involved in financial embarrassment. Captain Grey arrived in Adelaide in May 1840, and was confronted with a native as well as a financial problem. In both cases he swiftly determined to reverse the policy of his predecessor, and in doing so was only carrying out the instructions of the Imperial Office. Governor Gawler was an affable, kindly man who had a genuine interest in the natives; and several incidents during his administration show that he was resolved to uphold their claims to consideration in case of aggression. But in his dealings with the Milmenrura or Big Murray tribe who had murdered the crew and passengers of the wrecked Maria he applied the page 42law of war. Major O'Halloran had been sent to the vicinity of Lake Alexandrina with instructions to make prisoners if possible without bloodshed, select the guilty from among them, try them in the most formal manner, obtain the opinions of the gentlemen with him and of the friendly natives, and then, if proof were satisfactory, to pass sentence and proceed to execution. Invested with these military powers the Major proceeded to the Coorong, and on August 25, 1840, two aboriginals by name of Moorcancagua and Mangarawata were hanged immediately over the graves of the white men who had been murdered at Pilgaru. There was much dissatisfaction in Adelaide with both the Major and the Governor; but the latter, without giving his approval of all that Major O'Halloran had done, stoutly maintained his opinion that natives outside the settled districts, though within the province, must be treated as a separate state or nation; and since the whole tribe had acquiesced in these murders, they were beyond the jurisdiction of the British courts, and must be treated as a people at enmity with Her Majesty's subjects.

On Grey's arrival there was trouble at some distance up the Murray River near the border of the Colony. Mr. Inman, an overlander, was attacked, some of his sheep were stolen, and although he was assisted by a relief party from Adelaide he was unable to recover them. It was well known that Mr. Langhorne was following on the track of Mr. Inman, and fears were entertained for his safety now that the natives were emboldened by success. On the understanding that the greater part of the expense should be defrayed by those who were financially or personally interested in the page break
Captain Grey, Governor of South Australia.From a war model by Mr. Walker(?) in the Art Gallery, South Australia

Captain Grey, Governor of South Australia.
From a war model by Mr. Walker(?) in the Art Gallery, South Australia

page 43overlanders, the Governor consented to organize a relief party with Major O'Halloran at the head.

But it was to be a police not a military force. Contrasting his own point of view with that of Colonel Gawler, he avowed his determination to treat the aborigines as "subjects of the Queen within Her Majesty's allegiance." Not only were all prisoners to be brought back to Adelaide for trial, but a protector of the aborigines was to accompany the expedition, and he was to do his utmost to convince the natives that he was their friend, willing and anxious to obtain redress for their grievances.

On June 22 the party fell in with Mr. Langhorne, who informed them that the natives had already made an attack upon him at the "Hornet's Nest," carrying off some of the cattle and killing four of his men, among whom was Mr. Martin, whose body was afterwards found shockingly mutilated. When news of this reached Adelaide the excitement became intense, because a third party of overlanders under the leadership of Mr. Robinson were making their way along the Murray toward the South Australian border. Representations were made to the Governor asking him to take summary vengeance on the natives before any further atrocities were committed. But Grey was not the man to be moved by the clamour of a few excited people; and his reply does him credit: "I can never sanction any mode of punishment," he said, "which may involve alike innocent and guilty men, women, and children in its consequences." His original instructions were adhered to, but it was ultimately found impossible to avoid a battle. In the vicinity of the Rufus River the relief party joined forces with Mr. page 44Robinson, who had already beaten off one attack. Emerging from the reed and scrub a company of one hundred and fifty natives advanced toward them in the form of a semicircle, "yelling and brandishing their spears." No gun was fired till at the extremities of the half-circle the more intrepid among them came within thirty yards. The situation became critical. To allow so many savages with four hundred spears to come to close quarters would be an act of folly. The order to fire was given and the battle began. It lasted only a few minutes, for the natives turned and fled, leaving thirty of their number dead and ten wounded. There was no casualty on the European side.

Major O'Halloran had been forbidden by his instructions to use firearms or other weapons except in self-defence, and then only to the extent that was absolutely necessary. When the news reached Adelaide the Governor determined to hold an inquiry "in order to create a conviction in the public mind of an impartial and scrupulous administration of justice in all cases of this nature." Captain Sturt, the great explorer and friend of the natives, was appointed president. In addition to the Europeans two aboriginals—Panki Panki and Pulkanka—were examined. There was some difference of opinion concerning the "threatening manner" in which the natives approached, and one witness denied that the order to cease firing was promptly obeyed. But it was unanimously decided that in making an attack the Europeans had not violated the terms of their instructions, and they were even commended for their forbearance.

In consenting to organize a relief expedition the Governor had hinted that the overlanders were inclined to undertake page 45too much risk in order to secure greater gain. The inquiry showed that he was justified. Mr. Robinson's party carried eight muskets, and in the action only two of them would go off! On the recommendation of the court of inquiry the Secretary of State ultimately decided that for the future overland parties should be organized under an appointed leader; that they should be better equipped, and reinforced to such an extent that the natives would not be tempted by the paucity of their numbers to continue their attacks. The Governor was also instructed to establish a military force at Moorundee to protect the overlanders in case of emergency; but mainly to conciliate the natives by kindly and generous treatment under the direction of some man who had experience among them and understood their habits. Edward John Eyre, the intrepid explorer of the shores of the Great Australian Bight, was placed in command of the station.

In his arguments before the Legislative Council Colonel Gawler referred to the "ferocious aggression" of the Murray tribes as a further justification for his instructions to Major O'Halloran; and the opinion still prevails in South Australia that they were distinguished from other tribes by this characteristic. The evidence of the most reliable authorities goes to show that this opinion is erroneous. Captain Sturt became well acquainted with them during his expedition down the Murray in 1830, and, when the relief party was organized, he begged the Governor to appoint him leader, so that there might not be any unnecessary violence. His request was not granted because his eyesight was already failing, and the Governor had need page 46of him in Adelaide. Next to Captain Sturt the most reliable authority is Mr. Eyre, who visited the tribes near the border shortly after his appointment to the native station at Moorundee. On his return he furnished a report on the tribes living along the banks of the Murray as far as the Rufus River, showing that their numbers had been overestimated and their ferocity greatly exaggerated: "In our route," he said, "we went among them as freely, and slept with them encamped around us as soundly as we should have done in our own district."

If any further refutation were required it might be found in the evidence adduced at the inquiry in Adelaide, from which it became clear that the overlanders were attacked, not because the tribes were ferociously aggressive, or that they thirsted for revenge; but simply because "the temptation of having food within reach, and with little trouble, was too great for them to bear."

Captain Grey's dealings with the natives were characterized by firmness strongly tempered with kindness; and whatever judgment may be passed on the intrinsic merits of his native policy as compared with that of Colonel Gawler, he was justified by complete success. The depredations ceased, and the natives were reconciled. In transmitting Eyre's report to the Secretary of State at the beginning of 1844 he was able to point out that "our relations with the tribes inhabiting the banks of the Murray and Darling are now of the most amicable and satisfactory character."

His main object, however, was to familiarize the natives with the practices of civilized peoples by inducing the adults to take some share in regular industry. In 1843 fourteen page 47youths were engaged as porters to store-keepers in Adelaide; about seventy acres of wheat, barley, and oats were reaped by those who were employed at Encounter Bay, and a like number were employed in harvesting near Adelaide. During his administration, too, an ordinance was passed to allow the aboriginal inhabitants of South Australia to give information and evidence without the sanction of an oath; but the degree of weight and credibility to be attached to such evidence was to be left entirely to the discretion of the justices.

But the Governor's hopes for the civilization of the natives were centred in the children. "The whole of my experience in Australia," he wrote, "has led me to conclude that no means are more likely ultimately to bring about the civilization of the aborigines than bestowing a useful education on the children, and having them carefully brought up in quiet and respectable European families." So he established boarding-schools at Walkerville and Encounter Bay, and intended to have another at Port Lincoln. Here the piccaninnies were instructed in the three Rs, in sewing, and in tilling the ground. The Governor and his lady visited them, and their little dusky friends wrote letters about their achievements which were not only eagerly read, but also preserved by the great man whose heart was in his work among them. In the country, settlers were rewarded by the remission of a portion of the purchase money for their land provided they could furnish evidence of having rendered regular assistance to the natives.

The Governor was zealously supported by the colonists in his efforts to improve the aboriginals. Four German missionaries and a number of Methodist ladies were specially page 48commended for their generous assistance in his dispatches to the Imperial authorities. But the results were disappointing. The year after the Governor's departure for New Zealand Mr. Gladstone wanted to know why the attendance at Walkerville School was so much smaller in 1845 than it had been the year before, and why he had not received any report of the school that was to be opened at Encounter Bay. The explanation is not to be found in any relaxation of the Governor's efforts, nor, according to the Governor's opinion, in the intellectual limitations of the children, for "they are certainly in all points relating to the acquisition of knowledge quite upon an equality with the average of European children of their age." Grey wrote this at the end of 1844, after having had abundant opportunities of estimating their capacities. The failure was in all probability due, as it generally is, to the strain on the inward life, which accompanies the transition from one civilization to another, and which becomes greater by every advance that is made beyond traditional thought and practice; till at last the "call from the wild" becomes so imperative that the still small voice of the idealist is no longer heard, and the savage relapses into the old habits which involve little strain on his mind and nerve. Caliban may be instructed in the True Divinity of Things, and he may even show some promise of attainment under tuition. But, beyond the school, are the highways of Experience, and the chances are ten thousand to one that he will lose his way, and return to his dam's god Setebos before the journey is ended.

Yet it was not all failure. The natives have now practically disappeared from the settled districts of South page break
A Letter, Now in The South African Public Library, From an Aboriginal Girl in South Australia to Governor Grey

A Letter, Now in The South African Public Library, From an Aboriginal Girl in South Australia to Governor Grey

page 49Australia, leaving the white man in undisputed possession of the more fertile lands which they themselves failed to use to the extent demanded by the world's progress in civilization. They are doomed, and the history of their relations with the race which superseded them remains to be told. There are no dark pages recording the deeds of South Australians who went out to execute summary vengeance on a weak and almost defenceless race during Captain Grey's administration. On the contrary, it is clear that the citizens were animated by feelings of humanity, and that they heartily supported a governor whose treatment of an inferior race was entirely consistent with the honour and dignity of the British Crown. Governor Grey's native policy in South Australia bears testimony to the chivalrous quality of his nature, and it constitutes a tradition of which the citizens of the State may well be proud. If it failed, it was at least a splendid failure. A man may fight against, but not overcome Destiny.