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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Cultural Studies »

Richard Broome on early contacts between settlers and the indigenous people

Richard Broome; Andrew Jakubowicz and Mara Moustafine.

Historian Richard Broome describes the early contacts between settlers and the indigenous people of the colony of Victoria



Date Added:

02 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

17.8 MB




In the state of what we now call Victoria, which is a colonial construction of Europeans, there were probably about 30 cultural linguistic groups and within those groups there would have been three to five clan groups and clans are land-owning groups. So that’s the basic unit of Aboriginal society, the clan that owns land. But those clans coalesce into groups that we’ve often called tribes, but they’re cultural linguistic groups and they’re connected to other such groups through marriage and a very important thing in Aboriginal traditional society was that you always married out and each person in the clan have a totemic emblem or symbol and you have to marry someone of the opposite symbol.
So in Victoria there were two main totems: that was bunjil and waa – that is eagle hawk and crow - and if you were a bunjil person you had to marry a waa person. And as each clan was of the one totem that meant you had to marry out from your clan and often that was out across – and into another cultural linguistic group. So even though there were these separate groups right across what we now call the state, regions of them were interconnected by marriage, they would know each other’s dialects and so you had this very complex mix of both diversity and commonality.
But of course groups that lived too far from each other were at enmity and they were seen as dangerous to each other because in Aboriginal traditional society one of the most important things was that you had to protect yourself against sorcery and enemies or strangers were the people who worked sorcery against you. So there was a notion of friends and enemies in Aboriginal society. And connections through country to places and through marriage to other places.
... of those groupings, one of the things that happened after white settler arrival is that the groups met each other as never before. So when settlers went up country and perhaps returned to Melbourne with cattle or a dray, they might have an Aboriginal worker with them who came from a far country, he would be brought to Melbourne with his white employer and he would be mixing with people who were his natural enemies. So that in fact, the arrival of whites actually disrupted traditional arrangements in that way. People who were strangers to each other were suddenly thrown together. Sometimes deaths arose out of that.
And of course once white settlement spread, some groups were moved off their land or unable to use their land any more because the game had been chased away and they often had to move and sometimes had to make arrangements and deals with neighbouring groups. So, you know it was quite a disruptive time for those traditional patterns.
There was a great deal of intermixing, Aboriginal people were fascinated by these white fellas that arose because they had such interesting things. They had metal blades that were seen to be so useful for cutting things, they had metal objects, they wore clothes, they came in ships, they had wagons with wheels and horses, all these exotic items. So Aboriginal people often collected in Melbourne, to just have a look at what was there but also, being hunters and gatherers, they always moved to the source of food. And so, these white fellas that arrived had a lot of items and also a lot of food stuffs. And especially once they started to bring sheep into Victoria, across the Strait from Tasmania, they might arrive with 500 sheep and this seemed like manna from heaven to Aboriginal people.
So there was a great attractiveness about white society in a sort of an exotic material sense/ There was a lot of interaction – Aboriginal people and Europeans would just meet in the street, they’d exchange greetings, Aborigines might want to have a look at their pocket watch and they would show it to them, so there was a lot of human interconnection. And there wasn’t a threatening situation in Melbourne, because, the whites were clearly in control. There were so many of them and so the engagements were very much on a human level. Out on the frontier when there was the question of the taking of Aboriginal land and therefore the reactions to that, there was often trouble and violence but in Melbourne there was very little violence in those first 10 years.
Aboriginal people had free reign for the first 7 years of Melbourne settlement until about 1842 when the government started to say, “Look, we’re going to move these people out, they’re disruptive.” They didn’t like them walking around in semi-undress and those sort of things. So they tended then to push them out. But before that in those early years there was a lot of human interaction, Aboriginal people worked, they would cut wood, they would carry water for the settlers, so yes, and there’s a lot of cases of people just sitting around talking. Some Europeans – particularly the Aboriginal protectors  - were very interested in Aboriginal people and their culture and they would just talk and have cultural exchanges.

Q:          What language did they use?
A:    Well they would use a – I mean mostly the Europeans didn’t learn Aboriginal languages, only a handful did. The transaction was the other way. Aboriginal people learnt enough English to engage and of course, they learned very quickly, they were good linguists because they knew more than their own language, they knew the dialects of other groups. So very soon you had Aboriginal people walking round singing Scottish songs in a Scottish brogue. And so they engaged with that, they learnt card games and they were playing cards and of course, I always think that’s very interesting because what do they make of the symbols on the cards? What are their understandings of that? But they learn all the rules: you shouldn’t renege and all those sort of things so that there is a very strong cultural engagement.
End transcript