William Buckley, the white men who lived with Aboriginals 1803 – 1835

William Buckley, the white men who lived with Aboriginals 1803 – 1835. By Michael Connor.

Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Victorians (2005) is an influential text… It is representative of the continuing malaise in academic history writing. Claiming to recount the history of the Aborigines since 1800, its treatment of William Buckley, an exceptional source for the period from 1803 to 1835, is dismal.

Buckley, a convict runaway, lived for thirty-two years with Aborigines in the Bellarine Peninsula district. There are two sources for his adventuring years: a short text by George Langhorne assembled from conversations with Buckley in 1837, first published in the Argus on January 31, 1891, and the later book-length The Life and Adventures of William Buckley by John Morgan, written with the illiterate Buckley and published in 1852 …

The historians who soften the realities of Aboriginal life before the coming of the white settlers do so for truth-hiding political purposes, and they have been remarkably successful in creating the impression of an Arcadian black paradise torn apart by brutal white intruders. …

Here are six incidents in which Broome uses Buckley’s texts. In each case the historian has usurped the witness: the history is Broome’s, not the wild man’s.

1/ Introducing the escaped convict, Broome states that he was adopted by Aborigines who “believed him to be Murrangurk, a deceased relative”. Readers are not told that the “deceased relative” and his daughters had been murdered by other Aborigines. Surviving members of Buckley’s new family lived, while they could, in a society of extraordinary violence: men, women and children were slaughtered by other Aborigines all the time — repeat, all the time. Later in the story Buckley’s adopted kinfolk, for whom he had great love, were also murdered:

“My old friend, and supposed brother-in-law, had a spear sent right through his body, and then they hunted out his wife and killed her dead on the spot.”

The “savages” returned and beat the wounded man to death and also killed his son. They had been murdered because a young man had died of snakebite and his family believed Buckley’s friend had caused the death by sorcery. Following these killings his friend’s young blind son, who Buckley was shielding, was attacked:

“they forced the poor blind boy away from me, and killed him on the spot … After this, they roasted the body in the usual manner …”

In retaliation Buckley’s own friends sought out and “killed two of the children of their enemies”. Read Buckley and you become aware of how fearsome the Australian bush was for the Aborigines. The land is covered with blood. Night is terror. Night attacks are always feared. Outsiders are oppressors or victims. That is the native world Buckley inhabited but from which Broome shelters his readers by omission. Unfaithful to Buckley and the Aborigines he lived with, the historian’s text curries favour with modern race activists. …

4/ Broome refers to the settler John Wedge who, in 1835:

“recorded the first brief ethnographic descriptions of Aboriginal Victorians, shaped more by his preconceived ideas of “savages” and Buckley’s information than by careful observation. Wedge claimed the Wathawurrung were slaves to the food search, made their women drudges, practised cannibalism (but only after warfare), and infanticide (due to the needs of extended breast-feeding of their young).”

If Wedge was dependent on Buckley for these observations he had an excellent source — though those bracketed excuses for cannibalism and infanticide are not at all supported by the evidence of what Buckley saw. The list of criticisms attributed to Wedge are entirely supported by Buckley’s experiences, for the Aborigines were slaves to food searches, did treat women as drudges, were cannibals and did practise infanticide.

5/ Broome consistently hides the facts of Aboriginal cannibalism. …

6/ Broome is critical of the use of Buckley’s evidence of widespread violence by other historians, notably Geoffrey Blainey, who have suggested that Aborigines killed more Aborigines in the hundred years before settlement than settlers killed in the hundred years after settlement …

More about Buckley:

William Buckley lived with Aborigines for about 11,680 days, and stayed alive. …

The tall, wild-looking, hairy, skin-wearing white man who appeared at Indented Head at precisely 2 p.m. on Sunday July 6, 1835, was about fifty-four years old. When he first encountered the local Aborigines he would have been impressively tall, strong and about twenty-three. When he came in to the European settlement Buckley was an ageing, lonely and completely despondent man — his closest Aboriginal family had been murdered and he would feel out of place and untrusted in the settler society.

To chatter of what he had experienced to his compatriots was to betray a way of life in which he had been passionately involved. Both Langhorne and Morgan had difficulties drawing words from Buckley — he was not forthcoming and, when Langhorne drew up the earlier account, was still having difficulties recovering the English language. To some he seemed just stupid and dull. An uneducated man, he was probably thrown into a deep depression when he left the Aboriginal world. He was so deeply associated with it that he could not speak of it without a sense of betrayal to people who simply had no sympathetic understanding of his savage friends. …

It must have been difficult to admit to having been an accepted part of a society in which it was normal to kill people and eat them. And it must have been difficult to talk of bodies mutilated “in a shocking manner” or explain the fear he had felt so often on seeing an approaching group of natives who might either kill or corroboree, or do both. It must have been difficult to explain that it was normal to beat to death wounded enemies. And to explain to outsiders the reason the sexual diseases he had seen were present in adults and children. It must have been with great pain that he described the coating of young children in fat as stones were heated to cook the human flesh it came from. It must have been difficult to tell of the friendly society he lived in where killings occurred so often that “scarcely a month had passed without them being repeated”.

Artfully lying by omission so as to suggest the opposite is a common technique by the media nowadays. It’s practitioners excuse themselves by saying it is not “technically lying,” but it leaves the recipient quite misinformed. The ABC in particular does this on issue after issue, which is why political discussions with ABC-watchers never go anywhere — we cannot even agree on the basic facts.