Thursday, May 28, 2009

Belshaw's jottings - 27 May 2009

I really am written out. I am also behind in other things. So just a few personal jottings.

Yesterday morning I finished my target 300 words on the current book. This was written between the time I left the house and my arrival at Parramatta.

I was trying to think through the the impact of the arrival of Europeans on Aboriginal thought. To start getting my mind around this, I took the device of a young man of the Daingatti Aboriginal language group. This group occupied the Macleay Valley.

Say he was twenty when the First Fleet arrived at Sydney. Then he would have been 53 when Port Macquarie was founded as a penal settlement at the mouth of the Hastings River just to the south of the Macleay. That's quite a long time, the majority of his adult life.

I don't know how long it would have taken for news of the strange arrivals to reach what is now called the Macleay, but I suspect that it was quicker than we might have expected. All people like to gossip, so news would have spread up the coast between neighbouring groups. But what to make of it all?

To our young Daingatti man, the immediate world centred on the particular territory occupied by his family group. This was known, familiar, constantly travelled. As distance increased from this centre, knowledge declined.

The blue rim of the mountains to the east visible from all parts of the Macleay was familiar, incorporated into the stories of the group. The territory of the Daingatti followed the Macleay up into the headwaters; the Tablelands beyond were known and visited by at least some Daingatti.

The Aborigines were great travellers, but moved within a world determined not just by geography but also by long standing patterns of friendship and enmity. These patterns almost certainly influenced what was known, the way information spread.

At first, the stories must have seemed strange, inconceivably remote. However, with time and the slow spread of European settlement there would have been more news. King's Town, now Newcastle, was established as a penal colony in 1804. Ships would have been seen. By the time Port Macquarie was established in 1821, the Daingatti had thirty three years of accumulating knowledge.

I have made the point in this way because it bears upon something that has always puzzled me a little, why the Aborigines did not respond to the new arrivals in a more aggressive, coordinated, fashion. Thirty three years is quite a long time.

Various explanations have been given and no doubt all have some truth. However, the particular thing that stands out to me is just how slow the initial spread of European settlement was.

It took twenty one years for the European population of the new colony to reach 10,000. In 1815, twenty seven years after settlement, the European population was just over 13,000.

While European settlement had devastating effects in terms of the spread of diseases and on particular clans or family groups,  its actual impact on the immediate land was quite limited.

This was still a penal colony. Transport costs limited farming to areas immediately adjacent to water transport , while the local market for produce was still very small. Early NSW, like its modern counterpart, hugged the coast and looked to the sea.

This small population allowed for a degree of co-existence between the Aborigines and Europeans, between two very different life styles. While forced to retreat in individual areas, the great bulk of the Aboriginal population continued as they always had. I just don't think that most Aborigines outside those directly affected would have seen the Europeans as a threat to them.

Wool changed all this because it provided a high value product that could bear transport costs to distant European markets. The non-Aboriginal population exploded. It passed 28,000 in 1820, 44,000 in 1830, 127,000 in 1840. This growth swept all before it, leaving little time to respond.

At 53, our Daingatti man may have had thirty three years to get used to the concept of Europeans. He would have found it hard to comprehend that within his remaining life time every part of the Macleay Valley would be under at least some nominal European settler's occupation.

The nature of the Aboriginal response to this explosion is another story.

I need to get ready to go to work. Another thing that I have discovered is that the nature of the relationship between Aborigines and Europeans was far more complicated, more multi-faceted, than I had realised. But that, too, is another story.  

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