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‘Eden-Monaro Case Study’ - blog post image

‘Eden-Monaro Case Study’

Posted On: Monday, October 03, 2016  By:  

The previous posting of the 26th September 2016 approached the controversial question of early settler history as “invasion” or “settlement” through a review of Stan Grant’s book, ‘Talking to My Country’, (Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2016.)

Stan Grant made the comment that,

“we occupy the same land, but tell ourselves very different stories.” (p.25)

The challenge facing historians is not only how to bring these stories together but to also acknowledge that there is another non-settler story to be told. An outline of this argument, ‘Eden-Monaro, First Contacts – Introduction’ has been uploaded as a sample unit for you to read in more depth.

However, the question remains : is it possible to ‘recover’ a different story when the dominant narrative is only told and recorded from one side. The historian Mark McKenna, refers to this problem as,

“the central, elusive drama of Australian history itself : the encounter between Aboriginal people and the strangers who came across the seas to claim their lands.” (p.62)

Mark McKenna argues in ‘From the Edge : Australia’s Lost Histories’ (The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2016) that it is possible to recover lost histories and does so by retelling four stories through a very close reading of written sources linked to a sense of place.

One of the units within the Eden-Monaro Case Study, ‘First Contacts : ‘Recovering’ an Indigenous Australian Perspective from early contacts at Twofold Bay, Eden’, attempts to show how a different perspective to that of long-accepted early colonial stories can be recovered.

There are a number of European accounts of early contacts with the Aboriginal peoples of Twofold Bay (Eden), but there is a lack of specific information about an Aboriginal perspective of these encounters.

One method of recovering an Aboriginal perspective is to take existing sources and subject them to a very close reading as Mark McKenna does. This technique is often called ‘reading against the grain’ or ‘reading between the lines’. The historian is not just interested in the story of the written source or picture, but with what is not said or pictured. Why and how a story is being told is often more important to the historian filling the gaps than the story itself. By ‘questioning’ the written source or picture, the historian can often uncover valuable insights into what appears to be ‘lost’ to history.

To take one example from early encounters at Twofold Bay. The earliest encounters were mostly peaceful but by the early 1800’s there was open conflict. On the 27th October 1805, the Sydney Gazette reported an Aboriginal attack on a small party of seamen at Twofold Bay. The report is written from a European point of view. The attack is described as a ‘barbarous event’ and the Aborigines as ‘inhuman assailants’ and ‘wretches’.

“That every where along the coast the natives wore a menacing appearance, and manifested a wish to attack them : that upon making Twofold Bay they perceived a small group around a fire, who greeted them in a very friendly tone; trusting in which they landed, and proceeded with buckets towards a watering place, but before they reached which, a flight of spears was thrown without mischief; but being speedily succeeded by a second, one of the weapons, most dangerously barbed, lodged in Mr. Murrell’s side, which was transpierced; and as the whole of the barb appeared, it was broken off and readily extracted. They made to the boat, leaving their inhuman assailants to express their joy of the barbarous event be re-echoed peals of mirth, were soon out of their reach. The travelers next set down on a small neighbouring island. The morning following, four natives visited them, and having begged a jacket or two, left four boys as hostage of their return with fish; but heedless of its consequence, these wretches soon returned accompanied by a vast number of others armed in their canoes, and a determination was formed to resist their landing :- the blacks in consequence commenced a new assault with their spears, which were answered with muskets, and at length retreated with the loss of two killed, besides several being wounded. They returned the same day from the back of the island unperceived; and in increased numbers taking the little party by surprise, they were obliged to take precipitately to their boat as the only means of preservation : but leaving their provisions and necessaries, upon which they left their adversaries voraciously regaling.

This extract taken from Sydney Gazette 27th October 1805.

To try and ‘recover’ an Aboriginal perspective it is necessary to ‘read against the grain’; to put the story of the seamen to one side and re-focus on why such an incident took place. There had obviously been a marked deterioration of relationships between Aboriginals and Europeans since the earlier peaceful encounter Between Matthew Flinders and the Twofold Bay Aboriginal people. This hostility has spread as the newspaper article comments;

“That every where along the coast the natives wore a menacing appearance, and manifested a wish to attack them.”

Aborigines were no longer curiously welcoming newcomers, but actively resisting them. Why there was such a change of Aboriginal attitudes is never explained. Many history textbooks also gloss over the reasons for Aboriginal hostility.

However, it is possible to write an historical reconstruction of this incident from an Aboriginal perspective. The story could be like this :

The Twofold Bay Aborigines were determined to put a stop to the uncivilised sealing crews entering their territory. When a party of sealers landed in October 1805 a decision was made to drive them away. Because the sealers carried muskets, the Aborigines needed to lure the sealers into a false sense of security and attack them when their guard was down. A volley of spears was thrown at the sealers while they collected water, but nobody was hit. A second volley was thrown and a sealer went down with a spear in his side. The sealers then retreated to an island. To gain information about the sealers’ new camp some tribesmen pretended to offer the sealers some fresh fish, and once they saw that the sealers’ position was weak, returned with reinforcements to attack. The Aboriginal canoes were driven back by musket fire and two tribesmen were killed. However, the Aborigines were not defeated and returned to the attack by landing on the opposite side of the island. The sealers were taken by surprise and retreated to their boat, leaving all their supplies behind. There was much rejoicing amongst the Aboriginals in Twofold Bay to celebrate this victory.

Six readings have been selected ( can be found on the main @History website ) to illustrate how an indigenous Australian perspective on the early settler history of the Eden-Monaro may be ‘recovered’. Why not have a closer look if you already have a school subscription.

Short Cuts

Students can often feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of digital information available when they are undertaking their own independent study. It is also often difficult for students to discriminate between a reliable historic site and one that just presents questionable opinion.

One very extensive history site that students can be directed to is Spartacus Educational. What makes Spartacus Educational so accessible for students is that most historical entries are brief and contain both essential facts and interpretation. Entries also contain a selection of primary sources

To take one example from a very extensive website.

It would be possible to study slavery in the United States from this one website. Topics include :

  • The American Slave System
  • American Slave Life
  • Events and Issues in Slavery
  • American Slave Accounts
  • Campaigns Against Slavery
  • Political Organisations
  • The British Slave Trade 

Within these broad topics there are over 200 short entries.

As well as a whole class approach, there is more than enough historical information for a class to engage in extensive individual study of just about every aspect of slavery.

What’s Next

The Campaign for Women’s Equality