Stralian Stories – Wild White Men: living between cultures by Neil Boyack
Throughout the invasion/colonisation of this country there have been numerous instances where Aboriginal people have assisted, supported, guided, and rescued white explorers, convicts, bushrangers and children. Often this assistance has come through a sense of graciousness that is aided by an incomparable knowledge of the land, combined, as the evidence would suggest, with a strong sense of human decency that has often not been afforded Aboriginal people in return. At other times rescue and support has come through a duty to belief.
“The European was not fitted to survive long under such severe conditions and, once lost in the bush, a slow death from exposure, starvation or thirst frequently followed.” Those who decided to leave, escape, or wander from the relative safety of small communities or towns in the beginning of white-time, ran the risk of death at the hands of Aboriginal people. There were other possibilities, however. Befriending Aboriginal people was one. Those who did find themselves in the situation of a ‘white aboriginal’ endured a precarious and harsh existence and that only the toughest could endure.
An escaped convict himself, William Buckley is the best known example of such a person. Absconding with three other miscreants at Sullivan Bay, Sorrento, in 1803 after a failed attempt at settlement led by David Collins (after whom Collins Street is named), Buckley survived for a year or so by himself, evading Aboriginal people through fear, and living a patchy existence through fossicking shellfish, picking berries and relying on the land for shelter and protection. He carried a fire stick some of the time, yet when this was extinguished (regularly) he endured terrible cold and wet. Over time he found himself living in caves, caverns, under bushes and in tree hollows. In his most needy hour, starving, his body failing, his mental health destroyed, he saw a broken spear sticking out of an earth mound (a burial site) and used it as a walking stick. Then, while he was laying at the base of a tree, two aboriginal women discovered him and saw him to be a reincarnation of the previous owner of the spear, who was a relative of the group. It was believed that the spear owner was back from the dead. From then on Buckley’s name was Morrunghurk. From there he was integrated into the clan-group, belonging to the larger Wathawurrung culture. Buckley became a part of group movement and mythology, assisting with tasks and duties integral to the survival of the group both physically and culturally. This included access to ceremonies.
In John Morgan’s The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, the author describes Buckley eating kangaroo, emu, eel, dog, swan eggs, as well as shellfish, possums, and many sorts of berries and foliage. Soon, Buckley swapped his worn out jacket for a possum skin rug. He also described seeing many battles and blood- feuds, usually over the theft, or absconding, of women from the clan. He travelled great distances within the estate of the Wathawurrung territory, from the coastal regions to huge inland lakes and plains. Buckley himself stated that “I became as expert as any of them in spearing the kangaroo and taking fish – and with regard to the latter was generally more successful” and “when I had attained this knowledge of their tongue, I was fast losing my own”. Incredibly Buckley lived with Aboriginal people on the Bellarine Peninsula for thirty-two years.
Another not so well known wild white man was George ‘the Flying Barber’ Clarke, also an escaped convict. George Clarke is a powerful example of a white man who thrived while living amongst the Kamilaroi people for extended periods of time, having demonstrably strong relationships with partners…“Clarke’s native women refused to leave him at first, and one accompanied him on the long ride south to Bathurst … Naked except for his dirty possum-skin cloak, blackened, and scarred wearing his long hair native fashion.” When Clarke was locked up, his native partner was “dragged away kicking and wailing. Clarke spoke to her in her native tongue and she left quietly.”
It is also assumed, that Clarke’s Aboriginal ties came with various kinship responsibilities, duties and tasks, although this is unclear. Clarke was someone who remained true to his adopted clansmen for much of the time, and was forced back to white ways through lawful arrest. Clarke relied upon the support of the Kamilaroi group to aid evasion from police and others. The Kamilaroi in-turn showed a loyalty to Clarke, who escaped jail, and was captured, on a few separate occasions. One time “it becoming known among the tribe that their great friend and benefactor had fallen into the power of his enemies, the blacks mustered in great force to rescue him [Clarke], and threatened to destroy all the police if Clarke was not given up. Sergeant Sandy, however was equal to the occasion, and putting a pistol to his prisoner’s head, he told them that the first spear which was thrown should be the signal for his death”. After another capture, Clarke and fellow convict, locked in irons, trudged along the Parramatta road into Sydney, being too “footsore and weary to pay much attention to the excitement they aroused among bystanders. Clarke had steadfastly refused to part with his Aboriginal costume … his breasts, arms, and shoulders, have been tattooed by the blacks, among whom he says he lived in great familiarity; round his neck he wears a string of beads, made of grass … his hair is long and parted in the middle, and he has not washed the stains from his skin; such is his tout ensemble that few could have distinguished him from an aborigine”.
On 6 July 1835 William Buckley appeared at the campsite of John Batman’s Port Phillip Association with a party of Aboriginal people who had told him about the sighting of a ship at Indented Head. Wearing kangaroo skins and carrying Aboriginal weapons, he walked into the camp, communicating that he was motivated by informing on an Aboriginal plot to kill white invaders. It must have been a mythical, strange and explosive sight (a huge white man, six foot five inches, sporting an aged beard, emerging from the bush in a possum skin cloak, not being able to speak a word of English) yet, over time, Buckley picked up his native tongue again and became a go-between and translator. George Clarke’s adventures captured the imagination of Major Thomas Mitchell, explorer and celebrity of the time, to mount an expedition aimed at finding the large inland river systems that Clarke had written about. Mitchell reported that Clarke’s descriptions were filled “with great apparent accuracy, the courses of the known streams of the northern interior”.
Surely despite an environment of extreme racism, genocidal-assumption and violence towards Aboriginal people, these men were torn at some level. On an excursion through the Western District of Victoria Joseph Tice Gellibrand wrote in his journal of February 5th, 1836 that Buckley’s people gathered round him and “clinging to him with tears of joy and delight running down their cheeks … Buckley told me this was his old friend and with whom he had lived and associated thirty years”. Aside from the lifesaving elements of their experiences with Aboriginal people, the elements of friendship, respect, love, intimacy, culture, and battle connected these white men intimately to their Aboriginal families. Only these men could have explained their feelings. Finding themselves used as tools of white expansion based on greed and violence towards Aboriginal people, and in a philosophical age of ‘the noble savage’, aty best, it may have been hard for these men to articulate or advocate for their fellow Aboriginal countrymen, and as escaped, or former convicts, their voices were likely dismissed. We will never really know. In the end Buckley “was confused in his loyalties, and felt that neither Aboriginals nor the whites trusted him entirely”, this being a common theme in the Aboriginal experience of trying to bridge cultures.
These stories are fascinating, deeply sad, yet invigorating and motivating for many reasons. For me it is the traditional cultural detail in particular. Yet there is a caveat emptor. The main source for this article, John Morgan’s, Life and Adventures of William Buckley (1852), has been criticised as “sensationalist” in the past. I would recommend that the reader follow this up for themselves. The book is available free through the State Library of Victoria, and is easy, yet compelling reading. Even if it is more fiction than fact, the romance and rarity that has been injected into the story is a pleasure to appreciate.
In our world of western white privilege it is rare to find stories of a white person having to battle, and straddle cultures in such a desperate way, especially when white privilege itself underscores the cold dominant paradigm and meta-narrative of our world.
We shudder when Australian soldiers are killed in Afghanistan, we are tempted to reach for our cotton wool when the difficult debates arise, we are called bullies or problems when we try and highlight the unresolved truth, simultaneously highlighting the comfort and peace we exist in. The modern day asylum seeker possibly comes close to connecting a thread to Buckley and Clarke. This reality however is lamentable when considering the historical record of agency and support Aboriginals offered those vulnerable invaders-cum-settlers-cum-convicts-cum-explorers. I urge you to subvert the dominant paradigm and teach this as truth to your children.
Dean Boyce: Clarke of the Kindur: Convict, bushranger, explorer, Melbourne University Press, 1970
John Morgan: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/vicpamphlets/inter/280127.shtml
National biography – website http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/buckley-william-1844
Buckley, W 1837, Reminiscenses of James Buckley, Manuscripts collection, State Library of Victoria, MS13483.
Charles Barrett: White Blackfellows- The Strange Adventures of Europeans who Lived Among Savages
Neil Boyack is a writer and social worker. He is creator and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo. His new book Self Help and Other Works is out now, Check www.neilboyack.com and www.newsteadtattoo.org