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Re-thinking Aboriginal history

By Joe Lane - posted Monday, 25 November 2013

The formal study of Indigenous History has relied on second- and third-hand sources, on hearsay and oral history. Without attention to primary sources, this will remain a very serious defect.

My wife and I made the first Aboriginal flags, back in 1972, more than a hundred of them up to 1981 or so, and sent them all around Australia. We were ardent supporters of land rights and self-determination and used to devour any new book on the subject. Invariably they were based on secondary and tertiary sources but they fitted in with our way of thinking at the time.

In the eighties, I found the Journals of George Taplin, the missionary who set up the Point McLeay Mission on Lake Alexandrina, where my wife was born, and managed it between 1859 and 1879. The Journals were (and still are) in the State Library in Adelaide, in an old type-written copy. At the time, I thought that some fool should type them up again. As it turned out, I was that fool. But I had found a gold-mine of information, much of which did not conform to the dominant paradigm, or 'narrative'.


A friend gave me some old letter-books from the Mission, covering up to 1900, which I carefully copied. By then I was hooked on searching out first-hand sources and went on to type up the thousand pages of the various Royal Commissions 'into the Aborigines', of 1860, 1899 and 1913-1916. Many other documents suffered the same fate. More recently, I have been typing up the correspondence of the Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, more than thirteen thousand letters in, and eight and a half thousand letters out, 1840 to 1912.

  • The dominant paradigm, which is being taught around Australia, in schools and at universities, asserts thatAboriginal people were 'herded' onto Missions;
  • Aboriginal people were driven from their lands;
  • Countless children were stolen from their families.

So far, I have found no unambiguous evidence of any of this. Of course, one may say, you wouldn't expect him to write anything like that, would he ? Indeed, but he DOES often write counter-factually, advising or recommending what would go right against this paradigm, at least in South Australia. Let's look at each of these assertions in turn:

Herding Aboriginal people onto missions

Between 1840 and the present, the Aboriginal population on Missions never exceeded more than 20 % of the total Aboriginal population in contact with the state, except during the depression when it rose to about 30 %. In other words, for most of the time, more than 80 % of the entire Aboriginal population lived away from Missions, across the State.

It should be noted that the total number of full-time staff of the grandly-named Aborigines Department, was one, the Protector. His main task was to set up and supply up to forty ration depots, as well as roughly as many issuing points for individuals and families. Issuers, mainly police officers, station managers and pastoral lessees, and missionaries, were not paid. So: one full-time staff member and up to seventy five or more issuing-points. So who was doing the 'herding' ?

Mission staff rarely numbered more than three or four. They were flat-out issuing stores, building cottages, supervising farm work, running the schools, providing medical attention. As far as I know, no Mission ever had a fence around it to keep people in.


Many times in the Protector's correspondence, an issuer may ask urgently for more stores as a large number of 'Natives' had arrived at their Depot, sometimes hundreds. A few weeks later, they're gone again. People came and went, as they chose.

The Protector sends rations to a Mission near Port Lincoln, located on eighteen thousand acres of crop and grazing land, with the express instruction that the rations are not for the residents but for 'travelling people', passing up and down Eyre Peninsula to and from Port Lincoln, and that the rations are to keep them supplied on their journey. The Mission population there were supposed to be self-supporting (which they were from about 1868 onwards). The 'travelling people' camped a couple of miles from the Mission and occasionally worked for wages on the Mission, grubbing stumps.

At Point McLeay, from Taplin's Journal, from the Letter-Books and from the Protector's letters, one can read of hundreds of people suddenly arriving from down the Coorong or from up the Murray for ceremonies, who camped a mile or two away, and who needed provisioning. A week or two later, they have gone back to their own country.

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About the Author

Joe Lane is an independent researcher with a long-standing passion for Indigenous involvement at universities and its potential for liberation. Originally from Sydney, he worked in Indigenous tertiary support systems from 1981 until the mid-90s and gained lifelong inspiration from his late wife Maria, a noted leader in SA Indigenous education.

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