Today’s episode is the final instalment of a 4 part series on the escaped convict Wlliam Buckley who lived with the Wathaourong aboriginal people for 32 years between 1803 and 1835. It covers the last few years of his life living with the Wathaurong aboriginal people and what became of him after re-contact with British society.
When we last left Buckley he was living alone at a place called Mangahawnz. He had set up a hut here by himself in order to avoid the incessant internecine violence between the different aboriginal mobs. After a few months here Buckley left and made a sturdier hut at the Karaaf River because the area was amply supplied with edible roots. While the area also contained plenty of kangaroo, he was unable to catch any because he had no dog with which to hunt them. Soon a new winter set in and Buckley, exposed to the elements suffered badly from the cold and wet climate. One day, he noticed a large school of bream swim up the river from the sea. He followed along and noticed when they turned around. Buckley decided to run down river and construct a trap made from branches and faggots to catch them before they arrived. To his delight the plan worked and he caught a large number of the bream. He had enough fish to last him for a few days, so he dried them in the sun on top of his hut roof.
One day a group of aborginal people arrived, two men, two women and some children. They were old friends of Buckley’s from his former mob and, though he had sworn to live alone only months previously, he was delighted to see his former kin. They arrived just after he had caught the fish and Buckley happily shared it with them while they were keen for he to share in their kangaroo meat. They set up their huts near Buckley’s and he was delighted to have their company. As they days passed it was seen that Buckley’s fishing traps were highly successful and so it was decided that the rest of the mob, who were in another location, should be fetched in order to share in the abundance of food. Despite formerly having sworn off living in a group, it seemed Buckley had relented to the good company of his kin and was in fact relieved to be living in a group setting once again. During this time Buckley told the mob about his loss at murder of his brother-in-law and other family members and on hearing this the group vowed vengence.
Eventually the supply of fish in the river diminished and the mob decided to move on to another location where many kangaroo and also the wombat, known in the Wathaurong language as Norngor, could be found. At this point in the book Buckley gives a fascinating insight into how the wombat were hunted, which he relates thus:
“The wombats are killed in the following way. A small child is sent crawling backwards into the wombat’s burrows 20 feet long and from 10-20 deep. When the child touches the animal he or she bangs on the ground overhead and calls as loud as they can. The tribe are listening from above with their ears to the ground and then dig all the way down before they kill them. It involves a lot of work though so the natives are not very fond of this and there is usually only one animal in the burrow unless it has young.”
Buckley’s mob stayed in these hunting grounds for a long time and were eventually joined by two other groups of people who he says were called the Putnaroo and the Warwaroo, with the Warwaroo having travelled along distance to reach the area from the other side of the bay. It should be noted here that I cannot find any reference to these names in modern day. The groups on the other side of the bay would today either be called the Boonwurrung or the Wurundjeri. It is possible that Morgan simply mistranscribed these Kulin nation tribes or that Buckley’s pronunciation left something to be desired when he told Morgan of them. It is possible that Putnaroo refers to Boonwurrung who lived south of the Yarra River and in the area now called the Mornington Peninsula. It is also possible the Warwaroo were the Wurundjeri who are also known as the Woiwurrung and lived north of the Yarra River.
Either way, with the presence of these two new groups in the area, it wasn’t long before the internecine violence started up again. One day, a man from the Putnaroo killed a 20 year old man from Buckley’s mob because a woman he desired had been promised to the victim in marriage. As the Buckley’s mob were outnumbered by the Putnaroo, they did not at first seek vengeance. Instead, Buckley was asked to travel to another area in order to inform the father of the slain man about the tragic news. When the father heard about his son’s murder he gathered up a large group of men and they all ochred up with clay to form a raiding party. When they arrived back at the area in question, the Putnaroo, who were now outnumbered themselves, fled in fear. What happened next though is incredibly interesting and so I will relate it in the way it was written in Morgan’s book:
“We now took up our quarters at a place they called Nullemungobeed, situated in the centre of a very extensive plain, with wells of good water handy. When we had settled ourselves down there, some of the men went to the sport where we had left the young man’s remains hanging in the tree, and brought away the lower part of the body, leaving the upper quarters and head where they found it suspended. The usual uproar commenced amongst the women on the arrival of the part of the corpse, lamentation succeeding lamentation, burning with fire-sticks, and all the rest of it, until at length the mangled remains were roasted between heated stones, shared out, and greedily devoured by these savages. Again I was pressed to join in this horrid repast; but I hope I need not say, that I refused, with indignation and disgust. Strange as all these cannibal ceremonies may appear, it is proper to explain, that many are performed out of what they consider respect for the deceased; the cap bones of whose knees, in this instance, after being carefully cleaned, were tied up in a sort of net of hair and twisted bark. Under such circumstances, these relics are carried by the mothers, tied round their necks by day, and placed under their heads by night, as affectionate remembrance of the dead”.
I think it is at this point it is worth remembering the influence Morgan had on the description of some of the events in this book. Buckley was illiterate and Morgan was writing the book as a means of gaining income for the two of them. Some have speculated that the so-called disgust expressed by the Buckley character expressed here was more about Morgan’s attempt to try to present Buckley as a “civilized” man during the Victorian era when civilization was the highest aspiration any man could hope to strive for. Buckley always treated his aboriginal kin with the utmost respect and left Port Phillip in disgust years later when he saw how they were being treated in the colony. I think it is more likely that Buckley left the mob on this occasion because he didn’t like the incessant violence than because of some notion of disgust at the cannibalism that occurred. Nonetheless, this is what Morgan will has us believe Buckley did next, returning to his abode on the Karaaf River, trapping fish as he had done previously.
Once again however, he was joined some months later by some friendly former kin, who encamped near by. It was here and at this time that Buckley was married and he details the entire affair thus:
“And now, reader, I come to a very important period of my life, which was a decision arrived at by my friends that I should take unto myself a wife. I was not in any way consulted, being considered a sort of instrument in their hands to do with as they might think proper. – My wife was a young widow, about twenty years of age, tolerably good-looking, after a fashion, and apparently very mild tempered. The marriage feast, the ring, the fees for the ceremony, the bride’s dress, my own, and all the rest of it, did not cost much. I was not obliged to run in debt, or fork out every shilling or pay fifty per cent. For discounting a bill to pay the piper – nothing of the kind; so I took her to myself, to my turf and bark hunting and fishing hut, on the banks of the Karaaf River. – I should here mention, that although previously married, my wife did not present me on the day of our union, with any tender little remembrances of her first husband, my predecessor in her affections. Affections! – we shall see more about that presently; but, perhaps I may as well say at once, that my dearly beloved played me most abominably false, for at the end of our honeymoon, (perhaps it might have been a few months after that moon had gone down,) one eveing when we were alone in our hut, enjoying our domestic felicity, several men came in, and took her away from me by force; she, however, going very willingly. The next day – as I had no Supreme Court to go to for damages – I went over to the tribe the intruders belonged to, and told them how I had been treated. I confess I did not make a very great fuss about my loss – if it was one – but endeavoured to whistle it down the wind gaily. Several of the friendly natives were anxious I should take the usual revenge upon her and the man she had left me to live with, but I refused, and in the end, she was speared by another man, with whom she had been coquetting, and to whom she had also played falsely. Mixed up by relationship, as all these parties were, after a great number of altercations about her having run away from me, and the circumstances of her death, there was another fight, in which many heads were broken. I however, took no part in these, excepting assuming the defensive, and threatening them with punishment if they interfered with me, being now, and having been for a long time past, quite as expert as any of them with the spear, and boomerang. After a great deal of talk and noise, all became reconciled, and there was another Corrobborree on a large scale.”
At this stage Buckley says how he had adopted two children – a little blind boy and a girl, orphans supposedly of his late brother-in-law. I have seen it suggested that these were possibly his own children, but Morgan may have changed this in his book in order to avoid the scandal that that would have inevitably created in the Victorian era, but for now I think I will take the book at face value and refer to them as his adopted children. It seems the two were very attached Buckley and went everywhere with him, including when he hunted. It seems the two were extremely traumatised from having witnessed their biological father’s murder, and Buckley endeavoured to keep the away from strange men from other mobs in order to protect them, especially since the blind boy had no way of protecting himself should they be attacked. They eventually settled back at his old hut at the Karaaf River, which had been left just as it was months before.
Not long after this a 20 year old man from another group started staying with Buckley’s and his adopted children at the location of his hut on the Karaaf River. However, after a few days the young man became ill and died, despite Buckley’s best efforts to care for him. Buckley and the children left soon afterwards and soon came into contact with the man’s mob. Buckley tried to explain to the strangers what had happened to the man, but they didn’t believe him. When they learnt that the young blind boy had been with the man when he came down with illness it was clear that they suspected his involvement in the death of their kinsman. The mob forced the young boy away from Buckley and to his great sadness killed him. Despite this, Buckley managed to escape with the young girl. Buckley was deeply saddened by the loss of the blind boy, who he had loved very much. He now endeavoured to do all he could to protect the girl from coming to the same fate.
As they travelled they came into contact with a mob one of whom had been previously promised in marriage to the young girl. Buckley explained to them about the untimely demise of the beloved blind boy and the immediately vowed vengeance. Some of the men set off to attack the other mob and returned later having killed 2 or 3 of the mob’s children.
Buckley stayed with his new mob for a short time before once again returning to his quarters at the Karaaf River, this time with the young girl, the boy to whom she had been promised in marriage and 2 or 3 other families from the mob.
After some months there, Buckley decided to leave the girl with the man to whom she had been promised in marriage and another wife the man had with him, despite the man’s insistence that the girl remain with Buckley for longer. Buckley then left alone hoping to avoid the internecine violence that once again that was so common amongst the different groups of aboriginal mobs.
It seems that Buckley suffered very greatly during this time at the trauma of having lost the blind boy which he relates thus:
“Although I had parted with the girl from prudential motives, I lamented very bitterly the savage death of her brother, my poor blind boy, for whom I had acquired a great affection; and who, on his part, had so many hundred times clung to me for shelter and protection.”
One day he was joined by a woman who had run away from her mob who were warring with another mob. She stayed with Buckley a long time, and during this time he was able to provide an ample amount of food for himself and his new companion including what the Wathaurong called a Koorman or seal. Buckley goes on to mention how his new girlfriend particularly enjoyed this meal:
“We found the flesh very good eating, and my female friend enjoyed the repast with great gusto: greasing herself all over with the fat, after we had made the most of the carcass, which might well be compared to bacon.”
It seems Buckley then spent a number of cold winter months travelling about with the woman, staying mainly in caves along the coast. Eventually though the woman returned to her own mob.
Buckley discusses the linguistic differences between the languages of the different tribes. He mentions how while he understood his own mob perfectly, there were others he could not understand. He talks about having once met a man from the Murray River and not only he, but none of the others could understand him. He then uses this fact to make a point about the importance of understanding aboriginal people in matters of law before the courts. It seems he thought it important that they were treated justly in court matters and that in order to achieve this they must be understood correctly by translators.
However, he then goes on to inform the reader on the barbarity of one particular tribe:
“I had almost forgotten to say, that in my wanderings about, I met with the Pallidurgbarrans, a tribe notorious for their cannibal practices; not only eating human flesh greedily after a fight, but on all occasions when it was possible. They appeared to be the nearest approoach to the brute creation of any I had ever seen or heard of; and, in consequence, they were very much dreaded. Their colour was light copper, their bodies having tremendously large and protruding belleis. Huts, or artificial places for shelter, were unknown to them, it being their custom to lay about in the scrub, anyhow and anywhere. The women appeared to be most unnaturally ferocious – children being their most valued sacrifice. Their brutality at length became so harrassing, and their assaults so frequent, that it was resolved to set fire to the bush where they had sheltered themselves, and so annihliate them, one and all, by suffocation. This, in part, succeeded, for I saw no more of them in my time. The belief is, that the last of the race was turned into a stone, or rock, at a place where a figure was found resembling a man, and exceedingly well executed; probably the figure-head of some unfortunate ship.”
One day Buckley was minding his own business when three aboriginal men approached him, one with a flag draped over his shoulders. When he questioned the man as to where he had procured it, the man told him a story of a ship that was anchored in Port Phillip Bay near Indented Heads. The men had watched it and when a rowing boat left the ship to explore the land the aboriginal men had swam towards and climbed upon the ship. Morgan, with his cultural superiority, makes this incident sound like a crime, declaring that the aboriginal men “purloined” the flag along with several other items, while the white men were gone, and calls it a “marauding excursion”. Apparently, when the crew returned they fired their muskets in the direction of the aboriginal men, but were too far away to injure them. They then moved the ship further into the bay. It is then claimed that the aboriginal men instructed Buckley to try to entice the men onto shore so that they and their plunder could be captured, but he warned them against this action for their own safety.
Soon afterwards Buckley himself saw the vessel in the bay, still at anchor and became extremely excited at the prospect contact with his people after 32 years living in the wild. Buckley approached they area near were the men were camped but discovered that he had no way to communicate with them because he had forgotten all his English from having not used it for so long. Apparently, Buckley spent several hours trying to signal to the men, but could not speak so was unable to communicate who he was and looking as he did from a distance with a long beard and hair and naked apart from possum furs the men simply dismissed him as a native.
In his frustration Buckley looked for some around the area where the men had been to see if they had left anything useful. He found a mound of earth and on uncovering the top layers accidentally uncovered the grave of a deceased white man wrapped in a blanket. He thought about taking the blanket because it was extremely cold, but decided not to out of respect for the dead man.
The vessel continued to anchor in the area for sometime afterward, but Buckley could never communicate with them successfully. The aboriginal people there told him that previously another vessel had anchored in the same area and landed and taken 2 men ashore, bound them up and shot them leaving their bodies there. A few months later Buckley found a large boat stranded on the beach. Buckley found someone had used blankets as a sail on this boat and there were oars. He fancied some men had used the boat having been cast away, perhaps whalers. Buckley dried the blankets on the boat and then saw a fire in the distance. Went to fire and found natives cooking and eating fish. They were overjoyed to see the blankets so, Buckley divided them up as best he could to avoid prevent bickering over the prized possessions. Buckley was then told by this aboriginal group, two white men had emerged from the area 2 days previously suffering terribly from exposure. The mob had helped the men, and the white men often pointed back towards the direcetion of the boat as if trying to explain that some terrible accident had happened. After being fed on fish for a couple of days the men soon recovered. The aborigines tried to make the men aware that a white man, meaning Buckley, lived among them, but the men could not cunderstand them and went away soon after towards the Yawang Plains. Some months later, Buckley heard that the same men were murdered by the Waiwaioo while crossing the Yarra River. Buckley grieved very much at this, because if he had arrived earlier, he thinks he could have saved them.
Several months later Buckley found a large barrel or hogshead washed up on the beach. It contained an alcoholic beverage, but Buckley couldn’t tell what it was because it had been so long since he had had any drink except water, and tasted and smelt horrible to him. Buckley decided to cut off the iron handles and divide them amongst the aborigines. This act gave him even more influence with the mob as a result. He spilt the contents of the barrell first to prevent disputes amongst the tribes.
Soon afterwards,several families returned to their previous camping places and proceeded to a lake called Jerringot, one of a group in that area that feeds the Barwon River. There were a number of sightings of the mythical monster known as the bunyip here and the aboriginal people had a great fear of them, believing them to be some kind of omen of death and disease. Buckley said he tried to spear a Bunyip several times when alone and it was lucky the mob didn’t see it because they had great fear of said animal and were superstitious about it so that they might have killed him as punishment. He cites a story the natives told of an aboriginal woman being killed by one.
One day, two men approached Buckley with spears held up high with coloured handkerchiefs attached to them. They were trying to attract Buckley’s attention and it was clear they had been in contact with white people. The men explained they had met with 3 white and 6 black men that they had never seen before. Buckley asked if they had a boat and the men explained they had arrived in a Kooyong (ship), that had since left, leaving the men. The latter had erected two white houses, and had plenty of provisions, including blankets, tomahawks etc. These two native men asked if they could have tomahawks and were refused, although apparentlt the civilised men had given gifts of knives and scissors to a local tribe in the Indented Heads area. The two native men said they were leaving to find another tribe so they could return to murder the white men more easily so they could get the possessions.
Buckley worried as to how he could inform the strangers of their perilous situation without appearing to be betraying the natives. He was also aware of having forgotten his native language and the difficulty this would present in solving this problem. The two men left to find their friends and Buckley decided to journey to the whereabouts of the strangers.
At the location Buckley found a camp with a British flag flying from a pole Overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and remembering he had absconded from the sentence imposed upon him Buckey worried about what sentence might be imposed on him if he were to return to civilization. Suddenly a white man got up with a bucket and walked towards a nearby well and Buckley followed him. The following is what transpired thereafter:
“From the well I had a good view of all about me, and observed that the natives had pitched their tents near those of the white men – the former being seated round their fires, evidently in great excitement. Presently some of the natives saw me, and turning round, pointed me out to one of the white people; and seeing they had done so, I walked away from the well, up to their place, and seated myself there, having my spears and other war and hunting implements between my legs. The white men could not make me out – my half-cast colour, and extraordinary height and figure – dressed, or rather undressed, as I was – completely confounding them as to my real character. At length one of them came up and asked me some questions which I could not understand; but when he offered me bread – calling it by its name – a cloud appeared to pass from over my brain, and I soon repeated that, and other English words after him. Somehow or other I soon made myself understood to them as not being a native born, and so the white men took me to their tents, and clothed me, giving me biscuit, tea, and meat; and they were, indeed, all very kind in every way. My sensations that night I cannot describe, and before I closed my eyes I offered p to God fervent prayers of thankfulness for my deliverance; for although I saw great danger to the new comers, in consequence of their weakness in numbers, compared with the strength which could be brought against them, yet I thought it certain they had resources in reserve, which might be made available, even if the first party was doomed to be sacrificed.”
While Buckley was still not able to communicate effectively he showed the men a tattoo of his initials WB, which he had decades before had written on his arm. The men took pity on him, fancying him for a shipwrecked castaway and treated him with great care. Slowly he started to understand more and more of what they were saying and he was able to understand that they men had designs on staying in the area and settling the country. He goes on:
“They had seen several of the native chiefs, with whom – as they said they had exchanged all sorts of things for land; but that I knew could not have been, because, unlike other savage communities, or people, they have no chiefs claiming or possessing any superior right over the soil: theirs only being as the heads of families. I also knew that if any transactions had taken place, it must have been because the natives knew nothing of the value of the country, except as hunting grounds, supplying them with the means of present existence. I therefore looked upon the land dealing spoken of, as another hoax of the white man, to possess the inheritance of the uncivilized natives of the forest, whose tread on the vast Australian continent will very soon be no more heard, and whose crimes and sorrows are fast fading away amongst other recollections of the past.“
The men informed Buckley that the ship which had landed them in the area would be returning from Launceston in the coming days, carrying many more people and supplies.
Soon afterwards the large group of men arrived and camped in the area as Buckley had feared and he now tried to think of a way to prevent a massacre. Indeed, the aboriginal men informed Buckley that they would soon attack them and that if he did not participate he would also be killed. To this threat, Buckley cleverly pretended to be on the side of the aborigines, but he urged them to postpone their attack for a few days until the ship arrived with more supplies to plunder. However, when the ship had not come for a couple of days the aboriginal men grew impatient and informed Buckley they wished to attack imminently. At this, Buckley informed the white men to be on guard for an attack, which he had not done previously, and armed himself with a gun which he used to threaten the aboriginal men if any of them killed on of his white peers. He pacified them with the promise of presents from the ship when it did arrive.
The aborginal men accepted this and busied themselves with hunting and fishing while they waited for the ship. The next day Buckley spotted the vessel on the bay and he informed both the white men and the aboriginal men who were extremely excited with the prospect of provisions.
The ship anchored and on it was John Batman, the founder of Melbourne himself and he was accompanied by John Wedge the surveyor and explorer. A little background of these two men. John Batman had set up the Port Phillip Association, a group of Launceston businessmen and prospectors who had already set up camp near the mouth of the Yarra River in order to form a settlement. Batman had controversially ‘acquired’ land from the local aboriginal people who as Buckley had suspected were tricked into the agreement. Batman had since returned to Launceston to fetch his wife and more supplies. He had had some of his men set up a camp at Indented Heads as a stopover point. Not only was Batman’s new settlement controversial for duping the local aborigines, he had failed to gain permission for the settlement from the governor of New South Wales and the Port Phillip settlement was, according to the British Crown at least, part of the colony of New South Wales at the time. John Wedge was to aid Batman in surveying the land which he claimed to have purchased from the aborigines.
The two men came ashore from the main vessel in a small rowing boat and when they landed they were shocked to see Buckley, the giant wild white man, as he was. Batman asked him many questions and Buckley informed him that he had arrived on a ship, as he thought, about 20 years previously. Remember it was actually 32 years since Buckley had absconded from the Settlement at Sullivan’s Cove. Buckley then tried to impress on Batman the importance of providing the aboriginal men with gifts, since they had been waiting for them so patiently for the past few days. Batman was happy to concur and had bags of bread and biscuits passed out among them. That night the aboriginal men had a corroboree which delighted the visitors.
At this time Buckley expressed to Mr Wedge his worries about his possible punishment at having escaped the convict settlement so many decades previously. Wedge promised to represent Buckley in a favourable light with a view to gaining a pardon from Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur who was then based at Hobart
The ship left the following day to bring the message to Hobart, leaving Batman, his wife, Wedge and some others to continue the preparations for the settlement on the Yarra River.
Soon afterwards, Wedge approached Buckley with the request to accompany him on an exploration inland. Wedge was fully aware of Buckley’s usefulness being fluent in the local languages and Buckley was happy to comply.
They travelled around a wide area in Wathaurong country both inland and to the coast as far as Buckley’s old fishing grounds on the Karaaf River. On this expedition Buckley proved very useful as a translator.
Not long after they returned from their expedition, the vessel returned from Hobart with the message that Buckley Arthur had agreed to pardon Buckley, and he would be allowed to move to Van Diemen’s Land. Buckley was absolutely delighted at this news. For decades he roamed the wilderness lost from his own culture and with the cloud hanging over his head of being a convict. Now he was officially a free man and he spoke thus: Quote:
“I can now, once more, raise my thoughts – my unsackled mind and hands – to Heaven, as a free man, I can now offer up my prayers of praise and thankfulness to God, for my extraordinary deliverance, and hor His wonderful preservation of me during so long a period. My heart beats high with joy, almost to its bursting”.
So, what happened to Buckley afterwards? It appears he joined the settlement at the Yarra River in the employ of at first, the Port Phillip Association, and later, the local government. He is credited with helping to prevent a massacre here. The story goes that Derrimut, a friendly Bunurong man, as part of his duty of hospitality, informed some of the settlers of the intentions of some of the up country tribes to massacre all the whites who had started to build huts on the new site at Melbourne. Buckley is credited with translating the message, so that they fully understood Derrimut’s pleas and armed themselves with weapons to deter the attackers who afterwards left.
Employed by the government of the new settlement, Buckley became quickly disenchanted with his role when it became clear that many of those in power would not listen to his recommendations and he was particularly unhappy with the treatment of the aboriginal people. He was usually asked to translate in matters of dispute between the aborigines and settlers. He relates a case where a great injustice was almost carried out against a young aboriginal man as an example of the kind of prejudice he constantly had to deal with in representation of the original owners of the land. Two gentlemen went missing when travelling on the road between Geelong and Melbourne. Later at Melbourne, a man who had alighted a vessel from Hobart accused young aborigine of being their murderer based on the apparent evidence that he was wearing one of the men’s coats. The young aboriginal man was mortified and expressed in his innocence in the matter, but the police locked him up nonetheless and a trial was begun in order to determine his guilt in the matter. The accuser was adamant in court that the coat belonged to his former colleague who was missing and that this proved the guilt of the aboriginal man in question. Buckley, translating for the accused, was 100% sure of the latter’s innocence, but it was only when another man came forward, after overhearing Buckley talking frustratedly about the case to a friend, to say that he had given the coat to the young aboriginal man for payment for some work he had done for him, that the charges were dropped.
Thus, Buckley left Melbourne frustrated, and sailed for Hobart in December 1837. Here he found work first at the Immigrant’s Home and later the Female Nursery. At the former he befriended an Irish family, the husband and father of which, Daniel, was later killed by aboriginal people on an expedition to the mainland at the Murray River. Later Buckley married Higgins’s wife Julia and adopted her daughter Mary Ann, living out his remaining years with a humble income.
William Buckley died in 1856 at the age of 76 just outside of Hobart after he fell from the gig being pulled by his horse.