Book Review: Callum Clayton-Dixon’s Surviving New England
Callum Clayton-Dixon’s Surviving New England: A history of Aboriginal resistance and resilience through the first forty years of the colonial apocalypse[i] is an important book, although some find it discomforting.
Clearly and simply written, the book discuses the impact of European occupation on the life of the Aboriginal peoples living on Australia’s New England Tablelands from the 1830s into the 1860s. In doing so, it focuses on the Aboriginal experience in a particular area at a critical point in time.
Background: the importance of regional studies
We sometimes talk of the “Australian Aborigines” as though they were and are a single entity. We know that this is not true, but the habit lingers, affecting the way we approach both policy development and historical analysis.
We now know that the Aboriginal and Papuan ancestors arrived on the mega-continent we now call Sahul perhaps 65,000 years ago. This was the Pleistocene, a geological epoch marked by recurrent ice ages during which sea levels fell and rose as the ice advanced and retreated. With lower sea levels, Papua-New Guinea, the current Australian continent, Tasmania and much of the continental shelf were joined in a single great continent.
By 42,000 to 40,000 years ago, all of Sahul from the Papuan Islands in the north to Tasmania in the south had been at least lightly occupied. Around 21,000 years ago a cold and desolate period known as the Last Glacial Maximum began. Sea levels fell to perhaps 130 metres below present levels, temperatures fell dramatically on land and in the sea, rainfalls declined sharply. This forced the Aboriginal ancestors to retreat and regroup and may have threatened the very existence of human occupation of Sahul.
Around 15,000 years ago a warmer period known as the Holocene began, As the glaciers melted, the seas rushed back separating Papua and Tasmania from the Sahul mainland, submerging large areas of the continental shelf. This period is recorded in Aboriginal folk lore referencing great floods.
By 1788, a complex Aboriginal society had emerged across the new Australian continent. This society was not uniform, but varied from area to area in culture and relationships with the landscape. This society would now be torn apart, a process that varied across space and time depending on the spread of European settlement, local conditions and the policies of the emerging colonial jurisdictions.
I make these points because a proper understanding of our history and especially Aboriginal history requires a focus on local and regional experiences.
As I read Callum’s book, I thought just how well it fitted into the New England historiography tradition.
Both the Armidale Teachers’ College (later the Armidale College of Advanced Education) and the New England University College (now the University of New England, UNE) were founded in part to study and preserve the history and culture of Northern NSW, the North.
When Isabel McBryde came to Armidale in 1960, she was the first tenured Australian university staff member to have the word prehistory in her title. The students she recruited to study the ethnography and prehistory of the broader New England would form the first archaeology and prehistory honours class in Australia,
From the beginning and under the influence of her mentor John Mulvaney, Isabel focused on the creation of a regional historical sequence. She and John believed that the variety in Aboriginal culture and society meant that you could not understand the history without a focus on regional studies. In parallel, the English Department’s Bill Hoddinott began the documentation of Aboriginal languages within Northern NSW.
In 1962, Robin Walker published an article discussing the relations between Aborigines and settlers in New England 1818-1910.[ii]
In 1966, two years before W E H Stanner coined the phrase the Great Australian Silence to describe the absence of Aboriginal history in Australian history, Walker published Old New England, a history of the Northern Tablelands from 1818 to 1900.[iii] While Walker focused on the settler experience, the book begins with an outline of Aboriginal life prior to European occupation. Later, it explicitly recognises the existence of frontier warfare including massacres and retaliatory killings and the damage done to Aboriginal society as a consequence of disease and disruption.
In 1981, Geoff Blomfield published the first edition of Baal Belbora: The End of the Dancing[iv], a study of warfare, massacres and frontier violence in the Falls’ country of Southern New England.
These few examples suggest the importance of regional studies, as well as showing early recognition of both frontier warfare and the impact of European occupation on Aboriginal society. However, they were all written by non-Aboriginal people.
Callum writes from an Aboriginal perspective. His focus is more personal, more political. It centres on the Aborigines as people with agency, people who responded to invasion by fighting back against overwhelming odds.
This is a very different perspective from the sometimes simple minded focus on the Aborigines as victims. To Callum, his ancestors were warriors who in the end survived. In writing, he seeks to instil pride in an often oppressed group.
Callum’s position is clearly set out the book’s Introduction. It begins with his discovery of his Aboriginal ancestry, of his return to the country of his ancestors, of his attempt to discover and reconnect with country.
Callum writes from a particular post-colonial mental structure. As Callum discovered his own past, he became involved with groups such as the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance who were determined to tear down the mental, social and legal barriers that prevented proper recognition and reconstruction, the reinstatement of the rights of all the Aboriginal peoples.
Callum’s position is not limited to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, but indigenous peoples everywhere. To his mind, justice demands the deconstruction of structures created by colonialism and their replacement by new structures that properly recognise indigenous ownership and rights.
This approach could leave him open to the charge that his book is a polemic, a political statement, rather than a piece of historical research. That would be unjust. This is good history. I say this for several reasons.
All historians write from particular perspectives. This affects the questions they ask and evidence selected. Often, these positions have to be inferred. By contrast, Callum tells us where he is coming from. We can therefore make our own judgements on approach and evidence presented. Here Callum has been careful to document his evidence, allowing us to follow up, to check his sources and again form our own views.
A mark of good history is the extent to which it provides insights that allow us to see patterns, to develop new ideas. Callum’s book passes this test.
Setting the Scene
Having outlined his personal position, Callum discusses key questions that set a framework for the following story of resistance. What was the Aboriginal population of the Tablelands at the time of British occupation? How rapidly did occupation proceed? What was the impact of British occupation on the Aboriginal peoples and population?
When I made the first estimates of the distribution of Aboriginal populations across Northern NSW, I worked (as Callum does) from settler and official records.[v] In doing so, I was unaware of the impact of diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and venereal infections that spread far beyond the moving frontier. This affected population size directly through deaths and then through reduced fertility rates within surviving populations.
Taking this into account, Callum estimates the Tablelands’ population as between 1,100 and 1,200 people. Accepting that the Tablelands were not as productive in Aboriginal terms as the coast and western slopes and immediate plains, I suspect that this is an underestimate. I say this because the number of recorded languages and their supporting dialects, the number of recorded Aboriginal groups, is quite high. A simple division of these numbers into the population estimates gives figures too small to be viable units in demographic terms.
Perhaps wisely given the population uncertainties, Callum does not attempt to scope the number of warriors (men of fighting age) at the time of European occupation. This is an important issue because it helps scope the scale of the conflict that followed. If we exclude women, children and older men, a population of 1,200 suggests perhaps 400 warriors spread across multiple local groups.
Using graphs, Callum charts the rapid growth of the settler population across the New England Tablelands from 1830 to 1850. European occupation began in the early 1830s with the squatters coming in two streams, one inland from the Hunter, the second from Port Macquarie where Archibald Clunes Innes had established his headquarters.
This expansion was driven by demand for the wool required to feed the growing British textile industry. It was also driven by a speculative fever as the new settlers sought to build their fortunes.
The New England Tablelands may have been a relatively poor territory in Aboriginal terms, but it was well suited to wool growing. The result was a settlement explosion. By the time Crown Lands Commissioner Macdonald established his headquarters in 1839 at the place now called Armidale, much of the New England was at least lightly occupied. By 1841, the European population had reached 1,115, rising to 2,231 in 1846. The Aborigines were now in a minority. The effect is more pronounced still if we consider the male population, for in this period there were few women in the European population. This meant that the number of European men of what we might call military age outnumbered the number of Aboriginal warriors well before the European population outnumbered the Aboriginal population.
Patterns of Aboriginal Resistance
European expansion had devastating effects on Aboriginal traditional life. Beyond the effects of disease, beyond losses in frontier warfare, came the effects associated with destruction of habitat as the Aboriginal peoples were denied access to the traditional lands, forced to retreat to marginal areas. Callum calls this process ecocide, the sometimes deliberate destruction of the economy and environment on which a people depends for their survival.
Callum explores the Aboriginal response in a number of chapters plus an appendix that lists all the examples of frontier violence that he has found from the records as well as Aboriginal memories, some 41 items in all. Unlike the University of Newcastle’s Colonial massacres project which focuses on specifically defined massacres[vi], Callum’s focus on the Aboriginal response means that he is as interested in all types of Aboriginal response against the European invasion.
I think that this is very important in opening new areas of historical analysis, although I think that there are weaknesses in Callum’s analysis, areas that he does not address.
This may sound like a criticism. It is not. Callum has proven his basic point, that the Aboriginal peoples were people with agency who fought back. He has opened new ground for historical research, new questions and structures that I find interesting. He and we can build on his research to tell new stories.
To extend my argument, using Callum’s structure we can think of the Aboriginal response in terms of three phases, sometimes uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival. We can also think of this in terms of the structure of Aboriginal society, the structure of European colonial society and the way the two played out in the pattern of frontier life. We can also think of this in regional and local terms. Here we can learn much from other regional studies such as Mark Dunn’s The Convict Valley, the story of early European settlement on the Hunter[vii].These regional studies allow us to learn much about different patterns over space and time, but also allow us to see interconnections between different areas.
If you look at the patterns of early Aboriginal resistance, they included attacks on isolated individuals with attacks on stock. The Aborigines were selective in such attacks, focusing on individuals who had done them wrong. As resistance gathered strength, you had large scale attacks on people and stock.
In both the Hunter and on the New England, the European response forced Aboriginal groups to the more remote and rugged country where horses could not easily penetrate. There different Aboriginal groups came together to mount larger scale attacks on people and stock. On the New England, for example, growing European settlement on the coast seems to have forced coastal Aborigines to the west where they joined with Tablelands’ groups including traditional enemies to mount large scale attacks. The patterns created last to this day.
The exact patterns including regional linkages are poorly understood. As Callum notes, he had to develop his synthesis from a variety of often fragmented early settler and official records, records written from the other side of the conflict.
Reading Callum’s work in conjunction with other studies such as Mark’s. I thought that there that there is so much more that we might say. We will never know of course, we have to infer so much, but Callum’s work gives us another block to build from.
Jim Belshaw, “Book Review: Surviving New England”, Armidale and District Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, No 64, October 2021, pp 102-106
[i] Callum Clayton-Dixson, Surviving New England, Aniawan Language Revival Program, Armidale 2019. Reprinted NEWARA Aboriginal Corporation, Armidale 2020
[ii] R B Walker, ‘The Relations between Aborigines and Settlers in New England 1818-1900, Armidale and District Historical Society Journal, 4, 1962 pp1-18
[iii] R B Walker, Old New England: A history of the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales 1818-1900, Sydney University Press, 1966
[iv] Geoff Blomfield, Baal Belbora: The End of the Dancing, Apcol, 1981
[v] Jim Belshaw, The Economic Basis of Aboriginal Life in Northern New South Wales in the Nineteenth Century, BA Hons thesis, University of New England, 1966; J Belshaw, ‘Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in northern New South Wales’, in Records of Times Past, I McBryde (ed.). Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra: 1978, pp.65-81
[vii] Mark Dunn The Convict Valley The bloody struggle on Australia's early frontier Allen & Unwin June 2020