Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Southern Ocean Islands and their People

Here is part of my paper on islands and how they are subject to state ownership and the laws of proscription and adverse possession ... I think the paper was born during my fit of pique, when denied access to Breaksea Island by the powers that be.

In 1839, the Government Resident Grey at King George’s Sound (now Albany) wrote to the Colonial Secretary listing his concerns about foreign whaling vessels working the coast, and the sealing crews who lived on islands between King George Sound and the Recherche Archipelago. 

His main concern was their lack of a ‘bond’ that domestic port visitors had to pay and find guarantors for, that bound them to behave in accordance to the colonial administration’s port regulations.  The American whalers, he wrote, were enticing deserters away from the colony and creating opportunities for the sealers to smuggle in Yankee tobacco. 

He also complained that the sealers brought their Aboriginal wives and workers into the settlement where the women mixed with the local Menang population and exercised a “most contaminating influence over their characters.”

Captain Grey backed up his bureaucratic grievances with allegations that some of the islanders were involved in piracy and wrecking – that old and bloody practice of misleading ships to crash into reefs and headlands in darkness so they could be plundered. 

He warned the Colonial Secretary that the sealers were living with Aboriginal women who had been carried off from their families in the east of the continent. As a result, many children lived on the islands who had European fathers: Grey wrote, “this half caste breed, reared under circumstances which must eventually render them the most lawless and worthless characters, stand a fair chance of inheriting in right of birth thereon, the various Archipelagos on this Coast.[1]

... Bob Gimble lived on Bald Island, forty kilometres to the east of Albany in the 1840s. Gimble had three Aboriginal wives and some children. The women were his companions and his crew. During the summer months, when the sea was swollen and chopped by the easterly winds, Gimble and the women killed seals, salted their skins and tried out the oil. I am unsure whether any of the three wives were Vandemonian but, given the history of the Vandemonian women moving from east to west during that period, it is quite possible.

In 1846 an ordinance by the colony of western Australia was extended to regulate the temporary occupation of crown lands and offshore islands.[1] [2] By the 1880s police regularly visited the Recherche Archipelago islands as part of their beat that covered hundreds of kilometres.[3] Some islands around Albany were closed to unauthorised landings, and still are to this day.[4] This act which stopped people from living without government authorisation on crown land effectively circumvented the laws of proscription, or adverse possession.[5] This point is the crux of this paper – that the removal of human inhabitants from islands was (and still is) a state ownership issue.

One hundred and sixty years after Captain Grey wrote that letter to the Colonial Secretary, his fears of Aboriginal children inheriting the islands were realised in another state, Queensland, when Eddie Mabo demonstrated his family’s continuous working and living on the offshore Mer Islands. My point here is not to compare the Mabo decision and its Native Title ramifications, with the (non-forthcoming) claims of clandestine south coast island communities, but to assert that Grey’s anxieties proved to be historically and legally correct. His letter shows that in the 1830s, individuals within the colonial administration of West Australia were already considering continued Aboriginal occupation as a legitimate legal obstacle to state ownership of the islands.

[1] CSR Acc 36 Vol. 73 Folio 75. Albany, Nov. 17th, 1839.
State Law Publisher.
[2] Amendment to the Occupation of Crown Land, State Law Publisher. Accessed.
[3] Police also visited the edge of the Nullabour to break up ‘large gatherings’.
[4] Robert Stephen’s letter re access to Rabbit/Mistaken Island.
[5] Details are available at the State Law Publisher website.

[1] Images - Louis de Sainson


  1. Looks like the argument for native title was actually written by those setting out against it. That looks like a potential game breaker in the hands of the right team.

  2. Really interesting Sarah. Yes, I wonder if as Ciaran pointed out, whether this info has been factored into current claims for land rights, or if it has, been pursued far enough.

    I have this idea that you may be thinking of camping out on one of those offshore islands long enough to claim land rights!

  3. Wouldn't that be nice! I know just the island and it is not Breaksea. But adverse possession takes 12 years or so.
    Thinking about the post and also the paper a week later makes me realise where I have become muddled. I'll sort that theory out ... this week hopefully.
    Thanks for commenting ciaran and michelle.

  4. Those Louis de Saison pictures are great. Every time I see one they make me think how modern his view of the world must have been. There's a real immediacey and sense of drama about them. I really do love them..

  5. Grey spent time in Ireland after graduating from Military school. His mother, I think, was from Co Carlow. His father died in battle a week after he was born. He ran away from Grammar School and ended up home schooled. His experience in ireland led him to think there had to be something better for the poor (starving, destitute)colonised peasants and so he went out to Australia thinking he'd set up in the north west and make a haven for them. His expeditions were attacked by hostile natives, twice, and he nearly perished from a spear wound the first time. After his second, miraculous, escape he was made Captain and appointed Goverbnment Resident at Albany, succeeding Richard Spencer. Spencer died suddenly in August, by early November Grey was married to his sixteen year old daughter, Eliza. Grey also put together a collection of noongar dialects and had it puiblished in England, I suspect by the Royal geographical Society who backed his original venture. He then produced a report on 'the best means of civilising the natives of Ausralia' and had it circulated amongst the colonies. This stemming from his (Irish born) sympathies for those undergoing colonisation. Like Daisy Bates, it seems to me, Grey saw the bastardisation of the native race by the lowest forms of the supposedly refined white race, as the birth of a dispicable new breed. This, I think now, has less to do with racism and his fear of the natives than it does with his view of the lawless white underclass (as personified by the sealers) which was ruining the supreme vision of cultural purity the virgin colonies offered. My honest interpreation of this is that Grey (and Bates alike) weren't critical of the native involvement in and of the subsequent ownership attributed to the new breed, (on the contrary actually) but rather 'left' (read abandoned) that new breed to fend for itself. Of course, few of the sealers (white or otherwise) stayed with their offspring and it fell to the native women to fend for their children themselves.

    I was watching a program on the genetic make up of much feared and ostracised Irish Travellers (gypsies) last night. Historically they have been attributed their travelling status by the effects of landlordism and the famines of the 1840's, but it turns out these people have been here for thousands of years and their genetic line is unique. Travellers are generally unwelcome in the all pervasive settled communities of modern Ireland and they denied ownership to a land they have long inhabited. Not that they ever wanted ownership, just to roam it, like they always have, and live, like they always have.

    Familiar eh...

  6. Yes, de Sainson pictures are great and you are right about the immediacy of them, Ciaran. And thank you so much for that background on Grey. Most interesting!

  7. The women with Robert Gamble (Gimble in your text) are Eliza, Julia and Mary. They were Bunurong women from Westernport Bay. Eliza's descendents are active members of the present day Bunurong community and many still live in the southern part of Western Australia and occasionally sneak across to Breaksea and Bald islands.

  8. Are there any records re Julia or Mary or descendants or date of their deaths.