When British convicts and colonists came, the indigenous people of that area reacted in different ways. Two typical ways were that of Pemulwuy and Bennelong. Pemulwuy fought back violently. Faced with the taking of his lands, he resisted the encroachments of the white invaders, and even when captured, escaped his cell. He was executed after being tracked down with the help of one of his compatriots. Bennelong was different. He decided that a strategy of dialogue and compromise would enable his people to continue their way of life in a way that Pemulwuy’s resistance could not. At first, he had no choice – he was kidnapped (along with Colbee) by Governor Phillip in Phillip’s attempts to forcibly build a bridge of cultural understanding. Not the best way to go about it, you might think, but Bennelong seemed to relish his encounter with the British. He learnt and spoke English, ate their food and drank their alcohol, and even dressed like them at times. He was taken to Britain and viewed as an oddity.
But what about how white people reacted to the Aboriginal people? Most of the time they were on their guard against them, fearing that their livestock would be stolen or that a group like Pemulwuy’s might do them injury. This is a story of a very different encounter between black and white.
Tasmania in those days was called Van Dieman’s Land, and it, like so many of Australia’s settlements, began its life as a convict colony. It was to Van Dieman’s Land that William Buckley was destined. He was a six foot six soldier who was convicted for receiving stolen property. His ship stopped at Port Phillip, later Melbourne, and Buckley began to his sentence establishing a settlement there. But things didn’t go well, so the prisoners were to be shipped to Van Dieman’s Land. Buckley and 5 others escaped at this point, intending to go to Sydney, about 1000km away.
Buckley’s companions decided to turn themselves in when they realised how lost they were, but for some reason Buckley decided to stay. This was a massive decision, because he had no way of getting food apart from hunting, and he did not know the land at all. But Buckley was in for some luck, and his amazing good fortune is remembered in a common saying in Australia. When we want to express that someone has little or no chance of achieving something, we say “You’ve got Buckley’s and none” – meaning they have no chance, or a very slim chance – Buckley’s chance.
One day, he found a spear driven into the ground, which he took. The Wathaurong people of the area around what is now Geelong, thought he was the reincarnation of a man they called Murrangurk. This makes sense in a way – Buckley had Murrangurk’s spear and the Wathaurong people found Buckley near Murrangurk’s grave. Anyway, they welcomed Buckley into their tribe.
Over the next 30 odd years, he learnt their language, forgot how to speak English, hunted, married and even had a daughter. It seems he was fairly happy with this life. But when he learned of a plan by the tribe to rob a visiting British ship and kill the people on board, he returned to British society. Because he couldn’t remember how to speak English at first, he could only identify himself by initials, which were tattooed on his arm.
He became an interpreter for one of the founders of Melbourne, John Batman, so that Batman could communicate with the indigenous people. But Buckley continually felt torn between the people he’d spent more than half his life with, and the people he’d been born into. He was not trusted by the Wathaurong people, and the British thought he was strange because he loved the Aboriginal people so much.
He went to Hobart, married and died in a traffic accident in 1856. He is still one of the few Europeans to have experienced life in an indigenous tribe, and for that we need to remember him.