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A story from the heart of the land
By Michael McKernan
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Michael McKernan
All rights reserved.
The Jugiong mystery
Sweep down from the hills into the village of Jugiong from the south, from the direction of Gundagai, and you will pass, before you come into the village itself, Christ Church on the left, St John's on the right. The one Anglican, the other Catholic; both solid, substantial buildings, though small in scale as befits a village of this size. Approach Jugiong from the north, from the direction of Yass, and before you reach the village you will pass, on the right, the Catholic cemetery. Further towards the village, again on the right, a side street will lead you to the general cemetery.
You can discover a great deal about this village and its people from these four places. From them you can learn who lived here; which families established dynasties here; how rich and healthy — or otherwise — was the living. You can also discover something of the spirit of the people who lived here: what was their faith; what animated their lives and gave them meaning; what was it that allowed the people to understand their place in the world. The churches and the cemeteries will reveal these things to you.
People cannot now say which is the oldest grave in either of Jugiong's cemeteries, for some of the earliest headstones have been lost. The first that can be dated in the Catholic cemetery is that of John Mallon, who died on 19 June 1848 at twenty-five years of age. John was the son of Garrett Mallon, who had died ten years earlier, the son of another Garrett, late of County Langford, Ireland, who had died in 1818. John's headstone is an oddity, carved from sandstone, of which there is none at all to be found in the region. The headstone had to be carried to Jugiong from a long way off.
Few would wander for very long in either of the cemeteries, or look closely at either of the churches, without there emerging a sense of gratitude that the stories of those who have gone before can be told. That we can be, in some sense, in contact with those who came from other lands to settle this region.
But the Lloyds and the Sheahans of the cemeteries, the Coggans and the Osbornes of the churches, were very far indeed from being the first people to inhabit the region. They were not the first people to work the land and to find a happy and harmonious living here. They were not the first people to bond so closely with the land of the Jugiong valley and its region that the land itself gave them meaning and understanding of life. Those of us who can trace our own personal story in Australia back two, three, possibly five or more generations, know that the land we live in has been inhabited for thousands of generations before the settlement of Europeans in Australia.
This is when the cemeteries of Jugiong begin to make you reflective. Who had lived here before European settlement and how had they lived? There is a hunger to know, if we are to know much about this place at all. The local people ask the question whenever you begin to talk with them about the past. 'I would love to know the story of the first Australians here,' says a man who can trace his own family's connection to Jugiong to the early 1840s. His sense of the valley is intense. He understands himself through his personal attachment to place and through his family's long, unbroken connection with this land. And he knows that the land had been nourishing and supporting people in much the same way for thousands of years before his own family arrived — perhaps for as long as sixty thousand years. It was only recently that those of us who came here from afar began to give thought to the intimate, life-nourishing and life-sustaining bond of the first Australians to their land.
Jugiong gives no easy evidence now of the lives of the Indigenous Australians along its river banks, on the river flats and among its gentle hills. You ask the old people in Jugiong, the great-grandchildren of the pioneers, and they can tell you nothing. Nothing has come down to them in family lore although many other stories have been handed down across the generations. Indeed the people you ask for the story, the old-timers at Jugiong, ask you, in their turn, how the story might be found. There are few records, nor can we seek answers from the tribal equivalents of the cemeteries and churches in the region. The sad fact is that we have lost the places of Indigenous history comparable to the cemeteries, churches, schools and stations that tell us so much about those Europeans who first settled here.
There was a sickness in Australian history for too long, a sickness that can be found in the story of most settler societies until they mature. Our sickness was a failure to acknowledge the story of those who were here before the white settlers said that this land was as if without people with rights, in effect an uninhabited land, when the evidence of a long and sophisticated habitation was everywhere for the first settlers to see. Now so routinely and so sensibly we begin our major public ceremonies, and even our more minor activities, with a 'welcome to country'. I cannot perform a 'welcome to country' for Jugiong because it is not my country. But I can begin this book with an acknowledgement of the first Australians who lived in harmony with the land on the banks of the Murrumbidgee for thousands of generations.
These people were, and are, Wiradjuri people, once one of the largest groups of Aboriginal Australians in terms both of population and of the area of country that was their own. Their lands were formed by geographical boundaries, as the historian of the Wiradjuri, Peter Read, tells us: 'the Blue Mountains in the east, the foot of the western slopes in the south', and to the north, the land where 'the open eucalyptus forest gave way to the grassy plains and mallee scrub'. Although there was great diversity among the Wiradjuri people and no firm political unity, the fact that three great rivers — the Macquarie, the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee — crossed their lands gave some common bonds to all of them: they were known as 'river people'.
Jugiong was border country for the Wiradjuri. It is known that Ngunawal people from the region that we now know as Yass extended down towards Jugiong and the Murrumbidgee, which also ran through their land. Some have said that so well sited and so pleasing was the land on the Murrumbidgee at Jugiong that it was shared between the two peoples, or used as a meeting place for both of the tribes. Certainly the Ngunawal people were less numerous than the Wiradjuri, with a much smaller land area. Both peoples contribute to the story of Indigenous Australians at Jugiong.
At the time when Arthur Phillip brought his sad little collection of convicts and marines first to Botany Bay and then on to Sydney Cove there were, writes Peter Read, perhaps some 3000 Wiradjuri people living across their lands. However, I wonder if there might have been more, because in 1848 when Commissioner for Crown Lands Henry Bingham sent in his annual report from the Murrumbidgee district, he estimated that the Indigenous population of the district consisted of some 1500 people. As the Indigenous population would have been much reduced since 1788, Read's estimate of 3000 for the total population at the time of the First Fleet does seem a small number. Perhaps Henry Bingham was mistaken; in his report he continued: 'there have been many deaths amongst them, and some of the best Men of their tribes'. In any case, we cannot know the exact numbers with any certainty.
The Wiradjuri were divided into major clans, some of whom gave their names to towns that we know in the region today; Kutu-Mudra is obvious enough, less so Murringballa (Murrumburrah). We are told that in the Wiradjuri language something that sounded like Jugiong meant 'valley of the crow', and something that sounded like Murrumbidgee meant 'big water'. The clans who gave the land these names were further divided into smaller groupings, more like one or two extended families: an old man and his wives, his sons and their wives and children — perhaps twenty or thirty people. In the Bathurst region, an extended family ranged over about 40 kilometres of land, spending a month or two here or there at campsites that may have been visited in this way for thousands of years. This pattern may have been typical for all the Wiradjuri.
By 1900 the Wiradjuri language was spoken by very few of the old people. It is an unknown and unknowable language today, irretrievably lost. Fred Collins, a Wiradjuri man born at Gundagai in 1910, told Peter Read that he had never heard the language spoken and that 'the older people consciously did not want the young to hear it spoken'. The first European settlers in any region easily encountered the physical evidence of Indigenous culture and the long occupation of the land. As historian Mark McKenna has explained, 'when king tides lashed the [southern New South Wales] coast and eroded the sand dunes, the settlers found the bodies of Aboriginal people in the sand ... when they walked the land they found the corroboree rings, the canoe and shield trees, the middens and burial grounds'. You can still see canoe trees to this day in the Jugiong region if you are accompanied by someone who has the skill to ead the land. 'The "land without a past" revealed an antiquity the settlers failed to comprehend', and much of the evidence of settlement and civilisation was simply ignored and so was lost.
The Wiradjuri continued to live on their land in undisturbed peace during the first thirty years of the European occupation of this continent because, with the exception of those in Van Diemen's Land who ranged widely over the island, the first Australian settlers were huddled into a small area of land on the coast. Yet the fate of the Wiradjuri was fatally linked to these early years of the settlement. In their first movement away from Sydney Cove, the first settlers had moved to the Hawkesbury River region to the north of Sydney. They were looking for more and better land and they could more easily go back and forth between that region and their markets in Sydney by boat rather than take the laborious and frightening march through the bush that all other movement from Sydney required. But from the beginnings of settlement on the Hawkesbury there was fierce and dangerous conflict for the settlers. Sadly, these first brutal and near-equal clashes shaped settler understandings of the inevitability of conflict wherever settlement might occur. The few precious flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were at risk on the Hawkesbury virtually from the first moments of settlement there; crops were destroyed just as they were coming to harvest, dwellings fired. Settlers on the Hawkesbury lived with fear: for their own lives and those of their families, and fear for their survival and profitability as farmers. The settlers pleaded with the early governors for the soldiers they needed to make war on their enemies, to make their lives and their lands safe. And war it was. By the early 1820s, when Europeans first started moving onto Wiradjuri lands on the other side of the Blue Mountains, settlers everywhere were at the end of their tether and saw awful discord between the Indigenous peoples and themselves simply as a part of the way it had to be.
At first the arrival of the Europeans in the Bathurst region passed off peaceably enough. There were not too many settlers initially — only 114 white people by 1820. But the numbers grew quickly and by 1824 there were 1267 in the region. The stress on the traditional way of life was substantial, compounded by a severe drought from 1822 to 1824. Having alienated only 2520 acres of land by 1821, four years later the settlers had taken 91 636 acres and the trouble had begun. In response to the murder of seven settlers in the Bathurst region in 1823, Governor Brisbane declared martial law against the Wiradjuri people, causing the killing of 'between a quarter and a third of the Bathurst region Wiradjuri'. There was little attempt to conciliate between the settlers and the Wiradjuri or to find ways of coexistence before the declaration of martial law. It was the Hawkesbury experience of endemic fighting that created the hasty and awful recourse to gun and poison for the Wiradjuri. The shooting parties continued for decades even after martial law ended. That, and disease, had a catastrophic impact on the Wiradjuri.
'They feel deeply,' Commissioner Bingham wrote of the Wiradjuri in 1849, 'the alien occupation of their country.' If the men, and the younger men at that, were killed or died, then the surviving older people and the women and children would struggle also to survive. But if an entire sub-clan was lost, twenty or thirty people, then the story of their existence was lost too. There was no-one to inherit the dreamings and meanings of the land, there was no means of transmitting the culture. 'Their dreaming sites could not be, and never have been, re-peopled,' writes Peter Read. We do not even know where these places are. 'This is the most likely explanation,' he concludes, 'for the fact that certain regions, such as around Junee [and I would say around Jugiong] have not had an Aboriginal population within the reach of memory or written record.'
Enter Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell. People found it hard to like Major Mitchell. They admired his energy and drive and knew him to be a skilled surveyor and they admired his courage. But he was a quarrelsome man, quick to take offence, argumentative with his superiors and imperious with his subordinates. In 1851 he fought a duel with Stuart Donaldson, the man who in 1856 would be the first premier of New South Wales. Fortunately both men were poor marksmen and neither was injured after firing three shots each. This was thought to be the last duel fought in New South Wales. Mitchell believed that Donaldson had slighted him on the hustings, thought him insolent, and had challenged for the duel. Mitchell was that type of man — difficult and not well loved.
Born at Craigend in Scotland in 1792, by 1811 Thomas Mitchell was a second lieutenant in the 95th Regiment serving in the Peninsula Wars and in 1814 he was selected to make plans of the major Peninsula battlefields. He would become an excellent and accurate surveyor. In 1827 he was appointed assistant surveyor-general of New South Wales and arrived in the colony towards the end of that year. On the death of John Oxley in 1828 he became surveyor-general of New South Wales, a position he held until his own death in 1855.
Mitchell was one of the great explorers of the new lands of southeastern Australia; it was he, on his third expedition in 1836, who came across the vast grassy plains of what we know as Victoria, which he called 'Australia Felix'. He was surprised to find Van Diemonians well established at present-day Portland on Victoria's western border — the hunger for land was driving some adventurers ahead of the explorers. The land he walked over when he made his return to Sydney was well populated by settlers within a few years. He had opened up some of the richest lands in Australia. At Mount Dispersion, at an early stage on this third journey, Mitchell feared he was about to be attacked; he attempted an ambush of Aboriginal people and later fired upon them, killing seven men. There was an enquiry into these killings and Mitchell was largely exonerated; the enquirers could not blame him for 'a want of coolness and presence of mind which it is the lot of few men to possess'.
It may seem from this that Mitchell had little regard for the people living on the lands he explored and mapped. This is not so. Indeed Thomas Mitchell can help us to understand something of the Wiradjuri and Ngunawal people. On his first extensive trip in the colony in 1828 he was camped at a place known to the Aborigines as Bourel and now called Bowral. He visited an Aboriginal camp at night and found several groups of people resting around various fires. Many of them were singing. 'One young fellow,' writes D.W.A. Baker, Mitchell's biographer, 'seemed to Mitchell to be the happiest individual he had ever seen. He lay face down on the ground covered by a skin over his hips, laughing — at times very heartily — and kicking his legs in the air as he lay.' Later Mitchell watched a corroboree and was particularly taken with a dance that signified wind blowing through trees: 'it seemed to Mitchell that this beautiful idea of what he thought of as nature's children on the western slopes of New South Wales was a greater treat than any ballet he had ever seen on the stage at Covent Garden'.
It was on his third journey that Mitchell observed something that was to move him profoundly and give pause to his idea that these people were 'nature's children', barely able to distinguish between right and wrong. On this trip he came across what he thought to be a hut of some kind but in fact discovered was a grave. He learned that a relative of the deceased would sleep each night with the person who had died until there was no flesh left on his bones. 'Mitchell was deeply affected by this example of Aboriginal mourning,' Baker writes.
He thought it a great tribute to human nature for the history of no other nation or age could, he believed, show a more touching proof of the strength of human affection. The nightly occupation of the living tomb showed plainly that no superstitious dread ... deterred Aborigines from making a sacrifice that reached the bounds of human love.
Excerpted from The Valley by Michael McKernan. Copyright © 2009 Michael McKernan. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
1 The Jugiong mystery,
2 'A typically thrifty Ulsterman',
3 Life on the run,
4 Walking in a cemetery,
5 Jugiong at war,
6 Learning his craft,
7 Jugiong's most famous citizen,
8 The soldier-settler,
9 Workers on the land,
10 New life,
A note on sources,