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Images of Aboriginality

Native Dignity by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The opinions gold diggers held of Aborigines were based on the varied and complex relationships they formed. Many diggers held low opinions of the Aborigines as their only contact was with beggars. Korzelinski recalled an encounter with a Djadjawurrung couple at the Jim Crow diggings in 1854. He approached the couple who were squatting on the side of the road.

"Curious as to what was afoot, I moved ahead very slowly. Soon the lady pulled a clay pipe such as is commonly used in Australia from behind her ear. She blew into it, looked at it and showed it to me saying ‘Empty’. She was not disappointed in my good manners. Soon both of us were blowing clouds of smoke. Meanwhile the native began a conversation in broken English.

‘Where are you going?’

‘To work.’

‘Have you got money?’

‘A little.’

‘Then lend me a shilling.’

‘I wonder when you will return it, if I lend it to you.’

‘What’s the difference when?’

‘Doesn’t matter, here is a shilling. But it would have been better if you’d simply said ‘Give me a shilling’, because where would you get money? You don’t like digging or doing any other work.’

He looked at the shilling, said ‘Silver’ and clenched it in his fist. There was no other place he could have put it. He spoke again:

‘I’ll stay here and you take my lubra for a walk.’

Pleasant walk, I thought and said ‘I don’t want to’. He looked at me sceptically. There was an interval during which we all walked in silence. Apparently some new conception was forming in his mind. Finally he said:

‘You know what, give me another shilling and I’ll bring you gin.’

‘I don’t drink.’

‘What sort of man are you? Drink is good.’

‘Just as good as a walk with your lubra’, I said laughing, and turning off the road, went off to my nearby claim, never to see the couple nor my shilling again."

Miner Antoine Fauchery noted in his letters that there were always in each Aboriginal group some who know a little English, "just enough to beg, a familiar exercise to which they devote themselves with a persistence worthy of the monks of old. I have sometimes seen black-fellows stay for a full half day at the door of a tent, patiently waiting for a gift of a piece of bread, a cup of tea or a glass of brandy, a liquor for which they would allow themselves to be cut into small pieces."

Korzelinski also complained in his memoirs about the noisy Aboriginal camp nearby.

"On a moonlit night there is no rest for they make a lot of noise and scream in a peculiar way. Possibly it has a religious significance – a worship of the moon perhaps, or it could be that the crodje was giving talismans away. It’s hard to say. Tired as I was after a hard day’s digging, I was not prepared to flit through the bush at night in the hope of learning some of the natives’ habits and ceremonies".

Oliver Ragless and his mates camping at Forest Creek shared Korzelinski’s view. They cursed the "dismal corroboree" of a party of Aboriginal people camped across the creek from them. "The noise of the blacks beating their waddies are making some of us cross". Other than this noise, Ragless considered them good neighbours.

Others had positive experiences, which in turn, shaped their positive views of Aboriginal people. Miners Thomas Mossman and Samuel Banister met a party of men on their way from the Murray River to Mount Alexander to try their fortunes at the diggings.

"One of them was a tall powerful man about six feet two, perhaps more. He was apparently very active for so large a man; he had, they said, a little native blood in his veins; if so, he proved in his person what a fine race of men the interior of Australia can produce, and that the animal man will not suffer from an amalgamation with the aborigines."

Mossman lamented the treatment of the Aboriginal people:

"We cannot think of these poor people without pain and deep regret; and sometimes a doubt crosses our mind, whether, nationally speaking, we have adopted the course towards them which was due to ourselves to have done."


Text adapted from Dr Ian D. Clark and Fred Cahir, A critique of ‘forgetfulness’ and exclusivity: the neglect of Aboriginal themes in goldfields tourism in Victoria, University of Ballarat, 2001


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