An animated video exploring the story of James Morrill, who lived with Indigenous people for 17 years
Not all stories of first contact between European settlers and Indigenous Australians were fraught with violence and mistrust.
Whether lost or escaped, marooned or shipwrecked, exiled or on the run, many Europeans found themselves living with the locals, immersed in their cultures and languages.
Some of these relationships were lasting and deep; many were compassionate and peaceful during a time of incredible upheaval.
These men and women had a rare opportunity that few would ever experience: to get a true and rich inside view of Aboriginal cultural life pre-contact.
As a husband-and-wife team — coming from an Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspective — with a shared passion for the history of Australia’s first peoples, we pieced together these incredible stories of disaster, survival, loss, faith and friendship.
Six tales of survival from the history books
A number of the stories, like that of William Buckley, are well known.
The story of William Buckley, as told through animation drawing on images from the National Library of Australia
Buckley was a convict escapee who lived for 32 years with the Wathawurrung people of the south-east Victorian coast, where his name was Murrangurk.
Eventually, fearing retribution for having run away so many years previous, he turned himself in to a group of colonists.
They were shocked to see this giant of a man — six foot six — wander into their camp in a possum-skin cloak, clutching a handful of spears.
Buckley never gave up the many secrets he’d learned during his three decades living with the Wathawurrung people.
But others who lived with the locals have been forgotten to history, even though their stories are fascinating.
French cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier was marooned on Cape York as a 14-year-old, and was taken in by the people of the north-east peninsula, north of Princess Charlotte Bay.
He grew to manhood among them, going by the name Anco, until he was found and dragged back to ‘civilisation’ 17 years later.
In 1844, Barbara Thomson was rescued from drowning by the Kaurareg people and given the name Giom.
She lived as a senior Islander man’s favoured daughter, thought to have returned from the dead.
Five years later, sailing at the tip of Cape York peninsula, the HMS Rattlesnake came upon Barbara and took her back to Sydney.
She assured them she had been kindly treated, telling the ship’s surgeon Oswald Brierley: “I had been wrecked and pointed out Tomagugu (an Indigenous man who rescued her) to them and told them he was my brother and had saved my life.”
“Bunboe” John Wilson served his time in the Sydney penal settlement and then, as a free man, went to live with the Dharug people on the Hawkesbury River.
The Dharug, led by the great warrior Pemulwuy, were heavily engaged in guerrilla war against the colonists, who found Wilson’s defection extremely confronting.
James Davis, a convict at Moreton Bay in the late 1800s, escaped just six weeks into his sentence.
He spent 14 years with the local people, staying with various clans along the coast, and was adopted by a senior Gigyabarah man and given the name Duramboi (kangaroo rat).
Then there’s the tragic story of James Morrill, who was said to have died of a broken heart, after leaving the people who sheltered him for 17 years in north Queensland.
Described as “plain, unpretending and kind-hearted”, Morill returned to the whites to seek peace and conciliation, to protect the lives of his adopted Aboriginal family and clans.
A difficult, but valuable, quest for knowledge
As we sifted through the collections of the National Library of Australia (NLA), looking to tell stories like these from both perspectives, we were fascinated.
We found a wealth of little-known information, mostly from the eastern coast of Australia and the Torres Strait, hidden in old books, newspaper accounts, and manuscripts.
At home in our office, we passed drafts back and forth. Over tea breaks and lunch, we shared and discussed the sad, joyous, uplifting and inspiring stories we were learning about.
Often the historic material we found, written entirely from a European perspective and full of sensational and outlandish claims about ‘savage’ society and peoples, was difficult for us to deal with.
But we still believe the stories are incredibly valuable and important for understanding our shared history.
What struck us most was the human kindness and generosity of the Indigenous people in Australia and the Torres Strait.
The runaways and castaways were almost always in a desperate state when they were first found by Aboriginal or Islander people.
They were in pressing need of food, shelter and companionship, which they by and large received from their startled hosts.
Taking in lost souls as ‘reborn kin’
From this angle, the Europeans who lived with Indigenous people, often regarded by the wider colonial society and sometimes by themselves as ‘captives’, look more like refugees.
We found that Indigenous communities typically adopted the newcomers, treating them as reborn kin — family members returning from the realm of the dead.
This seems to have been the way Indigenous people were able to make sense of these strange pale-skinned people who appeared out of nowhere in their territories — when it was well understood that nobody would conceive of encroaching upon other peoples’ country — and allot them a place in the social network.
Undoubtedly, this response ensured the survival of many of those lone, lost strangers.
And unlike many who would follow them, these Europeans were dependent upon their Indigenous hosts, and appreciative of their generosity.
After concluding our research, we were both left wondering: what if steps had been taken in an altered direction? Australian history may well have been so greatly different.
If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and people had been appreciated, respected and embraced in the way they themselves had responded to these poor lost souls, the country today would have been all the richer — strengthened by the cultural knowledge that Indigenous people are only now belatedly being recognised as having carried for over 65,000 years, the longest collective memory known to humankind.
With thanks to Gabriel Clark, Finlay Downes and Elizabeth Smith from UTS Visual Communication Design for the animated videos in this article.
Thanks also to Susan Hall, Jo Karmel and all of the NLA staff who assisted the authors in their research project.