What was life in Australia like before European settlement?

Mention the names William Buckley or Eliza Fraser and the majority will know of them or, perhaps, a greater or lesser part of their individual stories. Buckley and Mrs Fraser, among others in the early days of white settlement in Australia, had direct and generally beneficial experience of life with our original people. Over time, a level of hyperbole has surrounded many of their stories, making it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The National Library of Australia recently released a book called Living with the Locals – Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life. Authors John Maynard & Victoria Haskins present nine stories relating to a total thirteen people who escaped penal servitude or survived shipwreck. With at least one notable exception (and more on that anon), they experienced the hospitality of Indigenous people, often being accepted as part of their families. Each story is written in two parts, the overall background followed by a number of pages providing summary and more detailed information on Indigenous life. The level of research and understanding removes much of the ambiguity that previously existed.


The charity provided people who could be considered nothing more nor less than interlopers was generous, pretty much to a fault. The white interlopers were fed and clothed (where appropriate, especially in cooler climes), taught tribal ways including how to fish and hunt, and effectively adopted into the Indigenous family to the extent of being given names (*), and even, at times, provided wives. Some couples had children. One of the few who spoke badly of her ‘captors’ was Eliza Fraser who accused them of stripping her naked, beating her, and many another torture. The authors highlight the fact that Mrs Fraser and others in her party gave contrary stories, leaving her record conjectural and ultimately sensationalised.

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Over time, as a comprehensive reader of our history, I have been overwhelmed at the thought of how little our Indigenous people could be prepared for the hordes who would descend upon them. Living a settled life as one with their land, having no comprehension of other more populous countries and peoples across the seas, did they wonder if the relative few already arrived might be appeased; was their readiness to harbour and protect done in the spirit of “welcome, we can make this work of we do it together”? This seemed to be the situation accorded the greatest number of survivors who came among them.

White settlement and dominance, through an assumed superiority and sheer weight of numbers, was inevitable. Reading about the understanding that existed between those who, for whatever reason, came to know our original people, as opposed to the general ignorance shown by the burgeoning white population, generates a thought that begins with three utterly inadequate syllables: If only…

We were coming and had a chance to do things a whole lot better, but didn’t.

Living With The Locals is essential reading, providing reevaluation of a number of initial white/Indigenous relationships. Perhaps as good a sign as any of the respect shown by the survivors was that, almost to the last man, they refused to divulge details of Indigenous beliefs and customs on their return to the white community. For this, may they be remembered with respect.

I believe it worthy of note that the book was researched and written by a couple who are a team both in work and in life, Worimi man Professor John Maynard and non-Indigenous Professor Victoria Haskins. The even-handed, no-nonsense approach they apply is evident throughout. I extend my thanks to them for their ability to tell it all so well and to the National Library of Australia for the chance to read and review a book that ought to be read in every Australian home.

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My book of the year? Perhaps.

(*) Some of the Indigenous names given white survivors include Bunboé (John Wilson); Duramboi (James Davis); Giom (Barbara Thompson); and Murrangurk (William Buckley). They all have a poetic ring to them and sound more appealing than John, Jem, Barb or Will.

Living with the Locals, John Maynard and Victoria Haskins is available now from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.