John Oxley 29th July 1817 “Almost directly under the hill near our halting-place, we saw a tumulus, which was apparently of recent construction (within a year at most). It would seem that some person of consideration among the natives had been buried in it, from the exterior marks of a form which had certainly been observed in the construction of the tomb and surrounding seats. The form of the whole was semicircular. Three rows of seats occupied one half, the grave and an outer row of seats the other; the seats formed segments of circles of fifty, forty-five, and forty feet each, and were formed by the soil being trenched up from between them. The centre part of the grave was about five feet high, and about nine long, forming an oblong pointed cone. [Note: See the drawing].” … “to the west and north of the grave were two cypress-trees distant between fifty and sixty feet; the sides towards the tomb were barked, and curious characters deeply cut upon them, in a manner which, considering the tools they possess, must have been a work of great labour and time.”
The above journal description and lithograph feature in Mr Oxley’s journal account of his 1817 Lachlan River expedition. This was the colonies first major exploration west of the 1815 settlement of Bathurst. The beautiful lithograph belies a disturbing event which, despite being well documented, has been overlooked by historical research and analysis, perhaps deliberately so. This single event arguably initiated a cascade collapse in indigenous / colonialist trust and relations.
After scribing the above scene Oxley proceeded to organise an exhumation of the grave. Oxley records “the remains of a powerful tall man” … who “could not have been interred above six or eight months” … “We were obliged to suspend our operation for the night, as the corpse became extremely offensive to the smell, resolving to remove on the morrow all the earth from the top of the grave, and expose it for some time to the external air before we searched farther.”
This desecration act marked the start of rapid change for the indigenous nations. Within a few years colonists were droving their livestock along the river systems and ‘squatting’ on large parcels of lands. The squatters had minimal knowledge or regard for the country’s spiritual significance. They also had little tolerance for anyone hunting the livestock wandering over the indigenous nation territory. The indigenous people were never informed of the decision that their lands now belonged to someone else, they had no right to question or appeal. The stage was set for violation and conflict for generations to come as the colony displaced the indigenous peoples whenever the need for new land or resources arose. Consider how you, your family and friends would react if this desecration and displacement happened in your community.
Years later the explorer Thomas Mitchell eloquently described how the above narrative was unfolding. In 1848 he had cause to retrace a previous expedition as he commenced a new venture to find an overland route to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The landscapes he was familiar with had fundamentally changed: “Reaching a hill laid down on my former survey, and from which I recognised Mount Laidley, I returned directly to the camp. We had encamped near those very springs mentioned as seen on my former journey, but instead of being limpid and surrounded by verdant grass, as they had been then, they were now trodden by cattle into muddy holes, where the poor natives had been endeavouring to protect a small portion from the cattle’s feet, and keep it pure, by laying over it trees they had cut down for the purpose.
The change produced in the aspect of this formerly happy secluded valley, by the intrusion of cattle and the white man, was by no means favourable, and I could easily conceive how I, had I been an aboriginal native, should have felt and regretted that change.” 20th December 1848.
Over the next two weeks Mitchell followed approximately 200 km of western NSW riparian systems. All were similarly impacted by the early squatters droving activities. As he neared the western limit of droving operations his journal proclaims, “We hoped to find within the territory of the native, ponds of clear water, unsoiled by cattle”.
In his own words he describes the unfavourable aspect resulting from the new land management practices. Mitchell, an explorer, soldier and surveyor, has no agenda or politics. He was just telling it like it was, describing how his expedition struggled to find potable water in this land under new management.
Prior to the intense grazing impacts observed by Mitchell, the riparian systems were often described as ‘chains of ponds’. These are characterised by expanses of grasses and reeds which protected the soil and filtered the water. Mitchell also described the chains of ponds to be the landscapes “proof against drought” being sheltered from the wind and sun. Today the same creek/river systems are mostly described as incised channels, essentially turbid, eroding gutters which drain valuable soil, minerals and organic matter from the landscapes, degrading productive farmland, poisoning ecosystems and communities downstream. The recent and escalating instances of mass fish kills are directly attributable to our land management practices. We like to think that our advanced societies and cultures are exceptional and capable in all fields, we certainly lead in many areas, however our natural resource management legacy threatens to undermine all our recent gains in fundamental and potentially cataclysmic ways. Indigenous cultures, who have sustainably interacted with the world’s water, soils and biodiversity for millennia, possess knowledge and skills we must quickly recognise, learn and internalise.
It is high time we listened to the voice of country.
- Journals of two expeditions into the interior of New South Wales, undertaken by the order of the British Government in the year 1817 -18.
By John Oxley, surveyor general of the territory and lieutenant of the Royal Navy. With maps and views of the interior, or newly discovered country.
London: John Murray, Albermarle street. 1820
- Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia In Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria (1848) by
Lt. Col. Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell Kt. D.C.L. (1792-1855) Surveyor-General of New South Wales