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Edward M Curr and the tide of history.

Edward M Curr and the tide of history

Samuel Furphy 2013

ANU Press/Aboriginal History, ANU, 229pp, ISBN 9781922144706 (print version)

As much scholarship has shown over the past decades, settler attitudes to Indigenous peoples thrived on difference and righteousness--the latter not in a religious sense (necessarily) but in an absolute conviction, one sunk deep into the settler heart, of the moral and material justness of their usurpation of Indigenous country. This conviction sanctioned settler violence and outlawed Indigenous resistance. Difference not only denied the humanity in the Indigenous face; it made the people objects of curiosity, to be quickly described, analysed and catalogued for science before they 'disappeared' as naturally as one season disappears into another. There arises in this a paradox: genocidal practice combined with the apparent sympathy of curiosity. In the Australian colonies of the last half of the nineteenth century this paradox was no more greatly manifest than in the person of Edward M Curr--enough in itself to make him the subject of analysis, but Curr is even more ripe for study since, as Samuel Furphy shows in this biography, he has had a particularly potent afterlife.

Of course, like many paradoxes it becomes less incongruous the closer you gaze. Curr was not untypical of the pastoralists who took up land in Port Phillip north of the Great Dividing Range in the early 1840s, except that he had been born in Van Diemen's Land and was acting on behalf of his father, an overbearing man prominent in the early politics of Melbourne (of whom we hear much in this volume). Curr's first run there, Wolfscragg, near the present town of Heathcote, was on Taungurung country that had been settled first in 1837-38. By the time Curr took up his run in 1841, Taungurung resistance in the area had pretty much been crushed. Curr found Wolfscragg unsatisfactory and decided to add to the run with land further north on the Goulburn River and then the Murray River, land until then 'unoccupied' (most settlers of the time would have found these areas uncomfortably far from a port from which to ship their wool). There Curr encountered the Bangerang people.

Like many of the pastoralists of the period, Curr moved on after a few years--travelling the world, then returning to Melbourne and taking up, after almost financial ruin, the position of Inspector of Stock in the Victorian Government. There he might have remained, climbing the bureaucratic ladder and barely remembered. But, as Furphy shows well, Curr had other ambitions and the energy and self-belief to carry them through. It is his literary endeavours that leave him far more than a footnote. He wrote throughout his life but it is his two late-life works that have remained on the shelves.

Recollections of squatting in Victoria then called the Port Phillip District (from 1841 to 1851) (Curr 1883) is a pioneer's tale published at a time when nostalgia for the 'old days' could be indulged from the comfort of a thriving metropolis. It has a raconteur's light-heartedness: telling the unseasoned what lay beneath their colonial present. Entertaining when it is not too pretentious, it has gained the status of a major historiographical source for the early years of settlement. But as Furphy warns, it has been too uncritically accepted. Curr, of course, plays up his own abilities and underplays the violence of his encounter with the Bangerang--it is interesting to compare Curr's accounts of the Murray River frontier with the unpublished memoir (written about the same time as Recollections and now in the State Library of Victoria) of James McLaurin, a young Scotsman who travelled through the area with cattle in 1840. McLaurin's casual description of the violence, and his own part in it, is chillingly unreflective. Curr is equally unreflective but one suspects far more circumspect. He promoted himself as an authority on 'our Blacks' and the most important chapters in Recollections bring Curr into the realm of ethnology, detailing social relationships and cultural practices.

Curr discusses the rapid decline of the Bangerang and his own relationships with them when he claimed the area around Lake Moira. At first they were hostile to Curr's intrusion but soon came to understand the 'authority' of the white man (the gun). Their rapid decline, Curr assures the reader--that is, the late nineteenth-century colony--was due mainly to disease. Disease no doubt played a part but when Curr states only two ever died by the bullet and one of those the result of an accident, we are right to disbelieve, particularly if we have read McLaurin's account in which no one bothers to count the bodies.

The preface to Recollections announced that the author was compiling a far larger study 'on the subject of the aboriginal tribes spread across our continent' (Curr 1883:v), a product of many years of epistolary collection as well as firsthand knowledge. This was The Australian race: its origin, languages, customs, place in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent published by the Victorian Government in 1886. The four volumes attempt, among other ambitions, to trace the pattern of Aboriginal occupation of the continent through language surveys. Curr argues for African descent within an essentially mosaic framework. This is the major work to lend credence to Curr's 'sympathy'. A conviction held by many reputable historians through the twentieth century, and that has had consequences --the major theme of this biography.

The Bangerang are of the Yorta Yorta nation, one of the first Aboriginal nations to make a claim under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth). Justice Howard Olney ruled in 1998 that the 'tides of history' had wiped out the Yorta Yorta connections to country. Olney found disparity between present-day Yorta Yorta attitudes and practices and those detailed by Curr, particularly in Recollections, which Olney decided was the only credible primary source. In the subsequent unsuccessful appeal, Justice Callinan, like Olney, presumed Curr sympathetic to the Bangerang people and without self-interest, unlike the Yorta Yorta claimants. Furphy's account of Curr's membership of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines as he was compiling material for his books shows a man anything but sympathetic. For Curr the Aboriginal was not simply a child but a very disobedient child constantly in need of disciplinary management. Had Justices Olney and Callinan bothered, they would have seen that Curr's ethnology was questioned from the start, evidence as easily at hand in AW Howitt's 1904 The native tribes of South-East Australia as it is in Diane Barwick's works of the 1980s. Both justices might also have taken just a little step back and seen that a pastoralist who had usurped a people's land, probably violently, certainly had self-interest in providing a distorted view of social organisation and cultural practice, one that denigrated both, and was not to be taken at faith.

And here, as we read Furphy's account, we see the paradox dissolve. Curr's ethnology is not rooted in sympathy--it is part of his claim to ownership. It appropriates the culture along with the country. This is evident in his possessive language: 'our' blacks, 'our' languages, 'our' tribes. He can trace himself back (almost) to the beginning of Port Phillip, to the blacks before their customs had become corrupted by contact, thus his roots go deeper than others in the colony and his 'knowledge' is pre-eminent. Oh, how he would have concurred with the justices. Indeed, what we see in the rulings is a stark continuity of Curr's colonial paternalism. The white man doesn't lie.

Curr epitomises much in the Indigenoussettler relationship and Furphy in this biography, particularly in its later chapters, makes a valuable contribution to understanding the man's workings. He demonstrates clearly how important it is to critically engage with these early ethnologists and recognise that curiosity does not necessarily announce sympathy. However, there are some disappointments in this otherwise valuable contribution. Furphy leans too heavily on Stocking's (1987) Victorian anthropology to place Curr within the history of anthropology. It is a major resource without doubt, but since 1987 there has been a wealth of scholarship (Kuklick, Hiatt, Kuper, Livington, Kenny, Gardner) that would have grounded Curr's work within its intellectual context, and perhaps given the reader more confidence in Furphy's discussion of such concepts as evolutionism and diffusionism, and might have led him to see how much Curr's views concurred with degenerationism. (Furphy does cite later studies--Anderson, Wolfe, McGregor--but far too cursorily.) It might have helped also if Furphy had consulted the original work of the likes of Prichard and Muller, or recognised how much access Curr would have had to the debates in the British anthropological journals (readily available at the time in Melbourne, as the collections of the State Library of Victoria and Baillieu Library show). Nevertheless, this biography is an important and salient reminder of how dangerous it has been to take colonial ethnography at face value.


Curr, Edward M 1883 Recollections of squatting in Victoria then called the Port Phillip District (from 1841 to 1851), G Robertson, Melbourne.

--1886 The Australian race: its origin, languages, customs, place in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne.

Stocking, Jnr, George W 1987 Victorian anthropology, The Free Press, New York.

Reviewed by Robert Kenny, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University <robert.kenny@deakin.>
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Author:Kenny, Robert
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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