White girl 'gone off with the blacks'.
Inter-racial sex in colonial settings has been primarily a study of relations between white men and indigenous women. Such relationships were commonplace occurrences involving white men of all classes and, although problematic in their 'mixed race' results, they were nonetheless unofficially sanctioned. This has reflected the historical actuality of the racial and gendered power relationships involved in the colonising process, and the racial ideologies, fears and fantasies that have developed out of this and at the same time sustained it. In Australia there are few known instances of sexual relationships between white women and Aboriginal men in the colonial period. Of these perhaps best known is the marriage of Ethel Page to Jimmy Governor in New South Wales in 1898 and the violence that unfolded following Governor's killing of Ellen Kerz, Sarah Mawbey and her daughter Grace, in retaliation for their verbal taunting of his wife (and their servant) for her having married 'a blackfellow.' (3) In this article I examine an event in colonial Victoria in 1861 involving a 'white girl' and her Aboriginal lover, and suggest a range of meanings that the archival sources both reveal and conceal.
The event occurred at a significant time in Victoria's evolving race relations, which were marked by a renewed humanitarian attitude towards Aborigines, albeit one tinged with paternalism and a sense of racial superiority. Following the report of the 1858-59 Select Committee 'to inquire into the present condition of the Aborigines of this colony, and the best means of alleviating their absolute wants' (4) it had been resolved to establish reserves to isolate the Aborigines from contact with white men and their vices and to employ guardians in order to prevent 'interference' with the Aborigines on these reserves. (5) The Central Board believed that 'protection' was needed by the 'helpless' Aborigines, whom it likened to 'children.' (6) The sexual and emotional involvement of a 'white girl' with an 'Aboriginal' man was something yet to be encountered by colonial officials who implicitly denied the possibility of agency on the part both of women (white or Aboriginal) and of Aborigines.
Robert Hickson's report revealed that a local settler, Mr. Henry Johnson, had requested his help to locate one of his daughters, aged about 19 years, who had been missing from her home since nine o'clock on the previous day (presumably the morning). They searched fruitlessly on the first day, but some 'blacks' later informed Johnson that 'a young 'black' man named Davy who had been in Mr. Johnson's employ for the past 18 months had her.' The girl had given birth and Davy had acknowledged the child as his. Hickson reported that he had gone to the place where the girl had concealed herself but found that she had gone. Later he found her about half a mile from the homestead and returned her to her parents in the morning. (7) By this time, two days had passed since Henry Johnson had raised the alarm. Hickson reported that the child seemed to be 'a remarkably healthy boy. The black man, Davy, was still on the station and 'says the girl consented to be his wife, which he considered her to be.' At the time of writi ng this report no steps had been taken towards 'his apprehension' and Mr. Johnson was 'very desirous that the case should be inquired into but it appears that no charge can be brought against the 'black' on account of the girl's consenting for a considerable time.' (8)
Probably not yet having sighted Hickson's earlier report, or perhaps preferring the status of his alternative source, the Guardian of Aborigines, William Thomas, wrote to Robert Brough Smyth on 23 September 1861 that he had been informed in the past week by a 'highly respectable settler (who had been a Territorial Magistrate for many years)' that a 'black on the Acheron River Aboriginal Station had got a 'settler's daughter in the family way,' and that this had been the result not of a 'forced act on the black's part, but mutual frequent connection between the two.' (9) Whether this relationship had been carried out openly, and therefore was known by the girl's family and the local Aborigines and settlers throughout the district is unknown. From the evidence available it seems more likely that they were secret lovers whose affair may have been suspected by her father at least, as was reflected in his anxious turning to the superintendent of the Aboriginal station. Initially the 'young lass' would not acknowl edge to her parents who the father was until the baby was born and proved a 'black or half-caste,' this being 'the first instance of the kind in this or any of the neighbouring colonies.' That he felt impelled to clarify that rape was not the cause of the pregnancy suggests the dominant racial ideology of the period which represented Aborigines as savages--as well as, subconsciously perhaps, an acknowledgment of the frequency of such coercion in the more commonplace occurrence of sex between white men and Aboriginal women. Brough Smyth noted that Robert Hickson was to be requested to report on the matter, and that William Thomas, Guardian of the Aborigines, had conveyed to him that the event had 'caused great sensation among the settlers on the Upper Goulburn River.' Had the child lived (Brough Smyth reported it lived 17 days; the death certificate states 15), Thomas would have suggested, 'to prevent the disgraceful recurrence of the like' that the child should be sworn to the "black" for maintenance, which h e believed 'as a matter of course he would not be able to pay, and place him in prison in default., (10)
The following month John Green (a Presbyterian lay preacher recently appointed to the position of 'general inspector' of Aborigines in the colony) submitted a lengthy report on the Acheron Station, which included a list of the names of the Aborigines present at the time, among whom was Davy, aged 22. Next to his name was an asterisk and the note that he was 'the father of the white woman's child ... I understand that the woman wants to marry him., (11) Two years later Davy was listed, without the incriminating asterisk, among the 68 males 'under John Green's care' at Coranderrk, his 'native name' being listed in the column for these as 'Bornootkurian.' As I will discuss later, 'the white girl' or 'Mr. Johnson's daughter' was never accorded a name by any of these white men who reported on her.
The Central Board, however, merely noted on i6 September 1861 that a report from Mr. Hickson had been submitted in reference to 'a white girl having left her home, and fled to the Bush with a black., (12) Any further details supplied to the Central Board or discussion of these remain unknown, as there was no reference to this matter again in the minutes for the remainder of 1861 or throughout 1862. It seems implausible that the all-male Board simply received the report and did not engage in a lengthy discussion of this subversive behaviour of the 'white girl' and Davy. That discussion was likely to have been prurient, judgemental and lacking in sympathy for the new parents. Unfortunately for this line of research, the 'sensation' that the baby's birth caused, according to Thomas, did not find its way into the public record via newspaper reports or the correspondence files of relevant officials of the day, beyond those referred to in this article. (13) This official and public silence suggests that any crossi ng of the racialised sexual boundary was literally unspeakable at these levels. (14)
Thomas' journal entry for 23 September 1861 noted that he had received information from a Magistrate of long standing-probably the same respected source that Brough Smyth cited-that a 'black' man had got a white settler's daughter 'in the family way,' that the child had been born and lived 17 days, the whole event causing 'great excitement in the locality.' After stating that he was satisfied with what he knew of the case, Thomas had reported it to the Central Board for further enquiry. (15)
A few months later, Thomas' monthly report for February 1862 recorded that he had accompanied John Green and Davy to the Museum of Illustration in Great Bourke Street East, noting that Davy was 'the scamp that got Mr. Johnson's Daughter with child.' (16) It seems that for Thomas the event may have become almost beyond comprehension; as he put it, 'strange to say ... the girl persists (by Mr. Green's statement) in marrying him when she is 21 yrs. of Age--the father to thwart this has offered even his Station to any white man that will marry her.' (17) Thus it was 'the girl' whose behaviour was constructed as deviant and inexplicable, whereas the implication was that her father's desperate behaviour conformed to what should be expected in such circumstances. Davy's role in the matter seems to have become almost peripheral, in spite of the fact that he too had challenged the racial code. As well, because this had been a consensual relationship, and was identified as such in all the documented versions of the ev ent, this shifted the male gaze of the colonial officials onto the aberrant behaviour of the 'white girl.' It seems that these men would have found it easier to respond to this event had rape been involved, whereas declarations of love and consent by both took them into uncharted territory.
The baby's birth certificate reveals he was born on 28 August 1861 at Emu Hill, and named James Wilson Boyd Johnson, the birth being registered at Yea on 6 November 1861. The column on the certificate for the father's 'surname, rank or profession,' age and birthplace is blank, as is the column for 'when and where married.' The column for the mother's name and maiden surname, age and birth place yield up her name as Selina Johnson, aged 19 years, born at Muddy Creek, Yea. Another blank column reveals there were no witnesses such as an accoucheur or nurse. In spite of Robert Hickson's assessment that this was a 'remarkably healthy boy' the baby died after fifteen days (not 17) according to the death certificate, which is also dated 6 November 1861, of 'Infiamation' (sic). The column for listing the 'name and religion of Minister or Names of Witnesses of Burial' has been left blank, Emu Hill being identified as the place and Henry Johnson as the 'Undertaker' by whom the burial was certified. Selina Johnson's is the only name present in the column for 'Surname of Father and Mother, if known.' (18)
Some questions present themselves about these registered details, not the least surrounding the fact that Henry Johnson chose to record both the birth and the death at the same time, on 6 November, more than two months after both of these events. Even allowing for a convenient time to go and report these matters at Yea, which was no great distance from his property and probably where he purchased goods, this was a considerable time lapse. More significant is that it was not until the baby was dead and buried--by Henry Johnson himself--that the child's brief life could be acknowledged. In a period when the requirement that births be registered within thirty days was not strictly enforced, (19) Johnson's compliance initially seems slightly curious. It is likely that it arose from his knowledge of the reports that had already been submitted to the Board, as well as the apparently widespread local scandal, both of which would have jeopardised any inclination quietly to bury the child as if he had never existed. As well, it can be argued that the baby's death in this case conveniently nullified his mother's breaking of the racial taboos as well as possibly beginning to alleviate the intensity of the local scandal. The sparse details on the death certificate suggest that the burial (most likely on the family's property) would have been a short and uncomforting occasion from which Selina Johnson was likely to have been excluded even though she still lived with her family and that there was little opportunity for her to grieve for her baby and lover. Doubtless Davy was not conceded either the right to participate in any such event or to be with the woman he regarded as his wife and to lament their loss. Another obvious question relates to the circumstances surrounding James Wilson Boyd Johnson's death itself. In spite of babies and grown people succumbing in that period to a range of illnesses now easily treated, 'inflammation' is a rather vague description (20) which encourages speculation as to whether he received all the care he required. Henry Johnson's act of burying his daughter's dead baby was the final concealment of his 'blackness.'
The official details provided about Selina and Davy's baby boy are clearly minimal and this minimalism resonates with the disapprobation that their relationship was reported to have produced. What little the records do reveal about Selina Johnson and Davy suggests a range of attitudes towards them and the ways in which their relationship threatened to destabiise normative racial, gendered and class values. Most importantly, both Selina and Davy were silenced, and their baby's death would doubtless have been welcomed by many in the colony, possibly even be regarded by some as proof that such racially sullied unions were 'unnatural.' Had James Wilson Boyd Johnson survived, his very presence would have destabilised not only the prevailing colonial racial and gendered discourses, but may have suggested a future in which sex and love across class and racial barriers was possible, where Aboriginal men and white women might freely choose their futures. His survival would also have undermined the racialised sexual f antasies of white men, which were nurtured by the ideology of white superiority and Aboriginal childlike inferiority combined with barbarism. Such a belief constructed Aboriginal women as temptresses, or as chattels offered as barter by 'their' men or as naturally promiscuous (21) and unfamiliar with the finer' aspects of sex when linked with production of the family, as known by civilized and respectable European women. (22) Accompanying this view was the veil of silence drawn over the exploitative and often violent sexual transactions conducted by white men with Aboriginal women-as long as they did not commit the crime of falling in love with the women. (23) White men's sexual behaviour was protected by the view that it was governed by 'natural urges,' a belief that missionaries also shared, as Bain Attwood has shown. (24)
Selina and Davy were silenced by the white men who wrote about (or reported on them) and who considered this information in their Central Board discussions, unrecorded perhaps in the hope that this event, said to be the first of its kind in the colony, might be quickly forgotten following the death of the child. Thus their relationship became something of a footnote, as it literally was for Diane Barwick who in her study of the Kulin rebellion at Coranderrk identified Davy as David Hunter who accompanied his brothers to Coranderrk, married and died there in 1867. (25) Selina Johnson remained an unnamed absence in Barwick's footnote which itself was not sourced but clearly drew upon the reports of Hickson, Green and Thomas. Possibly David Hunter's early death, which removed him from playing any part in the struggles of the Coranderrk people--the central theme in her book--was a factor in Barwick's lack of interest in his involvement with Selina Johnson.
Apart from her age and filial relationship with Henry Johnson and scandalous relationship with Davy, the reports do not reveal anything about Selina Johnson or the other female members of her household. There is no mention of her mother and sister(s) and their responses to her and Davy, and they are absent from the formalities of birth and death recorded at Yea. As mentioned earlier in this article, her name is not given in any of the communications. The only identity permitted is prescribed--she is Mr. Johnson's daughter and a 'white girl.' That is, her identity is a racialised one--she is 'white.' When researching this material, it was not until I looked at the birth and death registers that I found out her first name and Davy's full name similarly remained absent apart from Diane Barwick's passing reference. Selina Johnson has remained silenced in other sources, such as G.W. Noble's 1969 history of Alexandra, which provides considerable detail of Henry Johnson's land transactions in and around Taggerty, a fter he had migrated to Australia in the early 1840s despite the strong disapproval of his wealthy English parents. Johnson's large family were recorded as being noted for their good looks, strength and sporting prowess, the name Johnson accounting for about half of the team on cricket scoreboards. (26) This account effectively 'writes out' Henry Johnson's daughter Selina (as well as other daughters: Hickson described her as 'one of Johnson's daughters'), or possibly maintains what may have been a (re)constructed history of the Johnson family within the district, in the light of the dangerous behaviour of Selina. The sporting skills of numerous Johnson boys may have gone a long way in regaining respectability and acceptance as well as suggesting that Sehina's flawed behaviour was due to her gender.
The official documents relating to James Wilson Boyd Johnson have effectively erased his father Davy who is signified by a blank space where more commonly the words 'unknown' coded the shame of illegitimacy or family rejection of an unwise union. The blank space signifies not just Davy's absence but also his non-personage by virtue of his Aboriginality. Whereas, in the reports to the Central Board Selina Johnson was designated simply as a 'white girl' or Henry Johnson's daughter, Davy was known only by his infantilised first name. This was a practice that in itself was not unusual among colonial officials at the time, including those such as John Green towards whom the Kulin looked with affection and trust; (27) it did signify, however, the unequal status (both formally and philosophically) of Aboriginal persons and reinforced the belief that they were children in need of protection. John Green's recording of Davy's probably misspelt 'native name' as he called it in the 1863 list of Aborigines under his care arguably had more to do with the ubiquitous colonial penchant for naming and ordering information about the native 'other' and the surveillance techniques of the Central Board and other colonial bodies than with an interest in Aborigines as individual human beings. The fact that Davy was known to have said that he regarded Selina as his wife was reported in a dismissive manner, whereas Selina's determination to marry him, even after the death of the baby, remained something to which her father had the power to respond, and seek to prevent by extreme action, such as effectively seeking to 'buy' any willing white man with the gift of his property. Such a white husband, it must have been hoped, would somehow erase the blackness from the baby who had briefly been Johnson's kin. Such a commodified 'whiteness,' Johnson must have believed, had the potential to reinscribe racial respectability.
Punishment of a direct kind was something that Guardian Thomas regretted being unable to pursue by virtue of the explicitness of Selina's and Davy's proclamation of the depth of their commitment to each other and the length of their sharing of love and sex. Unlike Henry Johnson's attempt to erase evidence of the baby's 'blackness,' Thomas (as a colonial official) seemed eager to acknowledge Davy as the father and to commodify his punishment. Thomas' thwarted desire to make Davy responsible for the baby's maintenance ran counter to the racial and gendered practices surrounding the offspring who resulted from sexual encounters between white men and Aboriginal women. White men, whether able or not, were simply not made accountable for the maintenance of their 'mixed race' children either through formal sanction or moral suasion. Indeed, this was one of the many functions of stations and reserves which concentrated such children who were increasingly regarded as a 'problem' resulting from the vice of 'miscegenat ion' that threatened the fantasy of a white Australia. Thomas' desire to punish Davy rested also on his stated belief that he would not be able to meet the required maintenance and therefore would be sent to gaol, where he deserved to be. This ignored the reality of Davy's current employment by Henry Johnson, which may indeed have been abruptly terminated upon discovery of his paternity, but nevertheless Davy would have had the potential to earn wages elsewhere. (28)
Available sources reveal more about Henry Johnson than either Selina or Davy, although Johnson's wife was notably absent from such records. (29) Johnson first appears on 11 February 1859, in Central Board correspondence that inquires whether as the purchaser of the designated pre-emptive section of land he had any objection to the proposed site for the Aboriginal reserve at the Acheron River. On 5 April 1859, Assistant Surveyor Percy Bromfield reported from his Survey Camp at Mansfield that he had set out the boundaries of 4500 acres for the use of 'certain natives' and had found it necessary to make an allowance of 28 acres to enable Mr. Johnson to have egress from his pump section in case the Aborigines should fence their land. (30) Further correspondence from Bromfield indicated that he considered the site at Acheron to be ill chosen for the purpose of an Aboriginal station, suggesting that a more suitable place would be to the south of Johnson's, which was also more acceptable to the Aborigines. (31) Ind eed, Henry Johnson was reported as objecting to being 'surrounded by' an Aboriginal reserve, considering it 'a hardship on him, especially as an equally suitable place is available without interfering with anyone particularly.' (32) Nevertheless, in spite of his objection to the proximity of the station, Johnson benefited from it financially by providing its inhabitants with seed wheat and beef, (33) reimbursement for which Robert Hickson had considerable trouble in obtaining from the Central Board. (34)
Johnson's objections to being 'surrounded' by the station suggest as well as an unwillingness to accommodate the local Aborigines whom he and others had displaced, an uneasiness also about their presence. Perhaps he sensed that Selina was or might become attracted to the forbidden 'other,' causing him to describe the presence of Aborigines as an 'interference.' That he constructed Selina's behaviour prior to her giving birth as having 'gone off with the blacks' suggests that he preferred to believe that she had run away rather than face the reality of what he may have guessed about her pregnancy. That he also sought assistance from Robert Hickson in locating her suggests an unconscious awareness of the relationship that he had been able to deny until her disappearance. Signifying her behaviour as having 'gone off with the blacks' suggests that Selina was perceived as having betrayed her racial loyalties. Her proclamation of her desire to marry Davy--even after the child had died--destabilised what was in oth er ways a normative sexual pattern of patriarchy, where Aboriginal women's bodies were sites of sexual desire with love rarely invoked.
American historian Barbara Fields has asked why it is that within European racial ideology a white woman can give birth to a black child but a black woman cannot ever give birth to a white child. (35) This question can also be asked in the Australian context. By designating babies at birth as 'black' they are immediately racially embodied. Following this, a range of laws, policies and practices is enacted upon these racialised bodies. The designation of both white and black women giving birth to black babies follows from the white fear of inter-racial sex (and love) and the historically more common experience of white men initiating (in a variety of ways) the sexual encounter. Sex between white men and black women has historically not been for the purposes of reproduction (36) but has more often been expressive of men's power and freedom to gain sex opportunistically. Thus (following Field's question) I argue that 'black' women, particularly in the colonial period in Australia, could not give birth to 'white ' children as a result of sex with white men because to do so would involve acceptance of the child and a blurring of the racial boundaries that were policed by ideology, legislation and institutions of the state. Selina and Davy's baby was variously described as 'black' or 'half caste,' in spite of his 'white' mother's consistently referred to 'whiteness.' The absence of linguistic precision about his non-whiteness can be regarded as reflecting the likelihood that, in 1861 colonial Victoria, racial categories had not yet become fixed, whereas by the 1880s these terms had clearly defined racial meanings which in turn inspired legislative definition and policy implementation. The oft-repeated 'whiteness' of Selina was irrelevant when the colour of her baby was described. Her baby was not white; she had had 'frequent [and consenting] connection' with Davy, thus inscribing their child's body with blackness. His blackness undermined the prevailing fantasy of imposing whiteness upon the 'empty' landscape being col onised. As a 'white girl,' Selina Johnson's behaviour and her insistence on her wish to marry Davy threatened to undermine such a project.
John Green's report to the Central Board on 18 October 1861 following his arrival at the Acheron Aboriginal Station eight days earlier suggested that everything was in a very 'unsatisfactory condition' with few children attending school and Mr. and Mrs. Hickson having no influence over the 'blacks,' the children roaming in and out of school at will. The Hicksons, according to Green, were not liked by the Aborigines and although he felt they were 'very faithful' in their conduct, the neighbours had 'a great prejudice against them and [had] prejudiced the blacks' also. Green recommended that the Board send Robert Hickson and his wife to another station and that he be appointed to replace them. (37) Hickson's response to the Central Board's suggestion that he should resign at the end of three months was to tender his immediate resignation and to remove his family and goods from the Station. (38) Whilst the available sources do not suggest that Robert Hickson's requested resignation was in any way influenced by the circumstances surrounding the birth of Selina and Davy's baby, nor that John Green's representation of him and Mrs. Hickson were linked to this, nonetheless Hickson was intimately connected with the event. Hickson had virtually witnessed the birth and the visual shock of the baby's 'blackness,' as well as the likely uproar and recriminations within the Johnson family. He would also have been in the thick of the ensuing local gossip and scandal, as well as having the formal responsibility of reporting it to the Central Board. With the convenient death of James Wilson Boyd Johnson, the opportunity arose for the whole affair to be erased from public memory in the colony. As the principal witness to Henry Johnson's concern about his daughter's whereabouts, the birth of the 'black' or 'half caste' child, the determined declarations of the 'white girl' and, possibly, further conversations and events within the Johnson household and surrounding Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents, Hickson's continued presenc e could have made such mnemonic erasure more difficult. Instead, his departure from the district removed the central witness outside of the family, and Davy's decision soon after to move to Coranderrk (39) also assisted this process.
Further erasure of sorts may have been achieved by Selina Johnson's decision to marry William Fenton at the Muddy Creek Hotel, Yea on 21 June 1864. Witnesses to this marriage to a 'general labourer' aged twenty-three, who gave his usual residence as (Henry Johnson's) Eglington Station and (improbably) his father's rank or profession as 'squatter' were James and Lettie[?] Meura, (40) who I speculate were the owners of the hotel. This suggests that Selina Johnson's parents and siblings did not attend and that although she still lived with them, she had been otherwise banished from the family. Henry Johnson's finding any white man willing to marry his daughter no longer being necessary, Selina was probably left to her own devices to find a husband, no doubt with the proviso that he be white. As the daughter of a successful settler who was himself the son of a wealthy English mill-owner, (41) Selina clearly 'married down' in class terms, her social acceptance being severely limited by her act of racial betrayal a few years earlier. (42) It is unlikely that William Fenton was indeed the son of a squatter; if this was the case he was-like Selina-possibly a family outcast, given his labouring occupation and illiteracy (see below). Whatever the truth of Fenton's class background, it does not appear to have worried Selina; instead the marriage certificate offers clues that she welcomed this rare opportunity to intervene in the formal documentation of her life. On it she has written her name in full as Selina Jessie Anne Johnson. With this act she has inscribed an identity otherwise obscured or denied by the men, including her father, who sought to contain the details of her life and behaviour. Her fine handwriting on her marriage certificate indicates that she was well educated by her wealthy parents and it stands in sharp contrast to the (possibly forged) clumsy signature of her husband and of witnesses to the ceremony. There is an air of defiance in her gesture, as if she was proclaiming her class status to the world or at least to those present at the Muddy Creek Hotel and may have taken a perverse pleasure in contrasting it to her husband's. The fact that Fenton seems to have been, like Davy, employed by her father and to have become the object of her sexual desire suggests a symmetry to her behaviour from which she may have gained some vicarious pleasure.
On 15 May 1865 Selina gave birth to another son, Joseph Fenton. This child's birth certificate has no blank columns, but records that the father, William Fenton, was a 26 year old blacksmith resident at Upper Goulbourn, who signed the relevant column with 'his X mark,' revealing the illiteracy that I suggested was obscured at the time of his wedding by a clumsy signature forged for him. Fenton being the registered informant of the birth, Selina Jessie Anne Johnson/Fenton was again reduced to 'Selina Fenton formerly Johnson.' (43) The fact that a semi-anonymous 'Mrs Johnson' was the witness to the registering of Selina's second son suggests that her mother (44) was in contact with her. Possibly Selina's pregnancy had caused an act of defiance on her mother's part, or perhaps she simply wanted to be involved with this baby, having been denied that opportunity when Selina gave birth to Davy's son.
A final curiosity that arises from the documents relates to age. Selina Johnson was registered by her father as nineteen years of age on the birth and death certificates of James Wilson Boyd Johnson in 1861. In 1864 and 1865, when she married William Fenton and gave birth to their son, her age was recorded as twenty-one. Clearly there is something arithmetically wrong in these documents and it is difficult to find any logical explanation for the errors. For example, she was considerably older than the age of consent, which at the time was twelve years, (45) and so it is unlikely that her age was raised by her father in order to impose respectability. Assuming she was twenty-one when married in 1864, this detail being correct because Selina was present when the document was created (and knew her own age), (46) I searched for confirmation of this in the Births, Deaths and Marriages register at the Public Records Office, but found no record of her birth in or around 1843. (47) My interest in the variations of Se lina Johnson's age arises from the ways in which it suggests the extent to which she was constructed by white men, starting with Robert Hickson's report that one of Henry Johnson's daughters 'about 19 years of age' was missing, and continuing through Johnson's apparently ignorant attribution of her age on the birth and death certificates of her first child. Only when Selina Johnson had the space to inscribe herself into the official telling of her life story did she either correct or choose her age.
The ubiquitous presence of Henry Johnson as the original informant about his daughter having 'gone off with the blacks,' as well as on the birth and death certificates of Selina's first baby son frames what is known from the available sources about this event. The responses of the other white men, beginning with Hickson's initial report to the Central Board and the re-telling of this with only slight variations such as Thomas' description of Selina being got 'in the family way' by Davy, silenced Selina and Davy. The other constant feature of the white men's framing of the event was that they all (at times with regret, as with Thomas) felt it necessary to proclaim that rape had not been involved. This prurient interest in what each of them also noted was 'frequent' and 'consensual' sex was reflected a few decades later in the evidence of Jimmy Governor at his trial, where he indicated one of his grievances against his victims was their habit of questioning his wife regarding their marital relations. (48) Simi larly, the desire to clarify whether rape had occurred reflected the nineteenth century view that rape was sexual in character rather than a form of violence. (49) As Carmel Harris has shown in relation to Queensland in the 1860s, 'the prevalent image of Aborigines as rapists of white females was quite unwarranted' since there were few such cases reported and brought to law. In spite of this, rape was considered a more heinous crime than murder, and in the case of Aboriginal men (unlike their white counterparts), hanging was the sentence carried out. (50) Thirty years later however, in a Victorian trial of a 'full blood Aborigine' charged with raping a 'little [white] girl' the prosecutor did not pursue the mandatory death sentence. Instead he offered a racialised argument that the accused, although brought up in a 'civilised community' at considerable government expense at Lake Tyers mission, 'still ... might have almost uncontrollable passions, inherent from a long line of savage ancestors.' (51)
The fact that Selina Johnson was not raped reinforced the severity of her racial disloyalty and the threat posed by Davy's transgression of the racially bounded restrictions placed upon him by colonial society. In spite of the reputed 'sensation' caused by this event, it is likely that it would not have entered historical sources about the colony in the 1860s were it not for the recent creation of the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines and its intense surveillance of Victoria's Aborigines. Selina Johnson's liaison with Davy became a reportable matter within the context of the Acheron station which 'surrounded' her father's property and which became the site of the first recorded sexual and love affair between a white woman and an Aboriginal man. The behaviour of both Selina and Davy challenged and destabilised the racial code of the period, but it was Selina who, although unnamed and silenced, became the focus of the gaze of the white male officials. It was her betrayal of the expectations placed upon her by virtue of her gender, race and class that rendered her behaviour the subject of intense scrutiny and (attempted) control. Following the death of her first baby and Davy's agreement to move from his land with other Taungurong Aborigines who accompanied John Green to Coranderrk, there are hints, such as those in her marriage certificate, that she continued to exercise defiance and personal choice, albeit within constraints imposed as social 'punishment' in response to her crossing of the racialised frontier.
(1.) Hereafter central Board.
(2.) NAA Vie. B312/1 Box 1. Correspondence Files. Mohican/Acheron Station 1859. Item 5.
(3.) For a full account see Laurie Moore and Stephan Williams (2001), The True Story of Jimmy Governor, Allen and Unwin, Sydney. This initial murder led to three months of killing and pursuit of Jimmy, his brother Joe and their friend Jack Underwood.
(4.) The Argus, 28 October 1858.
(5.) See M.F. christie (1979), Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-86, Sydney University Press, Sydney, chapters 6 and 7 for a full discussion of this.
(6.) Second Report of the central Board for Aborigines, 1862, quoted in christie, Aborigines, p. 157.
(7.) Whether this means the Hicksons had Selina Johnson and her baby with them overnight is unclear given the vague manner in which Robert Hickson located the time as 'nine o'clock.'
(8.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Item 5. Report from Robert Hickson to Brough Smyth, 2 September 1861.
(9.) NAA Vie. B312/1 Item 5. William Thomas to R. Brough Smyth, 23 September 1861.
(11) NAA Vie. B312/1 Item 5. John Green, Report on the Acheron Station, 18 October 1861.
(12.) NAA Vic. B314/2 Roll 1, Item 2. Minutes, central Board, i6 September 1861.
(13.) There was no local newspaper until the end of the 1860s, and a search of the Argus and other Melbourne-based papers did not yield any reports on this.
(14.) Unlike Eliza Fraser in the 1830s who was given 'limited agency' to give her own account of the shipwreck of the 'Stirling Castle' and her subsequent 'captivity' by natives.' See Kay Schaffer (1995), In the Wake of First Contact. The Eliza Fraser Stories, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
(15.) William Thomas Papers, Matheson Library, Monash University, Microfilm 5883 CY3128, MLMS214/5, 23 September 1861.
(16.) The word 'scamp' has come to convey a somewhat indulgent meaning, whereas Thomas' usage reflected its dictionary definition of 'good for nothing; worthless person; rascal' - Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Vol. 11(1993), Clarendon Press, Oxford.
(17.) Thomas Papers, Journal, February 1862.
(18.) Register of Births in Victoria, No. 22168; Register of Deaths in Victoria, No. 09614.
(19.) Judith Allen (1990), Sex and Secrets. Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880, OUP, Melbourne, p.33
(20.) The causes of death listed for the other two persons registered in the district of Yea on this page (aged 6i and 76 years) were inflammation of the lungs and cramps in the stomach respectively.
(21.) See eg Xavier Herbert, Capricornia (1949), Angus and Robertson, Sydney, pp. 16-17 and Ann McGrath Born in the Cattle (1987), Allen and Unwin, Sydney, pp. 68-83.
(22.) Hannah Robert (2001), 'Disciplining the Female Aboriginal Body: Inter-racial Sex and the Pretence of Separation,' Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 34, p. 69.
(23.) Herbert, Capricornia, pp. 35-26.
(24.) Bain Attwood (1989), The Making of the Aborigines, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, p. 126.
(25.) Diane Barwick (1998), Rebellion at Coranderrk. Editors L.E. Barwick and R.E. Barwick, Canberra, Aboriginal History Inc., p. 57, footnote 7.
(26.) G. W. Noble (1969), The Red Gate. A History of Alexandra, Ed. C. Doxford, Shire of Alexandra, pp. 14-16.
(27.) See e.g. Barwick, Rebellion, passim.
(28.) Barwick, Rebellion, p. 36, states that Aborigines were 'hired enthusiastically by pastoralists, from the early 1840s and refused to work for Europeans who exploited them. By the 1850s they were usually paid the same rate as Europeans for shearing and reaping.
(29.) With the exception of Noble's The Red Gate, p. 16, which records, albeit briefly, that 'Miss Luckie' had come from Scotland on a privately chartered ship as a lady's companion, and after marrying Johnson they had first settled at 'Burnanto' near Yea.
(30.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Box 1, Mohican/Acheron Station 1859 Item 1.
(31.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Box 1, Item 1,1859.
(32.) Item 1, District Surveyor to Public Lands Office Melbourne, 12 May 1860.
(33.) Thomas Papers, M/film 5883 CY3100 MLMS 214/17-18, invoice presented by Robert Hickson for reimbursement, July 1861.
(34.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Box 1, Item 5, August 16 1861, and October 6, 1861, Hickson to Brough Smyth.
(35.) Quoted in Gary B. Nash, 'The Hidden History of Mestizo America' in Martha Hodes, ed. (1999), Sex, Love, Race. Crossing Boundaries in North American History, NY Univ. Press, NY, p. 16.
(36.) Robert, 'Disciplining,' p. 69.
(37.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Box 1 Item 5, Mohican/Acheron Station October 18, 1861.
(38.) NAA Vic. B312/1 Box 1 Item 6, Acheron Aboriginal Station 23 January 1862 and 13 February 1862.
(39.) Barwick, Rebellion, footnote 7.
(40.) Register of Marriages in Victoria, No. 2112.
(41.) Noble, The Red Gate, p. 16. Johnson also studied to be an engineer, completing his training in Germany before migrating to Australia in the early 1840s in spite of his parents' disapproval.
(42.) Carmel Harris (1982), 'The "Terror of the Law" As Applied to Black Rapists in Colonial Queensland,' Hecate Vol. VIII, No. 2, p. 24 suggests that in colonial Queensland at this time any sexual encounter between a white woman and an Aboriginal man rendered her 'defiled and a social outcast.'
(43.) Register of Births in Victoria, No. 17354.
(44.) It is possible but less likely that 'Mrs. Johnson' may have been a sister-in-law.
(45.) Allen, Sex and Secrets, p. 119. It was raised to 14 in 1883, and to 16 in 1910, being the subject of frequent public debate.
(46.) Unlike her husband apparently, whose age at marriage is recorded as 23 and at 26 in the following year.
(47.) Other spellings such as Johnston/Johnstone have also been checked.
(48.) Moore and Williams, The True Story of Jimmy Governor, p. 141.
(49.) Allen, Sex and Secrets, p. 62.
(50.) Harris 'The 'Terror of the Law,' 25, 27.
(51.) Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines, pp. 123-124.
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|Date:||May 1, 2002|
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