Remembering the Past Australia

Letter from The Hunter's River, 1827

First published in The Australian (Sydney) February 14 & 17, 1827

Hunter River ca 1819

Hunter River, ca 1819, Artist Unknown. State Library of NSW.

To the Editor of “The Australian“.


Your Hunter’s River tourist is evidently a stranger to the merit of the emancipated settlers in that district, and as I have been sometime acquainted with them, feel myself called upon to explain the cause of the unfavourable impressions made upon his mind — there may be a few slovenly ones—a few may comfort themselves with the five gallon keg when they can get it; but there are many in affluence and comfort. Witness, Mrs Hunt, formerly Molly Morgan, making a donation to the Church Corporation of £100 towards building a school for the benefit of the rising generation. Witness the neatness of Swan’s cottage, garden, and farm; and the ruins of others, that would have been equally, engaging. I wish his most able pen could paint to you the cause, the effects of which he complains, effects arising naturally from a cause considered by many unjust and oppressive.

I will tell you in as few words as possible. Governor Macquarie promised these men (who were the most meritorious of the prisoners) as much land as they could clear, in consideration of their producing, in a given period, a certain quantity of cedar logs; they were produced at the hazard of their lives, when he redeemed his promise, and put them in possession of it. Hunter’s River could not at that time have been perambulated with that peace of mind X. Y. Z. evidently enjoyed. When they were getting this cedar, when they were clearing these farms, wherever they turned, an enemy was in ambush to rob or kill — an axe, a hoe, a damper, or more generally their pot of ommany — the moment it was out of their hands, was transferred by the subtle blacks to their camp; and whilst breaking up the soil, or burning off the trees, they were obliged to carry muskets on their backs, to be allowed even to labour. By conciliation, and a proper severity when required, they have become civilized; and it is to these emancipated settlers we are indebted for the obliging disposition of the aborigines in that part of the country. I appeal to any who has known them, that they are particularly so. These farms, cleared as I have described, became in a few years ornamented with neat cottages, barns, paddocks, stock-yards, orchards, lawns, and water. You might have seen the harvest-home a perfect scene of English mirth — the master and mistress closing the merry procession of the last sheaf, he upon a sturdy charger, and she upon a good brood mare, that brought them a foal once a year, and at eve —

“The lowing herd came slowly o’er the Lea.”

Such they were four years ago, and such as I am sure your correspondent (who I am convinced is a man of taste) could have wished to behold; indeed, so desirable did they seem, that they were thought worthy the notice of the Commandant, who thought them too good, too handsome for those who made them so, and good enough for the government or church, and the “green eyed monster” has marked it for its own, as by reference to the well daubed green sections (in that part of the map) will appear.

The Commandant, who was a most important personage in those times, was alone a vampyre to the happiness, that reigned amid the luxuriance of those plains. — When I mention happiness, I must not omit to acquaint you, Mr Editor, that these emancipists, soon as a clergy-man was obtained, each took unto himself a wife. The Commandant, I say, one day assembled the settlers to evince his paternal regard, and proposed to them to abandon the farms they had cleared, and he would, pledge himself that government should dear an equal quantity of land in another place; but it not appealing to their comprehension how they could be advantaged, he explained it thus — that by removing to another place they would have 160 acres in perpetuity, whereas if they remained they could only be leasehold tenants, at think 2s. 6d. per acre. Thus was the ??? Macquarie destroyed. Some believing the government of Sir Thomas Brisbane would fulfil the assurance given, availed themselves of the offer, and sold their cottages, but have not up to this time had an acre cleared as promised by the Major, or should say Commander, on the part of government, and are nearly ruined by clearing wheat they would have been under no necessity of, had they remained on their original farms. Goldsmith’s deserted village is here transported, but not transformed.

Others having doubts as to the Major’s assurance, remained, in apathy and indifference, not caring to improve what they knew not the moment they might be deprived of. Hence the ditty of “Let us be happy whilst we may,” was the burden of the song, abandoning themselves to despair, and their farms to ruin, and I dare say tasting Lethe out of the five gallon keg. Others viewing the probability that even the new grants proposed might similarly be cancelled by a new Governor, determined to hold Fast what they had got improved and ornamented them, and I have no doubt will fulfil their assertion; viz. that nothing but the point of the bayonet shall induce them to stir. Your Correspondent at that time would have been at no loss for a boat to cross the river, for each settler had one. He would have had no occasion to want for horses. Theirs were at his service, and it gave them satisfaction to aid the stranger, not only in affording shelter and comfortable fare, but would lend their boats, horses, and men, and even themselves, to gratify his inclinations, or promote his view in search of land or otherwise, without hope of fee or reward. As one who has partaken of the hospitality and assistance. I must here beat testimony to the fact, that without the emancipists Hunter’s River would not be the promised land it is; it would not in fact (in its extent or resources,) be known. Those who have removed, say their application has been in vain to have the land cleared that was promised, and have been obliged to sell their horses and cattle to pay for doing so. It makes the heart ache to behold the same individuals in this contrasted picture, and so far disagree with your Correspondent, as to think that these men have not only been insufficiently rewarded, but have been unjustly oppressed, and hope if this should meet the eye of those who govern, they will enquire into the truth of this statement, and give hope to their fair partners, that they may again have the means of boasting of the cleanest cottage and dairy, and after the cows are milked, hope again with their former gaiety of heart to bound into the inside saddles to ride at ease and see the labours of their husbands through his coppices and crops, instead of viewing them as I have done, seated at their doors with a melancholy pensive gaze upon the past.

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