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On the Utmost Verge: Race and Ethnic Relations at Moreton Bay, 1799–1842

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2016

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The native races know us chiefly by our crimes.

— Karl Marx

‘Moreton Bay’ was certainly a name to be conjured with among the early Australian penal stations. As well as being a forbidding secondary detention centre, it represented — both within and around itself — a microcosmic world of early colonial race and ethnic relations. For this custodial system was rudely imposed upon pre-existing and long-enduring social orders of a dramatically dissimilar kind. It intruded into human populations that greatly outnumbered its own, implanted itself and militarily usurped portions of territory in a variety of locations, occupied by and spiritually amalgamated with a substantial body of Aboriginal communities. To these people, for whom life was ‘a billowing of the consciousness of country’, it was a visitation utterly without precedent. The repercussions of its ongoing presence were largely uninvited and unrehearsed. The station's existence was at first a wonder and a puzzle, then an impediment and a curse. It greatly transformed immutable lifeways, invariably impoverishing them; it reduced social options rather than expanding them; it denuded the host culture of its efficacy; and it assailed the people's health and decimated their numbers. The familiar environment was reconstructed and the old place-names largely obliterated and changed. For the incomer, to name was to own. The many visible signs of Aboriginal material occupancy were ignored as palpable evidence of legal possession and, eventually, erased. Erased too was much of the evidence of these very acts of erasure, whether material, cultural or human. Detailed evidence of what happened — or was perceived to have happened — in the myriad interactions between Aborigines and non-Aborigines of the convict settlement between 1824 and 1842 is scanty and fragmented: staccato bursts of often-tantalising information against an otherwise frustrating backdrop of silence. Distance from Sydney as well as London was the essential buffer that nurtured this atmosphere of secrecy, feeding its potency and allowing the Moreton Bay regime to proceed virtually as a law unto itself insofar as northern frontier relations were concerned.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 

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