Behind every story

Recovering the past

IT MAY NOT be the best painting in the Art Gallery of South Australia, and it may not be the most valuable. But one of the gallery’s most historically significant paintings is an enormous canvas by the nineteenth-century Adelaide artist Charles Hill, entitled The Proclamation of South Australia 1836. Painted decades after the fact, it shows the gathering of South Australia’s earliest white settlers near the beach at Glenelg, all still living in tents and all come to hear the Proclamation. This is a real historical document, one that officially announced to the settlers that, with the arrival of His Excellency the Governor on this hot Adelaide day aboard the Buffalo, the colonial government of His Majesty’s new province had been formally established. Subsequently published in the second issue of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, on 3 June 1837, the Proclamation exhorted them:

…to conduct themselves on all occasions with order and quietness, duly to respect the laws, and by a course of industry and sobriety, by the practice of sound morality and a strict observance of the Ordinances of Religion, to prove themselves worthy to be the Founders of a great and free Colony.

This is the section of the Proclamation most frequently quoted. But it’s only the first of three paragraphs. The other two, less well known, might come as a surprise:

It is also, at this time especially, my duty to apprize the Colonists of my resolution, to take every lawful means for extending the same protection to the native population as to the rest of His Majesty’s Subjects, and of my firm determination to punish with exemplary severity all acts of violence or injustice which may in any manner be practiced or attempted against the natives, who are to be considered as much under the safeguard of the law as the Colonists themselves, and equally entitled to the privileges of British Subjects.

I trust therefore, with confidence to the exercise of moderation and forebearance by all Classes, in their intercourse with the Native Inhabitants, and that they will omit no opportunity of assisting me to fulfill His Majesty’s most gracious and benevolent intentions towards them…

The optimism and idealism of this document is touching but ironic; only fifteen years later, an angry correspondent to The Adelaide Times on 24 May 1851, identified as ‘A Looker-On’, showed by what large measure the colony had already failed in these intentions:

Shame Upon Us! We take their land and drive away their food by what we call civilization, and then deny them shelter from a storm… What comes of all the hypocrisy of our wishes to better their condition?… The police drive them into the bush to murder shepherds, and then we cry out for more police… What can a maddened black think of our Christianity to deny him the sod on which he was born? He lived before the white fellow came on the natural produce of the soil. You grow hundreds of bushels of corn on his land but deny him the crumbs that fall from the table… They kill a sheep, but you drive his kangaroo away. You now drive him away from his own, his native land – out upon it; how can God’s all-seeing eye approve of this?

THE DATE OF the ceremony depicted in the painting is 28 December 1836. In the background, a number of relaxed-looking Aboriginal people watch this white weirdness. In the foreground, the colonists – dressed in the fashions of 1836, with many uniformed soldiers and sailors among their number – stand or sit around a central group. The humbler, happier-looking people are on the outer, along with children and dogs. Po-faced ladies in heavy early-Victorian bonnets and shawls, despite the 39-degree heat, are lined up closer to the action, as are the straight rows of uniformed soldiers and sailors at attention.

But the eye is led by the lines of composition and the colours of their clothes to a small knot of officials busying itself about the document at the very heart of the picture, located dead centre in the middle foreground. It is being held and apparently read out by a saturnine man in black facing a heavy-set, heavy-faced man in the middle of the group, the most splendidly uniformed of all. Many of the figures here are portraits of real people who were present on the occasion: the large and splendid naval man is South Australia’s first Governor, Captain John Hindmarsh, in whose name the Proclamation is being made. The man in black is his private secretary, George Stevenson.

Clearly belonging in this cluster of officials and yet standing slightly apart from them, dressed in light mufti more suited to the heat than their military splendour or sombre clerical garb, is a man with his back turned to the viewer. Although we can’t see his face, it’s possible to deduce something of his personality and presence. Alert, a little portly, clutching his high-crowned light-coloured hat in both hands behind his back, he seems young despite the thinning of his wispy, sandy hair. The painting gives a faint impression that he is quietly bouncing on the soles of his feet.

This is Robert Gouger, first Colonial Secretary of South Australia, over whose signature the printed Proclamation will appear. Now thirty-four years old, he has been working in London towards the official British founding of the Province of South Australia for seven years, recovering from repeated rejections and rebuffs to try again and again. In the painting, you can see a tent in the background: this is Gouger’s own home tent, set up on his arrival aboard the Africaine in early November, from which he has just emerged with his colleagues after refining and signing the Proclamation document. In the Adelaide heat of a mid-afternoon in late December, behind a flimsy curtain in the tent, his wife lies in labour with their first child. For Gouger, this moment is the culmination of seven years of advocacy, planning, hard work, married hopefulness and unquenchable optimism.

In the annals of the state, it is the wayward visionary Edward Gibbon Wakefield who is most often cited as ‘the father of South Australia’, and it is the brilliant, charming and mercurial Colonel William Light whose name, of all its founding fathers, is best known. But Robert Gouger was that most rare of creatures, a pragmatic idealist: he had both the largeness of vision required for such an ambitious project as the founding of a colony, and the practical application, determination and energy required to see it through. His youthful philanthropic ideals, born of distress at the condition of the English poor in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, had led him to collaborate with Wakefield in a scheme for a planned colony to which impoverished British citizens might emigrate to seek a better life.

Within a few months of the moment recorded in this painting, Gouger will be a childless widower. Within a year, after he has been arrested and then sacked and sent packing in the wake of a public fist fight, he will be at sea, on his way back to England. Within four years he will be back in South Australia, reinstated with his reputation restored, but sustaining grievous financial losses as the province teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and dissolution. Within ten years, he will be dead.

EARLY IN 2016, the federal government’s so-called ‘efficiency dividend’ carved a bloody trench through Australian cultural life with funding cuts to half a dozen major institutions: The National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of Australian Democracy, National Film and Sound Archive, National Gallery of Australia and National Library of Australia. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 February 2016, one of the results of this was an announcement by the National Library that among other enforced budget measures, including major staff cuts, they would be obliged to scrap some elements of one of their most valuable and much-loved resources: ‘The library will also cease aggregating content in Trove from museums and universities unless it is fully funded to do so.’ Trove is an online platform, developed and run by the National Library, through which both researchers and members of the public can find the sources and locations of millions of items: newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, photographs and more. Much of this material has been digitised and can be viewed immediately, via the Trove portal, by anyone with an internet connection.

There was a prompt response to the announcement of these funding cuts in an article on The Conversation, ‘Treasure Trove: why defunding Trove leaves Australia poorer’, in which Professor Deb Verhoeven and research archivist Mike Jones detail the many uses of Trove, and argue for its unique value as a cultural resource and as a tangible manifestation of democracy in action:

Making Australia’s existing investment in information resources freely and efficiently available is…a self-evident public good in terms of equality of access. The democratisation of information has clear benefits…

What’s more, Trove’s ‘digitised newspapers’ resource includes an inspired, enormous, ongoing exercise in crowdsourcing. The newspapers have been scanned, and from originals in poor condition the text is predictably corrupt. Any reader, looking at images of the originals with the scanned typescript in a column on the left of the screen, is able to contribute actively to this massive project by checking and correcting the digitised text against the original item. Not only is this useful for future users of the resource, but it has an unexpectedly powerful psychological effect, making the user an active part of an extraordinary common enterprise.

For those seeking to understand the past, the use of Trove can unearth the most unlikely and illuminating stories, documents and details. The 1851 letter to the editor of The Adelaide Times quoted at the beginning of this essay, deploring the colony’s shameful treatment of the Aboriginal population, is something I stumbled upon by the merest chance when searching via Trove for something completely different – and it sheds some new and startling light on the Adelaide of the mid-nineteenth century.

And for those tracing their family history, Trove opens a large window through which any Australian citizen can make a personal connection to the living past. A search using Trove can take us beyond the names and dates to fragments and chunks of information and revelations about family members long dead, and can sometimes provide pieces of the puzzle that we hadn’t even realised were missing. I had already known that my great-great-grandfather Stephen was an early white settler with five sons (or was it six?), but it was only after I’d tracked him down via Trove that I discovered he’d also been an experimental farmer, a regatta-winning sailor, and a persistent if unsuccessful seeker of Ballarat gold.

WHEN I WAS first approached in 2010 by NewSouth publisher Phillipa McGuinness to write the volume on Adelaide in their City Series, I had read about Trove but had never tried to use it. Over the next year, as I researched and wrote, I found myself leaning more heavily on its apparently-inexhaustible resources, not for facts already known and easily found elsewhere, and not only for new facts, but for detail and colour and individual voices – for the breath of life that would aerate and amplify the names and dates of the official records. Whimsical combinations of search terms threw up some startling stories; shuffling the search results so that they were listed in different orders (earliest first, latest first, most relevant first) revealed items and leads that might otherwise have been missed.

I found a story about a floating dance hall of elaborate oriental design moored on the River Torrens, always packed and popular with Adelaide’s bright young things of the 1920s, and a story about the night that an extravagantly enthusiastic young lady danced straight over the side of the boat and had to be rescued from the river. I discovered that the Torrens, small and creek-like as it may look, was so notorious for drownings – accident, murder and suicide – that there was a dedicated police officer whose entire job it was to fish the bodies out of the river, and a small sentry-box arrangement set up on the riverbank to station him. I learnt that on the banks of the same river, in the days before Christmas 1944, a crowd of fifty thousand people gathered for the first time, as night fell, to sing carols by candlelight and raise money for a children’s charity; when the organisers ran out of programs for sale, the citizens made donations and sang the carols from memory.

And I learned a great deal about Robert Gouger. The ‘founding father’ who persists most strongly in Adelaide’s collective public memory is not Gouger but the brilliant Colonel Light, whom we still thank for the layout of the streets and surrounding parklands, and whose impressive statue looks out from North Adelaide over the city proper and away to the Adelaide Hills. There was already plenty of easily found material on Light in the library, including a full biography; on Gouger there was comparatively little. But the more I read in newspapers, and other resources I found via Trove, from Adelaide’s earliest days, the clearer it became that without Gouger, South Australia as we know it would never have existed.

THE BARE BONES of Gouger’s life can be easily found in the official biographies and histories, and they are dramatic enough. Broken in mind and body by his efforts to establish the colony, by the death of his young wife and baby son, by the quarrels and financial difficulties of South Australia’s infancy, and by the tricky meanness of the Colonial Office in refusing him a pension, Gouger died poor and mad back in London when he was only forty--four. On the other side of the world, his unquiet ghost haunts the colourful and cosmopolitan--grotty Adelaide street that bears his name.

But behind every story there is always another story, and if you want to get to know Gouger in life – in the flesh and in the round – you go down the rabbit hole of the Trove collection to find the various documents that give you glimpses of his life: the reports on his activities in the newspapers of his time, the attacks on him, the defences of him, the one little miniature portrait that makes him look like an unsavoury minor character from a Victorian novel, the letters he wrote and the letters he received, and the tributes to him that continued to appear in Adelaide newspapers a hundred years after the 1836 Proclamation that was to prove, in retrospect, the high point of his life. These documents and newspaper reports of his time reveal him as a man of passionate feeling, Dickensian humour and devout religious belief.

You can find, for example, an article published in South Australia’s centenary year, 1936, in which an impassioned correspondent called E Phillipps Dancker makes the case in the Adelaide News of 29 June for ‘Robert Gouger, Father of Our State’:

…South Australia this year is celebrating its first centenary, but up to the present no mention has been made of the founder, Robert Gouger, the man who conceived the idea, did most of the work, sustained the flagging interest, fought a great fight, and was killed in the battle.

You can also find extracts from Gouger’s own journals, edited by Edwin Hodder and published as The Founding of South Australia in 1898, in which he described his feelings as the Africaine approached the site earmarked for Adelaide and he saw the South Australian coastline for the first time:

November 3rd [1836] – About 4 this morning I rose and went on deck… As I watched the changing shore, and reflected on the years of anxiety and labour which I had devoted to this enterprise, the alternations of hope and chagrin which I had suffered as the prospect of its accomplishment appeared near or distant, the degree of success which had at length been attained…my varied emotions almost overcame me, and I was by no means sorry to retreat to a part of the ship where, undisturbed, I could watch the progress of the vessel.

If this was the high point of Gouger’s life, the low point came less than a year later. Still in mourning for the wife who had died of tuberculosis in March, followed a few days later by their infant son, Gouger then found himself embroiled in an ongoing quarrel with the Colonial Treasurer, Osmond Gilles, which culminated in the public punch-up briefly and neutrally mentioned in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry. But if you go to Trove and dig deeper, you can find this story told in numbingly detailed and ornate Victorian prose, from several points of view, as well as in the more dashing and rather gleeful report in The Sydney Herald on 20 November 1837:

…a series of mutual recriminations have recently terminated in a regular stand up fight, in the public street, between the Colonial Secretary, Mr Gouger, and the Colonial Treasurer, Mr Gilles! His Excellency Governor Hindmarsh designates this boxing match as ‘a disgraceful outrage upon public decency; a disgraceful street fight, &c’, and has, upon his own responsibility, suspended Mr Gouger from his office…we think that if the Governor possesses the power to suspend (which is questioned) he ought to have suspended both parties.

Gilles was notorious in the colony for his uncontrolled temper and outrageous language – disliked by almost everyone, but also very rich and generous with his money. He bailed out the cash-strapped colony on several occasions, and he supported the Governor – almost as choleric a character as Gilles was himself – in all of the latter’s many conflicts and squabbles and power -struggles with other officials. If you read between the lines, it’s possible to conclude that Hindmarsh was making a scapegoat of Gouger in order to placate Gilles.

Whatever the truth of the story, by May of 1848 Gouger found himself bereaved, disgraced, sacked and en route home to England. As the ship approached the coast of South America, they ran into a storm, as he records in his journal entry for May 28:

At this time my own sensations were tried to the uttermost. The chief mate told me he feared it would be all over with the ship, and that by the morning she would be a complete wreck… At the same time Miss R. fell into strong hysterics, and by way of preventing the attention of the Captain and officers being devoted to her, she became my charge. Her female servant refused to help her, saying that she had enough to do to think of herself! I made no reply to the woman, nor to the steward who also refused assistance. My own mind was mercifully preserved in a state of perfect tranquillity. I felt no fear, but a firm confidence in the Almighty filled my heart; and knowing how little I could expect from human aid, I placed myself in His hands…

After another nine energetic and turbulent years on both sides of the world, and after – as Edwin Hodder puts it – ‘his mind, consequent upon the too heavy strain placed upon it, gradually gave way’, Gouger died in London on 5 August 1846.

A little over two months after Gouger’s death and two hundred miles to the south--west, the Princess Royal, a ‘fine barque’ full of Cornish emigrants in search of a better life, departed from Plymouth on its way to the free colony for whose existence they had Gouger, more than anyone else, to thank. Aboard the ship were my great--great--grandparents, Stephen and Elizabeth, aged twenty and twenty--two respectively; their first child was born the following June, three months after the ship arrived in Adelaide. Elizabeth must have been newly pregnant when they embarked, perhaps so newly pregnant that she didn’t yet know.

MY FATHER IS one of Stephen’s and Elizabeth’s great-grandsons. His military service record shows that he was in the Royal Australian Navy from 1944 until 1946, a teenage Able Seaman aboard the corvette HMAS Warrnambool. It also shows, in the column marked ‘Marks, Wounds and Scars’, that at seventeen he had a scar on his right arm. This information has been typed onto his card. Someone has later crossed it out and corrected it in handwriting: ‘Scar left arm.’ (The scar is, in fact, on his right arm.) The entry under ‘Eyes’ wrongly says ‘Brown’ and has gone uncorrected to ‘Green’. All of which goes to show how treacherous the official record can be, and how easy it is to miss a truth that has gone unrecorded.

What made this scar? If you use Trove to search the collection of digitised newspapers for my father’s name, you will find a short item in the South Australian Register of Wednesday 3 December 1928 under the heading ‘Casualties’ and the sub-heading ‘Boy Bitten By Dog’:

On Saturday, Colin Goldsworthy, infant son of Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Goldsworthy, was badly bitten on an arm and shoulder by a dog. He was hurried to Curramulka, where Dr Angus stitched the wounds.

Behind the scar on the wrong arm in the official service records, there is a human story with a child and a dog in it, and a farm and some worried parents and a calm country doctor. No way would even the most skilled researcher have found this item before digitisation and collection in a searchable form. Trove gave me this.

But behind this human story, in turn, there is some unwritten family lore. Any altercation between a curious toddler and an annoyed working sheepdog, if not interrupted by a third party, is likely to have fatal results. My father had not yet turned two, and he was rescued from the dog by someone who, in doing so, almost certainly saved his life – and, by extension, mine – but is not mentioned in any of the three newspaper reports of this incident. Just over six years later, though – and again, of course, I found this via Trove – in the Adelaide Advertiser for 27 February 1935, there appeared this brief notice under deaths: ‘Button. – On the 26th February, at Linden Park. George Button, late of Curramulka, aged 70 years.’

George Button was a Narungga man who had lived on the farm with my family from childhood. My father remembers being taken as a schoolboy to visit him in the nursing home not long before he died. He and my great-grandfather Henry – a younger brother of the child conceived in Cornwall and carried across the world to be born in South Australia – had been inseparable as children, and died only a few months apart.

Henry and George may have been half-brothers: that is, they may both have been Stephen’s sons. George’s Narungga mother is absent from any version of this story, but the family lore about his paternity, while unproven, seems extremely likely. If George was Stephen’s son, that makes him my father’s great-uncle. But nobody knows the truth.

And as you can see, there is no mention of George in that little newspaper report. The erasure of Aboriginal history in this country has taken many forms, and this small story is one of them. The unrecorded truth of that moment on 29 November 1928, when a white baby boy was saved by an old black man from being badly mauled and perhaps even killed by a dog, is a truth that lives on in my father, on whose arm the scar can still be seen, and who will be ninety next birthday, if he makes it that far. Behind every story, there is always another story.

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