'.In the Name of All My Coloured Brethren and Sisters.' A Biography of Bessy Cameron

Article excerpt

Since the early 1970s, historians and other scholars have made a concerted effort towards understanding 19th and 20th century Aboriginal history. Initially most of this research was undertaken by white historians, who emphasised the destructive impact of the European invasion of the Australian continent, and Aboriginal resistance to colonisation. This was a necessary corrective to the earlier historiography, which represented the colonial frontier as peaceful, and neglected the European role in the dispossession and decimation of Aborigines. However, these studies had several weaknesses: they tended to be androcentric and eurocentric; Blacks remained anonymous or were stereotyped, the women being portrayed as passive victims and the men as heroic resistance fighters; no account was taken of co-operation and collaboration.(1)

This reinterpretation of Aboriginal-European relations did not always accord with understandings Aborigines had of their history since 1788.(2) More recent work, however, has provided Aboriginal perspectives, and analyses absent from much of the earlier historical work. In examining the process of accommodation, some of this writing has revealed a measure of Aboriginal agency (within, of course, the constraints of colonialism).(3) These insights have arisen most clearly in biographical writings, a field of growing interest. At first most of the studies were devoted to Aboriginal men,(4) but recently this imbalance has been redressed with a number of books concerning Aboriginal women, including a useful collection of biographical essays published last year.(5)

This article is a life-history of an Aboriginal woman named Bessy Flower, who lived from about 1851 to 1895. In seeking to reconstruct Bessy's(6) life, I am attempting, firstly, to recover a sense of her life as she might have experienced it and, secondly, to interpret it from an outsider's perspective. Developing the theoretical insights of the historian E. P. Thompson, I am seeking to understand Bessy's life as one which was determined not only by specific social and material forces, but also by her own choices and selfdirected actions. This is not to stress unduly Bessy's individual autonomy, nor to argue that she made herself as much as she was made; it is rather to contend that, within the limits of particular structures conditioned by class, racial, and patriarchal ideologies, she contributed by conscious and active efforts to the course her life took.(7)

In this account, as in any biography, the relationship between the individual life and the socio-cultural milieu must be explored, not only to uncover the details of Bessy's personality and life but also to establish these firmly in the context of the environment in which she grew up, and of which she was a part. As one exponent of the life-history method has put it:

...it becomes as important to know the decisions and actions of...[a subject] through their life as it is to know the system of social relations of society in which they live and which to various degrees provides the parameters in which actions are taken and decisions made.(8)

In writing the biography of an Aboriginal woman who lived in the 19th century, the problem of source material is most pressing. Almost all the biographical studies to appear so far have concerned Aboriginal people alive today, or who have died only in the last two or three decades. The biographers and their Aboriginal subjects have known one another, and sometimes the life histories have been collaborative works or at least a result of close friendships.(9) Only a few studies of Aboriginal men and women who lived in the 19th century have appeared, and this is undoubtedly due to an assumed lack of documentary evidence and the unavailability of oral testimony. However, recent essays by Diane Barwick and others indicate it is possible, and some scholars are now compiling life histories -- collective biography -- to understand the Aboriginal past. …