How Johnny Kangatong and Sarah survived a time of purge and peril
By Tony Wright
Gilgar Gunditj elder Aunty Eileen Alberts at Tyrendarra, near Heywood.Credit:Justin McManus
Refuge, lasting relationships and time for the pursuit of art were in short supply among the dwindling numbers of Indigenous people of south-west Victoria in the mid-1800s.
And yet, consider the story of Johnny Kangatong, son of “Black Jack” of Tarrone, and Sarah, daughter of “Sou’ Wester”, known by some as “the King of Port Fairy”.
Johnny and Sarah, whose tribal names appear to have been lost to the ruinous times in which they were born, but whose family stories have been pieced together by a descendant, Eileen Alberts, were sent separately by their parents in the 1850s to perhaps the one reliable haven available to Aboriginal people in their little corner of the colony.
Deborah Cheetham (right), who composed an orchestral requiem for those lost in the Eumeralla War, with Gunditjmara elder Eileen Alberts at the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected area, otherwise known as the Budj Bim fish traps.Credit:Justin McManus
They were born in the 1840s — a bad time for Aboriginal people to come into the world.
It was the height of the south-west Victorian frontier conflict known as the Eumeralla War, sparked by an invasion of white pastoral speculators intent on seizing Indigenous hunting grounds and replacing Aboriginal people with sheep.
Johnny was born in 1842 at Tarrone, a land of waterholes amid the stones of an ancient volcanic lava flow and the eel-rich Moyne River, about 16 kilometres north of Port Fairy.
That year, squatters rounded up and shot several of the Tarrone clan of the Gunditjmara people, and later took to killing the clan with flour poisoned with arsenic.
Three men, three women and three children were reported to have died in one mass poisoning at Tarrone in 1842. Victoria’s chief protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, later found six survivors of the poisoning who remained unable to walk.
Sarah was born around 1848 in the Warrnambool-Belfast (now Port Fairy) district. It was populated by whalers, ex-convicts, squatters, shepherds, stockmen and chancers of all types — a dangerous place for Aboriginal people, particularly women.
Little wonder, then, that Black Jack of Tarrone and Sou’ Wester of the coast chose to send their children away.
Johnny and Sarah found a form of sanctuary at Kangatong Station, a pastoral property about 40 kilometres north of Port Fairy, near today’s village of Hawkesdale.
Kangatong was owned by James Dawson, one of the few white pastoralists not only sympathetic to the plight of Aboriginal people, but determined to grant them the dignity of practising their culture. He and his daughter, Isabella, spent decades recording the customs and languages of various dialect groups. Their research was published in 1881 as The Australian Aborigines: the languages and customs of several tribes in the Western District of Victoria.
Johnny, aged about 13 (some sources say he was 14 or 15), was listed as a stockman on Dawson’s station by 1855. In that year, Dawson introduced him to the famous Austrian artist, Eugene von Guerard.
The artist came to Kangatong as a guest of Dawson, who commissioned him to paint the vast volcanic crater between Warrnambool and Port Fairy known as Tower Hill.
Von Guerard took a shine to young Johnny Kangatong. The European artist taught the Aboriginal boy to draw in pencil and to paint in watercolours.
Johnny Kangatong’s 1855 art depicting (clockwise from left) the artist Eugene von Guerard; a European soldier and Aboriginal man; women with a parasol. Credit:State Library of NSW
One of Johnny’s first works was a coloured pencil study of von Guerard sketching on an artist’s pad in knee-high boots and blue jacket.
Von Guerard sketched two portraits of Johnny, whom he called “Johny [sic] Kangatong, Artiste”. He also referred to the boy as Black Johnny.
Later, von Guerard travelled with Johnny further west to the volcanic country known as Budj Bim and, apparently, to society events, where the young Aboriginal “artiste” painted women in their finery, one with a parasol.
The pictures, today in the collections of libraries and galleries, are considered unique and valuable insights into the way Indigenous and European people perceived each other.
Meanwhile, Johnny and Sarah found romance.
They married in 1864, started a family and moved to the Framlingham Aboriginal Station, north of Warrnambool, where they were baptised.
They took the surname Dawson in recognition of James Dawson having given them sanctuary.
Aunty Eileen Alberts, of the town of Heywood, north of Portland, is the great-great-granddaughter of Johnny and Sarah Dawson.
As mentor to Indigenous rangers, over the years she has introduced thousands of people to the secrets and beauty of her home country around Budj Bim, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Knowledge of country was one thing, but Aunty Eileen wanted to know just how she fitted into it. She spent eight years tracking down the complicated threads of her family tree.
Perhaps, too, she inherited some of her great-great-grandfather’s artistic skill.
Aunty Eileen’s art is weaving baskets in the manner used for thousands of years by her people to trap fish and eels in the ancient aquaculture waterways built by the Gunditjmara on the Budj Bim lava country.
The fact she was given access to the intricate secrets of preparing and weaving native grasses is something of a wonder in itself.
Her father’s sister, Aunty Connie Hart, learned the art as a girl, surreptitiously watching the older women at the Lake Condah Mission.
Aunty Eileen Alberts has kept alive the traditional weaving of baskets for eel traps using Gnarrban grass (Common Reed) that grows along Killara creek at Tyrendarra near Heywood.Credit:Justin McManus
The women were not allowed to practise their traditional craft, on pain of losing rations and their children. But quietly, out of sight of the mission manager, they continued gathering native grasses and creating beautiful baskets, with little Connie Hart sneaking a look and absorbing the craft.
Connie as an adult was mortally afraid of having her children taken away, and when her niece, Eileen, pestered her for the knowledge of weaving, she initially refused.
“If Aunty Connie hadn’t eventually agreed to pass on the knowledge, we would have lost it forever,” Aunty Eileen says.
In turn, Aunty Eileen has taught traditional basket weaving to her daughters — and to hundreds of others, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
“The more people who understand and share knowledge, the greater the chance for reconciliation and understanding and acceptance between all of us Australians,” she says.
She reflects, too, on the good fortune that took Johnny Kangatong and Sarah to James Dawson.
Dawson’s commitment to Aboriginal people can still be seen, set in stone, in the cemetery of the town of Camperdown, 130 kilometres west of Geelong, where he moved after selling Kangatong in 1866.
In 1883 — the year Johnny Dawson died of pulmonary and abdominal consumption — Dawson ordered that a seven-metre granite obelisk be erected to another Indigenous man in Camperdown’s cemetery. It remains one of the most remarkable memorials to Aboriginal Australia.
Returning from a trip to his ancestral homeland of Scotland, Dawson had been infuriated to discover the body of an Aboriginal man named Wombeetch Puyuun, also known as “Camperdown George”, had been dumped in swampy ground reserved for Indigenous bodies outside the cemetery.
Dawson took it upon himself to dig up Wombeetch Puyuun’s body, carry it into the cemetery and arrange a dignified funeral.
Wombeetch Puyuun, right, and the monument to the tribal chief and the last of the local Indigenous people, erected by James Dawson at Camperdown.Credit:Wombeetch photo courtesy of the Camperdown Historical Society.
He paid for the obelisk to be carved with motifs of a boomerang, a liangle (fighting club) and a message stick, and saw to it that its inscription read: “In memory of the Aborigines of this district. Here lies the body of the chief Wombeetch Puyuun, and last of the local tribes.”
Wombeetch Puyuun was of the Liwura Gundidj clan of the Djargurd Wurrung people, a nation of 12 clans that lived around the fertile, volcanic lake-strewn Camperdown district between Mount Emu Creek and Lake Corangamite.
Dawson had two dates carved into the stone: 1840 and 1883. It signified the period taken to destroy the presence of the Djargurd Wurrung on their own land.
In October 2022, the Heritage Council of Victoria decided the graves of both Wombeetch Puyuun and James Dawson and his family, which lie close to each other in the Camperdown cemetery, should be included in Victoria’s Heritage Register.
Dawson lived until 1900 but well before then, Victoria’s Indigenous population had suffered a cataclysmic drop in numbers.
A survey in 1872 of all Victorian districts by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines told the story. It reported the “number of Aborigines on the 15th July 1872” was just 1638, including an estimated 100 “wanderers” — those not receiving rations or blankets, living on mission stations, in towns or employed on properties.
At the same time, the white population was exploding. In 1870, two decades after the beginning of the gold rush, it was about 720,000.
Although estimates of the number of Aboriginal people in the area covered by Victoria in the period before white colonisation vary wildly, a figure of about 60,000 might be deduced from the archaeological work of John Mulvaney and colleagues. In 1987, Mulvaney estimated the number of pre-contact Aboriginal Australians across the continent at 750,000-800,000.
The precipitous reduction in Indigenous population persuaded white authorities that the “Aboriginal race” was heading towards extinction.
John Green, the board member who wrote of Aboriginal communities along the Murray River valley and other northern areas during the survey of 1872, urged “the necessity of taking steps to collect all the children, especially the girls, over the age of six … to Coranderrk [an Aboriginal reserve near Healesville]”.
Green reported that “all the [white] guardians are of the opinion that in a few years all the Aborigines will be extinct”.
Official policy in Victoria and across the other states by then was “to smooth the pillow for a dying race”.
Smoothing the pillow meant confining Aboriginal people to reserves, missions and government stations, where every aspect of their lives was controlled.
From the late 1850s, what was initially known as the Central Board to Watch over the Interests of Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria began encouraging church groups to establish missions on Crown land.
Anglican missions were established at Lake Condah in south-west Victoria and Lake Tyers in Gippsland. Moravian-Presbyterian missions were set up at Ebenezer, near Dimboola in the Wimmera, and at Ramahyuck, on the bank of the Avon River near Lake Wellington in Gippsland.
Government reserves opened at Coranderrk, about 50 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, and at Framlingham, about 20 kilometres north-east of Warrnambool.
What followed was a series of decisions over the next half-century that stripped Aboriginal individuals and families of any form of independence.
The Victorian Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869 empowered a new Board for the Protection of Aborigines to control the movement of Aboriginal people, their place of residence, their labour and wages. In certain circumstances, it permitted the forcible removal of their children.
Those in the missions and reserves had to accept the Protestant Christian faith and abandon their own languages and traditions in return for minimal rations, clothing and shelter.
In 1886, the so-called “Half-Caste Act” forced younger people of mixed Aboriginal and European blood to leave the missions and seek to “assimilate” in white society.
It was disastrous, splitting families and leaving “half-caste” people in a limbo, shunned by white society and unable to receive the rations and shelter available to “full-blood” Aboriginal people.
In 1899, authorities were granted power to remove any Aboriginal child from their parents if the governor declared it was for “better” care and education. A year later, as the 20th century began, all mixed-blood children aged 12 and over were to be sent away to the Industrial Schools Department.
It took until 1910 for Victoria’s premier, John Murray, to reverse the inhumane “half-caste” law and to order that rations and protection be reinstated for all Victorian Aboriginal people who needed assistance. A few years later, however, most of the missions and reserves were closed.
Sarah Dawson, daughter of Sou’ Wester and widow of the “artiste” Johnny, lived to see it all.
She died, aged almost 90, in 1935. She had remarried, to a William Thorpe, and moved to Gippsland, where she is buried in the Bairnsdale cemetery.
All these years later, Sarah’s great-great-granddaughter, Aunty Eileen Alberts, weaves the history of her people into baskets of native grass.
In 2010, a plaque was placed in the main street of the village of Orford, near Tarrone. It reads: “In memory of the hundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children who lost their lives in this area. May your spirits live on and walk beside your people. Now rest in peace. Wuwuurk.”
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