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George Fletcher Moore's Attitudes to the Aboriginal People

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Using George Fletcher Moore's interactions with Yagan and his account of Yagan's death, this page explores Moore's attitudes to the Aboriginal people. It also considers the complexities of Moore's character as revealed by his letters to the Perth Gazette, where he used the pseudonym 'Philaleth'.

Yagan

Yagan was an important Aboriginal leader who resisted colonisation. Moore met him many times and historians have used Moore's accounts and descriptions of Yagan in Diary of Ten Years as a reliable source. The story of Yagan is quite complicated, but in brief, the colonists considered him to be responsible for violence against them so the government placed a bounty on his head. In July 1833 he was shot by a teenage boy. In the months leading up to Yagan's death Moore recounts a number of meetings with Yagan. This is the account of one meeting from The Millendon Memoirs:

Monday 27th May
Have had a long, angry and wholly unexpected conference today with the very spirit of Evil himself (I mean the notorious Yagan) as he is often considered in that light.[16]

Moore gave more detail about their conversation and then wrote:

He turned, a look of ineffable disdain, & walked away. However, he came back & we parted friends though it was strictly my duty to have endeavoured to take him dead or alive.[17]

In Diary of Ten Years the qualification 'as he is often considered in that light' is omitted so it reads as though Moore called Yagan 'the very spirit of Evil himself' rather than writing that he is 'often considered in that light'. Furthermore, Diary of Ten Years does not state that Yagan and Moore 'parted friends'. 

By July 1833 the situation between the colonists and the Aboriginal people had deteriorated further. Yagan was shot and the accounts of his death are quite different. The first passage is from Diary of Ten Years:

16th [July 1833]
On Saturday I saw at Mr Bull's the head of Ya-gan, which one of the men had cut off for the purpose of preserving. Possibly it may figure in some museum at home. I should have been glad to get it myself, as the features were not in the least changed. He must have died instantaneously. The other native was not yet deaad when the party went to look after them; the accidental passing of two soldiers frightened the natives (it is supposed), or they would have carried off the bodies Yagan had a very particular mark of tatooing extending over his right shoulder and down his back, by which many of the settlers recognised him. He wore a soldier's old coat under his kangaroo clock [sic], to hide this mark, as he had been often warned of his danger. This particular cicatrice was flayed from his  body by the man who is preserving the head. I have rudely sketched this 'caput mortum' of Ya-gan, which was ornamented with a twisted cord round his forehead.[18]

The following extract is from The Millendon Memoirs:

Monday 15th July...
I forgot to mention on Saturday I saw at Mr Bull's the head of Yagan which one of the men had cut off for the purpose of preserving. Possibly it may yet figure in some museum at home. I should have been glad to get it myself, as the features were not in the least changes. He must have died at once. The other native was not yet dead when the party went to look after them; the accidental passing of two soldiers frightened the natives (it is supposed), or they would have carried off the bodies. Yet these two soldiers, though they saw the two bodies on the ground as they passed had neither the curiosity nor humanity to take any notice of hem. It is most unaccountable. One of them was groaning and his brains were partly out when the party came, and, whether humanely or brutally, a man put a gun to his head & blew it to pieces. Yagan had a very particular mark or scar of tatooing extending over his right shoulder and down his back. Yagan's head sketched by George Fletcher MooreMany of the settlers knew him by this mark. At the time of his death, he wore a soldier's old coat under his kang'oo cloak, to hide this, as he had been warned of his danger often. This peculiar cicatrice has also been flayed from the body by the man who is preserving the head.

Tuesday 16th July 
I have rudely sketched this beautiful 'caput mortum' of Yagan. He wore a fine twisted cord round his forehead. I have been in a singular mood tonight, my thoughts running into or rather working in the manner of musical voluntaries. I sang one which gave me great pleasure by its strength, beauty and expression. Now, do not laugh at me for this...[19]

So, how are these accounts different? Diary of Ten Years downplays the violence of Yagan's murder by omitting the information about the two soldiers who ignored the dead and wounded Aborigines and it omits Moore's feelings after Yagan's murder. While these variations may not seem significant when taken individually, when all the differences are considered as a whole trends emerge that do change the way we might view George Fletcher Moore. Through The Millendon Memoirs Moore emerges as a much more complex man who expressed conflicting attitudes towards the Aboriginal people. At times he expressed the belief that although the Aboriginal people were 'savages', some of them were his friends and they deserved to be treated justly, while at other times his desire for his own position and status in the Colony to be secure, and for the Colony to 'progress', took precedence over his humanitarian concerns.

George Fletcher Moore writing as 'Philaleth'

During 1833 the Perth Gazette, one of the Swan River Colony's newspapers, published several letters that acknowledged that the Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of their country and were not being treated fairly by the European settlers. Cameron's Millendon Memoirs reveals that the author of the letters to the Perth Gazette signed 'Philaleth' was, in fact, George Fletcher Moore. Until Cameron published this volume, only those who had read Moore's original letters and journal knew this. The significance of these letters has been discussed by scholars such as Henry Reynolds, who uses one of Philaleth's letters to the Perth Gazette as an example of an anonymous writer concerned about the situation between the settlers and the local Aboriginal people.[20] In this letter printed in the Perth Gazette on 27 July 1833, 'Philaleth' calls on the government to adopt a conciliatory approach and acknowledges the injustices that have occurred and suggests compensation. This letter can be read online, but an extract is included here:

How few of us deigned to bestow even a thought upon the existence of a people whom we were about to dispossess of their country. Which of us can say that he made a rational calculation of the rights of the owners of the soil, of that contemplated violation of those rights, of the probable consequences of that  violation, or our justification for such an act: If perchance at any moment the murmurings of  our conscience made themselves heard, were not its faint whisperings stifled by the bustle of business, or drowned in the din of preparations... [21]

Cameron's Millendon Memoirs reveal that 'Philaleth' was, in fact, George Fletcher Moore. Before Cameron's publication this was not widely known: only keen researchers who had carefully read Moore's original letters and journals would be aware of this. This is significant because it gives us a better understanding of Moore and further demonstrates the complexity of his views towards the Aboriginal people.

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Page last updated: Tuesday 18 January 2011