Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Maria Nugent (Australian National University)
The quest for title deeds: The meaning of texts in Aboriginal people’s oral traditions
This paper considers the ways in which Aboriginal people engaged with what might be called the dilemmas of documentation in disputes and negotiations over land in south-east Australia in the period from the late nineteenth to the middle part of the twentieth century. I take as my focus an oral tradition among Aboriginal people that the reserve lands they occupied had been granted to them in perpetuity by Queen Victoria. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, this oral tradition came to include a reference to a quest for the (lost? non-existent?) title deeds that would prove that strongly-held belief to be true. In this paper, I use the reference to, and the attendant quest for, the title deeds to investigate the ways in which Aboriginal people sought to respond to new bureaucratic demands for written evidence in historical matters, especially concerning occupation of and rights to land. The insertion of a ‘text’ as a central element in this Aboriginal oral tradition allows some consideration of the fraught relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal modes of history, and their divergent reliance upon oral remembrance and written documentation. I suggest that the elaboration of the original oral tradition to include title deeds registers difficult dilemmas or challenges that documents, either or both as historical evidence and legally-binding contracts, raise for dispossessed Aboriginal people as they sought to have land matters settled. At the same time, attention to the oral tradition’s engagement with the problem of documentation provides an important complement to studies examining Aboriginal people’s literary acts, such as writing petitions and letters, in the same period and in pursuit of the same ends (i.e. certainty over rights to land). For those Aboriginal people who did not necessarily employ the technologies of writing themselves, this oral tradition, centred as it is upon a powerful (if absent) text, provides evidence of their constant and creative negotiation with writing and its implications.
Maria Nugent, Australian National University, email
Maria Nugent is Research Fellow in the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University in Canberra. She’s the author of Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet (Allen & Unwin, 2005) and Captain Cook Was Here (CUP, 2009).