The long tail of dispossession in Australia: Captains John and Robert Hepburn

 The long tail of colonialism in Australia: 

An interrogation of the family histories of two former Scottish sea Captains: Robert & John Hepburn

Barry Golding b.golding@federation.edu.au & Robert Hine

5 April 2020: minor edit 16 Sept 2020

Introduction 

What follows is our collaborative attempt to connect some complex family histories leading to Robert Hine (born in 1971) who lives in present day Tasmania. Our account illustrates how family histories become entwined with broader, often complex international and social trends, in this case with the long-term impact of slavery, colonialism and First Nations dispossession on two Hepburn family members who migrated from Scotland to become squatters on Aboriginal lands in Australia by the mid 1800s.

Our intention is to illustrate that Australian people have complex histories and multicultural heritages, in this case involving a West African slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, Aboriginal Tasmanians, Van Diemen’s Land convicts, a Scottish folk hero and outlaw, as well as Scottish and English free settlers.

Some of the key individuals in our story include Captain John Hepburn (1803-1860), after whom the Hepburn Shire in Victoria, Australia (where Barry Golding lives) is named, and a cousin and also former sea Captain, Robert Hepburn born in 1782, around two decades before John and almost two centuries before Robert Hine. Our story and the family connections go back to Scotland, Africa and Jamaica in the 1700s, and unfold in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL, now Tasmania) during the 1800s.

This is our work in progress. We have drawn on a wide range of primary and secondary sources as well as oral histories, all of which are prone to error and inaccuracy. In Robert Hine’s words:

It is difficult to discover the true line of descent from family records and oral histories available today. Online ancestry sites can be inaccurate. There is also the possibility of some inbreeding in the original Jackson/ Pearce/ Hepburn line, and it is possible that some original documentation has been changed or substituted for close or fabricated records. We look forward to advice on what we’ve got wrong and what is missing.

 How this blog came about

Barry Golding has previously written about John Hepburn in his ‘Beyond Contact’ page on www.barrygoannna.com. He was prompted to research and write about Captain Robert William Hepburn by an unsolicited but welcome email on 8 February 2020 from Robert Hine. Robert’s email to Barry read:

Hi mate, haven’t read your [Beyond Contact blog] story yet, I will, but I just wanted to let you know I am a direct descendant of Captain Robert William Hepburn and his Daughter / granddaughter Jacobene or Jacobina. ‘Bene’ is what she went by. Married name Pearce. … I am Aboriginal through Jacobene’s daughter. I live in Hobart and while I can’t give you all the answers, as much history has been destroyed, I might be able to help you with stories passed down.

A follow up email from Robert Hine included a photograph of himself as a child, above, and a striking photograph, below, of Captain Robert Hepburn, that does not correspond to Lucille Quinlan’s claim of an unmistakable and persistent Hepburn family stereotype, ‘fair of complexion and blue-eyed, with hair that tends to wave crisply about the temples’, that appears in the opening paragraph of her 1967 book, Here my Home: The life and times of John Stuart Hepburn 1803-1860, master mariner, overlander, founder of Smeaton Hill, Victoria’about Robert’s cousin.

Background to John & Robert Hepburn’s Scottish ancestors

Lucille Quinlan’s book starts by painting a picture of ‘The Hepburn’s of Smeaton, Australia’ as descending from a long line of Hepburn’s of exalted calibres, including Scottish military heroes and lairds on huge estates. In fact the Australian Captain John Hepburn was the son of a Thomas Hepburn (1778-1857) a poor fisherman. John Hepburn’s reflected on his life age at 50, describing himself as ‘a mere adventurer cast upon the world since I was thirteen years old. For want of education, my progress was slow’.

John’s mother, Alison Stewart died when John was age four. It was John Hepburn who paid for his father’s tombstone in the Whitekirk, Scotland burial ground, curiously without his mother’s name but with the name of Agnes Whitecross, Thomas’ second wife. One of John’s much younger stepbrothers, Benjamin Hepburn (1826-88) emigrated from Scotland as a 23 year old to join John on the Smeaton Hill run in Australia.

When one puts ‘Smeaton Hepburn’ into a Google search in 2020, the’ Smeaton Nursery Gardens & Tearoom’ is one of the first listings.  The gardens, on the site of the likely former ‘Smyrton’ castle and later Smeaton Manor and Estate in East Lothian in Scotland, remains a working farm of 450 acres set in the Scottish countryside.

Prominent amongst the other ‘Smeaton Hepburn’ Google listings is the ‘Castles of Scotland’ website. It records that on the Hepburn Smeaton lands in the 1500s:

Adam Hepburn of Smeaton [was] supported [by] Mary Queen of Scots, and fought at the Battle of Langside in 1568, and is mentioned in a Summons of treason in 1567. Master Patrick Hepburn of Smeaton was a magistrate for the burgh of Haddington, and on a commission. … John Hepburn of Smeaton [in the 1640s] … was appointed as commissioner of the committee for purging the army within East Lothian. In 1661 Patrick Hepburn of Smeaton, Francis Hepburn of Beanston, and others, were on a commission for judging of Janet Hogg, spouse to George Harlaw in Linton, ‘guilty of the abominable crime of witchcraft’.

The original expansive Hepburn property in Smeaton, East Lothian passed by marriage to the Buchan’s when Elizabeth Hepburn, heiress of Patrick Hepburn of Smeaton, married George Buchan of Letham and the family took the name ‘Buchan-Hepburn’ from 1764. Their son, Sir George Buchan Hepburn, built the mansion in the 1790s. He was a lawyer and baron of the exchequer, and was made a baronet in 1815, four years before he died. Sir Thomas Hepburn-Buchan, 3rd baronet, was Conservative MP for Haddingtonshire from 1838-1847. The family held the property until 1934 when it was sold to the present owners, the Grays.

The very extended and dispersed family that Robert and John Hepburn were born into in the late 1700’s and the early 19th Century respectively had fallen on much harder times than this landed, privileged and knighted offshoot of the Hepburn family. In Lucille Quinlan’s words:

With the conquest of Scotland and England, the Hepburn fortunes declined. Then followed the agrarian and industrial revolutions and the long wars against Napoleon, with all their far reaching social consequences. The clan increased in spite of diminishing fortunes, so that more of the Hepburn’s were driven into renting small farms from richer cousins, or working at humble occupations in the villages around.

Both Robert and John Hepburn found a way out of the likely very limited local employment opportunities and went to sea for a living, both becoming sea captains, and adopting the title ‘Captain’. Near where Barry Golding lives in 2020 John Hepburn’s nautical legacy lives in the Captains Creek winery, Captains Gully Road.

As we will learn later in our account, it was the lure of the sea that had led several of Robert’s (MacGregor and Hepburn) forebears into rising through the ranks to become ship captains, including in the West Indian slave trave and the Royal Navy. By the time Robert and John rose to the rank of ship captains, slavery and the slave trade in North America was beginning wane, the military conflicts on the Iberian (Spanish) Peninsula had cooled off, and the new colonies in Van Diemen’s Land and Port Phillip on the other side of the world required ships to service them. They also provided the opportunity for many former ship captains with adequate capital to give up a lonely life at sea, spend more time with their wives and children and ‘take up’ huge acreages never dreamed of in Scotland.

In both cases, the land in present day Tasmania and Victoria was ‘taken up’ directly, sometimes with force and violence, from Aboriginal people. These acts of dispossession, which are still known euphemistically as ‘settlement’, were sanctioned by the colonial government. For very good reasons, neither John nor Robert documented what role they or their ex-convict employees actually played in this dispossession.

Some of this background helps explain how John and Robert Hepburn’s separate trajectories led them both go to sea and to later emigrate from Scotland and ‘take up land’. However it did not account for Robert’s complexion that was far from Anglo.

Robert Hepburn’s family background

Barry Golding looked at Quinlan’s one paragraph mention of Robert (p.17), describing him as a cousin of John Hepburn’s from Fife. As yet we are unable to identify their actual relationship, but it is clear that the areas in which they spent their childhoods was a reasonable distance apart. Fife is a Scottish county north of the Firth of Forth: East Lothian is the county to the South of the Firth. By road the distance between where Robert was brought up and John’s birthplace is around 60 miles (100 km).

Robert had settled in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) for one year before John Hepburn sailed the Diadem up the east coast of Tasmania in January 1829. Quinlan described Robert as:

… a man of some substance, with sufficient capital to work the land, he had obtained the maximum government grant of 2,000 acres, situated on St Pauls Plains. Later he obtained 500 acres more to open a whale fishery at Oyster Bay … [Robert Hepburn was] very much a Hepburn in temperament and attitudes … and a reputation for having quarrelled with his neighbours and estranged members of his own family.

An online search confirmed that the St Pauls Plains area that Robert Hepburn farmed after he arrived from Edinburgh with his wife and eight children in 1828 is in the eastern Tasmanian Midlands close to the present day small town of Avoca. Hepburn set up a whaling station in 1829 at the foot of ‘The Hazards’, a mountain range now located within the Freycinet National Park on Tasmania’s east coast.

The Oyster Bay whaling station grant to Hepburn in 1829 included nearby Picnic Island that he used as a breakwater for his boat. The Oyster Bay Aboriginal tribe before this dispossession had frequented the island for many thousands of years, travelling across from the mainland in barks canoes or swimming. Their shell middens on the Western end of the island still contain the remnants of countless shared meals of seal, birds, crayfish, abalone, oysters, and other shellfish. When the whales weren’t running, Robert Hepburn would set his convict labour to work mining sandstone from the island.

 Barry Golding was prompted to look back into Robert Hepburn’s ancestry. The first surprising detail was his birthplace in ‘Wilkins Estate, St Dorothy, Jamaica’ on 28 January 1782. When he searched further he discovered that Robert was the ‘illegitimate son of Mary Ann Roy’ and son of Captain William Hepburn, born in 1738 in Scotland and who died in Fifeshire, Scotland ‘without surviving legitimate sons’ from his marriage to Penelope Willikin Newell. However there is a record of a daughter of William and Penelope, Penelope Newell Hepburn, born 13 years before Robert on 28 October 1769, who lived to adulthood and was Robert Hepburn’s half sister.

It transpires that the ‘illegitimate Robert by Mary Ann Roy (who perhaps died shortly after his birth) was given the Hepburn surname and sent to Scotland to be raised by his grandmother [Mary Olipher Hepburn, 1705-92] the widow of the Reverend Patrick Hepburn [1701-72] and after her death in 1792, by an aunt.’ Given that Robert’s father’s family were from East Lothian, it seems likely that being brought up some distance away in Fife might have been a deliberate strategy, given the then shame of illegitimacy, heightened by the fact that his mother was a young black slave.

Further searching revealed that Robert Hepburn’s mother, Mary Ann Roy, was born in Jamaica in 1766, daughter of Gregor MacGregor and a Jamaican sugar plantation slave, Isabella Diabenti. The Roy surname appears to have been taken from MacGregor’s forebear, Rob Roy MacGregor, a Scottish outlaw (1671-1734) in the ‘Robin Hood’ mould who became a Scottish folk hero. Gregor MacGregor (c.1742-1799) was a ship’s captain in the West Indian slave trade and son of Ranald McGregor (1706-1786). Rob Roy MacGregor was in turn Ranald’s father and therefore a great grandfather of Robert Hepburn.

Isabella Diabenti, whose African origin appears to have been ‘Koromanti’ in present day Ghana, was thus Robert Hepburn’s grandmother. Mary Roy would have been age no more than sixteen years when she gave birth to Robert. Koromanti (derived from the name of the Ghanaian slave fort Fort Koramantine in Ghana) was the English name for enslaved people from the Akan ethnicity from the Gold Coast in modern Ghana. Jamaican sugar planters used the term ‘Koramanti’ to refer to slaves purchased from the Akan region of West Africa.

The preamble in Robert Hepburn’s will, below, refers mostly accurately but somewhat hyperbolically to his proud outlaw and slave lineage.

This is the last will and testament of me Robert Hepburn of Roys Hill in the district of Fingal, Tasmania, Esquire, lineal descendant of my Father, Captain [William] Hepburn, of the family of Hepburn of Keith, East Lothian, Scotland, and my Mother, Mary Ann Roy, Great Grandson of Rob Roy McGregor, and by my grandmother Isabella, Princess of Diabenti, lineal descendant of the King of that nation of the Gold Coast of Africa. I am prince of Diabenti, King of that nation of Africa.

Robert Hepburn’s descendants

Robert Hepburn married Jacobina Hosie (born in Scotland 3 July 1884) on 18 May 1805 in South Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. Jacobina and Robert had nine children between 1806 and 1824, eight of whom survived to accompany their parents to VDL / Tasmania following Robert’s retirement from the Royal Navy on 13 March 1827. Robert had been the Captain of a ‘revenue cutter’. The US Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS) was set up by George Washington to collect customs and taxes and to prevent smuggling.

Robert Hine suggests he was related to Robert Hepburn through Robert’s daughter, Lillias Hepburn, born in Scotland on 7 May 1817 and who died in Brighton, Tasmania in 1913 at the age of 96. Lillias married convict Matthew Frederick Pearce and had a daughter Jacobina Elizabeth Pearce.  Convict records show that Pearce had been transported from Liverpool, England, arriving in VDL on 14 January 1842.

Jacobena Elizabeth Pearce married William Isaac. Jacobena had a daughter, Mary Thelma Eliza Jackson born 23 Dec 1865. It seems that Mary’s biological father was not Isaac, but Captain George William Jackson who then worked then the prison orphanage. Not a lot is known about Jackson’s early life aside from being the son of Major J. S. Jackson, barrack master in Sydney who came to NSW in February 1823 in the Cumberland. In April 1831 George Jackson was appointed master of the cutter Charlotte, in which he made many voyages to the Aboriginal settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. In September 1835 Jackson was appointed master of the Eliza, resigning to become a pilot in Sydney. There is evidence Jackson returned to Hobart from England in March 1846 in his wife and children. In 1846 Jackson was registered to the master and owner of the schooner Flinders.

Mary Jackson married William Joseph Bedford, son of Joseph Bedford and Sarah Briggs in 1886 in Pontville, Tasmania (As an aside, one of their six children was given the Christian names ‘Robert Hepburn’). Sarah Briggs (born with twin sister Fanny in 5 June 1833, died 28 January 1903 in Brighton, Tasmania, buried at St Marks Pontville) appears to be the Aboriginal connection to present day (2020) Robert Hine.

Sarah Briggs’ mother, Woretermotetey (given the English name ‘Margaret’) was born during the 1790s and died in 1841,  Margaret was the daughter of Mannalargenna of Plangermaireener Nation Pakana from Cape Portland, Tasmania.

Sarah’s husband was Joseph Leonard Briggs, born approximately 1808. Many Victorian (Koorie) and Tasmanian Aboriginal (Palawa) people have Briggs ancestry.

The University of Tasmania website entry for Mannalargenna suggests he:

… was about 55 years old when he met [George] Robinson on 1 November 1830 on the Anson’s Plain, inland from the southern end of the Bay of Fires. His country was Tebrikunna, now known as Cape Portland, in the far northeast of Trouwunna and he was the leader of the Pairrebeenne clan. Mannalargenna had four daughters and two sons and he is a direct ancestor of the majority of Aboriginal people in Tasmania today. Robinson considered Mannalargenna as being of ‘superior intelligence’, and there is no doubt that he was revered as a formidable warrior and seer amongst his people. He was extremely fond of smearing himself all over with grease and red ochre and he maintained his long locks of hair and beard with this material.

After losing his first wife he married Tanleboneyer who was one of Robinson’s early guides. Mannalargenna and his wife accompanied Robinson on his journey around the island from 1831 to 1835. He did not conform to Robinson’s wish to wear clothes and remained in his preferred ochred and naked state until he died.

Born about 1775 Mannalargenna had lived half of his life in a world of uncontaminated cultural traditions and the other half he experienced the full impacts of the British invasion. On the arrival of Robinson’s vessel to Big Green Island in October 1835 Mannalargenna cut the physical symbol of his role and status – his long ochred hair and beard. This seems to have been a final act in the face of his loss of connections to country and traditional practice. In the face of a life of exile in what his people believed were the islands of the dead. Mannalargenna died at Wybalenna [Flinders Island] on 4 December 1835 … Robinson attributed Mannalargenna’s death to him cutting off his long ochred and greased hair and claimed that this sudden change had led to catching cold and catarrh. As a final act of insensitivity Robinson buried Mannalargenna’s body on the burial ground in a coffin and allowed his enemies to participate in the service.

Robert supplied the following information on his complex ancestry during the most recent century.

I was born 7 April 1971 in Townsville Hospital according to my Birth Certificate. I have been DNA tested with my father, due to adoptions in the Bedford family, and if I wore a wig I would be a dead spit for my mother when she was a child. My mother was known by the name Maree Susannah Atkins (born 28th November 1939 at the Hobart Fire Station). But her real name was Maurie Susannah and her twin sister was Nancy, both were born on the 28 October 1939. Mum was secretly adopted by her aunt, Vildred Phyllis May Bedford. Her twin sister was secretly adopted by her uncle, Claude Hepburn Bedford.

Their real mother, my genetic grandmother, was Nancy Bedford, born in 1922 to William Robert Hepburn Bedford. William Robert Hepburn Bedford’s World War 1 enlistment papers describe him as of dark complexion and he was discharged as ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’. This discharge reason was common with many Aboriginal or part Aboriginal soldiers in WW1. I share the same Grandmother as Tasmania’s most eminent Aboriginal photographic artist (Professor) Wayne Quilliam and his brother, contemporary Aboriginal artist Mick Quilliam.

Robert has spent much of five decades painstakingly uncovering and exploring his genealogy and cultural heritage. Some of the Aboriginal detail remained under the government ‘radar’ for very good reasons during two hundred years of Stolen Generations. Loss of identity for many Aboriginal children was a deliberate government strategy which started in Tasmania with white settlement and dispossession in 1803, became endemic everywhere in white Australia, and was only formally acknowledged with the National Apology in 2008. Robert Hine regards this process of reclaiming identity for himself and family as being a critical plank in national reconciliation. Mick Quilliam wrote in the Indigenous Law Bulletin in 2011 that:

Just as I was influenced by my grandparents and parents, I encourage everyone to explore their cultural heritage regardless of race. Ultimately, it is us who shape and influence our children in future generations so their identity is not lost. Encourage your children to explore, understand and appreciate their cultural background – be proud of who you are.

Robert Hine writes that:

I ran into Aboriginal Professors Marcia Langton (University of Melbourne) and Maggie Walters (University of Tasmania) at an Aboriginal shell necklace exhibition. I showed them a photo of my mother, standing with a group of other children. Both professors looked at each other and said, “That’s Cootamundra, your mother is a Stolen Gen child”.  Every time there was a family function, my adoptive grandmother, who I still regard as my grandmother, would say over and over again, “If anyone asks you why you have darker skin than them, tell them you are part Indian”. This was drilled into us. Perhaps it was due to my mum being taken, or due to the fact they were still taking children up until 1975 in Tasmania. The photo on the left, below, is my mother’s aunt to whom she was adopted, Vildred Phyllis May Bedford. The photo on the right below is my real (genetic) grandmother, Nancy Bedford.

In summary

Robert Hine’s ancestry, from our account, includes English, Scottish (Hepburn & Macgregor), African, English convict and Palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian) connections and several adoptions.

Our account illustrates how revealing the truth about sometimes hidden or denied parts of our ancestry can help explain to our families and children who we are, where we come from, and what shaped the difficult decisions our very diverse forebears made. It is also, for Aboriginal and other Australians, an important and essential prerequisite to mutual understanding and national reconciliation. This is our intention for sharing this blog more widely with others.

 

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