Where on earth did these men come from?
The inherited legacy of British slavery in Dja Dja Wurrung Country
Barry Golding, 5 September 2021
Please contact me if you are able to correct me & fill in any of the gaps
This account focuses on the family origins of several of the earliest squatters who arrived in the Colony of Port Phillip and ‘took up stations’ north of the Great Dividing Range on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in central Victoria before 1842. In particular, it asks what brought many these British refugees to Australia, and where they might have gained the considerable capital necessary to quickly establish such vast pastoral enterprises.
The men involved (mostly White, with some exceptions, including Robert Hepburn, above, and also the Birches at Seven Hills and Bullarook who have Indian ancestry) are now commemorated as heroes in the landscape they invaded by mountains, towns, monuments and streets. The women are seldom mentioned.
Some men later penned deliberately sanitized words in Letters from Victorian Pioneers in 1853 (published in 1898) which conveniently glossed over the aggression and considerable capital necessary to seize land and ‘set up stations’, and also their prior backgrounds. It is still more convenient in 2021 not to know. Local histories typically start with Mitchell, identify the heroic legacy of these first White squatters and briskly move on to gold.
This account looks specifically at the legacy of British slavery in the lives and families of Alexander Mollison, Charles Ebden, John Hepburn, the Simson Brothers and Lawrence Rostron, much elevated local squatters in the Kyneton, Carlsruhe, Smeaton, Maryborough and Glenlyon areas respectively.
Researching ‘Legacies of British Slavery’, has recently become much simpler via the ‘search the database’ tab on the University College London website by that name. In summary, when British slave owners released slaves with the legislated abolition of slavery, the slave owners were richly compensated. The website documents who had slaves in British colonies and what compensation they actually received.
Some of this new information comes from that site. Searching your own family backgrounds by surname might prove surprising and interesting …
Alexander Mollison & Charles Ebden
The official Kyneton website kyneton.com.au ‘History’ page proudly claims ‘Kyneton comes with good baggage’. It specifically celebrates the first two European squatters in the Kyneton district, Charles Hotson Ebden (1811-1867) and Alexander Fullerton Mollison (1805-1885) who established ‘… enormous grazing properties on the lush landscape sitting on the local mineral rich volcanic soils’. Zero mention of prior occupation. This account confirms both came with and left considerable baggage.
Ebden, after whom Ebden Street in Kyneton is named, ‘sent 9,000 sheep from his Goulburn station to arrive in May 1837 at nearby Carlsruhe to form the first sheep station’. Kyneton’s main street was also named after Alexander Mollison.
By 1839 squatter Alexander Mollison was writing to his sister, Jane noting that ‘there are now Stations all the way to Sydney’, vainly boasting that the settlers were calling the mountain Mt Alexander not after the King of Macedon [as renamed from Leanganook by Mitchell] but in ‘honor of [him, Alexander Mollison] having first occupied it’.
Both Mollison and Ebden inherited and brought with them huge family wealth from colonial enterprises involving large scale slavery in the Caribbean and southern Africa. This capital was essential to set help up their huge pastoral enterprises on the Coliban and Campaspe Rivers from 1837. In addition, Mollison was effectively the beneficiary of the state subsidized slave labor of 49 servants (including 22 ex-convicts) and Ebden 32.
Alexander and his brother William Thomas Mollison (1816-1886) had both inherited considerable wealth from their parents, Elizabeth and Crawford Mollison, themselves big slave owners in St Ann, Jamaica. They were compensated with £2,135 by the British government in 1835 for their release. Elizabeth’s father, Alexander’s grandfather, George Fullerton was separately compensated for the loss of 415 enslaved people in Jamaica and a total of £9,325, a sum equivalent to approximately 2.2 million Australian dollars in 2021 value.
Mollison was involved in three well documented incidents locally involving violent conflict with Aboriginal people between 1838 and 1842, and Ebden with one in July 1839. And yet violently seizing land from the Dja Dja Wurrung people on unjust terms was not enough.
In November 1839, Mollison wrote to his father complaining that ‘all the advantages which [New South] Wales afforded to her woolgrowers are taken from us [in Port Philip]. Grants of land, cheap labor, unlimited pasturage and no taxation. So great is the change that many are turning their eyes to New Zealand and the islands of the Pacific.’ Writing to his sister, Jane, in his Christmas Day letter in 1840, Alexander confirmed he was looking for somewhere else to go on more ‘easy terms’.
Charles Ebden, the Carlsruhe squatter was the son of John Bardwell Ebden, a prominent merchant, banker and politician and slave owner in the British Cape Colony. In 1836 John and his wife Antoinette received £825 as British compensation for the release of 22 enslaved people at the Cape of Good Hope.
Charles overlanded to Melbourne a few days after John Gardner, Joseph Hawdon and John Hepburn in early 1837. By March 1837 had moved a substantial flock of sheep to Carlsruhe. Charles Ebden’s scale of operations confirmed he had considerable colonial capital behind him.
Not all local squatters in late 1830s had huge prior wealth, but many including John Stuart Hepburn (1803-1860) of Smeaton Hill quickly amassed considerable fortunes. In fact, his father, Thomas Hepburn, was a fisherman and laborer. John’s mother, Alison Stewart died when he was four years old. John had a very limited education and went to sea as a cabin boy age only 13 years. His father remarried, and they had eight more children. The headstone commemorating John’s parents was actually paid for by John but does not mention his birth mother.
Existing accounts of John inaccurately play up his links to inherited wealth and Scottish aristocracy, including to his Tasmanian squatter cousin, Robert Hepburn. There is evidence that several other Scottish Hepburn ancestors had large slave holdings, and some others like John rose up through the ranks, to become ship captains in the West Indian slave trade and the Royal Navy. In fact a photo of Robert early on in this article clearly confirms Robert’s Black ancestry. Robert Hepburn’s mother, Mary Ann Roy, was actually born in Jamaica in 1766, daughter of slave owner Gregor MacGregor and a Jamaican sugar plantation worker enslaved, from West Africa, 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. John’s cousin, Robert and his present day/2021 Aboriginal Tasmanian ancestor, Robert Hine, is the subject of one of Barry Golding’s extended blogs in collaboration with Roobert: see https://barrygoanna.com/2020/04/05/the-long-tail-of-dispossession-in-australia-captains-john-robert-hepburn . Robert Hine’s ancestry, from my account, includes English, Scottish (slave owner Hepburn & MacGregor & outlaw), Black African, English convict and Palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian) connections along with several adoptions.
John, Hector and Donald Simson were pastoralists involved in Charlotte Plains run near Carisbrook from the 1840s, celebrated on the 2021 ‘ Simson’s Pantry’ bread wrapper as ‘the first pioneering settlers’ in the Maryborough area. Contrary to existing histories, I suggest here for the first time that the name ‘Carisbook’ likely has Simson family slave colony origins going back to Jamaica.
Many members of the British Simson family (Ann, Charles, Christian, Colin, James & John) were beneficiaries of a significant slave owner payout mainly as a consequence of slaves originally held in British Guyana. How this family is associated with John Simson (1799-1848), Hector Norman Simson (1819-1880) and Donald Campbell Simson (1808-1851), regarded as the White founders of Maryborough is unclear and yet to be proved. Donald married Jane Charlotte, eldest daughter of John Coghill (John Hepburn’s business partner) on 15 March 1839.
The ‘Victorian Places’ website in 2021 suggests that: Reputedly Carisbrook’s name came from ‘Carrie’s Brook’, named after Caroline Bucknall, the daughter of E. G. Bucknall, an early local pastoralist. However, before the town was surveyed in 1851 there was a police camp and lock up named Camp Carisbrook, implying that the name could have had another origin. There were pre-existing Carisbrooks in New Zealand and the Isle of Wight.
E. G Bucknall, a native of Stroud, Gloucestershire did not come to the Port Phillip colony with his wife and family until 1843, in 1844 leasing a tract of land from the Crown at Rodborough, a property he subsequently purchased. It seems a big stretch to imagine Bucknall’s daughter’s nick-name would transfer to an area already well-established for at least five years as a pastoral run called ‘Charlotte Plains’. And the town in question is not ‘Carries Brook’. It is called and spelt ‘Carisbrook’.
There is no ‘Carries Brook’ evident in the UK. There is a ‘Carries Brook’, a seasonal river in northeastern Tasmania. The Isle of Wight village in England is spelt ‘Carisbrooke’. The New Zealand ‘Carisbrook’ is named after the estate of early colonial settler James Macandrew (itself named after Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight).
The Goldfields Guide website in 2021 notes that when Urquhart, the district surveyor came to survey Carisbrook in August 1851, there was already a police camp and lock up called “Camp Carisbrook”. It seems possible, indeed likely, that the police contingent, camp and log jail at Carisbrook perhaps and instead got its name from ‘Carisbrook’ sometimes also (Carrisbrook), a former sugar and rum slave plantation in the region of St Elizabeth, 104km west of Kingston in Jamaica. Approximately 100 enslaved people were enclosed in the ‘Carisbrook / Carrisbrook’ ‘Pen / Penn’ growing sugar, rum, cattle, yams, plantain, sheep, corn and mules from 1780 until at least 1832.
Until 1821 the slaves at Carisbrook were registered to ‘Donald Cameron’. A ‘Donald Cameron’ was buried at Carisbrook, St Elizabeth, Jamaica on 13 September 1820 age 46 years. When he died, the Carisbrook slave ownership transferred to Alexander Campbell, Duncan Cameron and Allan Cameron.
An ‘Allan Cameron’ is described in the slave registers (on the Legacies of British Slavery website) as an absentee slave owner of the plantation #407 at Carisbrook, Jamaica (also spelt ‘Carrisbrook’). John Cameron was paid out £1,717 in 1833 as an heir to Donald’s slave estate when compensated by the British government for releasing their slaves. It is not clear what the relationship might have been, if any, between John and Donald Cameron, early White colonists in Clunes, Victoria.
It seems on balance, to be much more likely that Carisbrook in Victoria got its name as a downstream legacy of British slavery though the Simson family, which likely enabled them sufficient cash to come to Australia, hire men, buy stock and set up stations.
The Hepburn Shire Riding of Holcombe is named after a squatting run by that name set up in 1840 in the Glenlyon area by Lawrence Rostron, today described in local histories as a ‘pioneer pastoralist’. He found the Holcombe run too small and passed it on the the Clowes Brothers in 1844 to take up 160,000 acres on ‘Tottington’ and ‘Ramsbottom’ near Stuart Mill.
Lawrence Rostron, originally from Lancashire England, disgraced the family by falling in love with a cotton mill worker, and spent approximately 20 years banished to Rio de Janeiro running the Brazilian end of the family cotton trade that involved company ships. As cotton farming in Brazil was linked to the Portuguese slavery trade, it is likely that the Rostron family was implicated in parts of the same trade.
However the Legacy of British Slavery tells us nothing about Rostron as Brazil was not a British Colony. Rostron’s diaries have recently been placed in the State Library Victoria. We will know more once they become accessible post the 2020/21 COVID lockdown.
Meantime there is evidence that Lawrence Rostron carried on the family tradition. In later life he imported guano on his ships for use as a fertiliser from Malden Island (now part of the nation of Kiribati) in the Pacific Ocean. The work there between 1860 and 1927 was overseen by a handful of European supervisors and undertaken by indentured ‘native labourers’, a form of bonded labour developed after outright slave ownership was abolished. Rostron later became an important figure in Melbourne with investments in fertiliser and property development.
Why bother about this?
The short answer is that is is important to be truthful about our past in oder to reconcile our present. The five examples above are not exceptions. Other local colonial heroes with direct and significant family links to and beneficiaries of slavery include the Scotts after whom Scottsburn is named, as well as the goldfields era British politician, colonial governor and patron of the sciences, Sir Henry Barkly.
It was not just the money they brought, but the born to rule racism that tended to accompany such backgrounds, that arguably extended to the shameful way Australian First Nations people were treated by most (but not all) squatters on the frontier.
It matters because we keep perpetuating these myths. The Simson brothers were not ‘pioneers’ as is claimed when marketing their (excellent) bread made in Maryborough in 2021, since they were not ‘the first to explore or settle a new country or area’. Nor were Rostron, Hepburn, Ebden, Mollison or my ancestors in the St Arnaud area ‘pioneers’. The Country was comprehensively settled, named and cultured for over a thousand generations before, and in one two generations most had made their fortunes and moved on.
And they were not ‘settlers’. ‘Unsettlers’ comes closer to the mark. That many of the earliest invaders such as Mollison came to Australia demanding, in his words, ‘unlimited pasturage’ on ‘easy terms’, some moving on later to do similarly in New Zealand, and in Rostron’s case to the Pacific, is deep unsettling.
For all of these reasons, the Frontier Wars Memorial Avenue officially opened in 2021 on Daylesford’s outskirts, below, and the local renaming process underway with Jim Crow Creek, are significant small local steps, but large steps in remembering, for Australia, First Nations peoples and humankind.