The second-in-charge of the Colony of Newcastle in 1827 was just 22 years old. Lieutenant William Sacheverell Coke is another of those early European inhabitants who kept a record of his relationships with the local Aboriginal people, including his ‘companion’ – Desmond.
There are many historic artworks associated with Newcastle and show the human relations and interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. An exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery in 2013 displayed many outstanding colonial artworks, as shown in ‘Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era Catalogue’.
During the 1820s partnerships between government officials and local Indigenous people was common, and cultural past-times continued as they did when Newcastle was a penal settlement, although these have not been documented to the same extent as in the previous decade.
Accounts of Newcastle during 1827-1828 by Lieutenant William Sacheverell Coke (1805-1896) are described in his diary and historian Cynthia Hunter The 1827 Newcastle Notebook and Letters of Lieutenant William S Coke Hm 39th Regiment published in 1997. Her extensive research explores the cultural practices undertaken by Coke and his relationship with Aboriginal ‘servant’ ‘companion’ Desmond.
Coke was in second in charge at Newcastle in 1827. The mood of the town during this time had changed and although many of the convict workers had left the settlement 250 stayed to work in the mines and public works. Although Newcastle was no longer a penal settlement in 1823, it was not free in the sense that newcomers could easily settle there.
Despite the many difficulties in sustaining the coal mines at Newcastle, support for convict labour continued and government officials remained there. Coke was 22 years of age when appointed second in charge of the garrison at Newcastle and was in command of fifty two men at Newcastle as well as the detachment of six hundred convicts at the AA Company at Port Stephens.
Coke wrote letters to his family in Derbyshire, one letter saying:-
New Castle is a small Village situated on a peninsula, half of which is only bare land. We have no houses of two stories, but have small cottages with verandah’s round them to shelter us from the sun. It is very hot here particularly as it is so exposed. We have plenty of Birds (in the forests) of beautiful plumage.
Whilst at Newcastle Coke learnt to stuff birds and draw them, thus continuing the cultural tradition of collecting and drawing as a common pastime of the earlier Commandants. He had a book with him ‘Preserving Subjects of Natural History’ containing instructions about how to stuff birds before sending them to his family in England. There must have been plenty of time for these past-times as the following describes:
I am endeavouring to teach myself painting, I seldom read less than four hours a day….I never touch Spirits but take perhaps five Glasses of Wine during the day, the Doctors say it is absolutely necessary.
He also describes the ‘numerous grand corroborees’ performed at the Government Domain (now known as the James Fletcher Hospital), an activity that had been common during the Macquarie years. It was the continuation of a cultural practice associated with both Aboriginal and European relations in the 1820s. Coke had a good relationship with Desmond and his tribe, and enjoyed many outdoor activities with Desmond. He would often give Desmond a musket and a load of power and shot and bring him home some kangaroo and wild ducks.
There are a number of the Natives always about us, they carry each a Spear and Club but have no Covering, they go out a shooting or fishing with or for us and are very honest and never steal. Coke believed the ‘Natives’ were his ‘best friends’, and he often witnessed battles between different tribes even in the ‘Village’ who were expert in throwing spear as far as ‘200 yards’. Battles generally took place early in the day, in a kind of natural amphitheatre, with hills at the back and the river Hunter in front.
This area described could possibly be in the location of the present day King Edward Park. At one stage Desmond is wounded in a ‘Field of Battle’ and took several months to recover, during this time Magill also known as Biraban regularly brought Coke ‘duck, teal and widgeon to eat, and a satin bower bird to stuff”. There was a genuine mutual respect between Desmond and Coke, with Coke recollecting years after leaving Newcastle that:-
when lying ill with cholera…and not expected to recover, Desmond came and bent over me and said ‘Never mind, I will see that you are buried like a warrior’
Visiting government officials such as Governor Brisbane continued to be entertained in Newcastle by local Indigenous tribes in the 1820s, a tradition common during Governor Macquarie’s visits to Newcastle in the 1810s. Unfortunately there are limited artworks showing these cultural practices Newcastle during this time. However there is a beautiful painting of Desmond by Augustus Earle held at the National Library of Australia. Coke’s recollections are very important because he describes early relationships with Aboriginal people and cross cultural practices, something quite unique in the Australian story. Coke’s accounts contribute to knowledge about early Newcastle and important when considering our national cultural heritage.
Earle, Augustus, 1793-1838. Desmond, a N.S. Wales chief painted for a karobbery [i.e. corroboree] or native dance (1826?) (National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2820718:August Earle, National Library of Australia)
Cynthia Hunter, The 1827 Newcastle Notebook and Letters of Lieutenant William S Coke Hm 39th Regiment. Raymond Terrace NSW: Hunter House Publications, 1997.