Buckley and the Aborigines

Roughly a year after he escaped from the convict settlement at Sullivan Bay, William Buckley met two Aboriginal women from the Wathaurung people. The women thought Buckley was the reincarnated spirit of their kinsman – possibly because Buckley was carrying his spear which he had found near the Indigenous man's burial mound.

The women took Buckley back to their camp, where he lived for the next 32 years. He became a respected member of the Wathaurung community, with Aborigines from other areas even recognising him as one of the Wathaurung tribe. He learnt to hunt and gather food, and was a local expert when it came to fishing:

I became as expert as any of them in spearing the Kangaroo and taking fish – and with regard to the latter was generally more successful [than any of them] when fishing alone.

– William Buckley

Buckley, W 1837, Reminiscenses of James Buckley, Manuscripts collection, State Library of Victoria, MS13483.

In accounts of his life, Buckley often talks about catching eels near his hut. A waterfall and a bay near Barwon Heads are named after him, and tourists still visit the cave where he lived almost 200 years ago.

Buckley became one of very few white settlers who became fluent in an Aboriginal language:

After a few years residence among the natives I could speak the language quite well – when I had attained this knowledge of their tongue, I was fast losing my own.

– William Buckley

Buckley, W 1837, Reminiscenses of James Buckley, Manuscripts collection, State Library of Victoria, MS13483.

William Goodall, Superintendent of the Aboriginal Station at Framlingham, suggested that Buckley had even had an Aboriginal wife, who he left behind in 1837 when he went to live in Tasmania. Goodall describes her people mourning for Buckley after he left:

When [Buckley] was taken away in the ship, the natives were much distressed at losing him, and when, some time after, they received a letter informing them of his marriage in Hobart town, they lost all hope of his return to them and grieved accordingly.

– William Goodall

Dawson, J 1881, Australian Aborigines, the language and customs of several tribes of the Aborigines of the Western District of Victoria, Australia, George Robertson, Melbourne, Vic.

His ability to communicate with the Aborigines earned him the nickname ‘Wild White Man', and led to him later becoming an interpreter and negotiator for John Batman and other early settlers.

Painting of John Batman's party meeting William Buckley.
Painting of an Aboriginal shelter in the Australian bushland.
Painting of an Aboriginal encampment on the banks of the Yarra River.
Photograph of an Aboriginal man spearing fish in a river.