Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History

Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History

Samuel Furphy
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: ANU Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History
    Book Description:

    Edward M. Curr (1820-89) was a pastoralist, horse trader, stock inspector, Aboriginal administrator, author and ethnologist. A prominent figure in the history of the Colony of Victoria, he rose to a senior position in the public service and authored several influential books and essays. He is best remembered for his nostalgic memoir, Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883), which has become a standard historical source. This book is the first comprehensive biography of Curr and explores both his life and legacy. In particular, it considers his posthumous influence on the Yorta Yorta native title case (1994-2001), when his written account of the Yorta Yorta ancestors played a key role in the failure of the claim. By exploring Curr’s interactions with Aboriginal people—as a pastoralist andAboriginal administrator—this book advocates a more nuanced, critical, and historically informed interpretation of Curr’s ethnological writings than was evident in the Yorta Yorta case.

    eISBN: 978-1-922144-71-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Prologue: ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman’
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    When the High Court of Australia rejected the final appeal in the Yorta Yorta native title case in December 2002, a headline in The Age announced: ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman’.¹ The man in question was Edward M. Curr (1820-1889), who was certainly fond of fencing in his youth, but is better known as the author of Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883), an engaging account of his early life as a pastoralist on the Goulburn and Murray rivers. In 1841 Curr was among the first squatters to occupy land belonging to ancestors of the Yorta Yorta people,...

  6. 1. From Sheffield to Van Diemen’s Land
    (pp. 1-22)

    Edward Micklethwaite Curr was born into an upwardly mobile middle-class English-Catholic family, which rose to prominence in Sheffield in the late eighteenth century. Family sources speculate that the Currs might have come to England from Scotland in the seventeenth century with the Court of James I, but very little is known for certain.¹ The family’s rise in social status was principally due to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of John Curr, who was born in Durham in 1756. Edward M. Curr recorded that his grandfather trained as a civil engineer and, according to family reports, ‘was a man of considerable ability,...

  7. 2. ‘Troubles of a Beginner’
    (pp. 23-36)

    The Van Diemen’s Land Company did not provide rapid or extensive returns to its shareholders. During its first 15 years of operation, the company spent £250,000 on its antipodean venture, yet no dividend was paid for the first 11 years and the few that were subsequently paid were small.¹ The slow progress increasingly troubled the London-based directors, who also became concerned about Edward Curr senior’s ‘frequent and acrimonious disputes’ with the authorities in Hobart. In the late 1830s these issues reached crisis point due to Curr’s ‘persistent refusal to pay part of the salary of the police magistrate stationed at...

  8. 3. ‘A Station Formed at Tongala’
    (pp. 37-56)

    In July 1841 Edward M. Curr arrived at his new 50-square-mile squatting run, which he named ‘Tongala’. He later recalled the derivation of his station name: ‘The name was not by any means an apt one, as it is the Bangerang name for the River Murray.’ Tongala in fact straddled the Goulburn River; Curr set up his station headquarters on the river’s southern bank, about eight miles from its confluence with the Murray. He did not record the reason for his inappropriate usage of the name; it might have been the result of a misunderstanding, or perhaps Curr chose it...

  9. 4. Claiming the Moira
    (pp. 57-74)

    A common belief that surrounds Edward M. Curr is that he was unusually sensitive to the plight of Australian Indigenous people. Justice Olney implied such a view in his Yorta Yorta judgement when he noted that Curr had ‘clearly established a degree of rapport with the local Aboriginal people’.¹ Earlier, historians had regularly followed the lead of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and asserted Curr’s ‘sympathetic understanding’. To a certain extent, this view was justified: Curr was both observant and curious, and evidently acquainted himself with Aborigines more than the average pastoralist. He described some aspects of Indigenous culture with...

  10. 5. Decline and Fall
    (pp. 75-92)

    In Recollections of Squatting in Victoria Edward M. Curr gives only a vague explanation for his leaving Victoria in February 1851, noting that he was ‘desirous of a change’ and wanted to travel through some of the countries ‘about which I had interested myself from boyhood’.¹ There seems little doubt, however, that his father’s death three months earlier was a major catalyst in his decision; for a decade he had worked at the behest of his overbearing father, but was now free to pursue his own interests. Before he departed, arrangements were made regarding the runs he and his brothers...

  11. 6. Rebuilding a Reputation
    (pp. 93-108)

    In 1850 Edward M. Curr was the head of a family pastoral empire covering 300 square miles of prime land yielding £2,000 per annum. His father was a prominent businessman and politician in Melbourne and the Curr name was well known in the newly independent Colony of Victoria. A decade later he was reduced to the necessity of accepting a salaried position with the Victorian Government to support his growing family. His subsequent career was undoubtedly a notable one and provided him with ample income; nevertheless, the painful reality of financial loss and squandered opportunities seems to have shaped his...

  12. 7. Recollections of Squatting
    (pp. 109-126)

    As Curr’s public service career flourished, he was able to purchase a more comfortable home in St Kilda. From 1875 until his death he resided with his large family at ‘Alma House’ on the north-west corner of Chapel and Argyle Streets. It was an 11-room brick residence, which was valued at £2,300 in 1889. Probate records provide some insight into the nature of Curr’s family life at Alma House; he owned, for example, a piano, a billiard table and a library of 500 books.¹ The financial security Curr regained in the 1860s enabled him to provide his children with a...

  13. 8. ‘The native is a child’
    (pp. 127-144)

    Through his notable career as a senior public servant, Edward M. Curr recovered some of the social status he had lost following the disastrous drought at Uabba. Importantly, his career successes highlight his commitment to the settler colonial project in Australia; his working life was dedicated to ensuring the productive and profitable use of land by the pastoral industry. In the 1870s Curr also became deeply interested in the Aboriginal people whose lands had been appropriated to sustain the pastoral industry. His alternative career as an Aboriginal administrator and ethnologist sits uncomfortably alongside his principal life purpose, which was to...

  14. 9. The Australian Race
    (pp. 145-156)

    In 1873, two years before he joined the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, Edward M. Curr made a startling discovery regarding Aboriginal languages. While conversing with ‘a Blackfellow of the Swan Hill neighbourhood’ he noticed the man using a word in common with the Ngooraialum people, whose territory lay more than 200 kilometres to the south-east. This was particularly surprising to Curr, as he knew that the Bangerang people, who traditionally occupied the intervening territory, did not use this word. He subsequently observed that the Bangerang ‘were encircled by a number of tribes, which spoke related languages, which differed...

  15. 10. Ethnographic Rivalries
    (pp. 157-172)

    The Australian Race was the last of four significant ethnographic works to be published in Melbourne in less than a decade. The first was R. Brough Smyth’s Aborigines of Victoria (1878), which like Curr’s work was published by the Victorian Government. In subsequent years the Melbourne-based bookseller George Robertson published Lorimer Fison and A.W. Howitt’s seminal Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880) and James Dawson’s study of Aborigines in western Victoria titled Australian Aborigines (1881). Robertson also published Curr’s Recollections of Squatting in Victoria in 1883. In The Australian Race Curr took the opportunity to assert the superiority of his own ethnographic...

  16. 11. ‘My sable neighbours’
    (pp. 173-184)

    Curr’s ethnological endeavours had been triggered by his interest in the language of the Bangerang people, whose lands he had occupied while squatting in the 1840s. He waited, however, until the final section of The Australian Race (Volume 3, ‘Book the Twenty-Third’) to advance his theory as to why the Bangerang language differed so markedly from those of surrounding tribes. He suggested that the circumstance was ‘both unusual and worthy of notice, and could not fail to have been the result of something uncommon in the past history of the population of those parts’.¹ Curr argued that the Bangerang people...

  17. 12. The Tide of History
    (pp. 185-200)

    The publication of The Australian Race was Curr’s last major achievement. On 3 August 1889 he died at Alma House and was buried alongside his wife in the St Kilda Cemetery. He had retired from his position as Chief Inspector of Stock only a few days earlier. In appreciation of Curr’s outstanding service to the colony’s pastoral industry, the Victorian Parliament voted him nine months’ salary. His estate was valued at over £2,600 and was bequeathed entirely to his eldest son.¹ Using these funds, E.M.V. Curr consolidated his property ‘Murrumbogie’, near Trundle, New South Wales – by 1890 he owned over...

  18. Epilogue: ‘The Ghost of Edward Curr’
    (pp. 201-206)

    Following the High Court decision in the Yorta Yorta case, a group of the claimants proclaimed that ‘the Ghost of Edward Curr’ had come back to haunt them.¹ An Indigenous playwright, Andrea James, subsequently developed this idea in a play titled Yanagai! Yanagai! – a theatrical exploration of her people’s struggle for land justice.² James dramatised a memorable passage from Curr’s Recollections of Squatting in Victoria, in which Curr recalled his first encounter with a Wongatpan fishing party in 1842.³ In Yanagai! Yanagai! an ancestral spirit, Munarra, pursues the ‘Ghost of Curr’ and confronts him about his invasion of Yorta Yorta...

  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-222)
  20. Index
    (pp. 223-230)