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Arthur, Walter George (1820–1861)

by H. Reynolds

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Walter George Arthur (c.1820-1861), Aboriginal leader, was the son of Rolepa, known to Europeans as 'King George', a senior man of the Ben Lomond tribe in north-eastern Tasmania. There is some dispute about Walter's mother but the leading authority, N. J. B. Plomley, has named her as Mary Anne who he believes was 'a half-caste'. The boy, separated from his kin and taken from his country in unknown circumstances, appears to have learned little of his people's language, culture and traditions. He lived for several years at Launceston where, known as 'Friday', he engaged in pickpocketing and petty theft on behalf of European criminals.

In February 1832 Friday was taken into the care of G. A. Robinson and went with him to Wybalenna, the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island, living there until November when he was sent to the Boys' Orphan School at New Town on the northern outskirts of Hobart. There he learned to read and write with reasonable facility. In May 1835 he returned to Flinders Island where he taught reading and writing, assisted in church services and wrote articles for the small settlement newspaper. He was renamed in honour of the governor (Sir) George Arthur in January 1836. Next year a visiting school inspector recorded that Walter Arthur possessed considerable intellect and could read the Bible with a perfect English idiom. In 1837 he began a relationship with a fellow teacher at the school, Mary Anne Cochrane, daughter of Tarenootairer. The young couple were found in bed together and Arthur was punished with a four-day sentence in the settlement prison. Robinson and other officials arranged a marriage on 16 March 1838. The ceremony, conducted by the Presbyterian minister Rev. Thomas Dove, was accompanied by Aboriginal dancing. For nine months Walter and Mary Anne lived on small islands off the shore of Flinders Island shepherding the settlement's flock. In March 1839 they accompanied Robinson and his family to Port Phillip, where Robinson took up the position of chief protector of Aborigines. Between August and December Walter travelled with Europeans overlanding cattle to South Australia. On his return he worked on a property acquired by the Robinson family on the Goulburn River. The couple had no children.

In August 1842 Walter and Mary Anne returned to Flinders Island where they came into conflict with the superintendent Dr Henry Jeanneret, who though replaced in February 1844 was subsequently re-instated. On hearing news of his imminent return Walter, Mary Anne and a group of friends began to agitate for his dismissal. Their most significant action was to prepare a petition to Queen Victoria, complaining about Jeanneret's behaviour and arbitrary use of power. Dated 17 February 1846, it was signed by 'Walter G. Arthur, Chief of the Ben Lomond tribe', and seven other men. An inquiry by Matthew Friend, harbourmaster at George Town, established that while the petitioners sought the assistance of several Europeans it was largely their own work. Both Walter and Mary Anne wrote subsequent letters to the governor seeking his support for their rights.

After the small surviving Aboriginal community was transferred to Oyster Cove, twenty-five miles (40 km) south of Hobart, in October 1847, the Arthurs played a prominent role in demanding improved conditions. Walter farmed nearby land and attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a convict assistant. From September 1859 to January 1861 he was a crewmember on a whaling voyage in the Hobart-based 361-ton barque Sussex. Returning by rowing boat to Oyster Cove from Hobart on 11 May 1861, possibly inebriated, he fell overboard; his body was not recovered.

Select Bibliography

  • N. J. B. Plomley (ed), Weep in Silence (Hob, 1987)
  • H. Reynolds, Fate of a Free People (Melb, 1995)
  • S. Dammery, Walter George Arthur (Melb, 2001).

Citation details

H. Reynolds, 'Arthur, Walter George (1820–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/arthur-walter-george-12775/text23047, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012