Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dawson, James (Jimmy) (1806–1900)

by Peter Corris

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

James (Jimmy) Dawson (1806-1900), pastoralist and friend of the Aboriginals, was born on 5 July 1806 at Bonnytoun, West Lothian, Scotland, the youngest son of Adam Dawson and his wife Frances, née McKell. Business reversals in London and the ill health of his wife Joan Anderson, née Park, niece of the African explorer Mungo Park, caused Dawson to migrate with her to Port Phillip. They arrived in May 1840 and Dawson bought a small property on the Yarra above Anderson's Creek. Prosperity and an expanding dairy herd caused him to move in 1844 to the Western District where he took up a cattle-run near Port Fairy. Dawson lost ground in the depression of the 1840s and, although he attempted to survive by using a boiling-down plant, he was declared bankrupt in 1845. However, he continued on the land, profited in the gold rushes and sold his station in 1866 and leased land near Camperdown where he lived for the rest of his life as a farmer, amateur taxidermist and protector, friend and student of the Aboriginals. His only child, Isabella, helped him in his studies. A Presbyterian, he died at Camperdown on 19 April 1900.

Dawson is remembered as an amateur ethnographer (his Australian Aborigines. The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia was published in Melbourne in 1881) and for his sympathetic interest in the Aboriginals. He was appointed a protector of Aborigines and gave evidence to the 1877 royal commission on their condition, severely criticizing the assumptions upon which current native policy was based and its results. He considered that the Aboriginals were entitled to government support without obligation, and that it was unfair to restrict their movements and to press unpalatable employment and religion upon them.

In the 1880s Dawson collected money from the settlers around Camperdown for a monument to the last local Aboriginals; it stands in the Camperdown cemetery. An acquaintance later recalled that, when some settlers refused to contribute, Dawson rushed to Melbourne with an account he had written of the early ill treatment of the Aboriginals. He demanded that the Argus editor, Frederick Haddon, publish this attack on the settlers but was refused: 'Dawson however insisted and, when Haddon ordered him out of the room, old Jimmy Dawson went for him with his umbrella'.

Dawson was well known locally as an irascible teller-of-tales about the maltreatment of the Aboriginals, and his book clearly reflects his sympathy for them. On some subjects, particularly on the nature of authority within the Aboriginal community, the book is unreliable, as Edward Curr was the first to show. Dawson got much of his information from the detribalized Aboriginals at the Framlingham reserve. In his desire to put them in a good light, he often pleaded their case to unsympathetic officials. He dedicated his book to this 'ill-used and interesting people', and his reputation as their sincere friend is secure.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boldrewood (T. A. Browne), Old Melbourne Memories (Melbourne, 1884)
  • H. Nisbet, A Colonial Tramp (London, 1896)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melbourne, 1936)
  • Portland Gazette, 9 Dec 1845
  • Boyer to Stephens, manuscript catalogue under Dawson (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Peter Corris, 'Dawson, James (Jimmy) (1806–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dawson-james-jimmy-3381/text5117, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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