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Thomas, William (1793–1867)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

William Thomas (1793-1867), by Davies & Co

William Thomas (1793-1867), by Davies & Co

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H2002.87

William Thomas (1793-1867), assistant protector and guardian of Aboriginals, was born in Westminster, England, of Welsh parents. His father and brother were army officers. His education was rounded off by a year on the Continent, mainly in Spain, but details of his upbringing are obscure. He opened a school in the Old Kent Road, London, for teaching potential civil servants. In this capacity, and possibly also because of his Wesleyan beliefs, he met members of the post-Reform Act government.

The humanitarian recommendations of the 1837 select committee on Aboriginals resulted in Glenelg's decision to appoint a chief protector and four assistants for the Aboriginals of the Port Phillip District. He offered an assistantship to Thomas at a salary of £250, with a free passage for his wife Susannah, née Jackson, and family. His acceptance of this task at the age of 44 reflects his dedication and zeal. However, he stipulated that his appointment should rank him as a permanent servant of the British and not of a colonial government.

The family reached Sydney on 3 August 1838 and arrived in Melbourne later that year. The chief protector, George Augustus Robinson, allocated the Port Phillip, Westernport and Gippsland districts to Thomas, who entered the field during April 1839 and soon established his base at Narre Warren. Years of privation followed during which Thomas moved with Aboriginal groups, rarely seeing his family, whose own housing was also primitive.

His early expectations of a rapid enlightenment of the natives were soon dispelled but, unlike most other protectors, he persisted. When hopes of civilizing the Aboriginals faded, he concentrated on the practical tasks of keeping them alive, shepherding them away from the temptations of city life and maintaining harmony between black and white. His task was hindered by Robinson who failed to support him in many disputes with settlers, bombarded him with excessive paper work, and was dilatory in getting him a field allowance. As he was housed in a tent and moved around with the Aboriginals, it is little wonder that some of his replies to Robinson were terse. Despite difficulties Thomas kept a detailed diary and made various notes for a projected book which never eventuated partly because he lost many of his notes around 1844. He wrote long memoranda on Aboriginal society for Robinson, Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe and Judge (Sir) Redmond Barry; his data and ethnographic collections were basic sources for Robert Brough Smyth's Aborigines of Victoria, 1-2 (London, 1878).

The protectorate was terminated in 1849, but La Trobe retained Thomas as guardian in the Counties of Bourke, Mornington and Evelyn from January 1850. His presence ensured some protection during the next decade, although expenditure was minimal. Until his death he was chief government adviser on Aboriginal affairs and was the most influential witness at the 1858-59 select committee of the Legislative Council on Aborigines. His recommendation to establish reserves and supply depots throughout Victoria was accepted in a modified form and in 1860 became the policy implemented by the new Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Thomas was designated the official visitor to supervise the work of all stations and depots but after a tour of Gippsland in 1860 his health failed. Later he acted as adviser and as a justice of the peace on suburban benches. Failing eyesight caused his retirement from active duties two months before his death on 1 December 1867 at his home, Merri Ville Lodge, Brunswick. He was survived by three of his nine children.

With no gifts of leadership or strong personality, Thomas was overshadowed by Robinson in the 1840s. His anthropological knowledge was gained through experience, and his understanding of tribal complexity and spiritual bonds was thereby limited. However, he was more successful than any other first generation settler in attempting to comprehend and sustain Aboriginal society. His charges knew him as Marminata (Good Father), and he always administered indirectly through influence on their leaders. He had striking success in settling intertribal disputes and preventing racial strife. His bravery and moral conviction were undoubted, but his advocacy of Aboriginal causes made him unpopular in colonial society. Richard Howitt, who befriended him in 1842, commented upon the 'almost childlike simplicity of manners and … his goodness of heart'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • E. J. B. Foxcroft, Australian Native Policy: Its History, Especially in Victoria (Melb, 1941)
  • William Thomas papers (State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Thomas, William (1793–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-william-2727/text3845, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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