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Elizabeth (Bessy) Cameron (c. 1851–1895)

by Bain Attwood

This article was published:

Bessy Cameron, with her husband, Donald, c.1877

Bessy Cameron, with her husband, Donald, c.1877

State Library of New South Wales

Elizabeth (Bessy) Cameron (c.1851-1895), Aboriginal teacher, was born at King Georges Sound, Western Australia, second of four children of a Nyungar couple John and Mary Flower who worked for the government resident Henry Camfield and his wife Anne. The Flowers allowed their children to be raised in a Church of England home and school, Annesfield, run by Anne Camfield at Albany. Bessy became devoted to the Camfields and acquired a love of music and reading. When aged about 13, she was awarded a certificate of proficiency. In 1864-65 she attended a Church of England model school in Sydney, where pupils learned English, history, geography and arithmetic, took optional subjects such as drawing, music and dancing, and were trained as teachers. She also learned to play chess. In 1866 she returned to Albany to become Camfield's assistant and also organist at St John's Church.

Next year Bessy accepted an offer to be the teacher at Ramahyuck mission station in Gippsland, Victoria, for two years. However, the Moravian superintendent Rev. F. A. Hagenauer was more intent on securing her and four other Annesfield girls as wives for his converts. Shy, anxious and homesick, Bessy tried to please but found Ramahyuck's regime austere and Hagenauer a demanding and autocratic taskmaster. On 4 November 1868 at the chapel at Ramahyuck, aged 17, she married with both Presbyterian and indigenous forms Adolph Donald Cameron, a young 'half-caste' man from Wimmera.

Bessy was replaced by a male teacher. She and Donald were given the responsibility of managing the mission's boarding school and she began to bear and raise her eight children. She also gave religious instruction and accompanied church services but soon found her domestic roles onerous and unrewarding. In 1872 the Camerons resigned but continued living on the mission where they were relatively secure and well off.

Over the next few years Bessy, increasingly bored by her domestic tasks, lost confidence and became depressed. Two of her children died, as did her younger sister Ada. The missionaries rebuked Bessy for neglecting her housework and failing to be a role model for other Aborigines. Donald became Hagenauer's overseer before he, too, erred by having an adulterous relationship. Bessy sought to leave Ramahyuck but Hagenauer opposed her keeping custody of her children.

In 1882 she and Donald were reconciled, but they no longer wished to live on a mission station and their relations with Hagenauer broke down again. They also clashed with the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines as Bessy sought permission for moves between Gippsland and the Western District and a return to a mission station. After draconian legislation was passed in 1886, which required 'able-bodied half-castes' to leave the stations, she and Donald were forced into the settler community, where they encountered racism and struggled to get work. Although they were allowed to return to Ramahyuck, two of their daughters were forcibly indentured as domestic servants, became pregnant and had illegitimate children.

From 1892 the Camerons were separated for long periods. Bessy lived at Ramahyuck from time to time, trying to help her children and other Aboriginal women to keep their families together. They sought the assistance of the Aborigines' Board at the same time as they resisted its attempts to remove their children. In this struggle for survival, Bessy manipulated government authorities as best she could but fell foul of Hagenauer, now the board's secretary. These events took a mounting physical and psychological toll. She died of peritonitis on 14 January 1895 at Bairnsdale and was buried in the cemetery there. Her husband, three daughters and two sons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • National Association in Aid of the Moravian Mission to the Aborigines of Australia, Facts Relating to the Moravian Mission (Melb, 1860-67)
  • B. Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines (Syd, 1989)
  • B. Attwood, '"In the Name of all My Coloured Brethren and Sisters . . .”: A Biography of Bessy Cameron’, Hecate, vol 12, nos 1-2, 1986, p 9.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Bain Attwood, 'Cameron, Elizabeth (Bessy) (c. 1851–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Bessy Cameron, with her husband, Donald, c.1877

Bessy Cameron, with her husband, Donald, c.1877

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Flower, Elizabeth

c. 1851
Albany, Western Australia, Australia


14 January, 1895 (aged ~ 44)
Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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