Mark Dunn admits he had a personal stake in his new book The Convict Valley. His family heritage includes convicts Phillip Kelly, Thomas Dunn and Rose McGarry, who all settled in the Hunter Valley.
Mark Dunn is a professional historian who was raised in Singleton. The new book offers a detailed account of how Newcastle and the Hunter Valley were settled, including battles with Aboriginals.
It took Dunn seven years to complete the book, which was essentially the subject of his doctorate degree.
"I was interested to know the kind of experiences those ancestors had been through," he says.
And there was another driving force: "It was my feeling that Newcastle and the valley had a much bigger convict history than we knew about. And it had been overlooked," he says.
The book covers the period from roughly 1790 (when five convicts stole a boat in Sydney and made it all the way to present day Port Stephens) to around 1850.
While it describes the establishment of Newcastle as a penal colony - and its re-establishment as a penal station for those convicted of crimes committed in the colony - about two-thirds of the book focuses on early settlement in the Hunter Valley.
When asked about which group left the biggest imprint on the character of Australia - the convicts or their masters - Dunn doesn't hesitate in his answer: "Coming from a convict family, i'm biased and would say the convicts".
"I do think that convict mentality - they were very aware of their rights. They were part of a bigger system, here to be punished and worked. They were very clear on their rights, how far you could push them and what they could do. I think that is a trait that has survived."
In the first days of Newcastle, convicts were the coalminers. And Dunn said he believes they laid the platform for the first unionised industrial workforce.
While noting explorations and settlements in the valley, the book also makes a considerable effort to note interactions between Aboriginal people and early white settlers.
Some of those interactions became violent. Dunn responds to the question which side were the most aggressive by saying, "I think the British settlers were more aggressive. This is not unique to the Hunter. The Aboriginal people, they put up a stiff resistance, and fought for what was their country. The British were there to take it."
In doing his considerable research, Dunn was intrigued by the apparent connection between Aboriginals in Sydney and the Hunter Region. One particular person embodied that notion - Bungaree, who Dunn figures is worth a closer study.
"I've been pursuing what i can around Bungaree," he says. "There are more colonial paintings of Bungaree than any other person in Sydney. But the history of him is all about Sydney. In the material I came across, both official correspondence, but also a lot of private correspondence of early settlers into the mid-1820s, he turns up again and again. I suspect there is a connection to him and Newcastle. This is something new.
"There is a 15-year gap of him in Sydney. I suspect he was in Newcastle and the Hunter.
"He was very much a European-adapted man. he Meets governors, welcomes ships, wears western clothes. But in Newcastle, he is painted up, ready for war, leading bands of corroborees. There is an interesting flip side to him I think we can pursue in Newcastle."
Dunn is personally fond of Newcastle, and appreciates the spirit of the city.
"People probably don't brag about it as much as they should," he says. "It's a thing that they know in their hearts. They know it, but don't need to show it."
The Convict Valley is published on June 2 through Allen & Unwin. Dunn anticipates an online Newcastle launch event on June 11.
Below is an edited extract from The Convict Valley by Mark Dunn, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, out 2 June 2020.
In November 1825, The Australian newspaper reported the murder of a white settler in his hut in the district of Patricks Plains. His stockman had also disappeared and was presumed dead. The body, identified initially as John Greig, was found by two neighbours, Mr Allen and Mr Forsyth, who had come by to have breakfast with him. The deceased was described as a respectable and industrious man. Allen and Forsyth found him with his head beaten in, an open book of Robert Burns' poetry lying nearby. Two other stockmen were reportedly found speared soon after, and a third narrowly escaped the same fate.
Ten soldiers from the Newcastle garrison were dispatched to quell the violence and protect those isolated farms where settlers were reportedly living in a state of fear.
While the report got the name of the victim wrong - it was in fact Robert Greig - the incident marked the start of a bloody, intense and destructive campaign of violence across the middle and upper Hunter, one in which the combatants often knew each other by sight or name and where friendships, allegiances and previous kindnesses could be the difference between life and death.
Settlers had been moving into, and farming in, the middle valley for four years when Greig and his stockman were killed. Initially, the establishment of farms and estates had little serious impact on Aboriginal people's movement across their Country.
In the first months, and in some cases years, few of the estates had fences and many left the forest largely untouched. Aboriginal food sources were maintained to some degree. Kangaroo, possum, bandicoot and other small mammals were still abundant in the forests and across the open grasslands, and the rivers were plentiful with fish and shellfish, including freshwater mussels in the middle and upper reaches of the Hunter.
Yams, a staple food, continued to grow in the alluvial soil along the river and its tributaries, with other plants such as burrawang (Macrozamia spiralis) and native cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis) also readily available.
However, the increasing numbers of livestock, growing areas of cultivation and farms along the rivers had begun to compromise access to and availability of traditional food sources by the mid-1820s.
For example, in May 1823, the total number of free landholders and families was around 93 people on 33 farms with 179 convicts assigned.
By 1825, there were approximately 1582 people, including over 950 convict men and women, 250 emancipists and around 320 free persons.
By 1828, the total was closer to 3500.
Stock numbers rose from around 610 sheep and cattle in 1821 to 13,500 in 1825 and 167,000 by 1828, including 120,000 sheep.
Colonial hunting of kangaroos and emus with dogs for sport disrupted this food source, scattering mobs from their feeding grounds. Flocks of sheep tended by shepherds, and herds of cattle let loose in the bush, gradually trampled native pastures.
New settlers, now ensconced on their grants, worked to clear the land, erecting huts and planting orchards, while their convict servants built fences, systematically locking in land parcels. Their growing sense of entitlement and ownership appears to have worked to harden their views on an Aboriginal presence in their neighbourhood.
Soon after many of these settlers had utilised the skills of Aboriginal guides and interpreters, they were putting in place measures, often threatening or violent, to exclude Aboriginal people from the very country that they had led them through.