Captain Theophilus T. Ellis
Now, there’s a name to remember and a great name for a character in a book! When I do write about him though, it will be about him entirely. No made-up character. A novel, not an academic history. That way, more people will read it. References to him in history books so far, tend to be oblique –‘only one white man’.
I came across Capt. Ellis when I finished my degree and got a job in ethnohistoric research. For two years, I sat in the State Archive Library poring over the diaries, logs, journals and letters of the early settlers, gleaning every piece of information I could find about the Aborigines who lived in WA around the time of first white settlement (1829 onwards). I was working for a committee of historians and archaeologists who were putting together a biographical dictionary. It was an interesting job, but very frustrating. Early treatment of the Aboriginal people frequently had me grinding my teeth or even reduced to tears.
One day, the committee asked me if I’d copy out the 1833 - 1834 Colonial Secretary’s records of the daily log of the ‘Superintendent of Native Tribes’. I’m not sure why they wanted that particular volume copied, but copy it I did – in long-hand of course. No lovely laptops in those days. As I copied it, I became more and more interested in the man writing it – Theophilus T. Ellis. Things about him set him apart from the other settlers I’d read about.
Ellis arrived in WA aged 48 in 1830, apparently not married. He’d served in India and was assigned over 2000 acres of land on arrival. He became ‘Superintendent of Native Tribes’ in 1833 and was stationed at Mt Eliza on the banks of the Swan River in Perth. Each day, to try to stop theft of settlers’ property, the local Aboriginal tribes would come for their daily rations of flour. That was part of Ellis’s job. Capturing those who did anything against the settlers was also his job.
As I read his log, I could feel the frustration he must have felt. He really cared for these people. Yes, he was a man of the 19th Century, so he saw them more as children than as equals, but his sympathy for them shone through in his writing. The Aborigines suffered greatly from diseases new to them and Ellis did his best for them -
Monday 23rd December 1833
Migo, having gone with his mother to see Marungo her husband, who is ill at Monger’s Lake, on Saturday, was unable to return. I therefore went this morning to the lake and found him in a very weak state. He appears to have his lungs much affected. I brought him home on my horse. He is scarcely able to stand. Towards evening, Migo so feverish and appearing in danger, I thought it necessary to have immediate advice. Dr Davison 21st Regt. was kind enough to come and see him and, having taken some blood from him, sent a blister. I applied it to that part of his side where he complained most of pain. I also bathed his legs and feet in hot water, which produced a copious perspiration.
On another occasion, a couple wanting to marry - against tribal law - came to Ellis for help to escape. In the middle of the night he rowed them across the river in his boat, taking them to what he described as ‘their Australian Gretna Green’.
All the time, he was hampered by drunken soldiers who were assigned to his command. With no other officer to help him, he fought hard for respect. Local settlers, who he’d had dealings with in his other role as a magistrate, took great delight in hiding Aborigines he had been charged to find, or giving them rations when he’d denied them as punishment. Added to that, his knee gave him a great deal of pain. Often he found himself riding miles in agony through the rain, when his doctor had ordered bed rest.
As I came towards the end of the log, I began to feel very sad for this man that I’d grown to like. The incidents he wrote of were to lead to consequences for him that he couldn’t imagine.
In October, 1834 a party of soldiers, led by Governor James Stirling and including Ellis and five of his ‘policemen’, rode to Pinjarra in search of two Aborigines wanted for crimes against settlers. It was believed the Binjarup tribe were hiding them. As they approached, the party split into two. Ellis and his 5 men rode into the camp. Stirling and his twenty soldiers rode up the other side of the river, in case the men tried to escape.
As the police party rode in, one of the wanted men was seen. A policeman shot at him. Then all hell broke loose. Soon shots were being fired and spears thrown in all directions. Stirling’s men stood on the far bank picking off anyone who tried to escape. Women, children, it didn’t matter, if they tried to escape they were shot. The result is known in the history books as ‘The Battle of Pinjarra’. Others refer to it as a ‘massacre’ and I’m inclined to agree.
But having got to know Captain Ellis through his writing, I can only imagine him watching in horror and thinking ‘This wasn’t meant to happen’. Estimates of Aboriginal deaths that day range from 30-80, depending on who is telling the story. But there was ‘only one white man’ who died – Captain Theophilus T. Ellis. A small white cross in the graveyard in Pinjarra is his memorial. That, and the ‘honour’ of being on the police roll as the first policeman killed on duty in Western Australia.
Yes, he deserves a book.