Governor Davey’s Proclamation To The Aborigines 1816

Governor Davey’s (George Arthur) Proclamation To The Aborigines 1816 

Lithograph, Hand Coloured | Printed c.1860

45.7 x 27.9 cm | Housed in a colonial style timber frame

Inscription verso:

“To Frederick P. French Esquire Lieut- R.N. H.M.S Miranda from A. E. Smith Old Wharf Hobart Tasmania, 11th March 1881”


A E Smith Old Wharf Hobart Tasmania c1860-1880?

Lieutenant Frederick P French Esquire c1881

Christies London 1986

Collection of Denis Joachim

Day Fine Art Blackheath




It is believed that these lithographs had been made for the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition held in Melbourne at the request of the Tasmanian organising committee for the exhibition. The minutes of the committee contain the instruction that ‘the Proclamation of Governor Davey be sent to the Surveyor General’s to copy’, which explains the inscription at the top of the lithograph with the attribution to Governor Davey. Davey, whose governorship lasted from 1813 to 1817, had never issued such a proclamation, although he is known to have objected to the practice of Aboriginal child theft by settlers.

They were then exhibited again in 1867 for the Paris International Exhibition, or Exposition Universelle.


Proclamation boards

The original proclamation images of 1829–30 are some of the most recognisable and potent symbols of the colonial era in Tasmania, displaying an apparent concern for equal justice and a desire for harmonious relations between two cultures. The proclamation boards, several of which are held in major Australian collecting institutions, depict a British aspiration for ‘conciliation’ and promise equality before the law for Aboriginal and European subjects alike, so long as Aborigines transform themselves into civilised subjects.

The first scene depicts mutual friendship between settlers and Aborigines; the second is a conciliation scene showing an Aboriginal ‘chief’ and a British military official or governor shaking hands; the third depicts an Aboriginal man spearing a white man or ex-convict, who is then hanged while the governor looks on. The fourth scene, the corollary of the third, depicts a white man or ex-convict shooting an Aboriginal man, and in an apparent show of equal justice the white man is then hanged. Yet, the boards were made after the 1829 declaration of martial law against Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, and the hangings from trees actually depict moments of summary justice and retribution on a violent frontier. These images have been reworked and capitalised over time, and used in various public formats such as nineteenth-century slide lectures and exhibitions. More recently the images have been reproduced in Australian history textbooks and become a visual shorthand for the often-violent contact history of Van Diemen’s Land.

Background history

In Van Diemen’s Land in November 1828, amid a climate of frontier violence and in response to settler pressure, Lieutenant Governor Arthur declared martial law against the ‘Black or Aboriginal natives’ within the settled districts of the island.

About three months later, on 4 February 1829, George Frankland, the Surveyor General of the colony, suggested to Governor Arthur that communication with Aboriginal people might be made possible through pictures. He wrote to Arthur:

In the absence of all successful communication with these unfortunate people with whose language we are totally unacquainted, it has occurred to me that it might be possible to impart to them to a certain extent, the real wishes of the government towards them … It is at best an experiment, but as it will be attended by neither expense nor inconvenience, your Excellency may consider it worth trying.

In a later letter to Under-Secretary RW Hay of the Colonial Office, Frankland wrote that the boards were designed to ‘make [Aboriginal people] understand the cause of the present warfare and its desired termination by the medium of pictures. It is but an experiment’, added Frankland, ‘but everything ought to be tried to accomplish a reconciliation’.The boards, depicting equal justice for Aboriginal people and settlers alike, were nailed to trees and given to Aboriginal people by the British military on the frontier in the hope of communicating a desire for conciliation. We have evidence of these boards being given out at the behest of the governor.Such friendly relations depicted on the boards, however, were never to eventuate. By late 1830 Arthur had lost faith in the possibility of conciliation. In November of the same year he wrote of the government’s ‘failing in every endeavour to conciliate, and the outrages of the Savages being more daring and their murders and robberies more systematically conducted’.

Aboriginal groups in frontier areas conducted strategic, successful, guerrilla-style resistance fighting against settler incursions into their lands. Settlers responded in kind, often with even greater violence, and this period is referred to as the Black War (1824–31). Arthur’s desperate solution was for ‘the earnest and hearty cooperation of the whole of European population to capture them, with least possible destruction of life, or to drive them into Tasman’s Peninsula’.As is now well known, a six-week military-style campaign by the British, commonly referred to as the Black Line, was waged from 7 October to 24 November 1830. The Black Line was considered to be a failure, with the capture of only two Aboriginal people. Later, Arthur lamented that a treaty should have been made between Aboriginal people and the British crown.

The proclamation boards were therefore made during a period of charged contact and frontier violence, between the 1828 declaration of martial law and the Black Line of 1830, which required a further declaration of martial law. They represented, at least in theory, an aspiration for the best aspects of British jurisprudence and have been popularly viewed as ‘conciliation’ boards. However, as legal scholar Desmond Manderson argues regarding the boards’ essential message, “Aboriginal people were offered protection though the rule of law but only in exchange for a radical transformation to European ways. It was thus a case of equal justice deferred”.

The boards were distributed to Aboriginal people in the very midst of frontier conflict; they are constitutive of colonial relations at the time, not artistic reflections of them made at a later date. The imagery on the boards promised a harmonious future that was never to become reality; nevertheless, they should be viewed as instruments of diplomacy, despite their failure to effect a conciliation.