On a great Australian romance

Matt Busby Andrews tells the story of Daniel Matthews, his wife Janet, and the Bangerang people.



Matt Busby Andrews tells the story of Daniel Matthews, his wife Janet, and the Bangerang people.


I think that Daniel Matthews embodied lots of the romantic vision of the pioneering man. You know, he’d fit right in with a Banjo Patterson poem, absolutely. And I think the story of Daniel Matthews and his wife and the Bangerang people is a great Australian romance; I do.

Daniel Matthews was a strapping giant of a man – a man’s man, much like some of the Indigenous people that he befriended. Loved swimming; famous for swimming the Murray in full flood towing a wagon with a canvas sheet around it, because he had to get the goods from one side of Echuca to the other. All the townsfolk standing at the swollen banks shaking their head, “This is impossible.” He had a beard four times as long as me. And he was little bit on the … I’m going to say proud, almost vain side? He really liked a nice town coat and a decent shirt and a good pair of boots.

So he was greatly shaped by his dad, who was a seafaring man. And he’s got his own story – Captain John Matthews, who in the 1830s was a slave-trader. And he would do the Triangle … importing slaves to the UK was illegal, but it was still going gangbusters between West Africa and the Caribbean and the Virginias and so on. So he was shipping slaves on the leg from Africa to the West Indies and then shipping rum back to the UK when he had an experience of God in the form of a mystical figure in the maps room, who’d marked down the longitude and latitude. Captain John Matthews was struck by this, decided to change course to that spot, and found that very man at the point of drowning with flotsam and jetsam. And this man says to the Captain, “I’ve been praying all night and God has heard my prayers.” And for some reason, this struck Captain John Matthews right to the heart and he gave his life to Christ – a little bit like, you know, many other slave-traders had before, the famous writer of “Amazing Grace”.

So Daniel Matthews comes out when he’s 16 years old to join his dad. His dad’s trying to recover the family fortune which he’d lost, because he’d jettisoned all the rum off the slave ship, from his convictions. And when he comes out at age 16, I think it’s almost like he sees dark-skinned people in a way that other white fellas don’t see them. And I think it’s because of his dad’s experience; his dad was a radical Wesleyan who had made a great cut-off from the slave trade, and so he saw dark-skinned peoples in a very different fashion. The first time that Daniel Matthews saw an Aboriginal person was, I believe, in Bendigo, and it was like no-one else had noticed them there on the edge of town, but he was immediately attracted.

One of the enduring pictures of Daniel Matthews is of him going into the saw-millers’ camps in the Moruya Forest, which is very flat, great red gums grow, and there was a lot of money to be made. There were seemingly some consensual relationships; we’ll talk about William Cooper, probably – he seems to have come from a consensual relationship. But there were lots of non-consensual, straight-out abusive relationships as well, including of 12-year-old girls chained to bedposts. And this is where Daniel Matthews really is the all-Australian hero. Because he goes into these camps – no firearm, surrounded by saw-millers, and would stare them down, literally break a chain with an axe and take a girl or girls back to his camp that he was creating, this place of asylum, on the back of a wagon.

He was beset by failures, which is why I think it’s the great romances, because there is so much heartbreak and failure. He wanted it to be a model village and a place of refuge. It was his land; he owned it with his brothers in a commercial deal. It just so happened, by way of coincidence, that it was a sacred site to the local Bangerang people – including a burial site, which is still there today although I’ve never been beyond that gate. There is a sandhill and I think an old pine tree.

Maloga had the very first steam-driven irrigation system in the country, possibly in the entire southern hemisphere. It actually was a tech … you know, it was a tech experiment, and what we could call today … what hipsters would call a social enterprise, where he was raising money from whitefellas, church groups and what-not, and then he was creating this space where Indigenous people were being educated, given trades and so on. Men would go off and they would go shearing; they would come back with their money. They had small enterprise, they had a free market economy; it wasn’t controlled by him. So that’s a romantic picture; but it really slipped all from his fingers when – and I think this is a common story across Australia – when missionaries started to trust and cooperate with the government.