Reading through different local histories of the City of Whittlesea, I’ve found an interesting constellation of issues running through competing accounts of the construction of this strange structure called “Bear’s Castle”, located near what would become the Yan Yean Reservoir:
Some rumours existed that the old ‘castle’ was the scene of conflict between the whites and the blacks but it never was. There was never any mention, at any time, by my parents of any trouble.
They were treated very kindly by Mr Bear and they loved him. He marked out a portion of land for a burial ground and several graves are there. My mother knew the exact spot, but as it has no mark it cannot be located.
When the work began on Ryder’s Swamp and the reservoir began to take shape, the blacks gradually went back over the hill towards Toolangi and Lilydale.
in E.M. Duffy Reminiscences of Whittlesea 1971 p. 5
Michael Jones’ Nature’s Plenty: A History of the City of Whittlesea (1992) provides a hint of what the “rumours” might have been (p. 11):
Henry Harrison referred to John Pinney Bear as having built Bear’s Castle in the early 1840s, claiming that it was built to protect the pastoralists from the Aboriginal threat. Harrison certainly provides evidence of substantial fear of Aborigines in this early period.
Aside from the cryptic reference to rumours, EM Duffy’s account effaces this potential explanation for the construction of the castle. Instead, Duffy provides a more frivolous reason for its construction (p. 4-5):
In the early 1840s, John Bear came to Victoria and took up a tract of land, including some of the area which is now the Yan Yean Reservoir. On his death, the land came to his son, Mr Thomas Bear and he had sheep and cattle which he brought from his other holdings at different periods. He was very rarely in the district, as his time was fully taken up by his other interests. On one of these occasions he left his sheep, etc., in charge of a shepherd he had brought with him. And on leaving, was asked by the shepherd what he could do in his spare time. There were no neighbours to visit or any recreation to be had, and he was beginning to feel very lonely. Mr Bear jokingly said, ‘Find the highest hill and build me a castle’. Whether the shepherd was really lonely or took the remark literally we will never know, but he did start to build, for when Mr Bear returned he found the ‘castle’ a building of mud and daub half finished. Mr Bear was greatly amused and he told the shepherd that he may as well finish it. And finish it the shepherd did.
So we have two accounts of the original motives behind the construction of Bear’s “Castle”: that it was built as a folly (an account repeated by other local historians, and cited by the Heritage Council of Victoria, or that it was built with a specific purpose – one which continued to be “rumoured” even in periods when this purpose might provoke some guilt, particularly for someone like Duffy, whose own family worked for the owner of the castle and even lived in the structure for a time.
Both accounts rely on testimony from earlier times: Duffy is presumably relying on family tradition, and rests her faith on the fact that her parents would have said something if the (unstated) “rumours” had been true. She then goes out of her way to argue that, far from being hostile to indigenous interests, Mr Bear was a friend to the local indigenous community – although her example (providing grounds for a graveyard) doesn’t quite seem sufficient to explain the apparently overwhelming emotional reaction of that community (who “love” Bear in her account). Her account does raise interesting questions about whether there was any sort of ongoing relationship between Bear and an indigenous community: employment? acknowledged right of movement through the land? It also raises the question of the impact on indigenous communities when the reservoir finally covered over existing lands and they “gradually went back over the hill towards Toolangi and Lilydale”. (J. W Payne cites sources indicating that the area covered by reservoir would have been an initiation site – see his The Plenty: A Centennary History of the Whittlesea Shire 1975 p. 8. The construction of the reservoir would have destroyed this activity.)
Jones takes his information from an autobiography written by Henry Harrison in 1923 (The Story of an Athlete), as well as from a series of travel articles published in The Age on 21 May 1887 (p.11). His sources are therefore a bit closer historically to the time the building was constructed, and at the least reflect the perception of an indigenous threat in the popular imagination.
Bear’s Castle aside, the local histories quote several significant passages that testify to the psychology of European perceptions of the indigenous population. In this vein, there are a number of passages that follow the general structure of: a large number of indigenous people assemble near a white settlement for an undetermined reason; the white family becomes afraid; something happens (often a noise generated by a technology that could be constructed as alien to the indigenous population, but sometimes just a child crying out or any other loud noise), and the crowd disperses. These passages have a ritualistic quality about them – a talisman that both expresses and wards off fear of the indigenous Other in European communities. An example is presented in the following account from Payne (p. 8):
In 1854, a large crowd, including many Aboriginals, gathered at Morang for the opening of a flour mill powered by steam. All went well until someone pulled the whistle cord. The Aboriginals fled in panic, convinced an evil spirit haunted the place.
Jones provides a similar cite (p. 9, quoting Harrison):
The blacks in that district belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe, and were considered dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through the blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house – the quadrangle was full of them – and, as all the station hands were away for the day, my father was the only man about. At first it was thought best for the household to keep perfectly quiet, and we all assembled in the nursery, as it was the largest room in the house. The blacks evidently thought there were only women and children at home, for they became very cheeky, knocking on the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father, who was rather hot-tempered, could not stand that, and suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in the most miraculous manner. In two or three minutes there was not one of them to be seen. But we could hear a great jabbering down at the potato patch (a short distance from the house), and there we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them, and were six or seven feet long, about as thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.
In both passages, the initial fear is one of being outnumbered – of masses overwhelming the isolated settlers. Once this fear is discharged by a loud noise or startling sight, the indigenous are represented as comical figures – fearing something no European migrant would fear, “jabbering”, etc. (Although the second passage testifies to some residual fear remaining – ending on the threatening image of the yam sticks – “as thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end” – a somewhat evocatively gendered image, which one can’t help juxtaposing with the earlier framing fear that the danger seemed greater when it appeared that only women and children were at home…)