William Augustus Miles

William Augustus Miles came to Australia to serve as the Superintendent of Police in Sydney.  He did not have any particular aptitude for the task and is generally seen to have been a very ordinary administrator.  He was reputed to be the illegitimate son of one of the British monarchs and a ‘remittance man’ – recipient of an allowance that obliged him to clear off and keep his head down.  Miles was an amateur naturalist and also had undertaken archaeological work in Britain.  From when he arrived in Sydney in 1841 until his death in 1851 he was probably the most experienced archaeologist on the continent.

Our interest in Miles rests on his interpretation of Aboriginal rock engravings and cultural connections.  These were presented in two papers – one as an appendix to George French Angas’s Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand [1847, also Angas 1877] and the other read to the Ethnological Society of Great Britain, and presented in its Journal [Miles 1854].  They reveal a very speculative but also insightful application of what was then a fairly vague body of theory in relation to Aboriginal origins.  The results were totally wrong, wrong enough to make it into the secret visitor category but represent an important early attempt to make sense of the evidence.

William Augustus Miles’s life since his birth in 1796 has been documented in as much detail as the patchy documents allow.  The following account is largely based on Hazel King’s ADB entry [King 1967] and a more recent biography by David Philips [2001].   Sources cannot totally confirm that he was a royal bastard, but he himself believed he was the illegitimate son of William IV.  Other contenders for his connection include George IV or that his father had been the illegitimate son of George III.  Miles trained for service with the British East India Company at their vocational college Haileybury School, but was expelled, disowned by his brothers following his father’s [Miles sen.] death and spent the rest of his life trying to obtain a permanent position on a reasonable salary or simply cadging money.

In 1825 Miles dug a Bronze Age barrow at Deverel, in Dorset and afterwards wrote a monograph describing the excavation and burial goods [Miles 1826].  The excavation was probably no better than any others, but certainly no worse in that he promptly published his findings in a clear, although florid, account and his findings resulted in Deveral-Rimbury Ware remaining as a specific pottery category used by archaeologists into the present.  Miles’s excavation report was the subject of an extremely positive review in the Gentleman’s Magazine by someone who was clearly an expert on barrow archaeology [Anon. 1826].

Miles’s account of the Kimmeridge coal money published in the same volume as the barrow dig was a less successful exercise in analysis.  Working off the limited contextual information and limited range of finds, Miles speculated that the coal money – circular discs of coal shale pierced with a central hole – was a form of pre-Roman currency associated with the Celtic tin miners of the area.  He considered that Phoenicians or Carthaginians were associated with the industry.  Later analysis showed that the ‘coins’ are, in fact, the waste cores of lathe-turned bracelets.

Miles arrived in Sydney in August 1841 to take up the postion of Superintendent of the Sydney Police, awarded by patronage in the higher levels of government although, as Philips points out, it was less of a favour to Miles than a way to get rid of him.  Circumstances had conspired to make Sydneysiders anxious and cynical about the new appointee even before his arrival and he never gained their confidence.  Miles appears to have performed his job adequately, but what that position needed in order to make a difference was someone who could surmount the budgetary, political, legal and social hurdles that constrained the job.  Miles was never going to be that man.

Miles and George French Angas

Miles had few friends but notably enjoyed the company of explorer-naturalists such as Ludwig Leichhardt, and the young George Angas.  His main interest appears to have been systematically collecting all of the fish and perhaps other sea-life of Port Jackson.  According to Angas [1847] Miles was not aware of the presence of Aboriginal engravings before Angas’s arrival in Sydney from his New Zealand trip in July 1845.  In the few months Angas was in town they formed a friendship and went on excursions around the town, making their discovery of the abundant engravings.

[I]t is a singular fact that at the time of my first visit to New South Wales nobody seemed to know anything about them, and it was not until my friend, the late Mr Miles, of Sydney, during an excursion we made to Watson’s Bay, first noticed the rude figure of a kangaroo cut upon the surface of a flat rock near Camp Cove, that we were led to make a further and exhaustive search for more of these remarkable outline sculptures or hieroglyphics, traced by a now extinct race of savages. [Angas 1877]

The two naturalists saw the kangaroo and continued on to the Aboriginal camp at the small freshwater lake at Watsons Bay [now lost but centred on the park at Cove Street].  There they found Gooseberry, widow of Bungaree and the oldest person still able to possibly tell them anything about the engravings.  She was initially reluctant, saying that all of the engravings were ‘koradjee’ or associated with traditional men’s magic and ritual.  From her remarks it seems that she meant both that the carvings were produced as part of ritual or magic, and the places themselves remained spiritually charged, and were dangerous because ‘too much debble [devil] walk about there’.  Angas recorded this account in his book [Angas 1847: pp. 201-205].  Many years later he reproduced the account with significantly more detail, as a newspaper article [Angas 1877].  With a payment of tobacco, flour and sugar Gooseberry reluctantly agreed to go to North Head where she said there were many engravings and hand stencils.  Interestingly she did not offer to take them to the immediately adjacent section of South Head, where there were a number of engravings that would have been readily accessible between the Macquarie Lighthouse and the point of the headland, although a selection of these were later drawn for the book [1847: plate 2].

On top of North Head they found a ‘sufficient number’ of engravings, some very faded, or partly overgrown by vegetation, to determine that they were definitely of Aboriginal origin and of considerable age.  The animals were all natives – marsupials, sharks and fish, the material culture of axes, shields and boomerangs depicted was all familiar from Aboriginal society and, most importantly, human figures were depicted in the classic wide-leg and spread arm stance that was a characteristic pose seen in corroborees.  Nowhere did they find any carvings depicting European items, introduced animals or people wearing clothing.

The evident age of the engravings was supported by testimony from other Aboriginal people to whom they spoke, although it is not clear who these were, apart from one who was in the whaleboat with Angas, Miles and Gooseberry.

They all say ‘blackfellow made them long ago’; and to convey an idea of remote antiquity, they hold up their fingers and hands, elevate the face, shut the eyes, and say ‘murrey- murrey- murrey‘ long time ago, shaking the head each time they pronounce the word ‘murrey’. [Angas 1877]

At Spring Cove, on the North Harbour side of North Head, they found a rock shelter with a hand and arm stencil.  The broad description of all of these sites from Gooseberry and the others was that they were ‘koradjee’.  Gooseberry carefully fed out what information she wanted to impart, and was clearly annoyed when one of the Aboriginal men said something he should not have passed on.  Koradjee men gained their power, she said, by sleeping on top of a grave, where they would be found by the spirits, who violated their bodies, stole and replaced their bowels.  A man who passed this test would no longer be fearful of the night and its terrors and would be able to practice magic and access special knowledge not revealed to others [Angas 1877].   Spiritual death followed by resurrection and the invisible replacement of internal organs is recorded as part of the process of creating medicine-men around Australia [Elkin 1994: pp. 29, 82].

Over the following months they had several excursions, mentioning the discovery of more engravings around Port Jackson and Port Aiken [Port Hacking], some of which Angas measured.  The descriptive text is included in the main body of the book, but the speculations about their meaning are in an appendix, written by Miles.  A reviewer of the book noted:

On this occasion we do not make mention of Mr. Angas’s notices of aboriginal carvings and antiquities, intending at some future opportunity to allude to them.  But we have been given to understand, that these notes originated with Mr Miles, who it is well known is an enthusiast in such matters, and is, as we have been told, about to publish upon the subject.  The native drawings are certainly curious, and Mr Angas has copied them, so far as we are enabled to judge, very accurately. [‘S.L.W.’ 1847]

The Appendix has six sections relating to ‘Aboriginal carvings’, ‘Caves or gunyahs’, ‘Boomerang’, Corrobory’, ‘Words used by the Sydney tribe’ and ‘Burial’.  Under each of these headings there is a brief description of the local practices of the Sydney Aborigines, supplemented by other observations that were available, not all of them particularly accurate or useful.  These observations are then compared to a fairly broad and undifferentiated range of ‘ancient’ practices ranging from Celtic to Middle Eastern and Indian.  On a number of occasions reference is made to Sanskrit, Persian and ‘Hindoostanee’ language, all of which Miles studied at Haileybury School.

Angas left for Britain in September 1845, taking with him the manuscript for Savage life and scenes, suggesting that the appendix had been written in some haste between their excursions.  The book  came out in 1847 and Angas published two other books about his travels  within a year.  His prolific output of high quality engravings was not always matched by the accompanying text, which sometimes reads as being an unfiltered wide-eyed traveller’s perspective, which one reviewer found ‘bombastic’ [‘S.L.W.’ 1847].  The  desire to publish three works with clearly different content may also account for Angas’s readiness to include the Appendix and its ropey speculations as filler copy.

A portfolio of drawings signed by Miles survives in the Mitchell Library, copying a series of rock engravings around Port Jackson.  These are:

1.   Middle Head – 3 whale / shark outlines
2.   Point Piper – 2 whale / sharks, anthropoid, ‘bird’, 5 other unidentified [some possibly mundoes or shields]
3.   Point Piper – whale / shark, 5-6 fish, shield, line of mundoes
4.   South Head – 2 macropod, 1 unidentified
5.  South Head – macropod, partial fish, shield, 2 other unidentified
6.  Point Piper – 2 humans
7.  Point Piper – macropod, 2 eels, 2 unidentified.

These must have been produced by Miles following the initial discovery and his big day out with Angas and Gooseberry, and are the sources of the figures included as Plates 1 and 2 of Savage life and scenes, so date to July-September 1845.  These are reasonable copies but look to be drawn by eye rather than exact measurement.  One of the figures in Drawing 6 [Plate 1] at Point Piper, later called Woollahra Point, is especially interesting because it is the same one that half a century or more later Lawrence Hargrave would single out as showing the presence of Spanish in Sydney Harbour, interpreting that engraving as the silhouette outline of Mariana de Castro, wife of Lope de Vega, the captain of the Santa Ysabel.

As mentioned in S.L.W.’s’ review Miles looked to publishing a more considered and comprehensive paper on his theory than just the Appendix to Angas’s book.  He corresponded with the Reverend Threlkeld, who operated a mission at Lake Macquarie, north of Sydney, and was an actual authority on Aboriginal beliefs and language, as opposed to the many pundits in the colony who paraded as experts.  He also corresponded with the Reverend Hull in Port Phillip [Melbourne] who had written a very similar booklet to Miles’ Appendix [Hull 1846].

In 1850 Miles became a Corresponding member of the Ethnological Society of London and on 10 April 1851 his paper ‘On the Superstitions of the Australians’  was read out to one of the regular meetings.  Hopefully the talk the audience sat through was abridged from the long rambling version eventually published a few years later [Miles 1853].  The paper’s full title is ‘How did the natives of Australia become acquainted with the demigods and daemonia, and with the superstitions of the ancient races?  And how have many Oriental words and phrases become incorporated in their dialects and languages?‘  It canvasses familiar ground from the 1847 Appendix, looking at a number of topics, sketching out Australian practice, and then looking for a range of comparative words or practices from ‘ancient’ or relict cultures around the world.  In this Miles argued on the basis of comparisons that the Australian Aboriginal beliefs and culture, as possibly separate to their ethnicity was influenced by contact with Phoenicians and Indians in a very broad-brush application of comparative method to prehistory.

The news that Miles’s paper had been read to the Ethnological Society cannot have reached him before his death on 24 April in Sydney, aged 52, following more ill-health.  The only notice that it had been presented came in the Launceston Examiner [Anon. 1851], picked up from the London Athenaeum magazine and does not seem to have been run by any Sydney newspapers.

His collaborator Angas had returned to Australia in 1850, but it is unlikely he managed to see Miles’ before his death.  After a period on the goldfields Angas became Secretary of the Australian Museum, Sydney in 1853.  He remained in this position until 1860, and actively curated the conchology collection, but does not appear to have built upon either the straight ethnographic or speculative anthropological aspects of his work with Miles.  His only further engagement with the idea came with the almost wistful memoir ‘Hunting for hieroglyphs’ [Angas 1877], which does not mention Miles’s speculation about the engravings at all.  Written after his return to Britain, it adds to the bare narrative of the excursion around the harbour with Gooseberry in the whaleboat with himself and Miles and described in 1847.  He pays great attention to the scenery, particularly the spectacular panorama from North Head and the humbling bush cemetery of the Quarantine Station.  A reader could feel that Angas was more than a little homesick for his times in Sydney.

Regarding the story, which was published in the Colonies and India magazine, and reprinted in Sydney soon after, the ‘hieroglyph’ used in the title would only have made sense if the reader was familiar with the 1847 or 1853 Miles papers, neither mentioned.  This can only be read as Angas distancing himself two decades later from Miles’ theory.  None of Miles’s work seems to have been picked up by other researchers and his ideas either furthered or challenged.  Angas would have been aware that speculation about Aboriginal origins were moving from being placed in the historical period covered by the Bible to either prehistoric or very early historical movements.  Direct connections with Egypt, Phoenicia and other possible sources were no longer the fashion as the duration of human history began to be extended and there was greater explanatory force in tying Aboriginal origins to those of Southeast Asian and Pacific peoples in broad narratives of migration and cultural succession.


Did Miles have anything profound or useful to say?  In short, not really.  He came to the problem with some pedigree as an antiquarian, and seems to have been thinking in terms of broad scale human processes, which was unusual in the Australian context.  However, he only pushed this so far and with limited evidence.

It was generally true that most Sydneysiders would not have been aware of the rock engravings at the time.  Miles and Angas’s engagement with Gooseberry and others in trying to understand the engravings was not the first time it had been done, but by then it was almost salvage ethnography. Gooseberry was unwilling or unable to convey all that she knew, and it is not clear whether the younger Aboriginal men they also discussed them with would necessarily have known much.  Miles remained in Sydney and would have had opportunities for further contact with older Aboriginal people who may have been able to say more about the engravings, but did not.  He did discuss Aboriginal matters with Threlkeld and Hull, but not with those who may have known.  George Grey’s recent publication of the Wandjina figures he had encountered was an added spur to speculation that there was potential evidence located around Australia that bore on the question of Aboriginal origins and cultural connections, but does not seem to have translated into further enquiry.

The comparison between the 1847 Appendix and the 1853 paper reveals that Miles’s basic ideas were formed while he was with Angas and, while he added detail and nuance, there was not a substantive progression in them in the years between their production.  The approach they presented – aiming to identify a consistent global early stage of human history that may have differed in details from place to place reads to us as incredibly naive.  However, it was at this period that the geologists, botanists and biologists were also attempting to do exactly the same thing, and to move beyond the particularism of natural philosophy to identifying deeper structures and processes that were found everywhere, despite their local character.  Ultimately the idea resulted in the false start of social Darwinism which built upon the prejudices that people like Miles already displayed about native peoples and the Irish, as examples of an earlier ‘lower’ order.

The poor reception of Miles’s ideas was as much that they were ahead of the game as ultimately being wrong.  They would have passed as completely unremarkable in the later 19th century, when past-building through a mixture of linguistics, archaeology, comparative religion and physical anthropology became the norm of prehistoric speculation.

About half way through the Ethnological Society paper he moves from discussing Aboriginal beliefs to those of the Irish, which he equates with the pagan Celts.  The two cultures are implicitly equated as relict populations, neither quite completely cleansed or removed by the arrival of a more advanced civilisation.  In his discussion of the Irish as Celts, and in a way that portrays them as the living embodiment of uncultured Man, he follows contemporary British prejudice  and of course prefigures the Darwinian evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and others.

Overall, while Miles advanced the vague discussion about Aboriginal origins a bit further than it had been before in 1840s Australia, and applied what was then ‘cutting edge’ thinking about the problem, he did not take it very far.  Given his own beliefs that the Aboriginal people were dying out because they were a more primitive type of humanity that were being overtaken by the advanced, he could have explored the knowledge of members of this ‘dying race’ more fully.  The speculation about links to Egyptian, Indian and other Middle Eastern races was part of a strongly Biblical influenced world-view that was gradually being replaced by a much deeper timescale for human migration.

Miles and Angus represent a rare consideration of the topic of Aboriginal origins, and one tied, however tenuously, to the archaeological evidence.  It could have gone further and may have left a more enduring legacy.  Miles’s other concerns probably prevented him from doing more, but he may not have been more than an enthusiastic dabbler.


Angas, G.F. 1847
Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand: being an artist’s impressions of countries and people at the Antipodes, Elder Smith and Sons, London.  Available here.

The meaning of the drawings, which was authored by Miles is contained in the Appendix.

Angas, G.F. 1877
‘Hunting for hieroglyphics’, Sydney Morning Herald,16, July 1877, page 2.  Available here.

Originally printed as G.F.A. ‘Hunting for hieroglyphs’, The Colonies and India, 21 April 1877, CCXLIV, p. 5. [not seen]

Anon. 1826
‘Review of W.A. Miles “Description of the Deverel Barrow …“‘, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 96 part 2, pp. 421-3, 530-3, 616-20.

Anon. 1851
‘Miscellany’ [Report on Ethnological Society meeting], Launceston Examiner, 5 November 1851, page 5.  Available here.

Elkin, A.P. 1994
Aboriginal men of high degree: initiation and sorcery in the world’s oldest tradition, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, 2nd edition.

Hull, William 1846
Remarks on the probable origin and antiquity of the Aboriginal natives of New South Wales: deduced from certain of their customs, superstitions, and existing caves and drawings, in connexion with those of the nations of antiquity … by a Colonial magistrate, William Clarke, Melbourne.

King, Hazel 1967
‘Miles, William Augustus [1798–1851]’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra.  Available here.

Miles, W.A. 1826
Description of the Deverel Barrow, opened A.D. 1825.  Also also a minute account of the Kimmeridge coal money, a most mysterious and non-descript article, Nichols and Son, London.  Available here.

Miles, W.A. 1854
‘How did the natives of Australia become acquainted with the demigods and daemonia, and with the superstitions of the ancient races?  And how have many Oriental words and phrases become incorporated in their dialects and languages?’, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 3, pp. 4-50.

‘S.L.W.’ 1847
‘Reviews’ [Review of G.F. Angas Savage life and scenes …], Sydney Morning Herald 17 September 1847, p. 4.  Available here.


Mitchell Library

Miles, W.A. no date
Drawings of Aboriginal carvings at Middle Head, South Head and Point Piper.
Miscellaneous papers relating to Aborigines, ca. 1839-1871, Microfilm copy reel CY 979, frames 287 – 465.  Available here.


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