One of the earliest speculations about unrecorded voyages to Australia comes from the memoirs of Joseph Mason, a convict who served his sentence in NSW in the 1830s. Mason’s handwritten memoirs remained almost unknown, but were finally edited and published in 1996 [Kent and Townsend 1996] and are an important source for Australian convict history as seen from the inside.
Mason was transported for participation in unrest arising from the social dislocations accompanying industrialisation in Britain. Perhaps because of his status as a political prisoner he reveals himself to be a thoughtful chronicler whose memoirs are quite different from the normal convict fare. He was assigned as a convict servant to Hannibal Macarthur at his Vineyard estate near Parramatta in 1831. Macarthur also had another grazing estate called Arthursleigh on the banks of the Wollondilly, south of Sydney, which had been established before official settlement was permitted within this area [Fletcher 2002].
In a section of his memoirs where he speculates about previous history of Australia, and whether the Aboriginal people were its sole former occupants, Mason says:
There is two spots of ground one about 30 miles to the south of any residence and the other on the bank of the Hunters River which I was informed by creditable witnesses as well as having seen the same in a book bear marks as if it had once undergone the operation of ploughing. The first of these lies in the road leading to the south of the colony and is always called the ploughed grounds. The blacks have been asked if they know what occasioned these spots [of] land to Assume their present shape but their are quite ignorant as to the cause Had any of their ancestors been acquainted with husbandry there certainly would have been more extensive marks of it remaining than these two spots of ground nor is it likely that the present race or rather generation should have been so retrograded from the path of industry as to possess not a single grain of corn an agricultural impliment, or the slightest notion of cultivating land. [Kent and Townsend 1996: pp. 121-2]
Macarthur’s Arthursleigh is located just beyond the first point described, ’30 miles south of any residence’ . The locality that Mason referred to was known by the name ‘the Ploughed Ground’ since the 1820s and, as Mason describes, lies ‘on the road leading to the south of the colony’. Mason or his colleagues would have travelled along the section of road that still runs through Bong Bong [then newly established], Moss Vale and Sutton Forest and now called the Illawarra Highway. Passing the Hoddles Corner intersection with the current Hume Highway, which here follows Thomas Mitchell’s line of the Great South Road, the old road continues west on hilly country for a few kilometres before rapidly dropping to the valley of the Wollondilly River and its junction with the Uringalla Creek. It is recorded as a ‘very difficult rocky descent, vulgarly named “the Devil’s Bottom”‘ [NSW Calendar 1832: p. 101].
Historically the Ploughed Ground locality was probably restricted to a relatively narrow band of land with igneous geology bordering the road before it fell into the valley. The traditional name by the Gundungurra Aboriginal people was Tindounbindal or Tin-bun-dun-dul [Throsby 1819; Cambage 1921]. This name referred to a place a few kilometres west of Hoddles Corner, where parties would rest before the descent down the Devil’s Bottom to the Wollondilly, so roughly near the Canyonleigh shop. The first Europeans known to travel this route were Throsby and Meehan in 1819. From 1820 onwards it was allowable for settlers to depasture stock with the Governor’s permission in this area, which would later become part of County Camden. At the same time Throsby was commissioned to build a road along the line he and Meehan had travelled. The current Illawarra Highway from Bong Bong through Sutton Forest and Hoddles Corner follows Throsby’s alignment.
Similar plough mark phenomena were also recorded in the Hunter Valley, as Mason states. The identity of the book to which he refers is not certain, but there are a quite a few candidates. Breton [1833: p. 86] and Lhotsky [1834: p. 21] both discuss the Ploughed Ground, and Mitchell refers to the Hunter Valley occurrences:
Portions of the surface near Mr. Blaxland’s establishment, bore that peculiar, undulating character which appears in the southern districts, where it closely resembles furrows, and is termed ploughed ground. This appearance usually indicates a good soil, which is either of a red or very dark colour, and in which small portions of trap-rock, but more frequently concretions of indurated marl, are found. [Mitchell 1838: vol. 1, p. 13]
Sturt [1833: xxxviii] mentions the place name Ploughed Ground, and talks about the variable appearance and fertility of the land but does not mention the marks at all. But perhaps the most widely consulted book of the 1830s that mentioned it was the NSW Calendar and General Post Office Directory . This also states for the section of the southern road east of the Wollondilly:
91 ½ [miles from Sydney] Cross the ploughed ground, and farms belonging to Robinson and Meehan. This place is distinguished by the name of “the ploughed ground” from a remarkable resemblance the ground bears to land which has been tilled. These parallel ridges, at very regular distances, which are observable on the natural surface in different parts of the colony, have never been satisfactorily accounted for. They much resemble the wave-like surface sometimes left on soft earth from which agitated waters have receded, and may be the remains of that character as impressed on the earth when it first emerged from the Deluge. The road hence to Paddy’s River is through Wombat Brush. [NSW Calendar 1832: p. 101]
Mason could have been familiar with any of these sources, as well as the learned opinions of people who had travelled a bit around the colony. The phenomenon clearly made him think. As a footnote to his speculations about earlier settlers Mason also commented on other things he had read:
While I was in N.S. Wales I copied the following from an East India Magazine. “Australia – In the library of the Carthusian Friars at Evara there exists an authentic M.S. Atlas of all the countries in the world with richly illustrated maps made by Fernao Vaz Dourado cosmographer in Goa in 1570 [“] In one of the maps is laid down the northern coast of Australia with a note; “This coast was a hundred years before the Dutch had seen it who have since claimed the merit of the discovery”. [Kent and Townsend 1996: p. 122] [see Note 1 below]
Elsewhere in his memoirs Mason also repeats having read that there were similarities between Aboriginal languages and words of ancient Egyptian. Kent and Townsend could not pin down a source, but one possibility is that he later read some of the speculation of W.A. Miles and George French Angas which makes a similar point, or one of the other commentaries that arose following George Grey’s discovery of the Wandjina figures in northwestern Australia [Grey 1841].
Regardless of which accounts it was that piqued Mason’s interest, we know that the phenomenon of linear lines like plough marks was observed in a number of different places in the colony – at the Ploughed Ground itself and in the Hunter Valley and possibly also elsewhere by the 1830s. They were unusual enough to elicit comment and speculation about their origin. This included that they were entirely natural products of geology and weather, the remnants of the Biblical flood of Noah or evidence of secret visitors having visited Australia. That a convict, however literate and contemplative, was able to report on this suggests that speculation about the previous history of Australia, the ancestry of the Aborigines and the possibility of secret visitors were ready topics of discussion throughout society.
The flurry of speculation about the origin of the plough marks in the 1830s reflects a number of things. Firstly, there were more amateur natural scientists than ever visiting NSW, either on expeditions or on duties that allowed them sufficient to time to explore, speculate and publish their ideas. Australia was novel enough in so many respects that there was no shortage of new things to write about, and that alone suggests that the attention focussed on the Ploughed Ground phenomenon was because it was a major, if short-lived, wonder. By the 1840s the plough marks had become common-place, but again not because the mystery had been solved. Rather, other things had begun to preoccupy the scholarly attention and the frameworks of knowedge had shifted. I would argue that there was no longer any need to speculate upon the ancestry and origins of the Aboriginal people because the social consensus had already established that they were beneath consideration. Almost all attention on Aboriginal people in the 1840s focussed on how soon they would die out, and whether it was more ethical to step back and let it happen or to intervene and slow it down. The result of this was to be an assumption for the rest of the century that Aboriginal people were largely without their own history. They may have been in Australia for a long time, but were seen as static, unchanging apart from their inevitable demise, and only a footnote in the big story of civilisation, empire and progress that ultimately ran them over.
And that leaves us precisely where? We know the mystery had its moment in the early 19th century and that it was, for a short time, a big question in Australian natural science. Was it ever solved? Is there actually an answer to the phenomenon that baffled Mason and scientists alike, and what could it possibly be? Surely the signs of ancient ploughing, unknown to Aboriginal people, must represent a significant argument for secret visitors.
To find out more, please continue on to The Ploughed Ground – Part 2.
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1. The original extract from the East India Magazine has not been sourced, but is also quoted by Bischoff, Sketch of the history of Van Diemans Land . Some of Dourado’s beautiful atlases survive, but none of them have any maps that show Australia, or even a blobby land mass a la Jave La Grande.