National Library of Australia

Governor Arthur’s proclamation

Unknown artist Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aboriginal People c.1830

oil on huon pine board; 35.5 x 22.6cm

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aboriginal People c.1830

In 1830, small ‘proclamation boards’ containing pictograms began appearing on trees in Van Diemen’s Land. They were designed to show that Aboriginal people and Europeans were equal before the law.

Based on drawings by the Surveyor General George Frankland (1800–1838), they underscored the proclamations of 1828 by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur (1784–1854), in which he had declared martial law and banned Aboriginal people from entering settled areas.

Described by 19th-century historian James Bonwick as ‘the expedition against the Aborigines on the principle of the Fine Arts’, the boards could be likened to a comic strip in appearance.

The equality implied did not exist at the time.

Arthur’s proclamation came amidst increasing violence between settlers and Aboriginal people.

By that time, the island’s Aboriginal population had dwindled from about 4000 (in 1803) to between 1000 and 2000.

It is doubtful whether Aboriginal people understood the proclamation board—pictograms produced by one culture are not necessarily obvious to another.

Painted in oils on durable huon pine timber, this board is incorrectly labelled ‘Governor Davey’s Proclamation’. (Coincidentally, Thomas Davey, Lieutenant Governor from 1813 to 1817, also proclaimed martial law, against bushrangers.)

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