The Early Experiences in Australasia: Primary Sources and Personal Narratives (1788-1901) archive reveals the diverse experiences of early settlers in the region. Whilst the archive focuses on over 100 years of Australian history from colonisation to Federation, there are also accounts from New Zealand and the Pacific.

Early Experiences provides unique and personal views of events that occurred across the region, revealing the trials and tribulations of life on the frontier in a particularly intimate way. It incorporates nearly 100,000 pages with thousands of unique documents including letters, diaries, and photographs. A variety of perspectives are included – those of men, women, settlers, emancipists, convicts, indigenous peoples, explorers, soldiers, and officials – that truly represent the diversity of Early Australian communities.

Amongst more serious articles such as legislation and import records, more light-hearted documents have also been preserved. Early Experiences contains a large section of poetry – some of which are love poems. For example, Richard Eales Borrow’s Valentine’s Day letter is an acrostic poem to his love Charlotte Mitchell. This is a sweet example of the variety of personal accounts included in this archive. Early Experiences also includes numerous images, including portraits, comics, landscape watercolours which illustrate this new world through the artist’s eyes. Also included are maps such as William Light’s plan for the City of Adelaide, which details the desired location of every city building. Using these tools provides insight on how Australia’s forefathers intended this country to look.

With a powerful and detailed semantic index, Early Experiences allows the user to easily navigate the sources in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. This allows you to easily search for very specific content, such as attitudes and opinions towards a specific sociocultural phenomenon, say drinking and drunkenness. An example is the diary of Reverend John Davis Mereweather, who documented his experiences as a travelling clergyman during the Gold Rush. He diarises his attempts to preach teetotalism, an abstinence from alcohol, across rural frontier settlements as part of the Temperance Movement. Mereweather’s personal experiences as a religious lecturer during Victoria’s Gold Rush –where the voracious appetite for alcohol shared by both men and women saw society plunge into chaos and debauchery, are both humorous and insightful. He records “This vice of drunkenness prevails to a frightful extent everywhere here” as he observes the community’s daily pilgrimage to public houses as a congregation to celebrate tools down at day’s end. Ever the realist, Mereweather attributes the widespread alcoholism to hard living, believing recklessness, despair and demoralisation to be caused by alienation. However, he strongly suggests that it is in part due to the coarseness of colonial diets and disgusting tea.Whilst Mossman’s collection is one of the many typed articles, much of Early Experiences is scanned handwritten documents such as Borrow’s Valentine’s poem. Although at times difficult to read, these handwritten documents are incredibly valuable and further showcase the beautiful cursive writings of yesteryear. Perhaps the best use of this collection is to compare differing accounts from the same shared experience. This sheds light on the inequality and diversity of personal experiences across Early Australasia.

You can access Early experiences in Australasia from the Australia tab of the ‘Primary Sources in Humanities’ guide.

This article was written by Janine Sijercic, 2017 History Honours student.