Bessy Cameron

Bessy Cameron (1851-1895), Aboriginal teacher, was born probably in 1851 in Nyungar country (King George Sound), West Australia. Her mother's name is not known; her father was an 'old native servant' of Henry Camfield, Government Resident at Albany. Anne Camfield, a governess and teacher before marriage to Henry, in 1852 opened a 'native institution' (later known as Annesfield) with the backing of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel where Aboriginal children were to be 'trained in the habits of civilised life' and 'taught the great truths of Christianity'. A brother and a sister attended this school with Bessy who proved an excellent pupil. She enjoyed reading and music and took her certificate of proficiency with honours.

Her ability having been recognised, arrangements were made for her to attend a 'model school' in Sydney (similar to those for training pupil teachers), where she received a 'superior education' and became an accomplished pianist. In 1866 she went back to Albany where she helped Mrs Camfield in the school and was salaried church organist.

In the 1860s Moravian missionaries in Victoria, finding they had little success with Aboriginal women, took steps to find Christian wives for their converts. They arranged for five young women from Annesfield to be sent to their Ramahyuck mission, nominating Bessy by name as a teacher. The others were expected to marry. Bessy arrived in 1867 anticipating a later return to her dear Mrs Camfield. She was expected to do housework as well as teach, but she gave satisfaction and her skills, especially her playing of the harmonium, were frequently on display.

Trouble began when a European man wished to marry her. She had been brought up to expect a European rather than a native would be her husband and she appears to have liked him. Unwilling to lose her the missionaries moved her temporarily to Lake Tyers, and decided 'it would be best to get her married'. They brought Donald Cameron, a Jupagilwournditch man from Ebenezer, a gentle pleasant man with some mission education, whom Bessy married on 4 November 1868. The Camerons were to take charge of the mission's new 'boarding house'. For Bessy it was a demotion and though she was 'in charge', her work was closely scrutinised. On coming to Ramahyuck she had experienced a marked deterioration in her material environment; she now lost all initiative in those accomplishments which she had been taught to value highly.

She found solace in reading. Neglect of the domestic side to her duties led to criticism and finally to the removal of the Camerons from the boarding house to the mission village. They left Ramahyuck but returned; Bessy left Donald, then was reconciled; they were expelled from Ramahyuck but unable to earn enough to support their four surviving children they begged to be allowed back. On the way back another child was stillborn. Neither on the mission nor away from it, could they make a life for themselves. They returned to Lake Tyers mission where another child was born; there Bessy found some comfort in her harmonium and the singing. They were forced to move again by the 1886 'half-caste' act, though Bessy was allowed back on Ramahyuck in 1887 seriously ill following a miscarriage. She left and returned again. Her last years were spent battling to keep her younger children and her children's children from being taken from them. She died on the 12 January 1895.

From a shy young woman she became assertive, independent and questioning. At the end of her life, she was fighting to stop her children being taken, as she had been, to be brought up 'white'.

Heather Radi

Bain Attwood, '. . . In the Name of All My Coloured Brethren and Sisters: a Biography of Bessy Cameron' Hecate 1986.