crosshatch letter
© Pursuit
James Graham's cross-hatch letter, dated 1839.
An extraordinary letter home to Scotland from a young man who had emigrated to Australia in the 1830s has been made available to people trying to reconcile with Aboriginal history.

James Graham wrote home to his family in Fife in 1839, a year after he had emigrated to Australia, and his letter contains proof that Aborigines were massacred by white settlers - studies have shown that up to 60% of Australians still do not believe such atrocities happen.

During National Reconciliation Week earlier this month - seven days of promoting Aboriginal culture - the so-called Overland Letter by Graham was promoted by the University of Melbourne in its online publication Pursuit.

The letter from the university archives is extraordinary for several reasons, not least because it is a rare example of the "criss-cross" style of writing which Victorians used in order to save paper - the most famous user of that method was the missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

According to Pursuit, Graham's cross-writing horizontally, vertically and diagonally filled two large leaves of heavy paper with words that would later add up to forty pages of typed transcription.

It was the content of the letter that proved hugely important. Graham had settled in Melbourne on the banks of the River Yarra Yarra in what is now Victoria but which was then part of Port Philip District of New South Wales.

Dr Katherine Ellinghaus of the University of Melbourne reported in Pursuit that Graham was writing home to his father for the first time in many months, and the first few paragraphs of his letter are testimony to the scarcity and value of news from home. "Nine months passed away without receiving the least intelligence", he wrote, "an awful and lonely feeling of being forgotten [stole] over my mind".

She added:
"Having finally received word from home, he now had a lot to tell his family about the business opportunities offered by the colony, the joys of an expertly-cooked 'whang' of damper and how he had changed.

"He found himself transformed by his new life in this new colony, so much so that an acquaintance from Scotland didn't recognise him at all and 'stared as if it had been a ghost that was speaking to him'.

"He put his transformation down to the hardships of life in the colony, particularly those felt on the weeks-long overland trip from Sydney to Melbourne that the letter describes, but added 'I never spent a happier time. I always had a fancy for a rough roaming life.'"
It was Graham's depiction of violent times that make his letter an important historical document. He describes Aboriginal cannibalism - though there is no other evidence of this - but adds "in nearly three cases out of five" the aggression was on the part of the invaders.

In the Overland Letter he gives his version of what happened to the people he called Blacks.

He wrote:
"It must be remembered what the generality of the white population of the Colony consist of, which is of the most debased and vilest dregs of Great Britain and Ireland ... they never look on the Blacks in the light of human beings, but, would just as soon shoot them as they would a crow, or hunt them as they would a kangaroo. Indeed in some districts the dogs used to be thought good for nothing unless they could kill a Black as well as a kangaroo, and they used to teach them to do so, by giving them some of the poor Black's blood."
The letter adds that the Blacks "retaliate on the oppressors" after being driven from "their dominions."