First published: Spring 2009
In the early 1980s a small book was discovered in a box in a collection from the Australian Institute of Anatomy that was being accessioned into the National Museum of Australia. On the front cover were the words ‘Drawn by Oscar, Cooktown boy, aged 18 years’. The book, now known as Oscar’s Sketchbook, had remained largely unseen for over 100 years.
Oscar’s Sketchbook contains 40 historically informative, sometimes humorous and often powerfully disturbing images of life on the Australian frontier in the late 19th century. What is even more remarkable is that all the drawings are by a young Aboriginal artist, making it a very rare historical document.
What is known of Oscar is limited to a short letter written by his ‘overseer’, Augustus Glissan, which accompanied the sketchbook when it was sent to Glissan’s friend Dr Charles Bage in Melbourne in 1899. Glissan was the manager of Rocklands, a large cattle station near Camoweal; the previous manager had been speared to death by local Aborigines several years earlier. The letter relates that in 1887, when Oscar was 9 or 10 years of age, he had been ‘handed over’ to Glissan in Cooktown to become a stockman on the cattle station, more than 500 miles away.
The removal of Aboriginal children and their placement in the homes of white colonialists or state institutions was a common practice that continued well into the 20th century. Oscar, who apparently spoke little English when he came to Rocklands, had evidently at some time been severely burnt and was generally in poor health, suffering from what was believed to be asthma.