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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned this article includes pictures of deceased people.

The eyes tell you more than you might wish to know. They are the eyes of men who see what they have lost, what they are still losing, and what might come next.

One hundred and sixty four years later, the eyes, clear as an accusation, stare out of a new book that preserves, in a collection of remarkable photographs, a time vanished.

Gunditjmara men of the Cart Gunditj clan in 1859. Eight years later, south-west Victorian Aboriginal people were confined to the Lake Condah Mission. Credit: Thomas Hannay

In 1859, a photographer named Thomas Hannay set up a film laboratory on the back of a horse-drawn cart, covered it with sailcloth and set off through western Victoria.

Tracks were rough where they existed at all, bridges were mostly makeshift and settlements were few and scattered far apart.

Hannay photographed squatters’ mansions, settlers’ huts, prized horses, bullocks hauling wool on wagons, and wherever there was a watercourse substantial enough to justify the makings of a village, hotels and inns, general stores and bark huts.

Portland’s main street 25 years after the European settlement was founded. A bullock team can be seen far right.Credit: Thomas Hannay

When he reached the town of Portland at the far south-west of his journey, he captured sweeping views of the harbour with sailing ships at anchor, street scenes, a lighthouse, churches, and fine bluestone houses, banks and stores.

Here was an extended portrait of the first permanent European settlement in Victoria just 25 years after it was founded.

Hannay, however, did not stick to transplanted Europeans and their buildings. He veered off the track to find Aboriginal people living on their own Country.

Near Portland, on a forested hill known as Mt Clay and in the volcanic lava fields nearby, he photographed the last people still clinging to their traditional lives – the Cart Gunditj of the Gunditjmara. This was a moment of transition that would end in despair.

Within eight years of Hannay capturing them with his camera, the Aboriginal people in the south-west, their lands and many of their lives stolen, would be confined to a mission station established at nearby Lake Condah, where they would be forbidden even to use their own language.

Hannay, thus, built a collection of images that froze the end of one way of life, an ancient one, with the beginnings of another, imported.

The wonder of it is that this haul of photographs made it into the 21st century in such condition that its numerous pictures could be digitised and published in a handsome book.

No one is quite sure where these pictures spent much of the last century and a half, or how they survived. Somehow, they found themselves in the possession of a Portland historian, Joe Wiltshire, who is no longer alive to say where he got them.

The Kangaroo Hunt Club gathers for an outing.Credit: Thomas Hannay

Before he died in 2012, Wiltshire passed them on to another Portland district resident, Vern McCallum, who has spent years building a vast archive of historical photos.

McCallum recognised the Hannay pictures were important to Victoria’s historical record. He offered the original prints to the State Library of Victoria, where they now reside.

Meanwhile, friends of the McCallum Collection set about turning more than 100 of the Hannay pictures into a book, simply called Thomas Hannay, Travelling Photographer in the Colony of Victoria, 1858-59.

Few of the pictures are what we would call today candid studies.

Many homes were humble in 1859. James Brebner, a teamster, weatherproofed his cottage in Merino with a bark roof. It was demolished later to make way for a police station.Credit: Thomas Hannay

Most, in the manner of mid-19th century photography, were carefully constructed, for Hannay paid for his travels by accepting commissions, advertising his services in local papers.

“T. Hannay begs to inform the inhabitants of Portland that he intends remaining here for a few days for the purpose of taking views of houses, stores etc, for which he may receive orders,” he announced in the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser in September 1859.

The orders tumbled in. Photography was new and exotic.

In 1851, an Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer, announced he had invented a system called the collodion wet-plate photographic process.

It was simpler than the earlier daguerreotype method, used since 1839. This allowed photographers to move out of the studio and chronicle their world on glass plates before converting the images to paper.

Just eight years after the newfangled process appeared, the resourceful Thomas Hannay set off on his expedition to record early Victoria. A year earlier, he had photographed parts of the gold mining town of Beechworth, and two of these pictures also appear in the new book.

There is a dollop of magic in photos taken not long after the birth of photography.

All strands of my own family arrived in Portland between the mid-1840s and 1852. They would have seen precisely what Thomas Hannay photographed in 1859, and I can now see what they saw more than a century and a half ago.

Julia Street, Portland, in 1859. Much of it is recognisable today. Credit: Thomas Hannay

Much of it is still there. You can stand in Portland’s Julia Street, which runs towards the sea, and reflect on how little this beautiful area of the old town has changed by gazing at Hannay’s pictures.

There is the great bulk of the old Union Bank, still on the corner where it has stood since 1857, reminding us that the Portland district became wealthy not long after the town was founded.

The students of Miss Clarke’s Seminary, a girl’s school through the whole second half of the 19th century, gathered for Hannay to prove that Portland took education seriously.

The Kangaroo Hunt Club, its members keen on hunting native animals on horseback, assembled for Hannay’s camera too.

Education was valued by many families in south-west Victoria in 1859. Miss Clarke’s Seminary, a school for girls in Portland, assembled for the new-fangled camera.Credit: Thomas Hannay

The most arresting photographs though are those of the Cart Gunditj of the Gunditjmara.

Hannay managed to photograph a group of men in full body paint, apparently before a corroboree, and another group in a mix of traditional and western clothing, armed with spears and boomerangs.

The portrait of three Cart Gunditj men in face paint staring into the camera – one defiant, one quizzical and one plain sad – tells a story needing no words.

The eyes of Cart Gunditj men of the Gunditjmara visit us from 1859, telling us more than we might want to know.Credit: Thomas Hannay

Other clans had been wiped out by massacres, disease and hunger, their hunting grounds stolen.

Outraged and desperate, the Gunditjmara rose up in the late 1830s and waged what became known as the Eumeralla War, named after a small river that flows to the sea between Port Fairy and Portland. It was a protracted but asymmetric war, the result inevitable. Europeans had guns, horses and a corps of native police troopers.

The elders of the Cart Gunditj, however, got wise early. They banned their people from entering Portland township, knowing the absence of mercy in the hearts of many of the sealers, whalers and escaped convicts who arrived in the early 1830s.

Later, they negotiated to assist whalers by putting up smoke from their hill when whales came into the bay, getting an agreement that they could feast on the slain whales once their valuable oil had been removed.

It proved not enough to save their way of life. Local Gunditjmara elder Walter Saunders once told me of his people’s memory of a mysterious end to the clan.

“Our story, handed down, is they were rounded up by settlers, taken to a big depression in the land above the Surrey River, a sort of sinkhole, and taken away in the night on bullock carts,” he said. “They just disappeared. We don’t know where they went.”

And their eyes shine on, reminding us of too much.

Thomas Hannay, Travelling Photographer in the Colony of Victoria 1858-59 (mccallu[email protected]), was launched last week by Tony Wright.

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