November Meeting

4 November at 7.30pm at Burnside Uniting Church

THE DARK INHERITANCE OF EDWARD STIRLING: Descendant of Slavery, Colonial Settler and Father of Sir Edward Charles Stirling


Edward Stirling c1808-1873 arrived in South Australia in 1839 on board the ‘Lady Bute’ from Greenock, Scotland when he was about 30 years old. He was an illegitimate Jamaican-born child of a woman of West African heritage and one of the sons of the Stirlings of Keir, Scottish landed gentry. Edward’s emigration had been funded by his father to remove an embodiment of the family’s slave-owning past from the vicinity of his legitimate heir who was about to come of age.

Edward was determined to promote his Scottish identity within South Australian colonial society; as a pastoralist on Peramangk country at Strathalbyn; as a partner in Elder, Stirling & Co. which financed the Wallaroo and Moonta copper mines; and as a politician. Such was his emphatic financial success that his African descent and the compounding ‘taints’ of slavery and illegitimacy were never publicly acknowledged. However, he remained cognisant of his awkward place in the social order.

So too did his oldest son Edward Charles Stirling who, nevertheless, as an anatomist and Director of the South Australian Museum, made a life-long study of human evolution and racial variation. His motivations remain obscure but add further, intriguing complexity to the family biography.

About the speaker: Beth M Robertson is a great-great-granddaughter of Edward Stirling. She is manager of the State Library of South Australia’s Preservation Services and was the Library’s inaugural Oral History Officer, 1987-1999. Her out-of-hours research obsession is the 1,730 men and women depicted in the Library’s Old Colonists photographic mosaics collection dating from 1872.