People from other countries have difficulty understanding the concept of Tribal adoption and the First Nations lores, laws and traditions. In Western culture, an adoption is usually considered for families who wish to legally adopt babies or young children into their families.

Many First Nations people were known to often move around the country and be very adaptable to new environments. It was considered normal to welcome people from other tribes and often adopting individuals.

There is a well-known case of young British man known as William Buckley who, in 1803, was sent to a new penal settlement in Australia.

His name is often mentioned in jest. To this day, one still hears the expression “You’ve got Buckleys” or “Buckley’s chance” when you tell someone about your plan to do something risky, foolish and barely possible. He is now remembered with the expression referring to his slim chance of survival in the wilderness of early Australia.

William before his escape

William’s return to civilization

To modern day man, his story seems rather unfortunate, unnecessary and unfair for poor William Buckley. He was born in 1780 in Cheshire, England, the son of a farmer. He ran away to join the army as many probably did. He served in The Netherlands during the Napoleonic War. However, in 1802 he was arrested for being in possession of a bolt of cloth, which he supposedly knew was stolen.

Buckley maintained his innocence later in life, explaining, “One day, crossing the Barrack Yard where our regiment was quartered, a woman whom I did not know requested me to carry a piece of cloth to a woman of the Garrison. I was stopped with it in my possession, the property had been stolen. I was considered a thief and though innocent sentenced to transportation.”

After being tried, William’s punishment was that he would be sent to a new penal settlement in Australia. He sailed aboard the Calcutta which was captained by Lieutenant Colonel David Collins. They arrived in 1803 at the eastern part of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, now known as Point Lonsdale.

He was put to work as a labourer. The area was sandy, overgrow and water was scarce. Collins soon realized that they would need to relocate the settlement.

Many prisoners tried to escape. Among them was Buckley himself. There was only slim hope of surviving (Buckley’s chance) the planned journey to Sydney. Him and five other convicts stole supplies and ran away on Christmas Eve 1803. They thought that the guards would be too busy celebrating to notice. Unfortunately, the guards were alerted; shooting one prisoner, with the other five getting away. Two turned back. The remaining three continued until they were on the other side of the Bay, opposite the settlement.

A boat approached but turned away, most likely thinking that the convicts were from an Indigenous tribe. William’s two remaining companions later decided to turn back; never to be heard from again.

Now being on his own, he had a very slim chance of surviving the harsh environment that he found himself in (Buckley’s chance). But he kept going on his own, living on berries and shellfish as he wandered along the shoreline.

Eventually he was found by the Wathaurung tribe, who took him in and ‘adopted’ him, allowing him to live as one of their own. He soon learned the language and customs enough to fit in.

Over the years he saw many whites in Port Phillip Bay but resisted making contact for fear of capture.

In 1835 (32 years later) along came John Batman and his party who wanted to settle on the land in the area around Melbourne to start agricultural ventures. William saw an impending violence between the natives and the white invaders and reluctantly contacted Batman. Batman took him on as an interpreter.

After that time, Buckley moved to Tasmania and worked in various jobs. He did, however, find himself with a pension, a wife and daughter and some fame.

When a store named Buckley and Nunn opened in Victoria in 1851, the joke was “you have two chances: Buckley’s and none”.