A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers


Jack Davis (1917-2000) was a poet, a playwright, a Noongar man, and an indigenous rights campaigner. His plays, including No Sugar, his best known, are studied in Western Australian schools but I first came to hear of him only a couple of years ago. Reviewing Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence I wrote: “[The girls] were held at the East Perth Girls’ Home (the author says this is now the Jack Davis hostel, to which I cannot find any reference, though Jack Davis seems to have been an Indigenous writer and activist whom I should follow up)” -and now I am.

Davis’ parents had both been taken from their families up north, but by 1917 his father had his citizenship papers and was working at Waroona not far south of Perth, so young Jack was born prosaically in King Edward Memorial Hospital (equivalent to Royal Women’s in Melbourne) and not “delivered by Aboriginal women in the glow of a campfire” as he might have wished.

However, a quote on the second page marks the place where all accounts of Indigenous life in Australia must start until we whites acknowledge and internalize the great wrongs that we have done and are doing:

[My father] remembers holding his boss’ horse outside the Roebourne police station while his boss went to obtain a permit which gave him permission to shoot troublesome blacks on his property. The cost of the permit was one shilling.

Jack’s father came south and married, with jobs in Waroona and Lake Clifton before settling in Yarloop, a timber milling and railway town between Perth and Bunbury. Jack was the fourth of 10 children and grew up with a happy home life, his father with a job at the mill, no more impoverished than the people around them during the 1920s and 30s, with access to good hunting in the jarrah forests of the Darling Escarpment,  a Black family in a mostly white community and no mention of racial tension.

These are stories of going to school, growing up in any Australian rural town, any loving mother with a big family, getting into scrapes and all the rest of it, at a time when roads were unpaved and cars were rare. The writing is spare and cheerful. The stories are short and not as detailed as Norman Lindsay’s for instance, nor as sickly-sentimental as Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella. I had a look too, at the opening chapters of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, which I haven’t read for a while, but again there was more detail and more continuity than in Davis’ short (150pp) book of stories.

In the last few chapters Jack  falls into the snares of the infamous ‘Protector’ of Aboriginals, A.O.Neville. When Jack is 14 Neville offers him and his next older brother, Harold ‘places’ at Moore River native Settlement to ‘learn farming’. Mrs Davis accepts and the boys make their way there via the Home in East Perth which was later to bear Jack’s name. The offer is of course a con and the boys are used as unpaid labour. As we know, conditions at Moore River were terrible:

One day two sixteen-year-old girls who tried to abscond from the settlement were caught, brought back and locked in the boob. Next day they were taken down to the storeroom where they were both laid over sacks of flour and Mr Neal [the superintendent] flogged them with the cat until they wet themselves. He then ordered them to eat the flour.

Davis thinks superintendent was a tough job, but someone had to do it. After a few months, mostly in the outer camp with the adults, the boys were told to return home. A year or so later, the Depression really starting to bite, the older boys unable to find work, their father dies in an accident, and the family breaks up. Davis heads north and spends the war years droving in the Gascoyne.

Although Davis doesn’t say so, I think his father’s citizenship papers insulated the family from the worst effects of the 1905 Aborigines Act, but the fact that both parents were ‘stolen’ and the Act’s prohibition of ‘citizens’ consorting with Aboriginals meant that nearly all family connections were lost. Neville would claim of course that the Davis’ ‘normal’ family life was proof of the efficacy of this prohibition, but the personal cost was enormous and Jack only discovered he had family connections in the Brookton area east of Perth when author Sally Morgan ran across part of his mother’s family tree during research into someone else, in the latter years of his life.

At this point I have less insight into Davis’ writing than I had expected. Perth academic and editor of Westerly, Tony Hughes d’Aeth, has just released Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt which I will review at length ‘soon’, but it contains a chapter on Davis (and another on Facey). For those of you not up on WA geography, the Wheatbelt is a belt of semi-arid country south of a line from north of Geraldton to east of Esperance, but not including the high rainfall jarrah forests of the south west corner. For reasons probably to do with rainfall, that outer boundary roughly coincides with the outer boundary of Noongar country.

For the next few days I am working up the Pilbara coast, but when I get back I’ll put up a part II on No Sugar (the script, I haven’t seen a performance) and d’Aeth’s chapter on Davis.


Jack Davis, A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, Broome, 1991

see also Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

17 thoughts on “A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

  1. From what I’ve read, those citizenship papers were a double-edged sword. Yes, there was the personal cost, but there was also the constant threat of being apprehended for consorting as well.


    • There don’t appear to have been other Aboriginal families in the town and they only knew of one relative, 150 km away, which removed the pressure of ‘consorting’, not that Davis even brings it up.


      • I can’t remember what book it’s from, but I remember reading a novel? a memoir? where the family were down on their luck and went into Perth to look for work and were approached by other Aborigines looking to help them, and they had to decide whether to give up the papers or reject the help.


      • Kim Scott writes too of it being held over people’s heads as a threat, and I think Namitjira was jailed under the conditions of a similar act in the NT


  2. Thanks for this Bill. I thought I’d heard of Jack Davis, but from your report I’m not sure. That Neville story is a shocker. Honestly, it’s hard to credit what people did, and still do, to each other sometimes. I do hope the ground is shifting and we non-indigenous Aussies are starting to accommodate a different understanding of our history. I wonder what John Howard thinks now about his black armband view of history? I wonder whether he has shifted position a bit?


    • I think you’re a bit optimistic about John Howard, I’d be surprised if he read the same things we do – the lid on his toilet bowl probably still plays Soldiers of the Queen. But yes, I’m sure our, and more particularly our children’s and grandchildren’s view of how white settlement came about is changing, and a big part of that change is Indigenous Lit.


      • I only wondered Bill! Anyhow, I like to think people can change even though the evidence rather suggest otherwise! And yes I certainly agree the indigenous lit helps move us along immensely. In fact, it’s probably the perfect example of the value of literature (and the arts).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I always feel like I’m missing something in your reviews because I’m not familiar with the landscape of Australia. I wish I knew more, but looking at a map doesn’t always help. What’s interesting is because you have such a narrow reading focus, I know the landscape is incredibly important!


    • I often think of you when I’m writing a review like this, to try and write about the geography for the reader who is unfamiliar with it. This is doubly true for Indigenous stories because we whites are only now learning to give the first peoples their proper names – Noongar for the people of the south west of Western Australia. But also the names of remote places are an important part of (white) Australian literature and these are often places I know from experience. I wrote that Davis spent the war years droving (tending livestock) up the Gascoyne – a semi desert area in the northwest where, as it happens, I spent the last few days working. What can I say? I’ll try harder!

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, that description did help because I get a sense of what it’s like! You could include an image of a map, but other than that, you’re doing your best! ☺️


      • Thank you! Newspaper stories often have a map of the general area, and an inset of the particular area. I’ve linked google maps in the past, but I’ll see if I can do anything else that requires less work of the reader.


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