When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

Sue/Whispering Gums mentioned recently that she was thinking about writing about “As told to’s” and whether that is/was/might once have been an appropriate way to publish Indigenous stories. It certainly works for non-writing sports people.

Readers my age might recall from their schooldays I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, as told to him by Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, aka Phillip Roberts. When I reviewed it (here) four years ago I expected to find it surrounded by a great deal of dismissive commentary, but in fact it seems to be regarded as a quite faithful account, although expressed in Lockwood’s fluent journalese.

The story around When the Pelican Laughed is slightly different in that it is more recent, 1992 rather than 1962, Marsh and Kinnane were working on an oral history project about Aboriginal women forced to work as servants, and Alice Nannup knew Kinnane’s (Indigenous) grandmother. But there is another, much greater difference, and that is that the words are all Alice’s.

‘You, Wari, you’re lucky to be with us, because you nearly got drowned one time.’ This is a story my mother told me about when I was very young. She told it to me in language.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is important that oral histories be collected, but the author credited should be the teller not the writer. In this case all three are credited.

This book also brings up another much more important issue and one that Australians have nearly always swept under the carpet and that is, whether Aborigines were slaves. In The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) Ernestine Hill writes of pearling at Cossack (near Roebourne, south of Port Hedland and 1500 km north of Perth WA):

Nearly all the pearlers employed aboriginal divers… A bag of flour and a stick of tobacco bought a human life… From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged.

There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack… With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years.

Alice Nannup, who was born in 1911, tells of her own position as a 19 year old on Ida Valley station 7 hours drive (maybe 200 km) from Leonora, itself a remote desert town 240 km north of Kalgoorlie in WA’s eastern goldfields (map).

Thinking back, I’d say Beeginup and Ida Valley were the two places where I was the most flat out. It was really terrible. All of us – Jess, Mary and myself – were just worked and worked. I was supposed to get five shillings a week there but they never paid me. They never paid any of us [and wherever she worked she almost never had days off].

This was on a ‘society’ property. “People would come from stations all around there, and the Bunning girls and Nellie Manford used to come up from Perth to have these big parties and play tennis.” Those were big names when I first came to Perth. Whether they still are I don’t know, though the companies bearing those names have been subsumed into others.

Alice was born on a station in WA’s north west, “Abydos Station, out from Port Hedland”. Her father was a small-scale cattleman, Tom Bassett though Alice didn’t find this out until after she had been removed to Perth as an 11 year old. Alice’s mother mostly worked for Bassett, though she moved around a bit.

My mother’s name was Ngulyi, that’s her Aborigine name… She was born on Pilbara Station, which is between Roebourne and Marble Bar and she belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe. My mother spoke five languages as well as English – Nyamal, Palyku, Kariyarra, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi. I spoke Kariyarra and Ngarluma the most, and, of course, English.

These languages belong to the Ngayarda group, around and inland of Roebourne, bordered to the south by the Yamaji, and to the east by the Martu, the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples (I learn as I go, so I hope I have this right. See a previous post (here)).

Wari (Alice) lived a quite happy life, an ordinary bush life with lots of cousins, at a time when all her people were station hands, until her mother was tricked into allowing a White family to take her south “to be educated” where they delivered her into the hands of the Chief Protector and she was held at Moore River, not educated at all, but made to work until she could be sent out into ‘service’.

Bassett came down and attempted to recover her, but he was soon thwarted from even visiting, and she never saw him or her mother again. This is where the question of slavery comes in. Of course Aborigines under the 1905 Act were not owned by individuals and so could not be bought and sold, but they were effectively ‘owned’ by the State. They had no freedom of movement; they had to work where they were told; if they were paid, it was a derisory amount, half of which was paid into an account held by the Chief Protector and which they could sometimes beg to be allowed to spend (on necessaries); and by Alice’s account they worked tremendously long hours, seven days a week. Late in her life, Alice discovers she had been the sole beneficiary of Basset’s will – £400 – but the money had been paid into an Aboriginal Affairs account, was lost, and they had made no attempt to tell of his death or of the earlier deaths of her mother and sister.

Alice mostly worked as a servant on farms, which involved both inside and outside work. The farms of course were all down south. The Chief Protector made sure that northerners only worked in the south and southerners only worked up north, to reduce the possibility of abscondment. Alice did in fact walk off Ida Valley and once picked up was able to resist any attempt to return her.

[A policeman] told us that Mr Neville had said we should go back to the station, and we should never have run away because it was dangerous. So we told the policeman how we were treated and that, and he said, ‘Well, I can’t force you, so you’ll have to come into Leonora.’

Here they found work until they were able to return to Perth. Alice knew Neville from having been a maid in his house, so she got him to give her a pass to go and work with a previous employer, but after only a few months, Neville wrote to her saying that Will, her boyfriend had the chance of a married position so she should return to Moore River, which was the only place he would allow Aborigines to be officially married.

They found work around Meekatharra but eventually settled at Geraldton, on the coast and began raising a large family through the Depression and WWII in a series of camps, shanties, reserves, and all too infrequently, reasonable houses, experiencing all the while both casual and official racism. Eventually she and Will split, I think Alice was a pretty forthright woman, and although she continues to live and eventually retire in Geraldton she is contacted by relatives in Roebourne and is able to reconnect and make peace with her past.

Towards the end of the book she is able to say,

… I had thirteen kids, they had forty children between them, and their kids have had forty six. So altogether that makes ninety nine. I have another great grandchild due in 1992 which will make it one hundred – and maybe I’ll get a telegram from the Queen.

Alice Nannup was a sober and abstemious woman. Originally C of E, she moved on when a South African vicar began discriminating against the Blacks in his congregation, and found a home with the Seventh Day Adventists. And if she didn’t get the material rewards she deserved for her tremendous hard work, she ended up secure in her culture and with an enviable network of family and friends.


Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh, Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992. Cover painting by Michael Francas (taken from a photo of Alice but with a background clearly of the country inland of Roebourne).

see also: My review of The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare (here), which is set in Geraldton. Gare’s husband worked in Aboriginal Housing, so Nannup knew him and was friends also with another Aboriginal woman working with Nene Gare on the book.


15 thoughts on “When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

  1. It’s hard not to interpret such conditions as anything but slavery when a person has no freedom to go or stay where they please. Perhaps ‘we’ are somehow soothed by not using the ‘s’ word but sadly it makes very little difference to what has happened.


    • I agree Kate. But it’s a subject that needs a lot more teasing out. Since WWII we have been very careful not to overuse ‘genocide’ for instance and I think ‘slavery’ might need the same care. Nannup uses the word once, sounding off. Nevertheless, what she describes is very close…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good point, about histories such as this being written in the person’s own voice. It’s tricker when what’s said needs to be translated, though I have seen this done in a bilingual history of the Gurindji WalkOff which is a book that’s relevant to the slavery issue. The book was Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country, edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins. What stays with me from that book was said at the very beginning, which is that people think that the Gurindji history began with the WalkOff, whereas it goes back for millennia.

    Interesting… I’ve just been reading a bit about Kinnane, in David Whish-Wilton’s “Perth” from the City series. Have you read that?


    • I think we have tended to privilege the person who puts pen to paper, and that that can now be seen as a form of racism against oral cultures. We don’t anywhere else put the translator ahead of the author (and I acknowledge translations are sometimes works of art in their own right) and I don’t think we should here.

      No. I don’t recall running into Kinnane before.


  3. Good on you Bill for getting on to this so quickly. You raise some good questions. I guess “slavery” is a matter of definition, but to my mind if you are essentially forced to work for someone without having any choice in the matter, and you have no freedom to move, that that feels very much like slavery. I’m glad this issue is being raised now – hopefully it will make people think.

    As for who gets the billing in books like this, at least all the names, as you say, are on the cover. I think it’s really hard to make hard and fast rules for this as every situation is different.


    • It’s a very readable book, so that was no hardship. Though I’m no clearer about the ‘poet’ reference that set me off. But, following on from Lisa I guess we can add Kinnane to our list of Indigenous authors, I’ll see what more I can find.

      Massacres seem to be finding their way into public consciousness so slavery might be next – followed by reparations!

      I’ll leave it to you to follow up authorship when you get to As Told To’s.


  4. Absolutely first hand about what it was like to live under the Chief Protector, to go with some great second hand and fictional accounts. I wonder what came of the original project – to record a large number of voices.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. SO……did you like this book? 😀

    When I read that sports people sure seem fine with having writers help them, I laughed. I’ve read a couple of sports books lately and it’s clear that some poor ghostwriter is trying to make sense out of an athlete’s thoughts. So much of what athletes think sounds like high school to me: Just be positive! It’s all about teamwork! I don’t like to gossip, but…

    I didn’t realize that Aborigines were essentially the property of the state. It sounds like kids in foster care and orphanages — they are wards of the state and have to go to court for anything that a parent would typically decide. But we’re talking about grown people.

    As for your question about “as told to” books: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told To Alex Haley is the title of the book. I like this, as it is clear and gives due diligence to two brilliant minds. Haley made Malcolm X agree that Haley could add an epilogue that Malcolm could not edit in any way, and this space allowed Haley to add his own journalistic opinions of what it was like to work with the Civil Rights legend. Malcolm comes off a bit more paranoid, more worn thin at times, but Haley also notes that Malcolm edited what Haley wrote in the “as told to” part so much that he didn’t even let details slide. Malcolm crossed out the word “kids” and wrote “children,” because children are not baby goats. That level of detail gives me confidence that Malcolm’s autobiography is exactly what he wanted it to be; he just didn’t have time to type and organize it.


    • No I didn’t say did I, but yes, I did.

      To some extent the laws relating to Aborigines depended on how much European heritage they were judged to have (that is a difficult thing to write, so I didn’t spell it out as fully as I should). Traditional Aborigines were left alone in the belief they would soon die out. But Aborigines with paler skins were treated as children, or rather as child labour.

      You make good points about Malcolm X, and I appreciate your studies in this area. I think Alice Nannup was similarly involved in this book.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s