Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt

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In recent times it has become apparent that Indigenous Australians were mostly welcoming and helpful to the Europeans who came onto their lands, whether by accident or design, as evidenced by the assistance offered to explorers and escaped convicts; and that narratives about ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ were fictions designed to “justify” British occupation of Australia and the killing of Indigenous people.

In Finding Eliza (2016) Larissa Behrendt (1969 -), an “Aboriginal lawyer, writer and filmmaker”, makes a compelling case that the story of Eliza Fraser who lived with/was captured by the  Butchulla people on K’gari (Fraser Is., Qld) following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836 was framed right from the beginning as a tale to serve colonial interests.

Eliza Fraser, aged about 38 at the time of the shipwreck, was the wife of Captain John Fraser and 20 or so years his junior. They had 3 children whom they had left behind in northern Scotland. The Stirling Castle foundered on Swain Reefs near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, and the crew were making their way south in two boats to the settlement at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) when, after two months, short of water and with talk turning to which of them they would eat first, the captain agreed to risk the ‘savage natives’ and pull into the big sand island now known as Fraser Is.

Briefly, Butchulla people apprehended the whites. Eliza was taken off by the women, daubed with coloured earths and made to assist in the collection of food. Capt Fraser, who was with the men, died. Some of the crew – presumably in the second boat – made the remaining 220 km to Moreton Bay and after 52 days, Eliza was rescued.

Numerous accounts of Eliza Fraser’s ordeal have been produced, starting with her own Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser in 1837, in which Eliza is portrayed “as a vulnerable white woman who finds herself among villainous black people”.  In some accounts Capt Fraser is speared while Eliza hides behind a tree, in others he dies accidentally or of his illnesses. Eliza describes the humiliations of being daubed and forced to work, and claims to have been on the point of meeting a “fate worse than death” when rescuers arrived:

… visited by one of the most ugly and frightful looking Indians that my eyes ever beheld or that the whole island probably contained; with proposals that, ‘as I had lost my mate, I should become his squaw!’

The rescue party was led by a convict, John Graham, who himself had lived for six years with Aboriginals nearby on the mainland. Only a few others of the Stirling Castle’s crew survived, including Harry Youlden who, much later, published an account disputing Eliza’s version and saying that “he and his mate were offered food and that the locals seemed concerned about their welfare.”

Behrendt breaks down the Eliza Fraser story and analyses its separate elements:

White women are pure and virtuous, blacks are savage, cannibalistic, immoral – the superiority of the white is/must be asserted;

White women need men’s protection, black women are their men’s slaves – ignoring Eliza’s agency in surviving where many of the men didn’t; and overlooking women’s status as chattels in British law;

Aboriginal women: mean and jealous – they treat Eliza badly out of envy for the greater attractiveness of her white skin.

As a lawyer (a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard!), Behrendt of course asks cui bono, who benefits from the distortions in Eliza’s story. The list is long. Graham, the convict, is rewarded for his ‘bravery’ so it pays him to overstate the barbarism of Eliza’s captors; Eliza herself initially makes her living as the brave woman who survived unimaginable horrors; missionaries use Eliza’s tribulations as proof of the need to bring Christianity to the “savages”; colonialists justify their land-grabs by reference to the unworthiness of the original inhabitants; and above all, the British race must continue to assert its claimed superiority.

Captivity narratives form a part of Australian frontier folklore, and they emerged at a time that has more significance than we might appreciate. The clear inferiority of Aboriginal people and the barbarism of their culture as portrayed in a story like Eliza Fraser’s was relied on to justify their dispossession and to ignore their connections to their traditional country, their own laws, and their own systems of decision-making.

A contrary (and more likely) version of Eliza’s story is told by Aboriginal Elder Olga Miller, from the perspective of the people who rescued, rather than captured, her. The island was experiencing a severe drought and it is unlikely the whites could have survived without assistance. Eliza was severely sunburnt and was painted in grease and ash to alleviate this, and was daubed with a white ochre mark which said to the Butchulla men, “this woman is not to be touched”. Eliza’s fearfulness made her an ungrateful guest, and one who was unwilling to help in the everyday tasks of Butchulla women.

Behrendt then offers a striking, shaming example of a Genuine Frontier Captivity Story under the headings:

… captured by savages …

… suffered cruel abuses at the hands of the savages …

… treated like slaves …

… suffered a fate worse than death …

Under which she inserts testimony not from whites, but from Indigenous people in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Bringing Them Home – children torn from their mothers; children in ‘homes’ undernourished and beaten; wages paid into accounts which Indigenous workers never saw (yes, looking at you Qld Government); routine sexual abuse of children in foster care.

Behrendt goes on to discuss other stories which have demonised Aboriginal people, including a scathing review of Katherine Sussannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1928). I have criticised Coonardoo myself as not being the story of an Aboriginal woman, but the story of Hugh, her (white) sometime friend and lover, who abandons her and their son. Behrendt takes this much further and points out Prichard’s no doubt unconscious racism. For instance:

The exploitation of Aboriginal labour under the guise of Hugh and Bessie’s [his mother’s] supposed benevolence is tangible. Mrs Bessie teaches Coonardoo the management of the household and threatens her with haunting and fearful ‘guts-ache’ if she lets Hugh down, no matter what happens.

A message reinforced by the fact that Coonardoo’s mother, herself a house-servant, had been kicked to death by Hugh’s father for failing to carry out his instructions.

Coonardoo becomes ostensibly the slave in the [station] kitchen but she also does the men’s work. She is the provider for her own family in a camp that is rarely referred to in the book, as though her whole life could revolve around the homestead kitchen rather than her family and the land that she loves.

Other books are discussed, not much less extensively, including Liam Davison’s The White Woman (1994) – an historical novel around the myth of a white woman captured by savages; Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) – which is of course a reimagining of the Eliza Fraser story; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) – a religious allegory demonstrating the superiority of the white man over the cannibals; and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

There is also a forensic analysis of Elizabeth Durack’s appropriation of Aboriginal culture to create the Uncle Tom-ish Eddie Burrup as a marketing tool for her paintings – incidentally her best work, according to Behrendt.

Durack created a website that featured a constructed account of Eddie Burrup’s life… Eddie’s words appeared in Kriol but were interpreted by Durack, and the website was peppered with Eddie’s totem, the sand crab…

Eddie was a strong supporter of the mining and pastoral industries… Eddie accepted European occupancy as a given… And Eddie had praise for every white authority figure he’d encountered. Even his jailors were ‘all very decent fella’.

Under the headings ‘Cannibalism: Dark Acts on the Frontier’ and ‘Imagining Noble Savages’ Behrendt spreads her net wide, but she brings it all together in the end. Finding Eliza is a surprisingly easy read, a prosecutor’s summing up maybe, with much of the evidentiary heavy lifting left to others, in particular historians Kay Schaffer and Henry Reynolds.

 

Larisa Behrendt, Finding Eliza, UQP, Brisbane, 2016

Further reviews:
Michelle at Adventures in Biography here
Lisa at ANZ LitLovers here
Sue at Whispering Gums on Larissa Behrendt here

True Country, Kim Scott

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I have been reading Kim Scott backwards, starting with That Deadman Dance (2010) and ending up here at his first, True Country (1993). With Benang (1999) and Kayang and Me (2005) – I haven’t read Lost (2006) – this is a fine body of work. The seven year gap back to Scott’s last work is to be filled later this year apparently with a new novel, Taboo which, according to the author, might be about a community reconnecting to its ancestral heritage, seeking healing.

Now that I have reached the beginning, it is apparent that over the course of his career as a writer Scott has been ‘growing into his skin’. Benang and Kayang and Me were accounts of his journey to document his roots as a Noongar man; and That Deadman Dance was a powerful imagining of a specific and very short time after first contact in WA when the locals, Scott’s Noongar people, held the upper hand. True Country is the story of a young man with some Indigenous heritage, who has been brought up ‘white’, feeling his way as a teacher in an Aboriginal community up north, feeling his way from idealism to a realistic appraisal of the dysfunction of a community in which the old ways are lost and the new ways are not taking, feeling his way towards beginning to internalise his own indigenous-ness.

The quality of Scott’s writing is high, as we now expect – descriptive, poetic, original – and the story is told in a number of voices. First and omniscient is a voice which might be the voice of the community:

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

And it is a beautiful place, this place, Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall…

Welcome to you.

Then there is Billy, just arrived to teach the secondary students with wife Liz. Billy’s narration starts out as first person but slides into third person, signifying maybe, his being outside himself, observing, as the community sucks him in. Other voices, Aboriginal, chime in through short chapters and notes.

The novel takes us through one school year, through the seasons of Australia’s tropical north – Wet, Dry, Wet – with little episodes, closely told, reminiscent, in style, of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976). There is no plot, or not at least until you look back and see what has changed.

The story’s fictional township, Karnama, is on the Kimberley coast of northern Western Australia, and consists of a Catholic mission, a government school and an Aboriginal community. So the whites are priests and nuns, another couple with an 8yo son who are also newly arrived teachers, a handyman, and a manager and a young, single woman employed by the community. Police and doctors might fly in from Derby, but are not part of the story.

Interestingly, Liz as a character is only lightly sketched, we see her pale skin and red hair but rarely hear her voice. Scott’s work is always autobiographical and I wonder if he has/had a wife he didn’t want to offend. Jasmine, the single woman, is a bomb waiting to go off, until she makes her choice late in the year. Gerrard, the manager is venal, profiteering from his position, and the other teacher couple are anxious, fearful, educating their son at home by school of the air, not allowing him to mix with the locals. But none of the whites is really observed in any depth, except Billy. This is his novel and he is most interested in his interactions with his pupils and their families.

But Who’s Tellin’ this Story?

That short teacher bloke, he bit like us, but –he Nyungar or what? Look at him, he could be. Why’s he wanna know things? He get to school proper early anyway, sun-up even …

Dry season: early morning cool, and I left the first footprints in the dew on the lawn.

The switching back and forth of the voices serves to integrate us, the reader, into the community, stops us identifying wholly with Billy.

Fatima, on older woman, tells stories which Billy transcribes from his tape recorder and reads back to his class. This is an oral culture, and even while the children are being criticised for their failure to learn from books, they are able to quote great chunks of the videos they watched the previous night. But Billy loses interest in collecting stories, why?

Gabriella is local girl made good, a uni student down south who comes back periodically to observe. Beatrice, initially bright and helpful, falls apart, is passed from doctor to doctor in Darwin and Perth, maybe she has offended the gods. Deslie, one of the older boys, is cheerful and willing but a petrol sniffer. Francis, held back by poor eyesight and broken glasses, meets a sad end.

The men, Milton, Alphonse, Raphael, Sebastian show Billy around. Billy comes back from Derby with a ute and a tinny, spends his spare time on the river fishing for barramundi. There are not many vehicles and wherever they go there are people piled in the back, tourists too if the bus is broken down.

The children are touchy feely and dismissive of boundaries. Billy and Liz accept this, sometimes of course grudgingly, but often with pleasure:

One hot afternoon Billy, Liz, the high school kids, they all went for a swim …  The group moved in two major clusters, divided according to sex. The girls grouped around Liz and Jasmine, with Jasmine the main focus … They laughed, they shrieked, they studied her earrings and hair. They asked the two women about boyfriends, husbands. ‘Mr Storey [Billy] hit you ever? What he like when he drunk?’ … The girls held their guests’ hands and put their arms around their shoulders…

Imagine, again, seeing all this from above … The kids are mostly tight in around those teachers. Black skin looks good in the sun, shiny. Then nearly at High Diving, the kids break away and start to race to the river. They shed clothes on the run. They dive. They spear the water…

As we progress, the mood gets darker, Billy and Liz feel their openness is being taken advantage of. Karnama is a, theoretically, dry community but the whites drink and are observed drinking. The mail plane brings in alcohol. Builders working on new housing don’t employ locals, live in a men’s camp, drink and are visited by the women. Raphael is a bad drunk, beats his wives. The wives seek refuge with Billy and Liz.

A trip to Broome goes badly. The year draws to an end.

True Country is a stunningly well written book and I hope I have given you some sense of that, but it is also a brave book. Kim Scott, through Billy, confronts his fears and prejudices, the packs of half wild dogs which protect each house, the violence, the lack of purpose and the squalor. And, somehow, at the end he finds himself beginning to belong: “See? Now it is done. Now you know. True Country… We are serious. We are grinning. Welcome to you.”

 

Kim Scott, True Country, Fremantle Press, Perth, 1993

See also:
Kim Scott, Benang, 1999 (Review)
Kim Scott & Hazel Brown, Kayang and Me, 2005 (Review)
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, 2010 (Review)

Wild Cat Falling, Colin Johnson

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Colin Johnson was born in 1938 and grew up in Narrogin in rural south west WA believing he was of Noongar descent. Wild Cat Falling, publicised as the first novel by an Aboriginal author, came out in 1965 and Johnson subsequently adopted the pen-name Mudrooroo. There have since been public arguments about Johnson’s parentage with, for example, Anita Heiss claiming that Johnson does not speak for Indigenous people and Kim Scott, himself of Noongar descent, saying that he does. To the extent that I, an old white guy, should have a point of view, it is that Johnson grew up in a Noongar community, experienced prejudice every day because of his skin colour, and in this book is clearly writing about the life that he and his fellows experienced in the 1950s.

If you google ‘Wild Cat Falling’ it is apparent that the book has for some time been a set text for school and/or university. This is reflected in the Introduction to the 1992 edition by Stephen Muecke, who writes:

“Mudrooroo was born into a society where assimilation was the government policy, and many of his people were surviving by forgetting their traditions as quickly as possible. This book emerged as a quite radical text, with a story which goes against this prevailing attitude, even before radicalism became fashionable in the late sixties and seventies …”

He then goes on to discuss the long and remarkably patronising Foreword by Mary Durack “which has been travelling with the novel ever since it was first published… What is the function of things like forewords, prefaces, introductions? … Forewords are written by prominent people to endorse the application of an unknown person to enter ‘society’. They are texts which smooth the passage of the unknown text.”

Durack met Johnson when “early in 1958, I was asked to find accommodation for a boy who was coming to a job in the city. I expected to see one of the youths we knew but he turned out to be a complete stranger with little of the familiar coloured boy’s willing-to-please manner.” The job offer fell through and eventually Johnson was offered a similar opportunity in Melbourne, where he discovered Buddhism and began to write. They stayed in touch and it was Durack who found a publisher for Wild Cat Falling, of which she writes: “The book should be read as a work of fiction by a young man who, although open to the degenerate influences of native camps and milk bar gangs, has been strong enough to set himself a positive goal requiring detachment and discipline.”

The book begins with ‘I’ – the narrator is not named – being released from Fremantle Prison and walking down the hill through Fremantle to the beach, still dressed in his prison-issue suit and tie. On the beach he approaches a young woman: “She lies stretched out in the sun and her skin is golden-brown. Swell doll. Long and slim with firm small breasts tightening the fabric of her swim suit. I realize that jail has not killed my sex urge.” He sits near her and takes off his “shoes, socks, coat, ludicrous tie and cheap shirt” and manages to strike up a conversation. He tells her he’s just out of prison, and a little about his life:

[At school] I learnt the art of survival against mob rule. Then I got copped for stealing and I was sent to a home where I was educated in the simple techniques of crime and learnt to survive the harshness of Christian charity. In the Noongar camps I learnt the art of being completely unexploitable and of sabotaging every make-believe effort to improve the native’s lot. I also learnt to take raw alcohol and raw sex. In jail I graduated in vice and overcame my last illusions about life. Now I know that hope and despair are equally absurd.

He describes the inevitability of ending up in jail when being with your mates is criminalised as ‘consorting’, and boasts a little. “‘I get the picture,’ she says. ‘From outcast native to big time bodgie. Success story.'” The girl, June, a psychology student, ignores his self pity and invites him to meet her the following day in the uni coffee lounge (UWA – there was only one university back then).

Over the next two or three days, he gets a room in town, borrows jeans, jumper and desert boots from someone who owes him a favour, hangs out with his bodgie mates, drinks and sleeps with a couple of the girls, and relives the series of crimes that got him into juvenile care and then prison. The book, a novella of barely 100 pages, would be interesting even if only for the descriptions of a long-gone sub-culture:

I look through the window of the lighted milk-bar and the familiar surroundings glow a ‘Welcome Home’ to me. This joint is the meeting place of the bodgie-widgie mob. Here they all are – the anti-socials, the misfits, the delinks, in a common defiance of the squares… I’m back and the gang crowds round – the boys in peacock-gaudy long coats and narrow pants, the girls casual in dowdy-dark jeans and sloppy sweaters.

He’s intelligent and well-read, an auto-didact; waiting for June he wanders through the uni bookstore and buys a copy of Waiting for Godot, and is able to fake his way through discussions of art and jazz with the boys accompanying June and at the subsequent party. Quotes from Godot highlight his own aimless waiting and the general absurdity of his situation.

The ending is dramatic, which I think points to a moral, that aimlessness is a pose which leads to disaster. “Even that whisper of hope I talked about was me. If I let up a minute on my mental discipline it creeps in again suggesting there might be something in life besides absurdity – even a hint of meaning.” Spoiler Alert. He joins up with mate, they steal a car and go back to his hometown to ‘do a job’. But they are heard, accosted by a policeman. ‘I’ fires off a shot with his stolen 22 and runs off into the bush. An old Aborigine, whom he knows by sight, lectures him, feeds him, sends him on his way. When the police come up on him, he gives in without a fight.

 

Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling, first pub. 1965. Edition pictured above A&R Imprint Classics, Sydney, 1992 (cover illustration by Elizabeth Durack)

A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara

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For all their differences in approach, A Most Peculiar Act and Two Sisters (review here), both from Magabala Books in Broome, may be read as two sides of the same coin. They are written by confident, Indigenous women; they are set in the north, in respectively Darwin and the Kimberley; and they deal with the displacement of traditional peoples onto the periphery of white communities.

The principal difference is that whereas the Walmajarri people moved to an area where they could gain employment, the peoples portrayed in Munkara’s satire are herded into camps, in conditions of poverty and dependency, their every action governed by the NT Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 (the ‘Most Peculiar Act’ of the title) and by the ways the police and the officers of the Chief Protector’s department chose to enforce it.

We know from the writings of Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington, for instance, that the situation, especially for women and children of mixed parentage, was no better in Western Australia, but that is not an aspect highlighted in Two Sisters, whereas it is the whole point of A Most Peculiar Act.

Resident Judge writes in her perceptive review of Munkara’s memoir,  Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016): “The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.” Munkara’s voice is simple, direct and street-smart, and to my mind reminiscent of another indigenous* author, Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson.

A Most Peculiar Act is set in 1942-3, but the war plays no part except that the (re-imagined) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 Feb. 1943 brings the book to a close. The principal characters are all caricatures: Horrid Hump the incompetent doctor/medical administrator made Chief Protector of Aboriginals where “he wouldn’t be able to bugger up a situation that was already buggered”; Ralphie, a patrol officer subject to “ailments brought on by drinking and whoring”; 16 yo Sugar, presumably the young woman pictured on the cover, whose “features were perpetually scrunched up in a scowl that left you wondering if she were in pain or if she were about to commit an act of extreme danger or lunacy”; Drew, a buxom woman, mistakenly employed as a patrol officer, whose “demeanour belied the right-wing red-necked racist that lurked within”.

To the extent there is a plot, and not just a series of funny situations whose subversive intent is to highlight the ongoing racism of the administration of indigenous affairs in the NT, Sugar gets pregnant (to Ralphie), has twins, leaves one of them behind in the hospital, returns to live in the Camp with her community, is segregated off into the Pound (for ‘coloured’ girls) and has her remaining baby stolen, becomes a servant for the lesbian wife of NT’s most senior public servant, the Administrator, and in the final pages, leads the wife and some of her friends to the relative safety of caves in the beachside cliffs when a party is broken up by Japanese bombing.

Ralphie loses his job, attempts to live with the indigenous communities in the Camp, gets leprosy and observes the bombing from the safety of the leper colony on the other side of Darwin Harbour; while Drew initiates a series of disasters and becomes the, willing, object of the Administrator’s affections.

Just one quote. Munkara was apparently herself one of the stolen generation and this is how she describes it:

‘I know the mothers are really grateful to us for finding homes for their children but as primitives they just can’t express it like we do’, said the Superintendent [of the Pound] recalling the traumatic scenes that he’d witnessed of native mothers being relieved of their offspring.

All my life I have regarded the Territory as a place of adventure and romance, but at every turn in this book Munkara rubs our noses in the indignities, the humiliations, the deprivations that indigenous people have endured under what was and in many ways remains, apartheid in all but name. If ever we needed a reminder of why indigenous stories should be written by indigenous writers then this was it.

 

Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014

Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


*Colin Johnson’s heritage as an indigenous person is contested, but he was brought up as dark-skinned person in an indigenous community in WA’s south-west and is accepted, by Kim Scott for instance, as a contributor to modern indigenous literature.

Two Sisters, Ngarta and Jukuna

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I’m falling behind with my Indigenous Lit! Behind Lisa at ANZLL in particular whom I must thank for pointing me towards the two short books I am reviewing today (posted separately so they’re easier to find). The other is A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara.

Two Sisters is the stories of two women of the Walmajarri people born and brought up in the 1950s and 60s in northern Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. The four authors are the two sisters of the title, Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards who did the translation from Walmajarri to English and Pat Lowe who ‘edited the English to bring it to its present form’. Ngarta’s story was compiled and filled out by Pat Lowe over many discussions and interviews. Jukuna’s story was written, by her, in Walmajarri.

As well as the two stories, which of course are linked by the two women’s relationship (and which have interesting differences), there are two sections of colour plates of the women’s painting and of photos of the women back in country, Jukuna’s story in Walmajarri, and appendices on the Walmajarri diaspora, by Lowe and Richards on the writing of the book, and on the Walmajarri language.

Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the southern, most remote, part of Walmajarri country (maps here) and so were among the last of their people to migrate north to the stations around Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. Interestingly, Doris Pilkington in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (my review) writes of the neighbouring Martu people gravitating south to the fence workers’ camp at Jigalong a generation or so earlier.

The Great Sandy Desert is an area of red, rolling sandhills, bound with light scrub, about 400 km square and with the Tanami, Gibson and Little Sandy Deserts to the east and south. As you can imagine, waterholes were an important part of the Walmajarri people’s lives.

The main waterhole for Ngarta’s family was Tapu. The people might spend most of the year travelling through their country, camping by one or other of the many waterholes, but Tapu was the place they came back to.

It was not unusual for people to break away from the main group for a time. They might follow tracks for a long distance out of their way, or take a detour to gather a particular food and then head for whichever waterhole happened to be closest at day’s end. They kept in touch with the others and let them know where they were by lighting big grass fires.

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The Great Sandy Desert with camel, acacia scrub and sand dune.

The sisters’ lives took different courses quite early on:

From the time Ngarta was a baby, her grandmother took care of her. Jukuna, only a few years older, stayed with their mother. Even when Ngarta got older she often went hunting and gathering with the old woman.

 But the old ways were coming to an end. More and more families moved north to join relatives living on Kimberley cattle stations, “… until, at length, only a few people from [Ngarta’s] immediate family were still living in that whole region of desert. Almost all the men and youths had gone by now.” Eventually Jukuna too was claimed by a young man, Pijaji, and taken away to the north, leaving “just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother… They lived mainly on goannas and snakes and the many different fruits and seeds of the desert. Occasionally they killed a dingo, a fox or a cat.”

After a couple of years without any contact with the outside world, they are set upon by two men, outlaws from another community, who without warning, spear Ngarta’s mother and subsequently kill her grandmother and sister. Ngarta escapes, living on her own for a year, before she is retaken and probably, although she does not say so, used as a wife by one of the murderers. Ironically, when these two men do come into contact with the white world they are convicted, and briefly imprisoned for killing cattle for food, but no evidence is able to be brought of their other more serious crimes.

Jukuna then tells her story, clearly and concisely, of her time in the desert, moving north with her new husband to meet up with relatives living on Cherrabun Station, seeing a white man for the first time, and her conversion to Christianity.

Read this book! More even than Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ Pictures from my Memory (my review) this is a vibrant account by two members of possibly the last traditional indigenous community in the country.

Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards, Pat Lowe, Two Sisters, Magabala Books, Broome, 2016

Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)

The Cocanarup Massacre

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Kukenarup Memorial (photo, Kim Scott)

It is central to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) that in the early years of white settlement around ‘Gebalup’ (Ravensthorpe, WA) the matriarch Fanny (Benang) and her white husband Sandy Mason witness a massacre of Fanny’s people gathered around the homestead of the ‘Done’ family.

Not far from the homestead Fanny – cautiously peering from the load, peeking over bales – saw a small group of men women children, running and falling before station men on horseback. (1999, p.174)

… [Sandy] could see figures leaping to their feet, helping one another up, running. And there were voices calling, calling. People fell, were shot. Were shot….

Flames and explosions leapt from beyond the outstretched arms of a man beside him. A Winchester, almost the very latest thing. The man bent over the bodies, lunging and hacking, faceless in the grim darkness.

‘They understand this.’ (1999, p.186)

The knowledge of the deaths and the scattered bones creates an ‘exclusion zone’ to which the narrator is taken by Fanny’s grandsons many years later.

Scott wrote Benang, a fictionalised account of his search for his Noongar ancestry, from bits and pieces of stories and official records. In Kayang & Me (2005), which he co-wrote with Noongar elder, Hazel Brown, he recounts how Benang was just about done when he met Aunty Hazel, and how they turned out to be related, both descendants of Fanny Mason’s family. Of the massacre, Aunty Hazel writes:

Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred some time after 1880 by white people at a place called Cocanarup , a few miles from the Ravensthorpe townsite. (2005, p.10)

Cocanarup was a property taken up by the Dunn brothers in 1872 as a sheep run. In 1880 John Dunn was killed by spearing, by Granny Monkey’s brother, Yandawalla, for his part in raping a 13 yo Noongar girl. Yandawalla (aka Yangalla) was subsequently tried for murder and acquitted. There was trouble over the next couple of years as Noongars raided the property for sheep and the Dunn’s retaliated. It seems they eventually got a permit “to kill the seventeen people that were residents of that place.” However, unknownst to them there was a meeting of Noongars nearby from the surrounding districts of Hopetoun and Jerdacuttup, to discuss initiations and marriages and so “there was over thirty people that were killed down there.” (2005, p.65)

The oral history passed down to Aunty Hazel is backed up by white histories. Scott reports Marion Brockway as writing in The Dunns of Cocaranup, Early Days (1970):

Terrible stories abound, but cannot be verified, of the vengeance exacted by John’s brothers on the Nyungars. One story is that a number of Aborigines were killed and buried in a mass grave near John’s grave, the site being marked by a circle of posts. The rest of the Nyungars in the vicinity were chased eastward, the Dunns poisoning the waterholes on the way back, to prevent them returning. (2005, p.70).

And Cleve Hassell in his 1973 memoir of his own well-known early settler family “mentions that the three remaining Dunn brothers ‘declared war’ and took it in turns to go shooting Noongars while one was left at home with their sister. He writes that a great many natives were shot.” (2005, p.71)

I got in touch with Professor Scott (Kim Scott is Professor of Writing at Curtin Uni.) and he was kind enough to send me some extra material, photos and extracts from newspapers. These included a full account of Yangalla’s trial, but this summary from the South Australian Register of 26 Nov., 1881 will suffice: “The native Yangala, tried recently for the murder of Mr. John Dunn, has been acquitted owing to the unsatisfactory manner in which the evidence of the black witness was interpreted.” I have commented previously that colonial officialdom often had a much more enlightened attitude towards Aborigines than did settlers at the ‘frontier’. In the trial –presumably in the Perth Supreme Court – His Honour (not named) was pretty sharp with the police over the way they took ‘voluntary’ statements and the Attorney General was quick to withdraw the evidence so obtained.

The following year, in the West Australian of 30 May, 1882 their Albany correspondent reports:

Great dissatisfaction is being expressed by the settlers to the Eastward, more especially by the Messrs. Dunn Bros., as to the want of proper police protection. Most of your readers will remember the painful circumstances of Mr. John Dunn’s death, and the acquittal of the supposed murderers. Since that time it has transpired that the natives did not intend to murder Mr. J. Dunn, but another brother… it is now believed that they still intend to murder the other brother when an opportunity arises, which benevolent intention they will probably carry out if some steps are not taken to prevent them.

In the same paper, three years later on 25 Sept., 1885 it is reported that James Dunn had been attacked on the 15th and on the following day Robert Dunn “went out to ascertain the intentions and strength of the natives. He met forty blacks coming towards the station who immediately attacked him.” Dunn fired, killing one, the Noongars retreated pursued by Dunn who “killed one and wounded several.”

There’s an interview with Robert Dunn, many years later, in the (Perth) Sunday Times of 20 May 1928 but it’s mostly ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that and doesn’t add much to the account.

Finally, the following appeared in the Western Mail of 17 Oct 1935 under the heading The Skull at Carracarrup, ‘eight miles SSW of Ravensthorpe’ by WIPECO of Leonora who ‘was told the story by Mr. Walter Dunn (now deceased)’:

[After John Dunn’s death] The remaining members on the station were then granted licence to shoot the natives for a period of one month, during which time the fullest advantage was taken of the privilege. Natives were shot from the station through Lime Kiln Flat, Manjitup and down to where Ravensthorpe is now situated. In the course of their guerrilla warfare, the whites arrived one day at the Carracarrup Rock Hole, and, knowing it was a watering place for the blacks, they crept quietly over the hill until they could peer down into the hole. There they saw two natives who had just risen from drinking. Two shots broke the stillness of the gorge and two dusky souls were sent home to their Maker. The bodies were left lying at the rock hole where they dropped as a grim reminder to the rest of the tribe of the white man’s retribution.

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Cocanarup from Kukenarup memorial (photo, Graham Barker)

The Kukenarup memorial, on the South Coast Highway 15 km west of Ravensthorpe overlooks to the south the Cocanarup homestead and massacre site. The memorial, representing Noongar totems, Wedge Tailed Eagles and Mallee Fowl, includes the words:

This area of country has a harsh, complex and sometimes contradictory history. Many Noongar people were killed here, and all that death and the apartheid-like 20th century legislation meant many of our families were never able to return and reconcile themselves to what had happened.

The fiction of Terra Nullius has meant that the Cocanarup and similar massacres, not to mention all the deaths of Indigenous people from mistreatment and deprivation of resources, have too often been whitewashed out of official histories. We can only that hope our wilful forgetting is at long last in the process of being reversed, for without knowledge and then acknowledgement, there cannot be Reconciliation.


See also: Bob Howard, Noongar Resistance on the South Coast 1830-1890 (here)

For further information you should search on ‘Cocanarup’, ‘Kukenarup’ and ‘Ravensthorpe Massacre’. Google Map (here).

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1999 (review here)

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005 (review here)

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 (review here)

My post on the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834 (here)

Kayang & Me, Kim Scott and Hazel Brown

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Kim Scott’s writing over a number of books is a voyage of discovery of his antecedents as a Noongar man, that is of the Indigenous people of Western Australia’s South-West. The Wilomin, to whom Scott has found he belongs, are the eastern-most sub-group of the Noongar, occupying sandy, mallee country along the south coast between Bremer Bay and Esperance and inland around Ravensthorpe, the territory covered by his much awarded novel, Benang (1999). His later novel That Deadman Dance (2010) was set further west, around Albany and the jarrah forested Stirling Ranges, although characters and geography overlap between the two novels, even if the names they are given differ.

In Kayang & Me Scott and his Aunty Hazel alternate in telling stories around Scott’s Noongar heritage. Different fonts are used so it is always clear who is talking. Kayang, by the way, has the meanings ‘Aunty’ and ‘Elder’. Scott says:

Most of Aunty Hazel’s writing in this book comes from transcriptions of tape-recordings we did together. That method created some difficult decisions for us, most of which could be reduced to the particular problem of how to capture the distinctive nature of her speech while allowing it to be relatively smooth to read on the page.

Aunty Hazel, Hazel Brown “was born on the ninth of November 1925, at a place called Kendenup [north of Albany]… I was born in an old packing shed. Years ago no women had their babies in hospital, you weren’t allowed to.” Her mother, Nellie, who had a white father, had been taken from her home at Marble Bar and sent 2,000 km south to Carrolup Native Settlement where, perhaps to cure her running away, she was made to marry a Wiloman man, Yiller, who died when Hazel was 5. Nellie, who by then also had a son, Lenny, then married Yiller’s brother, Fred Tjinjel Roberts, and Hazel grew up with her brothers and sisters and her father’s “full blood relations”, living a relatively traditional life in the Ravensthorpe/Wilomin region, while her father worked as a farm-hand and shearer.

My father’s father was called Bob Roberts (also known as Pirrup) and his mother was known as Monkey… Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred* some time after 1880 by white people at place called Cocanarup, a few miles from Ravensthorpe.

Kim Scott (1957- ) writes “my father, Tommy Scott, was the only surviving child to an Aboriginal woman who died when he was ten years old, after which his Aboriginal grandmother continued to raise him until his Scottish father arranged boarding schools …”. He died young, in his thirties. Scott remembers him telling him to be proud of his ‘Aboriginal descent’. Growing up, in Albany, Scott knew very few of his extended indigenous family, and only some of those identified as Noongar, but he was aware that his father’s mother and grandmother had lived around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

As an adult enquiring after his family he was told, “go see Aunty Hazel. They reckoned Hazel Brown knew everyone who lived around Ravensthorpe.” And so it turned out, her husband and Scott’s father had been drinking buddies. “Your father was my cousin, she told me.” Scott had already put in a great deal of research to come up with the material that underlies Benang, now Aunty Hazel was able to flesh it out. The starting point from Scott’s notes was his great grandmother Granny (Fanny) Winnery, who Hazel remembered as Pirrup’s sister, having often visited her in Ravensthorpe as a young girl. Granny Winnery and Pirrup’s father, Old Bob Roberts, appears to be the ‘Bob’ recorded as guiding Surveyor General JS Roe along the south coast in 1849, and who ended up as a hated ‘black tracker’.

Hazel has stories of Old Bob and his brothers and sisters, who married whom, working for early settlers the Hassells, shepherding and on the wagons running from the coast to Balladonia 300 km inland. All of which Scott must reconcile with scanty written accounts.

Old Fanny Winnery, she had two daughters, didn’t she? She had two daughters. That’s right! Married Coleman twins. And after that one of their girls married the Scott.

Fanny Winnery is recorded as having given birth to a daughter at a camp east of Esperance, the father’s name given as John Mason. Mason had been a sailor and Scott finds an account, by a settler, of a marriage between a ‘Jack Tar’ who is shepherding for him, and an Aboriginal woman who was probably Fanny. More information comes from the records of the Chief Protector, enquiring after a John Mason who served in the First World War. He is the son of Jack Mason and Fanny ‘Pinyan’. Fanny died in 1913, in the house of her son in law Daniel Coleman, and she and Jack were buried together in Ravensthorpe. These names of course are all familiar to us from Benang.

Scott goes down to Ravensthorpe with Hazel’s brother, Lomas Roberts who is documenting a Native Title claim, to visit long time resident, Mrs Cox –

‘And you must have known Kimmy’s father’, Uncle Lomas said.

‘Oh yes’, she said, bursting into a smile, ‘I went to school with Tommy Scott.’

She remembered my grandmother too.

That was Harriette Coleman, daughter of Fanny, and mother of Scott’s Uncle Will. You can see the problem though – Fanny Winnery was dead before Aunty Hazel was born, so the Granny ‘Winnery’ she remembers seeing must have been Harriette. Reconciling Hazel’s oral genealogy with his ‘scraps of paper’ became a problem for Scott and held up the writing of this book. In the meanwhile we learn a great deal about the history of White/Noongar relations from both Scott and from Aunty Hazel, the murders, the imprisonments on Rottnest and other islands, the apartheid-like impact of the 1905 Aborigines Act, the ‘colour bar’ in country towns, the deaths caused by doctors refusing to treat black children.

But Aunty Hazel is a woman who knows her own mind, she and her husband had friends in the white community, and not all her stories are dark. At one time in the thirties a very young Hazel and her family were walking along a track between Ravensthorpe and Esperance –

Now these people came along. They had an old black motor and I don’t know … it was like a square top and it had a funny little front. It was like a little ute. … She was a woman that was going through to Esperance, and she was going to South Australia, and in some way she was connected to Daisy Bates. … she started sending Mummy the funny little magazine that Daisy Bates made.

Scott doesn’t speculate as to who this might have been. Ernestine Hill went from WA at this time to meet Bates, but by train. And she did her trans-Nularbor road trip with Henrietta Drake-Brockman in 1947 when Hazel would have been 22.

Aunty Hazel lectures Scott on truth in story telling, even when it’s told different each time: “We don’t wanna bore people, unna? We wanna tell a good story. You should know that better than me, you s’posed to be the writer.” This is a fascinating book, of genealogical enquiry, of the details of an almost forgotten way of life, of Scott’s attempts to interpret and interrogate his Noongar heritage. Aunty Hazel is a wonderful story teller and of course Scott is one of our finest writers.

Here is Scott’s (confronting) conclusion, which I think ties in with what I’ve be I’ve been trying to say about leaving space for Indigenous writers –

In order to strengthen Indigenous communities – and that’s the only means by which an Australian nation-state will have any chance of grafting onto Indigenous roots – we need some sort of ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies, a moratorium, a time of exclusion to allow communities to consolidate their heritages. After that, exchange and interaction from relatively equal positions should be possible, because that’s how cultural forms are tested and grow.

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005

See also: my reviews of Benang (here) and That Deadman Dance (here)


*I have not said any more about the Cocanorup massacre because there is too much to say. The authors provide pages of recollections, but as Scott says there is very little documentation.  A search on Google brings up nothing and on Trove, one account of an expedition to the Goldfields in 1890. If I can I may put up more in a separate post at a later date. I have overcome these difficulties (with some assistance) and will put up a post on the massacre in a few days.