Taboo, Kim Scott

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The biggest issues we face today are the flat-lining of the Australian and most western economies after decades of neo-liberal pro-market, anti-worker policies; and the refusal of right-wing politicians to allow even the possibility of a consensus for dealing with global warming.

Yet the biggest, the dominant issue in Australian Lit. is clearly what it means to be an Australian – Anglo, Indigenous, or otherwise – in this land we whites stole from its Indigenous inhabitants, the oldest continuing civilization on Earth. And which by the way, we continue to steal by all the artificial constraints State and Federal governments put around Native Title determinations when the graceful thing to do after the Mabo judgement would have been to declare all Crown land Indigenous and to negotiate with the traditional owners using that as the starting point.

This blog was started to investigate notions of Australianness, so I would say that, but look at who is prominent in Aust.Lit today and what books are receiving the most attention. None is about the failure of the welfare state or the casualization of work or the disappearance of free education or the obscene wealth of the very rich, and very few are about climate change. It is a subject for another post, the question of which writers at the height of their powers today, clearly stand head and shoulders above their fellows, but I would suggest three names, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright and Chris Tsialkos, and two of those are Indigenous and the third, Tsialkos is concerned to investigate Australianness from his own non-Anglo, non-straight background.

Taboo (2017) is both personal for Kim Scott and political. Personal in that it is a continuation of his exploration of his roots as a Wirlomin Noongar man, a sequel to the story he began telling in Benang (1999), and political in that he uses the return of the Wirlomin to the site of the Cocanarup Massacre and the reaction of the current (fictionalised) owners of Kocanarup Station as a metaphor for how whites of good intentions everywhere struggle to recognise the depth of the ongoing harm that they are party to.


Noongar: those Indigenous people whose country is all the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance).

Wirlomin: the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Noongar. Their country is centred on the present-day towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

For maps of Australian Indigenous language groups see the ‘Aboriginal Australia’ page above (or here). The AIATSIS map labels the Wirlomin region as ‘Minang’.


And finally, that cover. I have no religion, nor any thoughts about spiritualism or life after death, and I hope that when I am dead my body is rendered into compost. But that doesn’t mean that I think images of dead people should be used as decorations on book covers. And given the enormous efforts of Indigenous people over a long period to have the bones of their ancestors returned from museums and given a proper burial, I think it is doubly inappropriate that a skull should be used in this way an the cover of this book.

In fact, despite my great age and years of long-distance truck driving, I have not only never seen a dead person, I avoid seeing people killed on film or television (I certainly don’t find it entertaining!), and have never been the first or even an early attender at a traffic accident, except of course the ones I’ve been in myself. Which is by way of a lead in to the first (and last) scene in the book: a truck loaded with grain loses its brakes at the top of the short steep hill at the eastern end of Ravensthorpe’s main street, gathers speed, missing pedestrians and cars, looks headed towards the roadhouse at the bottom of the hill before veering to the right, towards the creek where, “slowed at last by deep, coarse sand”, it falls slowly onto its side. And as grain pours from the beached tipper trailer, there appears gradually … “Something like a skeleton, but not of bone. At least, not only bone. The limbs are timber. The skull is timber too, dark and burnished, and ivory dentures …”

Except here Ravensthorpe is called Kepalup (in Benang it was Gebalup), Hopetoun 30 km south on the coast is Hopetown and Albany, the main regional centre, 300 km west along the WA south coast, is King George Town (as it was in That Deadman Dance). Other nearby towns, Esperance and Lake Grace for example, keep their names and Perth is just the City. Kocanarup is now owned by the overtly Christian Hortons – Dan, a widower and his brother Malcolm. In the 1880s, at the time of the massacre, it was owned by the Dunns (Dones in Benang).

Dan Horton’s late wife Janet had been a prime mover in the establishment of a ‘Peace Park’ at Kepalup (which may stand in for the Kukenarup Memorial which overlooks Cocanarup Station, 15 km west of Ravensthorpe). A party of Wirlomin, mostly elderly, mostly from King George Town, camp at the Hopetown caravan park by the sea for a retreat, for some of them to dry out, to prepare for the official opening of the Peace Park.

Tilly, the central character is a student at a private girls school in Perth, on scholarship. She is the daughter of a white mother and a Wirlomin father, Jim who has recently died in jail where he had been leading the revival of Wirlomin language and culture. As a baby, till reclaimed by her mother, she was the foster daughter of Dan and Janet Horton.

Tilly comes down on the bus to Lake Grace where she is met by her father’s cousins, twins Gerald and Gerrard Coolman – descendants of the Coolamons of Benang – one who had been in jail with her father and is now dry and a leader of the Wirlomin revival and one who is not, and they continue on to Kokanarup, to meet Dan Horton and to walk around the vaguely defined sites of the massacre up till now treated as taboo. After a night as guests at the Station they go on down to Hopetown and meet up with the others for the retreat.

All the people are carefully, lovingly even described and we get to know them as they tentatively reclaim the language that was forbidden to them when the older ones were sent away “to the mission” as children, and nearly lost, and as they slowly reclaim the springs and creeks and hills and stones of the massacre site. And so Tilly, by upbringing and education a stranger but still a loved family member, learns the words and sites of her people as Scott must have done too when he began the long journey whose beginning is described in Kayang and Me.

For a while, the middle section of the book, we go back. Tilly starts seeing her father, dying in jail, runs away from her mother, gets in harm’s way, is rescued. A malign presence, a large white man, is in her life, in her nightmares, in the lives of many of the people. And in the third, final section he’s in Kepalup.

Benang, in particular, was a poetic work. Taboo is much more plainly written, but that is also its power.

 

Kim Scott, Taboo, Picador, Sydney, 2017

see also:
The Cocanarup Massacre, my post based on Kim Scott’s source material (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review of Taboo (here)
My reviews of Kim Scott’s earlier works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Benang, 1999 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
That Deadman Dance, 2010 (here)

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Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017

 

 

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)

Jack Davis, Part II

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Jack Davis (1917-2000), as we saw in my review of his childhood memoir, A Boy’s Life (here), had a normal rural working class upbringing in those years of scarcity prior to World War II, with just a few months at the Moore River Native Settlement in 1932 to remind him of his status as a non-white. The memoir ends in the 1940s with him droving in the Gascoyne, arid country, probably given over to sheep in those days, 1,000 km north of Perth, while one of his brothers and some of his school mates went away to war.

In the 50 pages Tony Hughes-d’Aeth devotes to Davis in his monumental (600pp) Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, he gives a solid account of the dispersal of the Noongar – the Indigenous people of southwest WA – first by the pastoral industry in the 1800s and then by the transition to wheat farming in the 1900s. In the years before widespread mechanisation Aboriginal labour was vital, though generally unmentioned in rural histories. After WWII Aboriginal people, both Noongar and those from up north (like Davis’ parents), often dumped in the south west via the ‘Native Settlements’ at Carrolup and Moore River, and more and more often unemployed, settled on the outskirts of country towns.

Davis’ mother, after the death of his father, had gone to live with her sister at Brookton, 140 km east of Perth, where the jarrrah forested Darling Ranges merge into the gently rolling hills and open plains of the WA wheatbelt, and there she married into the local Indigenous Bennell family. H-d’A quotes Davis:

Reserves were small useless parcels of land left over from the great land-grab. Once the property needs of the farming community and its town had been met, a few discarded acres would be set aside as a reserve for Aborigines. It seldom had any economic value and certainly never had sufficient natural resources to support a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle. Itinerant labouring work was the only means of support an Aborigine could expect …

Davis lived for a time at the Brookton reserve both before and after the War, and through his connection with the Bennells was introduced into Noongar culture. In passing, H-d’A comments on Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers (my review) and adds the information that Gare’s husband was with the Dept of Native Affairs, and that was the origin of her material, though she was also friends with Indigenous writer, Alice Nannup.

Davis had apparently begun writing poetry as early as his Moore River days. In 1937 he had a poem accepted by the Carnarvon Northern Times but it was never printed. Davis blamed racial discrimination and thereafter wrote only “for my own amusement”. Finally, in 1970, when he was 53 and running the Aboriginal Centre in Beaufort St, Perth, four decades of Davis’ poetry were collected in The First Born and other poems with a long preface based on the transcript of a biographical interview with Davis by the novelist Richard Beilby, and a ‘Bibbulmun’ (which I think is a Noongar sub-group though the two words sometimes appear interchangeable. I’m sure Daisy Bates says Bibbulmun where we would now say Noongar) vocabulary. Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), a Noonuccal (Stradbroke Is., Qld) woman had published two books of poetry in the 1960s – the first by an Aboriginal person – with sensational success and this may have made publication of Davis’ work possible, or at least more likely.

The poems in Jack Davis’ The First Born are generally short, rhyming lyrics, often in the elegiac tonality that was one of the key-notes in Walker’s poems, although they did not follow hers – at least not yet – down the path of political manifesto …

There is a sense of every-day Aboriginal experience to Davis’ poems. I’ll quote one, ‘Camped in the Bush’ (note the truck!), set in the Ranges outside Perth on the main east-west railway line.

Over the campfire
The bat cries shrill
And a “semi” snarls
On the Ten Mile Hill

And the lonely whistle
Of the train at night,
Where my kingdom melted
In the city’s light

 In 1968 Kevin Gilbert had written The Cherry Pickers, the first play by an Aboriginal to be performed (in 1971), though Davis credits Kath Walker with his move into drama: “As early as 1972 I had been experimenting with theatre  … I had seen the script of a short play by Kath Walker …”. His first play, The Dreamers was staged at the Bunbury Arts Festival (a provincial city south of Perth) in 1972, leading to his ‘great trilogy’ of plays – Kullark (1979), The Dreamers (1982) and No Sugar (1985).

Kullark was performed alongside Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin. H-d’A writes:

Whereas in Hewett the Aboriginal characters perturb and destabilise the white town’s sense of itself, in Davis we see the perspective reversed for the first time – how white people and, in particular, white history looks to the Indigenous.

Davis’ plays are all realist dramas, the first two ostensibly played out in the present, but actually through speech and flashbacks demonstrating the intersection of family history and white settler racism. In The Dreamers, the dying Worru bridges the past and the future, and as he dies his language becomes more and more Noongar, illustrating the language’s survival against all odds.

No Sugar, set in 1929-34, is based on the removal and internment of a whole Noongar community, barely legal even under the 1905 Aborigines Act, from Northam, 100 km east of Perth and in the (conservative) Premier’s own electorate, to Moore River. The penalty for escaping from Moore River was six months in Fremantle Jail. The 1929 setting enables Davis to comment not just on the Depression, but also on the WA Centenary, and by implication on the (then) recent, 1979 state Sesquicentenary and upcoming ‘national’ 1988 Bicentenary celebrations (the 200th anniversary of the movement of the new British settlement from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour, an event of little significance outside NSW and increasingly offensive to the Indigenous people forced along with the rest of us to celebrate it).

Interestingly, the infamous Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, is a character in the play as the action initially moves backwards and forwards between the Mundays and Millimurras at the town camp, the Northam police station, and the Chief Protector’s office. In the second act, the whole camp, 89 people, has been moved to Moore River. “The climax of the play has Jimmy Munday and the others subverting the ceremonial visit of A.O.Neville to Moore River on Australia Day 1934. Jimmy confronts Neville and [Superintendent] Neal, jeering them about the defeat of [Premier] Mitchell in his seat of Northam.”

Davis’ drama asks who was A.O. Neville ‘protecting’:

… the major beneficiaries of the “Protection” offered in the [1905] Act were the mainly white citizens of Western Australia, particularly those living in rural areas. In the emerging towns of the wheatbelt, the provisions of the Act were used to institute a form of apartheid in which Aboriginal people were kept out of the towns through curfews and other forms of soft or hard police power.

Hughes-d’Aeth concludes: “What Davis is able to do, better than anyone before or since, is to capture the complexity of Aboriginal policy as it affected the lives of thousands of people during the twentieth century.”

 

Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Jack Davis Part I, A Boy’s Life (here)
see also: Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
and my review of Kim Scott’s researching of his Noongar heritage, Kayang and Me (here)

I see in Hughes-d’Aeth’s Notes that there is a biography of Davis by Keith Chesson (211pp) which is also available as an audio book from WA Assoc’n for the Blind (Trove)

A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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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

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

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Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

My sister-in-law M keeps a copy of ‘The List‘ (of Independent Women) on a notice board in her apartment and from time to time gives me suggestions for inclusions. She recently attended a National Trust WA event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which officially included Aboriginals in the Australian population, and came away with the booklet Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter.

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was born around 1840, 11 years after the founding of the Swan River colony, on Matagarup (Heirisson Is.), just outside the eastern boundary of the land reserved for the Perth settlement, which at that time may have had a population of 1,500 with a similar number downstream at Fremantle. She was a Whadjuk yorga (a woman of the Whadjuk people, the Noongars based on the Swan R. plains), the granddaughter of Mooroo leader Yellagonga and niece of Yagan, the best known of the Noongar resistance fighters.

Her story crosses over with that of my favourite Independent Woman, Daisy Bates, who documented some of their meetings, and when she died on 20 March, 1907, she was living at the Maamba Aboriginal reserve on the Canning R. (15 km or so south of Perth (map)) where Daisy Bates had been camped since July 1905 as a continuation of her employment with the WA Registrar-General curating Indigenous languages.

Elizabeth Salter in her biography Daisy Bates (1971) writes of Bates’ application to move her base to Maamba:

At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Bates herself writes in The Last of the Bibbulmun Race, Chapter VII of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938):

When I came upon the remnants of the Bibbulmun [Noongar], they had been in contact with civilization for some seventy years, and in that short time it had reduced the native inhabitants of the city of Perth and its environs to one old man, Joobaitch, and an older looking niece, Balbuk.

My first camp was established on the Maamba Reserve … in the early years of this century a beautiful kingdom of bush still rich in native food and fruits. The Bibbulmun race was represented by some thirty or forty stragglers, and these would gladly have gone back to their own various grounds; but their health and sight had failed…

A circular tent, 14 ft, in diameter, sagging about me in the wet and ballooning in the wind, was my home for two years in that little patch of bushland bright with wild flowers … I would be on duty from night till morning, collecting scraps of language, old legends, old customs, trying to conjure a notion of the past …

Bates implies that it was Balbuk’s grandfather who gave up the Noongar lands to the British – “Joobaitch… was the son of that Yalgunga who ceded his springs on the banks of the Swan to Lieutenant Irwin.”* She describes “Fanny Balbuk as she was called” as a “general nuisance of many years standing” and devotes a page to her misdeeds, which is the source of some of the material in the National Trust booklet.

One of her favourite annoyances was to stand at the gates of Government House, reviling all who dwelt within, because the stone gates guarded by a sentry enclosed her grandmother’s burial ground…

She raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground… Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms [Bates, quoted in booklet].

The booklet consists mostly of photographs and short statements by women Whadjuk Ballardong Elders. I’m not sure they make the case for her being a ‘resistance fighter’ but she was certainly a notable and colourful protester.

There is also a long letter from Fanny Balbuk, “with Daisy Bates as her scribe”, to her son Joe. “All our people are dead. Jimmy Shaw and Billy Shaw your two uncles are the last that have died. Old George Joobytch [presumably the “Joobaitch” above] is alive and well, and lives close to me at the Government reserve. Jimmy Shaw’s daughter married Henry Gijjup, your cousin and they have three children …” and so it goes on.

The release of the booklet coincides also with the 110th anniversary of Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s death. Associated events included a walk, a public talk, a seminar and a display of quilts, all of which I’ve missed. There is also a half hour documentary on You Tube.

Trove has a long and detailed account Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s life, written by Daisy Bates for the Western Mail of 1 June, 1907.

 

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Noongar, group portrait, before 1907. State Library WA

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter, National Trust WA, 2017. Research and interviews by Casey Kickett

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1938. My edition, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates, A&R, 1971, republished Corgi, 1973


*Bates is presumably referring to Capt. Frederick Irwin, the officer in charge of a detachment of 60 or so soldiers from the 63rd Regiment, who arrived on the Sulphur on 8 June 1829, though Charles Fremantle, captain of HMS Challenger, who had arrived a month earlier and claimed the whole of Australia west of NSW for the Crown, took a ship’s boat up the Swan on 2 May: “Continuing up the Swan River as far as the Canning River, Fremantle had his first encounter with a group of curious, but friendly, Aborigines”. (Settlement-of-the-Swan-.pdf).

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