The Passing of the Aborigines, Daisy Bates

From the time she arrived in Western Australia in 1899, Daisy Bates wrote and lectured about the Aboriginal peoples she lived amongst and whose languages and customs it became her life’s work to record. The Passing of the Aborigines came about when in the 1930s Ernestine Hill persuaded Bates, and spent some time working with her, to get her papers into a form acceptable to a publisher. If I have my facts right, this work was initially serialised in newspapers as My Natives and I in 1936.

Hill’s work was completely unacknowledged, and the edition I have, a 2009 reprint, continues that tradition by failing to list any earlier edition or publishing history, or even the sources of the individual stories. I can only imagine that Bates’ work is now out of copyright. Trove (the website of the National Library of Australia) has the initial publisher as Murray, London, 1938 (up till now I had thought 1944) followed a year later by Putnam, New York.

Trove also shows there is another work by Bates, not published until 1985 (Bates died in 1951) The Native Tribes of Western Australia edited by Isobel White*. Bates early on adopted the name Kabbarli, meaning grandmother, which name was apparently recognised by the Aborigines of all the many language groups with which she worked. Using ‘Kabbarli’ as a search term on Trove brings up 2,920 Australian newspaper articles, giving some idea of how widely her journalism was syndicated. She was also well known overseas, but I don’t know how to demonstrate that.

The Passing of the Aborigines is a collection of stories written by a dedicated, adventurous, literate and thoroughly old-fashioned woman, describing her life with Aboriginal people, from Broome in 1899 where she lived and worked in a Trappist monastery, to nearby Roebuck Plains where Jack Bates managed a cattle station; droving cattle south to the head of the Ashburton R. (near present-day Newman) where she had her own property; touring the Pilbara by buggy; living in a tent on the reservation for the remnants of the local Noongar (she says Bibbulmun); touring the Murchison goldfields north of Perth with AR Radcliff-Brown; living on the islands in Shark Bay where seriously ill Aborigines were brought to die; years touring all of Noongar south-west WA; getting an unpaid position as ‘Protector’ at Eucla, maybe the most remote township in the world, jammed under the cliffs, between the Southern Ocean and a thousand kilometres of desert; travelling by camel buggy for 2 weeks to briefly enjoy the limelight with the Science Congress in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, coinciding with the outbreak of WWI; before returning to the Nullabor, still unpaid, this time on the SA side, to a number of camps west of Ceduna, before finally, in 1919, ending up at Ooldea, a watering stop on the trans-Australia rail line (map), and the southern hub of continent-wide Indigenous trade routes, where she stayed 16 years, until she was well into her seventies.

Nothing more than one of the many depresions in the never-ending sandhills that run waveringly from the Bight for nearly a thousand miles, Ooldea Water is one of Nature’s miracles in barren Central Australia. No white man coming to this place would ever guess that that dreary hollow with the sand blowing across it was an unfailing fountain, yet a mere scratch and the magic waters welled in sight. Even in the cruellest droughts, it had never failed. Here the tribes gathered in their hundreds for initiation and other ceremonies.

In the building of the transcontinental line, the water of Ooldea passed out of its own people’s hand for ever. Pipelines and pumping plants reduced it at the rate of 10,000 gallons a day for locomotives. The natives were forbidden the soak …

Within a few years railways engineers had drilled through the clay bottom of the water table and rendered it all saline.

This a beautifully written book which contains a wealth of stories and information nowhere else available. Its big problem is that it contains ideas which present day Aboriginal people repudiate. Firstly, the idea behind the name itself; secondly, the encroachment of the ‘circumcised’ (Western Desert Group) tribes of the centre into the country of the ‘uncircumcised’ groups in south west WA and out along the Bight; and thirdly the widespread practice of cannibalism and particularly of the eating of infants. (With the caveat I was unable to google any discussion of this book, by Indigenous writers or white.** )

Bates frequently mentions the “last Aborigine” of a particular region or tribe. It is clear that, as the 1905 Aborigines Act under which she was employed in Western Australia, anticipates, she believed that Indigenous people with white blood would be absorbed into the white community. My searches brought up the following quote: 

They did not anticipate a need to manage an emergent, fertile, and anomic half-caste populace, too black for the mainstream white community to accept as equals, but too white to be regarded as Aborigines (D. Tomlison, thesis, 2008)

I’ve read nothing else about circumcised and uncircumcised, but Bates believed that the circumcised – in effect the Western Desert Group – represented a later wave of arrivals from the north and east. Bates believed that right up to white settlement, the Noongar (of south-west WA) were being pushed westwards. Certainly it seems the groups east of the Noongar, around Kalgoorlie and along the Bight have been largely overtaken by Western Desert peoples.

 I’m not going to talk about cannibalism, and neither is anyone else probably.

Bates as an Australian ‘explorer’ and scientist (anthropologist) should be more widely recognised. The Passing of the Aborigines is a fascinating work by a fascinating person and an important and largely unrecognised record in our national history.

 

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime spent among the Natives of Australia, first pub. 1938, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009


*The bulk of MS 365 is the manuscript of Daisy Bates’ work “The native tribes of Western Australia”, written during her period of service with the Western Australian Government from 1904 to 1912. It comprises 99 “folios” split between Sections I to XIII. Each page has been item-numbered within the “folios”. Many of the drafts have been annotated by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a British social anthropologist (53 boxes, 2 fol. boxes). Trove (here)


** Anita Heiss doesn’t mention Bates in Dhuuluu-Yala. JJ Healy in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia contrasts Bates’ despair and practicality with English writer Grant Watson’s fear and mysticism (after the two travelled together with AR Radcliffe-Brown in 1910). See my post on Heiss and Healy (here)


Further to my discussion with Sue (Whispering Gums) after my previous post, I noticed in Wikipedia this reference to the ongoing use of her materials: The collaborative work of digitising and transcribing many word lists created by Bates in the 1900s at Daisy Bates Online provides a valuable resource for those researching especially Western Australian languages, and some of the Northern Territory and South Australia [Western Desert Group]. The project is co-ordinated by Nick Thieburger, who works in collaboration with the NLA “to have all the microfilmed images from Section XII of the Bates papers digitised”, and the project is ongoing.


Two typical newspaper stories about Bates:

In “The Desert Farewell” Bates is leaving her camp at Ooldea, forever she thinks, to work on this book in Adelaide, and here, 6 years later, “Abos. Await ‘Kabbarli’, she returns, to live out her years destitute in a tent in the desert.

 

Daisy Bates

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Daisy Bates was probably the best-known Australian woman of the first half of the C20th, that is, her name was, but very little was known about her – just that she was an old woman who wore C19th dresses and lived in a tent in the Aboriginal community at Ooldea, a rail siding way, way out in the Nullarbor, in western South Australia.

There was a rail siding at Ooldea for the same reason as there were Aborigines – there was a permanent soak, the only fresh water for a very great distance, which the railways commandeered for their steam locomotives.

With this post I will reprise Bates’ biography from my thesis (Lisa, who has already read it, is given leave to stop here). And with my next I will review the collection of articles which, with the unacknowledged assistance of Ernestine Hill, was published as The Passing of the Aborigines (1944). My principal source is Elizabeth Salter’s Daisy Bates (1971).

I own and have read the de Vries ‘biography’ but it is a journalistic nonsense hanging off the revelation of Daisy’s marriage to Breaker Morant. If I met her, I would ask de Vries one question: If Bates had the poor start you make out, then how did she later have the money to buy the lease of a cattle station? The money can only have been the remnants of her inheritance from her father. However, I don’t deny that, throughout her life, Daisy told a great many falsehoods about her antecedents.


Daisy May O’Dwyer (1859-1951) was of the minor Irish (protestant) gentry. Her mother died early (in 1862) and Daisy was mainly brought up by relatives, in particular her Grandmother Hunt, and it was on her grandmother’s property in rural Roscrea where she was mostly in the care of her illiterate and superstitious (and Catholic) nanny that she mixed freely with the rural poor who, in the years after the Great Famine were still living lives not only of intense physical poverty but also of great spiritual richness, that, years later, she said enabled her to emphasize with and share the lives of Australian Aborigines.

She eventually, somehow, received a good education, not staying long at any school but guided by her father in her reading, particularly Dickens, and later touring Europe with the family of Sir Francis Outram, learning grammar, languages and manners with their governess. In 1883 her father died, leaving her a small inheritance, and she, like a great many of her countrymen, chose to emigrate, in her case to Australia, to another friend of her father’s, Bishop Stanton in Townsville, Queensland.

Some time in her first year in Australia she took a position as governess on a station near Charters Towers, where she probably married Edward Henry Murrant (the famous Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant). She may also, the following year, have married Ernest Baglehole a well-born seaman whom she had met on the voyage out, and further, by her own account was also in the same year to have married Phillip Gibbs, who inconveniently died. In any case she subsequently – and probably bigamously – married Jack Bates, a drover, in 1885 and by him, a year later, had a son, Arnold. And that was the end of intimacy, ‘“I had rather a hard time of it with the baby,” she is reported as saying, “and Jack, the best of men, never came near me after that.”’

She and Bates persevered for a number of years, thinking, or hoping, that he would use her money to establish a cattle property suitable to her station, but Bates, an archetypal ‘lone hand’, was, perhaps not surprisingly, happier to be away droving. Daisy would sometimes go with him, travelling throughout the backblocks of eastern Australia and learning the bush skills that stood her in such good stead in later life. But, by 1894 she had had enough. She placed Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and set sail for London.

There, near destitute due to the property crash and bank failures of 1892, Daisy was doubly lucky to be taken up by the philanthropist W.T. Stead, for he not only found her a place in a home for penurious gentlewomen, but gave her a job on his journal Review of Reviews and so introduced her to journalism which was to provide much of her income for the rest of her life. She stayed at the Review for two years, starting off by dusting the library and learning to type and ending as assistant to the (lady) editor of Borderland, a journal of spiritualism. Although the circles she moved in included both spiritualism and women’s emancipation she was impressed by neither.

In 1897 she took another library position in Norfolk where she mixed with the county set and, apparently accepted as a widow, and with introductions from one of her innumerable upper class cousins, she attended weekend house parties, “hunting and shooting” during the day and dancing at night. At least two men she stayed with, Richard Attwater of Ratfin Hall and Carrick O’Bryen Hoare, were sufficiently taken with her to propose marriage, but in 1899 her bank offered to refund her a shilling in the pound (ie. one twentieth of her nominal deposits), Jack wrote to say he and Arnold were in Western Australia looking for a property in the newly opened up North West and Daisy sailed for Perth. Two years later, the property finally purchased, Daisy named it Glen Carrick, in remembrance no doubt of all she had given up.

Although she later claimed to be a correspondent for The Times, the more likely story is that she contacted The Times and offered to write them an account of clashes in WA between settlers and aborigines, which she finally did in 1904. Daisy was certainly interested enough to obtain an introduction to a scientist in London knowledgeable about WA and, through him, an introduction to the elderly Catholic priest and champion of the Aborigines, Dean Martelli who was returning to Perth on the same ship.

In Perth she moved in the upper levels of society, she gave lectures at, and was accepted into the Karrakatta Club, was invited by club members, Perth’s principal matrons, into their homes, attended Government House, and was persuaded by the Premier, John Forrest, of the necessity of recording the languages and customs of the aborigines before they died out.

Meanwhile, Jack’s mentor, Sam McKay of Roy Hill Station in the Pilbara, had found Jack 180,000 acres of leasehold, good cattle country which he would help finance. Daisy sailed north to Cossack (present day Karratha) to meet Jack and made with him a remarkable journey inland by buggy through rugged country to the new ‘Glen Carrick’, at Ethel Creek, near Jigalong, Martu country, then back across the plains to the coast at Carnarvon (a round trip of at least 1,000 kms (map)), writing up her observations for the Journal of Agriculture, including detailed accounts of the local Aborigines.

Her next journey was even more remarkable. Martelli had introduced her to Bishop Gibney who was famous for his struggles on behalf of the Aborigines, and she persuaded Gibney to take him with her to a Trappist mission at Beagle Bay near Broome, 8,000 acres which was meant to be a model farm for the local Aborigine community. Daisy stayed 3 months, helping the Bishop bring the farm up to scratch for renewal of the lease, and her writings of their progress were taken up not only by Australian but by London newspapers.

With no stock and no house on Glen Carrick, Bates took a position as manger on a station, Roebuck Plains, near Broome where Daisy joined him and was able to indulge her new – and lifelong – enthusiasm, documenting and, more importantly, being accepted by, the Aborigines, and becoming an honorary correspondent of the Anthropological Institutions of England and Australia. After a season at Roebuck Plains, the Bates decided to take advantage of high cattle prices in the south by buying and droving 770 head of cattle, to Perth, resting en route at Glen Carrick and leaving enough cattle there to form the basis of their own herd. The West Australian described it as “one of the most arduous trips that any lady has undertaken and … what must be a record in the endurance of the “weaker” sex.” Unfortunately, the 200 head intended for Glen Carrick were lost, and the Bates effectively separated, more or less for good.

For the next couple of years Daisy worked as a journalist, travelling throughout Western Australia. Importantly, in 1904 she wrote to The Times (London) defending pastoralists against charges of exploiting the blacks, cementing her acceptance by officialdom as an authority on all things Aboriginal and in May that year she was appointed by the Registrar General to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population “before they died out”. For a year, she worked from an office compiling reports collected by officials throughout Western Australia, then, taking advantage of some remaining Noongar being encamped at Cannington, a swampy area a few miles south of Perth, she was, reluctantly, permitted by the authorities to camp with them, which she did, in a tent ‘fourteen feet in diameter’, for the next six years (here). During this period, she wrote and rewrote her grammars, corresponded indefatigably with anthropologists interstate and overseas, and published popular articles in the local papers, all the while struggling with the government for ongoing support.

In 1910, almost ready to publish her formal study, she was persuaded to join a major expedition by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, under the leadership of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (later Australia’s first professor of Anthropology at Sydney University) and, inevitably, her ‘amateur’ work was subsumed into his and the opportunity for publication was lost.

In 1912, she applied for the position of Protector of the Aborigines for the Northern Territory, for which she was unsuccessful ‘as the risks involved would be too great for a woman’. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, she was offered the, unpaid, position of honorary protector for the district of Eucla in South Australia. In November she put her property up for sale and moved to a station near Eucla, initially staying with friends, then camping once more, on the edge of the town, venturing out into the desert for days at a time with Aboriginal companions, on horseback and by camel-drawn buggy, exploring and hunting wild dogs. Already well known throughout the country due to her both own and other journalists’ reports of her activities, she now became famous, and then a ‘legend’. That is, the ‘idea’ of Daisy Bates developed a life of its own.

After the war (WWI) she moved to Ooldea, a fettlers’ camp and water stop for steam trains on the newly completed Trans Australia railway, where she was to stay for the next 16 years, all her money gone, an object of curiosity to passengers, with no hope of official support, but still, determinedly, writing up her observations.

Ernestine Hill, who sought her out in 1932, wrote:

Living unafraid in the great loneliness, chanting in those corroborees it is death for a woman to see, she had become a legend, to her own kind… To the natives, she is an age-old, sexless being who knows his secrets and guesses his thoughts – Dhoogoor of the dream-time. (Hill 1937, p.252)

Following Hill’s visit, and her widely syndicated articles, Daisy began, slowly, to benefit from her renown, she was asked to Canberra to advise the government (her suggestion of a huge reservation for the remaining Blacks with a white administrator from Britain, “an Anglican and a gentleman”, was not taken up), she was awarded a CBE, and some of her papers were sold to state and national libraries. Although she refused all requests to collaborate with ‘real’ anthropologists, in 1934 Hill persuaded Daisy to work with her on the series of articles eventually published as The Passing of the Aborigines.

For four years Daisy worked to prepare her papers, 94 folios in all, for the national library, for the pittance of £2 a week, living in a tent north of Adelaide, and then, 80 years old, half blind with sandy blight, and with the nominal title of Consultant for Native Affairs, she returned to camp life near Ooldea. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital suffering from malnutrition. She struggled for a few more years in Adelaide and Streaky Bay to obtain funding for further publications but in 1948 she was admitted to a convalescent home, and on 18th April 1951 aged 91 or 92 she died.

Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas and Eve Langley’s Steve represent the ‘pure’ form of the Independent Woman, but Daisy Bates with her love affairs, her unsatisfactory marriage, her tremendous feats of endurance in the Bush and, above all, her fierce resolve to forge her own path, represents not only the ‘real’ Independent Woman but surely also one of the finest examples of the Australian Legend, man or woman.

 

References and other reading:
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1944
Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates,  Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971
Sussanah de Vries, Desert Queen, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2008
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1945
Ventured North by Train and Truck (here)
Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)
The Breaker, Kit Denton (here)
The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)

The Drums Go Bang, Ruth Park & D’Arcy Niland

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

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The Drums Go Bang, a joint memoir of their early married life in Sydney during WWII (which is not mentioned) by writers Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, has been one of my favourite books these last 50 or 60 years (my review). Sue/Whispering Gums has reviewed it for AWW Gen 3 Week


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Volume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, … was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1948 of The harp in the south. Read on …

The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, Cathy Perkins

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

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Zora Cross has been one of the big surprises of AWW Gen 3 for me. I guess each generation of writers has ‘unknowns’ who prove to be tremendously interesting and Cross is one of those. This repost is from historian and blogger, Janine The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.


The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

“Twenty pounds and you shall have her” and thus were the publishing rights for Songs of Love and Life transferred from a small self-publishing bookshop to that of the publishing behemoth, Angus and Robertson in 1917.  This book of sixty erotic love-sonnets was to become a literary sensation, going through three reprints and selling a respectable 4000 copies. Its author,  27 year old Zora Cross, wrote about love and sensuality from a woman’s perspective – something shocking in 1917. Read on …

Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

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I’ve been (re-)reading Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888) by Australian author Tasma, one of many notable women writers wrongly written out of the Australian canon. I read Uncle Piper maybe 15 years ago for my thesis, and may have read it first 15 years before that when Dale Spender, and the Nunawading library, first made me aware of the quality and quantity of works which make up what I have since labelled AWW Gen 1. The problem of reading for my thesis was that I was looking for a particular theme – women attempting to live adult lives without surrendering themselves to men – and so rushed through a work I saw as an ordinary romance.

In doing so I was unfair I see now, to the book and to the author. The 1969 Thomas Nelson edition I am reading contains an excellent introduction by Cecil Hadgraft and Ray Beilby (yes I know, more mansplaining) and I thought I would discuss that today, while I push on with what is proving quite a dense read  and I don’t intend that as a criticism.

Jessie Catherine Huybers was born at Highgate in London on 28 October 1848. She was the second child and oldest daughter to James Alfred Huybers, a native of Antwerp who migrated to Tasmania in the early 1850s.

There in Hobart, Huybers prospered as a merchant. His two sons attended Hutchins School (for rich boys). Jessie’s education is not recorded, but her father’s library when it was sold up in 1887 contained 850 volumes of French and English literature. Jessie was married at 18, in 1867 to Victorian ‘gentleman’ Charles Fraser who was 8 years older, and worked for his brother in law who owned the Montpellier and Riverview Mills* and the Hotel Carlsruhe near Kyneton, and ‘Pemberley’ at Malmsbury (both towns north west of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo).

The marriage was unsuccessful. Jessie spent some years in Europe with her mother and younger siblings, came back, began writing, living with but apart from her husband, returned to Europe, met Auguste Couvreur, a Belgian politician and journalist, was back in Melbourne briefly in 1883, to divorce Fraser who was by then living with his mistress, and subsequently spent the remainder of her short life in Belgium as Mme Couvreur. She died in 1897.

A site maintained by the Tasmanian Government says: “In 1877 she adopted the pen name ‘Tasma’, and began writing. She adopted this pseudonym to honour the colony where she grew up and continued to use it for the rest of her life. She enjoyed success from the start of her writing career and was regarded as a bright new talent, contributing articles and short stories on a variety of topics to the Australasian, the Melbourne Review and the Australian Journal.” Her ADB entry adds, “marriage [to Couvreur] gave her the opportunity to expand her writing beyond the fields of literary criticism and the short story.” And goes on …

In 1889 she published her first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, which remains the best and best-known of all her novels. This and A Knight of the White Feather (1894) are the least autobiographical of her novels. The others, In Her Earliest Youth (1890), The Penance of Portia James (1891), Not Counting the Cost (1895) and A Fiery Ordeal (1897), are in large measure so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.

Hadgraft & Beilby write (of the 1890s):

That part of Australian society described by such writers as Lawson, Paterson and Furphy tended to be seen as the whole of society. Tasma on the other hand, saw a part (the middle class) and quite accurately recognised it as only being part … In Uncle Piper she opens a window and allows us to look in on a part of the Australian scene that became increasingly overlooked as the belief took hold that the real Australia was to be found only in the bush.

The editors spend some pages discussing the ways in which Tasma and Joseph Furphy represent respectively the end of English Literature in Australian and the beginning of Australian Lit., and posit that the two may have met when both were living in Kyneton in 1867. Tasma was a French speaker, Furphy had a French wife. Both wrote verse and Furphy won a local prize with a recitation of his “The Death of President Lincoln”. Maybe. In Such is Life Furphy is critical of the generation of the popular women writers who preceded him, and in Rigby’s Romance the eponymous Rigby names his horse Tasma.

Tasma, like Rosa Praed, drew heavily on her unhappy marriage to describe young women struggling to escape from a husband who “is often a drunkard, a gambler, a dunce, a coward, emotionally unstable, prone to insanity, dishonest and occasionally effeminate.” Tasma uses her heroines to argue against the institution of marriage, and to discuss the possibility of Free Love (without ever, unfortunately, resorting to it, or surprisingly, to divorce). These are an almost constant theme in early Australian women’s fiction, constantly overlooked.

The 1950s with its idealization of the perfect marriage propagated by American film and television stands between us and a proper understanding of just how un-Victorian, intelligent Victorian women were. The gatekeepers who kept us from reading Come in Spinner or Lettie Fox with their promiscuous heroines, who kept unpublished and unstudied all women’s fiction from before WWI, also kept us, and to a large extent still keep us, from an informed reading of our own history.

 

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, first pub. 1888. This edition pub. 1969 by Thomas Nelson, Cecil Hadgraft & Ray Beilby ed.s

The painting of Tasma above is in the State Library Victoria collection and was painted by Mathilde Philippson in 1890 (here)

see also:

Whispering Gums, Tasma (aka Jessie Couvreur) (here)
Other reviews and essays in the AWW Gen 1 page (here)
Patricia Clarke, Tasma the life of Jessie Couvreur, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994
Patricia Clarke, Tasma’s Diaries, Mulini Press, Canberra, 1996
Patricia Clarke, papers in the NLA (here)
Tasma as seen by the Tasmanian Government (here)
Obituary, Hobart Mercury (here)


*The Montpellier mill at Carlsruhe (here) and the Riverview mill at Kyneton (here) were steam powered flour mills built for pastoralist William Degraves in about 1860. The buildings housing the mills were impressive four story structures of local bluestone.

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One of the surviving mills in this area.

Carlsruhe Hotel

Hotel Carlsruhe c. 1865. Now Lord Admiral House. “The great bluestone public house, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth.”

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Pemberley at Malmsbury, now a wedding venue (do grooms emerge from the lake in wet shirts?)

Hearing Maud, Jessica White

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Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa? It begins, “Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born on ..”. But this conventional start makes Matthews unhappy, he criticizes his typewriter, starts again.

I write, “Hearing Maud is the third work by Australian author Jessica White (1978- )”, and immediately think of Louisa. What to do? My ‘typewriter’ is an oldish pc with a 23 inch screen that was radical (and expensive) when I bought it, in 2008 I think, though the box has been updated since, sitting on the wooden kitchen table my paternal grandfather made for his wife, my Nana, in the early years of their marriage during the Depression.

… (how much easier it would be, I thought suddenly, if one could somehow step into that bland, printless expanse and leave behind the struggle with the black and compromising words), this sentence, anyway, reminded me forcibly of the problematic nature of biography and of this biography in particular. (Matthews)

Matthews’ problem is to construct a story from too little information. While Jess White’s, as in any memoir, is what information to hold back.

Jess is part of the furniture a familiar presence in this corner of the blogosphere, disability editor for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, a guest a couple of times on this blog (here, here, here), a fellow blogger (here), and an occasional correspondent as we attempt, unsuccessfully, to catch up for coffee.

Hearing Maud is her story. Though the Maud of the title is the daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed (1851-1935), the connection being their both being deaf. So should that be Non-hearing Maud (and Jess), or is it a plea for us to be hearing Maud who was brought up to speak and write but gradually lost the ability to do both as in adulthood she descended into madness. And, by extension, what is it that Jess wants us to hear from/about her.

Jess became deaf after an illness when she was four. She could already speak and retained some, limited hearing, so by concentrating, lip reading she could appear to be normal, or at the shy end of normal, and her parents made the decision that support at school and elocution lessons were a better option than learning to sign. I’m not sure that’s a decision Jess is happy with. But being publicly critical of parents you love, of anyone you love, comes with the memoir furniture so to speak.

It is easy to overlook that the other half of Jess’s name is White. Her grandfather was Patrick White’s father’s cousin (I think). David Marr, White’s biographer, is big on White’s background in the squattocracy –

The story of the Whites in Australia is the history of a fortune, a river of money that flowed through New South Wales … The Whites had hundreds of thousands of acres of the best land in Australia: in the Hunter Valley, across the Liverpool plains and up through New England.

That’s an unfair thing to apply to Jess, though I think she should have addressed it. Jess’s father shares a farm at Boggabri NSW with his brothers (a little north and west of the really fertile New England country) which he leaves while Jess is in high school, to concentrate on his landscape painting. I think though, Jess enjoys having the great novelist in her family tree as Rosa Praed had the poet Charles Harpur.

Praed too was born into the squattocracy. Her father was a Queensland grazier and politician (see Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (here)). In 1872 she was married from Government House at St John’s Church of England, Brisbane, to Campbell Praed, younger son of an English banking and brewing family. Interestingly, White downplays this, to ‘Rosa Praed grew up in the Australian Bush’ (I paraphrase, I forgot to mark the quote).

The Campbell Praeds had a grazing property on Curtis Island, just off the coast north of Gladstone Qld. There they had a daughter, Maud, and a son but things went badly and they soon left to live permanently in England. Maud was probably made deaf by a serious ear infection, while only a few months old, on Curtis Island, for which Rosa was unable to obtain treatment.

In England, Maud is taught to speak. She seems intelligent, well educated and well-spoken. But Rosa holds her at a distance, sends her to boarding school, and when the marriage breaks up, replaces Maud with her new and permanent love, Nancy Hayward. Maud stays with her father, and when he dies, blames herself, has a breakdown and is institutionalised in Holloway Sanatorium, where she gradually loses the ability to communicate.

White uses the story of Rosa and Maud to talk about herself and her mother (and her father, brother and sister) and the lingering sadness of a stillborn brother.

I delved into the underworld through Rosa’s words and discovered a woman who used writing to eclipse the distance from Australia and express her enduring love for Nancy. Then I found her daughter, who showed me the terrible history and impact of oralism. Without Rosa, and without Maud, I would never have found myself: a partly deaf, partly hearing woman who travels between worlds, and whose travelling made her a writer.

Hearing Maud is a memoir which swirls around – from the illness which left Jess deaf, to the research in London which led to her interest in Rosa Praed, to her school days, to Maud and C19th treatments for deafness, oralism vs signing (the debate goes on (here)), to Jess’s loneliness, isolation, achievements and love life.

Near the end of the book, Jess’s sister Belle asks her “Is this book a cry for help?”. It’s a good question. Jess tells Belle, No. “I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice and to know that … deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people.”

At the end, Jess is learning to speak French, learning to sign (at last!), and has, after many false steps, a bloke. She is, for the time being anyway, at peace.

 

Jessica White, Hearing Maud, UWAP, Perth, 2019.

References:
Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987 (here)
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random, Sydney, 1991
Other Reviews:
Lisa at ANZLL (here)
Sue at Whispering Gums (here)

When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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