Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.

Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.

If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.

Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.

I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.

In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.

Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’
He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’

This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.

I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?

We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.

‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.

The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’

A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.

I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.

Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.

What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –

And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.

I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.

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Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.

The Silence, Susan Allott

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.

The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.

And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.

The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.

I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.

In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.

Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.

‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’
Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers.
Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands.
Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.

Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.

This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.

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Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.


*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.

Small Town Rising, Bill Green

Note: This review talks about rape and sex with children.

A couple of years ago a post of mine about the Mallee (Victoria’s semi desert north-west, if I haven’t made that clear by now) inspired Lisa/ANZLL to buy and read Small Town Rising. She then sent it on to me and now I’ve read it. For that reason I went back to her review before writing my own – I am sometimes careful about what I say. Lisa’s verdict was “This is a well-intentioned novel but there are some flaws.” My verdict is that this is a racist and misogynist book, which should not be excused for being of its time -1981 – and I intensely disliked reading it.

Bill Green (1940-2011) grew up in the Mallee, went away to school at Geelong College, worked in Australia and overseas as a journalist before settling in a small country town down south (Camperdown, Vic) with his wife and children. I look that stuff up because I always wonder what sort of feel the author has for his subject.

Now, to be fair to Lisa I think the author’s intention was to shine a light on small town racism, not something we generally think about in Victoria. And that he was just totally ham-fisted about it. There’s an Indigenous family, the Stirlings, – who might “pass for white” – living in town. The local police sergeant would like to pin something on them. There’s an Aboriginal community living in a camp on the NSW side of the river. The sergeant would like to stop them hanging around the town and Mayor Blossoms is willing to go along with him. Doctor Cavett, thinks ‘something should be done’ about police racism. His son John aged about 11, is friends with Chasa, the youngest Stirling.

Green is uninhibited about the racist language used by the cops, the mayor, and anyone else they rope in for assistance and we might put that down to that’s just the way people speak (unfortunate but true). Where he comes completely unstuck is in his treatment of women. He has a thing about legs. Girls barely in their teens have short skirts and long legs; a girl getting a lift home lets her skirt ride up which the driver, the doctor I think, totally gets off on; a teacher in her twenties sits so that her 11 and 12 year old pupils can see up to the tops of her stockings. The same teacher, called in to babysit, wrestles with John in his bed, and goes back for a second go when he, did I say he’s only 11, gets an erection.

This is all made worse by the author’s third person omniscient point of view which means we get told what everyone, mothers and daughters, victims and perpetrators are thinking.

The plot is basically this: John and Chasa do various YA things. John thinks more about sex than an 11 year old should. The mayor’s daughter Kay, in John and Chasa’s class at school, wanders away from an evening picnic…

[Mayor Blossoms] had flushed and shifted uncomfortably as the boong had passed his girls in their short dresses. Their long straight legs were beginning to give them problems: Kay’s especially. He had seen her looking at the boong as he passed.

Once in a childish game he had moved his hands beneath her knickers and over the tiny perfection of her buttocks. It could have been an affectionate fatherly caress, but he now thought of it as uncontrolled masculinity. Her cry of delight had affronted and frightened him.

… When Mayor Blossoms comes looking for her, Kay’s lying on the river bank some metres from Linny, Chasa’s older brother. The mayor rushes at Linny, treading on his daughter, and Linny understandably dives in the river. Kay says nothing happened. The doctor determines Kay is still a virgin and is unmarked (except for the bruise caused by her father). Linny is charged with molesting her.

The police sergeant gets up a party to burn down the Aboriginal camp on the other side of the river, ie. not in his jurisdiction. Chasa’s sister aged maybe 14, is invited to the movies by her young boss, who takes her home and rapes her. She tells her parents, who have been expecting it to happen sooner or later, and she’s not sure she feels terribly bad about it. The next picnic Kay is at she invites John down the river bank and they do some mutual touching inside knickers etc. Chasa goes missing. Life goes on.

I’ve thought a bit about the setting and it’s probably the early 1960s (John goes to see a re-release of The Maltese Falcon which first came out in 1941), and that Strong Lake is most likely based on Swan Hill, which as it happens I occasionally visited at that time, from my grandparents’ farm, and remember seeing Aboriginal people in the street and sitting in the parks, the only place in Victoria I ever did so.

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Bill Green, Small Town Rising, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981. 167 pp. Cover illustration – it wraps around the back -‘Monto in Landscape’, Gil Jamieson (1978) [as it happens, Monto is in Queensland, near Bundaberg, and 2,000 km north of the Mallee]

see also: A Literary Tour of the Mallee (here)

The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

The Timeless Land.... eleanor dark ..1960

It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.


Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.

The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!

The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.

So why did I struggle with the story?

I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.

I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:

“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”

Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:

“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”

And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?

So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.

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Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960

see also reviews of:
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here)
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here)
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)

Coonardoo, Katharine Susannah Prichard

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

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Lisa Hill/ANZLitLovers, for this our second year looking at the writers of Gen 3, has produced a scholarly take on what is probably Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best known and most important novel.


c5b3363f5556b3f32f816ae4abb9da0e ANZLitLovers LitBlog

I’ve departed from my usual practice in reviewing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo from 1929: I’ve read other opinions about it, both before and after reading it.  I also re-read Mairi Neil’s post about the play Brumby Innes and its place in the history of Australian drama because Prichard first used the theme of the novel in the play.

I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself. Read on …

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

This, to my great surprise, is a guest post from Lou. I didn’t know he was reading Australian fiction, let alone, as he says, Bush Lit. Now all my children have contributed a post.

Lou is a teacher, currently in the Northern Territory. Over the past 15 years he has taught mainly in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, but also in London, Kenya (where the photo below was taken), Morocco and Malawi.

A Kindness Cup (1974) is set some time in the past in a small country town in Queensland and was “loosely” based by Astley on the massacre at The Leap in 1867.

Lead on, Lou …


I approached this text as a piece of Australian bush lit, as I approached a fresh posting in a rural town in Australia. Should I say ‘Country’? It seems a thing that might be capitalised, and asserted thus, here. A particular context of its own. It is conceptually a long way from anywhere I’ve been at home before. I am extensively familiar neither with the genre or the context. I came to both from a wary but willing second hand acquaintance. As an earnest, highminded and alien teacher, I felt prepared from the outset to take the part of protagonist, Dorahy.

In this story Dorahy, a schoolteacher, has encountered an act of racist brutality. The perpetrators of ‘the incident’ were exonerated and the teacher left town in disgust. This is prelude to a time, much later, when the leading lights of the town are inviting former denizens back to celebrate their success in making something to be proud of.

That Astley engages with race I understood entirely from theaustralianlegend. So I was surprised at how little a part the Black characters played. I recognise the impulse to shirk the challenge of characterisation- I am, as I say, much better prepared to describe the internal life of the white teacher from the city. I recognise the weight of responsibility such a task entails.

In a meeting last week I watched my team leader, a Black woman from a local mob with much the same experience and qualifications as myself, hedge around descriptions that specified race. We were discussing students with problems, or maybe problem students, and race arose as a factor for consideration (the school being 70% Aboriginal, including a mixture of local communities and displaced outsiders). Me being new, and the third teacher being very young, I expect that any particular language or opinion she wished to assert would have been accepted as her right, but she was clearly as careful and awkward as a white professor presenting a lecture on Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, white masks’.

Later in the week, the middle-aged-white-boy school principal, with long experience of working in very remote Aboriginal community schools, led us in consideration of the ‘school opinion survey’. He apologised a lot for the numbers, and launched repeatedly, unabashedly, into direct descriptions (perhaps intending wit, or displaying sympathy) of his experience of the differences between ‘middle class white boys’ and ‘our community kids’.

So Astley’s characters are not black, or brown. Indeed, their racial/cultural/language group origins are unremarked, while the Blacks are consistently identified by their ‘mob’ (conversely: my paternal grandmother, from a generation of Country similar to Astley, might not know the names of any Victorian first-nations, but she could sure as hell tell you who in whichever small town was Anglican, or Methodist, or Catholic). The characters are heartfelt and thickly outlined- the shortness of the text does not provide space for sophistry. Dorahy’s snaggly toothed middle-aged (“youngish” in his own memories) idealist is caught in classroom vignettes, while his bitter, worn-down old man is made clear mostly though his impression on those around him. One imagines Astley, like even the most sympathetic of her townsfolk, finds his long-fermented ardour for recognition a bit on the nose. Lunt, who is brutalised and mutilated in the affair, spends much of the text as a removed, saintly example of the victim. The horror of it lies in that he, too, is white.

Nor, mostly, are Astley’s characters women. It is men who have acted in the affair in question. The one female character who is drawn beyond a few words is Gracie Tilburn, a singer and former town darling. The women are barely active enough to be ‘damned whores or god’s police’, but Tilburn has the character of the former, while her considered regard (or otherwise) for the men about her signals their virtue. She likes ‘young’ Jenner (a good kid from Dorahy’s class, and a blandly successful man in the present day), but wakes up with the villain Buckminster, and derides his chubby thighs (alike to her own), and ushers him out the door with barely concealed loathing (for both self and other). Spoiler: As the text draws to a close she is asked to choose between the (“fat, shapeless, and unheroic to look at”) town hack, Boyd, who (showing “virtue.. in his face or his smile”) has been amoral, except in the end), and the unredeemed, (also unattractive) mass of the status quo (including Buckminster of the unfortunate encounter). I was engaged sufficiently at this point to hope the hack’s smile was virtuous enough to invite a happy ending.

As the arbiter of what is good, Teacher Dorahy is, I assume, an acolyte of Arnold (I’ll let theaustralianlegend check the dates [Headmaster of Rugby 1828-41] ). His mission to enlighten the savage Country-men comes with a book and a burning cane (although he is light on the cane- he shows his disdain for young Buckminster after ‘the incident’ not by whipping him harder, but by declining to whip him at all). His wisdom is punctuated with Greek and Latin (presumably from vitally important texts, “the best of all that has been thought and done by mankind [north of the Mediterranean]”, which I’ll get around to once I’ve mastered the canon of Australian bush literature). The townsfolk show their substance in a hierarchy of economic satisfaction- from the comfortably established, to unlucky (or incompetent) Lunt who can’t find a farm with water, to the poor Blacks. They show their virtue in a willingness to offer charity to those lower on this scale. The best of them do not blame the Blacks for their collectively pitiable condition, nor do they root the Black women (the topic arises several times, and is met with shame or disgust depending on circumstances).

But, perhaps this is not sufficient to judge Astley’s morality. From a distance, the trio of Dorahy, Boyd and Lunt might represent the intelligentsia, the media and the common man. Dorahy speaks of morality, but his manifest actions are only in speaking. Boyd, while afraid to rock the boat, has actively done good (taking in the orphan of the incident), and tries to end his career (albeit with little to lose) on a moral note. Lunt is the victim, but he is also a battler clearly written for greatest sympathy. His character is clearest when, invited to take part in the mob, he declines:

“You’ll warn them?” [he is asked]

“I’ll do whatever I think proper.”

“You’ll regret this,” Buckmaster threatened.

“No. You don’t understand,” Lunt said. “You never regret obeying conscience.”

Lunt indeed suffers for his moral choices, and still manages goodwill – righteous vengeance is never his agenda. Perhaps bush lit writers, like school teachers, sit somewhere between the press and the intelligentsia, and this is an exhortation to yet another lumpen ‘other’ to be better (under our hand). Far from being the ‘common man’, Lunt is exceptional, and perhaps the most unlikely, among a slate of characters that are almost caricatures of the familiar.

Indeed, from the awkward sympathy for the subaltern, to the burning of the free press, this town seems familiar in everything but its buggies and traps. Astley captures the tension between those who would celebrate the past and those who would flay it bare. Her conclusion is a simile for the times as bitter and unleavened as anything by Orwell. Our times or hers, or those of the setting, seems to make little difference.

But to read with the righteous anger of Dorahy is only to find part of the truth. I take it as worthwhile reading, but I also see in the constituency of the Country (and I do not mean Australia, but as defined above) much to redeem it. The problems characterised by the incident are real and ongoing: manifest in my class and my colleagues today, but I meet any number of people trying expressly to find their way through. Many of them are Black. Perhaps a hundred years is just too little time.

A Kindness Cup is a passionate and valuable narrative depiction of an Anglo struggle. It is not the whole story, but a fragment. I had expected Australian bush lit to be a foray into something as distant as green Mars, and instead found myself engaged in one of the most vital discussions of our times.

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Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

see also Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

The Black Line

TheNightingale2019.jpg

This year’s Anzac Day post was sparked by an argument with my daughter. Psyche and I argue pretty noisily, which was a problem when we were both teenagers (OK, I was 40) and neither was prepared to back off. Not so much now that I’m a bit older. We were watching the Australian movie The Nightingale (2018) and the argument was about whether Aborigines made guerilla attacks on white settlements, as implied by the movie. I said Yes, and she said, No they didn’t she works with and talks with Aboriginal people and they only made reprisals.

School children learn the names of Aboriginal Resistance leaders these days and Perth’s new city square, Yagan Square, is named after one. Another, in the Kimberleys in WA’s north, who came up when I was writing up Kimberley Massacres was Jandamurra. There are others in every state. The page, Aboriginal Resistance (here), lists many instances culled from just a few sources, stating “when this many are seen in such a long list they help to explode the myth that Europeans walked in here and took over without any real resistance” .

The Nightingale is set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, only a few years after white settlement began in earnest. A young Irish woman convict, Clare, working as a servant is raped by a British lieutenant and her husband and baby murdered. The lieutenant and a small party head off through the bush towards Launceston pursued by Clare intent on revenge. She secures the assistance of “Billy” an Aboriginal man who speaks perfect English . Billy, real name Mangana, is seeking to rejoin the women of his family who have been taken north. There are more rapes and a lot more bloodshed, and some stuff about the Aboriginal and Irish cases being equivalent. Let’s say 3/5.

So. Time for research. If I were home I’d turn to Henry Reynolds, the historian most responsible for arguing that white settlement involved a series of frontier wars. I have a couple of his books, but here I am in Darwin (or there I was at time of writing).

First, the Black Line.

Prior to European colonisation, there were up to 15,000 Aboriginal people in Tasmania living in nine nations. White settlement began in 1803, and ramped up quickly following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The reaction of the original inhabitants was hostile (unsurprisingly) and by 1824 the two communities were clearly at war. In 1826 all Aborigines were declared to be “insurgents”, meaning they could be shot on sight; in 1828 Governor Arthur declared martial law; and in 1830 he commanded the white community to form a line, the Black Line, across the island in order to drive the remaining Aboriginal population south to the Tasman Peninsula where they could be rounded up and relocated to reserves on islands in Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland)

The community being called upon to act en masse on the 7th October next, for the purpose of capturing those hostile tribes of the natives which are daily committing renewed atrocities upon the settlers … Active operations will at first be chiefly directed against the tribes which occupy the country south of a line drawn from Waterloo Point east, to Lake Echo west …

Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, September 1830

The operation resulted in only two captures and two deaths, but nevertheless had the desired effect of forcing all Aboriginal people off lands claimed by white settlers. (Source: National Museum of Australia, here).

And that brings us to The Conversation, 24 Apr. 2014, Tasmania’s Black War: A Tragic Case of Lest We Remember (here). The author, Nicholas Clements, a researcher with University of Tasmania, believes that the proximate cause of Aboriginal anger was not so much white settlement as the constant taking by white men of Aboriginal women for sex. This accords for instance with the causes given for the killing of whites in my recent post on Kimberley massacres (here).

The toll from eight years of war, the most violent anywhere in Australia, was Colonists: 223 killed, 226 wounded; Aborigines: 306 killed, thousands dead of disease, just 200 survivors remaining to be exiled to Flinders Island.

The National War Memorial, which is happy to memorialize not just two World Wars but our participation in immoral conflicts from the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion to Viet Nam and Iraq, refuses to recognise the combatants on either side of Tasmania’s Black War for the spurious reason that neither side involved ‘Australian’ soldiers.

I’m not sure the War Memorial – which is increasingly being repurposed as a temple to glorify the Nation, rather than to deplore the conflicts to which the division of the world into nations inevitably gives rise – is in any case the appropriate place to confront our bloody history.  But until we, the right as well as the left, do acknowledge our history then there can be no hope of Reconciliation, and today is a good day to remember that.

 

Jennifer Kent writer/director, The Nightingale, 2018. Featuring as Clare: Aisling Franciosi; Mangana: Baykali Ganambarr, an Elcho Is, NT/Galiwinku man

see also: My review of Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows (here)

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

Image result for daisy bates

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)

Kimberley WA Massacres

The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, with an area of 425,000 sq.km, about the same as California, and the population of a small Californian town, 30-40,000 depending on the season, approx. 40% Indigenous (Wikipedia). White settlement began in the 1880s, mostly for cattle grazing, and there were a couple of gold rushes soon after. The climate is tropical, and the terrain, although nowhere greater than 1,000m above sea level, is mountainous, rocky and cut through with gorges, but flattens out to the south where it meets up with the Great Sandy Desert (see for instance my review of Two Sisters, Ngarta and Jukuna).

The Kimberley and the neighbouring northern Northern Territory encompass many distinct Aboriginal languages which are of a different family from those of the rest of Australia, but I think the main WA ones are:

Nyulnyulan – Broome to Derby
Worrorran – Derby to Wyndham
Jarrakan – Wyndham to the NT border and down towards Halls Creek
Bunuban – around Fitzroy Crossing (map)

There’s more again on Kimberley language groups here and more generally, in the Aboriginal Australia page above.

My starting point for this post is Chris Owen’s Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905 (2016) which I made a start on reviewing earlier (here). Under ‘massacres’ in the index Owen lists:

Pinjarra massacre, 1834, in southern WA (previous post here)
Flying Foam massacre, 1868, in the Pilbara (story here)
Fred Marriot massacre, 1886
Big John Durack massacre, 1886
George Barnett massacre, 1888
Goose Hill massacre, 1888
Jail Creek/Turkey Creek Massacre, 1890s
Mistake Creek massacre, 1915 (Guardian here)
Mowla Bluff massacre, 1916
Bedford Downs massacre, 1924
Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)

According to Owen these are only the most notorious. The Indigenous population fought back against the encroachments of the white settler, the settlers retaliated disproportionately and often burnt the bodies to conceal the evidence. Graziers in the East Kimberley, who had come from Queensland and the Northern Territory, already had a history of murder to protect their properties. The editor of the Northern Territory Times (18 Aug 1888)* wrote that police in the Kimberley should disregard any laws and “simply admonish them and disperse them in the Queensland fashion” ie. kill them. “It is the only way to make the natives respect the lives and property of white men.”

Fred Marriot, Halls Creek, 1886. Marriot was one of a number of men speared on or around the Halls Creek gold fields at that time. ‘Typically reports would attribute the killing to Aboriginal aggression’ but the reason for Marriot’s death was his abduction of an Aboriginal woman, though there were other reports that he gave the Aborigines poisoned flour (Owen says ‘oral’ reports by which I think he means Aboriginal). As was the case with every spearing, prospectors organised a reprisal party. Police records say one Aborigine was killed. A colonist, GH Lamond said “four blacks were killed and several wounded”. Oral accounts suggest ‘as many as 100 Jaru or Kija’ were killed. [Moola Bulla: In the shadow of the mountain, Kimberley Language Resource Centre, 1996]. This is corroborated by the private correspondence of prospector George Hale:

A number of diggers went out to take revenge. Having bailed up a large number of blacks in a gully who showed fight, they proceeded to slaughter them with repeating rifles. It is certain that a great many were killed, some say at least a hundred. [quoted in The Forrest River Massacres, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995]

‘Big’ John Durack, Ord River Station, 1886. (Big John was cousin to John Wallace Durack who was brother of Michael Durack who was father to writer Mary and artist Elizabeth Durack). Big John while riding round the Durack station came on a party of Aborigines whom he immediately fired on. He was speared and died. A reprisal party was mounted and the police reported two men ‘who appeared to be the ringleaders’ were shot and killed. However, a local solicitor wrote to the West Australian six years later, “100 or 150 natives were slaughtered in cold blood.” A subsequent note in the police file identified the solicitor’s eyewitness as William Collins, squatter. “He with others … rounded about 120 natives up and shot a large number consisting of men, women and children.” Mary Durack wrote that these reprisals were known as “nigger hunts” and that the silence surrounding them made it impossible to know how many were killed.

George Barnett, a teamster, was speared and died, in July 1888 while working alone north of Halls Creek (Newspaper report). There are various accounts of the punitive expedition that ensued. August Lucanus, a special constable in the expedition wrote in his 1929 memoirs that there “must have been at least 200 blacks … they put up a fight … we dispersed them at last”; A paper down south reported “the party found and dispersed over 600 adult male natives” and some women and children; Colonel Angelo, the government resident at Roebourne at the time, later wrote “it is almost certain that sixty to seventy natives there and then paid the extreme penalty”, and that the murderers were “enraged diggers” (gold miners) ; and Mary Durack claimed the colonists “turned out almost to a man to participate in a massacre that is regarded as one of the most sweeping in local history.”

Note: Colonel Angelo, who tried to end slavery in the Pilbara pearling fleet, was removed from office because he upset the locals (West Australian).

Goose Hill, 1888 is relatively unusual because the police and colonists involved were charged with murder. A party of “six men and three native trackers” pursued, they said, “20 natives” following the spearing of a horse. Most of the Aboriginal people escaped into the swamp along the Ord River, but three were caught up with, two of them shot dead and a third, a boy, having climbed into a tree was seemingly used for target practice and left dead in a fork. As was usual, a minimal statement was filed, but a Police Sergeant Troy investigated further and discovered evidence of the deaths above and at least two others. Owen writes that a newspaper report twenty years later suggested that the death toll may have been as high as 80. Native Assistant Banjo, who was among those charged, made a comprehensive statement, including the detail that all the party were drinking heavily before and during the pursuit. The judge in the Supreme Court made a damning summation for over an hour, but it took the jury just 15 minutes to return ‘not guilty’.

Jail Creek/Turkey Creek, 1890s. Owen speculates that police sometimes found it more expedient to murder prisoners than to walk them for weeks to the nearest justice. Hector Chunda, a Kija and Miriuwung man says,

Some Kartiya [white men] round em up all the blackfella longa bush, put em chains around their necks … Right, all the kartiya get their guns, line em up, every girl and boy, and shoot em down … Whang em all the children on the rocks … chuck em all them dead bodies in the firewood place, put em kerosene and chuck em matches. Burn em up them, finished, they all there. [P. Marshall ed. Raparapa Kularr Martuwarra: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Magabala, 1988]

I can’t find any other reference to Jail Creek or Turkey Creek.

Mistake Creek, 1915. Mick Rhatigan, a former police constable working at Mistake Creek, near Turkey Creek station (half-way between Halls Creek and Wyndham) killed seven Aboriginal people in reprisal for the killing of a cow. A policeman found two charred bodies near Mistake Creek and five others some distance away. In Keith Willey’s Boss Drover (1971) the unnamed ‘cold heartless bloke’ who killed plenty of Aboriginal people is clearly Rhatigan.

Geegully Creek, Mowla Bluff, 1916. Nyikina Elder John Watson said that a punitive expedition by police and other colonists took place after station manager George Why was assaulted by Mangala people over “a small dispute”. Nyikina Mangala men, women and children were rounded up, ordered to collect firewood, and then shot and their remains burnt. Watson says he was told that three or four hundred were killed and only three escaped. [P. Marshall ed. Raparapa Kularr Martuwarra: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Magabala, 1988. There’s also a film, Whispering in our Hearts: The Mowla Bluff Massacre, 2002]

Bedford Downs, 1924. Kija Elder Dottie Watby says that after a bullock was killed, Kija and Worla people were forced to cut wood and were then given poisoned damper. Managers and stockmen from adjacent stations, including the notorious Jack Carey, started shooting, finally stacking the bodies with the wood and setting them alight with kerosene. Jack Carey, between 1919 and 1924 is said to have ‘threatened most Aboriginal people he met’; to have shot an Aboriginal man to take his wife, Mary Karraworla; and three stockmen for leaving a gate open. [From Digging Sticks to Writing Sticks: Stories of Kija Women, Catholic Education Office, Perth, 2001]

Forrest River or Oombulgurri massacres, 1926. The conclusion of the Forrest River Royal Commission was that twenty Aboriginals were killed and their bodies burnt in reprisal for the killing of pastoralist Frederick Hay, though one participant said ‘hundreds’ were killed. Police constables James St Jack and Dennis Regan were charged with murder but were never tried, due to “insufficient evidence”. Hay’s killer, Lumbia was tried and convicted. Lumbia had confronted Hay after the pastoralist had raped one or both of his wives, one of whom was a child. Hay flogged Lumbia 20-30 times with his stock whip and was speared as he rode off.

In the 1880s Catholic clergy in the Kimberley were clear that the rapid decline in the Indigenous population was the result of killings rather than illness (I couldn’t locate Owen’s newspaper reference). Almost all the 450 pages of text have references to the unpunished killing of Aboriginal people by white colonists. Black deaths in custody and hugely disproportionate imprisonment rates demonstrate that racism remains endemic in the WA Police Force and in WA society generally.

I hope this “Australia” Day we will all reflect on what misery and injustice our prosperity is built.

 

Chris Owen, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905, UWAP, Perth, 2016

see also:
Every Mother’s Son is Guilty (review)
Pinjarra Massacre, 1834 (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Cocanarup (Kukenarup) Massacre, Ravensthorpe WA, 1880s (here)

Sturt massacre 1922 (ABC)


*Northern Territory Times (18 Aug 1888) (Trove)
The native question has yet to be
grappled with and settled. The niggers
have not yet grasped the fact that the
Europeans are masters, and cannot be
interfered with by them with impunity.
They have yet to be taught the salutary
lesson that if they do not molest travel-
lers and their property, they will not be
molested. Early in July a teamster
named Barnett, originally from Queens-
land, while travelling on the Kimberley
road, about 140 miles from Wyndham,
was attacked by natives. Unfortunately
he was alone, and had no one to help
him, or report the occurrence. He had
apparently tried to escape, and was
found two days after lying dead beside
his horse, with ”seven spear wounds in
his body”.
On the same day another man who
was riding along the same road, some
distance ahead of Barnett, saw some
freshly cut bushes and brushwood laid
across and near the track; suspecting
some devilry he hurried past, and,
turning to look as he went by, saw six
natives in the act of throwing their
spears. He immediately threw himself
off his horse, but was hardly quick
enough, for one spear struck him in the
left side, making a nasty flesh wound.
He remounted at once, and galloping
off, was soon out off the reach of their
spears. About the same time Mr.
Durack had a valuable horse killed,
and another wounded on the Twelve
Mile plain, twelve miles from Wynd-
ham.
To try and punish the perpetrators,
and put a stop to these outrages, a
party consisting of seven Europeans,
mostly old Queenslanders, and four
black-trackers, has been sent out,
ostensibly to arrest the offenders. It
is to be hoped however, that they will
not trouble to arrest, and bring
them in to the township, but
simply admonish them, and disperse
them Queensland, fashion. It is the
only way to make the natives respect
the lives and property of white men.