The Old Lie, Claire G Coleman

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If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*. [Wilfred Owen]

The Old Lie is a war story, framed by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, of Australian soldiers, Indigenous Australian soldiers it turns out, part of a larger force fighting in the mud and ruined habitations of distant lands. Strange territory for Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Claire Coleman, but as we are learning, she is full of surprises.

Corporal Shane Daniels was lost, the grey uniformity of the sky and dirt, the rain, the muck, had rendered the flat, bomb-wracked plain featureless … Tangled barbed wire was a constant obstacle, tangling, tearing , hidden, trampled into the soupy mud …

A familiar opening for Australian war stories for a hundred years now. But in Coleman’s sure hands it becomes something else, becomes more. Yes, the treatment the protagonists, best friends Daniels in the infantry and fighter pilot Romeo endure bear out the justifiable bitterness of Wilfred Owen’s poem. But the story is also a metaphor for Aboriginal dispossession; for White settlement on Aboriginal lands; for Australia’s lickspittle subservience to Empire which led to the Maralinga atom bomb tests on Aboriginal-occupied desert land; for the stolen generations – the seizing and selling into institutional slavery of mixed race children; for the imprisonment of refugees.

No, I won’t discuss how the metaphor works, though that would be a pleasure with others who had read the book. And I won’t discuss this as a genre novel, which I could, and which I think Coleman does well. The Old Lie is clearly presented as literary fiction and that therefore is how it must be judged.

The underlying story is that Daniels and Romeo fill out the old trope of brave, anti-authority soldiers; fight their way out of impossibly tight situations; Daniels has family back home, Romeo finds a (saccharine) love interest. In another part of the war zone, a young man and a girl separately escape slavery and join forces with a foreign monk; find themselves herded in with refugees from the various fields of conflict; do their best to head for a near-forgotten home. William, a medic, wakes up in prison; is forced to assist his captors in their experiments. A strange illness follows the bombing of a remote city.

Unlike fellow Wirlomin/Noongar writer Kim Scott [and I assume there is a connection. The Coleman boys married Fanny/Benang’s daughters (here)] Claire Coleman is not particularly literary, but she is a great story teller. And she uses her stories to emphasize Aboriginal themes, in this case, particularly connection to country.

The red scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons … maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life. [Or ..]

He waited to die, he could not breathe, he smiled, he waited to die. His soul, what was left of it, would escape his body and return to his Country. There he would join his old people. His wife and kids would be there one day too.

The Old Lie is an old-fashioned adventure story, but also a story with a purpose, with an underlying theme. On the basis of her two novels I think it is fair to say there is always more to Claire Coleman than first meets the eye.

This is a very short review but Coleman’s story telling depends for its oomph on the reader coming upon the elements of the story in the order which the author presents them and saying more would put that at risk. Yes I liked it and I would recommend that everyone read it and discuss the issues it raises.

It ends without a resolution. Perhaps Coleman is planning a series.

 

Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie, Hachette, Sydney, 2019

see also: Terra Nullius (my review)


*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, Horace (Ode III.2.13)

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“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

"It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country": The Single Noongar Claim History

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”* (2009) is subtitled The Single Noongar Claim History – the Noongar people being the original occupants and custodians of south-west Western Australia. The authors credited are South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and John Host** with Chris Owen. It is basically the case put up to The Federal Court (Australia’s second highest court), Justice Murray Wilcox presiding, in 2005, to prove the Noongars’ claim to native title over the Perth metropolitan area.

To do this Host demonstrates that the Noongars, who can be divided into 14 regions with their own dialects, are one people with an ongoing, uninterrupted cultural life, and that the indigenous people forced out of Perth by white settlement continued their cultural practices within Noongar communities on the outskirts, and maintained their contact with important sites within Perth. These are the main elements to satisfy the Native Title Act (1993) shamefully introduced by Paul Keating to limit the ambit of claims after Mabo, and further tightened by John Howard in 1998 after Wik.

Because the Perth people had been so decimated by occupation and direct government action (eg. “Battle” of Pinjarra), not to mention laws which for many years in the C20th banned Aborigines from being in towns, it was necessary to prove that the Noongar were one people – hence ‘Single Noongar Claim’ – not a number of distinct tribes, and that, as was so often claimed, they had not lost their connection with Perth and the Swan River or, as was often claimed, died out. Indigenous people with European blood continued, and continue to lead Indigenous lives.

The SWALSC won their claim, but in 2007 the state (Labor) and Commonwealth (Liberal) governments appealed, successfully, on the basis that the claimants had not shown continuous occupation of the Perth area “explicitly”. An agreement was finally reached and registered in 2018 (here, includes map).

Host, an historian, describes his task as ‘histriography’, a critical summary of writings about the history of the Noongars. What is known about them prior to white settlement is ‘pre-history’.

Map South East Asia and Australia during the last Ice Age. Courtesy Wikimedia

I think we all know that at one time you could walk from PNG to Cape Yorke and from Victoria to Tasmania (and from Perth to Rottnest) but what hadn’t occurred to me is that around 8,000 BC, lower sea levels meant that Australia was surrounded by a wide, fertile littoral plain, and its subsequent inundation has removed much evidence of early occupation. However, there remains plenty of evidence that the South West has been occupied for 50,000 years.

When the British arrived in 1826, Professor Sylvia Hallam describes the people of the south west as “firestick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists” with practices that had been continuously evolving for millenia. It is a (cruel) curiosity of the Native Title Act that claimants must show that their practices have not evolved since white settlement, but have been ‘preserved in aspic’. With the British came writing and ‘therefore’ history. Explorer Matthew Flinders called in at King George Sound (Albany) in 1802 and “wrote with evident bewilderment that Aboriginal people ‘seemed to have no idea of any superiority we possessed over them'” (see also Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (my review)).

Matthew Flinders organised a military parade for the amusement of the locals and it is some evidence of the efficacy of oral history that the story of that parade was related to (anthropologist) Daisy Bates a century later. In fact, Bates’ meticulous records from when she was living with Noongars around 1906 formed an important part of the evidence for the claim (see also: my post Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)).

During the years up until the Swan River colony was formed in 1829, explorers and the garrison at King George Sound observed and recorded a great deal of material about Noongar law, custom and ways of living, by living amongst them relatively unobtrusively. In fact garrison commander Capt Collet Barker and local, Mineng man Mokare were clearly friends, and by the account in Barker’s journal had long discussions about all sorts of matters which greatly informed Host’s opinion about the Noongars’ adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.

Host spends a chapter establishing that there is no evidence for a decline in Noongar numbers after white settlement, despite the opposite being true around Sydney (due to smallpox probably). And in the process makes mincemeat of the work of Dr Neville Green, author of Broken Spears (1984). And yes, he acknowledges that there were massacres, but the number killed were not enough to lead to population decline.

If taking issue with the notion of drastic population decline between 1829 and 1850 has diverted me from the terms of my brief, it has been necessary. As noted …, evidence of cultural maintenance is of doubtful value unless the allegation of Aboriginal extinction or near extinction is shown to be groundless.

An interesting aspect of Host’s account is the permeability of boundaries. While one family group had primary responsibility for one area, the area may have been occupied by different groups at different times, with connections formed by marriage allowing families to travel widely to hunt. For instance, Mokare told Barker his family sometimes moved away inland to allow another group to camp by the shore and fish. However, absence did not lessen connection.

It is clear both from settler accounts, and from oral histories – of which many are cited – that Noongars, who in any case had always moved around a lot, adapted to white settlement spreading throughout the south west in the latter half of the C19th (and up to the 1930s) by combining seasonal farm labouring over a number of properties with frequent absences to maintain their culture.

By 1900, disregarding official attempts to distinguish between ‘full bloods’ and ‘half-castes’, Noongar culture remained vibrant and the Noongar population had probably increased.

The turn of the century brought two shocks. First, goldrushes expanded the white population from 50,000 to 184,000 in a single decade; and then, the 1905 Aborigines Act, brought all WA Aborigines under the direct control of the Chief Protector, and presaged 60 years of determined attempts to separate children with European descent from their mothers (see: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review)). The Indigenous population of the South West in the 1901 census was about 1,500 but only Noongars living near towns or as farm workers were counted. As Noongars were notoriously (and rightly!) shy of officialdom and there was, and still is, a great deal of bush in the South West, the actual population was much higher, but as had always been the case, could not be accurately estimated. By the 2001 census, the Aboriginal population of the South West was 27,596 and a high (but unknown) proportion of those were Noongar.

Finally …

I will argue, however, that although the maintenance of traditional connections has been harder for some Noongars than for others, the Noongar as a people have retained the web of territorial and kinship ties along with the reciprocity or mutual obligation, that made up (and make up) the matrix of traditional law and custom.

The last quarter of the book documents the survival of the Noongar in the face of the 1905 Act, concentration camps at Moore River and Carrollup, the paucity of aid, the loss of farm work during the Great Depression, legislation which effectively prevented Aborigines from becoming landowners, and misguided attempts at assimilation in the 1950s, through to the current situation of recognition tempered by high rates of unemployment which we might say began with the Whitlam years, 1972-75.

This is a fascinating work, eminently readable, which greatly added to my understanding of Black-White interaction during the first century of white settlement. Of course this is local history for me, but I am sure Eastern-staters will find it equally interesting.

 

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, John Host with Chris Owen, “It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: Single Noongar Land Claim, UWAP, Perth, 2009. Cover: Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heart Land) canvas by Shane Pickett, Lance Chadd, Troy Bennell, Alice Warrell, Sharyn Egan and Yvonne Kickett.


*”White fella got it but it’s still in my heart, this is my country,” Noongar elder, Angus Wallam, during Oct 2005 hearings.

**From what I can gather, Dr Host, who wrote this report, assigned the copyright to SWALSC who then had it published with some alterations and without Host’s permission. Chris Owen is/was an historian employed by SWALSC. See: Struggle over Host report (here)


Message to Lisa: It’s of course entirely up to you whether this counts as Indig.Lit. The report was commissioned by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and they list themselves in first place as authors, though the actual writing has clearly been done by Dr Host.

 

 

Odds & Sods

Journal: 017

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Sail & Anchor, Fremantle (wiki)

I’m having (will have had by the time this is posted) a week off. The truck has had a leaking radiator for a few weeks now and on Saturday Sam used it as an excuse not to give me the load he promised me on Friday. I guess one of his own trucks didn’t have work. So I’ve put it in to have the radiator replaced. Apparently modern radiators are too fragile to be repaired.

Hence a journal of odds & sods. My mother used to say “you sod” meaning I think, you duffer. Wrong consonants! My family, all of whom read I’m Making a Mistake, were quick to capitalize on my unexpected availability and I was allocated the task of picking up nearly 15 year old granddaughter from a party in Freo. at 10.30 pm (negotiated down from 11.30). I was already at Milly’s doing some carpentering – she’s never slow to capitalize – so we got changed and went down to Freo for dinner and a movie.

Dinner was ok, we wandered through the markets and ended up at the multi-outlet place next to the Sail & Anchor. I had Malaysian, rice and fish curry, and a glass of cheap white. Outside, in the busking space, a 9 or 10 year old girl was dancing furiously with a hula hoop. I put a few dollars in her hat. The movie was The Insult. Earlier in the week I’d been discussing an Israeli view of the Palestinian ‘problem’ with Sue (Whispering Gums) and this was the same problem from a different viewpoint, that of right wing Christian Lebanese forced to share their country with Palestinian refugees. It was a good movie, until I got a phone call from nearly 15’s father (at home with 6 and 8).

Nearly 15 is in with a bad crowd as they say and it’s impacting on her schooling and her home life and I was a bit anxious about what state she’d be in by 10.30. So when her dad said (Yes, I went outside to return the call) granddaughter and her friend were waiting to be picked up nearby two hours early, I walked straight there, and Milly caught us up a few minutes later. Two more fifteenish 15 year olds you wouldn’t want to meet. They were bored, they were hungry. Their phones didn’t work, or were lost, or the chargers were lost. We fed them, took them home. I think the other girl hadn’t told her mother everything she might as she (the mother) and Milly had a long talk when Milly rang her in the morning. A happy ending. I just need to borrow the movie to see how it ends.


Westerly, our local bookish magazine, has an essay by Claire G Coleman (my review of Terra Nullius) on the perils of being Indigenous and speaking at Writers Festivals – The Risks of Question Time (here). It seems there will always be at least one old white person to tell the Indigenous how to be Indigenous.

I am speaking to whitey now; you made us. You took our land, you raped our ancestors and made our people feel so unwanted, so hated, that they felt it necessary to capitulate by marrying and bonking our oppressors. When our children were born mixed-race, you decided we were inferior even to our own people and tried to breed us whiter, breed out the black and took kids from their families to ensure you had power over them. You told us our culture was worthless and forced your ‘education’ on us. Some of us excelled at your education and those of us who do well within your system are now, in your minds, ‘not really Aboriginal’.

Leaving aside that I don’t go to Writers Festivals and I find it very difficult to speak in public, I hope I am not such a person. I think we have reached a place in black/white relations in Australia where Indigenous people can speak for themselves. Our duty is to choose the right people to speak for us, to negotiate fairly to achieve a situation where Indigenous people can live both with and alongside mainstream society as they choose.


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Weds. I had big plans for this week, all the things I’d put off doing for lack of time (vacuuming for instance!) but instead I seem to be relaxing. Delivered the truck to the repairer, Monday, and Millie’s dog to the kennels. Took Millie to the airport Tues. Had tea with Gee and the kids last night. They all said “Where’ve you been, Poppy?”. I stayed long enough to read two Anh Dos. This morning I did nothing except finish Georgette Heyer’s The Foundling, which I bought at the Addison Road Markets in Sydney last week. I’ve written a couple of posts, had lots of fun with the comments on The Dry. Ok, I’ll stop there and bring my business accounts up to date.


Thurs. Work says there should be work today. Gee gave me a lift – getting her thesis completed is proving a struggle, so she was happy to skive off uni for an hour – so I could pick up the truck and run it back to the depot. Dropped in at Crow Books, got myself a Magbala book, Blackwork by Alison Whittaker (poetry!), and Jane Eyre and a Perth YA, Before You Forget by Julia Lawrinson for Ms Nearly 15. Sept/Oct is birthday season in my family so there’ll be more business for Crow when I get back.

No work yet. Maybe tomorrow (Fri.)

Recent audiobooks

Reginald Hill (M, Eng), A Pinch of Snuff (1978)
Jane Harper (F, Vic/Aust), The Dry (2016)
George Eliot (F, Eng), Silas Marner (1861) – Project Gutenberg

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Georgette Heyer, The Foundling
Frank Moorhouse (ed.),The Drover’s Wife
Yelena Moskovich, The Natashas

 

We were not here first

Journal: 012

Nifty Road Sept '13 (1)

We were not here first. It seems self-evident now and was in fact acknowledged by writers from Watkin Tench onwards. Unfortunately though, our behaviour and in particular our legal system, was based on the conflicting ideas that there was no one here in 1788; or that there was but their perceived failure to build houses, engage in intensive agriculture meant that their presence didn’t count; or that there wasn’t a war but they lost anyway and Australia was ours by right of conquest.

That was all swept away, theoretically at least, by a combination of the (Commonwealth) Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Mabo Case (1982-90) in which the High Court ruled (1) that states – in this case Queensland – could not pass laws which conflicted with the Racial Discrimination Act; and (2) that wherever the rules and customs of the indigenous inhabitants – in this case the Mer people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait north of Queensland – have continued without explicit extinguishment by state law, then the land remains theirs.

The Native Title Act of 1993 which was meant to give effect to the Mabo decision in fact interpreted it as narrowly as possible, in order of course to give the greatest possible advantage to grazing and mining interests, with near impossible definitions of continuing occupation for example, when so many indigenous people were forced onto reservations or had drifted in to provincial centres. My own opinion is that all crown land, including leasehold – which is to say, most of outback Australia – should be acknowledged as belonging to the original inhabitants and that we should only then negotiate a treaty for its ongoing use by all Australians. That is, that the Aboriginal Land Councils instead of being supplicants should be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

As part of my own, belated education about what it means to live in a shared country I have been increasingly careful to identify whose land it is that I am talking about/driving on in my reviews and journals. But in my last post ‘The Heaviest, Longest Run in the World‘, in concentrating on the driving experience (and the word count!) I said nothing about whose land it was and I want to rectify that here.

In general, because this is where I live, I am best informed about the indigenous nations of Western Australia – though I still have a long way to go! – but as I go on I will do my best to learn and write about everyone whose land I cross.

As I’ve written previously, Perth, the south-west and the wheatbelt (except around Geraldton) are Noongar country. Going north from Perth on the Great Northern Highway we cross the Moore River at New Norcia. The infamous Mogumber Moore River Settlement is just a few kilometres west. I have written about it a few times, in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence of course, but also in relation to Kim Scott and Jack Davis. Molly, Daisy and Gracie, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls headed north from Mogumber before striking east and would have crossed the Highway (if it existed back in 1931) a bit south of Wubin. You don’t see many Aboriginals in these little wheatbelt towns and I imagine they have mostly drifted in to Perth or to provincial centres like Northam and Moora.

Since reading Scott I have also become conscious of the different language groups within the Noongars. The AIATSIS map says the language spoken in the area up to Wubin is Balardung.

Separating Wubin and the Murchison goldfield towns of Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra is 300 km of scrub and desert. About 100 km up, the Irwin River rises near Mt Gibson and flows down to the coast at Dongara south of Geraldton. I wouldn’t be surprised if this marks the border between Noongar and Yamaji country. The various language groups within the Yamaji nation occupy the land from south of Geraldton to north of Carnarvon, on the coast, and inland to the headwaters of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers (as best as I can ascertain, which applies to everything I write here).

I wrote about the Yamaji for the first time in my review of Papertalk Green and Kinsella’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves. The Yamaji are bordered to the east by Western Desert people. Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra aren’t big towns and they all have active gold mines, but they also have substantial Aboriginal populations, which are probably these days a mixture of Martu from the north, Yamaji, and Ngaatjatjarra from out towards the NT and SA border. There used to be reports of ‘trouble’ in the towns but I haven’t heard any in the last decade. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, a Ngaatjatjarra woman, writes of her family’s move, in the 1960s, in from Docker River on the NT border to Wiluna, east of Meekatharra, from where she was sent to school at the mission at Karalundi, on the highway 50 km north of Meeka.

The rest of the trip, except that we detour via Port Hedland (map) to avoid the atrocious Nullagine Road from Newman to Marble Bar, is Martu country. The Martu are the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples. Daisy Bates who owned a station near Jigalong, north of present day Newman (see Ventured North by Train and Truck) learned elements of the Martu language there and was surprised to find it useful when she later settled amongst the southernmost of the Western Desert peoples 3,000 km away at Ooldea in SA. Jigalong, one of the main camps for maintaining the rabbit-proof fence, became the centre of the Martu people and was of course the home which Molly, Daisy and Gracie were heading back to. The northernmost limits of Martu country include Nifty, my destination, as well as the Woodie Woodie and Telfer mines, in the Great Sandy Desert where I imagine the border with the Walmajarri (see Two Sisters) is fairly fluid.

There are two separate language groups on the coast north of Yamji country, one south of Port Hedland, probably once centred on the Fortescue and Ashburton Rivers but now at Roeburn, and another between Port Hedland and Broome. I can’t tell you anything about them so I’d better do some homework!

SONY DSC

Recent audiobooks

PD James (F, Eng), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
Hetty E Verolme (F, Aust), The Children’s House of Belsen (2000)
Masaji Ishikawa (M, Japan/Korea), A River in Darkness (2000) DNF
Michael Veitch (M, Vic/Aust), The Forgotten Islands (2011)
Carole Radziwill (F, USA), The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (2013)
Julia London (F, Eng), The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount (2013)
Richard North Patterson (M, USA), Loss of Innocence (2013)
Michael Connolly (M, USA), Trunk Music (1997)
Tim Winton (M, WA/Aust), Eyrie (2013)
Stuart Woods (M, USA), Paris Match (2014)
Jay Stringer (M, Eng), Runaway Town (2013)
Gregory Randall (M, USA), Venice Black (2017)

Currently reading

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children


Housekeeping: I started using the Journal heading so that readers who were only interested in book reviews could see the journal emails and press delete. Don’t worry, you still can! But I’ve moved the journal designation down a notch so that while it is still clear in the email it is not so obtrusive.

The photos are mine, from the Nifty and Woodie Woodie roads in the Great Sandy Desert.

Wardandi Massacre

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John Molloy

The Wardandi are the language group within the Noongars whose home territory in south western Western Australia encompasses the coastal land from Bunbury south to Cape Leeuwin (map). The region was most famously settled (ie. commandeered) by the Bussell family, in 1839, but among the original white settlers were John Molloy and his now well-known wife Georgiana.

Jessica White, who is writing an ecobiography of Georgiana Molloy (here), wrote in her end of year (2017) mailout:

I had an essay published in the Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature on my research on John Molloy’s role in a massacre in 1841. This involved painstakingly piecing together accounts in the archives and newspapers, and attending to the language that was used.

and it is this essay and her account of the massacre and its subsequent denial that I wish to review.

The events leading to the massacre(s) began on 22 Feb, 1841. Some Noongars were employed in threshing wheat on the farm of Molloy’s neighbour George Layman, and some Noongar women were employed in the house. A dispute arose over payment (in damper) and Noongar man Gayware approached Layman. Layman grabbed Gayware by the beard and shook him, Gayware speared him and Layman struggled inside and died.

Molloy, as local magistrate, raised a party of settlers and workers (one account says ‘soldiers’), pursued and surrounded the Noongars, killing seven, and then subsequently pursued a larger body of Noongar north towards Bunbury where many more were killed around ‘Lake Mininup’. (Wonnerup, Layman’s property, is a few kilometres north of present-day Busselton and Minninup another 15 km or so up the coast.)

White has put together her account from newspapers, diaries, official records and Noongar oral histories. She writes:

As I pieced together these documents and attended to their language, I realised that the massacre had been depicted in such a way as to obfuscate John Molloy’s role. I also came to understand that this role had been covered, uncovered and contested over the ensuing years.

The earliest contemporary ‘account’ is the diary of Frances Bussell which records on the evening of 27 Feb, “Captain Molloy drank tea here. 7 natives killed.” Any further information is lost as the pages from 5 to 25 Feb have been torn out.

A newspaper account, in the Inquirer of 10 Mar 1841 (here), of the initial reprisals following the death of Layman states that “five or six natives were shot to death. Unfortunately the actual murderer was not amongst the killed.” And interestingly, “It is certainly to be regretted that any native, not being the actual murderer, should have been slain in the encounter; but supposing all that we hear to be correct, the result is at least excusable if even not justifiable.” This account follows Molloy’s official report that he acted after hearing threats against himself by Gayware while he was observing a Noongar campfire from a position of hiding.

The most graphic account of the second part of the massacre is in Warren Bert Kimberley’s History of Western Australia (1897):

Colonel (sic) Molloy ordered his soldiers to prepare to march, and he took command of them and the chief settlers in the south-western districts. He gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men. A strong and final lesson must be taught to the blacks. All were well armed. Into the remote places this party went, bent on killing without mercy…  Isolated natives were killed during the first few days, and, so it is said, some women among them, but the main body had hidden from the terrible white men. A few parties fled from the threatened districts to the southern coast, and escaped. The majority hid in the thick bush around Lake Mininup. Although several natives were killed, the settlers and soldiers were not satisfied… Here and there a native was killed, and the others seeing that their hiding place was discovered fled before the determined force. They rushed to a sand patch beyond Lake Mininup…  The soldiers pushed on, and surrounded the black men on the sand patch. There was now no escape for the fugitives, and their vacuous cries of terror mingled with the reports of the white men’s guns. Native after native was shot, and the survivors, knowing that orders had been given not to shoot the women, crouched on their knees, covered their bodies with their bokas, and cried, ‘Me yokah’ (woman). The white men had no mercy. The black men were killed by dozens, and their corpses lined the route of march of the avengers.

James Battye (after whom our principal library is named) in Western Australia: A History (1924) attempts to excuse all the bones at Lake Mininup:

In 1841 there occurred an incident which, if true, can only be described as an act of atrocious cruelty and savagery on the part of some of the settlers in the south west … An avenging party under Captain Molloy set out and, it is said, ultimately succeeded in surrounding the whole body of natives on an open sand patch …

No records of the encounter exist, and it is more than likely that it has been built up to account for the collection of bones, which in all probability represents an aboriginal burial-ground…

White’s is an excellent account of how Molloy in particular but officialdom in general used weasel words and indirect language to obscure what even the newspapers called “not justifiable” killings. Let us leave the last word to an oral history collected by Whadjuk/Barladong scholar Len Collard in A Nyungar Interpretation of Ellensbrook and Wonnerup Homesteads (1994):

“The first mob was caught, was just the other side of the Capel River (Mollakup). When I was a little boy we found some skulls up there. One of them had a bullet in it, it had gone through the forehead and just sticking out the back. There was quite a few with holes knocked in them in the skulls and the next mob they caught was at Muddy Lake (Mininup) that’s this side of Bunbury and then they chased the other right through Australind somewhere around Australind area they caught up they killed some more there and the rest got away.”

Molloy of course was never brought to account for the murders that occurred under his command, and over time his role was ‘forgotten’, not least by Georgiana Molloy’s biographers. Happy Black Armband Day.

 

Jessica White, ‘Paper Talk’, Testimony and Forgetting in South-West Western Australia, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2017/1 here

see also my posts on The Cocanarup Massacre (here) and the ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra (here)

I’m not sure this massacre has an ‘official name, though it appears in at least some (recent) accounts as Wonnerup Massacre. Googling “Wardandi Massacre” brings up a lot of information on this and other massacres.

Taboo, Kim Scott

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kim Scott, Taboo, Picador, Sydney, 2017

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

Jack Davis, Part II

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

no-sugar.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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