Jack Davis, Part II

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers


Jack Davis (1917-2000) was a poet, a playwright, a Noongar man, and an indigenous rights campaigner. His plays, including No Sugar, his best known, are studied in Western Australian schools but I first came to hear of him only a couple of years ago. Reviewing Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence I wrote: “[The girls] were held at the East Perth Girls’ Home (the author says this is now the Jack Davis hostel, to which I cannot find any reference, though Jack Davis seems to have been an Indigenous writer and activist whom I should follow up)” -and now I am.

Davis’ parents had both been taken from their families up north, but by 1917 his father had his citizenship papers and was working at Waroona not far south of Perth, so young Jack was born prosaically in King Edward Memorial Hospital (equivalent to Royal Women’s in Melbourne) and not “delivered by Aboriginal women in the glow of a campfire” as he might have wished.

However, a quote on the second page marks the place where all accounts of Indigenous life in Australia must start until we whites acknowledge and internalize the great wrongs that we have done and are doing:

[My father] remembers holding his boss’ horse outside the Roebourne police station while his boss went to obtain a permit which gave him permission to shoot troublesome blacks on his property. The cost of the permit was one shilling.

Jack’s father came south and married, with jobs in Waroona and Lake Clifton before settling in Yarloop, a timber milling and railway town between Perth and Bunbury. Jack was the fourth of 10 children and grew up with a happy home life, his father with a job at the mill, no more impoverished than the people around them during the 1920s and 30s, with access to good hunting in the jarrah forests of the Darling Escarpment,  a Black family in a mostly white community and no mention of racial tension.

These are stories of going to school, growing up in any Australian rural town, any loving mother with a big family, getting into scrapes and all the rest of it, at a time when roads were unpaved and cars were rare. The writing is spare and cheerful. The stories are short and not as detailed as Norman Lindsay’s for instance, nor as sickly-sentimental as Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella. I had a look too, at the opening chapters of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, which I haven’t read for a while, but again there was more detail and more continuity than in Davis’ short (150pp) book of stories.

In the last few chapters Jack  falls into the snares of the infamous ‘Protector’ of Aboriginals, A.O.Neville. When Jack is 14 Neville offers him and his next older brother, Harold ‘places’ at Moore River native Settlement to ‘learn farming’. Mrs Davis accepts and the boys make their way there via the Home in East Perth which was later to bear Jack’s name. The offer is of course a con and the boys are used as unpaid labour. As we know, conditions at Moore River were terrible:

One day two sixteen-year-old girls who tried to abscond from the settlement were caught, brought back and locked in the boob. Next day they were taken down to the storeroom where they were both laid over sacks of flour and Mr Neal [the superintendent] flogged them with the cat until they wet themselves. He then ordered them to eat the flour.

Davis thinks superintendent was a tough job, but someone had to do it. After a few months, mostly in the outer camp with the adults, the boys were told to return home. A year or so later, the Depression really starting to bite, the older boys unable to find work, their father dies in an accident, and the family breaks up. Davis heads north and spends the war years droving in the Gascoyne.

Although Davis doesn’t say so, I think his father’s citizenship papers insulated the family from the worst effects of the 1905 Aborigines Act, but the fact that both parents were ‘stolen’ and the Act’s prohibition of ‘citizens’ consorting with Aboriginals meant that nearly all family connections were lost. Neville would claim of course that the Davis’ ‘normal’ family life was proof of the efficacy of this prohibition, but the personal cost was enormous and Jack only discovered he had family connections in the Brookton area east of Perth when author Sally Morgan ran across part of his mother’s family tree during research into someone else, in the latter years of his life.

At this point I have less insight into Davis’ writing than I had expected. Perth academic and editor of Westerly, Tony Hughes d’Aeth, has just released Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt which I will review at length ‘soon’, but it contains a chapter on Davis (and another on Facey). For those of you not up on WA geography, the Wheatbelt is a belt of semi-arid country south of a line from north of Geraldton to east of Esperance, but not including the high rainfall jarrah forests of the south west corner. For reasons probably to do with rainfall, that outer boundary roughly coincides with the outer boundary of Noongar country.

For the next few days I am working up the Pilbara coast, but when I get back I’ll put up a part II on No Sugar (the script, I haven’t seen a performance) and d’Aeth’s chapter on Davis.


Jack Davis, A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, Broome, 1991

see also Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Noongar, group portrait, before 1907. State Library WA

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

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

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

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

Wild Cat Falling, Colin Johnson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Benang, Kim Scott


Benang is a great, swirling, discursive voyage of discovery; of a young man brought up White uniting the documentary evidence collated by his White grandfather with the family histories revealed to him over the course of the novel by his Black uncles; of a family raped and pillaged, figuratively and literally, by white settlers, by racism institutionalised by the 1905 Aborigines Act*, and by the infamous Western Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville.

Kim Scott (1957- ) is an Indigenous Australian, of mixed Black and White heritage, which this novel explores; a Nyoongar, which is to say, of those people whose country is the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance); and of the Wirlomin, the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Nyoongar.

The towns at the centre of Benang – Wirlup Haven on the coast and Gebalup 50 km inland – correspond to the towns of Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe in the heart of Wirlomin country. Other towns mentioned, Kylie Bay and Frederickstown, seem to correspond to Bremer Bay and Albany. The land, these days largely cleared for cropping, is sandy, semi-arid and the native vegetation is mostly low scrub. As you go west, towards Albany and the Stirling Range, the climate is wetter and the country more heavily treed.

As ‘I’ – the protagonist’s name, Harley, is only mentioned two or three times through all the 500 pages – explores and has related to him the stories of his family’s ancestry, we range back in time to the middle of the 1800s, not long after first white settlement, when Sandy One Mason, a near-drowned survivor from a capsized sealing boat is cast ashore near Kylie Bay and is taken up by a young Aboriginal woman, given the name Fanny, but whom we learn towards the end of this epic tale has the name amongst her own people of Benang (Sandy and Benang appear again, as Jak Tar and Binyan, in Scott’s later work That Deadman Dance). And although ‘I’ is the conductor of this story and in some ways all that we learn is mediated through him, the heart of the novel is Fanny, the matriarch of her people.

We, the readers, are given the material in the order that ‘I’ receives it and as a lot of what he learns is out of order, doesn’t make sense till later in the book, not all of it is retained, not even by a reviewer taking notes. I’m sure that when I re-read it in the future, as I certainly will, much more will be revealed to me.

As the first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line I awoke to a terrible pressure, particularly on my nose and forehead, and thought I was blind.

So we learn two things: that ‘I’ is born out of of A.O. Neville’s terrible determination to breed the ‘Black’ out the Aborigines; and that he is, as we learn, effectively weightless – his face is pressed against the ceiling – and possibly crippled, following an accident in which he is instrumental in the death of his father.

When I was seven years old my father gave me to his own father to raise.

My grandfather owned and managed a gentleman’s boarding house.

Granddad – Ernest Solomon Scat – had come out from Scotland and found employment with his ‘cousin’ A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1940, with complete control over the Indigenous population – where they lived, who they could work for and who they could live with. Neville was excessively (obsessively!) concerned with degrees of blackness, believing and writing that the child of an ‘octoroon’ and a white person might be regarded as white. Over and over in this novel Scott’s characters face the dilemma that if they are to be regarded as white, or nearly white – and Neville has the power to issue them with, or deny them permits – then they must stop associating with their darker relatives.

In the course of his work Scat finds his way to Gebalup, an isolated mining town, more than 100 km from the nearest point on the rail network connecting farming communities in WA’s south west, but with its own ‘orphan’ line to the port at Wirlup Haven, and there he decides to stay. Benang commences near the end of Scat’s life. He has had a stroke and is dependent on ‘I’ who is being introduced to his Aboriginal heritage by his uncles Will and Jack and is in turn incorporating this with the material accumulated by Scat, extracts from the 1905 Aborigines Act and from the writings of A.O. Neville, into a family history from which he reads as we go along.

To make a linear summary of a very non-linear narrative, Sandy One and Fanny have 3 children, Sandy Two, Harriette and Dinah. Sandy One makes his living as a teamster, delivering supplies brought in by sea to Wirlup Haven, to as far afield as the Kalgoorlie goldfields, dependent on Fanny’s ability to locate water, edible plants and game. Harriette and Dinah partner (white) twins Daniel and Pat Coolamon. Harriette and Daniel settle in Gebalup where they have children Will and a number of girls who are all, eventually, married off to white men. Pat and Dinah have Kathleen and Jack Chatalong. Pat doesn’t hang around. Dinah is raped by sealers, left for dead on the beach and found by Sandy One and Fanny. Kathleen and Jack Chatalong are brought up in Daniel and Harriette’s compound in Gebalup – Noongars are tolerated in town if they keep out of sight – but Dinah is sent off to the reservation at Mogumber (Moore River), north of Perth, so hundreds of kilometres away.

White settlers rape and massacre a large part of the indigenous population in the Gebalup, Wirlup Haven, Kylie Bay area. Most of the remainder are confined to a ‘camp’ between the Gebalup tip and night soil pits.

Ernest Scat takes Kathleen as his wife but also has indigenous girls as servants who are periodically moved along as they get pregnant. The story of Tommy, ‘I’s father, comes out in bits and pieces only slowly through the course of the novel.

The first strength of Scott’s writing is its poetry (Sandy Two is driving a sulky):

Sandy was alone. The clouds in the sky.

He felt it was almost like sailing. He sailed on a breath of trust toward new country. But the land was not like the sea in that it slowed you, dragged you down to it. It was slow moving.

He read the road. Hooves, wheels, snake.

The gentle jingle jangle of draw bars in their steel rings, clinking of chains, creaking of wagon timbers; the murmuring of iron tyres along a sandy track.

A horse can follow the way and it swings along easily.

Clouds. Sand. Disturbed stones.

It is hard to stay awake.

The footprint of a bird.

And the second strength is the deadpan description of the indignities, the crimes inflicted on Fanny/Benang, her people and her descendants. All the power, all the reader’s indignation, comes from the contrast between the language used, white man’s language, and the actual, often only implied, consequences. So, for instance, a ‘spree’ is for white men a bit of fun after drinking, but for the People whose stories we are hearing these same ‘sprees’ generally involve their rape or murder.

In the end we circle back to the beginning, to Fanny.

Fanny Benang Mason saw her people fall; saw them trembling, nervous, darting glances all about them. Some became swollen, felt themselves burning up. Their skin – too hot to touch – erupted in various forms of sores. People itched, and scratched the skin away, and writhed on the ground with their arses sore from so much shitting, until eventually that ceased and there was only an ooze of mucus and blood.

And always, again and again, even in Granddad’s sources, but never underlined. They shot a lot.

Children, becoming white, gathering at the woodheap, learned to work for indifferent and earnest fathers.

There is much, much more in this novel than I have even touched on. It is a difficult, magical, scarifying work and should be read by every literate Australian. Read it for yourself and see.

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, N.Fremantle, 1999

*”The sixty years from 1881 to the 1940s can be divided into two by the passage of the 1905 Aboriginal Act, which resulted in institutionalised racism and created what amounted to Aboriginal “concentration camps” in which the Aboriginal people were to be confined until the race became extinct.” (Wiki)

Western Australia Aborigines Act 1905 (pdf)

* Noongar account of the impacts of 1905 Act (here). Note: Scott uses the spelling “Nyoongar” and others use other phonetic spellings.

see also:
The Cocanarup Massacre, my post based on Kim Scott’s source material (here)
The Pinjarra Massacre (here)
Lisa at ANZLL posted her impressions on first reading Benang (here)
My reviews of Kim Scott’s other works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
That Deadman Dance, 2010 (here)
Taboo, 2017 (here)

If you have come to me from ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week, coinciding with NAIDOC Week, 3-10 July 2016, then you might want to see other posts I have done in the area of Australian Indigenous Literature over the past year: –

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, Pictures From My Memory (here) – Autobiography

Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala (here) – Who should write Indigenous stories?

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light (here) – Short stories

and from Michelle at Adventures in Biography –

Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza  (here) – How histories of White/Black interaction are framed to reinforce White privilege.

Following my review of That Deadman Dance

Following (coincidentally not consequentially!) my recent review of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance there has been a debate in the letters pages of the West Australian about the killing of a number of Noongar in 1834 by a force led by Governor Stirling. In the context it must be said of a remarkably pagan debate about whether Stirling’s bones should be brought back to WA where they might be more suitably venerated than in their present about to be disturbed location in England.

The following letter, by Associate Professor Simon Forrest, Curtin University Elder in Residence, appeared on 1 June 2015. [I trust my transcription turns out, I am typing on the screen of my Galaxy tablet, having been stuck for 10 hours and counting, waiting to unload at a mine 1,000 km north of Perth]. For the information of non West Australians, Pinjarra is about 80 km south of Perth and inland of Mandurah and the Peel Estuary.

“The story of the events on October 28, 1834, near what is now the town of Pinjarra has historically been referred to as the Battle of Pinjarra.

The letter by Alex Munro (21/5) says the modern day reference to the battle as a “massacre” is historically incorrect.

The battle, he says, occurred because of an attack on settlers in the Swan River Colony and the burning of the flour mill at South Perth, now the Old Mill.

His letter faithfully keeps to the non-Aboriginal version of events. Any efficient analysis of John Septimus Roe’s journal of the punitive expedition will, together with research around the historical events leading up to the battle or massacre,  question Mr Munro’s viewpoint.

Although the South Perth mill is part of the story, it was not burnt by Noongar, as implied by Mr Munro. The Aboriginal leader, Calyute, and his men did raid the mill to take flour that was normally given to them but because of a not so good season of crops in Guildford, flour was rationed and the first to miss out was the Noongar.

Also contrary to what Mr Munro states as an attack by Noongar on the colony is not so.

Governor James Stirling was certainly concerned about a possible alliance of the local Noongar groups that may have led to an attack on the colony but it never eventuated.

One of his reasons to travel to the Pinjarra area was to try to stop the Bindjareb people (this is where Pinjarra gets its name) joining such an alliance.

The West Australian of the time listed 21 Noongar who were killed, including women and one child. If the conflict at Pinjarra on that fateful day was a battle, a battle normally takes place between armies of warring men, but this was not the case.

Also, if it was a battle,  the armed conflict between the two groups of men may have taken possibly five minutes because Noongar men were only armed with spears.

Roe’s journal states the conflict started at around 8am and the killing of Bindjareb people continued until around 10am. The use of the word “battle” becomes questionable and a word like “massacre”, particularly from a Noongar perspective, challenges the view of the perpetrators.

It is also interesting to note that Stirling endeavoured to keep his expedition secretive. Only he and Roe left Perth on horseback, so Noongar spies would not get information about an armed expedition.

On the way to Peel’s place in modern day Mandurah, Stirling arranged reinforcements to his expedition at points along the way.  When the expedition left Peel’s place the expedition now numbered 24, comprising five civilians (including Roe) and 19 mounted police and soldiers (including Stirling).

On that fateful morning Stirling’s group surrounded the Bindjareb Noongar on three sides.  The initial skirmish that started with one of the two smaller groups of Stirling’s men and the Bindjareb men led to the rest of the Bindjareb retreating in the direction of the Stirling-led larger group hiding behind a hill, as stated in Roe’s journal: “On approaching an abrupt rising ground, the rest of the party halted out of sight”.

Stirling’s group opened fire as the Bindjareb tried to escape towards the river.

This event has been well researched by Noongar scholars and non-Aboriginal scholars.  I take many people to Pinjarra and follow Stirling’s exact route and talk about the events of the day in a spirit of reconciliation, an acknowledgement of our shared history.

The “Battle of Pinjarra” was certainly not a battle, and it may not have been a massacre. But we know the leader of the Swan River Colony led a secretive, punitive expedition to attack a group of Bindjareb people, living and camping on their land, as they had done for many thousands of years.

The Bindjareb retaliated against Stirling’s punitive force, fighting for their freedom, land, culture and way of life.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott


Well, it’s taken me a while to get to Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010), but it was worth it and his earlier Benang is beside me in the TBR so now I suppose I must read that too. In fact I listened, rather than read, to the mellifluous tones of Humphrey Bower who, for audio book fans, is the voice of so many Australian books.

This is a historical novel, of first contact. Scott, I think, is at pains, subtly, to emphasise ‘novel’ rather than ‘historical’ with place names King George Town and Cygnet River alluding to the initial white settlements in WA at Albany (on King George Sound) and subsequently at Swan River. Reviewers were quick to point out similarities with The Secret River (2005), Kate Grenville but of course the novel’s real precursor is Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941), a serious first attempt by the dominant white culture to understand both sides of the consequences of first contact at Botany Bay.

Kim Scott grew up on the south coast of Western Australia. As a descendant of those who first created human society along that edge of the ocean, he is proud to be one among those who call themselves Noongar. (Inside cover, Picador 2011 ed.)

So this is the first serious attempt to portray first contact from the other side, the losing side. And yet it is not ‘losing’ that Scott portrays. Rather, it is the attempts of the Noongar to deal with the numerically inferior whites fairly and in accord with custom. And, until the devastating last paragraph, it is an optimistic portrayal. The commonplaces of first contact, rape and murder and even the displacement of the original inhabitants, are largely mentioned obliquely, as happening to someone else and not to the principal (indigenous) characters.

Scott’s style of writing is engaging. He writes in the third person, and in the voice of each person, focusing on a number of characters, settler and Noongar, but circling back repeatedly to Bobby, Wabalanginy to his own people, a baby by his own estimation when the first ship comes in 1826, and who we see grow, but eccentrically, as Scott also circles around in time using the future to illustrate the present and the past.

Scott starts with Bobby practising his letters, but soon introduces Chaine who will become the principal merchant and entrepreneur of the new settlement, and at this point I thought “this is just another whiteman story set in the C19th”. And I was wrong. Scott has the gift of speaking in one voice for the settlers and another, entirely “other” voice for the Noongar. Every time we circle back to Bobby we swoop and swirl with his joy in being alive. In this example Bobby is at sea:

Oh imagine sailing on one of those very fine days on the ocean. Clear sky, sun and bright air, foam and bubbles at bow and wake, and taut, swelling sails, Bobby felt like a bird, rising on a sweep of air; he felt like a dolphin slipping easily in and out of the wave face.

The deck tilted mostly one way, and its regular beat at that angle put a rhythm to Bobby’s step, a walking uphill-downhill thing that, even with no music and no one singing out loud, made him want to dance (p.32)

The optimism of this story, of Bobby’s cooperation with, or cooption into, Chaine’s bustling enterprise, or of the happy marriage of Bobby’s sister Binyan and the white whaler cum shepherd, Jak Tar, is at odds with what we think we know of settler history. And with mostly male protagonists there is an absence too of sexual tension, and so, for a while, there is little narrative drive, but subtly – and there’s that word again- we are made aware that, in the background, there has been change. Bobby and Chaine’s daughter Christine, for many years playmates, are now distant. Bobby as an adult has responsibilities with his people and Christine is to marry the “Governor’s” son (I’m not sure why Scott invented a “governor” for Albany) but when they meet there is a charge between them. Likewise, the easy relationship between Bobby and Chaine evolves without us really noticing until, near the end, Bobby is using his familiarity with Chaine’s farms to raid them for food which Chaine is no longer willing to share, and as the Noongar had shared with the settlers in the past, and Chaine has grown with prosperity into pomposity and inflexibility.

I read recently that The Secret River is now the book most often set as a school text (ahead of My Brilliant Career). If we are serious about Reconciliation then I trust that one day soon that place will be taken by That Deadman Dance.


Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 and on Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower

My reviews of Kim Scott’s other works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Benang, 1999 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
Taboo, 2017 (here)

See also reviews by:
Whispering Gums, ANZ Lit Lovers , The Resident Judge of Port Phillip