The Savage Crows, Robert Drewe

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The subject of The Savage Crows (1976) is the love life of a young man, Stephen Crisp, as he collects material for a thesis on the extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines – the Parlevar people – who after 50 years battling introduced diseases and frontier war, had been reduced from maybe 15,000 people down to a couple of hundred. In 1833 those few remaining tribespeople were persuaded by missionary George Robinson, acting on behalf of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, to permit themselves to be removed to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, north of Tasmania.

The book has two completely distinct narrative streams – fragments of Crisp’s life up to the present where he is living alone in a flat whose toilet window overlooks a portion of Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour; and the (imagined) journals of George Robinson as he makes his way around Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) as a ‘conciliator’. Both streams continue throughout the book and there is no marker when you step from one to the other. Although it is common these days for novels to contain both the story of a writer and the story being written, these two bear so little relation to each other that I found the switches annoying, rather than ‘experimental’ or ‘ambitious’ as claimed.

Crisp, as you might expect in a first novel, is a stand-in for Drewe himself, and lots of the material around Crisp’s early life in the leafy, upper-middle class Perth suburbs between the river and the sea, is familiar to readers of Drewe’s later memoir, The Shark Net (2000). Over the course of the novel we learn, not sequentially, that Crisp has an ex-wife and daughter; that he has a girlfriend, Anna; that his mother died young, some years earlier; and that he has a difficult relationship with his father and with his younger brother who has stayed in Perth to make money mining mug investors on the stock exchange, which is how most West Australians make their fortunes.

The two streams intersect briefly when Crisp, holidaying at his brother’s Dalkeith (Perth’s Toorak) house, tackles his brother, Geoff, about his racist jokes:

‘Why do it?’ he asked, sipping one of Geoff’s tawny ports. ‘Isn’t it a shade racist?’ The women had gone to bed. The dogs lay comatose at their feet, trembling at busy dreams.

‘Just for a laugh. Where’s you sense of humour?’ A propos of nothing, or something, Geoff said, ‘Ever rooted a coon, by the way?’

Crisp works his way through his relationship with Anna – at a party one of Geoff’s gyno friends points out that Anna is pregnant, but Crisp is oblivious; is divorced by his ex-wife; forges some sort of relationship with his father; and, finally, makes a visit to Tasmania and Flinders Island, where I suppose the two streams merge again, but not to any great effect.

The Robinson stream, the imagined journal, has a monotone quality, not quite as turgid as a real C19th journal, but not free-running narrative either. Robinson makes his way around Tasmania, accompanied by Truganini – famously the ‘last Tasmanian’ – and a small number of others from her language group, particularly another woman, Dray, and Truganini’s husband, Wooraddy.

My endeavours began on 30th March 1829 when I left Hobart Town at 9.30 am in a large whaleboat with six hands bound for Bruny Island lying close to the mainland due south…As I saw it … I had been placed in the vanguard of the movement for the amelioration of the natives…

Robinson’s plan is to befriend the Aboriginal inhabitants of Bruny Island, and to create a settlement for them with huts, vegetable gardens and a school. He is concerned to separate the locals from white settlers on the far side of the island who were “enticing the natives with food, clothing and tobacco for which the women were submitting to immoral practices”. In this he is less than successful and in any case the Aboriginals are nearly all wiped out by an unidentified disease.

The following year he makes up a party of half a dozen convicts and the four remaining Bruny Islanders to make contact with the Indigenous inhabitants of southern Tasmania, during which he undergoes various adventures, the purpose of which – I mean the author’s purpose – seems to be to demonstrate Robinson’s willingness to conciliate and learn rather than confront. Robinson develops a certain affection for Truganini, but Dray deserts the party and takes up with locals.

This is all in preparation for horrifying scenes of White bastardry, as shepherds massacre Aborigines and force them over a cliff:

A narrow path led down to the ledge; at its farmost reach was a dead-end – a high rock wall. Beneath the ledge was a drop of a hundred feet or more on to angular rocks stippled with brightly coloured lichens. The ledge was strewn with Toogee bodies – men, women and children lying among their scattered food baskets in a morass of blood and ripe fruit. The Dorsetman and the second Scot moved among them, swinging bodies over the cliff on to the rocks…

I remained there, gasping out prayers, as the shepherds flung the last mutilated bodies over the edge, collected their carbines and muskets and sauntered up the path to me. Below them lay the object of my endeavours, the Toogee tribe. Chamberlain led the way. ‘Morning sir,’ he said. ‘A bit of crow hunting for the company.’

As I understand it, Arthur, who had already instituted martial law so that it was legal to kill Aborigines, claimed to support Robinson but at the same time stepped up the war on the Indigenous population, a war amounting to genocide, with the ‘Black Line’ “in which 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons stretching hundreds of kilometres across the island in order to drive Aboriginal people from the colony’s settled districts to the Tasman Penninsula, in the southeast” (Wikipedia). From there, 46 survivors, including Truganini, accompanied Robinson to Flinders Island. Their numbers rose to around 200 over the next couple of years as stragglers were rounded up, but declined thereafter due to disease and, no doubt, heartbreak.

A reader asked, after my post on Thea Astley’s The Kindness Cup (here), what other books there were from this period (the 1970s) on Aboriginal massacres. From what I could find, historian Henry Reynolds had begun documenting the War in Tasmania, and JJ Healy (who I discussed here) in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) was particularly tough on Rolf Boldrewood’s part in massacres in Victoria’s Western District and also discusses the Hornet Bank massacre (of whites) in 1857 and the part played by Rosa Praed’s family in the reprisals, and where this was reflected in her writing.

But as for novels, apart from The Savage Crows, the only others I could come up with that might come close were Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) and Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). So I guess The Savage Crows is important for its subject matter, but in my opinion the execution, the forming of the two narrative streams into a coherent whole, leaves a bit to be desired.

 

Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows, William Collins, 1976 (my ed. Picador, 1987)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

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A Kindness Cup (1974) is a short (150pp), powerful novel on the savagery that underlies white settlement in Queensland. Set in a fictional coastal town in the far north at the end of the C19th, it is a story of Aboriginal men casually murdered for no reason; of a town whose sugar industry is based on the slave labour of Pacific islanders; a town of mindless citizens, happy in their wilful ignorance; and above all, the story of the few white men who tried to help or speak up, bashed and sidelined.

I own a few Astleys and I guess I must have read them over the past 40 or so years, without retaining much, but this is the one that has stayed in my mind, the one that for me typifies her writing. Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born and educated in Queensland before moving to NSW with her husband in 1948. Without having read all her books, I get the impression that Queensland is at the heart of her writing. And I believe she writes so ferociously about Queensland in A Kindness Cup because so little had changed. Her fictional township is a perfect metaphor for Brisbane and Queensland in the venal, racist years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his coterie of corrupt cabinet ministers, police and businessmen.

The premise of the novel is that Dorahy, a classics teacher, has been invited back to a town reunion on the 20th anniversary of … I’m not sure we’re told, and about 18 years after a massacre of local Aborigines which he (imperfectly) witnessed. We proceed along a number of timelines at once. Dorahy making the six day voyage up the coast from Moreton Bay to attend the reunion; Dorahy teaching a class which includes the gentle Tim Jenner and the oafish Fred Buckmaster; Fred Buckmaster, a Trooper Lieutenant in the police, being grilled at an inquest into the massacre; the even more oafish Buckmaster père and the oily politician Sweetman threatening and blustering both ‘now’ and 20 years earlier; the seven days of the reunion; and so on.

Other characters who play a part are Boyd who prints the local newspaper and is philosophically opposed to Buckmaster and Sweetman, but mostly keeps his head down; Lunt a farmer on the edge of the district who is sympathetic to the local Indigenous people. Women in this novel are mostly in the background, there are just Kowaha, an Aboriginal woman friendly with Lunt and Dorahy, and who has a new baby daughter; and Gracie, a girl competed for by Tim and Fred, who goes on to become a professional singer down south, but returns for the reunion.When fights break out at a town meeting –

Gracie Tilburn, her red hair ablaze, rushes to the footlights and pleads for silence. It is so outrageous for a woman to assert herself among men, the hall is temporarily shocked and muted.

The massacre becomes inevitable when Buckmaster and Sweetman form the intention of ‘dispersing’, ie. shooting, the local Aborigines under the pretext that they had abducted, starved and abandoned a local (white) child, despite it being clear to everyone else that the child was lost, had been rescued by the tribe, had been unable to eat Aboriginal food, and had been returned to a place near her home.

Lunt warns the Aborigines, who are camping at a waterhole on his property, of the impending attack, and undertakes to care for a sick old man whom they are unwilling to leave behind. When Buckmaster finds them gone he approaches Lunt in a rage, shoots the Aboriginal man in his bed and lashes Lunt to him. By the time Lunt is discovered, days later, gangrene has set in in a minor wound in his leg and it has to be amputated.

Buckmaster orders his son, by now a policeman, to conduct a raid without waiting for a warrant or instructions, and a party is made up of troopers and townsmen. They find the tribe in the bush around a local peak, Mandarana, and fan out, herding them up to the top.

The world, the stupendous views, narrowed to a horror of shots and shouts and screams as they burst in upon the score of blacks herded into the inner circle of rocks. One spear caught Roy Armitage in the shoulder, but the others flew wide as the natives, awed by the bullet, became only a huddle of terrified flesh. They cringed against rocky shields…

It was truly time to make arrests, but Buckmaster had lost control of his men who went forward and in, shooting steadily and reloading and shooting until the ground was littered with grunting men and there was blood-splash bright upon the rocks…

‘Leave the gins!’ Sweetman roared in a moment of sanity. ‘Leave them!’

Kowaha breaks free from her fellows and leaps to her death holding her baby, who survives! Dorahy, Boyd and Tim Jenner and his father come up at that moment, having hoped to impede or at least bear witness to the ‘dispersal’.

Dorahy and Lunt are forced to leave town. The inquest uncovers Fred Buckmaster’s guilt and incompetence but, as is always the case in Queensland, exonerates him anyway. He too leaves town, to become a publican.

And so we come to the reunion. Sweetman tries to persuade Dorahy to forget his grievances,  “That’s all over now. So long ago no one remembers.” But Dorahy, old and frail, is determined to make a scene and ropes in Boyd and Lunt. The ending isn’t happy.

 

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984 (first published 1974)

see also reviews of the recent Astley biography: Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, UQP, St Lucia, 2015; by Sue/Whispering Gums (here) and Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here)

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow

A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara

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For all their differences in approach, A Most Peculiar Act and Two Sisters (review here), both from Magabala Books in Broome, may be read as two sides of the same coin. They are written by confident, Indigenous women; they are set in the north, in respectively Darwin and the Kimberley; and they deal with the displacement of traditional peoples onto the periphery of white communities.

The principal difference is that whereas the Walmajarri people moved to an area where they could gain employment, the peoples portrayed in Munkara’s satire are herded into camps, in conditions of poverty and dependency, their every action governed by the NT Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 (the ‘Most Peculiar Act’ of the title) and by the ways the police and the officers of the Chief Protector’s department chose to enforce it.

We know from the writings of Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington, for instance, that the situation, especially for women and children of mixed parentage, was no better in Western Australia, but that is not an aspect highlighted in Two Sisters, whereas it is the whole point of A Most Peculiar Act.

Resident Judge writes in her perceptive review of Munkara’s memoir,  Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016): “The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.” Munkara’s voice is simple, direct and street-smart, and to my mind reminiscent of another indigenous* author, Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson.

A Most Peculiar Act is set in 1942-3, but the war plays no part except that the (re-imagined) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 Feb. 1943 brings the book to a close. The principal characters are all caricatures: Horrid Hump the incompetent doctor/medical administrator made Chief Protector of Aboriginals where “he wouldn’t be able to bugger up a situation that was already buggered”; Ralphie, a patrol officer subject to “ailments brought on by drinking and whoring”; 16 yo Sugar, presumably the young woman pictured on the cover, whose “features were perpetually scrunched up in a scowl that left you wondering if she were in pain or if she were about to commit an act of extreme danger or lunacy”; Drew, a buxom woman, mistakenly employed as a patrol officer, whose “demeanour belied the right-wing red-necked racist that lurked within”.

To the extent there is a plot, and not just a series of funny situations whose subversive intent is to highlight the ongoing racism of the administration of indigenous affairs in the NT, Sugar gets pregnant (to Ralphie), has twins, leaves one of them behind in the hospital, returns to live in the Camp with her community, is segregated off into the Pound (for ‘coloured’ girls) and has her remaining baby stolen, becomes a servant for the lesbian wife of NT’s most senior public servant, the Administrator, and in the final pages, leads the wife and some of her friends to the relative safety of caves in the beachside cliffs when a party is broken up by Japanese bombing.

Ralphie loses his job, attempts to live with the indigenous communities in the Camp, gets leprosy and observes the bombing from the safety of the leper colony on the other side of Darwin Harbour; while Drew initiates a series of disasters and becomes the, willing, object of the Administrator’s affections.

Just one quote. Munkara was apparently herself one of the stolen generation and this is how she describes it:

‘I know the mothers are really grateful to us for finding homes for their children but as primitives they just can’t express it like we do’, said the Superintendent [of the Pound] recalling the traumatic scenes that he’d witnessed of native mothers being relieved of their offspring.

All my life I have regarded the Territory as a place of adventure and romance, but at every turn in this book Munkara rubs our noses in the indignities, the humiliations, the deprivations that indigenous people have endured under what was and in many ways remains, apartheid in all but name. If ever we needed a reminder of why indigenous stories should be written by indigenous writers then this was it.

 

Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014

Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


*Colin Johnson’s heritage as an indigenous person is contested, but he was brought up as dark-skinned person in an indigenous community in WA’s south-west and is accepted, by Kim Scott for instance, as a contributor to modern indigenous literature.

The Cocanarup Massacre

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Kukenarup Memorial (photo, Kim Scott)

It is central to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) that in the early years of white settlement around ‘Gebalup’ (Ravensthorpe, WA) the matriarch Fanny (Benang) and her white husband Sandy Mason witness a massacre of Fanny’s people gathered around the homestead of the ‘Done’ family.

Not far from the homestead Fanny – cautiously peering from the load, peeking over bales – saw a small group of men women children, running and falling before station men on horseback. (1999, p.174)

… [Sandy] could see figures leaping to their feet, helping one another up, running. And there were voices calling, calling. People fell, were shot. Were shot….

Flames and explosions leapt from beyond the outstretched arms of a man beside him. A Winchester, almost the very latest thing. The man bent over the bodies, lunging and hacking, faceless in the grim darkness.

‘They understand this.’ (1999, p.186)

The knowledge of the deaths and the scattered bones creates an ‘exclusion zone’ to which the narrator is taken by Fanny’s grandsons many years later.

Scott wrote Benang, a fictionalised account of his search for his Noongar ancestry, from bits and pieces of stories and official records. In Kayang & Me (2005), which he co-wrote with Noongar elder, Hazel Brown, he recounts how Benang was just about done when he met Aunty Hazel, and how they turned out to be related, both descendants of Fanny Mason’s family. Of the massacre, Aunty Hazel writes:

Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred some time after 1880 by white people at a place called Cocanarup , a few miles from the Ravensthorpe townsite. (2005, p.10)

Cocanarup was a property taken up by the Dunn brothers in 1872 as a sheep run. In 1880 John Dunn was killed by spearing, by Granny Monkey’s brother, Yandawalla, for his part in raping a 13 yo Noongar girl. Yandawalla (aka Yangalla) was subsequently tried for murder and acquitted. There was trouble over the next couple of years as Noongars raided the property for sheep and the Dunn’s retaliated. It seems they eventually got a permit “to kill the seventeen people that were residents of that place.” However, unknownst to them there was a meeting of Noongars nearby from the surrounding districts of Hopetoun and Jerdacuttup, to discuss initiations and marriages and so “there was over thirty people that were killed down there.” (2005, p.65)

The oral history passed down to Aunty Hazel is backed up by white histories. Scott reports Marion Brockway as writing in The Dunns of Cocaranup, Early Days (1970):

Terrible stories abound, but cannot be verified, of the vengeance exacted by John’s brothers on the Nyungars. One story is that a number of Aborigines were killed and buried in a mass grave near John’s grave, the site being marked by a circle of posts. The rest of the Nyungars in the vicinity were chased eastward, the Dunns poisoning the waterholes on the way back, to prevent them returning. (2005, p.70).

And Cleve Hassell in his 1973 memoir of his own well-known early settler family “mentions that the three remaining Dunn brothers ‘declared war’ and took it in turns to go shooting Noongars while one was left at home with their sister. He writes that a great many natives were shot.” (2005, p.71)

I got in touch with Professor Scott (Kim Scott is Professor of Writing at Curtin Uni.) and he was kind enough to send me some extra material, photos and extracts from newspapers. These included a full account of Yangalla’s trial, but this summary from the South Australian Register of 26 Nov., 1881 will suffice: “The native Yangala, tried recently for the murder of Mr. John Dunn, has been acquitted owing to the unsatisfactory manner in which the evidence of the black witness was interpreted.” I have commented previously that colonial officialdom often had a much more enlightened attitude towards Aborigines than did settlers at the ‘frontier’. In the trial –presumably in the Perth Supreme Court – His Honour (not named) was pretty sharp with the police over the way they took ‘voluntary’ statements and the Attorney General was quick to withdraw the evidence so obtained.

The following year, in the West Australian of 30 May, 1882 their Albany correspondent reports:

Great dissatisfaction is being expressed by the settlers to the Eastward, more especially by the Messrs. Dunn Bros., as to the want of proper police protection. Most of your readers will remember the painful circumstances of Mr. John Dunn’s death, and the acquittal of the supposed murderers. Since that time it has transpired that the natives did not intend to murder Mr. J. Dunn, but another brother… it is now believed that they still intend to murder the other brother when an opportunity arises, which benevolent intention they will probably carry out if some steps are not taken to prevent them.

In the same paper, three years later on 25 Sept., 1885 it is reported that James Dunn had been attacked on the 15th and on the following day Robert Dunn “went out to ascertain the intentions and strength of the natives. He met forty blacks coming towards the station who immediately attacked him.” Dunn fired, killing one, the Noongars retreated pursued by Dunn who “killed one and wounded several.”

There’s an interview with Robert Dunn, many years later, in the (Perth) Sunday Times of 20 May 1928 but it’s mostly ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that and doesn’t add much to the account.

Finally, the following appeared in the Western Mail of 17 Oct 1935 under the heading The Skull at Carracarrup, ‘eight miles SSW of Ravensthorpe’ by WIPECO of Leonora who ‘was told the story by Mr. Walter Dunn (now deceased)’:

[After John Dunn’s death] The remaining members on the station were then granted licence to shoot the natives for a period of one month, during which time the fullest advantage was taken of the privilege. Natives were shot from the station through Lime Kiln Flat, Manjitup and down to where Ravensthorpe is now situated. In the course of their guerrilla warfare, the whites arrived one day at the Carracarrup Rock Hole, and, knowing it was a watering place for the blacks, they crept quietly over the hill until they could peer down into the hole. There they saw two natives who had just risen from drinking. Two shots broke the stillness of the gorge and two dusky souls were sent home to their Maker. The bodies were left lying at the rock hole where they dropped as a grim reminder to the rest of the tribe of the white man’s retribution.

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Cocanarup from Kukenarup memorial (photo, Graham Barker)

The Kukenarup memorial, on the South Coast Highway 15 km west of Ravensthorpe overlooks to the south the Cocanarup homestead and massacre site. The memorial, representing Noongar totems, Wedge Tailed Eagles and Mallee Fowl, includes the words:

This area of country has a harsh, complex and sometimes contradictory history. Many Noongar people were killed here, and all that death and the apartheid-like 20th century legislation meant many of our families were never able to return and reconcile themselves to what had happened.

The fiction of Terra Nullius has meant that the Cocanarup and similar massacres, not to mention all the deaths of Indigenous people from mistreatment and deprivation of resources, have too often been whitewashed out of official histories. We can only that hope our wilful forgetting is at long last in the process of being reversed, for without knowledge and then acknowledgement, there cannot be Reconciliation.


See also: Bob Howard, Noongar Resistance on the South Coast 1830-1890 (here)

For further information you should search on ‘Cocanarup’, ‘Kukenarup’ and ‘Ravensthorpe Massacre’. Google Map (here).

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1999 (review here)

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005 (review here)

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 (review here)

My post on the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834 (here)

Kayang & Me, Kim Scott and Hazel Brown

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Kim Scott’s writing over a number of books is a voyage of discovery of his antecedents as a Noongar man, that is of the Indigenous people of Western Australia’s South-West. The Wilomin, to whom Scott has found he belongs, are the eastern-most sub-group of the Noongar, occupying sandy, mallee country along the south coast between Bremer Bay and Esperance and inland around Ravensthorpe, the territory covered by his much awarded novel, Benang (1999). His later novel That Deadman Dance (2010) was set further west, around Albany and the jarrah forested Stirling Ranges, although characters and geography overlap between the two novels, even if the names they are given differ.

In Kayang & Me Scott and his Aunty Hazel alternate in telling stories around Scott’s Noongar heritage. Different fonts are used so it is always clear who is talking. Kayang, by the way, has the meanings ‘Aunty’ and ‘Elder’. Scott says:

Most of Aunty Hazel’s writing in this book comes from transcriptions of tape-recordings we did together. That method created some difficult decisions for us, most of which could be reduced to the particular problem of how to capture the distinctive nature of her speech while allowing it to be relatively smooth to read on the page.

Aunty Hazel, Hazel Brown “was born on the ninth of November 1925, at a place called Kendenup [north of Albany]… I was born in an old packing shed. Years ago no women had their babies in hospital, you weren’t allowed to.” Her mother, Nellie, who had a white father, had been taken from her home at Marble Bar and sent 2,000 km south to Carrolup Native Settlement where, perhaps to cure her running away, she was made to marry a Wiloman man, Yiller, who died when Hazel was 5. Nellie, who by then also had a son, Lenny, then married Yiller’s brother, Fred Tjinjel Roberts, and Hazel grew up with her brothers and sisters and her father’s “full blood relations”, living a relatively traditional life in the Ravensthorpe/Wilomin region, while her father worked as a farm-hand and shearer.

My father’s father was called Bob Roberts (also known as Pirrup) and his mother was known as Monkey… Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred* some time after 1880 by white people at place called Cocanarup, a few miles from Ravensthorpe.

Kim Scott (1957- ) writes “my father, Tommy Scott, was the only surviving child to an Aboriginal woman who died when he was ten years old, after which his Aboriginal grandmother continued to raise him until his Scottish father arranged boarding schools …”. He died young, in his thirties. Scott remembers him telling him to be proud of his ‘Aboriginal descent’. Growing up, in Albany, Scott knew very few of his extended indigenous family, and only some of those identified as Noongar, but he was aware that his father’s mother and grandmother had lived around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

As an adult enquiring after his family he was told, “go see Aunty Hazel. They reckoned Hazel Brown knew everyone who lived around Ravensthorpe.” And so it turned out, her husband and Scott’s father had been drinking buddies. “Your father was my cousin, she told me.” Scott had already put in a great deal of research to come up with the material that underlies Benang, now Aunty Hazel was able to flesh it out. The starting point from Scott’s notes was his great grandmother Granny (Fanny) Winnery, who Hazel remembered as Pirrup’s sister, having often visited her in Ravensthorpe as a young girl. Granny Winnery and Pirrup’s father, Old Bob Roberts, appears to be the ‘Bob’ recorded as guiding Surveyor General JS Roe along the south coast in 1849, and who ended up as a hated ‘black tracker’.

Hazel has stories of Old Bob and his brothers and sisters, who married whom, working for early settlers the Hassells, shepherding and on the wagons running from the coast to Balladonia 300 km inland. All of which Scott must reconcile with scanty written accounts.

Old Fanny Winnery, she had two daughters, didn’t she? She had two daughters. That’s right! Married Coleman twins. And after that one of their girls married the Scott.

Fanny Winnery is recorded as having given birth to a daughter at a camp east of Esperance, the father’s name given as John Mason. Mason had been a sailor and Scott finds an account, by a settler, of a marriage between a ‘Jack Tar’ who is shepherding for him, and an Aboriginal woman who was probably Fanny. More information comes from the records of the Chief Protector, enquiring after a John Mason who served in the First World War. He is the son of Jack Mason and Fanny ‘Pinyan’. Fanny died in 1913, in the house of her son in law Daniel Coleman, and she and Jack were buried together in Ravensthorpe. These names of course are all familiar to us from Benang.

Scott goes down to Ravensthorpe with Hazel’s brother, Lomas Roberts who is documenting a Native Title claim, to visit long time resident, Mrs Cox –

‘And you must have known Kimmy’s father’, Uncle Lomas said.

‘Oh yes’, she said, bursting into a smile, ‘I went to school with Tommy Scott.’

She remembered my grandmother too.

That was Harriette Coleman, daughter of Fanny, and mother of Scott’s Uncle Will. You can see the problem though – Fanny Winnery was dead before Aunty Hazel was born, so the Granny ‘Winnery’ she remembers seeing must have been Harriette. Reconciling Hazel’s oral genealogy with his ‘scraps of paper’ became a problem for Scott and held up the writing of this book. In the meanwhile we learn a great deal about the history of White/Noongar relations from both Scott and from Aunty Hazel, the murders, the imprisonments on Rottnest and other islands, the apartheid-like impact of the 1905 Aborigines Act, the ‘colour bar’ in country towns, the deaths caused by doctors refusing to treat black children.

But Aunty Hazel is a woman who knows her own mind, she and her husband had friends in the white community, and not all her stories are dark. At one time in the thirties a very young Hazel and her family were walking along a track between Ravensthorpe and Esperance –

Now these people came along. They had an old black motor and I don’t know … it was like a square top and it had a funny little front. It was like a little ute. … She was a woman that was going through to Esperance, and she was going to South Australia, and in some way she was connected to Daisy Bates. … she started sending Mummy the funny little magazine that Daisy Bates made.

Scott doesn’t speculate as to who this might have been. Ernestine Hill went from WA at this time to meet Bates, but by train. And she did her trans-Nularbor road trip with Henrietta Drake-Brockman in 1947 when Hazel would have been 22.

Aunty Hazel lectures Scott on truth in story telling, even when it’s told different each time: “We don’t wanna bore people, unna? We wanna tell a good story. You should know that better than me, you s’posed to be the writer.” This is a fascinating book, of genealogical enquiry, of the details of an almost forgotten way of life, of Scott’s attempts to interpret and interrogate his Noongar heritage. Aunty Hazel is a wonderful story teller and of course Scott is one of our finest writers.

Here is Scott’s (confronting) conclusion, which I think ties in with what I’ve be I’ve been trying to say about leaving space for Indigenous writers –

In order to strengthen Indigenous communities – and that’s the only means by which an Australian nation-state will have any chance of grafting onto Indigenous roots – we need some sort of ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies, a moratorium, a time of exclusion to allow communities to consolidate their heritages. After that, exchange and interaction from relatively equal positions should be possible, because that’s how cultural forms are tested and grow.

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005

See also: my reviews of Benang (here) and That Deadman Dance (here)


*I have not said any more about the Cocanorup massacre because there is too much to say. The authors provide pages of recollections, but as Scott says there is very little documentation.  A search on Google brings up nothing and on Trove, one account of an expedition to the Goldfields in 1890. If I can I may put up more in a separate post at a later date. I have overcome these difficulties (with some assistance) and will put up a post on the massacre in a few days.

The Shriver Kerfuffle

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Lionel Shriver (image from Alchetron)

Following the dustup surrounding Lionel Shriver’s speech in Brisbane last week I thought it might be useful to provide a summary and to gather into one place as many links as I could. While I’m sure much of the outrage was confected, and indeed planned for, the underlying debate around Cultural Appropriation is of ongoing relevance. For me it began with a report in The Age of 11 Sept 2016:

Brisbane Writers Festival has been swept into a storm of controversy after the opening address of American author Lionel Shriver caused members of the audience to walk out.

This report was seemingly in response to an article in the Guardian of 10 Sept by Yassmin Abdel-Magied headed:

As Lionel Shriver made light of identity I had no choice but to walk out on her

referring to Shriver’s BWF opening address of the previous night, ie. Fri 9 Sept.  At this point we understood that Shriver had claimed the ‘right’ as a writer to stand in the shoes of/to represent the views in her fiction of any person of any gender, ethnicity or colour that she chose. And that Abdel-Magied claimed that this represented ‘cultural appropriation’, with which view I largely agree. The Age further reported Festival volunteer Yen-Rong Wong as saying:

The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share.

A “Right-of-Reply” event hurriedly organized by the BWF was held on Saturday night, 10 Sept to give speakers opposed to Shriver a forum for their views. Then on Monday, 12 Sept the key players were all interviewed on the ABC’s The World Today. The following day my favourite commentator on all things cultural, Helen Razer in (pay-walled) magazine Crikey, appeared to suggest that Shriver was known for her opposition to ‘political correctness’ and that BWF may have been courting controversy for the sake of publicity.

At about the same time, the New York Times put up an article about the affair with, embarrassingly,  a great deal more detail than was available in The Age, claiming amongst other things that the Right of Reply symposium was deliberately timed so that Shriver would not be able to attend, and that the text of Shriver’s speech had been taken down from the BWF website. This last was frustrating for those of us interested in the debate as we had very little idea what Shriver had actually said until finally, on 13 Sept, the Guardian obtained and put up a transcript.

So who is Lionel Shriver? She was born in North Carolina in 1957 and changed her name from Margaret to Lionel as a teenager. She has always been explicit that she did not wish ‘female’ to be her primary identity. Shriver is the author of 13 novels, most notably We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) and her most recent, The Mandibles (2016). Blogger Kate W of booksaremyfavouriteandbest went to see Shriver at the Melbourne Writers Festival the previous week (Sun. 4 Sept) and wrote, “She is, without question, one of the most compelling and powerful authors – no, people – that I’ve ever heard speak.” Kate, who has reviewed a couple of Shriver’s books (Double Fault and Big Brother) cited an article from earlier this year by Shriver, Gender – Good for Nothing which begins:

From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses …

In the article Shriver makes a compelling case that second wave feminism with which she grew up has failed to eradicate male/female differentiation. That, because it has become accepted that we are now able to choose our gender identity anywhere along and beyond the LGBTI spectrum, it is exactly those old male/female stereotypes that we use to determine our orientation. She writes:

I am often asked how I manage to write persuasively from a male character’s point of view, which I do frequently… the crucial constituents of our characters have little to do with gender, unless we insist on labelling clumps of qualities—forcefulness, violence, inability to cry; tenderness, consideration, inability to drive—as exclusively male and female, which they are not.

In her BWF address, and I strongly recommend that if you have got this far, that you read it in full, she makes a series of ‘commonsense’ examples about dressing up in other peoples’ clothes, leading up to her central argument:

What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.

Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied

The young woman who challenged Shriver, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “is a mechanical engineer, social advocate, writer and petrol head and is the 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.” It is clear from her bio that she pursues a career as a ‘public intellectual’ with a high profile on programmes like Q&A. In her Guardian article she writes:

[Shriver’s] question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

Not every crime writer is a criminal, Shriver said, nor is every author who writes on sexual assault a rapist. “Fiction, by its very nature,” she said, “is fake.”

There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Cultural appropriation, Abdel-Magied concludes, is a “thing”. Colonisation has taken everything from peoples all around the world, should they now also surrender their identities?

Interestingly, I have not seen any comments by Aboriginal writers on this issue. Googling Anita Heiss brings up a Twitter post from a month or so ago “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm”. Heiss has addressed the issue of who should write Aboriginal stories previously in Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003) which I reviewed earlier this year.

Finally, let me knock down a straw man of my own. It is often said that in a multi-cultural society, and indeed in a multi racial world, that authors fail to properly represent society if they present a mono-racial picture, and as it happens I made just that criticism recently of Liane Moriarty. So let me be clear. I do not think male authors should not have female characters. I do not think white writers should not have characters of other ethnicities or colour (or class). I think they should fill their books with such characters, just not the protagonist. What they should not do, what the members of any dominant culture should not do, is attempt to pass themselves off in their fiction as representing the views of an oppressed culture. The stories of the oppressed are not ours to tell. Middle class white men back off!

We generally acknowledge that white men in management (and politics) will have fewer opportunities for advancement until women and people of colour have taken their rightful place amongst them. It has been clear for some time that the same must apply to white writers. That is not a denial of their rights, but simply a reduction of their privileges.

I do not think fewer white men should be published, as MST has pointed out the problem is not in publishing but in what receives attention. I don’t even think white men should be stopped from telling the stories of women and people of other ethnicities. But I do think we should call them out when they do.

26 Sept 2016. Shriver has replied in the NYT (here).Thanks to Tim Harding of The Logical Place, who reposted the Shriver Kerfuffle, for putting this up.


Links used in this post –

Age http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/your-brisbane/us-author-lionel-shrivers-brisbane-writers-festival-speech-prompts-walkout-20160911-grdp0m.html

Guardian YAM https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her?CMP=share_btn_fb

BWF blog https://uplit.com.au/festival/uplit/blog

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2016/s4537028.htm

Razer https://www.crikey.com.au/2016/09/13/brisbane-writers-festival-caused-lionel-shriver-controversy-deliberately/

Guardian LS https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Kate W https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/lionel-shriver-at-the-melbourne-writers-festival/

KW review DF https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/double-fault-by-lionel-shriver/

KW review BB https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/big-brother-by-lionel-shriver/

LS Gender http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/gender-good-for-nothing

YAM http://www.yassminam.com/rtn/

Heiss http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/?utm_source=SocialWarfare&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare

Heiss https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/dhuuluu-yala-anita-heiss/

MST https://adventuresinbiography.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/book-reviews-where-are-all-the-women-stella-count-paints-a-depressing-picture/

NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=15&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Shriver reply http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?_r=0