Posts tagged ‘Aboriginal issues’

Ten year anniversary of Mulrunji’s death on Palm Island: a history of an Australian gulag

Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936

Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936

It’s been ten years since one of the most shameful episodes in modern Queensland history in a place that has long been a site of the worst excesses of institutional racism in Australia. That place is Palm Island in beautiful Halifax Bay and the event is the aftermath of the senseless death of Indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee, known as Mulrunji. Mulrunji’s death needs to be seen in the context of the terrible history of Palm Island, which was founded as an Australian gulag in 1918.

Mulrunji was a 36 years old Murri man, a loving husband, father and carer for a disabled nephew who also worked part-time for the local council, and a very popular man on the island. Around 10am on Friday, November 19, 2004 Mulrunji was walking on Bay St on the island when he observed an incident in the street. Palm Island’s most senior policeman, Senior Sgt Chris Hurley assisted by Indigenous Police Liaison Office Lloyd Bengaroo were assisting the partner of Roy Bramwell who was intoxicated and swearing. The officers arrested Bramwell and as Mulrunji passed, he chided Bengaroo for locking up his own people. Bengaroo told Mulrunji to keep walking, instead he started singing Who Let The Dogs Out?

Hurley claims Mulrunji swore at him and arrested him, pushing into the police van with force. At the time Hurley was 33, a tall man weighing 115kgs. Posted to Palm in 2002, he was the ultimate figure of power and authority on the island. He had a reputation from his previous posting in Burketown as a womaniser, heavy drinker and being good with his fists.  After arresting Mulrunji, Hurley drove the van back to the station arriving around 10.20am. As he unloaded the van, Mulrunji punched Hurley in the jaw and Hurley responded with a dig to the ribs. What next was disputed. Hurley claimed Mulrunji fell over the step. According to Bramwell Hurley shouted “Do you want more, Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more? Have you had enough?” Bengaroo stayed quiet fearing retribution if he spoke out. Hurley said nothing too, he was out cold on the pavement.

Hurley and another white copper thought he was ‘foxing’ (pretending) and dragged him by his hands to the cells, lying there with four fractured ribs, and a ruptured liver and portal vein. A doctor would later say his liver was ‘cleaved in two’. He was bleeding to death and calling for help which did not arrive. Instead, at 10.26am Mulrunji was formally charged with public nuisance. Around 11am Hurley entered the cell and kicked Mulrunji on the shoulder but got no response. After a couple of minutes they called for a paramedic who arrived 15 minutes later. The paramedic pronounced Mulrunji dead on arrival. Bengaroo said they should notify the family but Hurley told him to shut up.  Mulrunji’s wife and sister came to the station with food but were told to go away. Other relatives arrived and were alarmed by the departing paramedic. Hurley said Mulrunji was sleeping and told them to leave too. He would later deny this but eventually admitted the truth.

It wasn’t until 3pm – over four hours later – that a Townsville policeman told the family their father was dead. In the meantime, the Palm coppers gave Bramwell $50 and told him to beat it and stay quiet. Normal investigative routines following a death in custody were not followed. The State Homicide Investigation Group did not get involved. Instead two friends of Hurley from Townsville CIB investigated. They chatted comfortably with Hurley, the death site was not secured and the report to the coroner three days later made no reference to Hurley’s assault on the victim. By now, community anger at Mulrunji’s death was at boiling point and 200 people marched to the station demanding answers.

The autopsy report was released after a week. It said there was no evidence of force and Mulrunji died of an ‘intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein’ and accidental fall onto a hard surface. Again 200 people marched in protest claiming it was murder and set fire to the courthouse and police station. Instead of offering support to the family, the state brought in 18 additional police. Labor Premier Peter Beattie invoked the Joh era 1986 Public Safety Preservation Act as white teachers, nurses, public servants and contractors fled the island. The police negotiated with former councillor Lex Wotton but eventually used helicopters and planes to re-secure the island. Wotton’s home was raided at 4.30am and he was Tasered and arrested along with many others, police breaking down doors in 50 homes in dawn raids reminiscent of 1957, the last time Palm Island erupted in race riots.

It was the 2004 riots that brought Palms to national attention, not Mulrunji’s death. The Beattie government ran for cover, exaggerating the threat (police confiscated just one gun) and talking tough about ending support, while refusing to open schools, run ferries or let bread or milk in for three days. They also banned Aboriginal Legal Aid from the island. There were 43 arrests with police ‘vehemently opposing’ bail. Most spent that Christmas in jail awaiting charges. Palms council wrote to Brisbane saying “our people are under siege” and the children were feeling “terrorised”. They requested police to stay away from Mulrunji’s funeral which was attended by 3,000 people – all black.

In February 2005 a coronial inquiry finally brought some much-needed context to the death. Palms was exposed as an Australian Alcatraz with a chronic housing shortage and rampant unemployment where people died on average aged 50. The original custodians were the Bwgcolman but in 1918 white Australians established Palms as a convenient off-shore prison colony for recalcitrant survivors of the Kalkadoon wars of north-west Queensland. It became the ultimate punishment centre for Queensland Indigenous people in a policy of containment and control. Authorities rounded up all the blacks that were considered troublemakers along the northern coast and packed them off to Palms. But by being ‘a penitentiary for troublesome cases’ it brought together a group of outstanding leaders in the one place who forged a new Indigenous identity from their various tribes.

Their lives were managed by the 1897 Queensland Act which restricted their movement, kept them segregated from the mainstream and treated them like children. Police held control over black wages (an amount worth over half a billion dollars in today’s money was never paid) and the island overseer Robert Curry was prosecutor, clerk of court and judge. Two smaller islands Curacao and Eclipse were used as further punishment places for Palms blacks where bread and water were the only rations. Curry had been overseer since the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. His medical officer Pattison argued against some of his decisions and Curry’s mind addled by novocaine and depression following the death of his wife snapped on February 3, 1930. In the early hours of the morning, Curry ran amok with a gun in his hand, shooting and injuring Pattison and smashing his wife with the butt of his rifle. Both later recovered.

He set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter who were inside. Then he destroyed one boat before sailing in the other to Fantome, where he sat on the beach, drinking. His assistant gave guns to some of the Murri residents and ordered them to shoot Curry. They waited for his return and when he did so, one of the Aboriginal men shot him dead. The man who pulled the trigger, Peter Prior was charged with murder as was Curry’s deputy for supplying the weapon. The judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because it was not a white man who shot Curry.

After Curry, conditions improved on Palms under the supervision of Anglican chaplain Ernest Gribble who had long experience with Aboriginal people and who urged assimilation with the white population. During the Second World War the island housed many black American GIs as part of Prime Minister Curtin’s request to keep black soldiers away from white Australian women. The black Americans gave the Palms people a new sense of their identity but it was brutally quashed again by the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.

Bartlam insisted on rigid apartheid and Murris had to salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People were punished with seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling after bell rung to breaks and start and end the work day. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.

Bartlam’s ridiculous rules finally led to the breaking point of an all-out strike in 1957. The events had eerie resemblances to the riots that followed Mulrunji’s death in 2004. The trouble began when a native who had been charged with threatening the Super, broke away and was joined by a crowd of demonstrators. They attacked police and abused settlement officers. Bartlam underestimated community he had alienated and there was sudden unspoken urgency for change. Bartlam attempted to arrest 8 men planning the strike. A fight erupted and men refused go to jail and returned home. Murris controlled every corner and the native police joined the strike. They were promptly sacked. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding ‘adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”

They threw bad meat at Bartlam’s house and marched up the whites-only Mango Avenue. Twenty police were rushed by RAAF planes to the island but were greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but there were improvements in diet and conditions. As late as 1969 blacks were stilled banned from walking on Mango Avenue and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism.

But the tide was turning. The hated Queensland Act was finally overturned in the 1970s under threat from Whitlam’s anti-racism legislation. The community was promised a system for granting Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) which was Joh’s way of avoiding native title. It was finally issued in 1985 but the island still faced inadequate housing, sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. Into the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah”.

All this was noted in Mulrunji’s inquest report. The Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot. The ghosts of mad Curry and bad Bartlam still walk large on Palms.

November 23, 2014 at 11:13 am Leave a comment

Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

On the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, near the border between NSW and Queensland, a small stream quickly gathers pace as it slithers down the mountains. It is an area of good rains and picks up lots of tributaries in the Dorrigo Plateau. By the time it reaches the valleys, it is a large and broad, the widest Australian river to enter the Pacific. At its estuary the river is a majestic one kilometre wide. The ferry from Yamba in the south to Iluka in the north takes 30 minutes to negotiate its dangerous channels, islands and sandbars. To the Yaegl and Bundjalung people (collectively known as Yaygirr) that lived in this valley the river was called the Ngunitiji. The Yaygirr had a good lifestyle for at least 6,000 years, so much so they could afford to set up roots and live in bark huts with woven vines. At nighttime they gathered around told the story of the old woman Dirrangan who was swept down the river during a flood holding on to a fig tree. But it was the Yaygirr who would eventually be swept away when newcomers coveted the river and its fertile land. These ghostly white people were initially slow to see its insignificance. Cook missed it on his 1770. Matthew Flinders did find the bark huts when he landed at the mouth of the Ngunitiji during his second voyage in 1799. He called the area Shoal Bay but was unimpressed by the shifting sandbars and failed to see he was at the mouth of a major flow calling it “a small opening like a river”. For the next 40 years, the river remained invisible to white eyes. John Oxley missed it in his discovery of the Tweed River in 1823 as did Henry Rous in the same area five years later. Rous would even called Oxley’s Tweed the ‘Clarance’ but that name didn’t stick. In the decade after Oxley, rumours persisted of a Big River in northern NSW especially after convicts started to escape south from Moreton Bay penal colony. In 1830 one escapee “Sheik” Jack Brown made it as far as Yaygirr country where he lived with locals for two years. When he finally returned to Moreton Bay he told of a great river which “abounds with fish.” Its land was abundant in “emus, kangaroos, and wild fowl in all directions” and “pine, oak, gum and other trees of use” were growing there. Brown excited the imagination of would-be settlers looking for easy pickings among the apparently friendly natives. Captain Alexander Butcher took the Eliza into the estuary and sailed 200km up the river, mapping it as he passed. It was his report that finally got Sydney’s attention. Explorer Joseph Hickey Grose decided to verify Butcher’s findings the following year and he reported back to deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry about “the future opening of the country on the banks of the river”. The schooner Susan also left Sydney in 1838 with a party of sawyers looking for cedar.  It was not a good wood for building houses or boats so the men lived in tent-huts, surviving on beef, flour, tea and sugar. Three times a year they went to the new settlement at what would become Grafton where there was complaints about their drunken behaviour. Though the cedar was quickly exhausted, many stayed to try their hand at farming. By now the Ngunitiji had a white name. The master of the ship King William, Captain Francis Griffin urged Governor Gipps in Sydney to name it “with a title somewhat more clear than the Big River.” Perhaps it was the name of Griffin’s ship as well as well as loyalty to the crown that caused Gipps to go with Rous’s name for the Tweed in honour of the recently deceased King William IV, previously known as the Duke of Clarence. As word spread in Sydney, there was a rush of cedar-cutters, squatters and selector farmers into the Clarence’s fertile valley. The Yaygirr people watched apprehensively as strangers poured into their territory. Initially there was cautious co-existence but the trickle of Europeans became a flood and took black lands and waterholes. Once they started locking up land for cane growing, the Yaygirr were forced to steal back to survive. They killed white stock and attacked isolated settlements. In 1847 Thomas Coutts took revenge as he poisoned 23 Gumbaynggir people with strychnine in their flour. Five died in agony but Coutts avoided prosecution as there was not enough evidence. There were two documented massacres, one at Green Hills near Red Rock where mounted native police drove natives off the headland, the other at Station Creek. Oral histories also tell of killings at Minnie Waters, Cassons Creek and Tyndale in the early 1840s. By the 1900s massacres and disease had weakened the black population and land dispossession was complete. There were few left who could speak the Yaygirr language.  Their journey back from the precipice of non-peoplehood began with the 1967 Referendum.  They were then remembered in the naming of the Yuraygir National Park declared in 1977. Though widely dispersed today, the area’s traditional owners still proudly call out their links to the region. The Bundjalong gave their name to the national park north of the Clarence. To the south, the Yaegl and the Gumbaingirr trace common descent through the female line. Their land councils and totems are important, indeed the Bundjalong won the first Aboriginal land grant in NSW in 1985 at Evans Head. But it is the mighty Clarence, the Big River, the Ngunitiji that still speaks loudest. The Europeans have moulded it in their own industrious image with breakwaters and ports. But the ghost of Dirrangan still haunts its wide waters.

September 7, 2014 at 8:52 pm Leave a comment

Three lives Part 3 – Pearson’s mission

By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own. Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, two years a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland.

A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers. Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people. But after Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar.

Pearson was beginning to understand the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun describing it as the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience. Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians. Pearson’s speeches speak to an ever-evolving sense of self, grounded by the dignity of his upbringing and his Aboriginality.

Bennelong, Bussamarai and Pearson are separated by time and circumstance but united by the need to take control of their lives. All faced massive challenges and all were scarred by proximity to colonialism. Bennelong was arguably Indigenous Australia’s first and only ambassador, but was discarded when Britain had no more use for him. By Bussamarai’s time colonisation was in full swing across Australia, a war on many fronts. His ‘opera’ was similar to Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip: the mark of a strategic thinker with a sense of drama.

Bussamarai was killed and victors wrote him out of the history. Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms.

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

July 19, 2014 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Three lives Part 2 – Bussamarai’s opera

Forty years after Bennelong’s death (see Part 1), equal terms between black and white were forgotten as white Australia pushed out from the coast. Encouraged by British demand for Australian wool, pastoralism provided the impetus for territorial expansion. Legally the justification was terra nullius. Chief Justice Forbes called Australia an ‘uninhabited country’ but it was the settlers who were making it uninhabitable for the blacks. Squatters, blinded by profits, simply stole the land and when Aborigines fought back they were killed. Their mere presence was enough for them to be shot or poisoned – men, women and children. This was true in southern Queensland’s Maranoa as elsewhere, but there a Mandandanji resistance leader would put on a show that was just as elaborate as Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip and just as meaningful.

In April 1850 white settlers near Surat were invited to a corroboree, what Gideon Lang would later call an ‘opera’. The conductor said Lang, was ‘Eaglehawk’ (Bussamarai) who sat behind a choir of black women while men on stage acted out an elaborate play. With astonishing mimicry the actors played cattle grazing in the fields. Next they became black warriors sneaking up to spear cattle. Then others playing ‘manufactured whites’ starting shooting the ‘blacks’. To the great joy of the mainly non-white audience, the ‘blacks’ overwhelmed the ‘whites’ at the end of the opera. Bussamarai’s message was he could combine five local tribes to drive the whites from the country. The lessons the whites drew was equally clear: bring in the native police.

The history is scant on Bussamarai/Eaglehawk, two of his four names along with Old Billy and Possum Murray (Bussamarai may simply be a backward formation from Possum Murray). The first squatters searched Mandandanji lands around 1842 when Finney Eldershaw and others scouted the Maranoa and Balonne Rivers. Thomas Mitchell came through in 1846 and he was a close friend of NSW parliamentary secretary and fellow Scot William Macpherson. William’s son Allan had a property in New England and Macpherson junior was excited by Mitchell’s diary entry for the Maranoa: ‘fine open country, and from the abundance of good pasturage around it, I named it Mt Abundance’.

Armed with Mitchell’s maps, Macpherson capitalised on a March 1847 Order in Council possibly drafted by his father which granted frontier squatters 14-year leases. Macpherson claimed 400,000 acres of ‘the most beautiful land that ever sheep’s eyes travelled over’. But within a week the blacks appeared, frightening his men ‘into convulsions’. The fear was mutual, the natives dreading Macpherson’s double-barrelled carbine and horse. While Macpherson was away, they killed two shepherds and stole a thousand sheep. Macpherson was forced out after two years of ‘sundry conflicts with the hostile blacks’ and while he believed the grass was no use to them, he admitted ‘they no doubt thought they had a better right to the land than we did’.

While Macpherson showed conscience, other quieter settlers who followed did not. These men like Thomas Hall, Henry Dangar, Robert Fitzgerald and Joseph Fleming were in the Gwydir wars, and a ‘social destructive group’ with a ‘single-minded quest for wealth and status’. Hardened by the Myall Creek massacre and subsequent hanging of seven whites, they had a new unwritten law: ‘death by stealth’. In 1859 drover William Telfer heard about the slaughter that occurred after Macpherson’s time. Telfer was a witness to the Waterloo Creek killings and Telfer’s Wallabadah manuscript describes several massacres in the Maranoa including a ‘fight’ on Fleming’s property with a ‘Cheif [sic] who was shot with about fifty others’.

Bussamarai was also active killing settlers at Dulacca until a posse tracked his mob down to the Grafton Ranges. There they captured “a powerful man”. Though later released, Bussamarai did not forget his humiliation and forced Blyth to evacuate his station in October 1848. The absentee Gwydir landlords allowed 20 or so ‘insubordinate and lawless white workers’ to kill 80 Mandandanji in two years. The elusive Bussamarai’s talents got grudging tribute. Hovenden Hely, in the Maranoa in 1852 to search for Leichhardt, described Bussamarai as ‘the head and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there’ but admitted he was a ‘chief of great repute’. However with squatters agitating for native troopers to come, his time was up. Native Police Sergeant Skelton recounted the end after a fight in November 1852 “they [Bussamarai and another] were both shot in the attempt to apprehend them”.

Bussamarai’s death was one of hundreds in the violent Maranoa frontier war from 1846 to 1856. It was a war that moved up from the Gwydir and across from the Darling Downs and would later move north towards the Dawson River. The ruthless competition for land that led to Bussamarai’s death was forgotten and buried under pioneer legends. Through storytelling, the frontier was transformed into a battle between (white) humans and nature. But until it is accepted the frontier was a war zone, reconciliation of the past with present will continue to be an elusive goal.

July 8, 2014 at 12:28 pm 1 comment

Three lives: Part 1 – Bennelong time

bennelongHuman dignity has always played a key role in political action. It is a central tenet of Christianity yet Protestant England and Catholic France both established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. Aboriginal dignity was rated lowest yet is grounded in culture and religion. For two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”

The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.

There was no talk of treaties when Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong on all three counts.  Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and how they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ – Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788 networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left plenty of time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.

Britain’s conquest of Australia was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.

Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong who stayed for five months and would become a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape after 5 months  was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly beach was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to eventually formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to the bewilderment of the British. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.

Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.

On his return Bennelong’s fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.

June 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm 2 comments

Quandamooka versus Queensland: A tale of law, PR and Stradbroke Island

quandamookaI was coming from Roma St Station towards Kurilpa Bridge to the Queensland State Library yesterday thinking about my aboriginal studies with a final assignment due on Monday. I was trying to figure out how crucial dignity was to three Indigenous ambassadors from different times, Bennelong, Bussamarai and Noel Pearson. Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared two men with an Aboriginal flag.

The timing seemed extraordinary and they were heading the same way as me.  I followed them to the Commonwealth law courts in front of Kurilpa bridge. Some Indigenous people were putting up signs and waiting outside the court, while others still got ready to do a traditional dance. There were television and other media present. There was the promise of a peaceful protest and street theatre.  The State Library could wait, I thought, this was a media event and I was media.  This was also Indigenous people acting out their own dignity. This was important, to them, and to me.

Across the forecourt, young men put up banners while others handed out kits to waiting media. I asked for a kit and read their story. The High Court case was about sand mining rights on “Straddie”. Straddie is North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah, to its Indigenous people. They were here to appeal to Canberra to stop Brisbane from making laws about their island without their permission. It is also political. Labor’s law in 2o11 permits mining to 2019 – with Indigenous consent – but the LNP introduced a new law in 2013 to push the end of mining to 2035 and also increase its size. But federal law says they should have consulted with the traditional owners and this is something the Queensland government  didn’t do.

The constitution says that when State and Federal law clash, the latter should prevail. But not for the moment, and the unconsulted Straddie Aboriginal people had to take it to the highest court in the land. It was blatant lack of regard, something my reading of the history told me happened time and time again across the country since 1788. Straddie is close to Brisbane but bridgeless, much to the delight of most of its residents black and white plus most of the visitors that make the ferry. Visitors are not new. Straddie has been home to humans for over 20,000 years.

We don’t know their original name but their descendants became the Quandamooka people. The Quandamooka maintain a presence on the island to this day. Straddie was annexed by Cook in 1770 and again by Phillip in 1788 as part of New South Wales but the islanders remained blissfully ignorant of British rule for another 36 years. Reality struck when another penal colony was needed to punish the ones already here that needed further punishing. Moreton Bay (Brisbane) fit the bill.

The British felt no permission was necessary to establish this colony, enforced at the butt of a carbine. They first landed on Straddie, the same year – 1824 – as they landed in Brisbane. At a place the islanders called Pulan, they built a pilot station overlooking the strategic exit to the ocean. Whites later renamed it to Amity Point. By then Moreton Bay was opened to free labour and from 1859, Straddie would by ruled by Brisbane, not London or Sydney. An early church mission named Myora failed to win converts. And though Australia was formed in 1901, here as elsewhere, the Quandamooka people were not counted and at the mercy of their colonial government. The earliest Brisbane rulers were pasturalists who had good financial reason to support “the opening up” of territory for agriculture. Later regimes were heavily paternal, locking up Aborigines in concentration camps across the state where they could be kept under control. Many Stradbroke Islanders were sent to Cherbourg or Woorabinda or Palm Island.

It was Brisbane that decided the first sandmining on Straddie would take place in the 1950s. There was no consultation with Quandamooka or any other local peoples or no profits to them either. Mining came and nothing much changed until two groundbreaking events in 1993. The first was Mabo v Queensland (no 2) where, on the second attempt Mer man Eddie Mabo and his friends proved to the High Court they had customary title to the Murray Islands in Torres Strait. In response later that year Paul Keating pushed through a Native Title Act, a brave move that cost him much political capital (giving things to blacks remains electorally unpopular in Australia). Keating’s Act provided for a national system which would recognise and protect native title, but needed to co-exist with the “land management system”. For Straddie that meant co-existing with sand mining. Mabo had got them a seat at the negotiating table, and also overrode Queensland law.

The Quandamooka people lodged their land claims in two phases between 1995 and 1999. The Native Native Title tribunal registered both claims in 2000 (the second one three months before the first). The claims were slowed up by boundary disputes, needing a 2006 workshop of elders, lawyers and anthropologists to resolve the disputes. In the meantime, the main mining lessees expired in October 2007. Two days after the close date, Lessee Stradbroke Rutile Ltd (owned by Consolidated Rutile) applied for a 21 continuation of lease. In 2009 both companies were gobbled up by Belgian company Sibelco, a “raw material producer” for the world manufacturing market.

In January 2010, the Federal Court asked the National Native Title Tribunal to facilitate negotiations with the State Government, local government and other interested parties to finalise an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA). Sibelco nominated its subsidiary Unimin to negotiate a separate ILUA with the Quandamooka. In mid 2010 Unamin’s “offer” to the Quandamooka involved the long-term operation of the mines until 2035 and another in 2050 and they also wanted their support in their lease negotiations with the state government.

The Quandamooka came back with a counter offer. They split the ILUA in two, firstly a complex one that would deal with future mining and might take many years to agree on, called “a Future Acts ILUA”, and the secondly a simple one to have greement on the ground once the Federal Court judges on the native title claim. They also refused to be the meat in the sandwich on the leases and advised Unamin/Sibelco to sort it out with the government and come back to them for consent.

In April 2011 the Bligh Labor government passed the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability Act (NSIPSA Act) which gave effect to key elements of the ILUA between Queensland and the Quandamooka. It approved mining on Straddie until the end of 2019 at which time full native title rights would return to the Quandamooka.

The ILUA was signed almost three years ago to the day, 15 June 2011. In what was proving a historic year, the Federal Court handed down its Native Title judgment in July 2011. For the first time, a court had recognised that Quandamooka law and customs had survived colonisation. Judge Dowsett said the Quandamooka were a “pre-sovereign society” who had maintained connections with Straddie and the adjoining sea (though not with adjoining islands or the mainland). He also noted Sibelco, Telstra and other big stakeholders were adopting the state’s submissions. The National Native Tribunal ratified the claim on 11/11/11 making it the law of the land.

But Judge Dowsett was too sanguine about Sibelco’s intentions. With a state election coming up in 2012 and a likely change of government they did as all good mining companies do and ran a political scare campaign to get their original position back on the table. They focussed their campaign in the crucial seat of Ashgrove where Campbell Newman was running to become premier from outside parliament. Labor environment minister Kate Jones held the seat but it was Newman’s scalp they wanted. Newman duly proposed to extend sand mining to 2035 if the LNP took power. During the campaign Newman told the ABC Labor had acted in “a unilateral and capricious way” by bringing forward the end of mining in its 2011 law which was “all about green preferences”. Neither interviewer nor Newman made any mention of the traditional owners and Newman had no contact with the Quandamooka before his announcement.

Sibelco’s PR company Rowland would later win a PR state award for excellence demonstrating “achieving environmental and economic progress in an island community”. Rowland’s other reward was another fat contract after Newman’s landslide election win. Without changing any laws, the new Mining Minister ruled mining would stay to 2035. Still the government had not contacted the Quandamooka. In October 2013 the government brought in the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Another Act Amendment Bill 2013. The new NSIPSAAA Bill offered Sibelco security to 2035 with fewer environmental provisions.

When the bill went to the agriculture, resources and environment committee, the Quandamooka could finally respond as the native title holders. The committee report admitted the government had not consulted the Quandamooka on NSIPSAAA, which breached the Queensland Legislative Standards Act 1992. Despite this, the Bill became law in Queensland’s unicameral chamber on 20 November.  Without consent, it had changed a range of matters previously agreed with the Quandamooka.

In March this year, the fight-back began. Elders gave their assent for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation to launch a High Court Challenge to Queensland’s 2013 Straddie law. They say the law overturning the 2011 law contravenes Keating’s Native Title Act 1993. The section of constitutional law is S109 which says  if a state law is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law the latter shall prevail and the former “shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid”. The legal battle will surely be on the extent of the consistency between the two acts.

Whatever happens, the dignified Aboriginal elders outside the High Court yesterday won the moral battle. Their dancers performed a smoking ceremony where they blessed their own people and all other by-standers, including the media filming the ceremony. “It your job,” a Quandamooka dancer told them – us, me – “to tell the world”. These people are proving that dignity very much matters.

June 7, 2014 at 10:26 am 5 comments

On Utopia, John Pilger’s no-place-land

Finally caught up with Utopia, John Pilger’s simplistic but important documentary on Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous people. Nuance has never been Pilger’s strong point but pitching his film at his mainly British audience (“this is Canberra, capital of Australia”), he misses out on vast swathes of context. Pilger is good at capturing the injustices of colonisation but far less strong in dealing with issues of decolonisation.

The name of his documentary, Utopia, is a whitefella word. Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia described an ideal society that could never be reached. Formed from Greek roots, it meant either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land’. And while Utopian now means a perfect state, Utopia itself  is ‘nowhere’. Such sophistry meant nothing to the people of Uturupa in northern Australia who were ignorant of all things European for hundreds of centuries. The first settlers came in the 1880s and unable to handle Uturupa, they called it Utopia, perhaps as Pilger suggested out of the irony of such a difficult land, for this no-place-land was hard on black and white alike. But it was the blacks who suffered most.

Pilger begins his film in modern Utopian settings. The Palm beach penthouse and the leafy suburbs of Canberra’s Barton are the drop-off point for Pilger’s polemicism starkly contrasting with Utopia’s poverty (though the warm sun basked poor and wealthy alike). Barton was named for Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton who ushered in the openly racist White Australia Policy keeping coloured people out, while the blacks who were already here were not counted.

Pilger’s first interview is with former Labor minister of Indigenous health and NT MP Warren Snowden. Snowden stupidly turned the interview in a defence of Labor’s record and got angry when Pilger suggests they should have done more. Of course, they should have; but successive administrations have been unable to solve Indigenous health problems, caused by a legacy of 200 years of hatred and neglect. After Indigenous people were finally counted in the 1971 census, successive Closing the Gap reports have at least identified where the problems are in comparison to the rest of Australia and it will be another 50 years or more before they can be fully closed. Not that Pilger with his “puerile questions” and demands for instant change, appreciates that.

The trouble with Utopia is that Pilger is like a kid in a toy shop rushing from one shiny bauble to another. Here he is in the Australian War Memorial bemoaning the lack of recognition of the Australian frontier war, there he is recollecting his own Sydney childhood watching poor Aboriginal people in La Perouse, then he attacking Howard’s history wars before heading out on the street for an Australia Day vox pop of white people on what Indigenous people think of the day. A minute later he is touring Rottnest Island’s grisly black penal history. All are important issues but glossed over in Pilger’s rush to create an atmosphere of condemnation.

He brings black brutality up to date with the 2008 arrest of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in Laverton, WA. This is a disgraceful case that demands greater attention. Arrested for drink driving and denied bail by the local JP, Mr Ward was remanded to appear in court in Kalgoorlie 400kms away. As far back as 1975 the WA Aboriginal Legal Service had complained prisoner transport vans were “ovens on wheels” and nothing had changed by 2008 except the service was privatised. Mr Ward was given a 600ml bottle of water for the four hour journey while temperatures rose to 56 degrees inside the van. When the driver checked his welfare in Kalgoorlie, he was dead on the floor with a large abdomen burn in contact with the hot surface. The coroner noted he had been cooked to death and the department and company (4GS) were later fined for their neglect.

The responsible minister Margaret Quirk was clearly genuinely distressed by the case which she told Pilger would haunt her for rest of her life. His cynicism at her suggestion of departmental cultural sensitivity training was unwarranted, as it was clear that many public servants simply have no idea what happens in remote Aboriginal settlements and the injustices they face on a regular basis. Pilger was right to point out the high indigenous incarceration rates but on less firm ground with his description of WA and NT as ‘apartheid states’.  He need not have been so strident on the high moral ground. Quirk’s point is that there are structural issues across society that led to Mr Ward’s death and many like him, that one well intentioned Minister cannot solve alone. However state politicians can be rightly condemned for their ‘law and order’ posturing on mandatory sentencing which overwhelmingly affects Indigenous populations who are usually arrested on public order offences.

Pilger addressed the touchstone case of the 1960s Gurindji land rights strike. The strike was called when the government delayed equal pay by two years following a court case. However the net result was that white owners sacked their cheap black workforce rather than pay them equally. The Gurindji got their Watties Creek but lost their jobs. By the 1970s, a whole generation of stockworkers were unemployed and homeless, drifting towards the towns and the welfare system.

Welfare was a well-intentioned but deeply flawed aspect of decolonisation as part of the Whitlamite reforms of the 1970s. It led to large amounts of money spent on community programs that offered no real sense of achievement. It was ‘sit down money’ and led to the perverse situation described by Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton of dysfunctional societies twisted by easy access to alcohol and drugs while domestic sexual abuse was rampant. The Lateline case exposed by Chris Graham and noted in depth by Pilger may have been exaggerated but the problems identified by Little Children Are Sacred were not. The Howard Government had its own cynical electoral aims for the Intervention but significantly the Labor Government that followed did not dismantle it. As Pearson says, the left are strong on rights and the right are strong on responsibilities, but good Indigenous policy needs to be a mix of both. Pilger, in his faraway British eyrie, shows no sign of understanding this crucial point.

Nonetheless I applaud Utopia as an important conversation starter. The best white writer on Indigenous matters, the anthropologist Bill Stanner, identified as far back as 1968 the culture of deliberate forgetting that characterised Australian views of its Indigenous population. They were written out of the history and they had little say in the present as a voiceless 2% modern minority. Indigenous people did slowly find their voice through the freedom ride, the referendum campaign, the tent embassy, the Makaratta treaty campaigns, and the land rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

But what of the present where casual racism, like casual sexism, remains an open sore? Where is the Indigenous conscience in 2014? I agree with Pilger we need some form of constitutional recognition but it must be in tandem with responsibility. Post-Intervention, the Stannerite silence is returning and if nothing else Pilger’s work is deafening in the dark. Let’s hope he inspires a more informed conversation on what remains Australia’s deepest wound to its psyche.

June 1, 2014 at 11:50 am Leave a comment

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