Posts tagged ‘Aboriginal issues’
I’ve been reading a wide variety of texts about Indigenous life in recent months but easily the most radical and original has been that of Japanese historian Minoru (Mino) Hokari. Hokari was just 32 when he died of lymphoma in 2004 but he left behind some startling insights into Australian Aboriginal history. He spent much of his doctoral research in the late 1990s and early 2000s immersed in the culture of the Gurindji people of NT and the fruits of that research came out in his challenging book Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback.
The cover of the book shows Hokari on his motorbike posing in front of the vastness of Uluru. But it is a little misleading. Gurindji country is in the north west of the territory, some 1,689km by road from the iconic rock. The book is all about the learning Hokari picked up from his visits to Gurindji homeland and nothing to do with the adventures of a would-be outback tourist.
Gurindji country is most famous for Wave Hill Station. Wave Hill was the site of the famous walk off led by Vincent Lingiari and others in 1966 (immortalised in the Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow) The Gurindji walked off the English-owned property in a pastoral strike, and set up their own community 20km away at Daguragu. The strike led to a nationwide land rights campaign and eventually a grand ceremony in 1975, attended by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, to commemorate the return of some of their land.
Gurindji People had lived in the Victoria River region for thousands of years before whites established the first cattle station in the 1880s. They named it Wave Hill and British agribusiness giant Vesteys bought it out at the start of the 20th century. It grew to 25,000 sq km of agricultural land carrying 50,000 head of cattle by the 1930s. When the whites first arrived, they killed many Aboriginals while many others fled the region. Later on, needed a workforce to serve their growing business, they lured the Gurindji back with beef, flour and tea. They became stock workers, a cheap labour force living in poor conditions.
Hokari deals with this history briefly, but he is less concerned with objective facts than he is in getting Aboriginal views on their history . We go down strange pathways where actors such as the rainbow snake, Captain Cook, a many-limbed man-monkey named Jacky Pantamarra, and President Kennedy (as the “Big American Boss”) all play a role. Whatever about snakes and monkeys, white academic history tells us that neither Cook nor Kennedy ever visited the Northern Territory. But that is what Hokari wants us to accept the possibility of us, particularly problematic in the case of Kennedy, in that his visit to NT came just before the Gurindji 1966 walk off, and hence three years after his assassination in Dallas.
Hokari admits histories of Kennedy visiting Aboriginal communities and a rainbow snake that caused a big flood would normally be excluded from “historical facts”. But he asks us to consider these stories as an alternative form of history. The Gurindji people are historians, says Hokari, because “they re-narrate past incidents and experiences in the present, re-enact them, apply their moral, political, spiritual and philosophical analyses and thereby try to learn something from history and communicate that something.”
This is not to say their stories should be interpreted as mythology, but as a historical truthful experience for their narrators. It does not contradict the fact white history tells us JFK never visited Gurindji country but rather it is ‘the history we do not know.’
These distinctions are not easy to grasp but require careful listening and attentiveness. Hokari was accepted among the Gurindji, not because he was Japanese (he was still a ‘kartiya’ or white man) but because he immersed himself in their culture with an anthropological zeal.
Hokari’s teacher was an old man and ‘extraordinary historian’ called Jimmy Mangayarri (who tragically died around the same time as Hokari). Hokari said he didn’t have to ask Old Jimmy any questions – he (Jimmy) had his own agenda to teach. Mangayarri, said Hokari, had a talent for analysing Australian colonial history, the origin of Europeans and a knowledge of what was the ‘right way’ or ‘earth law’ to follow.
Jimmy used five words to convey his meaning of life. These were ‘earth’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘law’, ‘right way’, and ‘history’. The words are interchangeable and interlocking and all pertain to the morality of the world and their place in it. The Gurindji concept of home is much bigger than the white concept as it is the country itself, filled with various ‘rooms’ they use on different occasions. The size of their home means it must also be a shared space and something you do not ‘own’ but are a part of. The origin of this timeless world is the Dreaming: the ‘everywhen’ that spins a web of connection without a centre. In Gurindji cosmology the ‘self’ is merely partly of a whole but intimately connected to other beings, other countries and other community members.
Jimmy told Hokari about the ‘right way’ which blurred the line between movement and law. “You look round,” he told Hokari. “Sun go down that way (west), sun get up that way (east), this is the right way. No matter which way Jimmy would sit, he would always draw lines in the sand with a stick going west to east to show the direction of ‘the right way’. His right way includes a geographical Dreaming track as well as ethical behaviour. It is also a lifetime long education path; ‘a big high school’ both in time and size.
This path gave plenty of opportunity to study European ways and the effect of colonisation. Jimmy told Hokari Captain Cook arrived in Darwin and proceeded south, cutting across the west-east Dreaming track, breaking the ‘right way’. The behaviour of the colonists that followed him was both immoral and contradictory to earth law. They came without permission, as Jimmy explained “Kartiya [whites] must ask people… you know, all this idea from fuck’n Captain Cook.”
But Captain Cook wasn’t the first Kartiya to encounter Aborigines. Before Cook was another Englishman named “Keen Lewis”, more commonly known by the Aboriginal name Jacky Pantamarra. Pantamarra evolved from a monkey-like creature with four arms or four legs and he bred the kartiya. Jacky Pantamarra wrote a book with ‘silly ideas’ such as colonisation. Starting out with slings and arrows he learned how to use a rifle and eventually came to Australia claiming it as his own country. Pantamarra beat his wife and brought alcohol, becoming the origin of all bad ideas. Jacky Pantamarra, his name a sarcastic rejoinder to the 19th century European discriminatory name for Aborigines (“Jacky Jacky”), encapsulates the history of all Europeans who came to Australia. Pantamarra is dead, but his story can appear any time in the past, mimicking the temporal-free structure of the Dreaming to make a point about Europeans.
The Gurindji have a word for what happened when the whites arrived in their country. They called it ‘shoot ‘em time’. Jimmy said the kartiya shot the ngumpin [Aboriginal people] because the ngumpin stole buluki [cattle] from the stations. “That’s why kartiya bin cheeky [dangerous, aggressive], shoot ‘em ngumpin.” Jimmy told Hokari the Gurindji loved the taste of the meat of the buluki. They paid a heavy price for their tasting with mass killings and arrest. According to Jimmy, people were “chain here [showing wrist of right arm], chain here [then wrist of left arm] … and kartiya shoot ‘em.”
Those that survived the killing times were eventually enticed back to the stations to work for Vesteys. The men found dignity in working with cattle, something they deeply enjoyed even if their conditions were poor. The Old Wave Hill station was washed away in a 1924 flood, which Jimmy said was started because a Gurindji made a rainstone during a drought which he gave to a rainbow snake in a waterhole. He got the rain but it became a big flood. Jimmy’s story shows how Dreaming beings are as active as humans in colonial history. It was the Gurindji way of showing Kartiya they could control the weather.
After the flood, a new Wave Hill station was built. One of the key Gurindji figures in that time was Sandy Moray Junganaiari, a stockworker at Vesteys. A well-travelled man, Sandy Moray, began to thinking of a better way of living. He called meetings of elders. “What’s for we work’n langa kartiya?” he asked them. “We wanna fight the kartiya. Get the country back!” Sandy Moray was too old to lead the revolution himself but he had planted a firm seed in Lingiari and others, particularly after the Pindan walk-off in the Pilbara in 1946.
The Gurindji needed allies (journalist Frank Hardy was a massive help) and they sought the help of the Northern Australian Workers Union. Assisted by NAWU black unionist Dexter Daniels, Lupna Giari (better known as Captain Major) began the strike action at Newcastle Waters which was followed at Wave Hill. Lingiari probably faked an injury as an excuse to be in Darwin Hospital where he met Daniels and planned the campaign. While it was publicly called a ‘strike’ to get the union involved, the action was really a walk-off. Lingiari and the Gurindji had no intention of coming back.
NAWU and Hardy weren’t their only allies – they also had the ‘Big American Boss’ President Kennedy. For Jimmy and other elders, America was a place where people lived in good country. They were moral Europeans and were not like English kartiya. Jimmy said that during “Vestey Time” someone saw a huge airplane arrive on Wave Hill airstrip. There was a star mark on its tail and was so big there were two cars loaded inside. The visitor was President Kennedy who met Sandy Moray and Lingiari and agreed to support them. “You gotta your country back soon,” Kennedy told Moray. Kennedy started ‘the biggest war’ in order to kill the kartiya. Was this an allegory for Vietnam or was it simply the Gurindji seeking strong support from outside to help realise their project.
On 23 August 1966, the Gurindji moved off the station to Wave Hill Settlement where they sat out the wet season. When the Dry came in 1967 they moved to Wattie Creek, where they now remain. Vesteys refused to leave, but the national campaign launched by Lingiari, Captain Major, Hardy and others gradually led to a historic land deal. For eight years they illegally occupied Wattie Creek until they struck a deal with Vesteys in 1975. The successful land claim is still widely recognised as an enormous achievement in Indigenous rights.
Independence has brought its own set of difficulties. Ngumpin law is not as strong as it was and kartiya way is eating its way into the younger community. Jacky Pantamarra brought grog to the community and its scars are still visible. Elder Billy Bunter told Hokari the young people are caught between ngumpin and kartiya culture and “don’t know which way to go”. But Gurindji spirit remains alive and strong even if Old Jimmy is now gone as is his exceptionally gifted Japanese student. “You never kill history,” he told Hokari. “[If] you break it, history kill you!”
As a journalist, I work most public holidays including Australia Day so in some respects it makes no difference to me what day it is celebrated on. But its timing on January 26 makes a great deal of difference to many people, and it has led me to a modest proposal. Next year January 26 will fall on a Monday and we should celebrate it as such, but let’s make sure that it stays that way in 2016. From that year onwards, let’s move Australia Day so it always falls on the fourth Monday in January. Furthermore, we should have have a new holiday for the Sunday before. Let’s call it Survival Day, it wouldn’t be a paid holiday for anyone (though as a Sunday most people would be off). Australia Day would always be on a long weekend, and would continue to be a day of celebration occurring once every six or seven years on January 26. Survival Day on the day before would be a time for reflection and gratitude for all of us who have survived the collision of two completely different civilisations from 1788 onwards. Together these changes would take much of the heat out of the arguments for when to have the national day.
The end of January is an excellent time to hold the national holiday. Three or four weeks after the Christmas festive season, many people are in need of a long weekend pick-me-up before the school holidays end. I remember living in Victoria in the 1980s and 90s when Australia Day was always on that fourth Monday of the year. This was, to some extent, a Melbourne thing not wanting to celebrate Sydney’s birthday. But it was also a way of ensuring it was always a long weekend. Unfortunately many of the other states always celebrated on January 26, Victoria was shamed for being out of step. But I believe it is Victoria that was right and the others wrong: they should have all gone the other way.
I accept that having Australia Day on January 26 is popular, particularly this year when it falls on the weekend and there is a holiday on Monday, to recover from our Australia Day excesses. But why should we have a hangover holiday? There are those who argue that January 1 should be Australia’s national day as it celebrates the Federation of Australia in 1901 but that has more problems than answers. For starters does News Years Day gazump Australia Day or vice versa? Will people back up from New Year’s Eve and does it mean two hangover holidays? Not to mention that if 1788 is problematic historically, 1901 is, if anything, worse.
Australia Day didn’t exist in 1901. It is a 20th century invention and it wasn’t until 1946 that it got its formal approval from the federal government. Nowadays, there is little evidence that the events of January 26, 1788 in Sydney Cove are important in celebrations of Australia national day. Whether it is people relaxing privately or the great and the good fulminating on the virtues that make the nation, never have I heard anyone drawing lessons or inspiration from what Governor Arthur Phillip and his band of settlers did 226 years ago.
The only people that really care about the 226th anniversary of the founding of Sydney tend to have a deep loathing of the day. On the 150th anniversary in 1938, Aboriginal leaders in Sydney found it offensive enough to launch “a day of mourning”. Only one white person attended the protest meeting at Australia Hall that day, but the evocative day of mourning survived to haunt white conscience for decades afterwards. The descendants of those Mourners had a new message for the 200th anniversary in 1988. This was to call it “Invasion Day”, which turned the focus from people to land, and it became a thorn in Australia’s soaring confidence in the 1980s, rubbing inconvenient indelible ink stains into the glamour of the bicentennial, and leading to the land rights battles of the 1990s.
More recently, the Indigenous people gave the day a new twist by calling it Survival Day. This is a significant change of meaning that give agency back to Indigenous Australians. Europeans came in 1788, they said, many of our mob died in the horrible collision that followed, but importantly, we survived, we are still here. That long and painful story of Aboriginal Australia highlights why the First Fleet is not spoken of with pride. It is an inconvenient reminder us of the massive lie at the heart of our history. In some respects, it is a shame Australia does not recall 1788 because in many respects it was the journey to the Moon of its day. Armed with the doubtful knowledge of only one skimpy journey to that part of the world some 18 years previously, Governor Arthur Phillip led a convoy of one thousand British people (three quarters of them convicts) in 11 ships on a voyage that started in 1787 and took 8 months to get to the other side of the world. There were many significant dates in January 1788 that could serve for an anniversary. The Fleet first saw Australian land at Tasmania on January 9 (but had still no idea it was an island). They arrived at Botany Bay a week later landing in dribs and drabs. HMS Supply was the first ship in on the 18th, the convict transports arrived a day later, and the officers and marines brought up the rear on the 20th. The expedition’s great biographer Watkin Tench noted that only one marine and 24 convicts died along the way. Tench had justifiable pride – the death rates on the fleets that followed were much higher.
Back in 1770, Captain Cook had given the name of Botany Bay much thought. Originally he called it Sting-Ray Harbour, then Botanist Bay, but it was an inspired move to eventually come up with the euphonious Botany Bay. The colony remained by that name in British books, songs and legends long after it had outlasted Botany itself. But Phillip was in no mood to applaud Cook; he could see that that this poorly watered ground was no place to start a colony. Phillip quickly found that Cook’s description of Botany Bay was oversold and they moved the new colony a few miles up to the next harbour which they called Sydney Cove. But it was at Botany that the Fleet first ran into the problem that continues to haunt Australia to this day.
Phillip may have considered Botany Bay unsuitable for occupation but others did. When Phillip and his men first landed at Yarra Bay on the 20th, he was greeted by the Dharawal people who led him to water. This meeting was peaceful, but the French expedition under the Compte de Laperouse which remarkably landed in Botany Bay a few days later ran into trouble, and Phillip’s second in command David Collins noted that “La Perouse was compelled to fire upon the natives.” It wouldn’t be long before the British had the same dilemmas.
When they arrived at Sydney Cove on the 26th, they found natives there too. Tench said they were initially curious and then became “more shy of our company.” It was clear to the Eora people that these new strangers would not be leaving any time soon, and they shunned them as people who did not understand or respect local law. Phillip, Collins and Tench were all men of the European enlightenment and determined to treat the natives with curiosity, courtesy and the full protection of British law. However they were first and foremost British soldiers and they all accepted absolutely the Crown’s right to rule this new strange land. Phillip never felt the need to offer a treaty, because he had the backing of 200 armed marines to enforce British law in his little realm. On the one hand, the were “sable brethren” with the same wants and desires as the British, but on the other they were “savages” with no obvious religion to guide them and no government to negotiate with.
Phillip did however have a desperate need to understand his neighbours, not least to avoid the colony starving to death. He resorted to the tried and tested European method of kidnapping, first Arabanoo, and then Bennelong and Colbee so as to get to know the natives better. This treachery was quickly followed by disease. Current thinking has it that the British did not bring smallpox to Sydney (Collins tried to blame the French) but instead came down the coast, contracted from the Malays who fished the north coast of Australia for beche de mer (sea cucumber) from 1720 onwards. Yet it seems too coincidental that it should arrive in Sydney 68 years later at the exact moment European invaders were making themselves at home. Whatever the fault, it was catastrophic and the Eora and other tribes came into town dying on their feet with tell-tale signs of pock-marked skin.
After a few years Phillip and Tench went home to England and with them went their enlightened attitudes. Their replacements had no reason to respect the black stragglers that haunted the growing town with their begging presence. When the Rum Corps paid their men with gifts of land, the sporadic violence on the edge of the settlement became outright war. This pattern of land allocation, friction with the prior owners, and then fighting for the land would be repeated across Australia for the next 130 years. A war that was never declared, it was never formally ended either but by the time Australia Day was celebrated nationally, nearly all the land belonged to the whitefellas.
Australia swept its foundational history under the carpet, whether it was about convicts or settler violence. These tales were replaced by a powerful myth that placed Australia as an empty land populated by pioneers who tamed the land with the sweat of their brow. That white settlers were hardworking is beyond question, but so too is the war they faced to win the land. The Aborigines had to be crushed when they fought back because they were vermin polluting the land needed for sheep and cattle and also because the whites believed timidity would be taken as cowardice. Whenever the Aborigines stole this sheep or cattle, they were considered criminals who had to be taught a lesson. Where ever there was a white death, it was repaid in multiples. Those Aborigines that did survived to the 20th century were all considered wards of the state, managed in every aspect of their lives, their lack of freedom only matched by their chronic poverty.
In the 1950s, the powers-that-be thought the way to fix that was to make the blacks white, and assimilate them into the European state. The Aboriginal people by and large resisted and began to fight back. Contrary to expectations they would die off, their numbers were now increasing. Because many had been scattered from their own country, they were growing a new Pan-Aboriginal culture to replace the tribal culture that had been ripped from them.
Following the 1967 referendum, Indigenous Australians grasped a new level of political consciousness but have never forgotten the lessons, two centuries of oppression have taught them. They want not just equal rights as Australians but also Aboriginal rights as descendants of the First Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used his Australia Day speech to try to start a national conversation about amending our Constitution to recognise that fact. But he has a curious reluctance to march into history to justify his belief. “While Australia Day formally marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, we celebrate something richer and deeper,” he said. Abbott is mistaken – there is no deeper problem for Australia than coming to terms with the history that the First Fleet’s arrival unleashed. A referendum on recognition, must as its starting point, recognise the truth of our past. The war must be formally ended with a treaty and reparations. In the meantime, moving Australia Day away from January 26 (at least six years out of every seven) would be a handy start.
The new Coalition Government has been making noises on a referendum to change the constitution to recognise First Australians. The wording of the change has yet to be announced but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is saying the change would “complete our constitution rather than change it.” What exactly Abbott means by completion rather than change is not clear from the article but I assume it means the change will have purely ornamental rather than legal force. According to his deputy Julie Bishop, the government wants to have a “deep discussion” with the Australian people before agreeing to the wording but here’s a free tip from me if the changes are purely for show: Forget it.
I say forget it, not because Australian constitutional referendums have a habit of failing, but because there are genuine things constitutional change could do to improve the situation of First Australians. The most profound change would be to turn the preamble into a Treaty, common enough in other settler countries, but the first ever in 225 years of European occupation of Australia. Unlike a flowery but pointless preamble, a treaty would genuinely acknowledge past failures and injustices and show sincere desire for a better future and more just relationship.
A Treaty is a political document between sovereign people and it was this difficulty that saw John Howard reject the idea as far back as 1988 as an absurd proposition that “a nation should make a treaty with some of its own citizens.” Yet the idea is far from absurd to the many Indigenous people who see this as the first step in the recognition of the wars and dispossession of their country and the genocide that followed. It was Howard’s assimilatory ideas in the face of historical evidence that were blatantly contradictory and hence absurd. Howard’s culture of forgetting was shared by his later immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock who told ABC in October 1998 there couldn’t be a treaty because there never had been a war in this country.
Ruddock’s idea of war was flawed as was his view of a Treaty. A Treaty (also known by its Yolgnu name Makarrata meaning thigh) was long established as an appropriate way by which whites could acknowledge Aboriginal equality and prior ownership. In 1979 an Aboriginal treaty committee was formed by prominent whites almost all came from political and intellectual left. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser offered to discuss treaty conditions with Aborigines while 8 years later his successor Bob Hawke spoke of ‘a compact of understanding’. But this whitefella idea of a treaty was rejected by the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils because of insufficient consultation with Aborigines, doubts of its significance and consequences and because it would legalise occupation and use of sovereign Aboriginal lands by the Australian settler state. The Aboriginal Sovereign Treaty campaign in 1988 called for sovereign recognition and treaty. It was enshrined in the Barunga Statement presented to Hawke.
Barunga called for a treaty, a national system of land rights, compensation for land loss, end to discrimination, Aboriginal self-determination and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Hawke promised a treaty but it faded from agenda, replaced by land rights issues in the 1990s. As Prime Minister in the end of that decade John Howard fought land rights and firmly rejected treaty recommendation in favour of what he called ‘practical reconciliation‘. There was no reason the two couldn’t co-exist and indeed there is a view that practical reconciliation is impossible without a treaty framework. True or not, Australia has never sat at the table and negotiated the basic terms of peaceful coexistence between the first peoples of this continent and those who came later. It is no coincidence, Australia’s first peoples typically find themselves on the lowest rung of our society and largely locked out of the wealth of a very affluent country.
A Treaty that might address these failings has mutual obligations. For the Government it would mean responsibility to long-term funding and administrative support for education and health. For the Indigenous community it would mean taking the primary responsibility for child protection, community justice and substance abuse. There are three key elements to a treaty: a) a starting point of acknowledgement b) a process of negotiation and c) outcomes in the form of rights, obligations and opportunities. The hardest part will be part c, working out what outcomes would be suitable for a Treaty. A Treaty must be on the reasonable basis that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been injured and harmed throughout the colonisation process and just recompense is owed. This means giving away power or land or some sovereignty – none of which will be easy. It might mean governments stop fighting land claims or guaranteeing a number of Indigenous seats in parliament or returning Aboriginal reserves or other Crown land to original owners. There will be resistance to some or all of these moves. But if they are not addressed, we will simply be coping by the act of forgetting and moving on a an aged-old moral problem to the next generation to grapple with. Without a Treaty, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander people have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty.
But a Treaty is not just an important opportunity for blackfellas. It is also important to non-Indigenous people to allow them to come to grips with a challenging issue of great difficulty and complexity. That is how they relate to the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent. Unlike a preamble which goes nowhere, a Treaty would help bridge the gulf, mutual understanding, better public policy, better use of money. A Treaty would eventually be a source of pride, like Waitangi is to modern New Zealand. As a way of righting grievous wrongs, it can also help in building a better nation, more secure in its identity, its symbols and its values. A Preamble with no legal heft behind it would achieve none of those things.
A full 150 Years on from the founding of Victoria’s most famous Aboriginal settlement, the indigenous administrators of Coranderrk want to turn the Healesville site into an attraction as famous as the nearby Sanctuary. Now a stage play showing in Sydney, Coranderrk hopes to have a museum of its story up and running in 2014.
Coranderrk’s story is moving and shows the problems Aborigines faced at every turn as whites took over their old lands. From the time Batman and Pascoe launched their settlements from Tasmania in 1835, Victorian black numbers plummeted from 10,000 to 2000 by 1863. The Kulin people were completely dispossessed by pastoral invasion and culture torn asunder. Pushed to fringe, they survived on small reserves like Coranderrk.
Coranderrk near Healesville, north west of Melbourne was founded in 1863 by John Green , Scot Presbyterian lay preacher on Woiworung lands. In 1843 Billibellary, Woiworung headman and signatory to Batman’s Treaty of 1835 approached William Thomas, assistant protector of Aborigines for Port Phillip district. “If Yarra blackfellows had a country on the Yarra…they would stop and cultivate the ground,” Billibellary told him. The Kulin made several such requests until 1849 when Thomas told Kulin tribes they might get land due to “Earl Grey’s despatch’.
In 1847 Gray was the Secretary of State for British Colonies and was considering the land question.Grey said land should be reserved “sufficient to allow of the natives being maintained upon it”. NSW Governor Fitzroy ignored the directive but Thomas didn’t give up and in 1859 he met one of Billibellary’s sons Simon Wonga. Wonga and others formed a deputation to meet Commissioner of Lands Charles Gavan Duffy where they presented Woiworong and Taungerong demands for land on Acheron River north-west of Melbourne. Duffy was sympathetic and ordered land to be surveyed.
After that success Wonga, Barak, Thomas and Green met the secretary of newly formed Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in 1860 to request Woiworung land at Yering in the Yarra Ranges. Sympathetic whites assumed the onward march of British civilisation was inevitable but acknowledged original possessors whose land was shamelessly stolen. To “smooth the dying pillow” missionaries wanted Aborigines on reserves segregated from whites where they could be ‘christianised and civilised’. Central Board supported several stations including Coranderrk. Kulin goals were couched in white terms, they would work land ‘like white men’. The Acheron River moved on by pastoralists to the Mohican Run and several similar reserves were revoked because they were improperly gazetted or revoked by settlers incursions or protests.
In 1862 Kulins secured land at junction of Yarra River and Badger Creek at a traditional site for ceremonial assemblies which was part of pastoral lease at Yering.Despite claims from whites, Green, his wife and 40 Kulins trekked to an area adjoining reserve in March 1863 and named it Coranderrk after the indigenous flowering Christmas bush in the area. The Woiworong and Taungerong were determined to farm land in European fashion. They wanted self-government and saw the Greens as helper rather than masters.
Despite lack of capital and labour, they made considerable progress. More Kulins moved in and children were born. Rev Green was an outsider, young, idealistic and obstinate and he identified with the downtrodden. The Kulin saw him as a blackfella and a guardian to protect them from white settlers. Despite early success, Coranderrk was threatened after 10 years by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Protective legislation in 1869 gave the Board authority over blacks place of residence, as well as overseeing labour contracts, controlling property and assuming custody of children. It was several years before they took advantage of their sweeping powers, but the Kulin were anxious and uncertain of their tenure.
In 1870s board secretary Brough Smyth recommended hop-farming to supplement Board revenue. It led to major changes at Coranderrk with and serious governance consequences and demands of resources of land and labour. Previously men worked independently and rewarded to individual effort. Now they were forced to work on an enterprise controlled by whites and employed for little or no wages. Conflict between Smyth and Green led to Green’s resignation in 1874 much to Kulin resentment. The new board members were Melb establishment figures critical of segregated homelands. They were assisted by Smyth’s successor AWA Page, who was vain, authoritarian and vindictive. They claimed to know the blacks but were ignorant of Kulin culture.
It led to a decade long battle to break up Coranderrk. The Kulin still saw themselves as Aborigines despite adopting parts of British culture. They asserted Queen Victoria, highest authority in British state had granted the land to them during the opening ceremony in May 1863 when Aborigines presented gifts to the Governor for Queen and her children including possum rugs, spears, woomera, shield and waddy in a traditional ceremony of reciprocity. They recalled this in 1878 when they told parliamentarians that the land was given to them by Governor Henry Barkly ‘in the name of the Queen’. They made similar demands to pastoralists asserting they could work the land and make it pay. Green was considered worthy because he was their protector and also fulfilled obligations a relationship shattered when he left. In 1875 they petitioned to have him back.
They rebutted the paternal attitude of the Board. “We are not children for the board to do as they like with us any longer,” headman William Barak said. Barak led a highly sophisticated campaign of lobbying and keeping up to date with government news and allies with word of mouth and delegations, often walking to Melbourne to do so. Because Coranderrk was only 70 miles to Melbourne, there were many accounts from journalists, photographers, artists, writers, anthropologists, missionaries and officials interested in the plight of the Aborigines. Coranderrk loomed large in public discussion and white allies such as journalist George Syme and humanitarians Anne Bon and Thomas Embling were important in the propaganda war.
Their opponents attributed the protests to outside influences, unable to accept the fact the Kulin could organise themselves. The Board were troubled by the Kulin’s many tactics including playing government authorities off each other. Their effective campaign led to two major inquiries, the 1877 Royal Commission into government policy on Aborigines and the 1881 investigation into management of Coranderrk. It seemed the Kulin had won the fight after it was recommended land be permanently reserved and the Board relieved of management.
However they came up against the 1880s policy of assimilating Aborigines and forcing them off their land. In 1881 the Argus wrote ‘the race is dying out’ and ‘in time the Aborigines will wholly disappear from Victoria as they have disappeared from Tasmania’. Part of this policy was distinguishing ‘full bloods’ who were deemed beyond the pale from ‘half castes’ who could be Europeanised. The push began to remove half castes from Coranderrk, who were the majority. To Kulin this was a disaster, what mattered to them was group membership, kinship was reckoned socially not biologically. But even Kulin supporters like Bon and Embling accepted the distinction over long held fears of racial minorities like Chinese, who people thought couldn’t be absorbed into settler society.
It was the best excuse yet to break up Coranderrk and give out its valuable lands to white pastoralists. The new policy did not became law in December 1886 but it was put into practice from 1882 and many left the reservation after government endorsement of Board proposals in 1884. In September 1886 those remaining protested against punitive clauses in the half-caste policy, which gave the Board power to remove Aborigines and stop rations and allowances. The Kulin petitioned the government. They attacked the racial discriminatory policy asserting the right to “feel free like the white population”. Premier Deakin removed some illiberal clauses from the policy but the underlying principles were unquestioned as it represented the “unanimous wish of the country with regard to the half-castes”.
The following year the Board declared the Act marking the beginning of the end for the Abs leaving only a few older purebloods at the reservation. Most moved to Maloga on NSW border, on traditional Yorta Yorta ceremonial ground on the Murray River where they kept up a strong memory of Coranderrk.
Coranderrk was eventually broken up and sold but remains the first example of sustained indigenous protest in Australia. In his Australia Day communication of 1972, the vice-chair of NSW’s Aboriginal Land Board Kevin Gilbert recapitulated historical tradition of Kulin of Coranderrk to sound a battle cry for land rights.”Where detribalisation has occurred, notably in the southern areas of Australia , we want all existing reserve and mission lands, which have a strong emotional tie for the people, to be restored and deeded to the Aboriginal people in perpetuity,” Gilbert said. “In the hearts and minds of the Aboriginal people , the reserves and missions were indeed Aboriginal land-all they had left…[after] the land..had [been] stolen…Aboriginals nevertheless identified with these pieces of land because they felt it was theirs…The greatest, most generous image in the minds of Aboriginals was Queen Victoria. The great monarch, they claim, deeded the…mission land to them.”
It’s mostly forgotten, but the first Europeans to have contact with Aboriginal Australia were the Dutch.
Between 1606 and 1756 the Dutch explored, mapped and named many parts of the Australian coast. Captain Willem Janszoon (c1570-1630) made the first landfall in 1606 on the western side of Cape York in Queensland. He and those who followed him were “dienaren” (servants) of the United East India Co, and they and their vessels part of their fleet with instructions to further company interests. In Dutch it was called the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie and the VOC was the largest and most impressive of the European trading companies in Asia, providing a model for success for the English East India Co. Between in 1602 and 1795 the VOC sent one million people to Asia on 4,785 ships to bring back 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods.
The Australian voyages were a small chapter of VOC’s story. Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand were mentioned in the founding charter as part of the trade zone which stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan. Over time the Dutch focussed their energies on the sea route from the Cape to Japan, but Australia and New Guinea remained in the sphere of Dutch influence and several voyages to New Holland were specific responses to English voyages.
The year 1602 when the VOC was founded was a time of great change in the Netherlands. The small Dutch state of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was fighting for independence from Spain and establishing itself as a major political and economic power . The VOC was a uniquely Dutch politico-commercial institution which would have been impossible elsewhere because the United Provinces was the world’s only federal republic. It was a collectivity of town governments committed to trade, industry and navigation which also wielded great military and naval power. Its origins were in the complex relationship of towns, feudal states and bishoprics known as Nederlanden (Low Countries). Part of the Habsburg Empire, the Low Countries were divided by language and religion with Protestantism gaining support in lower classes, lesser nobility and town leaders.
When Habsburg king Charles V abdicated in 1555, Nederlanden’s 17 provinces went to Charles’s son Philip who later became king of Spain. Philip was determined to stamp out Protestantism which led to Dutch open revolt in 1568 followed by the 80-years-war. Seven Dutch speaking and Protestant northern provinces formed the United Provinces. The Dutch Calvinistic religion put a positive spin on the pursuit of economic gain and gave worldly activities spiritual and moral meaning and the Dutch Reformed Church quickly followed its sailors across the world.
In 1594 the Dutch began Asian trade. Experienced navigator Cornelis de Houtman brought back a cargo of pepper and and a treaty with the Sultan of Banten. For the next six years, eight different Dutch trading companies sailed 65 ships in 15 fleets to Asia. In 1602 they merged into a combined VOC, whose charter granted monopoly all Dutch trade to Asia, and turned it into a hybrid-state. Until 1609 supreme command wrested in the admiral of the outgoing fleet but they eventually moved to the Portuguese model of central authority. Until 1619, VOC headquarters were in Ambon then it moved to Batavia (Jakarta). Thus was the Dutch Golden Age and the VOC contributed to and benefited from scientific and technological advancements in astronomy and cartography while their dockyards were the most efficient in Europe.
For the next 150 years the VOC led European knowledge about the great south land. 19 vessels were sent to Australia on eight expeditions of discovery. They mapped the northern, western and southern coasts though they never saw the east coast or Bass Strait. It helped that the Roaring Forties was the quickest route from Africa to Asia and it brought Dutch sailors within sight of the west coast. Dutch sailors met Aborigines and their journals had the first brief descriptions of Aboriginal food, body painting, fire sticks, huts, canoes and weapons and corroborees.
In 1606 rumours of gold in New Guinea brought Willem Janszoon (or Jansz) to Australia. His ship Duyfken landed at north west Cape York Peninsula. It was a dangerous voyage. Sailor John Saris noted “nine men killed by heathens, which are man eaters” but Saris never made it clear if the deaths were in Australia or New Guinea. In 1922 the government geologist of Queensland Robert Logan Jack said the Duyfken crew members were killed at Cape Kerweer in Queensland. However there is no record of the Dutch landing at Kerweer, it was merely the southernmost point mapped by Janszoon’s men.
The first point of contact was actually at Pennefather River 160km north of Kerweer. There was an incident at Wenlock River north of Pennefather where one Dutchman was killed. In 1623 Carstenszoon said his ships Pera and Aernem passed a river the Duykfen went up in 1606 and “lost a man by the throwing of the savages.” The name Cape Kerweer (cape turnaround) represents not European domination but a kind of defeat. It was more likely lack of water and provisions that caused them to end their voyage of discovery not the single death in Australia. As for the death of nine men – that more likely happened in New Guinea. Jan Carstenszoon also lost nine men in New Guinea in 1623. On that trip Carstenszoon landed at Cape York between the Holroyd and Coleman Rivers but suffered no casualties. Yet subsequent histories talked about meetings with “wild, cruel, black savages”, often combining the 1606 and 1623 incidents but placing them in Australia not New Guinea based on incorrect reading of the Logan Jack account.
The reality of the meeting between cultures was much more complex. Carstenszoon said the people he met in the south of Cape York were less hostile than those in the north. This may be due to the northerners’ familiarity with foreigners at the meeting point with Melanesia and also the likelihood they were familiar with musket fire from Janszoon’s trip.
Locals quickly learned to be cautious of firearms although their spears were a match for flintlock and matchlock firearms, especially in the rain. Muskets were also heavy and had to be fired from a rest, positioned before aim. Muzzle-loading was also time consuming while light spears could be reloaded in an instance. In 1623, Carstenszoon described how 100 blacks were on the beach with their weapons and tried to prevent the landing of his men. “These fired a shot to frighten them with a musket, upon which the blacks fled…and retired into the wood and from there they tried every means and evil practice to surprise and attack our men.”
Further south, many curious blacks (some of which were armed) came up to them “and so bold that they grasped the muskets of our men and even tried to take the same off the shoulders and they wanted to have all they saw.” Demand sharing was common between kinfolk in traditional Aboriginal society, not only a way of obtaining objects but also a way of establishing and reinforcing claims of kinship, mutual dependency and amity.
But the whites soon showed they could not be trusted. Carstenszoon enticed blacks with gifts and then seized one of the men and took him on board as a source of information, according to the instructions for his voyage. This was a commercial intent for possible discoveries of precious commodities in New Holland. He kidnapped at least two more men though one died on board. Carstenszoon said the others ‘raised an outcry and made much noise’ in grief and rage.
The Aborigines may have though they were being spirited away to the land of the dead. It was unlikely the Aborigines thought the Dutch were human. In many Cape languages like Anggamuthi, Thaynakwith, Wik, Kuuk-Thaayore, Yir Yoront and Oykangand the term that meant European originally meant ghost or devil. On western Cape York corpses were traditional smoked, carried for a year before being cremated. The ashen-faced Dutch looked eerily like their deceased relatives.
Ritual custodians maintained their power by explaining these mysterious visitors within their cosmology. Visitors were initially their own dead relatives. Metaphysical doubt was the enemy. The existence of Europeans called into question the Dreaming itself. In time however, the natives saw the visitors as all too human.
The day after the first kidnapping, the Dutch went ashore again to cut wood and had to fire twice to repel 200 surprise attackers. Many other early reports noted indifference among the natives to their presence. At the Staaten River in southern Cape York, Carstenszoon said seven or eight natives they met wouldn’t talk to them nor the people they met in following days. It was a mechanism to deal with danger by studiously ignoring it.
Whatever information the Dutch got from their captives, they never found any gold and they eventually lost interest in New Holland. The VOC was guilty of overreach when it attacked Chinese interests and the Dutch, exhausted by endless wars with the French, Spanish, Portuguese and English eventually lost their influence. The eventual colonial power of Australia, England, shared a similar heritage and trajectory towards industrial liberal democracy and similar notions of racial superiority when it came to the Aborigines. It is unlikely the course of Australian history would have changed much for the original inhabitants, had the Dutch come to stay. But we would know a lot more about them.
In 1968 the great anthropologist WEH Stanner wrote of the “great Australian silence” around Aboriginal history. Stanner said the fantastical British claims to be rightful possessors of Australia was based on notion of the country as “waste and desert” despite 40,000 years of unbroken occupancy. Only once, said Stanner, did Europeans temporarily abandon these notions and recognise Aboriginal title: that was for Batman’s Treaty of 1835 governing lands around Melbourne. The colonial government in Sydney quickly recognised this as a dangerous precedent and killed it stone dead. Whatever Batman’s Treaty’s faults – and they are many – the rest of the land was taken without negotiation, without compensation and without apology. Without a Waitangi Treaty, Aus Abs have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty. Its failure, said Stanner began a “culture of disremembering” that would last 150 years.
New Zealand-born historian Bain Attwood tells the fascinating story of that forgotten treaty in Possession: Batman’s treaty and the matter of history. Batman’s Treaty was two deeds, one for the area that is now Melbourne, the other for Geelong. Under its terms, Batman bought 600,000 acres of Kulin (the confederate tribes of Port Phillip and Westernport Bays) land on behalf of the Port Phillip Association. The Association was a group landholders and gentlemen from Hobart and Launceston. Its members included public servant Henry Arthur (nephew of Tasmanian governor George Arthur, soldier Thomas Bannister (brother of NSW Attorney General Saxe Bannister, lawyer John Gellibrand, banker Charles Swanston, surveyor John Helder Wedge and Batman.
The Association’s members were very familiar with the humanisation ideas of Aborigines at the time. Though the treaty is now named for Batman it was Wedge’s idea. At the time, British demand for Australian wool was growing and the group look longingly at the lands across Bass Strait which seem ideal for pastoral use. At the time there was a strict 100 mile Nineteen Counties limits of location around Sydney enforced by the colonial government in Sydney but land grabbers (“squatters”) had their eyes on expansion and profit. For the Port Phillip Association, based in Van Diemen’s Land, Melbourne was far beyond the authority of the NSW Government in Sydney. The Association didn’t want to be known as squatters and lawyer Gellibrand came up with the peculiar legal form of recognition to recognise Aboriginal title. Both he and Batman had applied for land in Western Port in 1827 but were refused. This time they challenged the authority of New South Wales by entreating the governor of Van Diemen’s Land Arthur.
By way of precedent they noted that the Henty family sought permission to take land in Portland Bay in 1834 for whaling. Gellibrand and Batman’s letter to Governor Arthur contained two fictions. They stated Thomas Henty had a treaty with Portland Aborigines (he did not) and another party had took possession of Two Fold Bay (New South Wales) by negotiated purchase with Aborigines (they had not). Arthur was sympathetic but referred the letter to Solicitor General Alfred Stephen. Stephen’s advice was that both Portland and Two Fold Bay were in NSW but were not in the settled region. Arthur supported the Association’s contention that NSW authority could be contested at Port Phillip.
The British Government were familiar with treaties. They had granted numerous territorial charters and grants to proprietary companies in the 17th century in Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia . These grants were to commercial rather than national authorities. The most famous treaty was Quaker William Penn’s treaty of 1683 with the Delaware Indians immortalised in a painting by Benjamin West in 1772. West’s painting re-told the story as the symbol of peaceful colonisation with a possibly mythical meeting under elm at Shackamaxon (Tasmanians drew on that legend to name Batman’s Treaty after a person rather than after a place as is more usual and paintings of Batman, whose face was unknown, were drawn in 17th century Quaker dress).
There had been no treaties in Australia – Sydney was taken by force and the Limits of Location were held by a 500-strong army of marines. However the imaginary borders of NSW set by Cook and confirmed by Phillip were altered in 1828 when the Joint Stock Co Colonisation Committee took control of South Australia. In Tasmania the natives fought colonisation and in 1829 Batman offered to help reconcile Aborigines and whites. His efforts failed – instead he was responsible for the massacre of 15 lives. Following the failure of Black Line Arthur pursued peaceful reconciliation which attempted to follow the official advice from the Colonial Office in 1830 was that colonisation should be done with “cooperation and consent of indigenous people”.
That same year former NSW Attorney-General Saxe Bannister wrote Humane Policy or Justice for the Aborigines at Cape Colony and NSW which became hugely influential. In 1835 Bannister gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee inquiry on Aboriginal people. Bannister believed in superiority of British culture but he said they had duty to uplift indigenous people and he regarded treaties as greatest effect of peace on the frontiers. Brother Tom Bannister was even more enthusiastic and copies passages from Saxe’s book. He regarded Van Diemenlander history as an indelible stain on the character of the British Government. The Port Phillip Association would follow the footsteps of Penn and drive to Christianise the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip.
The Association saw the treaty as a deed of purchase in writing rather than speaking or ritual. Its terms were all about possession of property whereas for Aborigines the idea of land tenure was a prerogative to use the resources of the land for a particular purpose. The Association’s aims were reflected in the peculiar language of the treaty. The deeds “doth grant enfeoff” of tracts of country at Port Phillip. Feoffment was an ancient method of feudal conveyances which barred “diseisin” (recovery of land by party wrongfully dispossessed). It was a simpler form of conveyance rather than the more common ‘lease and release’. Feoffment was a ritual of possession “livery of seisin” handing over a lump of soil as symbol of whole property and the boundary was enforced by perambulation – how far a person could walk in a given time. (In the US this form was sarcastically called “ye hurry walk” as whites scrambled to gain as much property as they could). The terms of the treaty were for a yearly rent or tribute of 100 pairs of blankets, 100 knives, 100 tomahawks, 50 suits of clothing, 50 looking glasses, 50 pairs of scissors and five tons of flour. It was a “fee simple estate” which meant perpetual full-scale succession not a lease.
Batman went to Port Phillip in May 1836 with three whites and seven blacks. They landed at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula and walked inland to Port Phillip Bay where he supposedly met the local chieftains. The Association’s later letter to Arthur said Batman walked the boundary and gave the soil to the chiefs who supposedly understood what he was doing and signed the treaty. Batman attached a map of the land which was mostly a fantasy. The signatures may have been a forgery and even if not, had the Kulins understood what Batman was doing, they would never had accepted it. For the Kulins, the treaty would have been a political document between sovereign peoples rather than set of rights for whites. Forgery or not, Batman went back to Launceston two weeks later with the signed treaty leaving his men to claim the territory. The Port Phillip Association wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies Spring Rice and told him the country was 100 miles beyond jurisdiction of NSW although it was within the imaginary line from Bass Strait to Carpentaria which defined Australia in June 1835. They reckoned the treaty was “quietly taken possession”. However Rice’s Under Secretary Sir George Grey said Port Phillip was part of NSW and therefore there could be no other title to the land.
Acting on Grey’s instructions Governor Bourke directed to put the land up for public auction, rejecting the case they had improved the land via capital and labour. After the Treaty John Helder Wedge started the settlement in August 1835. Also in late August 1835 another Van Diemen’s Land expedition sponsored by John Pascoe Fawkner landed on the Yarra and moved on to Port Phillip Association land. Wedge was worried and believed both expeditions could be dispossessed. The Association agreed to show Fawkner the treaty and they appointed former convict and Aboriginal wanderer William Buckley as superintendent of Aborigines. Buckley was discovered by an astonished Wedge at Indented Head after escaping the first Port Phillip settlement in 1803 and living with the Aborigines for 32 years. Buckley acted as a go-between but he couldn’t stop the violence as the settlement quickly grew beyond Melbourne, with two settlers killed at Werribee. In September 1835 Bourke told the Association that Port Phillip would be opened up for sale and held meetings with them to discuss terms to keep a small part of the settlement. It was the Port Phillip Association that acted as the dispossessed party not the Aborigines.
Bourke saw the treaty as a threat to authority. The earlier perception of Aboriginal defacto ownership of the land had changed in mid 1820s as conflict escalated. Pre 1823, British justice abstained from jurisdiction over Aborigines. However from 1824 they began asserting authority over space rather than subjects. In the 1823 case R v Lowe, the defence argued a white soldier who murdered an Aborigine should get away with it because the Aborigines did not have the rights of British subjects and the incident happened outside the limits of location. Chief Justice Francis Forbes rejected both arguments. The 1834 R v Steele case re-asserted the Lowe position with Justice Forbes said the King owned all unpossessed lands in the kingdom. All of NSW’s soil was vested immediately on settlement in his Majesty as representative of British nation, creating what Attwood called a “foundational history”. In 1833 Macdonald v Levy Justice Burton said Aboriginal land could be regarded as uninhabited because Aborigines were “wandering tribes” who lived without “certain habitation and without laws”. The law had established that “the savages” lacked government and property rights and their rights to the land was repudiated. This was why Batman’s Treaty was such a threat to the new concept of sovereignty. It raised fundamental questions about the Crown’s jurisdiction given its claim of Aboriginal sovereign polity suggested Crown was not legal possessor of the land. Therefore it had to be rejected.
Forbes told Governor Bourke repudiation of the Treaty was a good peg upon which to suspend a proclamation defining true limits of colonisation. Bourke declared all treaties with Aborigines void and of no effect against right of the Crown and treaty holders (and Aborigines) were liable to be dealt as “intruders” on Crown land. This gave Bourke the excuse to extend the limits of location and actualise the newly minted conception of Crown’s sovereignty.
Batman’s Treaty proved a critical moment for Aborigines. The Colonial Office didn’t quite endorse Bourke approach repudiating Aboriginal right to land. They set the matter of government aside using temporal qualifiers like “present proprietors” assuming the Aboriginals wouldn’t be owners in the future. Aborigines were confirmed as British subjects.
The Port Phillip Association retreated into history and Batman died in 1839, almost forgotten by the 1850s. His reputation was rescued by schoolteacher James Bonwick who recast his a bushman colonial hero a la Daniel Boone. It was Bonwick who came up with Batman’s phrase “this will be a good place for a village” as the defining moment for Melbourne. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossession of Aborigines. However he was more concerned with redeeming sins of British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He, like many of his era, believed the Aborigines were doomed to pass away. Now it is Batman who has faded once more into history, while the Kulin nations including the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people are finding their voice once more.
“It was not so long in the history of the Australian nation that this terrible thing happened. It is a part of Australian history we cannot ignore, let alone forget and for the Warlpiri people it is a history of irreplaceable loss” – John Ah Kit NT parliament 2003
Around now, we should be commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory, the last major act in the 140 year war of occupation for Australia. I say “around now” because the killing went on for over six weeks between August and October 1928 and I say “should” because it has received almost no media exposure, with SBS the only honourable exception. While we remember overseas wars in intimate detail, there is little appetite to commemorate a massacre on Australian soil that spread out over a number of sites killing up to 100 people that happened well into the 20th century. The trigger was a black on white murder, because as native bush worker Paddy Tucker said matter-of-factly “No Aboriginal could be allowed to get away with shooting a white man on the frontier, whatever the circumstances.”
Aboriginals had lived in Central Australia for thousands of years but it had only been a frontier for last 70. The first white man in the region was John McDouall Stuart who launched several expeditions of discovery north from Adelaide in the 1850s and 60s. On his fourth journey in April 15, 1860 he described the valleys of the MacDonnell Ranges as “as fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess”. Possession was indeed the name of the game and the Overland Telegraph Line brought more whites into this difficult country in the 1870s as well as the first cattle. As they did in every other part of Australia, the native tribes resisted this invasion, but the whites kept coming. The trickle became a flood inspired by gold finds at Hall’s Creek in 1909 and the federal push to develop the Northern Territory after taking it over from South Australia in 1911.
Coniston cattle station was founded in the wake of World War I and stocked with cattle in 1923. It exists today as a working cattle station on the edge of the Tanami Desert 300km north west of Alice Springs. Its advantage in a very dry area is that it has a sustainable natural water supply fed by a huge underground basin. Founding pastoralist Randal Stafford named Coniston for his native town in the English Lake District at Cumbria. The Australian Coniston was much harsher environment. In fact it was the last frontier between British and Aboriginal law.
Today the nearest Aboriginal town to Coniston is at Yuendumu established in 1946 by the Australian Government Native Affairs Branch for Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people. Before Yuendumu, the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people lived scattered lives through the region as did a third group known as Kaytetye. These people watched uneasily as properties like Coniston began to take access to their waterholes for their stock. To the Warlpiri people, the prospectors, pastoralists and other travellers were ruthless trespassers who damaged sacred sites and took their waterholes, and sometimes their women. Stafford himself took an Aboriginal wife.
Stafford’s neighbour was William John (“Nugget”) Morton who took up Broadmeadows. Morton held the Aborigines in disdain always sitting with his back to them in any camp. He was also ruthless and sadistic, and thought nothing of stealing the wives of hands that came to work for him. Morton ruled by fear and with the whip he dealt out to whites and blacks alike.
Native problems with difficult cattlemen were worsened by a growing drought that crippled central Australia from 1924. Aboriginals gravitated to the few remaining good waterholes such as those on Coniston and Broadmeadows, spearing cattle to supplement their meagre diet. In August 1928, Charles Young, a pastoralist on Cockatoo Creek reported that things were bad out Coniston way and “the niggers seemed to be out of control”. Young said they came to his camp and demanded food and tobacco. “They all had spears and boomerangs and were semi-civilised blacks. We were armed with Winchester rifles all the time. I fired over the heads of the blacks several times with the result that they cleared out.” With settlers and Aboriginal people competing for the same resources, central Australia was a tinderbox ready to ignite.
The spark was Fred Brooks, a veteran cattle hand at Coniston station, aged 67 in 1928. Brooks had known Stafford for many years and helped him establish Coniston. However there was no money for wages during the drought so supplemented his income by dingo trapping. He bought two camels and took two Aboriginal boys on an expedition. Brooks knew the local Aborigines and was not worried by growing tensions. The party set up camp at Yurrkuru Soakage near a number of Warlpiri families whom Fred probably knew from their seasonal work at Coniston.
Bullfrog Japanangka was one of a sizeable group of Warlpiri camped at Yurrkuru and he had three wives. At gunpoint, Brooks demanded he loan him two wives to help him gather firewood and generally act as camp assistants. Brooks promised Bullfrog payment of food and tobacco in return. A few days later, Bullfrog was still waiting for his payment and now his third wife also ended up in Brooks’ camp. Enraged he attacked Brooks’ camp with the help of other warriors. He commanded his wives to hold Fred’s hand behind his back. One warrior hit Brooks on the head with a yamstick, while Bullfrog hit him several times on the head with an axe. Other men also hit him with boomerangs and axes. Brooks was hastily buried with one foot sticking out of a shallow grave. Brooks’ two Aboriginal helpers fled to Coniston to raise the alarm. Bullfrog and his family escaped to the mountains and played no further part in the following events.
Once Stafford found out about Brooks’ murder, he rang Police Commissioner John Cawood in Alice Springs. Cawood told Stafford mounted constable George Murray was already on his way to the region to investigate cattle killings in the Pine Hill and Coniston station country. Murray was the local “Protector of Aborigines” and was driving to Stafford’s property hoping to borrow horses for patrols. Murray was a war veteran and Cawood’s formal instructions were to arrest the culprits and to avoid violence where possible. But it wasn’t protection that Cawood or Murray had in mind for the Aborigines, instead it was tacitly understood he would “teach them a lesson”. Murray arrived at Coniston on August 12 where he interviewed Brooks’ black accomplices. He was there three days later when two warriors arrived. After a scuffle Murray shot and wounded one and chained them to a tree overnight. The two men were on a list of over 20 people Murray believed were involved in the murder. The following day Murray led a patrol of seven including Stafford and his two prisoners to a Warlpiri camp 18km west of Coniston.
Though Murray told the posse there was to be no shooting unless necessary, he rushed in ahead causing consternation in the camp. When he tried to arrest a native they fought back. Murray fired two shots and several of the posse including Stafford also fired their guns. One of the posse, Jack Saxby was later to say, “You cannot arrest these bush blacks.” At least five Aborigines died in this first act of reprisal, according to the whites’ testimony at the later Board of Inquiry. Further west of Coniston, the posse picked up more Warlpiri tracks and surrounded a party of blacks. At least eight, and possibly 14, warriors were shot dead. Two more were shot dead as they tried to escape at Cockatoo Spring with Murray proud of his revolver shot at “at least 150 yards distant”. At this stage the patrol returned to Coniston station and Randal Stafford would take no further part in the remaining killing.
The next encounter was at Six Mile Soak where Saxby said they surrounded a camp. He was the marksman stationed at the back to see none escaped. “I could tell that the blacks were showing fight, by their talk and the rattle of their weapons,” Saxby said. He heard Murray telling them to put down their weapons then heard several shots. “The blacks saw me coming and threw a couple of spears at me,” he said. “I jumped off my horse and fired four or five shots with my rifle. I do not know whether I hit them or not. I certainly tried.” At least six more were dead. The killing party then spent several days following blacks towards the WA border where the spree continued. When later asked by the Board of Inquiry, “Did you shoot to kill Mr Murray?” he responded, “Every time.” When asked, “You did not want to be bothered with wounded blackfellows?” he responded, “Well, what could I do with wounded blackfellows?”
Missionary Annie Lock was one of many horrified by the tales she was hearing from natives. As she put it, it was “the story of one surprise visit after another to native camps by the police, each time resulting in the shooting and killing of natives. Some said there were eighty killed, others made the number less. At the official enquiry, some months later, the number given was seventeen, but seventy was the number generally believed in the bush.”
Whether it was 17 or 70, the killing wasn’t over. An Aboriginal war party attacked Nugget Morton on the belief he too was about to start a massacre (though this may have been based on a misunderstanding he was about to kill a beast). Morton was attacked but gave as good as he got and escaped by horse. Meanwhile Murray’s party was now sent to Pine Hill to investigate cattle thefts there. They met a sizeable group of Kaytetye warriors in three encounters and although no record of the meeting survives, it is likely there were considerable Aboriginal casualties. While there was certain acceptance in frontier society of “an eye for an eye”, there was unease growing as the extent of Murray’s bloodthirsty rampage became known. On September 11, the first account of the slaughter appeared in an Adelaide newspaper.
Commissioner Cawood was now presented with a problem. He needed to someone to investigate Morton’s attackers but Murray had gone too far. Yet because of a shortage of manpower, Murray was instructed again to prepare for a third patrol to Morton’s Broadmeadows station. The killings continued wherever Murray’s party encountered Aborigines. In one incident, Murray reported that “even after several shots were fired it did not steady them. When order was restored it was found there were eight killed.” At the end of the patrol Murray and Morton estimated they had killed 14 warriors. The killing was finally ended when Murray had to go to Darwin for the trial of two men accused of killing Brooks.
The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra was brief. http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1043.html It started on November 7, 1928, three months after Brooks’ death. Murray summarised the first patrol in which Padygar was arrested at the start and Arkirka at the end. But the one white person, Bruce Chapman, who had seen Brooks’ body, was himself dead. Murray admitted openly he shot to kill in reprisal. The jury needed just 15 minutes to acquit the pair. The Darwin correspondent for the Adelaide newspaper said “Press, pulpit, and the general public unanimously agree with the jury’s verdict in the aboriginal trial, and are shocked by the candid admissions of the police that they shot to kill natives who showed fight when overtaken.”
A key figure in raising awareness of the killing was Methodist lay minister Athol McGregor of Katherine after he heard 17 Aboriginals were shot dead in one of the punitive raids at Stuart Town. He confronted Commissioner Cawood who defended the killing. Cawood became worried when McGregor wanted a Board of Inquiry. He encouraged journalists to cover the Darwin trial and Murray’s testimony gave them their headlines. Even a League of Nations representative made negative comments. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Cabinet Ministers were inundated with letters and petitions demanding an enquiry though the majority of Stuart Town residents though they were “do-gooders” who did not understand conditions on the frontier.
Bruce chose the Board with a whitewash in mind. The chairman was a Cairns police magistrate, the second a SA police inspector and the third was Commissioner Cawood himself, over the considerable protests of McGregor and others. The enquiry was held from December 30, 1928 to January 16, 1929, with a summary on closure February 7. It called 30 witnesses but skimmed over the issue of settlers taking Aboriginal women apart from a few denials by bushmen. Instead they blamed the Missionaries for preaching a doctrine of equality, even though none were in the Coniston area at the time of the attacks. Cawood instructed Murray to keep quiet about the second patrol in which he admitted 14 more had died, to add to the 17 officially admitted in the first patrol. Murray never conceded the combined 31 deaths constituted a massacre. He was just a policeman doing his job. Police Paddy from Murray’s party was the only Aboriginal witness called. He blatantly lied about seeing Brooks’ body and was never cross-examined.
The findings were inevitable. Murray accepted responsibility most of the deaths. The board accepted Murray’s evidence he had always called upon Aboriginal men to put down their weapons and that he only shot in self-defence when attacked. The Board concluded the shootings were justified and they blamed “cheeky” Aborigines intent on driving whites from their country. Though the Board accepted there was a drought, it agreed with Murray’s comment: “There was no such thing as starvation in any part of the country I have travelled to.” The whitewash concluded.
So how many people died? A friend of historian Dick Kimber once had the temerity to ask Murray when he met him “Did you really kill 31 blackfellows?” Murray’s response was “that’s all they investigated.” The Central Land Council’s booklet, “Making Peace With The Past” (2003) said the toll was likely double that. Missionary Annie Luck heard from eye-witnesses it was at least 70 dead. Douglas Lockwood’s 1964 book, “Up The Track” discussed the shootings with 70-year-old Anmatjira man George Japaljari. “All of old George’s friends and relatives were shot. The only survivor was George. They were bad … bad … times”.
Mervyn Hartwig’s “The Coniston Killings” (1960) had some access to Murray as well as talking to Luck and other pastors. His view that 70 to 105 is “the more correct number”. Kimber thinks it was 70 to 80 but ahttp://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1103.html “a further 100 or more people, mostly men, were shot in the station country under consideration, and in a wider general area from Central Mount Wedge in a western arc through Mount Farewell to Tanami.” For the Warlpiri, the consequences of Coniston continue to this day, spread far and wide from their native lands. However for the majority of whites on the frontier, the frontier war was over and the bloodbath was justified to “teach the blacks a lesson”. Over the years that conviction became unease and eventually descended into the stone wall of silence. Even today Coniston is peripheral, because it does not make us “feel comfortable and relaxed about our history.”
The problem is the record is patchy, written by whites and with the most awkward bits left out. It doesn’t help that a sense of Bussamarai the man does not emerge from Collin’s book. What does emerge is that early Europeans were tolerated as adventurers but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. When explorers Mitchell and Leichhardt drifted into what Collins calls East Maranoa in the colony of NSW (the current Queensland local government region of Maranoa plus all of the Balonne shire north of St George), they were followed by a handful of whites determined to take advantage of the fertile lands suggested by Mitchell’s descriptions of “mount abundance” and a “champagne region”.
Mitchell and Leichhardt also described their meetings with “the blacks” so the settlers knew the land weren’t empty. But they were not occupied in a way the new settlers understood. So with a sense of entitlement allied to superior firepower, it gave carte blanche to mass murder as the competition for territory expanded. The white had brought with them “too many dreams and two many cows”.
After NSW surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell came to East Maranoa in 1846, he recounted his adventures in Sydney to William MacPherson, secretary to the NSW parliament and his son the grazier Allan. Mitchell gave Allan maps and encouraged him to set up a land claim there. Macpherson Junior would be the first farmer in the Roma region setting off with men and livestock from his headstation in the Gwydir in 1847.
Without an inspection of the land, MacPherson was taking a large leap of faith with Mount Abundance near Muckadilla some 200km from the nearest white settlement at Moonie. Mitchell and MacPherson weren’t the first whites in the area. Clarence River area squatter Finney Eldershaw described his search in 1842 for suitable land after he heard of “luxurious downs” in the region. But it wasn’t the Aboriginals that stopped Eldershaw, it was economic conditions. Australia was in depression and East Maranoa’s remoteness from white settlement made it a difficult financial prospect.
Five years later, conditions were improving. While MacPherson was setting off, another friend of Mitchell, Edmund Kennedy was back in the region to do more exploration. He was joined by Archer, Blyth and Chauvel who explored the region from the north. MacPherson started his run in October 1847 with 20 men working the property. While we know a lot about the early whites, the Aborigines are more inscrutable. The character of the warrior “Bussamarai” who gives his name to the book is particularly problematic.
Collins claims that a tribal leader called variously by different whites as old Billy, Eaglehawk, Possum Murray and Bussamarai was the one and the same person but the evidence is not always convincing. Collins said the elder who helped Mitchell find Muckadilla Creek and the Maranoa River was “probably” Bussamarai but offers no proof. All Mitchell said is that they were not covetous and asked for nothing. But by the time Kennedy got to the region, relations had gone downhill and he had to use “one or two shots in the air” to frighten 200 Aborigines away from his camp. As the decade went by the Mandandanji lands became untenable as more whites entered the East Maranoa motivated less by fame and discovery then by land acquisition.
MacPherson recorded the first cattle killing at Warroo station near Surat in late 1847. By December 1848 there was all out war between the blacks and the settlers affecting every station the area between the present day towns of Roma and Chinchilla. Station hands working for absentee landholders dispensed rough justice in retaliation for attacks on their livestock while authorities in faraway Sydney and even further London turned a blind eye.
Finally a new force gradually restored “order” by 1851. This was NSW’s northern division of the Native Police, who served the economic ends of the pastoralists. Pastoral superintendent Frederick Walker led a team of 20 Aborigines up from the Macintyre River district dispensing rough justice wherever they went. Walker was renowned for his good relations with Aborigines but he showed no mercy in East Maranoa.
Scanty evidence exists of the genocide that followed. Pastoralist Gideon Lang testified to an 1854 parliamentary select committee on the select police that he wanted them to protect his Darling River runs. But Lang also knew of the “wholesale and indiscriminate killing” and “cold blooded cruelty on the part of the whites quite unparalleled in the history of these colonies”. Walker’s men used “fair means or foul” to bring about a lopsided peace in East Maranoa. There were significant massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and Yamboucal station near Surat in May 1852.
In retaliation, Collins said Bussamarai united the Bigambul people and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji to try to to drive out the whites. They engaged in battles with the Native Police with inevitable conclusions. On November 1852 a Sergeant Skelton noted a skirmish at Ukabulla between the Aboriginals led by Bussamarai and armed troops in daylight. Two Aboriginals were “shot in the attempt to apprehend them,” Skelton said. “Likewise four more of the Blacks were shot before I could drive them to the station.” The East Maranoa front was “tamed” and the war and the atrocities moved on to other areas of Queensland.
The surviving Mandandanji settled into a life of fringe dwellers in their own territory. Many were forcibly removed to settlements at Taroom and later at Woorabinda and Cherbourg, scattering the memory of their sacred link to the land. The Goodbye to Bussamarai is not only to a warrior but to a way of life that had no chance against European civilisation.
It was a joyous day in Mitchell today. The Gunggari people, traditional owners of the land south and west of town celebrated a native victory yesterday with a march down the main street. “Who are we?” they chanted. “GUNGGARI” was the response. Loud and proud, they were celebrating the first native title determination on mainland Southern Queensland.
The marchers were happy a day after the Federal Court of Australia came all the way to Mitchell Shire Hall to make a consent determination. Justice John Reeves announced the decision immediately shaking hands with Gunggari elder Wayne Saunders as many people cheered and wept. The determination recognises native title rights and interests over 13,600 sq km of land and waters in central southern Queensland. The area is broken up into parcels, the two biggest of which are in the middle of a triangle between Mitchell (east) Charleville (west) and Bollon (south).
In these areas, the Gunggari People negotiated IndigenousLand Use Arrangements (ILUA) with three local councils (Maranoa, Balonne and Murweh) , electricity supplier Ergon, telecommunications provider Telstra and five pastoral properties. Once the ILUAs are formalised, the Gunggari Native Title Aboriginal Corporation will be the prescribed body corporate to manage the native title rights. Their rights are non-exclusive but allow Gunggari people access to, travel, camp, hunt, teach, light fires and use water in the areas affected. They can also hold religious ceremonies and spiritual activities on the land.
The rights are a long time coming. Queensland South Native Title Services principal legal officer Tim Wishart handed up the list of documents to Justice Reeves on which the claim was based. Wishart made powerful speech documenting the history of the Gunggari “from time beyond memory”. Wishart said the Gunggari land ran west from the Maranoa River and included the headwaters of the Nebine Creek, Mungallala Creek, Wallam Creek and Neabul Creek which together feed into the greater Murray-Darling basin. They fought to protect those lands “probably before English developed as a language,” Wishart said.
They were uninclined to let the European invaders have free run of the place after Sir Thomas Mitchell first explored the area in 1840. In 1855 an exasperated Crown Land Commissioner Wiseman wrote “No tribe will allow of the peaceable occupation of their country,” The whites fought back and with superior weaponry killed at least 75 Aboriginals along the Maranoa River up to 1862. In 1880, George Thorn (who served as Queensland premier two years earlier) boasted the inland Queensland Aboriginals were “pretty well shot down and got rid of”.
Thorn was wrong. The Gunggari and other tribes hung on tenaciously even after losing the war to the colonials. Monitored by the border and native police, They were tolerated as joint owners of the land until the twentieth century when the patriarchal attitudes of the new Commonwealth brought about the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Acts 1901. Under this act the camps that existed across the Maranoa were dismantled and hundreds of people were moved east and north into alien lands at government reserves and missions at Taroom, Purga, Barambah/Cherbourg, Palm Island and Woorabinda.
Most Gunggari ended up at Taroom settlement established in 1911. They stayed there until 1927 when the site was abandoned for a dam on the Dawson River. Though the dam never went ahead, they were marched north to a site near Rockhampton called Woorabinda. Here they were among 17 different language groups under the control of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, an Orwellian title who was supposed to “protect them from acts of cruelty, oppression and injustice.” Instead they turned a blind eye at best, or ran at worst, schemes to rob Aboriginals of what little they had.
The few Gunggari that remained behind on country didn’t have it easy either. They mostly gravitated to Mitchell town and were housed on the Yumba (“camp”) on the eastern edge of town near the Maranoa River. At the Yumba, Gunggari elders spoke their language but repressive white attitudes discouraged them from passing on their knowledge to the next generation. They did pass on the cultural laws and customs and hunting traditions. Yumbas were often shantytowns and many towns such as Mitchell and Surat demolished theirs in the 1960s. The people moved into town and started meeting the whites in school when previously they would only ever meet on the rugby league or netball field.
The 1967 referendum, the Keating Redfern speech and Mabo and Wik decisions slowly changed attitudes both of the white and black communities. Robert Munns for the Gunggari People first filed a native title application in March 1996 and followed it through despite no legal representation for 11 years. The application was modified in 1998 to reduce the covered areas and the application was split into two parts in 2001. In 2007 Queensland South Native Title Services became the legal representative and they registered an ILUA with the Queensland Government in 2008 for the first part which saw parcels of land change hands in the Dunkeld area south of Mitchell. Friday’s decision was for the second half. Applicant Munns did not live to see it. He died in July 2009 and five others continued the application in their name.
In December 2010, the State of Queensland began substantive mediation. The applicant and respondents submitted their material to the Federal Court who announced their decision on Friday. As well as the many Gunggari who celebrated in Mitchell, others celebrated from afar such as Queensland State of Origin star Johnathan Thurston and Opera Australia baritone Don Bemrose. “I am very proud to say I am a member of the Gunggari community,” Thurston said.
“It is important that our history with this land, and our customs, have been observed in this way and I congratulate everyone who has fought for this recognition over the past 17 years – almost as long as I’ve been playing rugby league.” Bemrose, the first Aboriginal member of Opera Australia, said he was always proud and honoured to represent the Gunggari. “This moment is acknowledgement of our people’s continued bond with the Maranoa and the persistence, dedication and strength of a few to do all possible to again connect our land to all Gunggari past, present and future is amazing,” he said. As Wishart concluded in Court on Friday, the determination has confirmed what the Gunggari already knew: the land was theirs.
The camp proclaimed itself as a dry area and in the middle of the garden lay a giant fire circle with an Aboriginal flag and a sculpture of the word “sovereignty” all looking out across the lake. More than the tent, it was this “sacred fire” of sovereignty that gave the embassy an imposing air of permanence. The use of the word embassy gives it a stateliness that is contested by the Australian Government, but not to the point of seeking its removal. There was no sign of any cops about to shut down a long-standing “occupy movement”. Nor was there seemingly any movement there to disoccupy. There was no sign of life that morning though presumably there were people asleep inside the tents. It was all peaceful and remarkably normal.
The tent began in 1972 in frustration at the McMahon Coalition Government’s refusal to recognise land rights. Hopes were high for Aboriginal land rights after winning the 1967 referendum to be counted at the ballot box. But five years later it was clear the Coalition was not about to disturb powerful interests. All McMahon would agree to was “general purpose leases” which would not affect existing land or mining titles. Most of the land titles were granted under common law “terra nullius” which assumed nobody lived on the land before the British granted title. The mining titles took precedence because, as McMahon said, they were “in the national interest”.
One of the embassy founders, Gary Foley, said McMahon’s laws made Aborigines “aliens in their own land”. Like other aliens they needed an embassy which meant it had to be in Canberra. The notion of the ramshackle embassy as an “eyesore” has been central to its validity since the start. As John Newfong said in 1972: “If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements.” Aboriginal policy was an eyesore that needed to stay in the public eye. Governments tried to remove the embassy by use of police force, invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, direct negotiation and simply turning a blind eye with the hope that the embassy would fizzle out. None worked. In tandem with another symbol invented the same year – the black, red and yellow flag – the black power activists’ tent reminded white Australia it was built on shaky foundations.
Ever since 1972, the embassy has only occasional impinged on wider conscience. Paul Kelly’s monumental The March of Patriots covered the Keating and Howard eras in great detail but made no mention of the embassy, even though the embassy became permanent just after the elevation of Keating as PM. Aboriginal affairs were a telling difference between Keating and Howard and deeply affected their tenure as prime ministers. Yet there were similarities too. Both men were affronted by the notion there was “another Australia” outside their jurisdiction though neither was foolish enough to raise in public the notion the “ambassadors” should be removed.
It was not politicians but judges who changed the law during Keating and Howard’s time. The Mabo and Wik judgements ended the fiction of terra nullius and helped forge a proper agreement over native title. 200 years of wrong could not be righted but some compensation was needed. Keating offered an apology in his 1994 Redfern speech but was hamstrung by his own side (corrupt WA Labor Premier Brian Burke had killed Bob Hawke’s Land Rights proposal in the 1980s). Keating was voted out in 1996, but not before getting a Mabo agreement through parliament over the objection of the Coalition.
Howard inherited Keating’s Stolen Generation Report that documented the extent of Australian 20th century interference in Aboriginal affairs. Ever conscious of the power of symbols, Howard could not bring himself to apologise. His later NT intervention was paternalism writ large masked under a pretence of preventing sexual violence. Despite the scale of the response (which the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have been unable to undo), there was never a sense they were dealing with equal partners. The prospect of a treaty similar to Canada and New Zealand seems as remote as ever.
The embassy supporting that Treaty celebrated two notable anniversaries Day last week. The embassy has intermittently existed on the lawns since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992, so it either 40 or 20 years old according to taste. These anniversaries are appropriate moments to examine its worthiness. My view is that the overwhelming evidence suggests the “other Australia” still exists and therefore the indigenous protesters that live on the site are right to seek diplomatic relations. In all key life indicators, indigenous people lag behind the rest of the population thanks to two centuries of massacres, paternalism and benign neglect. As a defeated people since colonial times, they are under no obligation to accept white Australian rule as a fait accompli.
The howls of protest that accompanied Tony Abbott’s claim the embassy’s time may be over, reflect a deeper concern that as Prime Minister he would not advance Aboriginal interests. He might also, despite the denials, be prepared to use his power to shut it down “occupy-style” using the media-generated confected rage against the “riot” that apparently caused the prime minister to lose to trip over and lose a shoe. The Courier-Mail front page called it a “day of shame” without saying who should be ashamed. “Australia Day 2012 will be remembered for scenes of a terrified looking Ms Gillard being dragged away to safety,” the paper thundered. Whose fault was it? They didn’t say.
Instead they hinted at it. They said police clashed with protesters from the nearby aboriginal tent embassy and the two leaders were shoved into Ms Gillard’s bulletproof car and taken to “a safe place”. Police seemed to have overreacted in the way they escorted the politicians from the premises. Gillard and Abbott were at the Lobby restaurant presenting emergency services medals when “100 protesters surrounded the building”. Alerted by Labor apparatchiks (who presumably knew Gillard was there also), they came to protest against an answer Abbott gave in a press conference earlier that day. Marxist march participant John Passant said witnesses reported that during a speech a woman interrupted to say Abbott had said the Tent Embassy should be moved on. “He was 50 metres away with his twin in racism, Julia Gillard,” Passant said. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When protesters made the 50m journey to the Lobby, they banged on the glass walls. The chants started as “Shame, shame!” and “Racists, racists” and then became a steady “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”
They were protesting an answer Abbott gave in a doorstep earlier that day. Some journalist (unnamed in the press transcript) asked him: “Is the Tent Embassy still relevant or should it move?”. Abbott responded by saying he could understand why the embassy was established but a lot had changed for the better. “We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister,” Abbott said. “We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
No one asked the obvious follow-up question: Did he mean moving the tent on? We don’t know because the media circus moved on to Albanese’s Hollywood faux pas and the embassy answer hung out there to dry. Gillard’s people were on to the political implications quickly. The implied answer, Abbott might act as PM to “move on” the embassy, took little time to filter out.
Gillard’s media adviser Tony Hodges told Unions ACT secretary Kim Sattler and Sattler told the demonstrators. When they got to the restaurant, there were unedifying scenes of Aborigines clashing with police but no evidence to suggest violence was intended on Abbott or Gillard. It was the mob violence that wasn’t. All they wanted was for both leaders to talk to them. The prime minister’s security detail took a different view. In this risk averse culture they took the view she should leave quickly. On camera Gillard accepts their advice and asked them whether they should also inform Abbott. She is then shown on camera letting Abbott know they were “in it together”.
Instead of confronting the protesters, the prime minister was dragged unceremoniously away. The footage of these shots showed the politicians, their security detail and news cameras. The protesters were well back. World media were entranced by the footage particularly the fairytale angle of the “lost shoe”. Behind her, Abbott was also ushered away quickly without any wardrobe malfunctions. Abbott walked away without injury but Gillard lost not only her shoe, but her dignity, her press officer, her backroom probity and the political high ground. Abbott was able to say, “At the very least the Prime Minister should be offering an apology to everyone who was in that awards ceremony.” But he did not clarify what Gillard had to apologise for except perhaps for incompetent staff who did not think through the consequences of their actions. Hodges paid the penalty and Abbott should stop playing put upon. He would have known fully what mischief his statement could cause on the Australia Day anniversary.
Meanwhile the 40 year sovereignty battle associated with the embassy has been damned by association. Since the so-called “riot”, influential voices like Bob Carr, Warren Mundine and David Penberthy have called for its abolition. None have attracted the opprobrium of Abbott but perhaps they should have. The time has not yet come to fold up the tent. The eyesore has not been treated. Sorry day has come and gone but the justice of sovereignty is no nearer for this continent’s oldest and most misunderstood inhabitants. Until it happens, they will remain aliens in their own land.