Posts tagged ‘history’
“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.”
Over 30,000 people have fled eastern DR Congo into Uganda after a rebel group attacked a border town. The Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces that was driven into the DRC jungle after a violent campaign in the late 1990s, overran the DRC town of Kamangu on Thursday. ADF are just one of the many foreign proxy groups that have caused mayhem in eastern DRC for 20 years.
The country survived two devastating wars in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and Rwanda still backs rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his RCD-Goma faction. The ongoing eastern conflict since 2006 continues to destabilise this large, underdeveloped and fractious country.
The fact it is a country at all is the fault of a megalomaniac who never visited it. Congo was created out of nothing over 120 years ago by the greed of one of Europe’s most energetic and infamous monarchs: King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was responsible for the death of ten million Congolese as he built his private empire. The story of Congo and Leopold is best told in the book “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild published in 1998 and released in 2006 as a greatly condensed film.
The story starts with a different king: a black one. King Afonso I was ruler of Kongo (western Congo and parts of Angola) in the 16th century. Afonso was greatly influenced by the Portuguese traders that plied his coastline. He brought in European ideas such as the church, literature, medicine and trade skills. But he didn’t want European rule of law nor did he want mineral prospectors invading his lands. And he could not prevent the rising slave trade for coffee plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.
When Afonso died, the power of Kongo diminished. In 1665 the Portuguese beheaded the king that followed though European domination was slow to take hold. For two hundred years, the vast inland would remain mostly off-limits to white eyes. The only route through the thick malarial jungle was by the fearsome Congo River itself. Much of the river lies over three hundred metres high on the African plateau. It descends to sea level in just 350kms tumbling down over 32 waterfalls.
The white man who eventually crossed this natural barrier was born as John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in 1841. Rowlands was an orphan who grew up in the workhouse. He was a good scholar fascinated by geography. Aged 16, he sailed to New Orleans where he used his wits to quickly get a job. Rowlands also changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley. He reinvented his past to go with his new name and passed himself off as a native-born American.
During the civil war, Stanley signed up for the Confederates but was captured after two days by Union soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. To escape a disease-ridden POW life, Stanley enlisted with the Union Army and finally the Navy until he deserted in 1865. He finally found his metier as a journalist when he covered the Indian wars for a St Louis newspaper. His vivid reports caught the eye of James Gordon Bennett Jr, publisher of the New York Herald.
Bennett sent him off to cover the British war in Abyssinia. Stanley was resourceful and he bribed a Suez telegraph clerk to give his reports priority. Stanley scooped his rivals with news of the conflict. Back in London, Stanley thirsted for more success. Bennett in New York gave him a new brief: Find David Livingstone.
Livingstone was a Scottish missionary driven by anti-slavery zeal whose wanderings took him across Africa for 30 years. He looked in vain for the source of the Nile, found Victoria Falls, preached the gospel and denounced slavery. In 1866 he went missing on a long expedition and he wasn’t heard from in almost three years. It took Stanley two more years to get a 150 man party together and then another eight months before he found his man near Lake Tanganyika. Stanley supposedly greeted him with the immortal four words: “Dr Livingstone I Presume?”
We have to take Stanley’s word on this, as David Livingstone died shortly afterwards. It was Stanley’s version of events that became history and Stanley became an American hero. His book “How I found Livingstone” was an international best seller and one man in Brussels eagerly read in every piece of news about Stanley’s African adventures. That man was 37-year-old Leopold II.
The younger Leopold had travelled to Europe, Egypt, India and the Dutch East Indies and his travels whetted his appetite for empire. When Leopold took the throne in 1865 he was determined for Belgium to take its part in Europe’s colonial adventures. He convened a conference in Brussels which gave rise to the innocuous sounding International African Association. At face value it was an international organisation dedicated to exploration of Africa and the exposure of the slave trade. In reality it was a front for Belgian expansion in Africa. It made enquiries and tried to buy an African colony but none were for sale. It would have to claim one of its own.
Meanwhile, Stanley was also hunting for further African glory. In 1874 Bennett and the London Telegraph sponsored him to cross Africa east to west. His expedition set off from Zanzibar and arrived at Buma at the mouth of the Congo in 1877. His second best seller “Through the Dark Continent” described the great arc traversed by the Congo River that took it on both sides of the equator. The arc exposed the river to a continuous rainy season that contributed to its voluminous water flow.
Leopold avidly followed Stanley’s journey across Africa. He was especially interested in his descriptions of the Congo rich in rubber and ivory. On Stanley’s triumphant journey back to Europe, the king lured him to Brussels. Leopold signed Stanley onto a five year contract to lead a Belgian expedition back to the Congo and navigate the river. They would construct a road to get past the fearsome rapids and establish trading posts inland.
For the next five years, Stanley was Leopold’s man in the Congo. After two years they had hauled all their boats and equipment up to the top of the plateau and sailed inland. Stanley was a hard taskmaster and treated Africans with contempt. When he arrived at the opening in the river later called Stanley Pool (and now Malebo Pool), he was shocked to find the French had beaten him and signed a deal to take the lands north of the Pool. Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza had landed north of the river and made his way inland. That land became French Congo and is now the Republic of Congo with the capital Brazzaville.
Stanley redoubled his efforts on the south bank of the Congo where he signed deals with 450 Congolese chiefs. Each “treaty” those chiefs signed gave away sovereignty of their lands to the International African Association. The treaties also committed their people to “assist by labour or otherwise” any “improvements” the Association might suggest. When Stanley was finished bargaining in 1884, he had a million square miles in the bag. All Leopold needed was to get Europe to recognise his claim.
The king pulled American strings to lobby President Chester Arthur to recognise the new country. Arthur was a reluctant president. He was vice President to James Garfield in 1880 but Garfield was assassinated six months into office. Arthur himself was in poor health and ill prepared for the job ahead of him. He was flattered into recognising the International African Association’s ownership of Congo. The move was rubberstamped by the European powers in a congress in Berlin in 1884. Leopold sent Stanley as his representative to the congress where the explorer was the star attraction. Leopold got his way on the assumption that the Congo was to become a free trade zone.
Suddenly the Belgians had an empire that was 76 times the size of Belgium. Leopold called himself the “King Sovereign” of the Congo and by royal decree he renamed his asset the Congo Free State in 1885. It was a private asset and one which Leopold controlled without reference to the Belgian parliament. All profits went to him alone.
Leopold sent Stanley back to Africa on another mission. The governor of Sudan’s southernmost province, Emin Pasha, asked Europe for help against the threat of a Muslim fundamentalist group known as the Mahdists. Despite his exotic title, Pasha was a German Jewish doctor born as Eduard Schnitzer and a white hero in Africa. Stanley’s relief mission went through Leopold’s Congo through unexplored rain forest. By the time they reached Pasha, the crisis was over and Pasha was no longer eager for help.
Despite this failure, Leopold’s empire was slowly consolidating. He established military bases along the river and sent in Belgians to administer his new kingdom and tap into the riches of the rubber trade. It relied on slavery and used no compunction to shoot villagers if they didn’t obey orders. By the 1890s, American historian George Washington Williams condemned Leopold’s colony as an “oppressive and cruel government” guilty of crimes against humanity. But Williams was black and his warnings were largely ignored in Europe and the US.
Leopold declared “all vacant land” in the Congo as crown property. He also ignored the free trade edict and had his administrators collect tariffs along the river. They conscripted porters to carry the ivory past the treacherous rapids until the railway was built to the port. Thousands of porters died of overwork as white overseers enforced discipline with the dreaded chicotte (also known as sjambok) – a hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edged cork-screw whip.
When a curious 32-year-old Polish seaman named Konrad Korzeniowski visited the Congo in 1890, he sailed up the river where he saw the horrors of white occupation first hand. The visit shattered his initial belief in Leopold’s ennobling mission. He spent six months in the Congo and afterwards transformed it when under the name of Joseph Conrad, it was the scene of his great short novel “Heart of Darkness”. Conrad’s unforgettable portrait of the deranged Kurtz was based on his experience of several Belgian overseers.
Matters worsened for the Congolese in 1890 after Belfast-man John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. It set off a craze for bicycles and the world quickly developed an insatiable appetite for rubber. Wild rubber vines were abundant in the equatorial rain forests of the Congo and Leopold went into partnerships with rubber companies to extract the sap.
The rubber boom gave impetus to construction projects and Leopold finished the railway up the rapids which added enormously to the state’s wealth and power. But it also exposed his empire to the disinfectant of truth. Word was slowly emerging from missionaries of the price paid by locals for Leopold’s enormous wealth. The king was always quick to deny these claims. But he was undone by one of those that noticed something was wrong, from thousands of miles away. His name was E.D. Morel.
Morel was a clerk in Antwerp for a British trading company Elder Dempster. He soon noticed that the only trade into the country was arms and all the material coming out was hardly ever paid for. He realised only forced labour could account for this. Morel resigned and became a full time advocate against the slave trade in the Congo. He set up his own newspaper the West African Mail to expose the problem.
Through murder, starvation, disease and plummeting birth rate, Congo was the killing fields of the 1890s and early 1900s. Belgian soldiers launched many punitive expeditions against restless natives and massacres were commonplace. Thousands were held as hostages and died of starvation. Smallpox and sleeping sickness killed many more and as the men were forced into slavery the birth rate dropped considerably. Morel exposed all of these methods of killing.
In 1903, his cause was helped by Irish-born British diplomat Roger Casement. Casement travelled to the Congo in his role as British Consul to get a handle on the problem. He spoke to overseers, missionaries and natives and documented his findings in report to parliament. These showed abuse, slavery and murder were commonplace. Belgium put pressure on an embarrassed British government to delay publication of the damaging report. Morel meanwhile kept the pressure up for Britain to act for Congo reform. The world’s press began to turn on Leopold and his sexual indiscretions lost him popularity at home.
Leopold launched a massive counter operation against the growing evidence using a network of paid spies, politicians, businessmen and journalists. But when his effort to bribe a US congressman was exposed by Hearst’s New York American newspaper, his rule began to crumble. Under pressure, Leopold launched an independent Committee of Inquiry which issued a damning 150 page report of the state of the colony.
Leopold negotiated for the state to take the indebted and scandal ridden colony off his hands. In 1908 it was renamed “Belgian Congo”. Leopold himself died a year later, unmourned and booed at his own funeral. He had never set foot in the colony he ruled so despotically for over two decades. Forced labour in the Congo continued under the Belgian administration though there was some improvement. Belgium itself has tried to brush the whole episode of Leopold’s misdeeds under the carpet.
Like every other part of Africa, the winds of change were blowing in the 1950s as the native population began building mostly tribal political bases. In 1960 Congo finally won its independence. Patrice Lumumba, the country’s new leader, wanted a national non-tribal approach. But his words threatened western interests in the country. US President Eisenhower regarded him as a “mad dog” and CIA chief Allen Dulles authorised his assassination. They used Belgians in the Congolese army to support an anti-Lumumba faction and he was arrested, beaten and shot in 1961.
After a few years of chaos, the CIA installed army chief Joseph Desire Mobutu as Lumumba’s replacement. The anti-communist Mobutu renamed the country to Zaire and installed a cult of personality while hiving off billions to his Swiss bank accounts. Mobutu was helped by the Organisation of African States charter that stated the borders at the end of colonialism would be maintained and he curried favour with successive American presidents.
His importance to the US ended when the Cold War ended in 1991. His corrupt rule was finally undone by hundreds of thousands Rwandan Tutsis who fled across the border to avoid the Hutu genocide. It led to the bloody revolution of 1997 supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Mobutu fled the country with the $5b he had embezzled. Congo then descended into eight years of wars involving of its neighbours and four million people died. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 45,000 deaths a month. A Congo peace deal signed in Ethiopia in February by 11 countries remains the best hope of exorcising King Leopold’s ghost.
It seemed to appropriate for me to be driving through Blackall and Barcaldine a day after Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister. Rudd’s resurrection seems to confirm the death of difference between the two major parties in Australia. But there was a time when Labor really was a labour party and Blackall and Barcaldine are crucial to that story. The two western Queensland towns showed it wasn’t just the Australian economy that rode on the sheep’s back, so did the trade union movement.
Nowadays it seems absurd to think conservative and remote rural Queensland might be in any way key to the development of the labour politics. Blackall and Barcaldine have populations of no more than a couple of thousand each, are a thousand kilometres from the state capital Brisbane and are part of an electorate that is National Party (now Liberal National Party) heartland with two long-term members. Federally Bruce Scott holds the second safest seat in the country in Maranoa since 1990 while the state member for Gregory Vaughn Johnson has been there a year longer and holds a two party-preferred margin of 75-25.
Yet a clue it wasn’t always this way is in the history of the Gregory electorate. The Country/Nationals only grabbed the seat after the long-term Queensland Labor government imploded in 1957. Before that it had been a Labor stronghold since 1899. That was the year trade unionist William Hamilton took the seat. Hamilton was a miner and a shearer who found himself in the shearing sheds at Clermont in central Queensland in 1891.
Australia was going into its worst ever depression that year due to a global financial crisis. A year earlier, the collapse of Baring’s finance house in London caused overseas investment to collapse in Australia which in turn led to large-scale unemployment as public works programs were scaled back. There was a run on overextended banks and building societies several of which collapsed while in rural areas, the problem was worsened by a fall in the price of wool.
Shearing was one of the most demanding occupations of the era and one of the poorest paid. The Australian Shearers Union was spreading its influence and in 1890 prohibited its members from working at non-union sheds. In 1890 Blackall’s gun shearer Jackie Howe (who would two years later break the world record for numbers of sheep shorn in one day) was instrumental in merging the local union with the Queensland union. Nearby Barcaldine was the focus of the trouble as was then the terminus for the western railway line. Howe brought a Blackall contingent up to Barcaldine in 1891 for one of the world’s earliest May Day rallies commemorating the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair.
By then pastoralists had struck back with anti-union contracts and the Australian Shearers Union called a national strike. It was the first serious confrontation between capital and labour in Australia. Shearers struck camp at the edge of town and plotted a course of action they called ‘moral suasion’ but to their opponents it was intimidation. The shearers burnt grass, set fire to the woolsheds and attacked scab labourers. After four months of feuding, the state called in the army to break up the strike. The leaders were tried for conspiracy, rioting and sedition and sent to St Helena prison in Moreton Bay for three years.
While the strike was unsuccessful, it led to calls for a new political party. Legend has they gathered under a well-known ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge outside Barcaldine railway station. Historians Peter and Sheila Forrest debunked that theory in their book Bush Battleground who said it was only the scene of angry confrontations as scab labourers arrived by train. The party was more likely to be developed in the camp sites but it was the tree that grabbed the mythology.
Myth or not, the party quickly after the leaders of the strike emerged from prison. One of those was William Hamilton who returned to western Queensland to take Gregory in 1899. In December that year, Queensland Governor Samuel Griffith invited Labor leader Anderson Dawson to take office, becoming the first Labor government in the world. It lasted just six days, but it showed Labor had arrived.
Several more Labor governments followed with Blackall prominent in the strongest of them. By 1909 shearer Jackie Howe was president of the local labour association and friends with a solicitor named Thomas Joseph Ryan who dealt with union cases in the western region. He invited Ryan to stand for the local seat of Barcoo which he won that year. By 1915, he was Premier of Queensland with a large majority to institute sweeping change. His was the first Labor government to rule in Australia without the need for a coalition. He nationalised many industries and allowed women to stand for parliament. His opposition to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s conscription campaign enraged Hughes and made Ryan a national figure. Elected to federal parliament in 1919, he was touted as a future leader but died of pneumonia in 1921.
The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is also now dead, though its cause is less clear. It was mysteriously poisoned (the Forrests think it was done accidentally by railway workers) and died in 2006. It is tempting to draw a comparison with the rise to power as Labor leader of Kevin Rudd, also in 2006. But Labor’s industrial values had long since died before then. From the time the Hawke-Keating Government floated the dollar and removed tariffs in the mid-1980s, Labor proved it was no longer a party of labour, but of capital with a social democratic veneer. The veneer was disguised by the credibility of the towering egos of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. But by the 21st century they were gone and like the tree in Barcaldine, Labor survives now only by the decreasing force of its own mythmaking.
As Australian authors go, Sydney Loch is an undeservedly forgotten figure. A Wikipedia search redirects to his slightly more famous wife Joice NanKivell Loch. She was also an author but is mostly forgotten despite being Australia’s most decorated woman.
Nankivell Loch and her husband helped 15,000 Greeks escape Turkish persecution in the anarchic days of the 1920s. They were in Greece volunteering with Quaker Famine Relief worldwide amid a war where both sides indulged in ethnic cleansing. It was not Sydney Loch’s first encounter of the Turks as an enemy;, he served at Gallipoli as a runner for the Australian army before falling seriously ill. It was his remarkable tale of life at the front that made his name though no-one knew it at the time.
Loch was an Englishman who left his country because of unrequited love. The woman he loved was five years older than him and lived at his home in London. He was shocked when he found out she was having an affair with his father. He left the country in disgust and came to Australia. Loch eventually became a grazier in Gippsland. He signed up in 1914 and after months of training in the shadow of the Egyptian pyramids, he landed in Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. He survived four months before being wracked by typhoid fever which gave him polyneuritis. He almost died in hospital in Alexandria and was eventually shipped home to Melbourne.
It was during his long convalescence he wrote his memoir of the campaign which he published as the “The Straits Impregnable”. Loch wrote about the shortage of shells and the poor food. Death was matter-of-fact, life in the trenches was boring, and moving between was dangerous. No-one cared about the war.
Loch pulled no punches with his grim descriptions of how people lived and died in the trenches. Australian war censorship was among the strictest in the world, but remarkably Loch’s book avoided the censor’s wrath despite being a no-holds barred account of the war. The credit for its initial publication goes to publisher Harry Champion of Collins St, Melbourne. Champion immediate saw the manuscript as an important document to counteract the jingoism of war promoters to show the true horror of the battlefield.
As a memoir, Loch’s book was required to be submitted to military censors, a requirement laid down by the 1915 wartime Rules for Censors. A factual account could also run foul of the War Precautions Act which forbade material likely to discourage enlistment, already a hot topic as Prime Minister Billy Hughes considered conscription to boost troop numbers. Champion’s solution was to publish the book as a fictional novel. The author’s name was changed to Sydney de Loghe while the book’s main character was changed to “Lake”. Several other key dramatis personae were also thinly disguised. Brigadier-General Walker became General Runner, Colonel Johnston became Jackson, Adjutant Miles became Yards and war correspondent Captain Charles Bean became Captain Carrot.
The subterfuge was necessary because Gallipoli was such a fiasco. For months General Hamilton hid the poor progress and extent of the casualties and was determined the truth of the campaign would never reach the press. It wasn’t until English journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Australian Keith Murdoch got involved that Hamilton’s dirty secret got out. Murdoch carried Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter (which he re-wrote from memory after it was confiscated) to Cabinet minister in London and Hamilton was recalled in October. The campaign was soon called off and its most successful operation was its flawless withdrawal in December. By then there was half a million dead, roughly equal in number between Allied and Turkish forces.
As Collins predicted, Loch’s published work stunned the Australian public when it came out in June the following year. While the Anzac legend had already started by 1916, Australians had little access to the truth of what happened in the Turkish campaign. The Straits Impregnable was also critically acclaimed, among those was Melbourne reviewer Joice NanKivell who asked to meet the author. The book sold out in a couple of months and Champion wet his lips as he considered a second edition. It was here he made his major blunder.
Champion was at pains to point out the events of the book were real, for political reasons. Hughes had called for a referendum on conscription in October 1916. Universal military training for Australian men aged 18 to 60 had been compulsory since 1911. The referendums, if carried, would have extended this requirement to service overseas. The referendum, as was another in 1917, narrowly defeated after a bitter campaign. But that was too late for Champion, Loch and The Straits Impregnible.
Champion added a preliminary note on the first page of the second edition where no one could miss it. It read “This book written in Australia, Egypt and Gallipoli, is true”. Someone sent the book and its provocative preliminary note to Victoria’s military censor Major LF Armstrong. Armstrong was furious and demanded the book be withdrawn from sale. He also threatened Champion’s publishing house with legal action for breaching the War Precautions Act.
Champion didn’t give in straight away. He hired lawyer and friend Maurice Blackburn to negotiate with the censor’s office. Blackburn achieved a compromise; the book would be withdrawn but allowed to be published at a later date, if Loch writing as de Loghe would pen a series of pro-war articles and promote enlistment. Loch was in anguish over losing the revenue from the book but agreed to the compromise. The book was withdrawn and Loch worked on the pro-war articles. It over 12 months for Loch to summon the energy to write them and they were eventually published as a pamphlet called One Crowded Hour, A Call to Arms shortly before the war ended in 1918. It contains lines Loch must have hated writing: “You are mad, you men who will not go. There is no man in those armies who is not living at the top of his life.”
If this was of dubious literary merit, there was no doubting the calibre of The Impregnible Straits. Miles Franklin, a friend of Champion’s wife, saw it as an insight into the mindset of Australian soldiers and why they accepted the senselessness of Gallipoli without much complaint. She sold the British rights to Sir John Murray’s publishing house and they were published in 1917 with the provocative note included. Despite the parlous state of the war at the time, British censors did not take exception. Murray would establish a life-long friendship with Loch and NanKivell Loch and published their later adventures in Ireland, Russia and Quaker refugee camps in Greece.
In 1927, two successful books emerged that were critical of the war, Rupert Graves “Goodbye to all That” and Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Murray tried to cash in with another edition of Loch’s book (still under the name of de Loghe). Murray wanted Loch to include a chapter on his adventures in the Russian-Polish and Greek-Turkish wars but he never got around to it. The project was eventually shelved by World War II.
In that war Loch and his wife rescued a thousand Jews in Bucharest and led Polish refugees to Cyprus and Palestine. They returned to Greece after the war and Loch died in 1954. Nankivell Loch died in 1982, aged 95. In 2006 a museum opened in their honour in Greece and it wasn’t until a year after that, that Loch’s book was rediscovered in Australia. Susanna and Jake de Vries included the book with a biography of Loch under the title To Hell and Back. After 91 years. the banned account of Gallipoli by Sydney Loch was finally out in the open in its home country.
The first European in the Maranoa was likely either Thomas Mitchell or his son Roderick in 1846 (though Finney Eldershaw claims he beat both Mitchells by four years in his journey of 1842).
Roderick Mitchell was the deputy Crown Commissioner for Lands in NSW who charted several branches of the Balonne River and may have got as far as the Bungil and Bungeworgorai Creeks. His journeys, and probably his maps, undoubtedly helped his father Sir Thomas Mitchell, then surveyor-general of NSW on his trip to the Maranoa in 1846. Sir Thomas Mitchell took the same route up the Darling River system into Queensland. He was the first person to describe Mt Abundance and the rich area around it. He called it the Fitz Roy Downs in honour of the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles Fitz Roy.
It was no coincidence it was Mitchell followed his son, nor was there a coincidence about the man that followed Sir Thomas to become the first white settler of the Maranoa.
His name was Allan Macpherson.
Macpherson’s father William was the clerk of the NSW parliament and just as important as Mitchell. They were both from Scotland and good friends too. Mitchell was also fond of William’s son Allan, a determined and ambitious young man. Allan was an adventurer who ran cattle and sheep on his Keera property in the remote Gwydir district of northern NSW. While the hilly country reminded him of his native Scotland, it wasn’t profitable. Macpherson was captivated by Mitchell’s description of Mt Abundance as “champaign country” and was determined to claim it for himself.
Knowing that “first come first served” meant possession under British law, he set off north-west along the river system for the promised land in July 1847. Macpherson had more than just Mitchell’s maps, he had an armada of help: ten thousand sheep, hundreds of cattle, dozens of horses and drays and twenty men. The going was slow – they travelled just 60km in the first two weeks – but by the end of September his team was at the natural ford or “rocky bar” on the Balonne that Mitchell (senior) called St George’s Bridge because he arrived there on the saint’s day, April 23.
St George was not just the patron saint of England, it was also the last settled part of the English realm. Not a single white man or woman lived north of the bridge. MacPherson crossed his Rubicon but was forced to halt for lambing season. Leaving the sheep behind, he finally gazed on Mt Abundance on Friday, October 15, 1847. Macpherson found Mitchell had not exaggerated about the quality of the land. “A glorious prospect!” he enthused.
He claimed a farm 30km across from the Cogoon River (now Muckadilla Creek) in the west to Bungeworgorai Creek in the east. The sight of the first natives two weeks later scared his men witless. Macpherson shamed them as cowards and he spent the following months building huts, cattle and sheep yards and fencing. Macpherson built several outstations including a cattle station on the spot of what would later become Roma.
The distance to the port of Newcastle was forbidding and Macpherson hoped to find a closer route to Brisbane via the Darling Downs. Urgent farmwork tied him down at Mt Abundance and after Christmas he went back to Keera for more supplies and drays. In January 1848, Macpherson got caught up in what would be a formidable foe for all who would live in the area: summer floods. Macpherson was constantly wet and bogged in heavy and impassable country with swollen fast-moving creeks.
He eventually made it to Keera but his return to the Maranoa was also delayed by floods. It was again a fleeting visit as Keera and Sydney demanded his presence on urgent family business. It was on his third return to St George’s Bridge, Macpherson received the bad news Mt Abundance had been attacked.
Two men in outstations were speared to death and the rest were fleeing south.
Macpherson found them where the Cogoon met the Balonne but was able to convince only one of his men to accompany him back to Mt Abundance. The blacks were gone but there was a lot to be fixed. The experience redoubled his efforts to find a more direct route to the Darling Downs. The furthest he got was to a nearby station east of the Bungil owned by James Alexander Blythe.
Blythe was one of the earliest travellers to the Maranoa after Mitchell and had come back to establish a property between Roma and Wallumbilla. Macpherson was also fortunate to survive a skirmish with Aboriginals on his return home to Mt Abundance but his servant Charley was missing presumed dead.
By the end of 1848, Macpherson became convinced it was too unprofitable to run sheep due to “blacks, losses, native dogs and overcrowding.”
He turned Mt Abundance into a cattle property but the native attacks continued and three of his workers were speared in March 1849.After two more wool-carriers were killed, Macpherson and the new Commissioner of Crown Lands John Durbin patrolled the area with mounted troopers gathering the wool and taking it south. But Macpherson had had enough.
He went off to Scotland to get married and Mt Abundance remained an expensive and unprofitable out station. He sold it on his return “for a song”. As Macpherson said, “it was by no means the first pioneers that reaped the golden returns, but those who were prudent enough to follow in their wake.”
The great black boxer Peter Jackson never forgot his first defeat. Years later on his deathbed in Roma in Western Queensland, Jackson discussed the matter at great length with his doctor Guy L’Estrange. That loss to Bill Farnan in 1884 in Melbourne was Australia’s first heavyweight fight with gloves. Jackson was already a famous and feared fighter and expected to win, despite carrying a leg injury. But Farnan beat him in three rounds.
We don’t know what rundown Jackson gave L’Estrange about the Farnan fight on his deathbed in 1901, tragically aged just 40. But there is evidence foul play was involved. In in its eulogy for Jackson, the boxing magazine The Referee published the suggestion Jackson was nobbled in the fight and had been “given a dose”.
Despite, or perhaps because of this grievance, the loss spurred Jackson onto greater things. Born in Christiansted on the island of St Croix in what was then the Danish West Indies (and is now the American Virgin Islands) in 1861, this black kid from the Caribbean found himself in the strange world of Sydney aged 16 and standing six feet tall. He was gentle and easy going and didn’t like a fight. But his weakness for food led him to Larry Foley’s Hotel. Larry Foley was one of Australia’s first boxing champions who was undefeated at bare-knuckle fighting. He liked the look of Jackson and tried him out in the back shed. Foley gave Jackson a job and the training he needed in ringcraft.
Jackson became as good as his mentor in bare-knuckle and would sometimes fight with his right arm bound. Four months after the Farnan loss, the pair held a rematch. The bout was indecisive with police stopping the fight in the sixth round after spectators stormed the ring. Farnan retained his title by default but lost it to Tom Lees two years later in 1886. Jackson beat Lees later that year to take the title. Foley gave him a special belt to celebrate the win, now in the possession of a Sydney based collector.
Having conquered Australia, Jackson went off to take on the best in the world in America. He arrived in 1888 and started with an 18 round victory over Black Canadian George Godfrey. Godfrey had previously tried to fight John L Sullivan but after Sullivan became world champion, he refused to fight black boxers. Jackson would run into the same problem with Sullivan – he would not “lower himself to fight a nigger” – and Jackson left frustrated for England.
Jackson chalked up two years of victories in England and returned to the US hoping to get another chance to take on the champion. But Sullivan still would not get in the ring with a black man and turned Jackson down. Instead, Jackson fought Sullivan’s main contender, Gentleman Jim Corbett. Jackson was five years Corbett’s senior and was ill for ten days before the fight in May 1891 and had a sprained ankle. Yet Jackson and Corbett slogged it out for 61 rounds for an energy sapping draw with most observers saying Corbett had the worst of it.
Though Corbett would later go on to defeat Sullivan and become world champion, it was the Jackson fight he remembered best in the biography The Roar of the Crowd. “That night I thought Peter Jackson was a great fighter. Six months later still tired from the fight, I thought him a greater one. I still maintain he was the greatest fighter I have ever seen.”
But Jackson would never lift the world crown. After the Corbett draw he went back to England and defeated the snarling Australian-Irish fighter Paddy Slavin to lift the British and Commonwealth titles in a difficult bout. The pair had bad blood since Sydney days and they still hated each other intensely. In the eighth round Slavin broke Jackson’s rib and a splinter punctured a lung. In intense pain, Jackson seemed beaten but rallied in the tenth to take control of the fight and pounded Slavin to pieces. The referee insisted the fight continue until Slavin was knocked out but the damage was fatal to Jackson.
The punctured lung never repaired and Jackson went on a downhill spiral. He was forced to appear in vaudeville, giving boxing exhibitions in circuses and as Jeff Rickert and Raymond Evans said about him in “Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History”, acting as a grey-wigged Uncle Tom in stage performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Suffering from tuberculosis, his last fight was against the powerful Jim Jeffries in 1898 and Jeffries knocked him out in five rounds.
Though Jackson always retained Danish citizenship, it was to Australia he returned in 1899, his career in ruins. He trained fighters in Sydney for a time but his TB worsened. On the advice of doctors, he retired to the dry heat of Roma, a shadow of the giant he once was. He died on July 13, 1901 at Argyle Cottage a privately run sanatorium which was later demolished to make way for the southern end of Roma’s airstrip. Dr L’Estrange put the cause of death of the “retired pugilist” as pulmonary phthisis exhaustion.
Jackson was due to be buried at Roma but there was a last minute change of plan. Another black West Indian boxer, Jack Dowridge from Barbados, who fought under the label of the Black Diamond, sent a telegram asking for the body to be sent by train to Brisbane. Jackson’s casket was escorted to Roma Railway Station by a band with a procession of sporting bodies and dignatories. In Brisbane, the procession went from Dowridge’s Hotel to Toowong Cemetery where he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Dowridge, with the help of several journalists and Jackson’s former coach Foley began to raise funds for a Jackson memorial. After a public subscription, Sydney mason Lewis Page carved a dazzling white Carrara marble monument over Jackson’s grave with an image that looks nothing like Jackson. The inscription repeats what Shakespeare’s Antony said about Julius Caesar “This was a man”.
But the best tribute was paid by Jack Johnson, an uppity black boxer from Galveston, Texas who achieved what was denied Jackson. On Boxing Day 1908, a white Australian crowd in Sydney was stunned when he defeated Canadian Tommy Burns to become the world’s first black heavyweight champion. A few weeks later he went to Brisbane and Dowridge took him to visit Jackson’s grave in Toowong. A.E. Austin of the Brisbane Courier said the living champion spent a quiet few moments in silent contemplation at the grave of his brother-in-arms. “It was an impressive sight to see the living gladiator kneeling for a moment over the tomb of he who was Australia’s fistic idol”, Austin wrote.
Tucked away at the bottom end of the Sahara, Timbuktu has long been the perfect metaphor for a mythological exotic other. In 1510 Moorish author Leo Africanus described Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth during a visit of the city, during the height of the Songhai Empire – one of the largest Islamic kingdoms in history. In his The History and Description of Africa, Africanus described the ritual in the court in Timbuktu as “exact and magnificent”. Its wealth came from its position as the southern terminus of a key trans-Saharan trade route. Merchants sold slaves and bought gold and the city was far enough away from everywhere to maintain autonomy and power. Some 333 Sufi saints are said to be buried in tombs and mausoleums across the city.
The issue of slavery doesn’t seem like an important topic to be discussing the 21st century but it is still a real issue in many parts of the world, including Australia. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon recognised the fact this week when she announced new laws to criminalise forced marriage, forced labour and organ trafficking. Roxon said Australia wasn’t immune from slavery and people trafficking. The new bill tackles worker exploitation, ensures those who help to enslave or traffic can be charged as well as those who keep slaves and allows for reparations with up to 12 years in prison for forced labour charges.
American-based British historian Simon Schama addressed the subject in his blood Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves and the American Revolution. The book tells the story of black Americans who sided with the British in the War of Independence because King George III embodied the idea of freedom for them better than George Washington. The framers of the new American constitution had a bold plan for taxation and representation but behind the rhetoric of freedom, the reality of slavery was their Achilles heels. Tens of thousands of Black Africans looked to Britain to deliver them from the slavery. When Boston lawyer James Otis called out the contradiction and said slavery diminished the idea of American freedom, Founding Father John Adams could only “shudder at the consequences of such premises.”
The fact was the trade in humans kept the American cotton industry in profit and this was something the southern colonies were not to give away lightly. Slave rebellions in the sugar islands of the Caribbean created a terror the cotton economy was next and thousands of white Americans signed up for the revolt to protect their livelihood.
But Britain was a dubious saviour for the blacks. Slavery was still legal in the British Empire and repeated attempts in parliament to ban it were always rejected on the economic grounds it would give bitter enemy France too much of an advantage in the Caribbean sugar trade. The notorious case of the slave ship the Zong where the captain threw 122 sick slaves overboard to get £30 a head compensation for their loss at sea spurred campaigners such as Granville Sharp (a founding father of Sierra Leone) and Thomas Clarkson to lobby for change. But even when revolutionary France rejected slavery (Napoleon re-established it in 1802), a suspicious British parliament would not immediately follow suit.
It wasn’t until 1807 the slave trade was made illegal in Britain and also in the US. But the economic benefits of the institution of slavery continued in both countries until Britain made it illegal in the Empire in 1834. The internal contradictions of the US system were brilliantly exposed by 28-year-old runaway slave Frederick Douglass who wowed Britain when he toured in 1846. The articulate, witty, handsome and charismatic Douglass gave a dramatic account of cruelty in the plantations and lived constantly under the fear of re-capture. The book on his life was an immediate best seller.
I sent one of my journalists to catch up with the Governor at the meet-up of Roma flood victims and I later met her at the art opening. She spoke at length at the opening and well used to boring speeches I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised then by a touching, humorous and well considered speech that I know she spent considerable effort researching and putting together.
Governor Wensley noted that Roma was celebrating its sesquicentenary this year. Founded on the sight of three pubs in 1862, it is 150 years old later this year. It was one of the first towns to be gazetted after Queensland separated from NSW and the town gained its name from the wife of Queensland’s First Governor Lady Diamantina Bowen (nee Roma). And it was clear from Governor Wensley’s speech it was Bowen’s wife she identified most with, not Queensland’s First Governor.
The young Contessa Diamantina di Roma was born on the Greek Ionian island of Zante near Corfu in 1833. Corfu had briefly passed through French hands during the Napoleonic era but was ruled by Britain by the time of Roma’s birth. Her aristocratic Venetian family ruled Corfu in the name of Britain. Her mother was Contessa Orsola, née di Balsamo and her father Conte Giorgio-Candiano Roma was president of the Ionian Senate and known to Queen Victoria who appointed him a poet laureate.
George Ferguson Bowen was a protestant Irishman educated at Oxford and briefly in the Navy. He was appointed chief secretary to the government of the Ionian Islands in 1854 where he mixed in the same circles as Diamantina. They married in April 1856 and they stayed on Corfu until 1859. It was that year that Queensland broke free from NSW and Bowen was called by his country to serve as first Governor. Lady Bowen was about to head to unfamiliar territory but made immediately welcome by 4000 people on the docks of Brisbane waving British and Greek flags.
Following their arrival, the colony of Queensland was officially declared on Saturday, 10 December 1859. Two days later there was a function for the new Governor and his wife at the Botanic Gardens. Bowen would remain Governor of Queensland for eight years, an interventionist Governor who was sometimes popular and sometimes unpopular. He had debts to deal with after NSW closed down all its Queensland bank accounts and he had to create a civil service from scratch. It didn’t help his politicians were naive. Robert Herbert was just 28 when he became Queensland’s first premier and had arrived here as Bowen’s private secretary.
But Queensland would thrive as would the Bowens. Without the demands of office, Roma was extremely popular. Governor Wensley said despite her privileged upbringing in Greece, Lady Bowen loved the very different landscape of Queensland. She felt instantly at home in the climate and brought a sense of nobility and grace lacking in the young rough and tumble colony. Three of her six children were born in Brisbane. She was active in social welfare and became patron of many charitable societies. Her daughter, also Diamantina, would marry a Queensland grazier. Bowen and his wife would later serve in New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong before retiring to Britain.
There were 23 more governors of Queensland that followed Bowen before Wensley took over in July 2008. A former distinguished diplomat she was appointed to the position after her predecessor Quentin Bryce became Governor-General of Australia. Penelope Wensley was a country girl born in Toowoomba in 1946. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1968 – the only woman selected in an intake of 19.
Wensley has a stellar diplomatic career at postings across the world including following in Bowen’s footsteps as Consul-General in Hong Kong. She was involved in putting together the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention to combat Drought and Desertification. She is keenly interested humanitarian and human rights issues, women’s rights, and environmental and sustainable development. When she told Roma and Mitchell flood victims this weekend she would act as an advocate for them with the new State Government, it was difficult not to believe her.
Byrne lived 21 of those 22 years in Tyrone, born as he was of unexceptionable stock. The local gossips said the reason for his height was his parents had a love affair on top of a huge haystack and this lofty situation affected conception. Yet although acknowledged as a freak of nature, he wasn’t generally treated as one. As Australian historian Patrick O’Farrell noted, the Irish look at everyone on their merits. Writing about the Irish in Australia, O’Farrell noted that because they never tried to paternalise their relationship with Aborigines they never looked down on them as the WASPs did and instead treated them as equals. Byrne left Tyrone not ashamed of his freakdom but wanting to exploit it. His parents knew he could better capitalise on his status elsewhere. His exceptional size had attracted a nearby carpetbagger named Joe Vance from Coagh.
Vance wanted to astound Europe with Byrne. The pair arrived in London in 1782, and Byrne transfixed the capital as Vance’s creation “the Irish Giant”. He took a room next door to the fabled Cox’s Museum at Charing Cross. The choice was not accidental. James Cox was a jeweller and toy maker who exported luxury European items to the Far East. When China suddenly banned his goods, he turned his unsaleable cargo of exotic clocks, watches and earrings into a museum of “automata” which opened in 1772. This museum became known for its extravagant assemblage and quickly became “a seductive metaphor and a compelling stage for debating the troublesome issues of political and economic stability.”
While Cox had sold up by the time Byrne moved to London, his museum retained an aura that Vance knew he could capitalise on. Byrne entertained audiences next door for seven hours a day, six days a week. His gracious airs made him the talk of the town. Within a few weeks, Byrne was entertaining the Royal Family, members of the nobility and his baffling condition was examined by the Royal Society. When a fellow freak, Count Joseph Boruwlawski known as the “Polish Dwarf” met Byrne in London, their surprise was equal. As Boruwlawski remembered, Byrne was a moment speechless, “viewing me with looks of astonishment; then stooping very low to present me his hand, which easily have contained a dozen like mine, he made a very polite compliment. Had a painter been present, the contrast of our figures might have suggested to him the idea of an interesting picture; for having come very near him, the better to show the difference, it appeared that his knee was nearly upon level with the top of my head.”
Flushed with success, Byrne moved to Piccadilly where he continued to work six days a week (Sundays excepted). Admittance for ladies and gentlemen was 2s. 6d, children and “servants in livery” had to fork out a shilling. This was expensive and Vance and Byrne grew wealthy on the profits. By early 1783 the fickle public were tiring of the Irish Giant. News of his success drew other tall men to London including the Gigantic Twin Knipe brothers who were born only five miles away from Byrne in Tyrone. Another Irishman was advertised as a giant “upwards of Four Inches taller than the noted Burn.” Byrne’s problems were compounded by his love of gin and whiskey. He was frequently drunk on stage and many performances had to be cancelled. Vance was forced to drop the price to a shilling for all but Byrne’s dissolution continued.
On 23 April 1783 Byrne fell asleep in a “lunar ramble” at the Black Horse public house and someone stole £700 from his pockets – his entire savings. Devastated, he redoubled his drinking and contracted tuberculosis. He deteriorated badly in May and died on 1 June 1783. In his final days his biggest fear was not death but the surgeons’ thirst for his body. His Irish Catholic upbringing gave him a horror of the coroner’s knife which he believed could deny his soul a place in heaven on Judgement Day.
One man in particular had no time for Byrne’s scruples on the matter. That was John Hunter, Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III. Hunter was a pivotal influence on modern surgery and had dissected thousands of cadavers he got from “resurrection men” – professional grave robbers. From the moment Hunter set eyes on Byrne he coveted his body for science. Byrne was aware of Hunter’s ambition and strove to thwart it in his dying days. His instructions were that his coffin should be guarded by Irish friends who would arrange to bury him at sea. Byrne scraped the last of his savings to the undertaker whom he entrusted to carry out the plan.
Hunter meanwhile was determined not to lose out. He employed a man named Howison to watch Byrne’s whereabouts at all times from a next door apartment. When Byrne died, a newspaper reported he wanted his bones “far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity”. But chirurgeons were not put off and there were an arms race of demands made for the body. One reportedly offered a ransom of 800 guineas to the undertakers. The offer was turned down but the promoters got one last meal ticket out of Byrne as they displayed his enormous coffin for one shilling entry. Then on 6 June, the body was taken aboard a ship to Margate where it would be sunk in “20 fathoms of water” in the English Channel. At Margate another boat was chartered and the coffin was tipped into the sea.
But Byrne’s body was no longer in it. The Annual Register for 1873 said the sea burial report was “merely a tub thrown out to the whale.” While the whales had the tub, Hunter had the body. When Byrne died, next door Howison immediately told his paymaster. Hunter successfully bribed the undertaker for £500 who switched the body with paving stones while the oblivious funeral party was drunk. Hunter took the corpse back to his surgery but became terrified of the revenge of Byrne’s friends if they found out. He chopped up the body and boiled the pieces so only the bones were left. In his haste, the skeleton was discoloured brown. Hunter’s failure to conduct an autopsy ruined any immediate hope of diagnosing the condition. He then hid the huge skeleton for four years until Byrne’s name was forgotten.
Hunter got his way but the fight continues between his legacy and Byrne’s modern day relatives anxious to carry out the dying wish. One of those relatives, Brendan Holland said Byrne’s body has been on display for 200 years and it was time for him to receive a proper burial. “He was quite a celebrity and he made a lot of money out of exhibiting himself,” Holland said. “It’s the person within that’s important. It’s very unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to understand that.” His enthusiasm for a sea burial is not shared by the Hunterian’s current director Sam Alberti. Alberti was reluctant to hand over his star attraction saying “researchers were excited about the potential for future research.”
But the British Medical Journal agrees with the family Byrne has done his time and should be buried at sea. Fellow Northern Irishman and researcher at the school of law at Queen’s University Belfast, Thomas Muinzer wrote in the Journal it was time to respect his memory and reputation. “What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” Muinzer wrote. Mr Muinzer added there was nothing of any more use that could be deduced scientifically from Byrne’s bones. “We have now a full record of Byrne’s DNA and we also have numerous examinations of the skeleton,” he wrote. “With burial law, when you or I stipulate burial wishes in life, we rely on those wishes to be respected. Those wishes don’t have legal force, they have moral force.”