Three lives Part 3 – Pearson’s mission

By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own.

Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, his first two years as a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland. A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers.

Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people.

After Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar as he understood the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun calling it the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience.

Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians.

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

Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms. See also Part 1 and Part 2.

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Three lives Part 2 – Bussamarai’s opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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