Faith, hope and charity: Blackbirding Bandler

faith bandlerThe death of Faith Bandler last week has thrown light on two reasons how Australia got wealthy and why the country doesn’t like talking about its past.

Bandler was one of the key figures behind the 1967 referendum which insisted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be counted in the census and also gave the Commonwealth power to legislate over Indigenous issues. These items seem small but the fact that the referendum passed with around 90% support shows the white guilt Bandler and others were able to tap into it in order to get this rare successful change to the Australian constitution.

The fact that Australia had stolen the land, killed the natives, used the survivors as sex slaves and cheap labour and then stole even those meagre wages was not openly spoken of by those promoting the change. But it existed as an undercurrent to Australia’s well-fed sense of self-satisfaction behind the white picket fences of the 1960s.

Bandler’s own obvious non-whiteness added to her stature as a spokesperson but she was not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. She got her skin colour from her Melanesian dad but it’s fair to say her feistiness was in no small part to her Scottish-Indian mother. This mongrel pot-pourri of cultures made Bandler a true Australian of the later part of the 20th century. It was a time Australia “unforgot” its Indigenous people and quietly cast away the White Australia Policy, a policy capital and labour supported for 60 years.

Bandler’s Melanesian background was a reminder of another shameful part of Australian colonial capitalist history, a history ironically blown away by the White Australian Policy, though not for altruistic reasons.  Her father Wacvie Mussingkon was from Ambrym Island on the now independent nation of Vanuatu, an island affected by its brush with British and French colonial history.

Fresh from his triumph of “claiming” New South Wales for his British paymasters, Captain Cook was on his second tour of the South Pacific when he arrived at Vanuatu and named it New Hebrides. France also had designs on the region but it was the venture capitalism unleashed by the American Civil War that saw a carpetbagging Irishman named J.C. Byrne think of sending indentured labour to the farms of Peru.

In 1862 Byrne convinced one group of desperate New Hebridean farmers on the edge of famine to go to South America.  His success gave profiteers from other settler parts of the world the incentive to “convince” islanders to sign up to such ventures,  and coercion and trickery became common.

By the 1870s northern Australian canegrowers, unable to attract white labour from the south, got in on the act. By then the practice was called blackbirding, from the “blackbirds” Europeans agents caught in the wild.  The growers eagerly took these blackbirds from many islands across the western Pacific, including New Hebrides, as indentured labour.  Indenturing was a contract for a fixed term of three years and despite several laws designed to clean up the industry, the labourers were housed in primitive conditions, forced to work long hours and received little or no pay. One in five died during their contract.

About 60,000 south sea islanders came to Australia during the 40 years of blackbirding, tricked into a form of slavery to keep the Queensland economy pumping. The 1880 Pacific island Labourers Act (Queensland) gave some improvement by licensing the process but restricted Melanesians to menial jobs.  The end of the century was dominated by the Federation debate and the need to create a white Australia. The sugar industry fought for the right to continue to import cheap labour but were thwarted by one of the first laws passed by the new Commonwealth, the 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. The 10,000 islanders still in Australia were ordered to leave and 70% of them were deported. About 10% were granted residency on compassionate grounds and another 20% stayed on illegally.

Wacvie Mussingkon was among that latter group, who like Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, grew to love Australia despite its inhumane ways. The Federal Government stopped blackbirding not because of the humanitarian need of Ambrym Islanders but because they didn’t want people from Ambrym in the country at all.

Yet people like Mussingkon survived and his offspring thrived. Faith’s politics were shaped by the injustices that shaped her upbringing. She proved this by her choice of marriage to another outsider : Jewish refugee Hans Bandler. Hans left Vienna to escape the Nazis and shared Faith’s radical ideas about society. Faith suffered discrimination of her own due to her darker skin. Together Faith and Hans would fight for civil rights and economic justice for the rest of their lives. Faith Bandler’s fight ended when she died last week aged 97.  I can only agree with Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he said Bandler had spent her life “pointing the way to a better and fairer Australia”. It’s something Abbott himself should aspire to.

A long road to freedom: How the Freedom Ride for Aborigines changed Australia forever

safaAustralia was awakening from its long self-satisfied slumber in the 1960s. While Robert Menzies’ slavish pro-Empire views still reigned in Canberra, its young educated citizens began to tap into the worldwide zeitgeist of student protest. Racism was a flashpoint. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were the spark for a civil rights demonstration outside the US consulate in Sydney in 1964. Students garnered great publicity for their cause by burning a Ku Klux Klan cross and clashing with police.

But some people starting asking the disturbing question: why weren’t these students campaigning against racism at home in Australia? Overseas newspapers pointed out the hypocrisy of student riots against US issues while their country still held dear to the White Australia Policy and denied Aboriginal rights. The Ceylon Observer noted “we coloured folk” could settle in the US but not in Australia. The Observer called on the students to probe their own lack of “coloured neighbours”.

They may not have been neighbours, but Aboriginal rights groups were active in pointing out Australia’s failure to adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The international censure was embarrassing to Canberra but was immaterial to state governments who “managed” Aboriginal issues at home. It was this disconnect that led Aboriginal organisations to seek constitutional change.

Student interest in these issues was muted by the lack of Aboriginal people on campus. That changed when Charles Perkins and Gary William won scholarships to the University of Sydney in 1963.  Williams was part Bundjalung, part Gumbaynggirr from northern NSW with a family history of activism while Perkins was an Arrernte-Kalkadoon man and already an experienced public speaker and political leader as vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA).

The genesis of the freedom ride came with a committee for action on Aboriginal rights at the university on National Aborigines Day, July 8, 1964. A well-intentioned leaflet with the inscription “Poor bloody Abos!” still showed the students had much to learn about Indigenous affairs. A meeting heard how children were being locked up in Walgett for trivial offences and how the constitutional change campaign was going, with a protest of 500 students outside parliament house the following day.

Perkins then took on the leadership to look at further options, one of which was a freedom rider bus through NSW and Queensland. Perkins instinctively saw how good a freedom ride would be for television with its need for short grabs and dramatic visuals. Freedom rides began in Jamaica in 1957 as a tool to remove the tax on cycling but were better known from the rides in southern US in 1961. The publicity around the arrest of 300 American freedom riders trying to desegregate buses had immediate success and made the news across the world including Australia. Perkins wanted to bring this idea of non-violent direct action home to shine a light on discrimination in NSW country towns.

The Australian rides took another half a year to organise and it wasn’t until February 12, 1965 that a white touring bus arrived at the university. Twenty-nine students boarded alongside a banner of Student Action for Aborigines which led to it being known as the SAFA bus tour. Perkins was aboard and Williams would join later, and there was one other Aboriginal man, lay preacher Gerry Mason. A key rider was Darce Cassidy a student who recorded everything for the ABC while on leave until he was ordered to disembark at Moree when his leave expired.

The students decided to conduct a social survey of Indigenous people they would meet along the way. The questions would ask about attitudes as well as housing conditions, water, sewerage and electricity and it helped SAFA when they sought permission from the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board to enter the stations and reserves they controlled. These boards were tasked with assimilation of Aborigines into the wider community, though they were frustrated by white townsfolk who wanted to keep Aborigines out and public utilities like schools, cinemas and pools segregated. Aborigines who didn’t live in the reserves lived in squalid shanty-towns or ‘yumbas’ next to the town.

The bus planned to visit ten towns: Wellington, Gulargambone, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Tabulam, Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree, a trip of 2300km. Ann Curthoys was one of the riders and she wrote the best memoir of the ride called “Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider remembers”. Curthoys was a left-wing student, influenced by her mother’s student activism, and she had already written on Indigenous issues.

After an overnight stop in Orange, the students did their first survey in the shantytown at Wellington. The hot, dusty shacks were a shock for the wealthy middle-class students.  They found employment was scarce and social services non-existent. Perkins went into a pub he heard discriminated against Aborigines. Bar staff were reluctant to serve him but eventually did after a conference with the manager. The bus eventually left for Dubbo that evening with no consensus for further action in Wellington.

The first stop in the morning after Dubbo was Gulargambone where whites and Aboriginal homes were separated by the Castlereagh River. Curthoys said the Gulargambone reserve was a “sobering experience” with poor housing too close to sewerage outlets and the rubbish dump. Diarrhoea, eye sores and skin sores were common. Aboriginal people said the police ran the reserve and whenever there was trouble they would arrest the usual suspects before beating them up at the station.  Again, despite the problems, the students felt Gulargambone was not the place to demonstrate.

They moved north to Walgett in Gamilaraay and Yuwaaliyaay country. Cheap Indigenous labour kept Walgett profitable but whites were alarmed at the black population moving into their town, and there was rigorous segregation. Dimly aware of the town’s history, the students arrived at 7pm and settled in at the Anglican hall. They decided their target here would be the RSL club, a hallowed institution but one which refused to admit Indigenous people in Walgett, including Aboriginal ex-servicemen.

The following morning the radio reported the planned picket of the RSL at noon. The Anglican Minister was unhappy but the students were insistent and he reluctantly agreed to let them stay another night. The students drew up a banner saying “Good Enough for Tobruk. Why not Walgett?” One bystander at the RSL cried out “Who the hell do you think you are?” while others jeered. Eventually Perkins spoke and a public debate broke out. The picket last seven hours with a crowd of 350 people. The locals were angry at these city boys with long hair and girls with short skirts telling them how to run their town. But it ended peacefully and the group eventually returned to the hall around 9pm. There they were in for a shock.

The church minister, claiming to be shocked they were a mixed sex group with alcohol, decided to fire them out. His real reason was in a letter he wrote a month later: “our dark friends are just not like Europeans” he wrote. At 10pm the students reluctantly boarded the bus and were followed out of town by 200 local black and white people. Some 10km out of town a grazier’s son named Joey Marshall tried to run the bus off the road. They went back to Walgett to report the incident and confronted a mob of drunks outside the police station at midnight. With the situation turning ugly, a remarkable black woman named Pat Walford emerged from the crowd and harangued the white men. “There’s a lot of white fellas that go looking for gins here at night,” she said. “It hurts you white people in Walgett to see the whites from Sydney up here and do that to  you, doesn’t it?” Walford’s threat to name the “gin jockeys” worked.  The white women turned on their men and crowd disintegrated. Shaken and excited, the students moved on to Moree.

When people look back on the Freedom Ride today it is Moree they remember. Moree was in the heart of Gamilaraay country and its rich soil made it prosperous for sheep, cattle and wheat. Tourism was increasingly important and a council decree made the artesian thermal baths, adjacent swimming pool and memorial hall off-limits to “full blooded or half-caste aboriginal natives”, a decision council defended as “vital to the town’s prosperity”. The segregation spread to cafes, cinema, hotels and even the hospital, and the town was known as Australia’s Little Rock, for the Arkansas symbol of small-town racism in the US.

The students arrived in Moree after a long overnighter and did a survey. They met businessman and ex-councillor Bob Brown, who opposed segregation and paid a political price losing office, but found most locals reluctant to talk. The Sydney media arrived to cover the confrontation when the students would picket the pool. The picket didn’t attract much interest and the students were frustrated when they tried to take six Aboriginal kids inside. After a crowd gathered, the mayor and police agreed they should be let in.

There was 300 people at the public meeting that followed. The atmosphere was hostile with some shouting ‘Aborigines are dirty and lazy people’ and the students shouting back locals were ignorant and prejudiced. At the end the meeting surprisingly voted in favour of desegregating the pool though most people abstained. The students left Moree but promised to return if there was any trouble.

The Sydney papers reported the students had cracked the colour bar in Moree but the local press said racial discrimination was exaggerated. The students pressed on. They conducted a survey in Boggabilla where they found police harassment and the need for better housing and sanitation. They went on to Warwick in Queensland to avoid a bureaucratic £250 road tax for an intra-state journey.

They were heading to Tabulam near Lismore when they heard news from Moree. The pool manager decided the ban would not be lifted on Aboriginal people for hygiene reasons.  The bus returned to Moree despite the Mayor warning they would only cause harm. They gathered kids from the mission and went to the pool. Perkins sought tickets but was refused. The Mayor arrived as a hostile gathered around the students. The stand-off went on for hours. Under orders from the Labor state government, police refused to remove the students. The abuse was turning physical with whites throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes. Police asked for the pool to be closed before the Mayor finally offered to rescind the colour bar. The delighted students agreed to leave but needed a police escort to the bus and they escaped to Inverell.

The media response was huge with international coverage. Moree’s North West Champion called the students “misguided juveniles” and “troublemakers” but the Sydney press hailed Perkins as the articulate leader of the Freedom Riders. The Canberra Times said the students had made everyone think and talk about the “way we treat our Aborigines and half-castes”.

The Ride still had one more week to go. They stirred more hornets’ nests in Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree but weariness was setting in among the students.  They continued the surveys, there were pickets at segregated venues, there was rural hostility, there was urban interest in the media but nothing matched the Moree touchstone. The bus driver quit at Grafton after the Moree dangers but another was found.

Lismore was surprisingly positive. Perkins was now a celebrity and the Riders were a media event. Locals were at pains to show Lismore was not racist. Bowraville, however, was a different matter. The area was riddled with sullen discrimination and they found it a “nasty, brutal place”. The survey results were shocking and the students decided to challenge the segregation at the cinema. But when the bus arrived, the cinema owner hastily put up a sign saying “No Pictures Tonight”.

The media was again mixed with praise in Sydney and hostility locally but the students felt they had failed as the segregation continued after they left. It was much the same in Kempsey where they were not welcome. The Macleay Argus called them “a busload of half-baked young men and women, probably unparalleled in their own conceit and impudence”.  No Aboriginal leader would meet them and the students did their surveys in the rain. The Kempsey pool also practised discrimination but when the students repeated their Moree tactic they failed and left the town. The Freedom Ride was ending in disappointment.

The last day of the Ride took the students to the Aboriginal settlement at Purfleet near Taree. There they spoke with people at the reserve for a half hour and pushed on to Sydney. They expected a big media reception on their return but there was nothing. However Perkins made the front page of the SMH the following day. “This small group of students has created a new dawn of hope for my people,” he said. He was right, the reverberations of the Freedom Ride carried on through the years.

Last week relatives and survivors followed in their footsteps on the 50th anniversary of the Ride. It was appropriate Charles’s daughter Rachel Perkins was part of this year’s tour. Unlike in 1965, the Mayor of the flashpoint town of Moree is welcoming the new visit. The Riders had tapped into deep and unspoken racism that affected not just the small towns but all of Australia. In no small way it paved the way for the success of the referendum two years later that allowed the Commonwealth to override State inaction.

Towns like Moree and Walgett didn’t change overnight but they could no longer openly flaunt their racist attitudes. The Freedom Ride was a stinging challenge to Australia and bigger than those who participated in it. As Curthoys said, it stimulated a new kind of Aboriginal politics with far-reaching consequences. The Freedom Ride, she concluded, held out the promise nothing could be quite the same again.

Closing the gap to 2030

Closing_the_Gap_2015_coverIt was the anthropologist Bill Stanner who described Australia’s attitude to its Indigenous people as a “great history of indifference”. Stanner was speaking in 1963, just after Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders (hereafter ATSI) got the vote.

That decision began to bring Indigenous people into the Australian story, a process accelerated by the 1967 referendum that ensured “Aboriginal” people (ATSI people) were counted in the census and that the Commonwealth would have a role to play. One of the instigators of the referendum, Faith Bandler who died yesterday aged 96, wasn’t Indigenous but her polyglot Melanesian-Scottish-Indian background was emblematic of a new Australia that was gradually looking beyond the coattails of empire for inspiration, and prepared to dig deep for the descendants of its original inhabitants.

The story of Australia over the last 50 years has been one of an attractive, open, vast and vibrant country with great wealth and freedom, attracting people from all around the world., myself included. The conditions of ATSI people has greatly improved in that time but because they were starting from such a low ebb, they remain adrift of the general population in most statistical markers. That difference is stark to anyone not indifferent to Indigenous affairs. Their place on the census allowed economists to easily measure the state of the gap while Commonwealth involvement gave the problem a much needed national focus.

In March 2008, that great Svengali Kevin Rudd used his commanding popularity as prime minister to coax his new Australian Government and its Opposition in signing the Close the Gap Statement of Intent. Rudd hosted the Indigenous Health Equality Summit which committed to closing the health equality gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.

The rationale behind the move was a dichotomy revealed by the UN Human Development Index which ranked Australia third in the world off the back of its mining boom. The score ranked Australia highly on such matters as life expectancy, employment, health and other indicators. Yet there was a nagging underside to that good figure. The life expectancy of an ATSI person was 17 years less than the Australian average.

The gap was a stark reminder of a great divide in Australia across education, incoming, housing, mental health, chronic disease, child and maternal health, access to health services and more. According to the Close the Gap campaign steering committee, the gap led to an immense and unnecessary burden of suffering and grief for ATSI people. For the rest of us, it was a “scar on an unhealed past” and a “stain on the reputation of the nation”.

Those scars and that stain, remind us why there is a gap in the first place and the impact is felt by the states as well. Victoria and Queensland got on board the Statement of Intent in 2008, WA in 2009, the ACT, NSW and SA in 2010. WA and NT have not yet signed up but the committee recognises that states have as big a role to play as Canberra. They are the ones who spend the Commonwealth tax dollar on health and education.

But it is Commonwealth who takes the lead, producing the Closing the Gap report since 2008. In this issue as in many others Rudd overpromised and underdelivered yet there has been much progress in seven years. The improvement is hard to see because while Aboriginal health has improved, the health of the general community is also improving. Thus we are failing to “close the gap” fast enough.

It is women who are bearing the brunt of the problem. In the last five years, Indigenous life expectancy has gone up by 1.6 years for men but just 0.6 for women. Both sexes still die 10 years earlier than non-Indigenous people, so the good thing is the gap has narrowed by seven years since 2008 and is a reminder that closing the gap takes a lot of continuous effort and time. That was shown in a similar experiment in New Zealand where it took 20 years to improve Maori life expectancy by four years.

Prime Minister Gillard never quite had the same focus as Rudd on Indigenous Affairs. She guided a minority government through a myriad of controversial issues but ATSI legislation never floated to the top of her term. In her final closing the gap report of 2013 she claimed victory on access to remote pre-schools admitted there was still a “massive and unacceptable” standard of living gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Last year was the first Closing the Gap report of the post-Labor era. Like John Howard before him, Tony Abbott put great store in what he called “practical reconciliation” (in essence what this means is ruling any talk of self-determination off the table.) Again, like in the Labor years, the report spoke of the “stark reality of health inequality” and called for measures to reduce smoking rates, improve maternal and children’s health and to make inroads into chronic disease.

This year is much the same. Seven years in, the committee wants greater focus on access to primary health care services to detect, treat and manage Indigenous health conditions. They say they have evidence to suggest Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services gives the best bang for the contested government dollar, providing wide-scale and quality access to health services.

The committee supports the federal government’s priorities of education, employment and community safety. But they also have concerns. They want the Closing the Gap strategy to have a “clearer connection” with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Education, employment and community safety lead to good health but good health is also important to driving education, employment and community safety. Health services is the bigger employer of Indigenous people so increased investment will lead to increase employment.

The year 2030 remains the target and by then we should see a further shrinking of difference between black and white. But “the gap” must remain a priority well beyond then. Indigenous injustices, shielded by settler indifference for 180 years, cannot be wiped away in a few health service schemes of a single generation. There must be a continued multi-partisan commitment to the removal of the gap for ATSI people as populations. But integration or assimilation is not the complete answer. There must also be a commitment to support the space for a gap so that ATSI people remain as distinct peoples with their own culture and languages, regardless of their health and employment outcomes.

The last Monday in January: updated arguments for an Australian treaty

An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)
An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)

I’m pleased Australia Day is a Monday. It should always be the last Monday in January. Australia Day celebrates summer, it celebrates Australian achievement and diversity, it celebrates sport, it celebrates the long weekend, it celebrates the end of summer holidays and back to school, work and routine for the year. What it does not do is celebrate the uninvited arrival of the British in Australia two hundred years ago.

January 26 is the date in 1788 that Australia’s first jail was opened and given the name Sydney. Initially a convenient faraway dumping place for Britain’s riff raff, it took British authorities 50 years or so to realise sending people to Australia was no punishment. With its sunny weather, good prospects, easy land and finally its promise of gold, governments found they were just footing a travel bill for eager adventurers. A labour-poor Western Australia at its wits end and with no Hancock yet to rip the guts out of the ground, continued to import prisoners but eventually also admitted defeat. Over time convictism became a stain that family history sought to whitewash. With Federation on January 1, 1901, the new nation too needed to ignore Australia’s raison d’etre as it sought to define itself as a southern Britain. Blacks outside and inside were not welcome to share in its bounty. The six colonies set up by force of arms had gradually encroached on all Aboriginal land outcompeting indigenous people for resources. The fiction of British law as imposed by Arthur Phillip on a tiny sliver of land in 1788 was made real throughout Australia in small and often violent instalments, sometimes sanctioned, sometimes unsanctioned but ignored far from official scrutiny.

History is a handy heuristic for making sense of the world and white Australia needed a new history to go with their gleaming new possession.  They created a new history of a determined and resourceful people that tamed and conquered a tough but empty land. Borrowed from America, the myth was called pioneering. It was a useful and mostly inclusive mythology that men and women, and British and non-British could aspire to. The myth excluded the Aboriginal people. Land was something they had managed for 2000 generations in a radically different way using sophisticated fire farming and a preference for nomadism to follow food. But they had no writing, no money, no leaders, and no obvious way of treating with them. So the Europeans simply ignored them where they could and took the land. Europeans brought agriculture and technology but were unprepared for Australian weather, soils, and the needs of native plants and animals. Much of the accumulated Aboriginal wisdom died with the loss of habitat while Europeans didn’t help with pig-headed belief in their own superiority.

They reminded themselves of this all the time with the help of their history. A terra nullius of space and mind covered the difficult bits of violence and land appropriation. The new constitution of Australia was informed by white superiority and its few mentions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people considered them as akin to fauna that required the “protection” of the states.  While the local “blacks” were assumed to be dying off and therefore irrelevant to the constitution, the new Australians were creating other laws kept foreign “blacks” out of the country. All sides of politics were united in their desire to keep the white race pure, the right influenced by social Darwinism, the left by worries of cheap labour. Newly federated Australia didn’t want full independence but didn’t want interference from London either. Britain’s brown empire was not welcome.

The process of changing from colonists to nationalists was slow. Adventures such as the Boer war and Gallipoli were seized upon by recruits as escapism from a dull existence and a sense of patriotism to the mother country. But when the trickle of deaths in Turkey became a flood, there was a nationwide grief which was quickly weaved into a new thread of a determination to remember. Despite the inglorious retreat from the Dardanelles, the legend of Anzac Day was suitable material for history, unlike convictism and the war against the blacks. Remembering January 1 as Australia’s founding day never took hold, but Anzac day did and today is arguably more inclusive than the date of Phillip’s arrival in Sydney. January 26 and April 25 are both invasion days but while the Turks have forgiven the Australian state, Indigenous Australians have not. That is because while war with Turkey was acknowledged and ended, war in Australia was never admitted and therefore never ended.

If war is politics by other means, then treaties are the way to resume non-violent politics. Australia is in dire need of a treaty. I say that as someone born in Ireland where a treaty ended a war. It was an imperfect treaty and started another one but it was broadly supported because it was broadly useful. It was useful to Ireland as a way of forging its own path and it was useful to England as a way of ending a long and costly struggle with little tangible reward. England and other colonial powers have often used treaties but only where they were deemed useful. The Waitangi treaty was useful to Britain as a way of overcoming an inconvenient declaration of New Zealand independence. But a treaty were of no use to a 1788 prison colony under armed guards nor was it useful for a white Australia of 1901.

Yet its need did not go away. Indigenous Australians did not lie on the dying pillow as predicted and instead marched back into history forcing whites to examine the past. The pre-invasion population of 750,000 went down to 60,000 by 1921 but has been on the increase ever since, with close to half a million Australians now self-identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal constitutional achievement peaked in 1967 with the removal of two clauses that enabled them to be counted in the census and be managed by commonwealth powers. The referendum passed because black Australia wanted it to pass and marshalled a range of arguments to convince the white community.

Around the same time anthropologist Bill Stanner started calling out the lies by omission in Australian history. Stanner called it the “great forgetting”, a structural telling of history that deliberately left out crucial bits. In response, a new historiography emerged which put Aboriginal people back into the centre of Australian history. The research they uncovered from colonial times was confronting and not flattering to settlers or government. There was an inevitable backlash from conservatives as their cosy relationship with the past was threatened and the new history was damned as too negative against the achievements of white Australia.

But the law did move on. White Australia was slowly dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s as the country welcomed settlers from all over the world. In the 1990s, landmark decisions like Mabo and Wik have removed the fiction that Aboriginal people did not own the land before white settlement. No court will dare touch Phillip’s 1788 statement of possession but there is at least some recognition this is a country of two peoples, one of whom is suffering significant structural disadvantage. The counting of Aborigines in the census revealed deep problems against the social indicators of health, education, and employment. These problems remain profound 50 years after the referendum, especially in the nation’s Aboriginal towns. “Closing the gap” on these indicators is a necessary part of any equality agenda but must appeal to the heart too.

Symbolism is important which is why it is detested by many conservatives who prefer to concentrate on “practical reconciliation”. But a body cannot be healed if the spirit remains sick. A constitutional preamble might have success in being a symbol but it would need to have some serious meat on its bones. It must acknowledge there was a war and it must also acknowledge it is now over. It must hurt otherwise there is no atonement. It must give away things. It must be owned by Indigenous people. Yet it can’t be too radical or would get the 80% support of non-Indigenous people it needs to pass a referendum. There should be things like a guaranteed two percent indigenous MPs, a return to some form of self-government, and a promise for the states to support land claims or at least not fight them.

A treaty must invoke the same triggers that got whites in large numbers to vote yes in 1967 despite the dryness of constitutional language. It must be real and something all Australians would be proud to support. The day of its signing should become Australia day – I suggest that day be always be celebrated as the last Monday in January.

Remembering Jandamarra: an Australian freedom fighter

Howard Pedersen's book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance tells a forgotten story
Howard Pedersen’s book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance tells a forgotten story

Settler societies Australia and the US share much in common, including how they took the land from prior inhabitants. But while defeated Native American heroes are part of the US pantheon, Australia does not accord the same respect to Indigenous people that fought invasion. Here the fiction the land was taken peacefully remains current, implicit in the recent statement by Prime Minister Abbott that before colonisation, Sydney was “nothing but bush”.

The 1788 truth is, Sydney, like the rest of Australia, was well populated and warriors like Pemulwuy fought hard against the “boat people” that took their land. But Pemulwuy remains unknown as does another resistance leader in far-away Western Australia. His dismissive white name was “Pigeon”, but he deserves to be known by his Bunuba name Jandamarra. Schooled in Indigenous and British ways, Jandamarra struck fear into a colony for three years, before falling to overwhelming force.

Before colonisation, the Kimberley was a densely populated indigenous region with 30,000 people speaking 50 languages. They called the formidable dividing mountain ranges ‘Milawundi’. The first white explorer Alexander Forrest called them the King Leopold Ranges for the Belgian monarch who carved out an empire in Africa. Forrest wanted a similar empire for Britain in north-west Australia. From here rose the mighty river the Bandaral ngarri, which the whites called the Fitzroy. Its source was the home of the Bunuba people who lived off fish, freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, turkeys, goannas, emus, snakes and bats that thrived in the lush region. Hunting was governed by strict religious and kinship traditions that ensured a plentiful supply survived across the generations.

Blissfully unaware, the Bunuba lost their land at the stroke of a pen in London. In 1829 Captain James Stirling had landed on the Swan River claiming Western Australia for Britain. George Grey led a party to northern shores eight years later with a mission to ‘familiarise the natives with the British name and character’. Grey recommended a settlement, but it would be 30 years before the colony was ready to break out of its south-west corner.

At King Sound, the British founded the first town called Derby. Land hungry squatters from Victoria read Grey’s journals and came to graze sheep where he explored. This alarmed Perth leaders who funded an expedition to Camden Harbour in 1864 where they found lands ‘equal to the best runs in Victoria’. The land grab was on with ships arriving from Perth and Melbourne full of eager new settlers. These first settlements were failures with many dying of fever and sunstroke. A few hardy sheep station owners held on tenaciously despite high transport costs, a low wool price and a chronic lack of labour. Their economic salvation was the discovery of pearl shells abundant along the coast. Aboriginal divers were enslaved to dive deep and stay under water a long time. This system of slavery gradually made European occupation profitable.

Forrest discovered the rich Fitzroy and Ord River valleys in 1879. The first settlers arrived within three years sparking off a tit-for-tat war between white guns and Bunuba spears. Police chained black ‘suspects’ and took them to Rottnest Island to be imprisoned or hanged. The Aborigines remained independent and a thorn in the side of the pastoralists. The Bunuba thought it was fair to take food from the newcomers on their land. The settlers saw it as theft and shot and wounded Bunuba leader Ellamarra as a lesson. They disregarded Bunuba warnings about sacred places and allowed their sheep foul waterways. After more skirmishing Ellamarra was arrested and taken to Derby where he was sentenced to six month’s prison.

Ellamarra escaped after five months. A police patrol surrounded him at a homestead and despite rushing him, he escaped again hurling curses. He hid with his people in the hills away from deadly white firearms. The magistrate blamed conscripted black trackers for the failure and hired two Bunuba prisoners as black troopers. But they led police away from hiding grounds or secretly gave information to their own people. Frustrated pastoralists demanded terror to bring the blacks to heel. This was a dilemma to Perth bureaucrats who knew London wanted Aboriginal British subjects not be ill-treated. The WA press called for additional police saying the government couldn’t allow colonists to “be massacrers but on the other hand cannot allow insecurity to chase investors away”.

Some Bunuba attached themselves to white homesteads, including Jandamarra’s mother. Her son was renowned for his running speed and agility, traits that would later earn him the name Pigeon. Jandamarra was an accomplished stock worker, good with horses and shearing blades. He learned how to handle a gun and became an excellent marksman. Ellamarra was an early influence though he had been at large for three years by Jandamarra’s initiation. In 1889 Jandamarra unwittingly led police to the encampment when Ellamarra was hidden and he was captured.

When three white gold seekers were killed in July 1892 there were calls for revenge. A white raiding party attacked a Bunuba camp and killed six men. Ellamarra negotiated a peace treaty but attacks continued by other tribes throughout 1893.

 

Jandamarra was arrested for his small role in the stock raids. He was forced to live in the Derby police stables to look after the horses for two years. He returned to Bunuba country in 1891, a solitary figure isolated from his countrymen and police.  He was expelled from Bunuba society after his sexual promiscuity broke taboos and he went to live with white settler Bill Richardson. In 1894 Richardson was drafted into the police by new sub-inspector Overand Drewry. Drewry wanted good bushmen to help hunt down the tribes that refused to conform to white ways. Richardson was assigned to look after the Lennard River police outpost and he brought Jandamarra with him.

They were an effective unit patrolling a vast area of the Kimberleys. Within days of taking up the post they captured Ellamarra on a warrant of killing sheep. A JP sentenced him to three years in a Derby prison but the wily leader escaped after only a few months. Richardson’s group captured him again only for him to break the chain and escape once more. Jandamarra may have been complicit in the second escape.

Richardson still held 17 Bunuba chained and ready for sentencing. But Jandamarra’s time had come. One of the 17 was Jandamarra’s brother-in-law Lilimarra. In the middle of the night Jandamarra released Lilimarra and they shot Richardson dead while he slept. They liberated the remaining prisoners and joined relatives camped nearby. Jandamarra collected firearms and waited to ambush drovers bringing cattle to water. The surprised stockmen would not believe their former friend Pigeon would shoot but he killed two while two others escaped. Their wagon contained a sizeable arsenal of weapons though few of Jandamarra’s men knew how to use them.

Word got back to Drewry and he sent five constables and six black troopers with more to come. In Perth Francis Connor demanded in parliament that ‘retribution be swift, sharp and decisive.’ The West Australian newspaper wanted a ‘sharp lesson be read to the whole band of murderers’. Drewry’s plan was more subtle: he prepared two Queensland Aboriginal servants to infiltrate the band and kill the leaders. However the Queenslanders turned tail, telling Jandamarra of the plan and returned claiming they could not find the Bunuba rebels.

Jandamarra broke his force into small armed parties and waited in ambush. Drewry was also looking for surprise and his force of 28 troopers manoeuvred around the Lennard River citadel for a dawn attack. Jandamarra outsmarted them hiding his men in caves with guns pointed at the police. Gunfire erupted but neither side would show themselves. The stalemate last eight hours until a bullet shattered Ellamarra’s back as he attempted to cross to Jandamarra’s cave. His death shook Bunuba confidence and the police trained fire on Jandamarra’s position. He was wounded in the exchange while his people retreated through the caves under the cover of his rifle fire. Only six women and three children surrendered.

Jandamarra and the others all escaped. Drewry’s message to Perth shocked settler society expecting a quick end to the rebellion. The government sent men and weapons under experienced officer, William Lawrence, demoting Drewry. Lawrence said extreme measures would be necessary. His men attacked an Aboriginal camp on the Margaret River killing 11 Gooniyandi men. He killed three more in the Milawundi foothills but cautiously decided the rugged terrain was too dangerous.

Instead they roamed the region indiscriminately killing all Aboriginals not associated with homesteads. Two troopers massacred 20 Worrora at Oobagooma Station. After three months Lawrence reported to authorities the settlers were happy with his extreme response. The Roebourne newspaper said the blacks now “rightly understand the Mosaic law of a life for a life”.  But the Bunuba remained undefeated.

Wounded Jandamarra was nursed back to health by his mother and wife and when strong enough they moved 20 km to Tunnel Creek where food was plentiful. Jandamarra was aware of the carnage around him, though white Australians were not, with press coverage heavily censored. Only the Catholic Herald broke ranks accusing the government of ‘miserable slaughter’.

Premier John Forrest was not concerned about the plight of the Aborigines but he was worried by British reaction. A report into the killing was a whitewash saying it was ‘absolutely needful’. The Bunuba lowlands were annexed but the ranges were renamed “Pigeon Country” where no white would safely dare go. Drewry’s claim Jandamarra was dead was proved false and the inspector resigned in May 1895. In October seven troopers ambushed Jandamarra at a waterhole but he survived again escaping into the caves. His wife and mother were captured. Jandamarra became more daring, taunting his would-be captors.

He raided police quarters for food while troopers slept, his identity revealed by floury footprints. His cat-and-mouse game left police wary and fearful. False leads from prisoners added to the confusion. Police worries ammunition would fall into Aboriginal hands were futile as Jandamarra manufactured his own cartridges using captured gunpowder and molten lead for cast earthen bullets. Several times he was intercepted on visits to relatives at Lennard River Station only for him to escape, as if by magic.

Drewry’s replacement Sub-inspector Ord wanted to wait until after the 1896 wet season before launching his counter-attack. But the commissioner in Perth demanded immediate action and Ord led a posse to Lennard River. For five days they hid in the police station but Jandamarra did not take the bait. A search party found nothing and Jandamarra openly taunted the troops shouting down insults from the top of the ridge before disappearing into obscurity for several months more.

Then in June 1896 six Nyikina warriors escaped from Derby prison and returned to their Noonkanbah homelands to attack white settlements. They lit a series of fires fanned by hot winds on a 50 km front. Only the mudflats saved Derby from conflagration. Eventually Ord’s force tracked down the Nyikina and they shot nine dead.

Settlers searched for a route over the Milawundi, watched carefully by the rebels. It was a black trooper named Micki that swung the balance in favour of the police. At Christmas 1896 Micki captured Lilamarra as he visited relatives at Lennard River. The invasion of cattle in sacred places and food-gathering areas led to an attack on the homestead at Oscar Range killing one stockman. Police from Fitzroy Crossing gave chase. There was a firefight and once again Jandamarra escaped in a riddle of confusing tracks.

Ord swung the whole West Kimberley police force into action. Micki led the charge arresting five Bunuba in an hour. After five days the pursuers picked up Jandamarra’s tracks at what would be called Pigeon Creek. Micki and Jandamarra traded rifle fire in a foot race along a cliff face. Micki finally brought his man down as Jandamarra tried to make his escape.  When a white policeman named Blythe tried to finish him off, Jandamarra shot back and somehow disappeared in the long grass despite multiple gun wounds. In the morning the troops retreated to tend Blythe’s wounds, thinking Jandamarra was surely dead.

But as they got ready to leave, a shot rang out killing one of the men. The posse escaped using prisoners as a shield.  Jandamarra was still free but left a bloody trail and was without his women to nurse him back to health. It was Micki who delivered the final blow in his cave. Jandamarra was dead.

The white police with Micki claimed the credit and hacked Jandamarra’s head off and took it to Perth. People paid money to see the skull of the famous primitive warrior. But they were tricked. It was another black man’s head – Jandamarra’s skull had been sent to England as a trophy for an arms manufacturer.

The police report into his death made no mention of Bunuba stolen lands or the massacres of their people. Jandamarra and his band were ‘outlaws’ and police were simply enforcing the law. Pastoralists were the winners quickly stocking up Kimberley properties, employing Bunuba as workers. Their descendants were sacked after the equal wage award of 1968 and most drifted to Fitzroy Crossing forever denied access to their own lands.

The tragedy of the Jandamarra story was colonisers unprepared to negotiate with traditional owners.  The WA Government is still not prepared to recognise traditional ownership while Jandamarra’s own story is mostly unknown.

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

Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936
Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)
Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

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