I have long been supportive of the need for a Treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and those that know me know I am writing in what little spare time I have, a book about why I think so. The book is aimed at convincing non-Indigenous people as I know most Indigenous people want one.
Yet I’m pleased that the need for a Treaty is at the centre of the recommendations of the 2017 National Constitution Convention outlined in the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”.
The statement acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of Australia who have lived here in legal terms from “time immemorial”. This was sovereignty in a sacred sense and speaks to an ancestral tie with the land which was never ceded and which co-exists “with the sovereignty of the Crown”.
How could it be otherwise, the statement asks, for people who lived here for 60 millennia which could not disappear from world history “in merely the last two hundred years”?
Changing mere words in the constitution won’t fix that, but substantive change and structural reform might.
Despite not being innately criminal, Indigenous people are the most incarcerated in Australia, showing the “torment of our powerlessness”, they said.
In order for Indigenous people to “take their rightful place” in this country, the Convention has asked for a “First Nations Voice” in the Constitution.
That would take the form of a Treaty, or “makarrata”, a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations” or in the convention’s words “the coming together after a struggle”.
The convention has called for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making and “truth telling about our history”.
Harking back to the Referendum, in 1967 Indigenous people were counted, “in 2017 we seek to be heard”.
“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future,” the final sentence reads.
Agreement and truth sound like a better future to me. I’m walking.
As is my wont at this time of year I published an April Fool’s story on our North West Star newspaper website on Saturday April 1 . Headlined “Mount Isa to return to Northern Territory in border revision plan” it was a story by “Alan Border” purporting to reveal a plan seen by the North West Star where the westernmost part of Queensland from the Gulf to the South Australian border could return to the NT. Needless to say, the story was false. There is no such plan and those that followed the plan’s link in the story were rickrolled.
Many other details were false or invented. There is no journalist Alan Border. There is no such Professor “Hugh Jerar” (a huge error, surely, though I drag the good prof out regularly as a credible source each April 1) or is there any “Grating Institute”. There is no plan to rename Mt Isa to NT Isa and there is no constitutional crisis over Queensland’s western border (though the bit about the west being added to Queensland in 1862 three years after the rest in 1859 is true). The map we printed where Queensland’s step-like western border is turned into a straight line was semi-false – it was the original 1859 map but it was dodgied up (with five minutes of poor Paint skills). However the giveaway is Queensland and the NT agreeing to the proposal. It’s hard to imagine two governments agreeing on anything.
At the end of the day, I added an editor’s note. “Sorry/Not Sorry” it read, and a clarification. “This article was not written by the cricketer. He is ‘Allan Border’”. Our fake news was patently ridiculous but funny and while the serious tone (or reading the headline only) fooled some, almost everyone enjoyed the joke.
The grain of truth was the story of Queensland’s birth and how its border was revised in 1862. I’ve told that story on this blog before. It is based on the Peter Saenger book “Queensland’s Western Afterthought”. The trigger for Queensland taking the unclaimed land west of the 141st meridian was the search for the missing Burke and Wills in that region in 1861. The Queensland governor assured the Colonial Office his colony would protect settlers in the area as long as the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf of Carpentaria.
However I changed the 1859 map to show a fictional Mount Isa (it wasn’t founded until the 20th century) in an equally fictional “NT” (it was still part of NSW at the time). I believe it was this map shown the Facebook excerpt for my story that hoodwinked a lot of people who read no further.
However no more like that. Fake news is fraught with hazard especially in 2017. Last year Macedonian youths made a lot of money when they invented shocking stories to gain large advertising revenue. They were exposed within days but millions believed the fiction. Donald Trump profited from that fiction then turned fake news on its head when he attached it to media giving him a hard time. The fake fake news practice has quickly spread across the world as a way to dismiss news you don’t like. Even truth itself has become muddied by “truthiness” and “alternative facts”.
So despite a long tradition of newspapers writing April Fool stories, I was concerned how people might react to my deliberately false piece. Looking at the Facebook feedback I needn’t have worried. One reader told me “I was really taken in by the border story! Whoever came up with this deserves a pat on the back. I love starting the day with a smile!” Many others were highly amused with many people picking out different favourite lines from the piece. There was hardly any negative remarks and even those who were fooled accepted their fate with good grace.
The story was shared over 300 times as people who got the joke then tried to fool their friends. There were those who while understanding the joke, still grappled with the issue: “If there are to be any border changes it should be new border along the Tropic of Capricorn to create the great state of North Queensland,” said one. Others though moving north west Queensland to NT was a good idea. Another said “It actually makes me sad this is fake”.
All in all, I’ll call it a viral success – at least in our remote part of the world. But it’s worth handling with care. I’ll stick to reporting the truth – at least until April 1, 2018.
An amusing photo was posted to Twitter this week of a giant billboard in suburban Melbourne captioned “Thank you Batman – David Feeney MP”. The tweet’s poster Tim Singleton Norton added “to those unaware of the name of the electorate, I’m guessing this billboard looks extremely odd.” When I appropriated the photo for my Facebook feed I added the comments “gratitude in Gotham City” and indeed, the humorous possibilities are endless. Batman, the DC Comics character, has been around since 1939 and transformed by television, cinema and video games, is now a cultural icon as probably the world’s most famous comic book superhero. Of course, David Feeney MP is not thanking the fictional Batman but the people of the Australian federal electorate of Batman, whose name predates the comic book figure.
The Division of Batman was created in 1906 and comprises mainly working class areas of north Melbourne, traditionally one of the safest Labor seats in the country. That almost changed in 2016 when Feeney survived a close challenge from the Greens. The hapless Feeney, already with an infamous reputation as one of the “Faceless Men” who unseated Kevin Rudd in 2010 did not help his own cause when he failed to declare $2.3m property on on the parliamentary register of interests. Then he was skewered in a car crash interview on Sky News, unable to answer questions on the $4.8b Schoolkids Bonus policy. The Greens beat Feeney on primary votes but with the help of Liberal preferences Feeney scraped over the line to retain the seat with a 51-49 2PP victory over the Greens. It was probably with much relief Feeney could take to the billboards proclaiming Thank You Batman oblivious to the irony of the other meaning.
Batman the electorate was named for John Batman (1801-1839), a native Vandiemenlander, and one of the original founders of white settlement in Melbourne in 1835. Batman had a mixed reputation as a likely killer of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before treating with Victorian Aborigines. Batman died of syphilis aged 38 and his early death meant there were no portraits of him in his lifetime.
Those that survive are based on William Penn, the English quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Penn was famous for his supposed peace treaty with Delaware natives in 1683 immortalised in a Benjamin West painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”. Batman was an important member of the Port Phillip Association, an informal group of well-connected Tasmanians. Their self-serving yet unique attempt to treat with the indigenous bands of Melbourne was influenced by stories of Penn’s Treaty with the Shackamaxon native Americans. The imaginary connection between the two would lead to the agreement the PPA struck with the Kulin people of Victoria being called “Batman’s Treaty“.
That was the Treaty Batman claimed he signed in 1835 with the Kulin to occupy hundreds of thousands of acres of their territory around what would become Melbourne and Geelong. According to Batman the Kulin consented to the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres in return for “the yearly rent or tribute of one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair of scissors and five tons flour.” Though white sealers and whalers had lived independently around Port Phillip Bay since the late 18th century, the PPA’s treaty was the first formal settlement proposal and a significant threat to the 19 counties Limits of Location the British government imposed in the Sydney hinterland of New South Wales.
The Treaty was initially respected around the Port Phillip area until complicated by the arrival of a rival settlement party from Tasmania in August 1835 led by John Fawkner. In the middle of the white men’s fight, life got dangerous for the original owners. New South Wales governor Richard Bourke was also alarmed, seeking legal advice before disavowing the Treaty. It was an awkward reminder the rest of Australia was being taken up without treaties. The British view was the land belonged to the crown since Cook’s statement of possession in 1770. Though absurd to the Kulin owners, that statement was a “matter of history” and could not be contested. The Treaty was abrogated but the flow of white settlers continued into Melbourne forcing the Kulin people off their land. The significance of events was not the Treaty but that the limits of location were smashed forever. The pace of colonisation of Australia increased dramatically in the decades that followed.
John Batman would have been forgotten given his early death, but for another Tasmanian, historian James Bonwick. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossesion of the Aboriginal people though he was more concerned by redeeming the sins of the British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He praised the short-lived Batman’s Treaty but accepted the government’s decision to abrogate it. He was more concerned about Batman’s reputation as a founder of Melbourne then he was about Kulin land claims.
Bonwick began a revisional process which saw Batman become a major historical figure, though those that promoted him glossed over the Treaty. What became more important was an entry in Batman’s diary about a trip up the river where Batman apparently exclaims “this will be a place for a village”. These words – taken out of context – would take on extraordinary significance in narratives about Melbourne. As the grandees of Melbourne celebrated the city’s 50th and then 100th birthday, they celebrated the extraordinary growth from a “village” to a great world city. For their purposes Batman took “unoccupied” lands; the Treaty forgotten as an awkward reminder the land had prior owners who were dispossessed without compensation or apology.
Yet Batman’s image offered a ghostly reminder of that treaty. Artist Frederick William Woodhouse re-enacted Penn’s Treaty with the Indians in his own painting The First Settlers Discover Buckley. William Buckley was the convict who escaped the short-lived Victorian settlement of 1803 and lived with Aboriginal people for 32 years until he met the new settlers in 1835. Batman was not in that meeting but Woodhouse imagined he was and influenced by Benjamin West painted him in a Penn-style quaker necktie and hat. The image stuck and was passed on to all future depictions of Batman.
The Treaty found a new political purpose in the late 1960s when Victorian Aboriginal people led by Pastor Doug Nichols appropriated it for their needs. “The importance of the Batman Treaty lies in its explicit recognition that Aborigines did, in fact, own the land,” a supporter, Barry Pittock, wrote to The Age. Though Batman’s Treaty is not explicitly mentioned, it is probably no coincidence the 2016 Victorian government is the first Australian administration to publicly back a Treaty. “We understand that it’s not for us to decide what treaty or self-determination should look like,” Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins said. “We know that action needs to come from the Victorian Aboriginal community.” Like Feeney, she might have added, Thank You Batman.
On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.
The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.
Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.
In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.
When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.
Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.
The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.
Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.
Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.
But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.
Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.
As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.
I’ve known about the infamous Burke and Wills expedition for as long as I can remember. Yet I have always resisted the story until I realised I was doing that primarily for silly nationalistic reasons: the leader of the failed expedition, Robert O’Hara Burke was a vainglorious fool from Ireland. His superior attitudes caused him and his men to starve when native people around him thrived in that harsh environment. It was Irish racism I didn’t want to acknowledge.
But my indifference to the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-1861 was slowly worn away as it intersected with another study in 19th century Australian exploring failure: the disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt a decade earlier, and in the same part of the world. I was also lucky enough to visit the Dig Tree in 2011. I lapped up the great narrative of Burke and Wills and its bad luck and “what if” moments. The final nail in the coffin of my uncaring was a move to Mount Isa this year. I cover much of the country the expedition charted, a thousand kilometres from Birdsville in the centre to Karumba on the Gulf. I am reminded of Burke and Wills whenever I drive between Isa and Cloncurry with a monument to them at Corella Creek. So I revisited the story via Sarah Murgatroyd’s excellent book The Dig Tree. The book too was a tragedy as the young BBC reporter was diagnosed with cancer while she researched it. She died in 2002 three weeks after the book was published, aged just 34.
Her story begins at a time when European Australians hugged the coast. The interior was a vast unknown. Explorers like Eyre on the Nullarbor in 1841 and Leichhardt in north Queensland in 1844-45 never went far inland. Leichhardt may later have drifted inwards but his disappearance merely added to the mystery of the “dead heart” of an inhospitable continent. Charles Sturt ventured into the Simpson Desert until defeated by vast gibber plains, giving his name to Sturt’s Stony Desert. Yet as the 1850s progressed, the confident new gold-rich colony of Victoria decided to flex its muscles and launch a search for Leichhardt. As one newspaper said, that the interior of the continent should remain a mystery was a reproach “to the Australian communities in general but especially to Victoria”.
There was a second practical reason for opening up the centre. The telegraph was turning the world into a global village but Australia remained isolated. The race was on to see which southern city would be the terminus for a cable to the northern shoreline and on to south-east Asia. South Australia had the advantage of being the first port of call of ships and also the most direct line to the north but Victoria was leading the challenge from the other colonies.
The Victorian Exploration Committee decided to solve the problem of crossing the continent with camels and imported two dozen Indian camels from horse trader George Landells. But the expedition spluttered due to lack of funds, and South Australia got the jump, thanks to dour Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart. Stuart travelled to Cooper Creek with his near-namesake Sturt in 1844, giving him a taste for inland exploration. From 1845 to 1858 Stuart tried farming and ended up as a surveyor with the knack of finding good pastures in rough country.
He was dispatched to disprove the theory there was salt lakes to the north that would halt South Australia’s expansion. Travelling light, he discovered the area around Coober Pedy until low food supplies forced him back via new country on the Nullarbor Plain. A year later Stuart found a chain of springs north of Lake Eyre with a ready supply of fresh water, which led him on to the interior supported by a grateful colony. When South Australia offered a prize for the first person to cross the continent, it re-awoke Victorian ambitions and sparked a search to find an expedition leader. The response was poor and the committee bickered over candidates. Stuart set off again in March 1860, determined to collect the South Australian prize.
Victoria finally came up with a shortlist, and on it was Castlemaine police superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke, recommended by a fellow officer. The committee wasted three months trying to split the candidates, and the camels did not arrive from India until June. Finally they chose Burke, who had never been beyond the settled parts of Victoria and who was notorious for getting lost coming home from the pub.
Burke was a Galway Protestant who served for the Catholic Austrian army where he cultivated a rakish image. But when he went AWOL, he faced court martial and resigned. He joined the Irish police until he moved to Melbourne in 1853 to help a Victorian police force desperate to impose order on lawless goldfields. Burke was eccentric but popular with subordinates and took an active part in country life. He struck up a relationship with young actress Julia Matthews though her mother took her away to Melbourne. Burke had better luck cultivating important friendships including committee chair Sir William Stawell.
Burke was appointed leader of a ragtag expedition which gathered in Melbourne in July 1860. Burke chose men with the right connections rather than exploring experience. One of the few good decisions was to appoint 26-year-old Englishman William Wills as surveyor only one who could navigate. Camel man Landells was second in command. Burke’s official instructions were to set up a depot at Cooper Creek which Sturt found, and then travel north to Leichhardt’s track. On August 20, the expedition with its exotic camels was like a circus leaving town and travelled just 11kms to Essendon. Three men were sacked before they left Royal Park leaving a team of 19, all without experience in the inland.
The expedition ran into heavy rain as it moved slowly through Victorian villages making camp gear sodden and grinding the wagons to a halt. It was also dangerous to ride the camels. By the time they got to the Terrick-Terrick Plains near the Murray River leadership tensions emerged. Burke left the camels and the running of the camp to Landells while he found the nearest pub or farmhouse instead of camping. Locals crowded the camp but also took advantage to overcharge for fodder and accommodation. At Swan Hill Burke realised the expedition would have to shed baggage. He decided to set up a new depot at Menindee on the Darling and the team was reduced to 14.
The bad weather continued as they entered NSW and Burke dismissed three more at Balranald. He took a short cut to Menindee through rugged Mallee country which exhausted his draught horses. Rather than save time, the forward party had to cross the country three times to rescue the wagons. From there on, the party would walk. Landells complained the camels were overloaded before reaching the desert and was reproached for the rum he brought, supposedly as a camel pick-me-up.
Burke arrived in Menindee on October 14, Landells and the camels a day later. When he arrived Burke ordered new second-in-command Wills to tell Landells he was fired. Landells stormed off to Melbourne where he began to trash Burke’s reputation. Menindee, in Baagandji country, was the edge of European settlement. It relied on a fortnight steamboat service to bring up supplies from Adelaide and send back wool. The expedition was heading 600km north to Cooper Creek in the hottest time of the year. Burke split his expedition taking seven men and three-quarters of the horses and camels with him. He was determined to head to the Gulf and become the first man to cross the continent. The rest would wait in Menindee for further instructions.
Burke took local bushman William Wright as a guide and third-in-command, and after 10 days reached Torowoto Swamp 250km north of Menindee. Burke ordered Wright to return to Menindee and bring up the remainder of the camp while Burke continued to Cooper Creek. After 23 days they reached the creek system and summer rains made it a rich green environment which reminded Wills fancifully of England. The creek was the home of the Yawarrawarrka and Yandruwandha peoples who lived in temporary wurley shelters moving as water and food supplies allowed. They feasted on birds, lizards, marsupials and snakes but relied on native plants such as mulga apples, native figs and an aquatic fern called nardoo which had seeds they ground into a paste and baked.
Burke’s party knew none of this but they found a magnificent waterhole where they camped without permission. Wills said natives gesticulated when they approached a waterhole but the visitors made no effort to establish relations. Lack of local knowledge would eventually cost the party dearly. Exploratory sorties found no obvious way north and Wills almost died when camel took off 130km from the Creek, leaving a long thirsty walk back. A plague of native rats gnawed their gear forcing Burke to move to Depot 65, where the Dig Tree now stands. They waited in vain for Wright to bring the camp up. The Menindee crew refused to accept Wright’s authority and letters to Melbourne went unanswered. An impatient Burke decided to dash to the Gulf. On December 16, 1860 he left William Brahe in charge of Depot 65 and took six camels, one horse and three men (Wills, John King and Charles Gray) with him. Burke asked Brahe to stay three months at Cooper Creek but Wills pleaded with him to stay four months if possible. The expedition had now divided into three.
The forward party followed the Creek north before hitting the gibber plains. They travelled as far as possible before the day heated up. Then they would rest in the camels’ shadow before continuing in the evening. Each night King laboriously hacked the letter B and the camp number into the bark of a tree. The former Irish soldier was Landell’s recruit and his dutiful calm was rewarded with a spot in the forward party. He looked after the camels while ex-sailor Gray was the strongman who did the work around camp.
Travelling 25 kilometres a day, by December 23 they found the Coongie Lakes, home of the Yawarrawarrka people, who welcomed the bizarre strangers at their waterholes. It was good progress but too slow for their rations. The terrain varied between claypans, boggy grounds and red dunes. They profusely but wouldn’t drink until rest points so felt bloated and sick, slowing them down further. They got lost in the Channel Country until they found the Diamantina River near present day Birdsville which would lead them towards the Georgina system and the north coast. They passed locals who pointed out the best billabongs. The worst of the desert was behind them.
With the country improving they reached modern-day Boulia when a camel rolled on Wills’ equipment which damaged the accuracy of navigational calculations. There was still rough country to traverse. The Standish and Selwyn ranges in Kalkadoon country remain difficult terrain today with red walls of stone dividing gorges and sharp ridges. On January 27 they passed the site of Cloncurry (named for Burke’s cousin Lady Cloncurry) and headed north-west via the Corella river. Three days later was Drop Dead Day, the point of no return of their rations, but they continued north.
It was the “build-up” to the Gulf wet season of stifling humidity and spectacular storms on the horizon. In February a camel fell into a bog and was abandoned, with a redistribution of load to the other beasts. They followed the Flinders River to the north coast, but the shoreline remained invisible in thick trees. The camels could not travel in the muddy estuary and Gray and King made camp at Camp 119 at the Bynoe and Flinders river junction while Burke and Wills tried to find the ocean.
The terrain was impassable mangrove swamps which Burke and Wills had neither the time nor energy to cross. They got 20km from the coast when they were forced to turn around without seeing the sea. Burke was satisfied the committee would accept they had completed the mission. As they turned south from Camp 119 the monsoon broke and it rained in torrents. They were continually stuck in mud. It had taken two months to get to the Gulf now the race was on to get back to Cooper Creek in another two – assuming Brahe acted on Wills’s suggestion not Burke’s.
Brahe’s men were coping with dwindling supplies, stultifying boredom and petty fights with pilfering locals who viewed the whites as unfriendly. Back in Menindee Wright finally got money and orders from Melbourne and set out north on January 26. Burke’s party headed south retracing steps to old camps. A food audit on February 12 found they had eaten three quarters of their provisions forcing them to decrease their daily ration. They supplemented this with the native plant portulac which Wills said tasted like spinach and it saved them from scurvy. But the big man Gray was declining and weakened rapidly in March. After three months they were still 1100km from the Creek. On March 25, they discovered Gray was stealing food. Burke knocked him down and Gray was banned from looking after the supplies.
On March 30 they sacrificed the weakest camel and jerked the meat. A few days later the horse gave way and they feasted on his stew. At Coongie Lakes Gray deteriorated and after being strapped to a camel, the sailor died in the middle of the desert on April 17. They stopped a day to bury him and discarded all but the essentials. The men began to think of their homecoming as telltale signs of the Cooper came into view. On April 21 – 127 days after leaving – they arrived at Depot 65 to find it empty but the ashes of a fire still warm. Wills saw a carving on a coolabah. “DIG UNDER 3 FT NW”. It had the date inscribed – also April 21. After waiting four months and one week, Brahe had enough and his party left that same day.
Burke collapsed in the dirt, the terrible reality confronting him. They had missed them by eight hours – about the time it took to bury Gray. They followed the dig instructions and found a note with Brahe’s intention to head back down the track and it said no one had arrived from Menindee. There was also flour, sugar, tea and dried meat.
Brahe said his men and horses were in good condition so there was little chance of Burke catching up with them. Wills and King wanted to follow Brahe to the Darling but Burke took the fateful decision to head south-west to Mt Hopeless, 250km away in South Australia. Gregory used that police outpost on his 1858 journey from the Cooper to Adelaide but Burke forgot Gregory had eight men, 40 horses and plenty of supplies. King reburied the trunk to not arouse suspicions of the locals. He asked Burke if they should leave a new message on the tree. “No”, said Burke, “the word DIG serves our purpose as much as it served theirs.”
As Burke set off, Brahe’s party were not in as good shape as he wrote. Two men died at Bulloo while Aboriginal tribes taunted them. Wright’s party were no better off. The waterholes which sustained Burke had dried up and his men got stuck at Rat Point while they searched in vain for water. One of his party died and the rest were ill. On April 29 Brahe and Wright hooked up by chance at Bulloo Lakes. The combined party had numerous invalids and as they were about to retreat Brahe suggested to Wright they should dash back to the Cooper to be sure. On May 8 they reached the Dig Tree and convincing themselves they would find nothing they found the cache as they left it and assumed the footprints were Aboriginal. They did not notice a broken bottle, a rake leaning against the tree or a piece of leather cut from the stockade door. Inwardly relieved, they stayed just 15 minutes and headed south.
Burke, Wills and King were initially optimistic as they broke into their new supplies. But they suffered a bitter blow when a camel fell into quicksand and died. They only had one beast left, showing signs of fatigue. They got hopelessly lost in the rivulets of the Cooper and the barrier of high sand ridges. On the same day as Brahe and Wright’s return to the Dig Tree, Burke realised progress was impossible and they turned back to the Cooper. They had wasted two and a half weeks. They arrived back at the Dig Tree on May 30.
With supplies dwindling they finally tried to live ‘like the blacks’ but the Yandruwandha were not around to show them how. They discovered a large patch of nardoo seeds which they pounded into flour. But the Yandruwandha destroyed thiaminase (which blocks Vitamin B absorption) by washing and cooking the nardoo. By not doing this Burke’s party suffered beri-beri which induced lassitude and caused difficulty walking. Wills weakened fast and on June 21 acknowledged in his diary he would die unless relief came.
That relief was nowhere in sight. A fourth man died in the Brahe party on June 5 and they limped into Menindee on June 19. Wright took a steamer to Adelaide and Brahe brought the news to Melbourne. On June 26, 1861 Wills wrote his final letter to his father and then his final diary entry. Burke and King left him to his fate and he died within days. Burke was not much stronger and wrote his last will to his sister revoking an earlier will where he left his meagre estate to Julia Matthews. He praised King for staying with him and died that night. King set off in search of the Yandruwandha who were his only hope.
In Melbourne the committee roused into action. In a rare good decision they appointed experienced bushman Alfred Howitt to lead a rescue party. Howitt took three men and after three days they ran into Brahe on the Loddon River. Howitt was horrified at Brahe’s story and reported back to Melbourne. He was authorised to continue his journey while Queensland sent two rescue parties one by land and the other by sea. Both had the ulterior motive of claiming the new territory for Queensland.
King found the Yandruwandhu who gave him fish and a bed to sleep in. He deteriorated but clung to the hope of rescue. Howitt arrived in Menindee which had become an explorer’s town full of speculators and prospectors. He plundered from the remains of the Burke expedition and set off north arriving at Cooper Creek in just 25 days. He found camel tracks which led to Depot 65 but he too ignored the DIG sign. On September 15 one of Howitt’s men Edwin Welch was on a reconnaissance mission when he scattered a group of Aborigines, leaving one scarecrow-like figure behind. A man wearing the remains of a hat fell to the ground and raised his hands skywards. He told him his name was King, which was unknown to Welch who knew only of Burke and Wills. “King?” he inquired. Yes, King replied, “the last man of the Exploring Expedition,” and he broke down and wept.
Howitt pieced together the story of awful coincidences and missed opportunities. They gave Burke a proper burial and finally dug under the Dig Tree where they found the journals, letters and maps which would tell the story – and open up the country for white exploration. The news of King’s survival and Burke and Wills’ death became an international sensation. Victoria held a royal commission loaded in favour of the blundering Royal Society and cast Brahe, and especially Wright, as the scapegoats. Burke was a hero venerated in death, though many questioned his judgement as the full details emerged. He and Wills were given state funerals, Gray was ignored. A scarred King would remain mostly silent for the rest of his life.
In South Australia, Stuart finally crossed the continent and Adelaide got the telegraph line. Queensland extended its border to include Burke and Wills’s country from Birdsville to the coast. The eight deaths on the expedition were futile as the five rescue parties opened up all of eastern Australia for the benefit of South Australia, NSW and Queensland. Victoria was only left with a giant statue of Burke and Wills on Collins St and the beginning of a tradition of glorious but tragic failure, legends Ned Kelly and Gallipoli would later add to. The biggest losers were the Aboriginal people who owned the land and kept King alive. Cattlemen arrived to dismantle traditional cultures and the indigenous people were moved away to missions and reserves. Only their ghosts now haunt the desert sands.
On Saturday, I drove three hours east to Julia Creek as the town held a paddock to plate lunch to celebrate Queensland Week. But I had a second reason for going. That date June 4 marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Scottish explorer Duncan McIntyre, which Julia Creek was also commemorating on the day. McIntyre died in this region looking for the missing Ludwig Leichhardt and his elaborate grave is on the nearby property of Dalgonally. By a nice tie-in, Dalgonally is now owned by AA Co which supplied their 1824 Premium Beef for the paddock to plate lunch and the local historical society had put up a display at the venue celebrating McIntyre’s life.
Julia Creek is the administrative centre of McKinlay shire named for John McKinlay who was here in 1862, a few years before McIntyre, also searching for Burke and Wills Expedition. McKinlay’s report of “empty” pastoral land in the southern Gulf region prompted Victorian grazier Donald Campbell to set up an expedition in 1863 to take up the land (though no one sought the opinion or permission of the local Mitakoodi and Mayi Peoples). Campbell appointed Duncan McIntyre, a distant relative, to lead the expedition, accompanied by Duncan’s cousin Donald McIntyre.
Born in Scotland in 1831, Duncan McIntyre came to Australia as a boy of eight accompanying his uncle Archibald, who also brought his wife Elizabeth and five of his six children. Donald McIntyre was the sixth child, five years younger than Duncan, and he came to Australia 12 years later at the start of the goldrush. Donald Campbell was Elizabeth’s brother, and Duncan went to work for him at Glengower station in Victorian gold country where he impressed Campbell with his bushcraft, eventually leading to the Queensland assignment.
Burke and Wills had disappeared on their Melbourne to the Gulf journey in 1861 and the two McIntyres followed their trail up the Darling River, the Cooper Creek and up into the Gulf of Carpentaria. They eventually made it to the Gulf coast and then followed William Landsborough’s route south along the Flinders, Thompson and Darling Rivers in a five month journey.
Though they found no trace of Burke and Wills (that honour went to Alfred Howitt) it was in the Flinders River region in 1864 they made another intriguing discovery; two trees marked with the letter L. They also saw two stray horses in the area. Though it was likely the Landsborough expedition that blazed the trees, the McIntyres preferred to believe it was the earlier explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who left the inscription on his final journey in 1848. If so, it would be the first authenticated find from that expedition after Leichhardt, his men and all his animals disappeared without trace after leaving Roma. Donald McIntyre stayed on in the region at a property he named Dalgonally.
Duncan McIntyre, meanwhile, returned to Melbourne where he reported his find of the L trees. He was immediately commissioned by a ladies’ committee to lead another expedition this time to look for more traces of Leichhardt. On May 2, 1866 McIntyre wrote a letter to Campbell from the Gregory River region in the Gulf. “I started a search for further traces of Leichhardt and called at the Port (of Burketown) to get some rations.” McIntyre reported had he found no positive traces but “we have ascertained beyond doubt that whites are now, or have been, among the blacks within the last 10 years.” This timeframe did not fit with Leichhardt who was by then missing for 18 years but McIntyre reported children among the native population who were “almost white, with light blue eyes and red hair.” There were also rumours of a white man among a tribe “a day’s ride from here.”
Unfortunately for McIntyre, Burketown was suffering from a serious bout of tropical fever at the time with people dying daily. Though he camped well away from the place he was not immune, and grew more ill by the day. By the time he reached Dalgonally he was dying and he died at “the Grave Hole” on the property on June 4, 1866. One of his men, named Slowman, conducted the burial service (it is not known where Donald McIntyre was at this time). Slowman called McIntyre a great bushman adept at finding water. “In Mr McIntyre I had every confidence and would have gone anywhere with him,” Slowman said in a letter to the expedition backers in Melbourne. The Ladies Committee would later erect a huge Celtic cross above his grave.
Donald McIntyre began to build up the property in the years that followed. The area was first called Scorpion Creek but when the government surveyor arrived in 1870 to fix boundaries he took McIntyre’s suggestion to rename the watercourse to Julia Creek, named for both a niece and aunt of Donald Campbell (and not for Robert O’Hara Burke’s love interest Julia Matthews as is often assumed).
The town of Julia Creek (originally called “Hilton”) began slowly until the railway arrived in 1908 to serve the copper industry further west. The town grew until by 1930 it had a Japanese laundry, three banks, a blacksmith, a butcher, three cafes, two hotels, four stores, a school, an iceworks, a cordial factory and three churches. That same year the town became the administrative hub for the re-gazetted McKinlay shire. Today it is known for its pastoral and mining interests, with a big Dirt N Dust triathlon festival. There is a Duncan McIntyre museum but that focuses more on the region, than the man himself. The shire now markets itself, just as it was in McIntyre’s time, as the Gateway to the Gulf.
The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.
There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up manylivelyconsideredresponses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.
Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”
His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.
Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.
Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.
The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.