Monthly Archives: January 2019
For the communities of Coonabarabran in New South Wales and her grasslands Gomeroi people, Mary Jane Cain is a revered figure. Cain lived from 1844 to 1929. In the late 1880s, she successfully advocated for Aboriginal land security – a rare concession to an Aboriginal woman at the time. In 1920, she penned a 23-page manuscript detailing her life, her observations of new land owners and their workers, and a list of Gomeroi words.
She was born when frontier violence was at its zenith. Decades long guerrilla warfare had raged as the Gomeroi people resisted pastoral invasion and violent recriminations. Some estimate as few as 10% of the Aboriginal populations survived these killing times.
Mary Jane Cain’s mother, Jinnie Griffin, a “full blood” whose life likely spanned pre and post-contact, had married an Irishman, Eugene Griffin. They moved between Mudgee and Coonabarabran where they operated, for a time, as travelling sales people. After being held up by bushrangers, they spent decades working on pastoral runs – Jinnie as a shepherd and Eugene as a dairyman. At the time of Mary Jane’s birth, they’d been working on Toorawindi property for some years.
The advent of gold mining in 1852 marked a significant shift on the pastoral frontier. As Cain wrote in her 1920 manuscript, all the white people working on one station “left to go mining”. Renewed interest in Aboriginal people as shepherds and stock workers contributed to an easing in frontier violence on Gomeroi lands. This created opportunities for Aboriginal families to get back to their country, but in very different circumstances – as workers, generally without pay.
By the 1880s Cain had begun agitating for Aboriginal land rights. The 1890s depression caused a further wave of displacement of Aboriginal workers. In this context, the Aboriginal Protection Board emerged, partly in response to rising numbers of Aboriginal people now relegated to the fringes of towns. The board introduced ways to control Aboriginal populations including containment on reserves.
Mary Jane had married Aboriginal stockman Joe Cain in 1865 at Weetalabah station, where they were both living and working, in the home’s “best parlour”. By the 1880s she was living closer to town and shepherded her goats to the mountains and back each day. Her husband Joe became unwell and as she wrote to the Crown, she needed to secure land to support him and her nine children. She petitioned for land at Forky Mountain, about six miles from Coonabarabran, where she could run her goats.
The politics of land
In February 1892, Cain secured 400 acres. Further land grants in 1902, 1906 and 1911 saw her recover 600 acres that became home to displaced Aboriginal families up until the late 1950s. These families made homes from kerosene tins lined with glued sheets of newspaper, grew vegies, milked their cows, hosted pantomimes and lived lives recalled with enormous fondness. Over this site, Mary Jane Cain was Queen.
Cain’s grandchildren all recalled “multiple letters” from Cain addressed “to the Queen” (Victoria) requesting the land at Forky Mountain and her trips to Sydney to meet with government officials to petition for her land. Her descendants emphasised that Queen Victoria granted Cain land to manage as a place “for the dark people to live on”.
While Aboriginal reserves and missions are often viewed as sites of segregation and genocidal violence, Mary Jane Cain’s story highlights the economic, social and political context that saw reserves, at least initially, self-selected and defended by Aboriginal families; where Aboriginal worlds survived and where political organisation occurred.
In NSW, of the 85 Aboriginal reserves created in the period 1885 to 1895 more than half (47) were initiated by Aboriginal families. The new interest in taking up reserves coincided with a downturn in the two dominant economies – pastoralism and gold mining. Land likely represented an option for Aboriginal security in the wake of decades of colonial violence and disease that caused loss of land, people and livelihood.
‘Queen Mary Jane’
Cain’s grandchildren, Julia and Violet Robinson, Ethel Sutherland, Joe Cain and Emily Chatfield share generous and proud stories of “Queen” Mary Jane: she was a great cook, hand stitched marvellous outfits from hessian and old sugar bags and ran a large, immaculately scrubbed, loving home.
They loved her dearly and worked hard to fetch her goats from the mountains; they say she dressed beautifully and descriptions of her “sharp features” suggest they thought her beautiful. She was generous and kind, loaned money to those in need, and welcomed all to Burra Bee Dee (as the Aboriginal reserve was known from 1912). She was Queen of the reserve and Queen in the eyes of her family.
“Queen” was clearly a title Mary Jane was comfortable with: her 1920 manuscript is annotated at page 23 “by M.J. Cain, Queen 1920”. Available studio photos show a regal figure and flanked by her grandsons in military uniform, her own clothing and stature match this formal authority.
Visiting missionaries to Burra Bee Dee in 1909 were also reminded and duly acknowledged her Queen status. They fondly reported on the performances, poetry recital, dancing and the singing, at the end of a long evening, of God Save the King. Mary Jane Cain implored a further and final recital in her honour: God Save the Queen. They obliged.
She also held a powerful place in white society. After her death in 1929, the Coonabarabran Times described Mary Jane as being,
known and loved by all from a very great distance round this district and outside it … and a word against her, … would have evoked the undying hostility from the oldest and most respected families of the North Western slopes and Central West.
Cain’s keen sense of justice is evident in one entry in her 1920 manuscript where she refers to organising a petition in 1864 “which everyone signed” in defence of two brothers and “a young [‘half caste’] man … whom they hired” who had been wrongly arrested and charged for cattle stealing.
She writes that: “I presented the petition to Thomas Gordon Danger who was at that time member of Parliament”, which had the effect of reducing their sentence and “them liberated at five years”.
Aboriginal people negotiated the rapid change to their worlds as the grasslands country came to be intensively farmed. At Burra Bee Dee and through the oral history of Mary Jane Cain’s descendants we hear the stories of matriarchs who acquired the skills of the new world – literacy, shepherding and stock work, knowledge of political systems and how to effect change – and who built ways to sustain Aboriginal worlds in dramatically altered circumstances.
Today, after several years of careful community work, the history of Burra Bee Dee is beautifully documented with signage and photos detailing where families lived. The adjacent cemetery is a site of return for many generations to come. The bridge over the Castlereagh river bears Mary Jane’s name, the local rotary club has installed a plaque in her honour and her life has inspired an art exhibition. Still, the story of this matriarch and queen to her people deserves to be more widely told.
Professor Heidi Norman is a descendant of the Gomeroi people. Her Nan’s uncle (Charles Ruttley) married Mary Jane’s daughter (Eliza Josephine).
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.
Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a “knowledge economy”. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.
The “Pythia” is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.
The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.
Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding — a position powerful enough to change the course of history.
Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?
Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse — by male priests.
Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.
Insult by oracle
The position of the Pythia seemed to have entailed the extraordinary opportunity to speak unwelcome truth to those in power.
A Spartan once approached the oracle with the intention of being confirmed as the wisest man in the world. In response to this question the Pythia named another person who was wiser.
The Greek city of Megara allegedly asked the Pythia in about 700 BCE who were the best of all the Greeks, hoping to be named first. The Pythia mentioned two better cities , concluding with the line, “[Y]ou, o Megarians, [are] neither third nor fourth.” Surely, the Megarians did not see that coming!
Cleisthenes, meanwhile, the famous tyrant of Sicyon, asked whether he should remove the cult of the hero Adrastus from the city. He received an oracle that came straight to the point: “Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a common slayer.”
This kind of reality check and straight talk would certainly have upset those with egos accustomed to flattery and agreement.
Of course, it is not always possible to tell whether these and other responses of the oracle were authentic or whether the whole incident was part of later historiographic lore. Yet whatever the case: the fact is that it was a woman who was attributed such a sharp, judgemental voice.
And her voice proved extraordinarily unimpeachable. The Greeks thought that it was the god Apollo who conveyed his superior divine knowledge through the mouth of the Pythia, so the priestess herself was largely beyond reproach. While itinerant seers, augurs, and oracle mongers feature in classical literature as corrupt and unreliable, the position of the Pythia seems to have stood above all criticism.
The job and its challenges
Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.
For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.
Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.
And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.
We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.
What did it take to become the Pythia? Was she a local girl from a neighbouring village? Was any kind of training provided to candidates? Or were they thrown in the deep end?
Unfortunately, the ancient sources are silent. The Nobel prize-winning author William Golding in his (posthumously published) last novel The Double Tongue, written from the perspective of a Pythia, sees her as a local girl who was unable to get herself married and so took on that role.
Yet again, this sounds like speculation designed to downplay the position.
The kind of skills required to be successful in the role are easier to reconstruct. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi served as a marketplace for representatives from all over the ancient Greek world (and beyond) who came for a variety of reasons.
In addition to the oracle, the sanctuary housed regular athletic competitions (the so-called Pythian Games, analogous to the more famous Olympic Games). With its numerous temples and monuments, the site was also a popular tourist destination. All these activities together served to establish a busy hub, where information, news, and gossip of all kinds would have circulated freely.
So perhaps the key to the Pythia’s success was simply to listen closely? There is good evidence to suggest that the fantastic tales of prediction and fulfilment are a matter of the (later) historiographic tradition and that it was mostly quite straightforward questions of everyday life that were put to the Pythia for comment, along the lines suggested by the ancient author Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi: Will I win? Shall I marry? Is it a good idea to sail the sea? Shall I take up farming? Shall I go abroad?
If this was indeed the case, it would, more often than not, have been possible to glean the information necessary to answer any particular enquiry from the chatter of those queuing to consult the oracle, to watch or participate in the games, or to take in the monuments. The Pythia may have trailblazed the knowledge economy millennia before the arrival of “big data” and the invention of the internet.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Ruby Lindsay was among the first women in Australian graphic design. In the early-20th century she pursued a full-time career in magazine and book illustration, likely the first woman in Australia to successfully do so.
Lindsay created a beautiful array of work during the arts and crafts movement, in the early 1900s. This was a period when artists and designers reacted against the mass production of the Industrial Revolution and focused instead on handmade work.
Born in 1887, Lindsay grew up in the gold rush town of Creswick, Victoria, with her five brothers and parents Robert (1843-1915) and Jane Elizabeth (1848-1932). She moved to Melbourne, at the age of 16. Her designs included hand drawn type and posters, like a Sydney Society of Artists poster from 1907, and black and white illustrations for newspapers of the day, including The Bulletin, Punch and The Gadfly.
Even though she made a significant contribution, most have never heard of Lindsay because women working at this time were marginalised by their gender and society. Restrictive ideas about identity, roles and expectations were something Lindsay quietly challenged through her practice in graphic design.
Lindsay’s visibility was overshadowed by the men surrounding her – her brothers Percy Lindsay (1870–1952) and Sir Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961), who were also well known for cartoons they had published in The Bulletin; Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) who was the author and illustrator of The Magic Pudding; and Daryl Lindsay (1889-1976), who was knighted for his services to art in 1963. Her eventual husband was the Australian artist and political cartoonist William Dyson (1880-1938).
However, Lindsay went to great lengths to stand on her own two feet. She deliberately obscured her relationship to her famous brothers by changing her name and signing her work as “Ruby Lind”, “Ruby Lyne”, “Ruby Lyn” and once, in At the Labour in Vain, as “Ruby Ramsbottom.”
Lindsay also distanced herself from the general misogynistic tone of The Bulletin. This newspaper was extreme in its Nationalist tone, which, as various historians have noted, marginalised and mocked women.
Ironically it was her brother Daryl who wrote, in his memoir The Leafy Tree, of Ruby’s drive to break the suppressive female stereotype of the day. “Social engagements, affairs of the heart, all took second place to [her] overriding ambition to become a black and white artist,” he wrote. Lindsay was tough and showed how determination and a self-made image required an independent and forceful effort. She was “never without a sketch-book and pencil in her hands …”, Daryl wrote.
It’s doubtful Lindsay could afford a formal education but due to her head-strong efforts she was noticed by William Moore in the short-lived magazine Native Companion. In 1907 he wrote, “She has turned out every variety of drawing, from book illustrations to designs for pantomimic costumes … Ruby Lindsay must realise that she has already made a distinct advance.”
In 1907, the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings hosted the extraordinary Women’s Work Exhibition, which gave Lindsay a chance to show her work. The event, according to the catalogue, drew both royal and international audiences and “over 250,000 attendees”, who flocked to see the work on display.
The event exhibited “women’s craftwork and patriotism … displaying a distinctly feminine response to Australian nationalism.” It came at a time when Australia was still new to Federation – in fact the Royal Melbourne Exhibition buildings were the location for the first sitting of the Federal parliament.
The political discourse in Australia, at this time, focused on Nationalism, childbearing and parenthood, and feminism, and the exhibition provided an opportunity for women to have a presence in these discussions. Following international events, such as the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the Melbourne exhibition was significant because it was not a single pavilion but a fully dedicated event for women to demonstrate their participation in the amateur and paid workforce.
There is no denying this period in Australian history saw a woman’s place as being a mother and wife, however the exhibition was also an opportunity to challenge these ideas. Lindsay engaged enthusiastically in the event and submitted many pieces in competitive categories. She both designed and won the First Class Diploma.
Graphic design – referred to as applied art at this time – was also represented by Eirene Mort (1879-1977), who submitted an alphabet influenced by Australian flora and fauna, and also designed the second class diploma. Her illustrative certificate displayed women’s work that included depictions of manual and farm labour.
One of Lindsay’s illustrations that appeared in Punch at the time, communicated her will for women to succeed at the event. It shows a woman standing with an axe and ceramic pot in her Grecian garb. Signed “Ruby Lind”, it encourages woman’s contributions to society outside of the home. Through the image Ruby demonstrates that women should be viewed as more than domesticated objects.
Lindsay’s life was cut short when she died, of what might have been the Spanish Flu. She had married Dyson and given birth to her daughter Betty while living in London. Her almost forgotten legacy is worthy of celebration because it has laid a foundation the Australian design community can be proud of.
Her independent streak was with her to the end – the name on the headstone in London reads “Ruby Lind”.
At Sydney’s enormous Rookwood Cemetery, a lichen-spotted headstone captures a family’s double burden of grief.
The grave contains the remains of 19-year-old Harriet Ann Ottaway, who died on 2 July 1919. Its monument also commemorates her brother Henry James Ottaway, who “died of wounds in Belgium, 23rd Sept 1917, aged 21 years”.
While Henry was killed at the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, Harriet’s headstone makes no mention of her own courageous combat with “Spanish flu”.
Harriet’s story typifies the enduring public silence around the pneumonic influenza pandemic of 1918–19. Worldwide, it killed an estimated 50-100 million people – at least three times all of the deaths caused by the First World War.
Why historians ignored the Spanish flu
After the disease came ashore in January 1919, about a third of all Australians were infected and the flu left nearly 15,000 dead in under a year. Those figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18.
Arguably, we could consider 1919 as another year of war, albeit against a new enemy. Indeed, the typical victims had similar profiles: fit, young adults aged 20-40. The major difference was that in 1919, women like Harriet formed a significant proportion of the casualties.
Deadly flu spread rapidly
There was no doubt about the medical and social impact of the “Spanish flu”. Although its origins remain contested, it certainly didn’t arise in Spain. What is known is that by early 1918, a highly infectious respiratory disease, caused by a then-unknown agent, was moving rapidly across Europe and the United States. By the middle of that year, as the war was reaching a tipping point, it had spread to Africa, India and Asia.
It also took on a much deadlier profile. While victims initially suffered the typical signs and symptoms of influenza – including aches, fever, coughing and an overwhelming weariness – a frighteningly high proportion went rapidly downhill.
Patients’ lungs filled with fluid – which is why it became known as “pneumonic influenza” – and they struggled to breathe. For nurses and doctors, a tell-tale sign of impending death was a blue, plum or mahogany colour in the victim’s cheeks.
This, sadly, was the fate of young Harriet Ottaway. Having nursed a dying aunt through early 1919, in June she tended her married sister Lillian, who had come down with pneumonic influenza.
Despite taking the recommended precautions, Harriet contracted the infection and died in hospital. Ironically, Lillian survived. But in the space of less than two years she had lost both a brother to the Great War and her younger sister to the Spanish flu.
An intimate impact worldwide
Indeed, as Harriet’s headstone reminds us, this was an intimate pandemic. The statistics can seem overwhelming until you realise what it means that about a third of the entire world’s population was infected.
It wasn’t just victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back the flu for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919.
But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.
Responses within Australia varied from state to state but the crisis often led to the closure of schools, churches, theatres, pubs, race meetings and agricultural shows, plus the delay of victory celebrations.
The result was not only economic hardship, but significant interruptions in education, entertainment, travel, shopping and worship. The funeral business boomed, however, as the nation’s annual death rate went up by approximately 25%.
Yet for some reason, the silence of Harriet’s headstone is repeated across the country. Compared with the Anzac memorials that peppered our towns and suburbs in the decades after the Great War, few monuments mark the impact of pneumonic influenza.
Nevertheless, its stories of suffering and sacrifice have been perpetuated in other ways, especially within family and community memories. A century later, these stories deserve to be researched and commemorated.
Despite the disruption, fear and substantial personal risk posed by the flu, tens of thousands of ordinary Australians rose to the challenge. The wartime spirit of volunteering and community service saw church groups, civic leaders, council workers, teachers, nurses and organisations such as the Red Cross step up.
They staffed relief depots and emergency hospitals, delivered comforts from pyjamas to soup, and cared for victims who were critically ill or convalescent. A substantial proportion of these courageous carers were women, at a time when many were being commanded to hand back their wartime jobs to returning servicemen.
In resurrecting stories such as the sad tale of Harriet Ottaway, it’s time to restore our memories of the “Spanish flu” and commemorate how our community came together to battle this unprecedented public crisis.