In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
We are all touched by relationships with animals — as domestic and working companions, wild inspirations, threats, or pests.
Some of us may know about the enduring worth of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fewer of us may know about the 19th century foundations for animal advocacy among ordinary women beginning, more often, to find their voice in the public sphere.
The life of Frances Deborah Levvy (14 November 1831–29 November 1924) is worth revisiting because her ethical, political, and journalistic contributions speak to our current concerns for the more-than-human world.
A mainstay of the New South Wales’ branch of the Women’s Society for the Protection of Animals, Frances, with her sister Emma Clarke, founded Australia’s first Bands of Mercy. Membership of the Bands required pledging on entry:
I promise to protect all animals from ill-treatment with all my power. When I am compelled to take the life of any creature, I will spare all needless pain.
The Bands of Mercy were based on the Bands of Hope, formed in the United Kingdom to support the temperance movement and, like them, were formal voluntary organisations in communities. Founded in 1875, they helped young people learn about and model the humane treatment of animals, coming under the RSPCA from 1882, the same year they were introduced into the United States. It was Levvy who then introduced Bands of Mercy in Australia in the mid-1880s, growing the membership from 15 to over 20,000 people over her life.
Born in Penrith, Frances was one of four children of Barnett and Sarah Levey, the former a watch-maker and theatre director, both from London. When Levey died in 1837, his widow converted from Judaism to Christianity, which appears to have shaped Frances’s moral and religious outlook. On their mother’s death Frances and her sister Emma adopted the surname Levvy. After moving to Newtown in Sydney in 1874 with her sister, Frances later went to Waverley where she lived – single and focused on her mission – until her death in 1924.
Clues to what motivated Levvy’s lifelong dedication to the humane movement are found in The Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 30 January 1906. There, the reporter describes Levvy in ways that map onto ideas emergent at the time that women’s apparently natural propensity to nurture in the private sphere could spill into the public arena and contribute to social progress.
Levvy is painted as having:
a gentle, persuasive manner … intensely in earnest in her whole-hearted and disinterested wish to save our dumb [sic] friends from ill-treatment … the right woman in the right place. It is so eminently a woman’s work which she has undertaken, to inculcate gentleness and kindness in the hearts of the children of our city …
It seems to me that it is not at all improbable. There is an evident wish to believe it.
‘Loving friend of dumb animals’
Over several decades, Levvy effectively harnessed the printed word’s power to influence how animals were treated. She developed and edited a monthly periodical, The Band of Mercy and Humane Journal (1887–1923), which inspired offshoots such as The Band of Mercy Advocate (1887–1891).
Levvy was equally adept at building community networks, and coalitions and defying moral strictures regarding the public conduct expected of “ladies”. As one report on her work (replete with deeply gendered and class-based assumptions) noted:
The draymen and vanmen at the wharves and the drivers at the cab stands are regularly visited by this loving friend of dumb animals, from whom they receive copies of the Band of Mercy journal. This paves the way for a little general conversation on the subject of kindness to animals, and then some particular instance is … [introduced]; a horse has gone lame or has a sore shoulder, which should be dressed with a decoction of tannin — or the flies are stinging and worrying, and it is suggested that … pennyroyal added to a pint of olive oil should be passed lightly over the horses to secure their immunity from this pest.
It has been suggested that Levvy’s “greatest capacity was for writing” and my own research shows that an astute use of the periodical press ensured her work was known and supported. The editors of Boston’s The Woman’s Journal, wrote glowingly of her work in 1888, noting her journal provided “a place of record for the good deeds done”. In 1906, it described the journal as having “the distinction of being the first newspaper of the kind in Australia”.
The power of the press is worth stressing here, because it underpinned growing freedoms of speech and capacities to challenge the status quo that Levvy tapped into. Debates in the press around animal protection touched on fashion (and its relationship to prescriptive forms of femininity and consumerism) and sport (with its association with betting).
Seeing young people as agents of change
In her writing and activism, Levvy often turned to children and, through them, to women — whose power she thought should extend from private to public spheres.
The 1906 report in The Daily Telegraph also describes how she gave lessons on animal protection at schools. She educated boys about the most humane method of transit of stock by rail, or training a colt to harness and saddle. And she set the following essay topics for mixed sex, upper level classes:
Does civilisation in any way depend on possession of animals? Give reasons, state requirements, and value of poultry-keeping, incubator, food, incidental diseases. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Bee-keeping: Requirements and value. Hives, honey-producing flowers, food in winter, etc. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Is the exhibition of wild animals in travelling menageries consistent with humanity? Give your reasons.
Levvy, herself, reflected in 1906 (in relation to her work on equine welfare):
The difference between now and twenty years ago … is most marked. It is hardly ever now that one sees a sore-backed, lame, miserable-looking horse in the streets. Look at the cab horses and cart horses, what fine, well-kept animals they are.
Levvy was of her time. She was, for example, deeply immersed in the progressive, democratising, and evangelical impulses that marked the 19th century.
But she was, I think, also ahead of her time, being among those women who understood and used the power of the press for socially transformative ends, and who recognised that young people are not citizens in waiting but active and influential agents for change.
At a time when the treatment of both animals and children was often questionable, and often based on narrow ideas of them as property, her actions and ideas were quietly radical and highly effective.
Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.
We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?
These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.
Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war
has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.
What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.
In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:
this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.
A divided nation
But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.
The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.
The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.
Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:
they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.
Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’
It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.
The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.
The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.
In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.
For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.
It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.
But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.
It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.
A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.
As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.
In a large storage room in the basement of the former Musée d’Histoires Naturelles in Lyon, France, stands a rare relic of the colonial era: a full-body plaster cast of an 18-year-old Badtjala man from K’gari (Fraser Island), Queensland.
While the history of Europe’s “human zoos” is well documented from a European perspective, the research behind my novel Paris Savages builds on knowledge of Australia’s little-known connection to this confronting past; a past with lasting and damaging legacies.
The man from whom the cast was made, Bonangera (Benanyora, Bonny or Boni) stands naked and holds a boomerang over his head. The plaster has been painted a dark brown. His eyes have been coloured red. Rows of horizontal cicatrices, or tribal markings, are visible as scars on his chest. Also discovered in storage were casts of the man’s hands and feet.
The collection began to draw attention in 2009 when researchers at the museum, since relocated and now known as the Musée des Confluences, linked it to the European visit of an Aboriginal trio from Fraser Island.
From the inscription on the base of the plaster foot, “Boni, l’australien”, it is likely this was the same “Bonny” famous physician and anatomist Rudolf Virchow examined in 1883.
Also studied were two other Badtjala people: Jurano/Jurono/Durono (aged 22), known in Europe as Alfred, and Dorondera/Borondera (15), known as Susanne. German man Louis Müller took the group to Germany in 1882 to perform in ethnographic exhibitions.
Cast in plaster
During our document research in Germany, Birgit Scheps of Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and I discovered a missing cast of Jurano was in fact a death mask, establishing that at least one of the troupe sadly died in Europe.
From the Lyon full-body cast, Bonangera appears proud and serious. It is likely he was concealing pain, for the gypsum plaster was often contaminated with lime and burnt the skin. But it is impossible to know how he truly felt.
Indeed, there are few first-hand accounts of any of the 35,000 performers from around the globe who French researchers estimate toured the West between 1810 and the mid-20th century.
Throughout Germany, France and Switzerland, Bonangera threw boomerangs and spears, participated in mock fights with Jurano, and climbed tall poles vaguely reminiscent of the giant satinay and hoop pine trees that grew out of sand on Fraser Island. He danced and sang in a voice described in the German newspaper Illustrirte Zeitung as reminiscent of “the monotone negro melodies of America”.
In the Lyon basement, remnants of other “ethnic shows” include a canoe used by “Laplanders”, Sami people.
Inside a compactus are masks and shields. Bonangera stares straight ahead, his expression unchanged for, what would now be, 136 years. In an era aspiring towards postcolonialism, the cast is chilling.
Daniel Browning’s heavily researched documentary on the discovery of the cast, Cast Among Strangers, features an interview with acclaimed Badtjala artist and academic Fiona Foley, who travelled with Browning to Europe.
Disturbed by the silences in the history, I contacted Dr Foley about drawing on this episode as the basis for a novel. She informed others in her community and fact-checked aspects of the work.
Browning’s research establishes that members of the Badtjala group toured cities including Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Basel and Lyon. It is now known that Bonangera also visited Geneva. Groups were commonly shown at mass exhibition sites such as Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation.
The Dresden casts of Bonangera and “Susanne” were made at the Berlin Panoptikum, where my research with Hilke Thode-Arora and Scheps confirmed the group performed. Also in the Dresden storage space were casts of Aboriginal performers from Queensland’s Hinchenbrook and Palm islands who, Roslyn Poignant writes in Professional Savages, were taken by self-confessed “man-hunter” R. A. Cunningham to Europe and America, where they performed in P.T. Barnum’s shows.
While the Sami negotiated contracts, even going on strike if conditions were not met, an 1882 account in the German journal Das Ausland has Dorondera turning her back on the audience. Was she asserting her agency over conditions she was unhappy with?
After performances throughout Germany, according to the Berlin Panoptikum archives, one of the Badtjala men (likely Jurano) was admitted to Berlin’s Charité hospital in 1883. Dorondera disappears from the records without trace.
On August 23 1883, the French newspaper Le Progrès covered Bonangera’s Lyon performances with a “Samoyed” troupe (indigenous people from the Russian arctic) and their reindeer. It is an incredible image to imagine.
His last recorded sighting was reported in Salut Public on September 3 1883. Bonangera performed in Lyon throwing a boomerang, the racist account marvelling that people “little more than monkeys” could accomplish something by “playing” that Europeans could not do. We can only wonder what Bonangera made of his audience.
The last “human zoo” to close featured people from the Congo who were exhibited at the Brussels World’s Fair. The year was 1958.
One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.
It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.
Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.
By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.
However, Henry George Grey – Colonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.
The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.
They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.
Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.
Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.
These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.
While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.
For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.
Reading the petition
Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.
By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.
While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”
The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.
Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.
Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.
The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.
A rising of ‘sister politicians’
When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.
He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.
He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.
Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.
The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.
It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.
The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.
In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.
The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.
The Flinders Ranges covers a vast area spanning over 400 kilometres. The nearest capital city is Adelaide which, like all of Australia, exists on Aboriginal land. Adelaide is in Kaurna Country, about 200 kilometres from the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful locations. This is a short drive, relative to most travel in Australia.
It is impossible to describe the Flinders Ranges as just one environment. The landscape changes as you travel from south to north and there is no way you could see its entirety in the span of a lifetime. But to give you an idea of how this land varies, lets start at its most southern end with its flowing green hills, near the small city of Port Pirie. This part of the Flinders Ranges is Nukunu Country. The land here is beautiful and your experience of it is very different, depending on whether you choose to drive on the eastern or the western side of the Ranges.
If you continue driving on the western side you will witness the place where the Ranges meet the ocean. You don’t need to pass through many towns, but you definitely should do so as they all sit on the beautiful coast of the Spencer Gulf. Port Germein, one of the stops, is a lovely seaside town and home to what was once the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. One and a half kilometres long, it lets you experience what it would be like to stand in the middle of the sea looking across to the Ranges. An amazing view indeed.
The eastern side will take you through farmland and small towns. Gum trees, creeks, gorges and green grass surround you and it is one of the first times you will find yourself up close to the Flinders Ranges. Here, you will be travelling through Nukunu Country, or if you veer further east, possibly Ngadjuri or Adnyamathanha Country. There is a stronger colonial history in the towns here, which you can see in the monuments and buildings that now seem tattered and old. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is one more stop I want to show you on the western side.
As you continue to travel you see the hills gradually turn into shades of dark green and brown. Their shape begins to change too, their soft edges turn to sharper points. The green grass transforms into red sand and you notice that the dark green and brown on the hills are the colours of the shrubs embedded into this sand. You eventually reach the small city of Port Augusta which sits at the top of the Spencer Gulf. This area is a meeting place for a number of Aboriginal groups that are separated on each side of the gulf, however, it is specifically connected to Barngarla and Nukunu. It is no surprise that this place is of great interest to so many Aboriginal Nations. It is the one place where the desert truly meets the sea. It is also the town where I grew up.
The beauty of home
Growing up in Port Augusta, I never realised just how beautiful this place was or how fortunate I was to experience such stunning views. It is not until you have lived in a city and travelled the world that you start to see the beauty in the place you call home. I spent many days during summer down at the beach during high-tide. But I was more concerned with opening my eyes under water than opening my eyes to the beauty of the Ranges.
My house was not far from an amazing view. If I took a short stroll to the end of my street I could look over a large white salt-lake to the Flinders Ranges. In this area the Ranges become more textured, their edges rougher, the creases highlighted by the shadows cast during sunset. The vegetation here is overflowing.
But even this is not the best part of the Flinders Ranges. To reach the highlight, you must travel from Port Augusta along a small gorge until you reach the point of intersection with the eastern side of the Ranges at the tiny town of Quorn. Continue through this town and the land begins to flatten out. There are fewer hills and you see horizontal red ground for miles around. You are now in a much drier area of the country. Dust. Fewer trees. But shrubbery everywhere. In the distance small hills are rising. As you reach these hills you are exiting Nukunu country and merging into Barngarla and Adnyamathanha country.
When you arrive at the small town of Hawker, you are presented with the option of two roads, and two different adventures. You must ask yourself which side of Ikara (Wilpena Pound) you want to see – the east or the west? If you choose the eastern side, you get to travel at a higher elevation. This section of road brings stunning views that you cannot see anywhere else unless you climb a hill. You feel engulfed by the Ranges, seeing their true magnitude. As you travel north you begin to really enter Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country). You are fortunate to see open plains alongside the beautiful ridges of the Flinders Ranges. Despite the perception that this region is dry, there are flecks of green everywhere. The ground is not just red: it varies between orange, yellow, white and black. These are the same colours that are present in the malka, markings and rock art that exists throughout our Yarta.
If you travel further north-east you will continue to see small hills in the distance that transform into mountains. You might even be able to glimpse a line of white on the horizon – the salt lake, Lake Frome. The further north you drive, the closer you get to Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Here you can see creeks and high gorges and you begin to realise this area is not so dry.
Travel further west and you eventually arrive in Nepabunna, a central hub for Adnyamathanha people. During the 1930s, our people decided they needed assistance from missionaries because our land had essentially been destroyed by the influence of pastoralism. When farm animals were introduced to our country, the land began to change, our waters changed, and parts of our country were no longer open to us. It was decided that we needed to turn the place known as Nipapanha into a mission. Today, Nipapanha is known as Nepabunna and is home to a small number of Adnyamathanha people. Despite most of us living outside of this area, we still feel connected and call this area our home.
If you continue driving west, you will end up in the small mining town of Copley or Leigh Creek. This place is home to even more of us. The mine is located not too far outside of the town and operated for over 70 years. Coal was being mined here for use at the power stations in Port Augusta. When the power stations shut down, so too did the mine.
Travelling south out of Leigh Creek and Copley, you see even more amazing views. The hills around this area seem unreal. They create a strange illusion because they are close enough for you to see what is on them, but far enough away to look artificial. These hills are curvy and shapely; they look smooth. They look like what sand looks like when a snake slithers across it.
The views from this entire road are gorgeous. On one side you have a flat plain with no hills, because past this is the salt lake, Lake Torrens. On the other side the hills transform from smooth and curvy to the textured, ridged, multi-coloured ranges that circle Ikara. About half-way along this road, you will see the sign for Nilpena, the location of the Ediacaran fossils.
Ediacara is just one small location in the vast area known as the Flinders Ranges. Geologically, the fossils that are found here have transformed discussions about time periods and how the earth, and everything on it, came to be. Even the Ranges themselves are examples of this geological conundrum. They are not only scientifically amazing, they are incredibly breathtaking to witness. This region is truly an amazing place.
Despite the Flinders Ranges being so large, my ancestors and the ancestors of our neighbouring groups have explored it all. They mapped the entire country thousands of years before our colonisers had even thought of maps. Our people set borders between each other and formed customs that controlled how we entered each other’s country. They named every hill; every rock formation, big and small; every creek and every stream running off that creek. If you see something here, you can bet that we have given it a name.
The name of the Ediacaran fossils comes from their location in the Ediacara hills. But talking about the Aboriginal origins of this name is not as simple as you might think and it stems back to the colonial naming of all Australian places. Back in the time when the settlers were naming and claiming as many places as possible, some given names were original, some paid tribute to colonial figures and some were named after towns in other parts of the world. What is interesting is that many places were also named using Aboriginal words.
Some Aboriginal words that are used for places are not actually place names. In fact, there are many records of humorous words being given to settlers instead of the real name of a place. Due to the complexity of our naming, settlers often mistook words that referred to a specific spot rather than to the broader landscape that they were enquiring about. It was like using the name for a street as the name of a town. This adoption of names also led to the mispronunciation of words. Settlers were in no way linguists, and many Aboriginal words used as placenames have been altered and pronounced very differently to the way they were initially used.
Documentation of the word Ediacara does not clearly indicate which Aboriginal language it comes from, but there is some information about its meaning. One understanding is that this word is linked to a place where water is present. It is also believed that it could be a mispronunciation of the words “Yata Takarra” meaning hard or stony ground. Speaking to Adnyamathanha people about the meaning of the word Ediacara presents difficulties because of the linguistic history of Aboriginal place names. It is most likely that Ediacara was once pronounced very differently and it is possible that it may not be the name of the place where the Ediacaran fossils are located. Either way, the name that exists today in no way diminishes the Adnyamathanha history of the region.
Indigenous knowledge systems
From an archaeological perspective my ancestors have been in this area for over 45,000 years. Our histories are written in the land and passed down from generation to generation through talking and by marking rock walls. If you had traversed the land via the roads I took you on earlier, you would have passed many stories. But in order to tell you one of the main stories about the formation of our country today, I must return to the coalfields of Leigh Creek.
Although the closing of Leigh Creek mine caused distress amongst miners and power station workers, for me it felt like the land had finally won. It was no longer being attacked. Leigh Creek is not the only mine that exists on our country: we have had a long history of mining extending back to early colonisation. Up north uranium is extracted and down south, where the Ediacaran fossils are, copper and silver were once mined. I remember standing next to the Leigh Creek mine and looking inside the incredibly deep hole in the ground. You don’t feel well when you witness scenes like this because they are not pretty and you know that they are the direct result of human conflict. When I looked into that hole I saw a battle lost by my ancestors against developers. I saw my people’s fight and I saw their hurt. Mining coal may have been used to power parts of the state, but in terms of my Adnyamathanha community, it was a form of disempowerment.
The coal in Leigh Creek mine is connected to the story of Yurlu’s coal. Yurlu is a Kingfisher, but more importantly, he is the Master of Ceremonies. He came down from Kakarlpunha to Leigh Creek where he made a big fire out of mallee sticks. The fire was created to alert everyone to go south with him to Ikara where there would be a ceremony. Along the route of his travels he made several fires and these became the coal deposits you can find on the way down to Ikara. While doing this he was being followed by the two big snakes known as Akurras. These snakes pursued him all the way down to Ikara and you can see their travels represented in the shape of the hills and the ranges as they slithered south. They slid into the pound where they watched the ceremony, their bodies forming each side of the shape of the pound. There is more to this story, but this is enough to illustrate the breadth of our wisdom about our country. We never had any large animals to use as transport, we developed strong knowledge of place by traversing this land on foot.
Aboriginal stories are often viewed as mythology or folk tales, but they are much more than that. This is true of stories about Aboriginal places across the entire continent. Our stories come in many forms and provide various types of knowledge. In some instances they are used as maps. The places travelled to by the beings (they can be human, animal, plant or object) in these stories can be remembered over many generations. Even when these lands were no longer accessible during periods of environmental change, our people could recall them thousands of years later.
Our stories can be used as lessons, indicators of places or things that are dangerous. And I mean real danger, not “taboo”. Places where you can easily become disorientated and lost are in these stories as well as plants or other substances that are chemically dangerous to touch or consume. Our lesson stories can also lead us to places that can help us. They may describe natural springs in land where fresh water is uncommon, or they may map out the locations of rare food sources. They might relate to aspects of our culture such as the origin of certain ceremonies or the ways we identify ourselves in relation to each other.
Our stories are extensive and full of purpose, but because they are boxed into the category of mythology, the knowledge they contain is not seen as scientifically reliable. Western science has always prided itself on being objective and quantifiable and there is no doubt that it has presented some of the most important discoveries across the world. However, it has also been responsible for the oppression of my people. Western scientists developed ideas that enabled them to see Aboriginal people as lesser beings, that suggested “Western civilisation” was more intelligent than us. Western science is behind the forced removal of Aboriginal children, known more commonly in Australia as “The Stolen Generation”. Western science is the reason my people are seen as nomadic: it claimed we had no understanding of the land we existed on and that we were aimlessly wandering the country. Ultimately, Western science is the reason our land was originally taken away from us.
45,000 years of connecting to heritage
Western science and Indigenous knowledge clash because of their histories. In western society, science will always be placed on a higher pedestal, it will always be seen as more trustworthy. But Indigenous knowledge is the result of many thousands of years of observation. You cannot compare that to the past thousand or so years that western science has existed.
Scientific understanding of the Ediacaran period seems to be completely beyond the scope of Indigenous knowledge systems. It is unknown whether my ancestors had seen or even understood what the fossils were. However, the extent of our knowledge of the land and its creatures cannot be denied.
A similarity can be found between these fossils and our cultural heritage. Both are significant and vulnerable, and both need to be protected. When geologists and paleontologists started going to Ediacara the station owner made an admirable decision to restrict the removal of fossils for research. Therefore, all documentation of the fossils is completed on site. Additionally, their location is kept private due to the fear of vandalism and looting.
Adnyamathanha people have similar fears about our heritage. Our rock art is routinely destroyed and artefacts are removed from their original place. They are taken as souvenirs or vandalised out of disrespect for our culture. Unfortunately, we do not have the comfort of owning private land. Our heritage is used for tourism and whilst it is great that this shines a light on our history and culture, you have to wonder whether it is all worth it when our cultural heritage is in danger of destruction. Adnyamathanha heritage deserves as much consideration as the Ediacaran fossils.
Prior to Reginald Sprigg announcing his discovery of the fossils in 1946 they were of no interest to anyone, but we have continually been connected to our heritage for 45,000 years.
American farmer and poet Wendell Berry said of the first Europeans in North America that they came with vision, but not with sight. They came with vision of former places but not the sight to see what was before them. Instead of adapting their vision to suit the place, they changed the landscape to fit their vision.
The same can be said of the first Europeans in Australia. They modified the landscape to suit their domesticated plants and animals. They sowed seeds to create pasture for sheep and cattle and opened up areas to cultivate crops brought from the northern hemisphere.
This eye for the open parts of the Australian landscapes likely contributed to a view that Aboriginal people, too, almost exclusively preferred open vegetation types such as woodland and grasslands.
But findings from our recently published study of archaeological records challenge this notion. They show that Aboriginal people also inhabited Tasmania’s forests, in particular wet sclerophyll forests.
It’s important to understand how people used, affected and related to the natural environment. The way Tasmanian Aboriginal people hunted, gathered and used fire had a major influence on the structure, function and distribution of today’s plant and animal communities. This has big implications for conservation today.
In recent years, a series of books have examined Aboriginal land management over at least 50,000 years. Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth, Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu have all helped us read the country as a cultural landscape that Aboriginal people managed intensively – shaping it intelligently over tens of thousands of years through fire, law and seasonal use.
Gammage in particular emphasised Aboriginal people’s unvarying dependence on open vegetation sustained by frequent burning. Our findings question this dogma, which has prevailed for centuries.
Our research suggests imposed visions of former places – and the nostalgic license of colonial artists – had previously skewed our perception of preferred Aboriginal landscapes towards those that match a northern hemisphere ideal of human habitat, rooted in the theory of prospect and refuge.
Prospect refers to a view over open ground affording sight of game and forewarning of danger. Refuge refers to features offering safety such as easy-to-climb trees. The ideal combination of prospect and refuge is a view of water over closely cropped grass, framed by the horizontal branches of a mature tree. This ideal dominates real estate advertising to this day.
What we found will surprise you
Our study used archaeological data in an ecological model to identify habitats most likely occupied by Aboriginal people in Tasmania during the Holocene – the last 10,000 years of the Earth’s history following the end of the last ice age.
The model identified the environmental characteristics of 8,000 artefact sites in the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Register, including features such as altitude, slope, aspect, soil type, pre-1750 vegetation, distance to the coast and distance to fresh water. We then mapped all parts of the island that shared the environmental characteristics associated with artefact sites.
The spread of artefacts showed us that while Tasmanian Aboriginal people occupied every type of habitat, they targeted coastal areas around the whole island, and drier, less steep, environments of the central lowlands.
Few archaeological materials from the last 10,000 years of the Holocene have been found in the wet, rugged western interior. However archaeological materials from the preceding Pleistocene period indicates the western interior was more intensively occupied during the last ice age.
The most important finding of our analysis, however, is that physical aspects of landscape proved to be stronger predictors of Tasmanian Aboriginal occupation than vegetation type. The strongest predictors proved to be flat ground, clay soil as an indicator of fertility, low altitude, proximity to the coast and proximity to inland waters. In particular, our results indicate Holocene Tasmanian Aboriginal people exploited wet eucalypt forests as much as open vegetation types.
Why these findings matter
This result points to a more complex and interesting relationship between Tasmanian Aboriginal people and forests, such as if and how frequently fire was used in these environments.
More archaeological surveys, particularly in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, are needed to test whether our analysis is a true reflection of Aboriginal resource use. An upside to the recent bushfires in Tasmania is that such surveys are more easily carried out in burnt environments. So we have a perfect opportunity to discover more about how Aboriginal people shaped their island home.
Our research contributes to restoring Tasmania’s cultural heritage, reclaiming the history of the island and dispelling the myth of the nomad. All of this supports Tasmanian Aboriginal and non‐Aboriginal people in working towards culturally sensitive conservation and land management.
Leila Waddell (1880-1932) was a country girl from Bathurst, NSW, who entered the world stage as an acclaimed violinist – and left it having influenced magical practice into the 21st century.
Her early life focused on music. She studied violin and joined the Sydney music scene, teaching genteel girls at some of Sydney’s most prestigious schools. Her concert performances earned her a devoted following. She favoured composers such as Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps, and soon gained a reputation as one of Australia’s leading violinists.
Waddell left Australia as part of a touring orchestra in 1908, and found herself in London. Here she was introduced to New Zealand author (and cellist) Katherine Mansfield at a concert. They became firm friends, and regulars in a Bohemian society centred around the Cafe Royal.
As well as musicians, poets and artists, the cafe attracted members of London’s magical orders. It was likely here that Wadell first met the magician Aleister Crowley, who liked to distribute samples of the hallucinogenic drug peyote at parties. The meeting opened the door into another world.
Sex, drugs and violins
Within a short time Waddell and Crowley became lovers. Waddell began studying magic as part of Crowley’s order, the A .‘.A .’. (Astrum Argentum), in which she was known as Sister Agatha. Crowley, however, called her Laylah, his Scarlet Woman. In his magical universe, the role of the Scarlet Woman was a sort of anti-Virgin Mary who transgressed the boundaries of feminine virtue by wallowing in excess.
Waddell is often relegated to a character in Crowley’s life. But if we assess her life on its own terms, we see a brilliant musician, a philosopher of magic, and a rebel who was unafraid to take risks and be true to herself.
Crowley was experimenting with using sex in rituals. He was interested in how heightened emotions could be harnessed for magical outcomes, such as achieving transcendental states or summoning otherworldly beings.
The moment of orgasm, he believed, focused the magician’s will and increased their power. As a poet and playwright, Crowley was also exploring rituals as theatrical performances, where the audience were co-practitioners.
Crowley was entranced by Waddell’s musical prowess. Together, they began devising magical rituals which combined music, poetry and dance. The idea came about during a weekend at the house of Crowley’s disciple Guy Marston (who believed that married English women could be induced to masturbate by the sound of tom-tom drums).
Waddell’s extensive experience as a performer was a key part of bringing this idea to fruition. The result was the Rites of Eleusis: musical theatre redefining magic for the new era of modernism
The Rites had seven parts, each associated with a planet or celestial body. Waddell composed original music for them, as well as drawing on her favourite composers. The purpose was to enable the audience to attain spiritual ecstasy.
The first performances were tested before small groups, enhanced by drug-laced “libations”. A journalist, describing Waddell’s playing, wrote:
Once again the figure took the violin, and played […] so beautifully, so gracefully, and with such intense feeling, that in very deed most of us experienced that Ecstasy which Crowley so earnestly seeks.
In October 1910, the Rites were ready for the public. The venue was Caxton Hall in London. The audience was encouraged to dress in the appropriate colour for each Rite, such as violet for Jupiter, russet for Mars.
Waddell played her violin, Crowley’s disciple Victor Neuburg danced, and Crowley intoned his turgid paeans to the god Pan. The hall was in semi-darkness. The performances were filled with sexual symbolism, but no sex magic took place on stage.
The critics were not very kind to the public Rites of Eleusis, but most agreed Waddell’s virtuosity was a highlight.
‘Consciousness exalted into music’
The Great Beast and the Scarlet Woman had a prolific creative life. Both contributed to The Equinox, a publication devoted to Crowley’s circle. Other contributors included Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Susannah Pritchard and the Irish writer Frank Harris.
After the Rites of Eleusis, Crowley embarked on writing a book which many consider his most significant work. Magick: Liber ABA, Book 4 was a collaborative effort between Crowley, A.‘.A.’. member Mary Desti, and Waddell. In Part III, they reflected on the lessons learnt from the Rites of Eleusis.
They concluded that an audience of initiates would more effectively channel magical power than the general public. As for the music, it should be composed specifically for the ritual – indicating that Waddell’s own compositions had hit the mark. The book was published in The Equinox in 1912.
Waddell booked a concert tour to the US. She had planned to buy her passage on the ill-fated Titanic, but just missed out on a ticket. Her narrow escape was widely reported in Australian newspapers. After completing this engagement, she returned to Europe to tour with the Ragged Ragtime Girls, a violin group managed by Crowley. She continued her magical studies in the Ordo Templi Orientis, an order with a strong focus on sex magic.
The First World War interrupted the idyll of sex, magic and music. Ireland was under British rule, and many Irish nationalists saw the war as an opportunity to fight for independence. As the daughter of Irish famine refugees, Waddell was sympathetic. In New York she joined a secret revolutionary group under the name of “L. Bathurst”.
Crowley arrived in New York in 1914, purportedly on a mission to discredit Germany by spreading absurd propaganda. This was the impetus for an extraordinary stunt.
At dawn on the morning of 3 July 1915, Waddell, Crowley and a party of Irish revolutionaries sailed down the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty, with the intention of declaring Irish independence and war on England.
But the guards wouldn’t let them land. Crowley made an impassioned speech, which no-one could hear from the prow of the boat, then tore up his passport and threw it in the river. Waddell played the rebel anthem The Wearing of the Green to accompany the Declaration of Independence.
The following year the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion which aimed to overthrow English rule in Ireland, was brutally suppressed in Dublin.
Crowley left New York for the West Coast, while Waddell continued to tour, write and socialise. She was friends with writers like Rebecca West and Theodore Dreiser, and regularly attended salons held by Frank Harris, who had not yet attained notoriety as the author of the sexually explicit My Life and Loves.
While touring US cities, she played lunch time concerts in factories, organised by the YMCA. The venues were barns, sheds, and gardens, and the audiences were mostly male migrant workers. The men sang along with the arias and would give her wildflower posies. She loved this experience and considered it the greatest work of her career.
Already a seasoned writer, Waddell came to wider notice with her memoir of Katherine Mansfield, who died in 1923. Details are murky, but it seems this led to contracts for a novel and a book of short stories with a London publisher. Crowley, meanwhile, had set up a magical Abbey in Sicily with his new Scarlet Woman. It was time to move on.
Return to the Antipodes
In 1924 Waddell returned to Australia as her father was very ill. The prodigal violinist was greeted enthusiastically, and quickly became immersed in concerts, touring, and radio appearances. She resumed her earlier career teaching violin to affluent schoolgirls. If Sydney society remembered her association with Crowley, dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the press, it did not dim their eagerness for her music.
However, soon she became ill herself from uterine cancer. Her books were never finished. She died in 1932 and was buried next to her parents in Sydney.
The Rites of Eleusis are still performed today by Crowleyites across the world, including the Ordo Templi Orientis in Australia. In 2015, Wadell was celebrated as one of Bathurst’s favourite daughters at the town’s 200th anniversary. From country to city to world and other-world, her life was truly a magical journey.
While easily “mistaken for a Spaniard” on the streets of downtown Sydney, the young Marau was in fact the second youngest daughter of an aristocratic Tahitian mother, Ari‘i Taimai, and a wealthy Englishman of Jewish descent, Alexander Salmon. (The pair, who had married in 1842, had nine children, all of whom enjoyed a cosmopolitan upbringing, speaking English and being educated overseas.)
Although little is known about her time in Sydney, other than an abiding memory of ice-cold baths and unpleasant Australian mutton, Marau’s Australian education was cut short at the age of 14 when she was summoned home to marry Prince Ari‘i-aue. Her marriage to the alcoholic future king, who was some 22 years her senior, saw her written into the history books as “the last Queen of Tahiti”.
An unhappy match
By all accounts, Marau’s royal wedding was a spectacular affair, with a fusion of Polynesian and European style festivities continuing across Papeete, the Tahitian capital, for two days. However, unlike that of her parents, her marriage was far from a love match.
It was a strategic alliance between the Pōmare family – who had always struggled to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Tahitian public – and her mother’s Teva dynasty, who were more readily recognised as the true holders of chiefly power and prestige.
But in Marau’s words, her husband’s behaviour “quickly became impossible to tolerate”. Allegedly suffering from syphilis, tuberculosis and occasionally pneumonia, the prince’s predilection for rum before noon was legendary.
Despite the kindness shown to her by his mother Queen Pōmare IV, palace life was far from happy for Marau. She found herself spending more and more time at her mother’s home in Papara, where she occupied herself reading, learning Tahitian embroidery and unravelling the secrets of her family’s land.
After the death of the Queen, she was briefly encouraged to return to her prince’s side to ascend the throne in September 1877. However, less than two years later, the now-Queen Marau accepted a royal pension of 300 francs per month and moved out permanently.
Children shut out
While the pair did not officially divorce until January 1888, from 1879 onward they would appear together only at official ceremonies where neither would talk to the other. However, Marau would not let these personal circumstances get in the way of living a life befitting of royalty.
In 1884 she took to Europe – without the King’s blessing – where she was “received and celebrated all over”, often finding herself in homes and palaces of elite Parisian families. Wearing old-style Tahitian dresses, Marau would attend the theatre most nights, where she revelled in the limelight as any 25-year-old guest of honour would do.
Meanwhile, back in Tahiti, her husband felt that press reports of his wife’s reception by the French political class “offended our dignity and insulted us as people”. This was perhaps a little rich coming from somebody who just four years earlier had ceded sovereignty over Tahiti and its dependencies to the French for a sizeable pension in return. (Famed American historian Henry Adams would write that he “now gets drunk on the proceeds, $12,000 a year”.)
For Queen Marau, the tip of the iceberg was the King’s refusal to recognise her two daughters, Teri‘i (born in 1879) and Takau (born in 1887), as his own.
Though they eventually took the Pōmare name – the third, Ernest, who arrived several months after the divorce proceedings, was never officially recognised – all three children were shut out of the royal inheritance. After Pōmare V’s refusal to recognise the third child, Marau famously snapped back that none of them belonged to him anyway.
In the months preceding the death of Pomare V in June 1891, Queen Marau played host to Henry Adams and his artist-friend John La Farge. Bored and growing increasingly critical of colonial Papeete, the pair’s fortunes changed upon meeting Marau and her brother Tati Salmon at Papara. Of Marau, Adams wrote:
If she was once handsome, certainly her beauty is not what attracts men now. What she has is a face strongly marked and decidedly intelligent, with a sub-expression of recklessness, or true old-goldishness … One feels the hundred generations of chiefs who are in her, without one commoner except the late Salmon, her deceased parent.
Finding her “still showy, very intelligent, musical, deep in native legends and history, and quite energetic”, Marau became the perfect conduit between Adams and her ageing mother. In turn, this enabled the pair to work on the production of the Memoirs of Arii Tamai (1901). A history of pre-colonial Tahiti from the perspective of the Teva family, it is now regarded as a canonical text in Tahitian ethnography.
A dominant public figure
With most scholars tending to lose interest in Marau’s life at this point, it would be tempting to end our story here with the Queen living out the rest of her years “hard-up” on a measly government pension.
But the reality was that she remained a dominant public figure until her death in February 1935.
When massive phosphate deposits were discovered on the nearby island of Makatea in 1907, Marau frustrated the progress of an Anglo-French consortium by using her influence to sign contracts with local landowners, despite knowing she lacked the means to exploit the mineral herself.
While the intervention netted her a tidy payment of 75,000 francs and an ongoing royalty of 37 and a half centimes per ton of phosphate extracted, victory was even sweeter as the man behind the phosphate operation was her ex-husband’s lawyer, Auguste Goupil, chief architect of the plan to write her children out of their royal inheritance.
Finally, just as the stories of Ari‘i Taimai were collected and written down by a younger, energetic Marau, her own daughter Takau did the same for her mother in her dotage (eventually published in 1971 as Memoires de Marau Taaroa). As modern and tumultuous as her life may have been, the Memoires also portrays someone who never lost her grounding in ancient Tahitian culture.
Nothing reflects this better than Marau’s grand tomb at Uranie cemetery just outside of Papeete. Her tomb, taking the form of the grand Teva-family marae, Mahaiatea, it is a tribute to one of Tahiti’s greatest cultural and spiritual monuments.
This monument to the Tahitian god ‘Oro, consecrated by the famous Tupaia between 1766-8, had been destroyed in 1865 by a European planter in order to construct a bridge. The bridge itself was soon washed away by flood.
Some 1,000 kilometres inland from Sydney, over the Blue Mountains, past the trees that drink the tributaries of the Darling River, there stands a little, red mosque. It marks where the desert begins.
The mosque was built from corrugated iron in around 1887 in the town of Broken Hill. Its green interiors feature simple arabesque and its shelves house stories once precious to people from across the Indian Ocean. Today it is a peaceful place of retreat from the gritty dust storms and brilliant sunlight that assault travellers at this gateway to Australia’s deserts.
By a rocky hill that winds had “polished black”, the town of Broken Hill was founded on the country of Wiljakali people. In June 1885, an Aboriginal man whom prospectors called “Harry” led them to a silver-streaked boulder of ironstone and Europeans declared the discovery of a “jeweller’s shop”.
Soon, leading strings of camels, South Asian merchants and drivers began arriving in greater numbers at the silver mines, camel transportation operating as a crucial adjunct to colonial industries throughout Australian deserts. The town grew with the fortunes of the nascent firm Broken Hill Propriety Limited (BHP) — a parent company of one of the largest mining conglomerates in the world today, BHP-Billiton.
As mining firms funnelled lead, iron ore and silver from Wiljakali lands to Indian Ocean ports and British markets, Broken Hill became a busy industrial node in the geography of the British Empire. The numbers of camel merchants and drivers fluctuated with the arrival and departure of goods, and by the turn of the 20th century an estimated 400 South Asians were living in Broken Hill. They built two mosques. Only one remains.
In the 1960s, long after the end of the era of camel transportation, when members of the Broken Hill Historical Society were restoring the mosque on the corner of William Street and Buck Street, they found a book in the yard, its “pages blowing in the red dust” in the words of historian Christine Stevens. Dusting the book free of sand, they placed it inside the mosque, labelling it as “The Holy Koran”. In 1989, Stevens reproduced a photo of the book in her history of the “Afghan cameldrivers” .
I travelled to Broken Hill in July 2009. As I searched the shelves of the mosque for the book, a winter dust storm was underway outside. Among letters, a peacock feather fan and bottles of scent from Delhi, the large book lay, bearing a handwritten English label: “The Holy Koran”.
Turning the first few pages revealed it was not a Quran, but a 500-page volume of Bengali Sufi poetry.
Sitting on the floor, I set out to decipher Bengali characters I had not read for years. The book was titled Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets). Printed in Calcutta, it was a compendium of eight volumes published separately between 1861 and 1895. It was a book of books. Every story began by naming the tempo at which it should be performed, for these poems were written to be sung out loud to audiences.
As I strained to parse unfamiliar Persian, Hindi and Arabic words, woven into a tapestry of 19th-century Bengali grammar, I slowly started to glimpse the shimmering imagery of the poetry.
Creation began with a pen, wrote Munshi Rezaulla, the first of the three poets of Kasasol Ambia. As a concealed pen inscribed words onto a tablet, he narrates, seven heavens and seven lands came into being, and “Adam Sufi” was sculpted from clay. Over the 500 pages of verse that follow, Adam meets Purusha, Alexander the Great searches for immortal Khidr, and married Zulekha falls hopelessly in love with Yusuf.
As Rezaulla tells us, it was his Sufi guide who instructed him to translate Persian and Hindi stories into Bengali. Overwhelmed by the task, Rezaulla asked, “I am so ignorant, in what form will I write poetry?”
In search of answers, the poet wrote, “I leapt into the sea. Searching for pearls, I began threading a chain.” Here the imagery of the poet’s body immersed in a sea evokes a pen dipped in ink stringing together line after line of poetry. As Rezaulla wrote, “Stories of the Prophets (Kasasol Ambia) I name this chain.”
Its pages stringing together motif after motif from narratives that have long circulated the Indian Ocean, Kasasol Ambia described events spanning thousands of years, ending in the sixth year of the Muslim Hijri calendar. Cocooned from the winds raging outside, I realised I was reading a Bengali book of popular history.
Challenging Australian history
In the time since Broken Hill locals dusted Kasasol Ambia of sand in the 1960s, why had four Australian historians mislabelled the book? Why did the history books accompanying South Asian travellers to the West play no role in the histories that are written about them?
Moreover, as Christine Stevens writes, the people who built the mosque in North Broken Hill came from “Afghanistan and North-Western India”. How, then, did a book published in Bengal find its way to an inland Australian mining town?
Captivated by this last enigma, I began looking for clues. First, I turned to the records of the Broken Hill Historical Society. Looking for fragments of Bengali words in archival collections across Australia, I sought glimpses of a traveller who might be able to connect 19th-century Calcutta to Broken Hill.
As I searched for South Asian characters through a constellation of desert towns and Australian ports once linked by camels, I encountered a vast wealth of non-English-language sources that Australian historians systematically sidestep.
A seafarer’s travelogue narrated in Urdu in Lahore continues to circulate today in South Asia and in Australia, while Urdu, Persian and Arabic dream texts from across the Indian Ocean left ample traces in Australian newspapers.
One of the most surprising discoveries was that the richest accounts of South Asians were in some of the Aboriginal languages spoken in Australian desert parts. In histories that Aboriginal people told in Wangkangurru, Kuyani, Arabunna and Dhirari about the upheaval, violence and new encounters that occurred in the wake of British colonisation, there appear startlingly detailed accounts of South Asians.
Central to the history of encounter between South Asians and Aboriginal people in the era of British colonisation were a number of industries in which non-white labour was crucial: steam shipping industries, sugar farming, railway construction, pastoral industries, and camel transportation. Camels, in particular, loom large in the history of South Asians in Australia.
From the 1860s, camel lines became central to transportation in Australian desert interiors, colonising many of the long-distance Indigenous trade routes that crisscross Aboriginal land. The animals arrived from British Indian ports accompanied by South Asian camel owners and drivers, who came to be known by the umbrella term of “Afghans” in settler nomenclature.
The so-called Afghans were so ubiquitous through Australian deserts that when the two ends of the transcontinental north-south railway met in Central Australia in 1929, settlers rejoiced in the arrival of the “Afghan Express”. Camels remained central to interior transportation until they were replaced by motor transportation from the 1920s. Today the transcontinental railway is still known as “the Ghan”.
As a circuitry of camel tracks interlocking with shipping lines and railways threaded together Aboriginal lives and families with those of Indian Ocean travellers, people moving through these networks storied their experiences in their own tongues. Foregrounding these fragments in languages other then English, this book tells a history of South Asian diaspora in Australia.
Asking new questions
I start by reading the copy of Kasasol Ambia that remains in Broken Hill, and interpret the many South Asian- and Aboriginal-language stories I encountered during my search for the reader who brought the Bengali book to the Australian interior. Entry points into rich imaginative landscapes, these are stories that ask us to take seriously the epistemologies of people colonised by the British Empire.
My aim is to challenge the suffocating monolingualism of the field of Australian history. In my new book, Australianama, I do not argue for the simple inclusion of non-English-language texts into existing Australian national history books, perhaps with updated or extended captions.
Instead, I show that non-English-language texts render visible historical storytelling strategies and larger architectures of knowledge that we can use to structure accounts of the past. These have the capacity to radically change the routes readers use to imaginatively travel to the past. Stories in colonised tongues can transform the very grounds from which we view the past, present and future.
In July 2009, when I first encountered Kasasol Ambia, the Bengali book long mislabelled as a Quran made front-page news in Broken Hill. With touching enthusiasm, the journalist announced that I would “begin work on a full translation shortly”.
Overwhelmed by such a task, I began trawling mosque records held by the Broken Hill Historical Society, soon beginning a search through port records, customs documents and government archives. I did not know how to decipher the difficult book, and so in these archival materials I hoped to glimpse, however fleetingly, the skilled 19th-century reader who had once performed its poetry.
Slowly, it dawned on me that I was following the logic that Rezaulla outlines in his schema for translation. For I too had stepped into the imaginative world of the poetry in search of answers to some hard questions: How do we write histories of South Asian diaspora which pay attention to the history books that travelled with them? Who was the unnamed traveller who brought Bengali stories of the prophets to Broken Hill? Can historical storytelling in English do more than simply induct readers into white subjectivities?
Threading together seven narrative motifs that appear in Kasasol Ambia, I began to piece together a history of South Asians in Australia.
This is an edited extract from Australianama by Samia Khatun, UQP, rrp $34.95, out from 6 September.
In April 2020, Australia will mark 250 years since James Cook sailed into Kamay (later known as Botany Bay) on the Endeavour, kicking off a series of events that resulted in the British arriving and staying uninvited first at Warrane (Sydney Cove) in 1788, and later at numerous locations across the continent.
Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded, and as a nation we are still grappling with the consequences of these actions of 221 years ago. Although we often focus on the large-scale impact of British settlers – the diseases my ancestors brought, the violence they committed – we are less good at seeing the small and unwitting ways that settlers participated in British colonialism. One such story emerges when we track the history of an unlikely cultural object – clay from Sydney.
In April 1770, Joseph Banks – the gentleman botanist on James Cook’s first voyage – recorded in his journal how the traditional owners of Botany Bay painted their bodies with broad strokes of white ochre, which he compared to the cross-belt of British soldiers.
Eighteen years later, Arthur Phillip, Governor of New South Wales, sent Banks a box full of this white ochre – he’d read the published journal and suspected Banks would be interested. The ochre was a fine white clay and Phillip wondered whether it would be useful for manufacturing pottery.
Once in Britain, this sample of clay took on a life of its own, passed between scientists across Europe. Josiah Wedgwood – Banks’ go-to expert on all things clay-related – tested a sample and described it as “an excellent material for pottery”. He had his team of skilled craftspeople make a limited number of small medallions using this Sydney clay.
These medallions depict an allegory according to the classical fashion of the time. A standing figure represents “Hope” (shown with an anchor) instructing three bowing figures – “Peace” (holding an olive branch), “Art” (with an artist’s palette) and “Labour” (with a sledgehammer).
A cornucopia lies at their feet, representing the abundance that these qualities could produce in a society, while in the background a ship, town and fort suggest a flourishing urban settlement supported by trade.
This little ceramic disc made out of Sydney clay represented tangible evidence of how the new colony could flourish with “industry” – the right combination of knowledge, skills and effort. Yet notably absent from this vision of the new colony was any representation of Aboriginal people.
Later still, a version formed the first masthead of the Sydney Gazette – the first newspaper in the colony. The ideas behind the medallion gained even wider circulation in the colony. As historian of science Lindy Orthia has argued, the Sydney Gazette was a place where various schemes for improving manufacturing and farming were regularly discussed.
We can see the impact of these ideas by looking at what colonists themselves did with the clay. Although the first examples of Sydney-made pottery were unglazed and fragile, by the first decades of the 19th century, the quality had improved.
Over the last 30 years, archaeologists have found examples of Sydney-made pottery across Sydney and Parramatta on sites dating from the 1800s to 1820s.
Commonly called “lead-glazed pottery”, this material ranges from larger basins and pans, to more refined, decorated items, including chamber pots, bowls, plates, cups and saucers. Although basic, it clearly was based on British forms. The discovery of the former site of a potter’s workshop in 2008 confirmed this material was made locally.
It has been found on sites ranging from the Governor’s residence on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Street, Sydney, to former convict huts in Parramatta, alongside imported British earthenware and Chinese export porcelain. Visitors to the fledgling colony commented on this pottery as evidence of its growth and development.
Sydney-made pottery helped colonists maintain different aspects of “civilised” behaviour. When imported tableware was expensive, local pottery allowed convicts living outside of barracks and other poorer settlers to use ceramic plates and cups, rather than cheaper wooden items.
Locally-made pots were also used to cook stews over a fire. Stews not only continued the established food practices of their British and Irish homes, but also conformed to contemporary ideas of a good, nourishing diet.
These practices around food would have distinguished colonists from the local Aboriginal people. In the coastal area around Sydney, locals tended to roast meat and vegetables, and to eat some fish and smaller birds or animals after only burning off their scales, feathers and fur.
George Thompson, a visiting ship’s gunner who had a low opinion of most things in the colony, thought that eating half-roasted fish was evidence of “a lazy indolent people”.
As historian Penny Russell has discussed, eating “half-cooked” food became a well-worn trope in the 19th century, frequently repeated as evidence of the supposed lack of civilisation by Aboriginal people. By contrast, as the historian and curator Blake Singley has suggested, European cooking methods frequently became a way that native plants and animals could be “civilised” and incorporated into settler diets.
The colonists’ use of Sydney clay helped to distinguish their notion of civilisation from Aboriginal culture, and so implicitly helped to justify the dispossession of Aboriginal people. The story of this clay demonstrates how quickly colonists’ focus could shift away from Aboriginal people: although Aboriginal use of white ochre continued to be recorded by colonists and visitors, Sydney clay primary became seen as the material of a skilled European craft.
Through the use of local pottery, ordinary settlers could participate in this civilising program, replicating the culture of their homeland. These small, everyday actions helped create a vision of Sydney that excluded Aboriginal people – despite the fact that they have continued to live in and around Sydney since 1788.