Category Archives: Aborigines

Hidden women of history: Isabel Flick, the tenacious campaigner who fought segregation in Australia



Isabel, on left, when she was working for Mangankali Housing Company, talking to politicians and/or bureaucrats on the Wollai, the Aboriginal reserve at Collarenebri.
Family collection, provided to author.

Heather Goodall, University of Technology Sydney

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

Like many other Aboriginal kids in 1938, Isabel Flick was denied an education because she was “too black” to be allowed into the segregated public school.

Her father, a returned serviceman, was disrespected by the nation he had fought for. She and her siblings faced the threat of being taken from their family. She was later called a “trouble maker” for demanding justice for Aboriginal women and children and Aboriginal rights to land.

Isabel pictured around 1980.
Heather Goodall

Despite the formidable racism of rural Australia, Isabel, a Gamilaraay and Bigambul woman living in Collarenebri, did not give up on the bush. She returned again and again to the upper Darling River, demanding land for Aboriginal people (who in that area called themselves Murries) and protection of the river from the grazing and cotton industries.

It was an irony that amused Isabel that, in 1991, she was called on to be a spokesperson for the whole town, white and black, in its campaign for safe drinking water and decent river flows for everyone. The town of Collarenebri, which had resisted her calls for justice for most of her life, was now asking her to protect its very existence in the deep drought of the 1990s.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Kathleen McArthur, the wildflower woman who took on Joh Bjelke-Petersen


Born in 1928, Isabel had shown how tenacious she was from a young age – although denied access to the Collarenebri public school, she was determined to teach herself to read and write. And she did. On the veranda of the local manse as a child and then in every place she worked and lived, Isabel grabbed every shred of knowledge and skill she could, determined she would not be defeated by segregation and exclusion.

The group of children who were excluded from Collarenebri public school in 1938 as ‘too black’. The photo is from the Abo Call, an Aboriginal-edited newspaper that existed for six issues in 1938. Isabel is the shortest girl standing in the middle row. The tall boy behind her is Aub Weatherall, her future partner.
Author provided

‘I was terrified when I stood up there’

By the 1950s, as a young mother, Isabel was working as a cleaner in the same school to which she had been denied access as a student. She was trying to hold her family together in the face of uncertainty in the pastoral work her partner did and a precarious existence on the edge of the town.

Murri kids were now allowed to go to the school, but they faced hostility from white students, parents and staff. Isabel used her time there to support them, demonstrating her formidable insight as well as her negotiating skills and keen sense of humour to disarm conflict with teachers and deflect contempt from white parents.

Still, the possibility of her flying under the radar could not last. Indeed it was over children that Isabel decided to take on the town. She and her sister-in-law, Isobelle Walford, had for years been angered by the discrimination their children were facing in the schools and in the main streets. The petty segregation of the town’s cinema, the “Liberty” Picture Show was the last straw.

The Liberty Picture Show, circa 1980.
Heather Goodall

Watching their kids being herded down to the front seats, where they were roped off and had to crane their necks to see the screen, Isabel and Isobelle made the decision in 1961 to challenge the unspoken rules.

They marched up to the ticket box and demanded seats that had been reserved for whites only. Their action made the women and their families vulnerable to retribution at work and on the streets. But this local activism, which happened much earlier than the celebrated 1965 Freedom Ride led by Charles Perkins, later drew the attention of the university campaigners in north west NSW. As Isabel remembered it:

…I stood in front of the ticket office and I said: ‘I want you to come and fix this. Take these ropes off! What do you think we are? Our money is as good as anyone else’s and we want to sit where we want to sit’ … I was terrified when I stood up there … my poor little heart, I don’t know how it stayed in my chest, but it did. Even though I said it as calmly as I could, I was so sick within myself.

Isobelle joined Isabel and the pair stood their ground in front of the ticket seller.

And then he could see I was just going to stand there and keep standing there. Sometimes I think if he’d waited just a little bit longer, I’d have gone away. But then he said: ‘Oh, alright, you can sit anywhere then!’

Still frustrated by the poor health care and education offered to her people in the bush, Isabel brought her family to Sydney in the late 1960s, hoping to escape the suffocating racism of rural towns. She worked in the kitchen at Prince Alfred Hospital in Newtown while her partner, Aubrey Weatherall, worked in factories, but Sydney offered little relief from the racism.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Mary Jane Cain, land rights activist, matriarch and community builder


What Isabel did find were allies. She got to know Aboriginal people from other places, with similar stories. And she met the city students and activists who were eager to learn about conditions in rural areas and to put their shiny new credentials as lawyers, archaeologists and doctors into effecting social change.

Isabel playing cards with students at Tranby, an Indigenous-controlled, post-secondary educational body.
Author provided.

With these people, Isabel fostered strategies that could be put to work in rural areas to support and strengthen Aboriginal communities. And with some, Isabel built warm friendships of trust and confidence which lasted all her life. She had hoped to gain a better education for her children, but in the end, they felt that it had been Isabel who had learned the most from their time in Sydney.

Campaigning for a place of peace

By the time Isabel returned to Collarenebri, she had become a skilled and careful negotiator. After campaigning for Land Rights, she took up a job with Mangankali, the Aboriginal Housing company she helped found.

She was trying to achieve concrete outcomes – better housing, more equitable distribution of resources – but always had a recognition of the importance of the broader, symbolic issues. So, she paid a great deal of attention to the Aboriginal cemetery, in which many of the community had buried their loved ones, old and young.

The town cemetery was segregated – but the Aboriginal community had turned this into a strength, recording their family stories and carefully decorating, washing and caring for the graves in their cemetery over the years.

Decorated graves at the Collarenebri cemetery.
Author provided.

Many people, like Isabel, saw this tiny pocket of land as symbolic not only of community but of all the land they had lost. But the road to this cemetery was unreliable in wet weather, deepening the pain of loss when burials had to be delayed.

In one of the many extraordinary achievements of her life, Isabel developed a consensus among all the Collarenebri families that they would refuse government funding for any other project until it was available to upgrade this road. With so many families impoverished and suspicious of all government actions, it was terribly hard for Aboriginal people to refuse funds.

Their solid collective refusal to take funds for two funding rounds was astounding, demonstrating how deeply the community felt about the cemetery. The government relented, recognising the importance of the demand for reliable access – not only to this burial site but to this tiny corner of their land. The new and upgraded road was opened in 1983. Said Isabel:

The cemetery is a place where Murries can feel at peace, as we are surrounded by our loved ones in spirit and we are able to strengthen our affinity with our land.

After her retirement from the Land Council largely until her death in 2000, Isabel again took on wider roles, particularly focussing on the campaign to end Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and to recognise the right to safety of Aboriginal women and children. She was recognised in 1986 with an Order of Australia Medal. She was proud of this but her later recognition by the Collarenebri and Brewarrina communities with awards and then an Honorary Doctorate from Tranby, an Indigenous-controlled, post-secondary educational body, meant more to her.

The Order of Australia Medal was certainly useful in her continued campaigning. But when asked what OAM stood for, she would always joke, “It stands for ‘Old Aboriginal Moll’”.

Correction: the original version of this article had incorrect dates for the year of Isabel’s birth and death. Thank you to reader Andrew Katsis for alerting us to this.

Heather Goodall met Isabel in Sydney in the 1970s and worked with her in collaborative historical projects. Isabel asked Heather to assist in recording her life story, undertaken during the 1990s, then, after Isabel’s death in 2000, Isabel’s book was finished with assistance from her family.The Conversation

Heather Goodall, Professor, Social and Political Change Group, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The long and complicated history of Aboriginal involvement in football


Roy Hay, Deakin University

Over the next two weekends, the Australian Football League celebrates the contribution of Indigenous peoples to the history of the game.

At the same time, a new documentary will show how one of the modern Indigenous superstars of the sport, Adam Goodes, was driven from it by prejudice and repeated denigration.

Clearly, Indigenous players have made huge inroads in professional Australian football leagues. In fact, to mark this year’s Indigenous round, the AFL Players Association recently updated its map celebrating the 84 male Indigenous players and 13 female players in the league and showing where they come from.

But in order to understand how we got to this point, it’s important to know the full history of Indigenous involvement in the sport, including the discrimination faced by players like Goodes, and all those who came before him.

Indigenous men playing football in a paddock at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, 1904.
State Library of Victoria, Author provided

The early days on missions and stations

In my latest book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century, I examine the long history of Aboriginal involvement in Australian football since the game was codified in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a story of resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their participation.

By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria had been drastically reduced to just a few thousand people, due largely to massacres, disease, and the other impacts of European settlement. Most of these people were confined to missions or stations in remote parts of the colony under the control of “protectors.”




Read more:
The Aboriginal football ethic: where the rules get flexible


In the second half of the century, the Indigenous inhabitants of these institutions saw the white settlers playing football and sought to take part. They brought skills developed in hunting and their own games like marngrook and joined the white players in football games, first as individuals and then by forming their own teams.

Eventually, the Indigenous teams started taking part in and then winning local leagues. It was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity.

This story can only be told because the deeds of these early generations of Indigenous players were reported in the sports pages of newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia. Indigenous deeds on the field were being recounted positively, a contrast to the typical media reports of the day focused on “outrages” committed by – or less often, against – our original inhabitants.

Dominating and winning league titles

The numbers of Indigenous players remained small throughout the 19th century and getting leave to compete from the missions and stations was often difficult or inconsistent. Indigenous Australians may have found it slightly easier to break into individual sports like pedestrianism or boxing than team games like cricket and football at the time.

But many Indigenous teams found success. At Coranderrk in the Upper Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Indigenous people from the station began playing regularly in the 1890s, forming a team to compete in local competitions involving three non-Aboriginal teams, Healesville, Lilydale and Yarra Glen.




Read more:
What if Indigenous Australians didn’t play footy?


Dick Rowan was invited to play with the South Melbourne club in 1892, but when he sought permission to play again the following season, he was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines of Victoria. Their reason: if he was allowed to play, others would wish to follow. The board wanted to keep Indigenous people on the periphery.

In 1911, the Coranderrk team won the local league against white teams for the first time, but could not field a team the following year after several of their players were recruited by other clubs.

Other dominant Indigenous teams of the era included Framlingham, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers and above all Cummeragunja. Cummeragunja had suffered heavy defeats in the late 1880s, but the team eventually became so strong that it won the Western and Moira League five out of six years, and was promptly handicapped. (They were not allowed to field players over the age of 25.) In 1900, they ran rings around a strong Bendigo team and gave a Ballarat team a close game, as well.

The Redgummers, the name given to the team of combined Barmah and Cummeragunja players, 1905.
State Library of New South Wales, Author provided

Lake Tyers in Gippsland followed a similar pattern. After the first world war, the team became the receptacle for Indigenous players moved from other stations and missions around the state and was extremely successful, winning the East Gippsland League in 1934, 1938 and 1939.

Critics will point out that this was only “bush football”, but that was all that was on offer to Indigenous teams. They could not get regular matches against professional Melbourne teams, and Indigenous players were denied opportunities to play in senior leagues owing to racial bias.

There were a few exceptions, including Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunja, who was later knighted and became governor of South Australia. He rhapsodised about playing the game:

Once on the football field, I forget everything else. I’m playing football. I never take my eyes off that ball. My aim is not only to beat my opponent, but also to serve my side. I realise that in football as in other things, it’s team-work that tells.




Read more:
Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own


My aim in writing this book was to show how the history of the game could be rewritten to better reflect Indigenous contributions and experiences by using newspapers and other materials of the day as a basis, even the much maligned “colonial record”. This may assist Indigenous peoples to tell the story from their perspective about what happened to their ancestors and their more recent history.

As the Wiradjuri historian Lawrence Bamblett argues, this could have a positive impact on the sport and help counter the racism and discrimination that Indigenous peoples still face both on and off the field.

…broadening the discourse will bring representations of Aborigines in the writing about sport more closely into line with the richer lived experiences of individuals, and this in itself combats racism.

My hope is that some young Indigenous people with an interest in football will take up this story and tell it from their unique perspective.The Conversation

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Murujuga Mermaid: how rock art in WA sheds light on historic encounters of Australian exploration



The Enderby Island ship image depicting His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid, which visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project

Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Deakin University

It is understandable that Captain Cook is a trigger for debates about our national identity and history. However, we often risk being blinded by the legacy of Cook. Around the continent, early encounters with outsiders occurred on other days, and in other years before 1788. Across northern Australia these did not involve Europeans, but rather Southeast Asian trepangers.

The earliest documented European landfall was at Cape Keerweer, Cape York, in 1606 with the landing of the crew of the Dufyken. For coastal Aboriginal communities around Australia each moment of encounter was unique, significant and – in many instances – cataclysmic.

Image of ‘Boon-ga-ree’ by Phillip Parker King.
Phillip Parker King, album of drawings and engravings, 1802–1902, PXC 767, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The history of the exploration of Australia’s coast became a media story with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that a A$6.7 million replica of Cook’s Endeavour would be built to circumnavigate Australia. Of course, James Cook never circumnavigated Australia. This was done by Abel Tasman in 1642 (albeit at a great distance) and most effectively accomplished in 1803 by Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was accompanied by Boongaree, an Aboriginal man from Port Jackson, now remembered as an iconic Aboriginal go-between for his ability to move between the Indigenous and settler worlds.

Remarkably, Boongaree would circumnavigate Australia a second time in 1817-18, accompanying Phillip Parker King, a consummate explorer. King would captain four expeditions circumnavigating Australia and filled in many details on the map. He and his crew remain unsung heroes of exploration compared to Cook.

Phillip Parker King c.1817, by unknown artist.
ML 1318, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

During archaeological field recording in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), Western Australia, our team working with Murujuga Land and Sea Unit Rangers encountered an engraved depiction of a single-masted sailing ship. This image is on an elevated rock panel in an extensive Aboriginal engraving (petroglyph) site complex near a rocky water hole at the south-western end of Enderby Island.

We argue in a new paper that this image depicts His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid, the main vessel of the historically significant British Admiralty survey captained by King.

‘View of Mermaid Strait from Enderby Island (Rocky Head) Feb 25 [1818]’, in Phillip Parker King – album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902. Mitchell Library, PXC767.
Mitchell Library, PXC767.

The Mermaid visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818. It was not the first European vessel to visit – that was William Dampier in the HMS Roebuck in 1699. But King and his crew recorded encounters with Yaburara people. They observed fresh tracks and fires on the outer islands, and described how Yaburara people voyaged between islands on pegged log rafts.

Phillip Parker King, Native of Dampier’s Archipelago, on his floating log not dated, pen, ink and wash and scratching out on card, 7.9 x 11.5 cm (sheet). Transferred from the State Library Board of Western Australia, 2000.
Reproduced with permission of the Art Gallery of Western Australia

Murujuga is globally renowned as one of the world’s largest rock art estates. Our work has documented the tens of thousands of years of human occupation, the extraordinary production of rock art and the historical presence of American whalers.

The depiction of the boat on Enderby Island overlooks the bay where the Mermaid anchored two centuries ago. When they went ashore the crew observed Aboriginal camps, and the formidable rocky landscape. Boongaree went fishing, while the expedition’s botanical collector Allan Cunningham planted a peach pip near a fig tree. While there, it appears someone scratched the image of the Mermaid.

The Enderby Island ship image showing view across Mermaid Strait to the Intercourse Islands.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

A scratched technique

There are various surviving documents from the Mermaid expedition, such as log books, day books, journals, watercolours, and coastal views. Interestingly, in their writings, King, midshipman John Septimus Roe and Cunningham all neglect to mention the engravings, and they did not mention making this image of their ship. We are confident the ship was not made by Yaburara people, as the scratched technique used is very different to the surrounding Yaburara engravings.

A) line drawing (by Ken Mulvaney), b) The ship engraving, Enderby Island, c) King’s detailed section of the Mermaid (Phillip Parker King, ‘Album of drawings and engravings’, Mitchell Library, PXC767)
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

While our investigation suggests that a metal tool was not used to make the image, the imagery – which demonstrates detailed knowledge of the ship’s rigging and proportions, and the inclusions of water in this “sketch” of the craft, leads us to the conclusion that this ship was sketched on the day that the crew of the Mermaid visited this area.

So, who made the image? We really don’t know (but do have some ideas).

The artist clearly knew the ship in great detail. The similarities to the Mermaid are profound, allowing us to rule out other possible vessels to visit the islands in later years such as two-masted whaling barques and pearling ships.

Both King and Roe made many images in their records of the Mermaid – was this one of theirs? Perhaps another unnamed crew member got involved. Perhaps Boongaree was impressed by the extensive rock art legacy that he encountered. Being from Sydney with a similarly rich rock art heritage – which includes the depiction of post-contact sailing ships – perhaps he depicted what was by then utterly familiar to him – a tiny sailing ship on a voyage across the unknown seas.

Whoever’s hand, if this is the Mermaid, as we argue, this new finding is of nautical and historical significance to Australia and Britain as well as being significant to the Aboriginal people of the west Pilbara.

Significant timing

The timing of King’s visit is significant. He was there for eight days in February and March, a time when monsoonal rainfall rejuvenates the rock pools on the outer islands and when turtles were hatching: a seasonal pulse in Yaburara island life.

During that week the crew of the Mermaid described their contact with family groups that were camped on several of the inner islands, as well as the widespread evidence for outer island use. Their encounters with people included the observations of their unique water craft, camps and a range of subsistence activities. One Yaburara man was kidnapped from his mangrove raft, and taken on board the Mermaid where Boongaree tried to reassure him by removing his own shirt to reveal his body marking and black skin. The visitors offered the Yaburara man glass beads, which he rejected.

King’s voyages of discovery left behind other marks along the West Australian coastline. At Careening Bay in the Kimberley in 1820, King had the name of the Mermaid carved into a boab tree, where it can still be found today. At Shark Bay, King had a post erected with “KING” spelt out in iron nails – today this is in the WA Museum.

Mermaid Tree, Careening Bay
Courtesy: Kevin Kenneally

Collections from the Archipelago included plants and stone artefacts still held in the British Natural History Museum. King’s daily journal helped him create his official account, published as two volumes in 1826 titled Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.

There was no marked national commemoration in 2017 of the 200-year anniversary of the start of King’s voyages. However, as Murujuga’s nomination to the World Heritage Tentative Listing proceeds, this new evidence adds further significance to the Mermaid’s brief encounters with the Yaburara.

It provides new insight to King’s Expedition around this continent’s seascape as well as adding to the deep-time record of Murujuga’s Aboriginal history – and place-making inscribed on this landscape.The Conversation

Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Telling the forgotten stories of Indigenous servicemen in the first world war


Jim McKay, The University of Queensland

Warning: This story contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who are deceased.


The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served with Australian forces in the first world war is estimated to be in the range of 1,000-1,200. But the precise figure will never be known, because a number of those who served changed their names and birthplaces when they enrolled to get around racist enlistment practices.

Despite fighting and dying for Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still weren’t considered citizens upon their return from the war. Many of these veterans were also denied repatriation benefits, and excluded from returned services clubs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long sought to gain recognition for the service and sacrifices of their men and women. Some do this by telling stories in their families and local communities about the military careers of their forebears.

These stories often take the form of oral histories. Oral history projects by groups of Aboriginal people have proven valuable for redressing the unrecognised service and racist treatment of their ancestors who served in the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916-18.




Read more:
On Anzac Day, we remember the Great War but forget our first war


Commemorating the Battle of Beersheba

Although most Australians know little or nothing about the Battle of Beersheba, the Australian government funded its centennial commemoration at Beersheba (now in southern Israel) in October 2017.

One hundred Australian and a few New Zealand military history reenactors attended the joint service as part of a commercial tour, during which they rode in period military outfits along the route of their ancestors.

A group of Aboriginal men and women, who were descended from some of the estimated 100 Aboriginal members of the Australian Light Horse, also participated in the tour. Several had ancestors who were in the “Queensland Black Watch”, a predominantly Aboriginal reinforcement unit.

The group’s participation was enabled by a transnational network of organisations, but the key driver was Rona Tranby Trust, which funds projects to record and preserve Aboriginal oral histories. In 2017, it a group of Aboriginal men and women to complete 11 histories of their ancestors who fought and died in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign.

Like the other reenactors, Aboriginal participants were honouring their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. But they also wanted to document the neglected stories of their service, and the racial discrimination their forebears experienced.

Here we share, with permission, some of the stories that came from the trip, and from the family history projects the group members continue to work on.

Ricky Morris

Gunditjmara man and retired Army Sergeant Ricky Morris was officially invited to lay a wreath on behalf of all Indigenous veterans at the service in Beersheba. Morris is the 19th of an astonishing 21 men and women Anzacs in his family. He served in a progeny of the Light Horse unit of his grandfather, Frederick Amos Lovett.

Frederick Amos Lovett of the 4th Light Horse Regimen and his grandson Ricky Morris.
Rona Tranby Trust

At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were neither citizens nor counted in the census, Frederick and his four brothers left the Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission, 300 km west of Melbourne, to sign up.

But their service counted for nothing. Gunditjmara people were subjected to a “second dispossession” when they were forced off Lake Condah under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The scheme granted land to returning soldiers, but like almost all Aboriginal applicants, the brothers were denied soldier settlement blocks.

Morris is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Veterans Association Remembrance Committee and gives talks at schools about Aboriginal culture and his family. He interviewed two elderly aunts for his family history project, which he described as:

…a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who fought and died for Australia, and the diversity of Australians who put their hands up to answer the call.




Read more:
In remembering Anzac Day, what do we forget?


Mischa Fisher and Elsie Amamoo

Mischa Fisher and her daughter, Elsie Amamoo, undertook the tour to obtain information for a website about Mischa’s grandfather, Frank Fisher.

Trooper Frank Fisher was an Aboriginal serviceman who enlisted in Brisbane on 16 August 1917.
Australian War Memorial

Frank was born into the Wangan and Jagalingou community in the goldmining town of Clermont, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. He was one of 47 men from Barambah Aboriginal Settlement who enlisted in the first world war. While Frank was away, his wife Esme was prevented from accessing his salary. After Frank was discharged, he was again placed under the control of the superintendent at Barambah.

Mischa and Elsie have interviewed Frank’s descendants, and accessed archival footage from the Ration Shed Museum – an Aboriginal heritage, educational and cultural centre. Elsie only recently learned that Frank, who is also the great-grandfather of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, was a member of the “Black Watch”.

While training for a reenactment of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, she tearfully told a reporter what the project meant to her:

To me, it feels like I have got a missing piece of the puzzle of who I am […] That’s what it basically means to me: just being able to have that ability to close the gap in terms of my identity and knowing who I am and where I fit in the Australian history, but also within my family as well.

Michelle and Peta Flynn

Peta Flynn, great niece of Charles Fitzroy Stafford.
Rona Tranby Trust

Sisters Michelle and Peta Flynn are descendants of “Black Kitty”, a Cannemegal/Warmuli girl, who, in 1814, was among the first group of Aboriginal children placed in the Parramatta Native Institution at the age of five.

The sisters have been researching their family history for over 20 years. Their ancestors include the three Stafford brothers, who were in the Light Horse.

At Beersheba, Peta explained her motivation for writing a book about her great uncle, Charles Stafford:

My daughter, niece and nephews will be able to take [the book] into their schools and communities and actually be proud of who we are and where we come from – and ensure our family’s history will not be lost to future generations.




Read more:
Indigenous soldiers remembered: the research behind Black Diggers


Lessons and legacies

The experiences of Ricky Morris, Mischa Fisher, Elsie Amamoo, and Michelle and Peta Flynn show how exploring family histories can generate feelings of solidarity, honour and closure.

Although group members were on a reenactment tour, their emotions were typical of the inward pilgrimages often experienced by genealogical tourists. Past and present family connections were heightened by being there; feelings of sadness, solidarity and pride arose.

At the same time, these stories show the benefits of combining academic, public and vernacular accounts to study silences and absences in the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The official commemoration at Beersheba will only ever be studied by a handful of specialist scholars, but the family histories of this group will have enduring value for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike.The Conversation

Jim McKay, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Archaeology is unravelling new stories about Indigenous seagoing trade on Australia’s doorstep



File 20190213 90497 12f9ric.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A Motu trading ship with its characteristic crab claw shaped sails. Taken in the period 1903-1904.
Trustees of The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Chris Urwin, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Monash University

It has long been assumed that Indigenous Australia was isolated until Europeans arrived in 1788, except for trade with parts of present day Indonesia beginning at least 300 years ago. But our recent archaeological research hints of at least an extra 2,100 years of connections across the Coral Sea with Papua New Guinea.

Over the past decade, we have conducted research in the Gulf of Papua with local Indigenous communities.

During the excavations, the most common archaeological evidence found in the old village sites was fragments of pottery, which preserve well in tropical environments compared to artefacts made of wood or bone. As peoples of the Gulf of Papua have no known history of pottery making, and the materials are foreign, the discovered pottery sherds are evidence of trade.

This pottery began arriving in the Gulf of Papua some 2,700 years ago, according to carbon dating of charcoal found next to the sherds.




Read more:
Explainer: what is radiocarbon dating and how does it work?


This means societies with complex seafaring technologies and widespread social connections operated at Australia’s doorstep over 2,500 years prior to colonisation. Entrepreneurial traders were traversing the entire south coast of PNG in sailing ships.

There is also archaeological evidence that suggests early connections between PNG and Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. Fine earthenware pottery dating to 2,600 years ago, similar in form to pottery arriving in the Gulf of Papua around that time, has been found on the island of Pulu. Rock art on the island of Dauan further to the north depicts a ship with a crab claw-shaped sail, closely resembling the ships used by Indigenous traders from PNG.

It is hard to imagine that Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG’s south coast were not connected.

The region termed the ‘Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere’ where archaeology is gradually uncovering evidence of ancient interconnections.
Author provided

An unconventional trade

The trade itself was quite remarkable. When British colonists arrived in Port Moresby (now the capital of PNG) in 1873, some 130 kilometres from the start of the Gulf of Papua to the west, they wrote in astonishment of the industrial scale of pottery production for maritime trade by Indigenous Motu communities.

Each year, Motu women would spend months making thousands of earthenware pots. Meanwhile the men built large trading ships, called lakatoi, by lashing together several dugout hulls. The ships measured 15-20 metres long and had woven sails in the shape of crab claws.

In October and November, Motu men would load the pots into the ships and sail west towards the rainforest swamplands of the Gulf of Papua. The trade on which they embarked was known as hiri. The voyages were perilous, and lives were sometimes lost in the waves.

Rows of Motu pots ready for shipment to the Gulf of Papua. The pots are arranged on a beach situated in today’s Port Moresby region. Taken by Reverend William G Lawes in 1881-1891.
Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

When the men arrived – having sailed up to 400 kilometres along the coast – the Motu were in foreign lands. People living in the Gulf of Papua spoke different languages and had different cultural practices. But they were not treated like foreigners.

Sir Albert Maori Kiki, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of PNG, grew up in the Gulf of Papua in the 1930s. He described the arrival of the Motu in his memoirs:

The trade was not conducted like common barter […] the declarations of friendship that went with it were as important as the exchange of goods itself […] Motu people did not carry their pots to the market, but each went straight to the house of his trade relation, with whom his family had been trading for years and perhaps generations.

In exchange for their pots, the Motu were given rainforest hardwood logs from which to make new canoes, and tonnes of sago starch (a staple plant food for many people in Southeast Asia and across the island of New Guinea).

The Motu would stay in Gulf villages for months, waiting for the wind to change to carry them back home.

Quantity overtakes quality

Pottery has been traded into the Gulf of Papua for 2,700 years, but the trade grew larger in scale about 500 years ago. Archaeological sites of the past 500 years have much larger quantities of pottery than those before them. The pottery itself is highly standardised and either plain or sparsely decorated, in contrast with older sherds that often feature ornate designs.

In the past 500 years it seems that pottery makers valued quantity over quality: as greater quantities of pottery were traded into the Gulf of Papua, labour-intensive decorations gradually disappeared.

Fragments of a decorated earthenware bowl dating to within the past 500 years. Found in an excavation at Orokolo Bay (Gulf of Papua, PNG) in 2015.
Photographs by Steve Morton (Monash University)

We think this is when the hiri trade between the Motu and rainforest villages of the Gulf of Papua began in earnest.

The coming decades promise further findings that will help unravel the forgotten shared history of PNG and Indigenous Australia across the Torres Strait. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous Australia was not isolated from the rest of the world.The Conversation

Chris Urwin, Researcher, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Deputy Director for Science Research and Consultancy Division at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Professor, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Cultural Coordinator, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Archaeologist, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


When we celebrate Captain Cook’s voyage, let’s mark the epic journey of a Wati Wati man also



File 20190320 93048 u83ct.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Nicholas Chevalier, Mallee scrub, Murray River, NSW, watercolour, 1871.
National Library of Australia

Stephen Morey, La Trobe University

By now, most of us would know that 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage along the East Coast of Australia. The federal government has allocated $48.7 million to commemorate the occasion, with a replica of Cook’s HMB Endeavour to circumnavigate the country.

But at the time of the voyage, Indigenous Australians often travelled great distances too, with most of those journeys being unrecorded. One that was, however, was the journey of Weitchymumble, a man of the Wati Wati (Wadi Wadi) from the Murray River around Swan Hill who travelled by foot across the dry regions of northwest Victoria around 200 kilometres to Lake Hindmarsh and back. He endured extreme heat, food shortages and exhaustion during this trek.

Back in 1877, Peter Beveridge, a squatter on the Murray River, published an article detailing Weitchymumble’s journey in the Ballarat Star. It had been told to him by Turrangin, a senior elder of the Wati Wati, who was Weitchymumble’s great-grandson.

We don’t know exactly when this happened, but Turrangin did tell us a little about the timing (Beveridge included words in the Wati Wati language in brackets):

When my cokernew (grandfather) was but a very small boy, long before the turrawil ngurtangies (white devils) came with their numberless stock to overrun the country, and drive away the teeming game, from whence the Woortongies (aborigines) drew their food supply […] his father, then quite a young man, was deputed by the tribe to accompany the Ngalloo Watow to the far Wimmera on tribal business.

The Ngalloo Watow was described by Beveridge as a “postman”, who carried news and conducted barters, able to travel “with impunity”.

At the time of the journey Turrangin’s grandfather was perhaps aged 10. Since Turrangin was a senior elder when he told the story to Beveridge in the 1850s, he might have been born around 1810. His grandfather might then have been a boy around 1770, the same time as Cook’s journey.

A journey through a land of plenty

Weitchymumble’s name means “welcome swallow”. The late Luise Hercus, a linguist who recorded many Indigenous languages, heard this word 50 years ago spoken by Mrs Jackson Stuart, one of the last to speak the Werkaya (Wimmera) language as a mother tongue. Hercus spelled it “wity-wity-mambel”.




Read more:
How Captain Cook became a contested national symbol


We don’t know what the business of Weitchymumble’s trip with the Ngalloo Watow was, but it started in the spring, “the season of peetchen-peetchen (flowers), when the whole country was glowing with bloom”. They reached Lake Hindmarsh after “a long weary tramp of many days”.

After a bath and meal of wallup (sleeping lizard), they were spotted by scouts of the Wimmera tribe, who:

fraternised after the fashion of the Aborigines prior to the advent of European customs; […] they walked up to the fire, squatted down by its side without saying one word, until the time (which was considerable) had expired which Australian savage etiquette demands on these occasions. After that, however, they talked fast enough […]

Returning from Lake Hindmarsh in heat described as having “the fervency of a wean chirrick (a reed bed on fire)”, soon they had run short of water and food when they came upon the nest of a lowan, or Mallee Fowl. Lowan is one of the few words from an Indigenous Victorian language borrowed into English.

In the Lowan’s nest, they found “politulu murnangin mirk” (eggs to the number of the fingers on both hands). The Ngalloo Watow made fire “by rubbing a narrow lath-like piece of saltbush across a sun crack in a pine log” then set the eggs on the sand until they simmered, stirring them with a thin twig, through an opening at the top end. When cooked there was a rich yellow paste of yolk and white mixed, the taste was “talko” (good).

Ebenezer Edward Gostelow, The Mallee fowl (or lowan), watercolour, 1939.
National Library of Australia

But, within a few days, they were again short of food when they saw a sleeping “little old man” threatened by a mindi (large snake). Weitchymumble immediately dashed, grabbed the snake, rescued the old man from it, cut off the snake’s head and then collapsed from exhaustion.

Seeing Weitchymumble lying, the old man exclaimed “”Niniwoor wortongie birra. Yetty tumla coorrongendoo. Ka ki nginma. Boorm.” (Ah, the young man is dead. I shall cry very much. Come here you. Quickly.) These words are the longest single piece of continuous written text in this language.

Weitchymumble was carried into a large conical stone, where the old man gave him a special drink and he revived. The old man turned out to be the Ngowdenout, the “spirit of the Mallee”. As Beveridge wrote: “He is both good and bad by turns […] all-seeing, all-powerful, and unvulnerable to everything earthly.”

Because Weitchymumble had acted to save the old man, the Ngowdenout was good to both the travellers, providing them with food and then when they were sleeping, disappearing. When they woke, the stone was nowhere to be seen but a clear path for them to return home had been marked out.




Read more:
The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage


Beveridge concludes the story by noting that “the story of the Ngowdenout and his coorongandoo muckie loondhal (big stone house) is as fresh in the memory of the Watty Watty tribe as it was the day after Weitchymumble and his companion had related it”.

While the Ngowdenout is perhaps a mythical entity, at the core of this story is a real journey. It tells of a land of plenty, of Indigenous tribes meeting and interacting in their own customs’ manners, and of ways of life, like the method of cooking eggs. Such journeys would have happened regularly, but this is the only one from Victoria recorded in such detail.

Along with the Cook voyage, then, in 2020 let’s honour Weitchymumble’s journey and the people of the inland.The Conversation

Stephen Morey, Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Rock art shows early contact with US whalers on Australia’s remote northwest coast



File 20190130 39344 k0qvoi.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Detail of the Connecticut Inscription, with image enhancement.
Centre for Rock Art Research and Management database, Author provided

Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia, and Ross Anderson, Western Australian Museum

Rock inscriptions made by crews from two North American whaleships in the early 19th century were found superimposed over earlier Aboriginal engravings in the Dampier Archipelago.

Details of the find in northern Western Australia are in a paper published today in Antiquity.

They provide the earliest evidence for North American whalers’ memorialising practices in Australia, and have substantial implications for maritime history.

At the time, the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga) was home to the Yaburara people. The rock art across the archipelago is testament to their artists asserting their connections to this place for millennia.




Read more:
Where art meets industry: protecting the spectacular rock art of the Burrup Peninsula


So did the whalers encounter the Yaburara? Did they engrave over earlier Aboriginal markings as an act of assertion, a realignment of a shifting political landscape? Or were they simply marking a milestone in their multi-year voyages, celebrating landfall after many months at sea?

The answer to all these questions is, we don’t know.

But these inscriptions provide a rare insight into the lives of whalers, filling a gap in our knowledge about this earliest industry on our northwestern coast.

Such historical inscriptions might be dismissed as graffiti. However, like other rock art, they tell important stories about our human past that cannot be gleaned from other sources.

Whaling in Australia

Ship-based whaling was a global phenomenon that lasted centuries. At its peak in the mid-19th century, around 900 wooden sailing ships were at sea on multi-year voyages, crewed by around 22,000 whalemen.

Most whaling in Australian waters was conducted by foreign vessels, and in the 19th century North American whalers dominated the globe.

Illustration of an American whaling ship in the 19th century.
Dr Kenneth McPherson, Indian Ocean Collection, WA Museum (with permission), Author provided

Whaling led to some of the earliest contacts between American, European and a range of indigenous societies in Africa, Australasia and the Pacific.

But early visits by foreign whalers to Australia’s northwest are poorly documented given the absence of a British colonial land-based presence in the area until the 1860s.

While explorer William Dampier named the Dampier Archipelago and Rosemary Island in 1699, British naval Captain Phillip Parker King was the first to document encounters with the Yaburara people in 1818. His visit to the archipelago in the rainy season (February) coincided with large groups of people using the seasonally abundant resources at this time.

The Swan River Colony (Perth) was established in 1829, but permanent European colonisation of the northwest only began in the early 1860s with an influx of pastoralists and pearlers.

For the Yaburara, this colonisation was catastrophic. It culminated in the Flying Foam Massacre in 1868 in which many Yaburara people were killed.

Early whaling contact

A few surviving ship logbooks record English and North American whalers on the Dampier Archipelago from 1801, but the heyday of whaling near “The Rosemary Islands” was between the 1840s and 1860s.

The logbooks describe American whaling ships worked together to hunt herds of humpback whales, which migrate along Australia’s northwest coastline during the winter months.

The ships’ crews made landfall to collect firewood and drinking water, and to post lookouts on vantage points to assist in sighting whales for the open boats to pursue.

Research by archaeologists from the University of Western Australia working with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and industry partner Rio Tinto has found some evidence of two such landfalls in inscriptions from the crew of two North American whalers – the Connecticut and the Delta.

The earliest of these inscriptions records that the Connecticut visited Rosemary Island on August 18 1842. At least part of this inscription was made by Jacob Anderson, identified from the Connecticut’s crew list as a 19-year-old African-American sailor.

Research shows this set of ships’ and people’s names was placed over an earlier set of Aboriginal grid motifs. This was along a ridgeline that has millennia of evidence for the Yaburara producing rock art and raising standing stones and quarrying tool-stone elevated above this seascape.

Visualising the Connecticut inscription.

The dates and names found in the inscription correlate with port records that show the Connecticut left the town of New London in Connecticut, US, for the New Holland ground (as the waters off Australia’s northwest were known) in 1841, with Captain Daniel Crocker and a crew of 26.

Connecticut inscription, tracing by Ken Mulvaney.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

The Connecticut returned to New London on June 16 1843, with 1,800 barrels of oil, travelling via Fremantle, New Zealand and Cape Horn.

The largest of the Connecticut inscriptions showing micro-analysis of the inscription over the Aboriginal engravings.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

The Connecticut’s logbook for the voyage is missing, so without these inscriptions we would know nothing of this ship’s visit to the Dampier Archipelago.

On another island, another set of inscriptions record a visit to a similar vantage point by crew of the Delta on July 12 1849.

Details of the Delta inscriptions.
Centre for Rock Art Research + Management

Registered in Greenport, New York, the Delta made 18 global whaling voyages between 1832 and 1856. Its logbook confirms it was whaling in the Dampier Archipelago between June 2 and September 8 1849.

The voyage of the Delta as researched from Log Book entries.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

While the log records crew members going ashore to shoot kangaroos and collect water, no mention is made of them making inscriptions or having any contact with Yaburara people.

Given it was the dry season, and the lack of permanent water on the islands, this lack of contact is not surprising.

But again, these whalers chose to make their marks on surfaces that were already marked by the Yaburara. By recording their presence at these specific historical moments, the whalers continued the long tradition of the Yaburara in interacting with and marking their maritime environment.

Protecting the heritage

Between 1822 and 1963, whalers killed more than 26,000 southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and 40,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) in Australia and New Zealand, driving populations to near-extinction.

Commercial whaling in Australian waters ended 40 years ago on November 21 1978, with the closure of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station in Albany, Western Australia.

Today there are signs of renewal, with whale populations increasing, and Aboriginal people are reclaiming responsibility for management of the archipelago.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


There is a strong push for World Heritage Listing of Murujuga — one of the most significant concentrations for human artistic creativity on the planet, recording millennia of human responses to the sustainable use of this productive landscape.

These two whaling inscriptions provide the only known archaeological insight into this earliest global resource extraction in Australia’s northwest – the whale oil industry – which began over two centuries ago.

They demonstrate yet again the unique capacity of Murujuga’s rock art to shed light on previously unknown details of our shared human history.The Conversation

Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia, and Ross Anderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sailors’ journals shed new light on Bennelong, a man misunderstood by history



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An undated portrait thought to depict Bennelong, signed “W.W.” now in the Dixson Galleries of the State Library of New South Wales.
Wikimedia Commons

Brett Goodin, Australian National University

The natives of new Holland are perhaps the quickest fighters in the world … They remind me of Homer’s description of his heroes. The warriors throw themselves
into the same attitudes, they harangue, they brandish and cast their spears in a manner similar to
that described by the celebrated poet, “so saying, swaying back and forth, he launched his long-shadowed spear”.

Benjamin Bowen Carter , 1798

This laudatory account of a group of Indigenous Australians, including Woollarawarre Bennelong, has been
collecting dust in Rhode Island since 1798, when the fledgling United States was just beginning
to stretch into the Asia-Pacific region, led by private
merchant sailors.

It is contained in one of two 220-year-old journals from the merchant ship Ann & Hope (held in the John Carter
Brown Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society respectively) penned by sailors Benjamin Page,
Jr. the teenage son of the ship’s captain, and Benjamin Bowen Carter, the ship’s surgeon.

They have been largely forgotten by historians, bar one or two, but shed light on Bennelong in particular: a celebrated yet misunderstood man. For much of white Australian
history, Bennelong was portrayed as a tragic victim of alcoholism and cultural
homelessness. Captured in November 1789 under orders from Governor Arthur Phillip to be
taught English and serve as a cultural intermediary, he was later taken to England, returning to his homeland in 1795.

In their 11-month journey around the world, the Ann & Hope’s crew spent just four days in Sydney. But Page and Carter wrote thousands of words about New Holland’s
people, environment, and trading prospects. Chief among their fascinations was witnessing Bennelong adjudicate an
unusually messy payback punishment, which they recorded in excruciating and bloody detail.

Benjamin Page Jr., Ann & Hope logbook, 1798-1799, Brown & Ives Records, Box 715, folder 1, John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island.
Author provided.

In doing
so, they inadvertently reveal that Bennelong continued to hold positions of authority long after his return from the UK – in contrast to accounts by many
eminent historians and popular authors that depicted him as lost between two worlds, comfortable in neither.

According to writer and academic Deborah Bird Rose, in Aboriginal communities,

reciprocity
designed to re-establish social relations ruptured by wrong-doing is called ‘payback’. It is
physical violence that is expected to be roughly equivalent to the offence. Its purpose is to
restore a sense of balance and to effect a form of closure.

Echoing this desire for balance, Carter
observed in 1798 that:

The generosity of these people is singular. When their enemies have
discharged their spears, they will return them and prepare themselves for another assault. They
frequently during the battle ran up to the opposite party and received their spears from the enemy. Nor did their antagonists throw a foul spear or improve in the least the advantage put into
their hands, of killing an enemy when alone or unguarded.

Unfortunately, this protocol went awry when Bennelong decreed (apparently unconvincingly)
that the appropriate punishment had been met.

He was violently rebuffed and, according to Page:

Whilst Bennelong was sitting down unguarded to our great surprise we saw one spear pierced
through the left side of his breast he rose up immediately and had another flung at him which he
kept off with his iron shield by his looks and words he seemed to enquire who did it then several
of both parties arose and seemed to be in a great passion the women especially who were crying
and beating themselves at a terrible rate at length.

Bennelong walked away about a hundred yards and sat down with the spear then through him
after it was pulled out with the loss of blood he fainted then the women began with more
tremendous shrieks and yells than before thinking he was dead and were down upon their knees a
sucking the blood from the wound after several were speared through the legs & thighs.

Benjamin Page Jr., Ann & Hope logbook, 1798-1799, Brown & Ives Records, Box 715, folder 1, John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island.
Author provided

Nearly being killed while adjudicating a payback punishment does not paint Bennelong in the
most favourable light. But the fact that as late as 1798 he was given the honour of adjudicating such a
ceremony challenges much of the outdated historiography about him.

Bennelong has been mistakenly remembered for centuries, encouraged by national
institutions such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The dictionary is currently rewriting its
entry on Bennelong and other Indigenous Australians to reflect the new findings of scholars such
as Shino Konishi, Keith Vincent Smith, Kate Fullagar, and Emma Dortins.




Read more:
Indigenous lives, the ‘cult of forgetfulness’ and the Australian Dictionary of Biography


Bennelong’s 1966 entry in the dictionary is especially careless for highlighting how, after being the
first Aboriginal man to visit England in 1792, he returned to Sydney,

and thereafter references
to him are scanty, though it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance
either among his countrymen or the white men. Two years later he had become “so fond of
drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and
violent as to be capable of any mischief”.

Less disparagingly, Inga Clendinnen argues that, after
returning from Europe, Bennelong, “with his anger and his anguish, simply drops from British
notice”.

In reality, he dropped from official British records, but certainly not from positions of
authority or from visiting American sailors’ notice.

The New South Wales government’s pledge to
build a memorial on the land where Bennelong is buried certainly could not come at a better time.

Meanwhile, historians who have been diligently rewriting
Bennelong’s history are finally being written about in the mainstream press. And who knows, maybe there
are more dusty journals scattered around the world that will contribute to this rewriting over the
next 200 years.

The author thanks Josiah Ober of Stanford University for translating from Greek the Iliad
quote at the top of this page.
The Conversation

Brett Goodin, Postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Early American Economy & Society, at the Library Company of Philadelphia.., Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Hidden women of history: Mary Jane Cain, land rights activist, matriarch and community builder



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Mary Jane Cain (centre) with granddaughters Miley Barker and Molly Chatfield and her great niece Josephine.
The sun dancin’ : people and place Coonabarabran (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994)

Heidi Norman, University of Technology Sydney

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.

A page of Mary Jane Cain’s hand written manuscript.
State Library of NSW.

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.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Ruby Lindsay, one of Australia’s first female graphic designers


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”.

Mary Jane Cain, right, and grandsons George and James.
The sun dancin’ : people and place in Coonabarabran (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

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.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Elsie Masson, photographer, writer, intrepid traveller


‘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.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Hop Lin Jong, a Chinese immigrant in the early days of White Australia


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”.

Mary Jane Cain Bridge over the Castlereagh River in NSW.
Wikimedia Commons

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).The Conversation

Heidi Norman, Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Poor health in Aboriginal children after European colonisation revealed in their skeletal remains



File 20181211 76971 1q1nikl.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The excavations at the Normanton site in 2015.
Shaun Adams, Author provided

Shaun Adams, Griffith University; Michael Westaway, Griffith University, and Richard Martin, The University of Queensland

The poor health conditions of eight young Aboriginal people who died around the time of early European colonisation have been revealed in their skeletal remains, according to a new study.

The bones provide evidence of the displacement of Indigenous Australians from their traditional lands as a result of European colonisation. We view this as an opportunity to undertake “truth-telling” of our colonial history, as outlined in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The remains were sold as “scientific specimens” to the Australian Museum in Sydney in the early 20th century, but were repatriated in the 1990s to the local community in remote northwest Queensland.




Read more:
Oral testimony of an Aboriginal massacre now supported by scientific evidence


A discovery of skeletal remains

In 2015 one of us (Michael) was contacted by the Queensland Police for advice on the skeletal remains of several individuals. They had been found eroding from a floodplain just outside the town of Normanton.

They were identified as Aboriginal but it was obvious they were not from a traditional Aboriginal burial site.

Initial reburial site of the remains, Normanton.
Adams et al. 2018, Author provided

The remains appeared to have been reburied together. They were heavily weathered and did not include complete skeletons, just skulls and some long bones.

The state archaeologist Stephen Nichols contacted several museums, and deduced that these individuals had been repatriated in the 1990s from the Australian Museum. At around the same time, local Aboriginal people told police that the remains had been reburied in this location after their repatriation.

It quickly became apparent that these were the remains of eight young people who had died of disease on the colonial frontier in the late 19th century and had been collected by the Aboriginal Protector, Walter Roth.

The collection of Aboriginal skeletal remains (ancestral remains) was common practice in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Today, many thousands of individuals remain in institutions around the world awaiting repatriation.

The Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people from Normanton wanted to find out more about the lives of these people who had been taken from their country. They discussed this after one of us (Michael) attended the site.

The human skeleton provides a unique record of an individual’s life history. Our investigation showed the remains were all young people, with an average age of about 15 years, and some as young as seven.

Reburial of remains in the Aboriginal cemetery, Normanton.
Michael Westaway, Author provided

Evidence of stress

The remains told the story of young people who had undergone significant nutritional stress in their formative years. This was evident from linear stress markers recorded as defects in their tooth enamel, referred to as dental enamel hypoplasias.

The teeth also indicated that while traditional foods were still important in their diet they also regularly consumed European foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates. This had created dental caries (cavities) in their teeth, similar to those we see today in many modern populations but which are unknown in pre-contact Aboriginal remains.

Walter Roth wrote about the high frequency of disease in Aboriginal people found barely holding on in the fringe camps around Normanton (reported in 1901). He reported that “about half” of the 176 Aboriginal inhabitants were suffering from introduced venereal diseases.

The remains provide first-hand pathological evidence in the wake of colonisation. In one individual there were signs of a pathological lesion defined as caries sicca, a lesion diagnostic of syphilis.

Syphilis was also evident in two tibiae (lower leg bones) reburied with the crania (skulls minus the jaws) in the form of a condition known as Sabre Shin, where significant bowing of these long bones is evident.

This all provides evidence of the stress that Aboriginal people endured during the early colonial period.

Normanton in 1906.
Queensland Police Museum Archive: ehive-PM0940, CC BY-NC-SA

‘Truth telling’ and history

The Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people’s request for help was in the spirit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart where “truth telling” about the colonial past was emphasised as a priority for reconciliation between all Australians.

Research into our shared colonial past plays a fundamental role in this objective. Bioarchaeology can offer new narratives from the historic period that have not been captured in the historic record.

Some archaeologists have called for a post-colonial approach to the discipline, in which we establish, together with Aboriginal people, the types of historic investigations they consider important.

Traditionally this has not included research on the skeletal remains of their ancestors, as this has been a taboo research area for many Aboriginal groups.




Read more:
The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum


But in parts of the country, Indigenous attitudes towards research are changing, with groups such as the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people wanting to know more about their past.

As one Indigenous leader from this community said:

… these were young people who left behind such a sad story that needs to be told so non-Indigenous people, not just throughout Australia but particularly in our region of northwest Queensland, know and understand that these traumas still impact on our people 120 years later.

These eight young people from Normanton, who died at the end of the 19th century, are not forgotten. They provide tangible evidence of the hardships that Aboriginal people endured through the colonial acquisition of their land and displacement of their way of life.


Susan Burton Phillips, Counsel to the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Shaun Adams, Isotope Bioarchaeologist Research Fellow, Griffith University; Michael Westaway, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University, and Richard Martin, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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