Category Archives: New South Wales
William Cooper: the Indigenous leader who petitioned the king, demanding a Voice to Parliament in the 1930s
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and it relevance to politics today. You can read the rest of our pieces here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
William Cooper is not a household name, but he should be. This Yorta Yorta elder is one of Australia’s most formative political leaders.
In the 1930s, he began a remarkable political campaign, pushing for Indigenous rights and recognition, nearly all of which have significant implications for Australian politics today.
Cooper was born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in December 1860. He was profoundly influenced by his people, who had demanded and won a reservation of land in the 1880s, which they called Cumeroogunga.
Yorta Yorta people farmed Cumeroogunga into the 1900s, only to lose it and have their families and community broken up by repressive policies of the New South Wales Board for the Protection of Aborigines in the 1910s and 1920s.
Cooper escaped the most severe of state protection boards’ special laws at the time, which denied Aboriginal people basic rights such as freedom of movement, custody of their children and control over personal property.
But he knew the suffering the laws caused and still had a very hard life, denied the opportunities enjoyed by most non-Indigenous Australians. Apart from anything else, this meant he suffered enormous poverty.
Importantly, in his early life, Cooper also acquired the means to understand and fight against his people’s oppression. In his teens, he was taken under the wing of evangelical Christian missionaries, Daniel and Janet Matthews, at the Maloga mission on the banks of the Murray River.
Their teachings were fundamental to the political work Cooper would eventually
undertake. They had a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too. This provided a powerful antidote to the prevailing racial prejudice Cooper experienced and witnessed.
The Matthews saw God and religious principles as a higher order than government. And they provided a prophetic or predictive view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.
It is understood Cooper spent much of 20s on and off missions and then earned a living working as a shearer, drover, horse-breaker and general rural labourer.
He was a member of the Shearers’ Union and Australian Workers’ Union. He also acted as a spokesman for Aboriginal workers in western New South Wales and central Victoria, having a “longing to help his people”. After returning to Cumeroogunga in his 60s, he moved to Melbourne, so he could get the age pension.
Petitioning the King
Now in his 70s, Cooper began a remarkable political campaign. This had several strands, many of which continue to have significance in Australian politics today.
First and foremost, in 1933 Cooper drew up a petition to King George V. With more than 1,800 signatures by the time it was presented to the federal government in 1937, the petition’s central demand was representation for Aboriginal people in the Commonwealth Parliament. This call for a federal MP who would be chosen by Aboriginal people was, if you like, a demand for a Voice to Parliament.
Cooper believed this was crucial, as government laws about Aboriginal people were made without any consideration of their opinions. He argued Indigenous perspectives differed markedly from those of white Australians – which Cooper called “thinking black”.
Cooper was heir to a tradition among Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Victoria that held they had a special relationship to the British king or queen. Certainly, Cooper believed Aboriginal people had a right to appeal to the British Crown on the grounds that it still had a responsibility for them because of duties it had undertaken to perform in the past.
Regrettably, prime minister Joseph Lyons did not pass the petition on to Buckingham Palace, and it has never been found in any archive. But in 2014, a copy finally reached Queen Elizabeth, after his grandson Boydie Turner travelled to London.
Equal rights and ‘uplift’
In 1936, Cooper founded the Australian Aborigines’ League, which he envisaged as an organisation to represent all Aboriginal people.
Under his leadership, the league developed a program to call for the rights and privileges that other Australian citizens enjoyed, while also seeking the “uplift” of Indigenous people, so they could overcome the disadvantages they suffered.
“Uplift” entailed a claim for special rights for Aboriginal people — to land, capital and other resources — that rested on their disadvantage, rather than their status as the country’s Indigenous or First peoples.
But in the course of demanding the rights of citizenship and “uplift”, Cooper repeatedly sought to draw attention to his ancestors’ prior ownership of the land and their subsequent dispossession, displacement and decimation.
He did so in order to remind white Australians of their obligations to Aboriginal people, incurred as a result of this history. As Cooper noted in 1938,
Surely the Commonwealth, which controls all that originally belonged to us, could make what would be a comparatively meagre allowance for us, by way of recompense.
To remind people of Australia’s black history, Cooper called for a “Day of Mourning” to mark Australia’s sesquicentenary in January 1938 and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day.
Protest against Nazi persecution
Cooper and the League also rejected government policies advocating for the absorption of Aboriginal people into Australian society. Instead, he asserted a vision of Aboriginal people as a permanent and ongoing community in Australia. As he said in 1936,
all thought of breeding the half-caste white, and the desire that that be accomplished, is a creature of the white mind. The coloured person has no feeling of repugnance toward the full blood, and in fact, he feels more in common with the full blood than with the white.
Cooper and other members of the league identified very strongly as a persecuted racial minority and made common cause with others beyond Australia’s shores, including the Jewish people.
In the incident for which Cooper now seems to be best known by non-Indigenous Australians, in December 1938 he led a protest against Nazi persecution to the German Consulate in Melbourne.
Inspiring a new generation
Cooper’s life and work seem astoundingly relevant for today. But during his life his campaign for rights for Aborigines fell on deaf eyes as far as government was concerned.
As he lamented in 1937,
We asked [for] bread. We scarcely seem likely to get a stone.
Yet, by the time he passed away in March 1941, he had inspired a new generation of Aboriginal leaders, most notably his grand-nephew Doug Nicholls but also the Onus brothers, who became prominent in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the immediate post-war period.
His notion of “thinking black” would in time also catch the imagination of yet another generation of Aboriginal leaders, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
Most importantly, perhaps, Cooper is remembered above all else for his prescient call for an Aboriginal voice to Parliament.
Through this, and his fight to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, he continues to speak to us today.
From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here, and an interactive here.
After Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, the east coast of Australia was drawn on European maps of the globe for the first time. Yet, in terms of European contact with the continent, there was an 18-year lull in between Cook’s 1770 landings and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
The main reason for this was Britain’s preoccupation with subduing its rebellious colonists in the War of American Independence from 1776-83.
Britain’s defeat in that war brought forth an urgent problem that eventually led to the colonisation of Australia: what it saw as a need to dispose of convicts who were overflowing the available prisons at home.
Previously, many British convicts were transported to the American colonies but after independence this option was no longer available.
The next penal colony: let the search begin
Discussions about alternative penal colonies meshed with Britain’s larger strategic and commercial goals at the time. Many hoped a new convict settlement would provide a base for extending British power in the wake of the American debacle and be “advantageous both to navigation and commerce”.
The search began in 1779 when the House of Commons established a committee under the chairmanship of British politician Sir Charles Bunbury. Various locations were considered, in particular, Senegal and Gambia on the west African coast.
But a new destination soon emerged with the testimony of Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavour, who had recently been elected president of the Royal Society. Botany Bay on the Australian coast, he contended, would be the best site for a penal colony since it had a Mediterranean climate and would be fertile. Banks added, too, that
there would be little Probability of any Opposition from the Natives
It was a prediction that would ultimately prove incorrect.
Why Botany Bay?
The search for a penal settlement lost momentum during the war, but regained some sense of urgency with its end in 1783.
James Matra, an American-born seaman aboard the Endeavour, circulated a proposal among policy-makers about establishing a new settlement at Botany Bay. It was based on his own first-hand knowledge of the coast, as well as his discussions with Banks, who remained the most influential advocate for the site.
Matra’s most immediate concern was to provide a home for the American loyalists – those, like his own family, who had lost their property in the new United States because of their loyalty to the British crown during the war.
Matra’s proposal also appealed to some key strategic and commercial concerns:
flax and timbers could be brought from New Zealand to grow in the new colony, providing the British navy with much-needed supplies;
the planting of spices and sugarcane would reduce Britain’s reliance on the Dutch East Indies;
the site could be used as a base for those engaged in the lucrative fur trade in America; and
the settlement could act as a strategic base to challenge the Dutch in the East Indies and the Spanish in the Philippines and even South America.
Another serious contender emerges
After Matra submitted his proposal, another House of Commons committee was established in 1785, chaired by Lord Beauchamp. Both Matra and Banks gave evidence in favour of Botany Bay, with Banks arguing,
from the fertility of the soil, the timid disposition of the inhabitants and the climate being so analogous to that of Europe I give the place the preference to all that I have seen
The committee, however, opted for an African site. It believed Das Voltas Bay, in southwest Africa, could reduce British dependence on the Dutch Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa and serve as a refuge for the American loyalists.
Before venturing down the path of establishing a colony, however, an exploratory voyage was sent to the African coast. It concluded the site was unsuitable as it lacked an effective harbour and fertile land.
Botany Bay was back in serious contention.
Dreams of Pacific trade
Other supporters soon emerged to sing the praises of Botany Bay.
Sir George Young, a naval officer and former East India Company officer, argued a colony at the site could serve as a base for trade with South America and underlined its strategic importance. If war broke out with Spain in the region, Botany Bay could be a place of refuge for British naval vessels.
Another advocate, John Call, an engineer with the East India Company, saw the advantages of a secondary settlement on nearby Norfolk Island. Flax grew in abundance on the island, he said, and the mighty Norfolk pine tree would be ideal for the masts of ships.
These observations were based on reports from Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages. The second included a visit to Norfolk Island, while the third ventured to the northwestern coast of America and traded furs in China, further fuelling British aspirations for Pacific trade.
Such arguments eventually led Prime Minister William Pitt and his Cabinet to accept the proposal to establish the settlement at Botany Bay.
A costly endeavour
Such a settlement demanded an unprecedented degree of state planning and financing.
The First Fleet, for example, consisted of 11 ships (no larger than the Manly ferry) that carried, among other things, a supply of seeds from Banks to help establish a “new Europe” on the other side of the Earth.
The convicts sent to New South Wales also incurred considerable state expense compared to those sent to America. From 1788-89, the new colony accumulated expenses of over 250,000 pounds, which equated to 100 pounds per convict per annum.
The fact it cost considerably more to transport a convict to New South Wales than to keep him or her in a British jail supported the view held by some in England that the penal colony was a subterfuge for broader strategic goals.
Rival nations also thought the British were trying to deceive them. Alejandro Malaspina, who captained a Spanish expedition that visited Sydney in 1793, thought the settlement could be a potential naval base for an attack on Spanish America.
A repository for convicts
And yet, in the end, the settlement at New South Wales did little to advance British strategic goals.
The site lacked a naval base and its defences were so weak, François Péron, a naturalist aboard the French Baudin expedition that circumnavigated much of Australia from 1801-03, thought it could be easily captured.
In fact, no naval expedition was mounted from New South Wales during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-15. Nor did New South Wales live up to the commercial benefits some had invested in it. Tropical fruits and spices would not grow in Sydney, and Norfolk Island proved a disappointment as a source for naval supplies.
The American loyalists also chose to resettle in nearby Canada instead of distant New South Wales.
But New South Wales proved to cater to the most immediate reason for British settlement: a repository for convicts.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
From Tongan Princes to the daughters of Sāmoan political leaders, elite Australian schools have long been considered desirable locations for the children of high-ranking Pacific families. One such student was a young Tahitian named Joanna Marau Ta‘aroa who attended Sydney Ladies’ College from 1869 to 1873.
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.
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.
For something only a little larger than a 50 cent piece, this medallion had a long legacy in colonial NSW. It was reproduced on the front page of The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay – one of the first accounts of the fledgling colony. Later it was adapted for the Great Seal of New South Wales – attached to convict pardons and land grants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In December 1882, Eliza O’Flaherty died of “diabetes and exhaustion” at her lodgings in Sydney. Aged 64, Eliza lived in a brick cottage behind a dyeworks, where she had been employed as manager for two years. Her demise might seem unremarkable: a widowed, childless woman of the 19th century who had been worn out by work. But O’Flaherty was actually Eliza Winstanley, the first woman to play Richard III in an Australian theatre, and an early star of the colonial stage.
Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1818. With her parents William and Elizabeth and her five younger brothers and sisters, she emigrated to Sydney in 1833. Family stories recall that the Winstanleys went to the Liverpool port intending to emigrate to America but finding no ships bound for America at the docks, they boarded one for Sydney instead.
On arrival in Sydney the family rented a cottage in Kent Street and soon after William found employment as a scenic artist at Sydney’s first licensed theatre, Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal in George Street.
In 1834, Eliza, then 16, and her sister Anne, then 9, made their acting debut at this theatre. Eliza performed the role of Clari in The Maid of Milan, a forgotten musical play known for its sentimental song, Home Sweet Home. She received positive reviews, with The Australian’s critic praising,
“the rich intonation of her voice, and the expression of unfeigned grief which her countenance occasionally assumed”.
Surviving hissing from the mob
Early in her career, Winstanley endured the organised attacks of rowdy sections of the audience. The Cabbage Tree mob, named after their distinctive hats made from the leaves of the cabbage tree palm, were fans of the young actress Mathilda Jones, who, unlike the Winstanley sisters, was Australian born. The mob would hiss like geese whenever Eliza and Anne appeared on stage. But over the next 12 years Eliza refined her craft, becoming one of the most confident, reliable performers on the Sydney stage.
Many reviews describe Winstanley’s physical animation and emotional connection to her roles. She often enacted characters that demanded dynamic vocal and physical transformation, such as hags, maniacs and villains, which she played, as one critic put it, “with all the powers of tragic acting”.
Winstanley’s interest in physical transformation reached its zenith when she was advertised to play the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III at Sydney’s Australian Olympic Theatre. This was a tent theatre she and her husband, Henry O’Flaherty, briefly managed in 1842.
Shakespeare’s villainous Duke of Gloucester was widely regarded as the ultimate test of an actor’s skill. The character had been played a number of times in Sydney by men, with varying success. Winstanley’s decision to play Richard III indicates she was prepared to take on male theatrical rivals and unafraid of provocative programming.
‘Unsexly and indelicate’
Theatre historian Yvonne Shafer suggests that 19th century actresses played male roles because of “natural inclination, a wish to display ability, and novelty”, and also to “take the lead and compete with men in a very direct way”.
One 19th century critic was appalled by Winstanley’s decision. Although he chose not to attend her performance, he opined, “that the interests of any company of performers would be advanced, by such an exhibition, appears to us to be a most preposterous notion … such an attempt is unsexly and indelicate.”
Unfortunately, a review of Winstanley’s portrayal of Richard III has not yet been discovered. This lack of reviews could indicate that the production was boycotted by the Sydney critics.
In 1846, Winstanley and her husband left Sydney for London. For the next 20 years she carved out a career under her maiden name, and had consistent acting engagements in New York, Philadelphia and London.
Her days of cross-dressing and physical transformation were now over, and her repertoire consisted mainly of attractive widows, cheerful landladies and stock theatrical characters known as “heavy ladies”.
After the death of her husband, Winstanley had to rely on her own resources. She cemented her professional success as a member of Charles and Ellen Kean’s company at London’s Princess Theatre, and performed many times in the Kean’s command performances for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.
In an 1853 letter to Charles Kean, Winstanley accepts his offer to play Queen Elinor in the Keans’ production of Shakespeare’s King John.
The short note reveals Winstanley’s anxiety about her widening figure, her literary sense of humour and delight in word play. “With pleasure I secede to your request. Though in attempting the part of Queen Elinor I certainly shall fail to represent A leaner Queen.”
Reinvention as a writer
Although she maintained her acting career until the mid 1860s, Winstanley reinvented herself for a second successful career. Her first novel Shifting Scenes in Theatrical Life was published in 1859, and this marked the beginning of her professional life as “Mrs Winstanley” a writer and editor for popular “penny weekly” magazines.
Many of her novels are set in the world of the theatre, and reveal her insider’s knowledge of acting craft. Some of her novels, including the 1864 convict story Twenty Straws, were adapted and performed at London theatres in the 1860s and 70s.
In 1880, Winstanley returned to Sydney, perhaps to be near her brother Robert and his family. As Mrs O’Flaherty, she found employment as manager of Eldridge’s Dyeworks.
Sydney had transformed from the rough, colonial town she had known three decades earlier. Did any of the older customers of the dyeworks remember her as a skilled performer of tragedy and melodrama in the early days of the city’s first theatres?
Living as a widow for most of her life, without the material support of a husband, Winstanley adapted to her circumstances. As an actress she saw employment opportunities dwindle as she aged, and so remade herself as an editor and writer.
As her health declined, she again put her shoulder to the wheel at the dyeworks.
Winstanley’s three careers are proof of her indefatigable inventiveness in her professional life, and an ability to endure. As a leading artist on Australia’s earliest stages and our first female Richard III, Winstanley deserves a prominent place in our theatrical histories.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
For the communities of Coonabarabran in New South Wales and her grasslands Gomeroi people, Mary Jane Cain is a revered figure. Cain lived from 1844 to 1929. In the late 1880s, she successfully advocated for Aboriginal land security – a rare concession to an Aboriginal woman at the time. In 1920, she penned a 23-page manuscript detailing her life, her observations of new land owners and their workers, and a list of Gomeroi words.
She was born when frontier violence was at its zenith. Decades long guerrilla warfare had raged as the Gomeroi people resisted pastoral invasion and violent recriminations. Some estimate as few as 10% of the Aboriginal populations survived these killing times.
Mary Jane Cain’s mother, Jinnie Griffin, a “full blood” whose life likely spanned pre and post-contact, had married an Irishman, Eugene Griffin. They moved between Mudgee and Coonabarabran where they operated, for a time, as travelling sales people. After being held up by bushrangers, they spent decades working on pastoral runs – Jinnie as a shepherd and Eugene as a dairyman. At the time of Mary Jane’s birth, they’d been working on Toorawindi property for some years.
The advent of gold mining in 1852 marked a significant shift on the pastoral frontier. As Cain wrote in her 1920 manuscript, all the white people working on one station “left to go mining”. Renewed interest in Aboriginal people as shepherds and stock workers contributed to an easing in frontier violence on Gomeroi lands. This created opportunities for Aboriginal families to get back to their country, but in very different circumstances – as workers, generally without pay.
By the 1880s Cain had begun agitating for Aboriginal land rights. The 1890s depression caused a further wave of displacement of Aboriginal workers. In this context, the Aboriginal Protection Board emerged, partly in response to rising numbers of Aboriginal people now relegated to the fringes of towns. The board introduced ways to control Aboriginal populations including containment on reserves.
Mary Jane had married Aboriginal stockman Joe Cain in 1865 at Weetalabah station, where they were both living and working, in the home’s “best parlour”. By the 1880s she was living closer to town and shepherded her goats to the mountains and back each day. Her husband Joe became unwell and as she wrote to the Crown, she needed to secure land to support him and her nine children. She petitioned for land at Forky Mountain, about six miles from Coonabarabran, where she could run her goats.
The politics of land
In February 1892, Cain secured 400 acres. Further land grants in 1902, 1906 and 1911 saw her recover 600 acres that became home to displaced Aboriginal families up until the late 1950s. These families made homes from kerosene tins lined with glued sheets of newspaper, grew vegies, milked their cows, hosted pantomimes and lived lives recalled with enormous fondness. Over this site, Mary Jane Cain was Queen.
Cain’s grandchildren all recalled “multiple letters” from Cain addressed “to the Queen” (Victoria) requesting the land at Forky Mountain and her trips to Sydney to meet with government officials to petition for her land. Her descendants emphasised that Queen Victoria granted Cain land to manage as a place “for the dark people to live on”.
While Aboriginal reserves and missions are often viewed as sites of segregation and genocidal violence, Mary Jane Cain’s story highlights the economic, social and political context that saw reserves, at least initially, self-selected and defended by Aboriginal families; where Aboriginal worlds survived and where political organisation occurred.
In NSW, of the 85 Aboriginal reserves created in the period 1885 to 1895 more than half (47) were initiated by Aboriginal families. The new interest in taking up reserves coincided with a downturn in the two dominant economies – pastoralism and gold mining. Land likely represented an option for Aboriginal security in the wake of decades of colonial violence and disease that caused loss of land, people and livelihood.
‘Queen Mary Jane’
Cain’s grandchildren, Julia and Violet Robinson, Ethel Sutherland, Joe Cain and Emily Chatfield share generous and proud stories of “Queen” Mary Jane: she was a great cook, hand stitched marvellous outfits from hessian and old sugar bags and ran a large, immaculately scrubbed, loving home.
They loved her dearly and worked hard to fetch her goats from the mountains; they say she dressed beautifully and descriptions of her “sharp features” suggest they thought her beautiful. She was generous and kind, loaned money to those in need, and welcomed all to Burra Bee Dee (as the Aboriginal reserve was known from 1912). She was Queen of the reserve and Queen in the eyes of her family.
“Queen” was clearly a title Mary Jane was comfortable with: her 1920 manuscript is annotated at page 23 “by M.J. Cain, Queen 1920”. Available studio photos show a regal figure and flanked by her grandsons in military uniform, her own clothing and stature match this formal authority.
Visiting missionaries to Burra Bee Dee in 1909 were also reminded and duly acknowledged her Queen status. They fondly reported on the performances, poetry recital, dancing and the singing, at the end of a long evening, of God Save the King. Mary Jane Cain implored a further and final recital in her honour: God Save the Queen. They obliged.
She also held a powerful place in white society. After her death in 1929, the Coonabarabran Times described Mary Jane as being,
known and loved by all from a very great distance round this district and outside it … and a word against her, … would have evoked the undying hostility from the oldest and most respected families of the North Western slopes and Central West.
Cain’s keen sense of justice is evident in one entry in her 1920 manuscript where she refers to organising a petition in 1864 “which everyone signed” in defence of two brothers and “a young [‘half caste’] man … whom they hired” who had been wrongly arrested and charged for cattle stealing.
She writes that: “I presented the petition to Thomas Gordon Danger who was at that time member of Parliament”, which had the effect of reducing their sentence and “them liberated at five years”.
Aboriginal people negotiated the rapid change to their worlds as the grasslands country came to be intensively farmed. At Burra Bee Dee and through the oral history of Mary Jane Cain’s descendants we hear the stories of matriarchs who acquired the skills of the new world – literacy, shepherding and stock work, knowledge of political systems and how to effect change – and who built ways to sustain Aboriginal worlds in dramatically altered circumstances.
Today, after several years of careful community work, the history of Burra Bee Dee is beautifully documented with signage and photos detailing where families lived. The adjacent cemetery is a site of return for many generations to come. The bridge over the Castlereagh river bears Mary Jane’s name, the local rotary club has installed a plaque in her honour and her life has inspired an art exhibition. Still, the story of this matriarch and queen to her people deserves to be more widely told.
Professor Heidi Norman is a descendant of the Gomeroi people. Her Nan’s uncle (Charles Ruttley) married Mary Jane’s daughter (Eliza Josephine).