Category Archives: Australia

Hidden women of history: Australia’s first known female voter, the famous Mrs Fanny Finch



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Fanny Finch’s 1856 voting card.
Castlemaine Art Museum

Kacey Sinclair, La Trobe University

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

On 22 January 1856, an extraordinary event in Australia’s history occurred. It is not part of our collective national identity, nor has it been mythologised over the decades through song, dance, or poetry. It doesn’t even have a hashtag. But on this day in the thriving gold rush town of Castlemaine, two women took to the polls and cast their votes in a democratic election.

Two days later, Melbourne newspaper The Argus unwittingly granted one of them posterity, writing “two women voted – one, the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch”. Fanny Finch was a London-born businesswoman of African heritage, a single mother of four and is the first known woman to cast a vote in an Australian election.

Victorian women over the age of 21 (excluding Indigenous women) would not receive full unconditional suffrage until 1908. (Victorian Indigenous women were not enfranchised until 1965.) But Fanny Finch, as a local business owner who paid rates, was able to exploit a loophole in suffrage law that was yet to discriminate against gender or race.

The Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 granted suffrage to ratepaying “persons”. The loophole was eventually closed in 1865 when “persons” became “men”.

Argus report excerpt, 24th January 1856.
Trove

Who was Fanny?

Frances Finch was born Frances Combe in London in 1815. At eight-weeks-old she was orphaned by her mother after a tryst with a footman ended in a pregnancy but no marriage proposal.

A cross-stitch sampler attributed to Frances Coombe (sic) in 1830 at the age of 15 suggests she understood both her parents to be free people of African racial heritage (although the UK did not free slaves unconditionally until 1838.) The London Foundling Hospital, where Fanny was accepted as an orphan, provided her with some protection against slavery as well as an otherwise inaccessible education and access to an apprenticeship scheme in “household duties”.

Sampler attributed to Frances Coombe (sic).
Author provided

By 1837, a 22-year-old Fanny was a free, literate, educated, and experienced domestic servant. In that year she was approved a labourer’s free passage to the new colony of South Australia.

In Adelaide, Fanny was a valued employee of Julia Wyatt, an author, artist, and wife of the surgeon and first Protector of Aborigines, Dr. William Wyatt. Over the course of the next decade Fanny left their employment, married a sailor, Joseph Finch, and started a family.

By 1850, for reasons unknown, Fanny had left her husband. With her four children in tow, she made her way to Victoria. She arrived in the colony 12 months before the start of the Victorian gold rush. By early 1852 she was operating a restaurant and lodging house on the Forest Creek goldfields, alongside approximately 25,000 gold digging men and a handful of women.

There, in the fledgling township of Forest Creek, Mrs Finch’s Board and Lodging House became “the only one in which any person could get respectable accommodation”. By 1854, she had moved to nearby Castlemaine where she ran a restaurant. She quickly became one of its most recognisable faces.

Fanny Finch’s Restaurant, Corner of Latimer’s Lane and Urquhart Street, Castlemaine, c1858.
Richard Daintree.

A successful businesswoman

Fanny was a successful businesswoman, known to dress in bright blue silk with her black hair adorned in artificial flowers. Strong and robust, with an even larger personality she was not one to shy away from attempting to remedy injustice when she saw it – be it with her words, her cooking or her fists. Evidently, she possessed visibility and power.

Her business acumen and conspicuity make it probable that her male contemporaries were unsurprised when they witnessed Fanny cast her vote at the Hall of Castlemaine (now the Theatre Royal). Did the men taunt her? Encourage her? Or were they complacent? We cannot know. We do know that no one stopped her. She selected her preference and signed her name.

Market Square, Castlemaine, c1855. By S.T Gill. The Hall of Castlemaine where Fanny Finch cast her vote can be seen to the right of centre.
Author provided

That afternoon, however, the two assessors of the day disallowed both Fanny and the other unknown woman’s votes. Their reasons were cited as: “they (the women) had no right to vote”. Further details were not divulged.

Still, Walter Smith, the man for whom Fanny voted, was elected to council. Smith was an agent and brewer who arrived at Forest Creek at around the same time as Fanny. Little is known about what motivated her to vote for him but no one else, despite being allowed to vote in seven councillors. She was clearly determined to elect him to council.

A rare glimpse

During colonial times women were rarely identified by name in the press – particularly women of the working class. The 1856 Argus report now offers historians an unprecedented opportunity to identify an otherwise invisible minority – the 19th century Australian woman of colour – as an active participant in our political history.

Fanny was a woman, who, through relative privilege – wielded with her own blood, sweat and tears – refused to founder beneath the weight of a white, Anglo-male world of commerce. However, this came at a price. As a woman of colour occupying space in a white man’s world, assaults on her success were not uncommon. Yet she refused to disappear.

One of those assaults occurred in December 1855. Fanny Finch was fined £50 for the illicit sale of alcohol, known as “sly-grogging”. After a month-long trial, which involved scandalous cross-examinations of miners, policemen, and even her two young sons, she was charged and fined.

Despite the exorbitant fine and the public slandering of her character and commercial integrity, Fanny Finch was not defeated. Like many business people on the goldfields, she both owed money and was owed it by others, but over the following four months, she began an unprecedented campaign of self-representation.

The day following her conviction she published a letter in the local paper accusing the local authorities of injustice (a copy of this has not survived).
A month on, she cast that vote. Then a few months later in April, she published the following advertisement.

Mrs. Finch begs to inform the inhabitants of Castlemaine that henceforth she will carry on business for her children and would be happy to receive any outstanding debts … finding that the more she herself strives the more she is oppressed, although she can firmly state that if those who are in her debt would come forward each with one third, she will be relieved of all debt, have a good home for her family and about two thousand pounds in her pocket.

Fanny Finch also begs to state that as in her affluence she was so kindly trusted, they may be sure that she, from her own free will, may some day liquidate all, but she must have her time … and in spite of what enemies she may have, she intends to keep throughout the winter ready cooked Ham, Beef Soups (a la mode) from seven in the morning to seven in the night.

The vote of the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch adds a woman of colour’s voice to what Clare Wright has described as an unorganised movement for women’s rights during the 1850s.

Fanny died on the 15th October 1863, aged 48. She was remembered as “a strong minded woman” with “a genuine tenderness of heart, ever ready to serve another in distress … without the slightest ostentation”.

She was given a public burial in an unmarked grave at Castlemaine Cemetery.The Conversation

Kacey Sinclair, PhD Candidate in History, La Trobe University

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

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Hidden women of history: Isabel Letham, daring Australian surfing pioneer



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Isabel Letham tandem surfing with Duke Kahanamoku in 1916.
Dee Why library

Anne Rees, La Trobe University

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

When we think of Australians who made history in 1915, the rugged Anzac is the figure who first springs to mind. A century after the Gallipoli campaign, that year has become near synonymous with the mythologised soldiers who fought and died in the Dardanelles.

But months before Australia’s so-called “baptism by fire” began at Anzac Cove, a more joyful baptism drew crowds to Sydney’s northern beaches. There, in January 1915, local 15-year-old Isabel Letham was inducted into the mysteries of surfing, becoming one of the first Australians to ride the waves.

This was the early days of Australia’s beach culture, as public bathing had only been legalised a few years before. Surf boards were almost unknown, and beachgoers instead entertained themselves with body surfing—then known as “surf shooting”.

Into this scene arrived Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer and famed surfer from Hawai’i, the home of modern surf culture. Kahanamoku had been visiting Australia to test himself against local swimming talent, but was convinced to add a surfing demonstration to his itinerary. Sydneysiders were keen to see the handsome Polynesian show off the unfamiliar sport, and punters lined the sand of Freshwater beach.

Once in the waves, Kahanamoku decided to enhance the show with a tandem demonstration, and invited Letham to join him on the board. They made a striking couple: Kahanamoku was tall and muscled, while Letham was lithe and vivacious, her skin bronzed from long days at the beach. The duo were a local sensation, and Letham was hailed as the “Freshwater mermaid”. Thanks to the visiting Hawai’ian, both surfing and Letham were now big news.

Isabel Letham surfing circa 1916 or 1917.
Dee Why Library

Emboldened by this Australian celebrity, Letham decided to try her luck on the silver screen. The US film industry was taking the world by storm, and Hollywood was the place to be. Leaving school at 16, Letham found employment as a sports mistress at elite girls’ school Kambala, and also worked as a private swimming instructor.

By August 1918, she’d saved enough for a fare to California. The war was still raging but that was not enough to deter her. Still only in her teens, Letham set sail on the SS Niagara, the “Queen of the Pacific”. She travelled alone and with only the vaguest outline of a plan.

‘A young Diana of the waves’

Letham had no luck in Hollywood, but nonetheless revelled in the freedom of life abroad. She tackled the waves at Waikiki, partied with Russian aristocrats in New York, and lived a bachelorette lifestyle in Los Angeles, hairdressing to pay the bills. In California she continued to turn heads with her surfing skills, known as “a young Diana of the waves”.

Although she returned to Sydney in 1921 to nurse her ailing father, Letham was lured back to California soon after his death in 1923. This time, she settled in San Francisco, where she became a celebrated swimming instructor. At first, Letham worked at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed expertise in modern approaches to swimming pedagogy, which stressed the technical mastery of each stroke.

Letham with her board.
Dee Why library

Later she taught children at San Francisco’s public baths, and in 1926 was appointed swimming instructor at the luxurious City Women’s Club, an institution which boasted “the most beautiful indoor pool on the Pacific coast”. Having decided that “opportunities in the States were high for women”, Letham had adopted US citizenship in 1925. She was, by this point, a modern woman par excellence: economically independent, physically daring and unapologetically ambitious.

One of her ambitions was to introduce Australian-style beach safety patrols to California, where swimmers drowned at an alarming rate. In 1925, she had reached out to the Sydney lifesaving community to get them on board.

To her dismay, this idea was scuttled when Sydney’s surf clubs refused to grant Letham membership. “We do not teach ladies the work”, decreed the president of the national Surf Life Saving Association. Without any formal affiliation to the lifesaving movement, Letham found it nigh impossible to carry its message overseas, and her plan to export Australian expertise and reduce Californian fatalities came to naught.

A champion of women

In 1929, disaster struck. Letham fell down a manhole and suffered a serious back injury that required months of rehabilitation. Unable to work, she retreated to her family home in Sydney. Soon after, Wall Street crashed and her mother became seriously ill. Faced with financial strain and family responsibilities, Letham had little choice but to remain in Australia – a twist of fate she would long regret.

Back in Sydney, Letham derided the primitive state of local swimming education, and began teaching at pools throughout the northern suburbs. She was also an early proponent of synchronised swimming, and in the 1950s organised a “water ballet” at the Freshwater Ladies’ Swimming Club – an event inspired by the “rhythm swimming” she had observed at Berkeley several decades earlier. No longer a resident of the United States, her American citizenship was revoked in 1944.

In 1961, Isabel Letham retired as a swim coach. Over the previous three decades, she had become an icon of Sydney’s northern beaches, known and beloved for introducing generations of children to the water. Still living in the family home near South Curl Curl, she swam daily in the sea.

Later in life, Letham emerged as an enthusiastic champion of women’s incursion into the masculinist culture of Australian surfing.

“There’s no reason why girls should not be as good on surfboards as the boys. I’m all for them,” she proclaimed in 1963. In 1978, she became a life member and patron of the Australian Women Board Riders Association, and in 1993 was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. She was an inspiration to a later generation of female surfers.

Although it was a man who first made her famous back in 1915, Isabel remained fiercely independent and never married. She lived until the ripe old age of 95, passing away on 11 March 1995. A true water baby until the end, her ashes were scattered off Manly and Freshwater beaches.

Isabel Letham features in a new episode of ABC radio’s Shooting The Past program called The Glide, exploring the history of surfing in Australia. It will air tomorrow at 11am on Radio National.The Conversation

Anne Rees, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

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


2001 polls in review: September 11 influenced election outcome far more than Tampa incident



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John Howard’s Coalition won the November 2001 election, but the September 11 attacks had more impact on that outcome than the Tampa crisis.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Many commentators have compared Labor’s support for the Medevac legislation with the Tampa incident in late August 2001. The implication is that Labor lost the 2001 election due to Tampa, and could lose this year’s election due to Medevac.

Political commentator Katharine Murphy has said she was certain at the time Labor leader Kim Beazley “had just lost the election” after announcing Labor would vote against retrospective legislation giving the Coalition government the power to forcibly remove the Tampa from Australian territorial waters.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


But are the claims that Labor lost the 2001 election due to the Tampa true? The Poll Bludger, William Bowe, kindly sent me the polling data for the 1998-2001 term, on which the historical BludgerTrack is based. BludgerTrack is a bias-adjusted poll aggregate.

I have used this data to create the graph below of the Coalition vs Labor two party preferred vote during 2001. The election was on November 10.

BludgerTrack two party preferred vote during 2001.

The graph shows that Labor had a massive lead in March 2001 of about 57-43, but it gradually narrowed to about 52-48 by the time Australian government involvement in the Tampa incident began on August 26. The Tampa was denied permission to dock at Christmas Island and deliver asylum seekers who had been rescued.

The Coalition received about a two-point boost from the Tampa affair to draw level with Labor. However, it had a much bigger lift from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which lifted the Coalition’s vote five points to about a 55-45 lead. As the shock of the attacks wore off, the Coalition’s vote fell back to a 51.0-49.0 victory on election day (November 10).

If the Tampa had occurred in 2001, but not September 11, other issues, such as the economy, health and education, would probably have appealed to people in the lead-up to the election more than boats. Labor could have recovered to an election-winning position. September 11 made national security a huge asset for the Coalition government at the 2001 election.

If not for September 11, Labor may have won the 2001 election. The Tampa put the Coalition into a tie with Labor, not a lead.

Analyst Peter Brent in Inside Story thinks that, given economic factors, the Coalition would probably have won the election by 51-49 without either the Tampa or September 11. You can achieve this result by drawing a line from the Coalition’s nadir in March to the election, with the assumption that the slow improvement in the polls had continued.




Read more:
If Beazley had become prime minister instead of Rudd, might we have had more stable government?


However, the graph shows the Coalition’s recovery had stalled for over a month before the Tampa. Even though the September 11 shock had faded by the election, the boost it gave to the importance of the Coalition strength of national security assisted the Coalition at the election.

Labor did not lose the 2001 election because of the Tampa, and they are unlikely to lose the 2019 election because of their support for the Medevac bill. I believe the shock factor of terrorist incidents has been reduced by their frequency. There were two terrorist atrocities shortly before the 2017 UK general election, yet UK Labour performed much better than expected at that election.

Eight UK Labour and three Conservatives MPs form new Independent Group

On Monday, seven UK Labour MPs resigned from their party to form The Independent Group. In the next two days, another Labour MP and three Conservative MPs also resigned to join The Independent Group.

While other causes, such as alleged antisemitism within Labour, have been cited, the reason these defections have happened now is Brexit. The defecting MPs are strongly opposed to their former party’s handling of Brexit, and all want a second referendum on Brexit – currently opposed by both major parties.

The Independent Group MPs have consistently voted in favour of proposals to avoid a “no deal” Brexit when the UK leaves the European Union on March 29. However, these MPs votes will not change. To avoid a no deal, either other MPs votes must change, or the major parties need to reach a compromise. The next important Brexit votes will be on February 27. The article I wrote on my personal website in January about why a no deal Brexit is a plausible scenario is still relevant.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

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


What has Australia learned from Black Saturday?


Dr Kevin Tolhurst AM, University of Melbourne

Black Saturday was a day like no other; it will be forever remembered in the history of bushfire disasters in Australia. The fires burned about 300,000 hectares in a single day; 173 human lives were lost and more than 2,000 houses were destroyed in one afternoon.

Australia was shocked at the scale of the destruction. Questions were soon being asked about how this could happen in the modern world, what could have been done to reduce the loss of lives and physical destruction, and what can be done to stop this happening again.




Read more:
After the firestorm: the health implications of returning to a bushfire zone


The many reports, studies and inquiries in the ten years since Black Saturday have created a new regime for assessing and dealing with fires. While this has meant many improvements in how we communicate and coordinate in the face of bushfires, I believe it has also resulted in an overemphasis on accountability and technology at the expense of effective fire control.

The aftermath

As days passed and the fires were still being fully controlled, attention turned to capturing information about the fires so we could better understand what had happened. Victims and people affected by the fires were interviewed by journalists and social scientists, welfare workers and counsellors, friends and family. Nobody, at the time of the fires, had full knowledge of what had happened, so the collective knowledge pieced the puzzle together.

Fire scientists and meteorologist were also trying to capture as much information as possible about the fires and what drove them. This was a unique opportunity to collect information about fire and weather that could never be reproduced in experiments.

Within a few days of the fire, the Victorian premier had announced a royal commission to investigate the cause of the fires, the factors leading to the unprecedented level of death and destruction, and the institutional response before, during and after the fires. The commission ran for 18 months, heard from 434 witnesses, cost more than A$90 million and produced 67 recommendations.

What has changed?

Research and the royal commission significantly increased our understanding of what occurred on Black Saturday. Research using these fires still continues ten years after the event. The knowledge gained has resulted in better weather forecasting, better communication about fires and weather to the public, better coordination and cooperation between emergency response agencies and public land managers, and better building and planning regulations for fire-prone areas.

Unfortunately, the close scrutiny of fire and land management agencies has led to greater emphasis on following standard processes and recording all actions and information used during fire events. This has led to a lot of time and resources being allocated to accountability at the expense of effectiveness in reducing bushfire impacts. This is clearly not a deliberate intention of the various agencies, but is the reality of a highly political and litigious world.

Another unintended development has been the increased reliance on technology for both fighting fires and communication. Many people in the bushfire-prone areas demand reliable access to warnings and fire developments, so there has been a rapid expansion of the mobile phone and internet networks across Victoria. However, just because people have access to such information does not ensure that they will respond in ways that emergency response agencies expect.




Read more:
Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


Other technology such as bigger, stronger fire trucks and the use of aircraft for water bombing has reduced the extent of dry firefighting techniques – that is, controlling fire using firebreaks, hand tools and backburning with little or no water used. This has increased the number of fires growing to damaging sizes and escaping control lines.

This failing has not been fully recognised. Partly, that’s because any “technology” is easily taken by the media, public and politicians as an improvement, when in fact it may not be.

The lessons we’ve yet to learn

Since Black Saturday, use of the concept of “bushfire risk” has been growing. This makes it clear that bushfires in Australia are a constant threat and the risk is never zero.

The “risk concept” allows public agencies, private groups and communities to reduce bushfire risk to a level that they can afford and are willing to accept. However, how bushfire risk is assessed and communicated, and how trade-offs are negotiated, still has a long way to go if bushfire risk is to be a truly “shared responsibility” as the royal commission recommended.

Another complication is that public agencies have a regular turnover of staff. This makes it more difficult to establish trusted relationships between public agencies and private individuals.




Read more:
Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now


An event like Black Saturday will occur again. The terrain, vegetation, climate and weather patterns in southeastern Australia ensure that. Climate change will increase this risk.

When it does happen again, the extent of what we learned from Black Saturday will be judged by the impact of that event. We should not expect there will be no loss of lives and property in future massive blazes, but we should expect it will be significantly less than Black Saturday.The Conversation

Dr Kevin Tolhurst AM, Senior Lecturer, Fire Ecology and Management, University of Melbourne

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



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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.


70 years before Black Saturday, the birth of the Victorian CFA was a sad tale of politics as usual


James (Jim) McLennan, La Trobe University

Black Saturday, ten years ago today, was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy. It claimed 173 lives and more than 2,000 homes, and prompted a royal commission that made 67 recommendations, including 15 relating to the Country Fire Authority (CFA). All but one of the 67 were accepted by the Brumby government in 2010.

The CFA owes its existence to a series of earlier bushfire tragedies, but its birth was far less straightforward than is widely believed, and back then the government of the day was much slower to act on the advice it received in the aftermath of disaster.

January 13, 2019, was another significant bushfire anniversary: 80 years since the 1939 Victorian “Black Friday” fires. Before Black Saturday this was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy, with an official death toll of 71.




Read more:
What firefighters say about climate change


In 1939 there was no CFA, and bushfires were fought by local volunteer fire brigades, with no statewide organisation responsible for managing bushfire danger.

In the wake of Black Friday, Premier Albert Dunstan’s Country Party government also established a Royal Commission, chaired by Leonard Stretton, to investigate the bushfires. His report was tabled in state parliament on June 28, 1939 – less than six months after the fires – and it continues to earn praise as a model of comprehensiveness and clarity. One of its recommendations was to establish an authority with overall responsibility for bushfire management in Victoria.

Not so fast

It’s widely believed that this recommendation led directly to the formation of CFA. In truth it did not – the CFA was not established until December 1944.

You might ask why it took so long to implement such a clear recommendation. The answer is a sad indictment of the Victorian politics of the day, which also has parallels with government reactions to today’s environmental issues.

Stretton’s report was attacked savagely in the Victorian Parliament. Deputy Premier and Minister for Forests Alfred Lind – whose department was criticised strongly in the report – led the charge. None of the report’s recommendations were acted upon. The Labor opposition was incensed at the lack of action and moved a motion of no confidence in the government, which was defeated on party lines. And that, it seemed, was the end of the matter.

But it wasn’t, because the environment itself intervened. The summer of 1943-44 followed a severe drought in Victoria. The fire season began with a grass fire on December 23, 1943, in which ten members of the Wangaratta volunteer fire brigade died. In January 1944, raging grass fires claimed more than 20 lives and destroyed many homes across several regions of Victoria. In February, a fire near Morwell in Gippsland spread to the Yallourn open-cut coalmine; the nearby power station was threatened and there were blackouts across the state.

All told, there were 51 bushfire deaths that fateful summer, leading to public outcry over the lack of action just a few years before. Dunstan and Lind decided there was no alternative but to ask Stretton to chair a second Royal Commission, this one inquiring into the circumstances of the Yallourn fire. The resulting report made several pointed references to the previous, ignored, Royal Commission findings.

Times had changed, and World War 2 was at its peak. War-related manpower needs meant that there were fewer volunteer firefighters available, and power outages were seen as interfering with war-related industrial output. The government came under intense pressure to mitigate future bushfire danger by establishing an agency with legislated statewide responsibility for fire management.

After protracted negotiations with competing interest groups – notably the Country Fire Brigades Board and the Bush Fire Brigades Association – Stretton’s recommendation was finally realised when a bill to establish the CFA was passed on December 6, 1944. The board of the new authority met for the first time on January 3, 1945.




Read more:
The Victorian firefighter dispute comes to a resolution, but for how long?


From its inception, the CFA has been the subject of controversy, most recently when the current Andrews government proposed converting it to an all-volunteer fire service, with professional firefighters moved to another agency. The necessary legislation has so far failed to pass the state parliament’s upper house. Politics, it seems, continues to determine how our fire services are delivered.The Conversation

James (Jim) McLennan, adjunct professor, School of Psychology & Public Health, La Trobe University, La Trobe University

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


Throw a sea cucumber on the barbie: Australia’s trade history really is something to celebrate



File 20190124 135163 16pr1vx.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The sea cucumber, or trepang, Australia’s first export to Asia.
Shutterstock

Tim Harcourt, UNSW

The sea cucumber is a marine animal that has a leathery skin but soft body. Its shape and size resembles a cucumber. In Australia we commonly call it trepang, adopted from a Malayan word. It was Australia’s first export to Asia, where it is regarded as a delicacy, particularly in Chinese cuisine.

There is evidence fishermen from Makassar, on what is now the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, were visiting the coast of what is now Arnhem Land to collect sea cucumbers as early as the mid-1600s to sell to Chinese merchants. The fishermen camped on the beach to boil and dry their caught trepang, and exchanged goods with the local Indigenous tribes.




Read more:
Long before Europeans, traders came here from the north and art tells the story


Through the lens of trade, therefore, the story of modern Australia, a nation interacting with the global economy, begins long before January 26, 1788.

There are many debates that surround Australia Day. But we can all celebrate our history of trade. Like any history, there are episodes of engagement we can’t admire or be proud of. But on the whole, what began with seafood trade on the coast of Arnhem Land has proven a remarkable success.

Arrivals, departures, department stores

Two of Hong Kong’s most iconic department stores provide another example of historic interaction with Asia.

Throughout the 19th century large numbers of Chinese, particularly Cantonese, migrated to Australia’s goldfields. As in any gold rush, it was those who ended up selling supplies that usually prospered more than the prospectors (the 19th century equivalents of Atlassian). In Victoria, Chinese merchants became prominent in the development of retail sectors in Ballarat and Bendigo.

Some Chinese migrants who opened stores in Australia eventually returned to China, and took what they had learned with them.

A Sincere store in Mongkok, Hong Kong.
Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

One of those was Ma Ying Piu, who in 1900 opened Hong Kong’s first Chinese-owned department store, called Sincere. The store is said to have been inspired by David Jones in Sydney.

Hong Kong’s second Chinese-owned department store, Wing On, was started by brothers Kwok Lok and Kwok Chuen, who returned to China from Australia in 1907. Both businesses opened branches in Shanghai and became two of the “four great department stores of China”.

Such entrepreneurial spirit from around the world enabled
the separate Australian colonies to boom for much of the 19th century. Admittedly some paid a heavy price (convicts and Indigenous people treated like slaves, for example). But great economic growth was achieved, as economic historian Ian McLean points out in Why Australia Prospered, without a national government or “many of the institutions and sources of advice now regarded as essential for macroeconomic management”, such as trained economists.

The long march to the Asian century

Colonial governments ran trade missions to China, South East Asia and Japan in the 19th century. After federation in 1901, the Commonwealth government set up trade offices in Shanghai, Tokyo and Batavia (Jakarta) before the interruption of World War II. In the post-war era there have been “four waves” of Asian engagement.

The first three were: the Japan-Australia Commerce agreement in 1957; Gough Whitlam’s recognition of China in 1971; and the Hawke-Keating economic reforms between 1983 and 1996.

The fourth wave is the Asian Century. It began after Australia survived the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-99 and realised its future did lie in Asia.

To get to that point was a long process. Paul Keating might have been the prime minister who most enthusiastically spruiked engagement with Asia, but he was certainly not the first to advocate closer ties.

That was then, and this is now

So that’s some of our history. What about now?

There are many contemporary things we can be cheerful (and proud about) in 2019 that echo our history.

We can be very pleased about successful Indigenous exporters and entrepreneurs – the successors of our first traders from Arnhem Land.

Think of Ros and John Moriarty of Balarinji, the design agency that has developed all of the motifs used by Qantas in its Flying Art series.

Balarinji oversaw translating Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s 1991 painting ‘Yam Dreaming’ for application on a Qantas jet.
Qantas

Or Peter Cooley, who founded Blak Markets to provide economic development opportunities to Indigenous people. (He also hosts his own business show.)

Or David Williams and the members of the Bangarra dance company.

At my business school at the University of NSW a new generation of Indigenous business students have just completed summer school. I am hopeful many will become our business stars of tomorrow.

Along with homegrown talent, Australia has been blessed by waves of immigrants rich in the same entrepreneurial spirit that enabled Chinese merchants to prosper despite the racism of the 19th century.

From the first fleet, we’ve had English, Scots and Irish seeking freedom from poverty and persecution. We’ve had East European Jews, Vietnamese Buddhists, Lebanese Christians and Afghan Muslims fleeing persecution and war.

About one in four Australians were born overseas, but they represent one in every two exporters, and two out of every three entrepreneurs. Immigration has been a good story for Australia in terms of trade and entrepreneurial talent.




Read more:
How Australian cities are adapting to the Asian Century


The books Why Nations Fail and Why Australia Prospered show Australia has developed much more successful economic institutions (such as property rights) and political institutions (such as democratic rights) than other nations with similar natural resources, agricultural endowments and increases in human capital through immigration.

This is partially due to our successful record as a trading nation.

No nation is perfect. They all have their failures and aspects of their history not to be proud of. But the things we have gotten right are worth remembering.

So even if you throw a shrimp on the barbie, at least remember the sea cucumber.The Conversation

Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW

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


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



File 20190129 108334 1b82gwn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Kathleen McArthur (left) and Judith Wright (right) wildflowering at Currimundi in 1961.
Photo by Alex Jelinek. Courtesy Alexandra Moreno

Susan Davis, CQUniversity Australia

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

This year marks 50 years since the launch of one of Australia’s first major conservation battles, waged against Queensland’s ultra-conservative, pro-development premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It was for a location few had ever heard of – Cooloola, an area that stretches from Noosa to Rainbow Beach, around 70 km north.

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur by Lina Bryans (1960).
Courtesy Alexandra Moreno

The unlikely leader of this campaign was a wildflower painter named Kathleen McArthur, who led the Caloundra branch of an environmental group the Australian newspaper called “the most militant of conservation cells”.

Kathleen, together with colleagues such as poet Judith Wright, pioneered and honed activist strategies that are still instructive today. She understood art’s ability to prompt human emotion and marshal the public support required to bring about change.

From her homebase at Caloundra in Queensland, Kathleen created nation-wide awareness of the existence of the Cooloola region, which incorporates internationally significant high dunes, coloured sands, rainforest and wallum heathland habitats. It is now part of Great Sandy National Park, but at the time was under threat from sand mining and development.

A highlight of the Cooloola campaign was the distribution of 100,000 protest cards across Australia, with at least 15,000 of them sent to Queensland’s then Premier. Conservationist Arthur Harrold described Kathleen as the “cunning mind” behind the cards.

The Cooloola campaign postcard, 1969.
Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland

Abandoning convention

Kathleen McArthur was born in 1915 into one of Brisbane’s leading families. Her parents were Daniel Evans of Queensland engineering company Evans Deakin, and Kathleen (Kit) Durack, of the Irish pastoralist family made famous via the books of cousin Mary Durack.

Christmas Bells by Kathleen McArthur.
Courtesy Hugh McArthur and the Fryer Library, University of Queensland

Kathleen had an early life of considerable privilege. However, she turned away from the conventional life of the society matron. After a well-publicised marriage to military man Malcolm McArthur, and three children, Kathleen eschewed life on military bases or the city. The family bought a modest home at Caloundra that she later named Midyim.

Discovering her husband’s unfaithful ways, Kathleen initiated divorce proceedings in 1947. By the 1950s, she was a single mother of three. She lost her parents to illness in 1951.

From then on, Kathleen forged a new life for herself, writing about and illustrating Queensland wildflowers. She began painting in part to help identify the wildflowers in her local environment, there being a limited range of books to assist with their identification.

The Bush in Bloom by Kathleen McArthur (1982).

In 1953, Kathleen set herself the task of recording all the native plants in bloom across key locations of the Sunshine Coast region. This project fed into numerous publications including weekly newspaper columns and books. This year was also notable for a wildflowering expedition Kathleen took with her friend Judith Wright to the peak of Mt Tinbeerwah, which provided the spark of the idea for a national park at Cooloola.

Judith and Kathleen were among the founders of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, established in 1962, along with naturalist David Fleay and Jacaranda Press founder Brian Clouston. Brian offered to help their cause by publishing an educational wildlife magazine, which still exists today.

The ‘Mistress of Midyim’

A crisis point was reached for Cooloola in 1969, with mining applications pending for much of the region. Kathleen’s idea to use wildflower postcards activated the public campaign. She had been inspired by a US campaign utlising such cards and though others were sceptical, set about creating a postcard, a letter and a brochure that could be distributed far and wide. She also created wildflower cards and prints featuring her artwork, sold to help raise funds.

Just a few of the flood of letters Kathleen received during the Cooloola campaign, from the WPSQ collection held at the State Library of Queensland.
Courtesy Susan Davis

After the postcard distribution, hundreds of letters of support flowed back to the “Mistress of Midyim”. The campaign was further promoted through feature articles and letters to editors, talks, a documentary and capitalising on a web of allegiances. From early on, the Wildlife society formed relationships with scientists such as Dr Len Webb, from the CSIRO, who played a central role.

Vanilla Lillies by Kathleen McArthur.
Courtesy Hugh McArthur

Kathleen and the society communicated regularly with politicians from all sides of the house. Her local MP Mike Ahern was a Country Party member but sympathetic to the conservation agenda.

On 1 December 1969, Bjelke-Peterson issued a press release stating that “substantial areas” of the Cooloola sand mass would be set aside as a National Park. But this was by no means the end of the campaign. Six weeks later, it was revealed that applications had been lodged for sand mining leases within some areas of Cooloola. This delayed formal action on the declaration of a national park and required the campaigners to change tactics.

In the meantime, the newly formed South Queensland Conservation Council, the Cooloola Committee and Dr Arthur Harrold took on the next phase of the battle. While Kathleen gave up leadership of the campaign, she did not leave the fray entirely. As key hurdles were encountered she would return to letter writing and other forms of maintaining the rage.

Eventually, 22 years after Kathleen and Judith first stood on the peak of Mt Tinbeerwah, the Queensland parliament gazetted the Cooloola National Park in December, 1975. However Kathleen’s role is rarely mentioned in most accounts of the Cooloola campaign.

After Cooloola

Kathleen McArthur in the early 1960s.
Author supplied

Kathleen refocussed on her art, wrote a suite of books and established a series of monthly presentations called “lunch-hour theatre”. She remained involved with her local branch of the wildlife preservation society, prepared the submission to have Pumicestone Passage added to the register of the National Estate, and campaigned to protect beach dunes.
She also identified areas that should be protected as reserves, including one posthumously named Kathleen McArthur Conservation Reserve just north of Lake Currimundi. After a period of illness she died in 2000, the same year as her friend Judith Wright.

Because of the likes of Kathleen McArthur, today there are national parks, beaches protected by dunes rather than rock walls, and birds calling from humble heathlands where gentle wildflowers bloom. She is but one of a number of women from the period who could be “wild”, radical and difficult, but who was passionate about wildflowers and protecting our natural environments.

A ‘Wild/flower Women’ exhibition will be on display at the Fryer Library, University of Queensland throughout 2019, with an online exhibition to be available via their website. A public lecture and performance will be staged in late March as a part of the Fryer Fellowship program.The Conversation

Susan Davis, Deputy Dean Research, Education and the Arts, CQUniversity Australia

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



File 20190124 135148 1233kz2.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.


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