Tag Archives: Aborigine

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



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

Heather Goodall, University of Technology Sydney

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

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

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

Isabel pictured around 1980.
Heather Goodall

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

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




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


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

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

‘I was terrified when I stood up there’

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

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

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

The Liberty Picture Show, circa 1980.
Heather Goodall

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

Campaigning for a place of peace

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

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

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

Decorated graves at the Collarenebri cemetery.
Author provided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



File 20190213 90473 a03tys.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.


Australia: Bennelong


The link below is to a short article on Bennelong, an Aborigine who features in Australia’s early European history.

For more visit:
http://trust.dictionaryofsydney.org/bennelongs-story/


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