But the hope is that scientists will have some access to the returned remains, which still have much to tell us about the lives of early Aboriginal Australians.
The Mungo discoveries
For more than a century, non-Indigenous people have collected the skeletal remains of Aboriginal Australians. This understandably created enormous resentment for many Aboriginal people who objected to the desecration of their gravesites.
The removal of the remains from the Willandra was quite different, done to prevent the erosion and destruction of fragile human remains but also to make sense of their meaning. In 1967 Mungo Woman’s cremated remains were found buried in a small pit on the shores of Lake Mungo.
Careful excavation by scientists from the Australian National University revealed they were the world’s oldest cremation, dated to some 42,000 years ago.
Several years later, and only several hundred metres from where Mungo Woman was buried, Mungo Man was discovered adorned in ochre that is thought to have been obtained from about 200km away to the north.
Mungo Man provided a further glimpse into a past that all of a sudden appeared far more complex than archaeologists across the world had previously thought possible. A picture was emerging that here, at a time when Europe was largely populated by Neanderthals, was an ancient culture of far more sophistication, full of symbolism with a thriving and complex belief system.
The discoveries made possible by the initial research of a young Jim Bowler rewrote our understanding of human history.
While it is true that Mungo Man was excavated in 1975 and has been in Canberra ever since, the perception that scientists have been undertaking research on his remains since this time is not accurate.
In reality, very few scientists, probably fewer than ten, have been privileged with the opportunity to study the remains. Very little work has been published, which is unfortunate considering the importance of these remains to human history.
Before 2005 only a few papers from a couple of different authors were published, dealing mainly with dating and comparisons with other fossil human remains. None of these provided an actual description of the skeletal remains of Mungo Man.
Science works best when a variety of perspectives are collected by different scientists working on different questions. Science has not truly had this opportunity with Mungo Man.
We are fortunate to be working at a time when technology allows us to understand ancient human remains in ways that couldn’t have been imagined, even ten years ago. The collection of remains from the Willandra Lakes was CT scanned only four years ago, providing a wealth of new data that can be used to understand those populations.
Much to learn from further research
The study of ancient DNA has finally progressed to the point where we can potentially learn a great deal of information from ancient skeletons.
While DNA from contemporary populations can provide significant information, living people can never replace the information we can recover from people that lived 42,000 years ago.
Isotopes are geochemical signatures that can reveal how people may have moved across the landscape, from one different geological catchment to another. This type of work was recently applied to questions in other parts of Australia, where research revealed the ancient megafauna were probably migratory animals.
Further research may allow us to see how the ancient Australians interacted with the seasonal movement of the great megafauna herds and their migrations who we know now overlaped with people in the Willandra as recently as 32,000 years ago.
Only three of the ancient remains from the Willandra have been reliably dated, and there are more than 100 other skeletons that have no direct age estimates associated with them.
The early dates from Australia’s north raise the possibility that some of the ancient remains recovered from the Willandra system may be older than those of Mungo Man and Woman. This could further rewrite the history of the peopling of Australia.
Who knows what will be possible as science continues to progress? It is impossible to predict what else we may be able to learn from Mungo Man and the other individuals from the Willandra as technology advances.
Will the story continue?
The discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman sent shockwaves through archaeology. Ancient burials with such sophisticated funerary rituals were unexpected in Pleistocene Australia.
The discovery forced a greater appreciation of the culture of the first Australians and was one of the main reasons that the Willandra Lakes area was given World Heritage status in 1981.
Those of us interested in the origins of the First Australians hope that the long overdue repatriation of Mungo Man will not mark the end of scientific work on his remains.
A keeping place at Lake Mungo would allow for scientific work to be done in the future in greater collaboration with the Traditional Owners, while preserving the remains in a culturally appropriate and respectful way.
The story of the people from the ancient Willandra has been told so far by a small handful of white scientists. One day soon there will be Aboriginal scientists who will bring an entirely different approach to studying the past. A keeping place will give future generations the opportunity to seek answers to those questions.
As scientists interested in the study of human remains, we understand and appreciate the sensitivity involved in our work, and strive to treat these remains with the respect and dignity they deserve.
We are glad that Mungo Man will be returning to country, but equally we hope that he and the other 100 ancient people will be allowed to continue to tell the remarkable story of the First Australians.
In an era of centenaries associated with the first world war, one that might slip under the radar is the Warwick egg incident.
The Warwick egg incident of November 29, 1917, occurred during the second conscription referendum campaign. Two Australians of Irish descent, Pat and Bart Brosnan, threw eggs at the prime minister, Billy Hughes, whose train had stopped at Warwick in Queensland’s Darling Downs. Hughes was there to speak in support of conscription at a meeting on the railway platform.
One egg hit the prime minister’s hat, starting a fight as Hughes’s supporters laid into the assailants, who were removed from the station. After order was restored, Hughes began his speech. But Pat had returned and started interjecting. Hughes jumped off the platform and into the crowd shouting: “Arrest that man!”
Although many incidents of political violence occurred during the conscription campaigns – meetings were disrupted and speakers attacked – this event stands out for three reasons. First, it involved an assault on the prime minister of Australia. Second, it led to the establishment of the Commonwealth police force – later the Australian Federal Police. More significantly, it was symptomatic of the deep divisions in Australian society, exacerbated by the hard-fought political campaign over conscription: Irish Australians versus British Australians; Catholics versus Protestants; labour versus capital; empire loyalists versus Australia-first nationalists; the Queensland government versus the federal government.
It is difficult to comprehend the depth of those divisions today, particularly those along ethno-religious lines. Sectarianism, in the sense of the conflict between Protestants, then mostly of British descent, and Catholics, then almost exclusively of Irish descent, was a significant factor in social and political discourse in early 20th-century Australia.
When war broke out in August 1914, such differences were put aside, as Protestants and Catholics joined together in support of the war effort. But the uneasy truce was shattered during Easter week 1916, when Irish rebels seized the GPO in Dublin.
At first, Australian Catholics deplored the rising. But when the British military declared martial law and began executing the rebel leaders and interning thousands of Irish men and women, Catholics began to criticise the British government, provoking a Protestant backlash.
The sectarian divide widened following the first conscription referendum in October 1916. Prime Minister Hughes and the mainly Protestant empire loyalists blamed the “disloyal” Irish Catholics for the referendum’s defeat.
Class divisions also emerged over conscription, as living standards declined as a result of wartime austerity. The failure of Labor governments to meet workers’ expectations led to industrial disputes that rose to levels not seen before or since.
Tensions rose during 1917, with the belligerent, Irish-born Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix criticising the war as an “ordinary trade war”. He engaged in a public slanging match with the prime minister, arguing that Australia had done enough, and that if Britain ended its occupation of Ireland it would not need Australian conscripts.
Another outspoken critic of the federal government’s war policy was the Labor premier of Queensland, Thomas Joseph Ryan, an Australian Catholic of Irish descent. Desperate to censor Ryan’s anti-conscription rhetoric, Hughes raided the Queensland Government Printing Office to seize copies of Hansard containing parliamentary speeches opposed to conscription.
The Irish question is at the bottom of all our difficulties in Australia. They — the Irish — have captured the political machinery of the Labor organisations — assisted by syndicalists and I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World] people. The Church is secretly against recruiting. Its influence killed conscription.
(The Industrial Workers of the World was a revolutionary left-wing union-based organisation.)
Speaking of the general strike then taking place in NSW, Hughes added:
… [T]he I.W.W. and the Irish are mainly responsible for the trouble. In a sense it is political rather than industrial. … [T]hey are now trying to take the reins of Govt out of our hands.
It was against this background that Hughes found himself in Warwick, on his way back to Sydney, following the raid on the Queensland Government Printing Office. His worst fears were confirmed when a Queensland police officer, Senior Sergeant Henry Kenny, a Catholic of Irish descent, refused to arrest the egg throwers for breaching Commonwealth law, saying he answered to the Queensland government only.
This led Hughes to draft a regulation establishing the Commonwealth police force. In advising the governor-general on the regulation, Hughes wrote:
This will apply to Queensland where present position is one of latent rebellion. Police is honeycombed with Sinn Feiners and I.W.W … [T]here are towns in North Queensland where the Law … is openly ignored and I.W.W. and Sinn Féin run the show.
While in November 2017 we will rightly commemorate the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), in which the Australian Imperial Force suffered more than 38,000 casualties, the centenary of the Warwick egg incident is a timely reminder of the “war” on the home front. It was arguably the most divisive period in the nation’s history.
In July, a new date was published that pushed the opening chapters of Australian history back to 65,000 years ago. It is the latest development in a time revolution that has gripped the nation over the past half century.
In the 1950s, it was widely believed that the first Australians had arrived on this continent only a few thousand years earlier. They were regarded as “primitive” – a fossilised stage in human evolution – but not necessarily ancient.
In the decades since, Indigenous history has been pushed back into the dizzying expanse of deep time. While people have lived in Australia, volcanoes have erupted, dunefields have formed, glaciers have melted and sea levels have risen about 125 metres, transforming Lake Carpentaria into a Gulf and the Bassian Plain into a Strait.
How are we to engage with a history that spans 65,000 years? There is a “gee whiz” factor to any dates that transcend our ordinary understanding of time as lived experience. Human experiences are reduced to numbers. And aside from being “a long time ago”, they are hard to grasp imaginatively.
It is all too easy to approach this history as one might read the Guinness Book of Records, to search the vast expanse of time for easily identifiable “firsts”: the earliest site, the oldest tool, the most extreme conditions. The rich contours of Australia’s natural and cultural history are trumped by the mentality that older is better.
To political leaders, old dates bestow a veneer of antiquity to a young settler nation. To scientists, they propel Australian history into a global human story and allow us to see ourselves as a species. To Indigenous Australians, they may be valued as an important point of cultural pride or perceived as utterly irrelevant. Their responses are diverse.
Recently, one of us, Lynette Russell, asked 35 Aboriginal friends and colleagues of varying ages, genders and backgrounds for their thoughts about Australia’s deep history.
Many of the responses were statements of cultural affirmation (“We have always been here” or “We became Aboriginal here”), while others viewed the long Indigenous history on this continent through the lens of continuity, taking pride in being members of “the oldest living population in the world” and “the world’s oldest continuing culture”.
As expressions of identity, these are powerful statements. But when others uncritically repeat such notions as historical fact, they risk suggesting that Aboriginal culture has been frozen in time. We need to be careful not to echo the language of past cultural evolutionists, who believed, in Robert Pulleine’s infamous words, that Aboriginal people were “an unchanging people, living in an unchanging environment”.
This article seeks to move beyond the view of ancient Australia as a timeless and traditional foundation story to explore the ways in which scientists and humanists are engaging with the deep past as a transformative human history.
Memories of time
The revolution in Australia’s timescale was driven by the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century. The nuclear chemist Willard Libby first realised the dating potential of carbon-14 isotopes while working on the Manhattan Project (which also produced the atom bomb). In 1949, he and James Arnold outlined a way to date organic materials from a couple of hundred years old to tens of thousands of years old. The key was to measure the memories of time preserved in carbon atoms.
By comparing the decaying isotope, carbon-14, with the stable isotope, carbon-12, they were able to measure the age of a sample with relative precision. The rate of decay and amount of carbon-14 provided the date.
“A new time machine has been invented”, Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney declared when he realised the implications of the method. In 1962, he used the new technique at Kenniff Cave in the central Queensland highlands and was stunned to discover that Australia had been occupied during the last Ice Age. The dates of 19,000 years overturned the long-standing idea that Australia was the last continent to be inhabited by modern humans and the artefacts he uncovered in his excavations revealed a rich history of cultural adaptation.
The following decade, at Lake Mungo, Australia’s human history was pushed back to the limits of the radiocarbon technique. A sample from spit 17 of Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross’ excavations at Lake Mungo revealed that the ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples had thrived on these lakeshores over 40,000 years ago. Geomorphologist Jim Bowler also revealed the dramatic environmental fluctuations these people endured: what is now a dusty and desiccated landscape was then a fertile lake system with over 1000 km2 of open water.
The date of 40,000 years had a profound public impact and announced the coming of age of Australian archaeology. The phrase “40,000 years” quickly appeared on banners outside the Tent Embassy in Canberra, in songs by Aboriginal musicians and in land rights campaigns. When the bicentenary of European settlement was marked on 26 January 1988, thousands of Australians protested the celebrations with posters reading “White Australia has a Black History” and “You have been here for 200 years, we for 40,000”. The comparison magnified the act of dispossession.
The discovery of 65,000 years of human occupation at Madjedbebe rock shelter on Mirrar land, at the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment, draws on a different dating method: optically stimulated luminescence. This technique analyses individual grains of sand and the charge that builds up in their crystal quartz lattice over time. By releasing and measuring this charge, geochronologists are able to reveal the moment a grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight.
The archaeological site at Madjedbebe is far more than an old date; it reveals a long and varied history of human occupation, with evidence of profound cultural and ecological connections across the landscape, cutting edge Ice Age technology (such as the world’s earliest ground-edge axe) and dramatic environmental change.
Perhaps most evocatively, throughout the deposit, even at the lowest layers, archaeologists found ochre crayons: a powerful expression of artistic endeavour and cultural achievement.
In the wake of the discovery, in August 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seized upon the new date in his speech at Garma, singling out the possibilities of this deep time story for political reconciliation:
I am filled with optimism about our future together as a reconciled Australia. Last month scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our First Australians have been here in this land for 65,000 years. … This news is a point of great pride for our nation. We rejoice in it, as we celebrate your Indigenous cultures and heritage as our culture and heritage – uniquely Australian.
Although Turnbull revels in the deep time story, his speech avoids reflecting on the more recent past. Here is a statement of reconciliation that does not address the estrangement that it is seeking to overcome. As such it opens itself up to being dismissed as simply a prolonged platitude.
We cannot engage with the past 65,000 years without acknowledging the turbulent road of the past two centuries.
A story of rupture and resilience
When Europeans arrived in Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries they were setting foot onto a land that had been home to thousands of generations of Indigenous men and women. These groups lived along the coasts and hinterlands and travelled into the mountains and across stone plateaus; they thrived in the harsh deserts and gathered in great numbers along waterways and rivers.
Although Australia is a continent, it is home to hundreds of different nations, over 200 language groups and an immense variety of cultural, geographic and ecological regions. To the newcomers these people were simply perceived as “the natives”, and despite the immense cultural diversity across vastly different environmental zones, the disparate groups became labelled with the umbrella term: “the Aborigines”.
There is a similar tendency today to homogenise the deep history of the first Australians. The dynamic natural and cultural history of Australia is too often obscured by tropes of timelessness. Tourism campaigns continue to tell us that this is the land of the “never never”, the home of “ancient traditions” and “one of the world’s oldest living groups”.
Such slogans imply a lack of change and hide the remarkable variety of human experiences on this continent over tens of thousands of years. While there is great continuity in the cultural history of Indigenous peoples, theirs is also a story of rupture and resilience.
The discovery of old dates at Madjedbebe does not make the history of the site any more or less significant. It simply reminds us that science, like history, is an ongoing inquiry. All it takes is a new piece of evidence to turn on its head what we thought we knew. Science is a journey and knowledge is ever evolving.
The epic story of Australia will continue to shift with the discovery of new sites and new techniques, and by engaging and collaborating with different worldviews. It is a history that can only be told by working across cultures and across disciplines; by bridging the divide between the sciences and the humanities and translating numbers and datasets into narratives that convey the incredible depth and variety of human experience on this continent.
The authors of this article will continue this conversation at a public event in Wollongong on Friday 24 November 2017 at the annual meeting of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. There will be two other sets of speakers, exploring issues surrounding precision medicine and artificial intelligence. Register here.
Aboriginal Australians have been observing the stars for more than 65,000 years, and many of their oral traditions have been recorded since colonisation. These traditions tell of all kinds of celestial events, such as the annual rising of stars, passing comets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, auroral displays, and even meteorite impacts.
But new research, recently published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, reveals that Aboriginal oral traditions describe the variable nature of three red-giant stars: Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Antares.
This challenges the history of astronomy and tells us that Aboriginal Australians were even more careful observers of the night sky than they have been given credit for.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in 350BCE that the stars are unchanging and invariable. This was the position held by Western science for nearly 2,000 years.
It wasn’t until 1596 that this was proved wrong, when German astronomer David Fabricius showed that the star Mira (Omicron Ceti), in the constellation of Cetus, changed in brightness over time.
In the 1830s, astronomer John Herschel observed the relative brightness of a handful of stars in the sky. Over the course of four years, he noticed that the star Betelgeuse, in Orion, was sometimes fainter and sometimes brighter than some of the other stars. His discovery paved the way for an entire field of astrophysics dedicated to studying the variable nature of stars.
But was Herschel the first to recognise this?
There is evidence that ancient Egyptians observed the variability of the star Algol (Omicron Persei).
Algol consists of two stars that orbit each other. As one moves in front of the other, it blocks the other star’s light, causing it to dim slightly. This is called an eclipsing binary. It can be seen in the sky as the winking eye of Medusa’s head in the Western constellation Perseus.
Are there any clear records from oral or Indigenous cultures that demonstrate knowledge of variable stars?
Emerging research reveals two Aboriginal traditions from South Australia that show the answer is a clear “yes”.
Nyeeruna and the protective Kambugudha
A Kokatha oral tradition from the Great Victoria Desert tells of Nyeeruna, a vain hunter who comprises the same stars, in the same orientation, as the Greek Orion.
He is in love with the Yugarilya sisters of the Pleiades, but they are timid and shy away from his advances. Their eldest sister, Kambugudha (the Hyades star cluster), protects her younger sisters.
Nyreeuna creates fire-magic in his right hand (Betelgeuse) to overpower Kambugudha, so he can reach the sisters. She counters this with her own fire magic in her left foot (Aldebaran), which she uses to kick dust into Nyreeuna’s face. This humiliates Nyreeuna and his fire-magic dissipates.
Nyreeuna is persistent and replenishes his fire-magic again to get to the sisters. Kambugudha cannot generate hers in time, so she calls on Babba (the father dingo) for help. Babba fights Nyeeruna while Kambugudha and the other stars laugh at him, then places a row of dingo pups between them. This causes Nyeeruna much humiliation and his fire-magic dissipates again.
The story explains the variability of the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran. Trevor Leaman and I realised this in 2014, but we did not realise until now that the story also describes the relative periods of these changes.
Betelgeuse varies in brightness by one magnitude every 400 days, while Aldebaran varies by 0.2 magnitudes at irregular periods. The Aboriginal people recognised that Betelgeuse varies faster than Aldebaran, which is why they say that Kambugudha cannot generate her fire-magic in time to counter Nyreeuna.
Waiyungari and breaking sacred law
The second oral tradition comes from the Ngarrindjeri people, south of Adelaide. The story tells of Waiyungari, a young initiate who is covered in red ochre.
He is seen by two women, who find him very attractive. That night, they seduce him, which is strictly against the law for initiates. To escape punishment, they climb into the sky where Waiyungari becomes the star Antares and the women become the stars Tau and Sigma Scorpii, who flank him on either side.
The Ngarrindjeri people say Waiyungari signals the start of Spring (Riwuri) and occasionally gets brighter and hotter, symbolising his passion for the women. It is during this time that initiates must refrain from contact with the opposite sex. Antares is a variable star, which changes brightness by 1.3 magnitudes every 4.5 years.
What does this tell us?
Ruddy celestial objects hold special significance in Aboriginal traditions – from red stars to lunar eclipses to meteors – which may be one of the reasons why these stars are so significant.
Red objects are often related to fire, blood and passion. Psychological studies show that the colour red enhances sexual attraction between people, which may explain why both stories relate to sexual desire and taboos.
The Aboriginal traditions change the discovery timeline of these variable stars, which historians of astronomy say were discovered by Western scientists.
We see that Aboriginal people pay very close attention to subtle changes in nature, and incorporate this knowledge into their traditions. Astrophysicists have much to learn if we recognise the scientific achievements of Indigenous cultures and acknowledge the immense power of oral tradition.
Duane Hamacher is giving a plenary talk on this research into Aboriginal observations of red-giant variable stars at the Australian Space Research Conference, to be held at the University of Sydney on November 15, 2017.
Before 1914, flowers in everyday life spelt beauty, femininity and innocence; they were seen as part of women’s culture. But during the first world war, that changed. Men gathered posies of flowers on battlefields and dried them in honour of the dead, they turned to wild flowers as motifs for paintings and photographs, and they recognised in blue cornflowers and red poppies the fragility of life.
Historian Paul Fussell referred to the red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, as “an indispensable part of the symbolism” of WWI. When, on November 11, those who fought and died in WWI are commemorated, the sanguine colour of the red poppy, a flower that grew in profusion on Flanders Fields, is a vivid reminder to the living of the cost of sacrifice in war.
At the end of the conflict, artificial replicas of the Flanders poppy were sold in Allied countries to be worn in honour of the dead. Their resistance to decay became an embodiment of everlasting memory.
However, the red poppy was not always adopted without criticism. After 1933, in opposition to the symbolism of it, peace ceremonies appropriated the white poppy. Each flower expresses a different view on war: red embodies commemoration of sacrifice; white opposes political violence and remembers all war victims.
As living forms, as art, and as symbols, the wildflowers that soldiers encountered in WWI Europe help us negotiate the unimaginable enormity of war and deepen the solemnity of remembrance.
‘We are the dead’
Among the most affecting, but least talked about, Australian war paintings that officially commemorate and remember the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is George Lambert’s Gallipoli Wild Flowers (1919). Painted while Lambert served as Official War Artist, the work is unusual for the absence of soldiers’ bodies shown in action or in death. Yet it alludes to both by the inclusion of an empty slouch hat and a cluster of battlefield wildflowers. At the centre of the array of blossoms is the Flanders poppy.
The painting is a floral still-life. It exudes the melancholy of life stilled, and challenges popular conceptions that flowers are feminine, passive and beautiful. If the flowers in Lambert’s painting are beautiful, it is beauty tempered by the knowledge of human suffering. And they break with convention by relating to men, not women.
The dark centres of the poppies stare at us like the eyes of men who fought at Gallipoli. The message they communicate is the same one relayed by poppies in the lines of John McCrae’s mournful poem In Flanders Fields (1915): “we are the dead”.
Other Australian artists deployed by the Australian War Memorial tried to render the same power, and the same symbolisms, as George Lambert’s wildflower still-life, although with less intensity. Will Longstaff, for example, painted Menin Gate at midnight (1927), a monumental commemoration to men who were buried in unmarked graves on the Western Front in which the ghosts of the dead rise up among blood red poppies that grow in the same soil where their bodies decayed.
Flowers and the battlefield
On churned up war landscapes, masses of wildflowers covered derelict tanks and blanketed the ground where the dead lay, juxtaposing cold metal and the destructive power of men with the organic growth and regenerative power of nature.
Such contrasts presented Frank Hurley, Australia’s Official War Photographer working in Flanders and Palestine from August to November 1917, with many of the war’s most powerful images. Hurley could not ignore the cruel irony of all that fragile beauty growing free in the midst of industrialised warfare, mass killing, and the corpses of the dead.
Hurley’s Lighthorseman gathering poppies, Palestine (1918) is a rare colour photograph from the period. Hurley well understood the power of the poppy. He knew that for the image to become a national icon of comradeship, the flowers had to be coloured red because it is the poppy’s redness that made it the official symbol of sacrifice. Yet Hurley’s photo is pastoral, and in its vision of ideal life suggests the antithesis of war.
It may also be that flowers have a particular power over our perception. Elaine Scarry argues that the high colouration of a flower’s face is more perfect for imagining and storing images to memory than the faces of people. Official and unofficial WWI records lend support to Scarry’s theory.
When Cecil Malthus, a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli in 1915, found himself under attack, it was not the faces of the soldiers around him that he remembered, but the faces of self-sown poppies and daisies on the ground.
For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.
Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.
But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.
We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.
The massacre at Sturt Creek
Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.
This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.
It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.
These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.
We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.
Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.
The search for evidence
Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.
The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.
But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.
Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.
Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.
This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.
Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.
This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.
An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.
Recognition of a massacre
Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.
Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.
This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.
They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.
We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.
Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.
We ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.
My grandfather was Moses Topay Enares. He was only 12 years old when he was coerced onto a ship, put in the hold and fed stodge, a flour-like substance, until he arrived in Queensland.
His wife, who recorded and retold his story, tells of him being taken from the beach off the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Moses passed on the Northern Rivers in New South Wales in 1961. He never saw his family from Tanna again.
Black Lives Matter is an inspired world movement of consciousness that gives voice to the resilience and self-determination of people of colour in their continued fight for freedom and social justice. This fight is very relevant to Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI). We are the descendants of some 62,500 people who were blackbirded from the 80 islands of Vanuatu and Solomons to NSW in 1847, with an influx to Queensland under the “indentured labour” trade.
Several words are used to depict the history of my people: indenture, slavery, kidnapping, blackbirding and Kanaka. But ASSI communities will tell any inquirer that we object to the use of the term “indenture” to describe what happened to our people when they were first brought to Australia. It’s a weak word that does not express the real truth of the physical and cultural theft of human beings.
We identify as Sugar Slaves, and we are confident and firm about correcting the “official” versions of history.
“Blackbirding” comes from the African slave trade and truly expresses the violence of what happened. There were 870 voyages back and forth to the islands that brought my people to Australia. Some were kidnapped, but it is also undeniable that our warriors chose to return more than once.
Nonetheless, the treatment of the Islanders was atrocious, exploitative and akin to slavery. When plantation owners went bankrupt, the workers were transferred as an asset with the sold property.
The grandfather of Gordon Johnson, a second-generation descendant of the blackbirding trade, was kidnapped from Malaita in the Solomon Islands and brought to Queensland to cut cane. Gordon says:
My grandfather was a respected chief, he had wives and a lot of land when he was stolen. His family thought he was dead for almost ten years. One day my grandfather got back to his island only to find that his right to land and his wives had all been taken. His family thought he was a ghost, so he was banished and travelled to Vanuatu in hope of starting a new life, but was blackbirded from Vanuatu back to Australia.
Gordon is now 67 and has found the courage to share his experience years after the trade was abolished. As a 13-year-old in 1963, he had no option but to work alongside his father in the cane fields on Howard Farm, Bundaberg.
The owner used to come round and check up on us while we were cutting and he used to flog me all over that field. He said I wasn’t cuttin’ proper. My father would have to sit back and watch ’cause he was warned that if he stepped in he would get a floggin’ too and our family would be kicked off the farm. Ten of us lived in a one-room hut.
The full truth needs to be told
Thousands upon thousands of men, along with a small percentage of women and children, were blackbirded to work under the harshest of conditions in the pastoral, maritime and sugar industries.
Blackbirding occurred not only in the cane fields, but also in the shipping industry. South Sea Islanders worked as seafarers and deckhands across the many ports of this nation.
In 1847, more than a decade after slavery was officially abolished throughout the British Empire, politician and entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd began the illegal blackbirding of 119 Islanders to work on his whaling and pastoral ventures in Eden and the Riverina in NSW. For Boyd it was a business proposition – one that has been documented as a human disaster.
Today, the bitter truth about our sugar trade is commemorated by Australian South Sea Islanders in NSW marking 170 years since our forefathers escaped from Boyd and walked back to Sydney. By various means about half managed to be shipped home, which resulted in many Tanna men drowning in Sydney Harbour. The others died.
Earlier this year Stan Grant called for the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue to reflect the truth.
In fact, the founding fathers of other townships, including entrepreneur Robert Towns (Townsville) and blackbirder John Mackay (Mackay), were part of a lucrative slave trade stretched to its fullest capacity for 40 years (1863-1903), regardless of illegalities and high death rates.
These cities are proud of their founders, but as with the case of Cook, a greater understanding and a broader discussion are needed. The full truth needs to be told.
Shireen Malamoo identifies as an Aboriginal/Kanak Woman. “Kanak” is Hawaiian for “bushman”, a word the overseers used in a derogatory way for the Islanders. Shireen is the granddaughter of a Sugar Slave taken from the island of Tongoa in Vanuatu and a descendant of the Birrigubba traditional owners from Plantation Creek on the Burdekin River in Ayr, north Queensland. She says:
Slavery affects people of colour globally and Australia’s version of slavery is based on the stealing of our African brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. In Australia, they attempt to hide the truth through the political manipulation of policy into the legal framework coined as “indentured labour”. Our warriors were paid a pittance for their work and bonded to completion of an unknown three-year contract with no idea what they were in for, let alone knowing if they would live or die.
Some 15,000 Sugar Slaves lost their lives to common diseases. This toll equated to almost 30% of the trade. Despite authorities knowing about this, the trade flourished.
In 1901, the new Commonwealth government, as part of the White Australia Policy, ordered the deportation of the entire Islander community, who were now denigrated as “aliens”. This was part of Australia’s ethnic cleansing.
Many Islanders legally belonged as British subjects and should not have been unlawfully deported. The 1906 High Court judgment authorising their expulsion was a self-interested abuse of the rule of law that sought to “create” a White Australian population.
So, four decades later, the islands and families who had been traumatised by the kidnapping of their fathers, husbands and sons witnessed the return of these peoples, distressed and disorientated, having been deported en masse from Australia.
It was a travesty, with cases of cultural warfare and further displacement as the island societies they once knew were no more, and were now foreign to the returning labourers and their families.
Fighting for the right to live
Ken Canning is a Murri activist, writer and poet, whose people are from the Kunja Clan of the Bidjara Nation in southwest Queensland. He says:
While different groups are campaigning on many important issues, the same issues will become meaningless if we don’t fight for the right to live.
My people did not just take the abuse they received. They were activists as well, making the most of the new situation into which they were forced. Historians call this agency, or taking control of your life even in adverse circumstances.
More recently, intrinsic agency by ASSI descendants is seen through our work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples fighting for the right to live full and fruitful lives as our basic human right.
My people have a complex identity that affirms the consequence of colonialism’s truth and confronts the injustices inflicted upon two very different Black cultures – Indigenous Australian and immigrant Melanesian. We have produced several exceptional and stoic leaders, such as Faith Bandler, Bonita Mabo, Bob Bellear, Shireen Malamoo and Evelyn Scott.
Because of our history of forced migration to a foreign land and our marginalised cultural identity, ASSI descendants today must strive to restore our right to sovereignty.
Our ancestry is now mixed with Indigenous Australians and we support the call for respect and appreciation of the oldest living civilisation. But we also want to restore our connections with our islands of origin, and to ensure that future generations of our people in Australia are treated with dignity as citizens.
As part of our advocacy work, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has included Australian South Sea Islanders in its statistical gathering. The 2016 Census recorded a 133% increase in participation from 2011, giving a demographic guesstimate of some 70,000 descendants nationally.
This joint government and community endeavour has led to Australian South Sea Islanders being given a place on many forms, including those used in hospitals and by Centrelink.
Despite these successes, ASSI communities continue to suffer a great decline due to a lack of defined policy for supportive state and national action. Especially needed are initiatives that inspire economic stability and broader community engagement in grassroots capacity-building programs. Our demographic remains marginalised, suffering the same disadvantage found in Indigenous Australia.
Queensland divides to conquer
On March 22 this year, the Australian government responded to the plight of ASSI by accepting the recommendations of a House of Representatives standing committee that they be reinstated as a specific target group identified under the Multicultural and Equity Policy.
The intention was to co-ordinate assistance by all three tiers of government. It was the most significant Commonwealth investigation into ASSI since Bandler persuaded Gough Whitlam to establish an inter-departmental committee in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, no-one bothered to tell the National ASSI Association Roundtable. We found out indirectly in late October.
Meanwhile, the Queensland government has already begun consultations with ASSI in the state, once more dividing to conquer. Lured by offers of local-level funding, regional ASSI organisations failed to work with the national body they inaugurated.
Does the Queensland government have good intentions? What are its real motivations? A senior government official was evasive when contacted.
Clive Moore, based on 40 years’ involvement with the ASSI community and a deep knowledge of our history, commented:
The Queensland government once more is manipulating ASSI, dividing them, offering them scraps. There is also an election looming and they want to shore up marginal seats.
The government realises the likelihood of class action being taken over its disgraceful behaviour in the 19th century, when the state seized the wages of the 15,000 dead ASSI to pay for the administration of the Sugar Slave trade and ultimately the forced deportations in the 1900s.
In today’s money the Queensland and Australian governments have misappropriated tens of millions of dollars, in the same way as Aboriginal wages were misappropriated. Of this Moore says:
Queensland’s government is protecting itself, not helping the modern ASSI generations. It is one Australia-wide community, and working within state borders is a deliberate impediment and not what the Commonwealth is seeking.
Today Australia is home to some 350,000 Pacific Islanders, recent and historical, who are achieving a cultural renaissance through reconnection and kinship. But the battle is hard, with recent seemingly positive initiatives exposing the lack of communication between the government and our people, as well as the provincialism of the states and the wider impediments put in the way of justice.
Real justice is an opportunity for our nation’s healing – and for a national action plan that sees community groups come to the table in truthful, meaningful and long-term dialogue with the federal and state governments of Australia.
Department stores began as retail innovators. They arose within a changing consumer environment distributing mass produced goods. The scale of their operations, and the breadth of their product ranges helped establish retail dominance. Bit by bit, their competitive advantage has eroded.
The latest results from Myer and David Jones don’t inspire confidence. Myer experienced an 80% drop in profits over the past year, while for David Jones it was 25%.
Myer chief executive Richard Umbers pointed to “heightened competition, subdued consumer sentiment and discount fatigue”.
David Jones chief executive John Dixon blamed the costs involved in turning around a business that he said had been “in a form of managed decline” prior to being acquired by the South African Woolworths company in 2014.
Department stores emerged in Britain and France in the 19th century. They introduced several new innovations, including set prices rather than allowing haggling, a move away from credit to cash sales, off-the rack clothing, improvements in stock control and a high turnover sales model.
In the second half of the century, large-scale, purpose-built stores that stocked goods meeting a full range of needs for the home, as well as ready-made clothing, were constructed in major cities across Europe, North America and Australasia. These included Harrods in London, Le Bon Marché in Paris, Macy’s and Alexander Turney Stewart’s “Marble Palace” in New York and David Jones in Australia.
These stores reached their height in the interwar years, and despite setbacks during the Great Depression and World War II, dominated consumer imaginations and urban skylines until the late-1950s.
Their retail preeminence was based on urban environments built around public transport. The rise of the automobile posed an existential threat. The great city stores that survived longest in Australia – David Jones, Myer and Grace Bros – were those that embraced suburban expansion through shopping centre development.
Firms that were once household names – Farmers, Anthony Hordern & Sons, Foy & Gibson, Buckley & Nunn and a host of others – have all disappeared.
However, by developing and taking tenancies in shopping centres – an innovation that sustained and prolonged their lifespan – department stores created a powerful competitor. With more efficient, specialist retailers serving as its departments, what is a shopping centre but a department store on a larger scale?
Until the 1970s, department stores were also able to buy customer loyalty by offering exclusive credit provisions. This occurred through store cards that customers could use to make purchases at that store and its branches.
The bankcard rollout, beginning in 1974, and the bank credit cards that followed, helped to democratise credit provision, freeing customers to shop wherever they liked.
Discounters and category killers
The next existential threat emerged from a retail innovation that took the United States by storm in the 1950s: discount department stores that used the self-service supermarket retail model to sell department store merchandise.
In Australia, Coles saw an expansion opportunity and launched Kmart in 1969. Myer, observing the impact of discount department stores on traditional department stores in the US, rolled out Target. Woolworths lagged, but introduced Big W in the mid-1970s.
Over time, these stores took a heavy toll on the sales of traditional department stores. Figures provided by Urbis show that in 1974, traditional department stores accounted for 27% of sales of department store-type merchandise such as home furnishings, apparel and cosmetics, with discount stores making just 2% of such sales. By 1991, the figures were 12% and 11% respectively.
Since then, both have had trouble competing, not only with each other, but with “category killers” that took the self-service model and applied it to specific categories of goods.
This allowed them to achieve efficiencies of scale and brand recognition, while providing deep product ranges, specialist service and cheap prices. Think Toys-R-Us, Rebel, Lincraft, The Good Guys, Harvey Norman, Freedom and Officeworks.
You can still buy toys in Myer, but who does? You can buy a fridge if you are happy to pay a significant premium. This is niche retailing – a complete inversion of the mass-market retail principles that underscored the original department store business model.
International fast fashion is just the latest category killer for a product segment sold by department stores. If department stores lose fashion, they are gone. And the retailers they are competing with – Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and others – operate on a scale that eclipses national department store chains.
Department stores may well extend their lifespan. There are plenty of pundits offering solutions, both here and overseas.
Nevertheless, it’s likely Australia will see further market rationalisation. Three chains are likely to be left: David Jones or Myer at the top, Myer or Target in the middle, and Kmart at the bottom. This is not definitive – innovative management can turn around a brand within a few years as Guy Russo did with Kmart recently and Paul Simons did with Woolworths in the late-1980s.
But rationalisation will continue. Time has brought department stores back to the pack. The weakest will merge or fall.
Half buried in the sand, uprooted stalks of kelp are like splashes of dark blood against the white quartzite, ground fine as talc. In the translucent shallows, tendrils of kelp flounce lazily as the water gradually turns to turquoise then a deep Prussian blue at the horizon. Behind the crescent of beach, matted tentacles of spongy pigface disguise accumulated detritus of crayfish, oyster, abalone and scallop shells, rubbish middens thousands of years in the making.
Known as Recherche Bay, this exquisite table-shaped body of water in the southeast corner of Tasmania was named by the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux who rested his ships Recherche and Esperance here in April and May 1792. Before the French arrived, this place was an important ritual site for the Nuenonne people, who journeyed in bark canoes from Bruny Island to meet with the Needwondee and Ninine people, who travelled overland from the west. For millennia they made this trip: the same seasonal migration; the same ritual feast. Not any more. Not since Ria Warrawah was loosed among them.
Wooredy, the last elder of the Nuenonne, saw it with his own eyes. In the cosmology of the original Tasmanians, Wooredy explained, Ria Warrawah was the intangible force of evil that could infest all things. Since the beginning of time, Ria Warrawah was held in check by the great ancestor who lived in the sky, maintaining the world in precarious balance until two avatars of evil fashioned as clouds pulling small islands floated into this very bay. As a small boy he had been transfixed by the sight of the French ships floating in from the ocean, and disgorging onto the land strange creatures just like the returned dead who had been drained of colour by the rigours of their journey. He watched as they walked about to collect water and make a fearsome sound with a stick that spat fire before returning to their floating islands.
He never saw those ships again, but when he was a young man on a hunting trip to the northern tip of Bruny Island, Wooredy observed two more such apparitions of evil float into the river estuary on the mainland opposite. This time the dead men came ashore and remained there, cutting down the trees to build huts and disturbing the ground all about. Plenty more of them arrived. And the Nuenonne began to die.
Thirty years after he watched the ships Lady Nelson and Ocean enter the estuary of the Derwent River, Wooredy was still hunting on his traditional country. He was by then a renowned warrior in his mid-forties who went about naked and wore his hair in the traditional fashion – long greased ringlets coloured with ochre that fell over his eyes like a mop. Wooredy was a cleverman, so knowledgeable in ritual and healing that the white men who came to his island called him the Doctor. Even he proved no match for the epidemic illness that between April and December of 1829 swept away nearly everyone of his clan.
Wooredy was not the last of the Nuenonne. That terrible distinction belonged to his second wife, Truganini, a woman whose name is vaguely familiar to most Australians, having achieved undesired celebrity as “the last of her race”.
An irresistible force
For most of my adult life I have been compelled by the story of Wooredy and Truganini, people who lived through a psychological and cultural transition more extreme than most human imagination could conjure. Both were witness and participant in a process of apocalyptic destruction without parallel in modern colonial history. Their experience has invariably been told through the prism of regretful colonial imperative, a rueful backward glance at the tragic collateral damage of inexorable historical forces. That is not a narrative I wish to perpetuate. Wooredy and Truganini compel my attention and emotional engagement because it is to them I owe a charmed existence in the temperate paradise where I now live and where my family has lived for generations.
My great-great-grandfather was fresh off the boat from England in 1829 when he was handed an unencumbered free land grant of over a thousand hectares of Nuenonne hunting grounds. On this land he prospered and put down deep roots, while the traditional owners were repaid with exile, anguish and despair.
Richard Pybus may have been the first white man granted freehold title to a large part of Bruny Island, but other grant holders followed soon enough. Next came George Augustus Robinson, an ambitious tradesman and self-styled missionary who threw over his successful business as a builder to become “conciliator” of the Indigenous Tasmanians. He had lofty ambitions that he could teach these ancient people to shuck off their savage ways and become good Christian serfs.
My ancestor’s neighbour was a most problematic fellow. Tempting though it is for me to despise the man, I remain immensely grateful for his voluminous daily journals that have given me a glimpse into the lived experience of Wooredy and Truganini, who were his close companions for 12 years as guides and intermediaries in the audacious project of conciliation that he called “the friendly mission”.
Heaven only knows what sort of excursion Wooredy and Truganini thought they had embarked upon on 29 January 1830 when Robinson took them from their island to sail to Recherche Bay for an overland trek to the west coast. Since the beginning of time the Nuenonne had taken this journey in their bark canoes, while nomadic treks through the southwest were part of the timeless, seasonal pattern of their traditional life. Such a journey encompassed return, a completion, in accordance with the natural cycles of the environment. A journey for the purpose of reaching a destination was entirely new. Not to return would have been unthinkable.
For more than 40 years, Wooredy had made trips to and from his island and knew Recherche Bay held the malevolent spirit of Ria Warrawah, embodied in a carved tree that was left by the French visitors. The day after their arrival, while hunting he came across a decayed body of a woman that showed no sign of violence. Ria Warrawah had caught her, he was sure of it. When the body was identified as a Ninine woman on a visit from the west coast who had become ill and been abandoned to die alone, Robinson was dismayed that his Tasmanian companions were strangely unmoved by this apparent callousness. It was yet another display of their belief “that no human means can avert the doom to which they are consigned”.
This stubborn fatalism about the irresistible force of Ria Warrawah deeply rankled him, even though Wooredy had given him a potent lesson in the awesome power of Ria Warrawah as they were sailing to this tranquil bay. During the trip Wooredy identified all the land that passed before his eyes as the country of three interconnected clans – the Mellukerdee of the Huon River, the Lyluequonny of Southport and the Needwondee of Cox’s Bight – all of them gone within the span of Wooredy’s adult life. This land was empty, he explained. Nobody left.
Plunging into the wild
Mid-morning on 3 February 1830, Robinson set out with his Tasmanian guides as well as a handful of convict retainers to walk overland to the west coast. The sun was shining and he estimated the distance to Port Davey to be about 60 miles, which would take them about three days. Truganini had relatives among the Ninine people of Port Davey and was anxious to get going but Wooredy was not so keen, displaying an inherent hostility toward the toogee – his collective name for people from the west coast — that Robinson found disturbing. It was an enmity he shared with the six other Tasmanian men in the party who were aliens in this country where they did not know the language or customs.
The steady, reliable Wooredy was considered by Robinson to be his “loyal and trusted companion”, and next he looked to the “respectful and compliant” Kickerterpoller, whose command of English and knowledge of European customs made him an ideal negotiator in Robinson’s eyes. This young man was from the Paredarererme clan from Oyster Bay, stolen from his people when he was about nine and given to a settler as a farmhand. As a youth he ran away to join in a guerrilla war before being captured in 1824 when he became a guide for the roving parties.
Kickerterpoller was very familiar with this kind of expedition and knew only too well the coercive, violent ways of white men. Although the mission was not a paramilitary organisation like the roving parties, and no one was openly armed, the convicts all carried guns and the brace of pistols Robinson had hidden in his knapsack told him it was not so friendly. Suspicion aside, Kickerterpoller had reason to cleave to Robinson, at least in the short term. Instead of being confined in a foetid gaol, the Tasmanians were at large in empty country where they could hunt freely. And no one was shooting at them.
No white man had ever attempted an overland route to the west coast, and Robinson knew nothing of the territory before him. Among the colonists, an enduring perception had taken hold that the southwest was a terrible place, a geographical extension of the inhuman horrors of the penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour. Everyone knew the stories of convicts driven beyond endurance by the cruelties of the penal system who had escaped into the hinterland never to be seen again. One convict bolter who survived his encounter with this terrible land was sustained throughout his ordeal by eating the companions he murdered. If the rigours of this hellish environment could drive a Christian white man to cannibal depravity, why would any white man willingly set foot upon it?
George Augustus Robinson was no ordinary white man. He had a hankering to venture into the heart of darkness and immerse himself in the challenges offered by the vast wilderness of the new world. He would reason to himself that his object in plunging into the wild was to shine the light of God into the darkness, while his wholehearted embrace of untamed nature revealed a passion for elemental experience much at odds with his evangelical posturing. All along the rugged way, his steps were driven by a voracious ambition to be feted and admired by the settler elite who had showered derision upon his enterprise. He was determined to return to their small world as a conquering hero.
Walking in single file, with the convicts bringing up the rear, the party followed the creek westward for a mile or so until they reached a flat plain that stretched for many miles, promising easy walking. To everyone’s dismay, they almost immediately sank into tepid water that rose to their calves. The pretty olive-and rust-coloured grasses that stretched as far as their eyes could see were growing in a porous layer of peat that sat on a hard quartzite base, trapping the voluminous rainfall into a watery bog. For hours the party pulled their legs through marshland that at times sucked them down to their knees. Reaching higher ground they were only slightly less dismayed to find an almost impenetrable belt of thick eucalypt scrub.
Just after dawn next day they located “the native track” that led to the south coast. The track had not been used for many months, and in places was completely swallowed up by rainforest – which meant clambering over fallen trees that were slippery with moss, sometimes crawling through on hands and knees, then a steep descent down a cliff face where almost every step caused a cascade of small boulders. After much slipping and stumbling they finally reached the shore, where they made camp just as huge heavy drops of rain began to fall, and persisted all through the night.
At sunrise, greatly disheartened and drenched to the bone, the expedition set off once more, climbing up and over rugged country covered with dense forest, punctuated by huge outcrops of barren rock with jagged edges sharp as knives. When they reached the coast they were sweating profusely under the baking sunshine as they walked for several hours along a wide arc of squeaky, shifting sand pounded by heavy surf. Lagging a mile or two behind Robinson and his guides, the burdened convicts stumbled and cursed. That night, camped at the bottom of a deep coastal ravine, Robinson was very apprehensive. They had covered no more that 20 miles, and supplies were running dangerously low. There were no people around to render assistance. Along the way they had passed many bark huts of the Needwondee, all deserted. Wooredy explained these people were snatched away by Ria Warrawah.
The fourth day involved negotiating a passage across a daunting mountain range that consisted of a series of polished quartz summits. Much of the time they progressed on hands and knees, clinging onto the wiry tufts of grass or pitiful, wind-stunted trees. After persevering all day in this unforgiving terrain without any food, the guides were at the point of total exhaustion. Truganini could barely walk. Kickerterpoller was no longer compliant, boldly remonstrating that this was not the way locals travelled. Even a roving party that moved through cleared country on level ground did not go at such a pace.
The indefatigable Wooredy was the only one not prone with exhaustion. Scanning the ragged, precipitous coastline his sharp eyes located the supply schooner lying offshore in a bay about six miles ahead. White men called this place Louisa Bay, but Wooredy knew it to be where the creator spirit Droemerdeener fell from the sky into the sea. Like Recherche Bay, it was once a ritual meeting place for all the clans of the south-east, and it held extensive shell middens and hidden rock paintings. Here was where his father and grandfather built the sturdy canoes they took to distant Maatsuyker Island to hunt for seals. There was no more hunting for seals on Maatsuyker. In a few short years the seal colony had been wiped out by the same rapacious white men who had stolen so many of the Nuenonne women.
Re-energised by the prospect of food, Robinson followed his guides in a headlong scramble down the mountainside, reaching Louisa Bay by late afternoon. Two hours later the shattered convicts arrived. Watching Truganini gleefully diving for crayfish, he ruefully acknowledged how perilously close they had come to starvation. The rigours of the journey convinced him that he would not survive the trip to Port Davey without reliance on Indigenous food supplies and local knowledge of the bush. He would have to defer to their way of doing things.
A hideous irony
For the next six weeks Robinson kept to the meandering, leisurely pace of the Tasmanians, for whom travel was subordinate to the requirements of hunting and gathering. He was growing increasingly frustrated at his failure to make contact with the elusive Ninine. Although evidence of their fires and their grass-covered huts were plentiful, the people kept well out of sight. Truganini knew how to find her relatives, but was in no hurry. Slyly deflecting Robinson’s pursuit, she spent her time diving for crayfish, oyster and abalone or collecting small wild plums, sweet red berries and edible roots. The men went hunting for wallaby, wild duck and an elusive animal somewhat bigger than a dog, with distinctive stripes on its back. It was a kind of hyena, Robinson thought.
As the food became more plentiful, the difficulties of the terrain got greater. Moving further westward toward Bathurst Harbour meant pushing into mountainous country covered with almost horizontal forest. Beset by mizzling rain that never let up, they were forced to crawl along precipices or wade for miles through thigh-high water. Impervious to the brutal terrain and the perpetual rain, Robinson found the experience excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet utterly exhilarating.
Robinson was sticking close to his guides, sleeping around their fires and sharing their provisions of abalone, crayfish and fresh wallaby meat, while the scornful convicts made camp a considerable distance away and spurned the Tasmanians’ fresh food in favour of their Christian food of spoiled potatoes and salted meat. Nor did they want any part of the heathen singing and dancing that went on every night at the Tasmanians’ camp, with Robinson as a fascinated participant. He listened attentively as Wooredy told of the exploits of the creator spirits who made man from the kangaroo, writing up copious notes in his journal.
As the stories were sung with a repeated, chanted chorus, Robinson cleverly inserted himself into these nightly rituals by joining in the chanting. And he played his flute, which was a great hit. The Tasmanians were all having a fine time. After years of terror and harassment they were back in the bush, reviving a traditional way of life that revolved around hunting and ritual. And Mister Robinson was there to make sure the surly white men with guns were kept a safe distance.
So began a system of mutual support and protection between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides that for Wooredy and Truganini lasted 12 years. They might not have properly comprehended Robinson’s intentions, but they understood that their relationship with him had undergone a profound change since leaving Louisa Bay. In contrast to his earlier behaviour, where his efforts had been to make them like himself, in the wilderness it seemed as if he was in the process of becoming one of them.
Wooredy took the lead in an overt effort to induct Robinson into the Tasmanians’ way of life, leading the nightly ritual re-enactments of how animal spirits formed the world, how they left their recognisable mark on the landscape and how they emerged in the form of man and other species to inhabit that landscape. In Wooredy’s spellbinding stories, and in their song and dance, the Tasmanians asserted the palpable reality of their world, as opposed to Robinson’s abstract talk of God, heaven and hell.
This reciprocal relationship between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides had all the elements of tragedy. In his detailed accounts of their interactions, Robinson revealed a genuine interest in Tasmanian culture and an affectionate regard for the people. He slept with them, sang with them, hunted with them, learnt their language and marvelled at their mental and physical adaptation to the natural world. The hideous irony was that despite the intense pleasure he took in this elemental experience, which caused his impoverished puritan spirit to soar, Robinson sought to ingratiate himself to secure their trust so he could use them to entice the remaining Indigenous population into his custody.
Fancying himself as an ethnographer, he was also making a study of the curious ways of the primitive Tasmanians in the wild for the book he intended to publish. His journal entries offer not a glimmer of awareness that his travel companions might think they were in a relationship of mutual obligation.
Robinson could invest his companions with fundamental human feelings of sadness and pleasure, even affection and loyalty, but to grant them complex reasoning and intricate social relationships would have destroyed the whole rationale of his activity. The idea that Wooredy and Truganini might have regarded themselves as equal partners in his enterprise would never have entered his head.
In the middle of March the party reached the vast waterway of Bathurst Harbour. They had been walking for six weeks without making contact. The inhabitants of the southwest proved no more accommodating than the savage landscape, “fleeing before my approach as the clouds flee before a tempest”, Robinson wrote with heavy exasperation. It was at Bathurst Harbour that one of the guides spotted a flag fluttering on the shore, causing Robinson to experience a surge of expectation. The flag was revealed to be a pathetic, desperate signal planted by three escaped convicts from the penitentiary at Sarah Island, many miles to the north. Their bleached skeletons, still wearing tatters of government-issue clothing, were an unsettling reminder of how inhospitable this place could be for white intruders.
Squatting on the ground to register this grim find, Wooredy suddenly pointed to smoke rising in the distance hills. The sight of smoke set Robinson’s heart racing all over again – at last the Ninine were in sight. Wooredy and Truganini set off in hot pursuit, and in the following days they made contact with the Ninine time and time again, but could persuade only two young women to come with them to meet Mister Robinson. The rest of the group simply melted away into the bush. These two women were entertained with the baubles Robinson gave to them and were also utterly beguiled by the sound of his flute, but it took days to persuade them to take him to their hiding place.
Pushing through tough scrub, Robinson followed the two women for a very long way, until they reached a hidden clearing. After several loud hoots, ten naked women emerged, with six children in tow, followed a little later by ten men, all of them standing over six feet tall, naked and carrying spears, with dead wallaby thrown over their shoulders. Wooredy told how he had walked all day to meet with them and how Robinson was constantly calling out gozee, meaning “make haste”, which caused great mirth. They kept repeating “gozee” to Robinson, then collapsing into gleeful laughter. Cautiously they sniffed at the biscuit he offered, before handing it back, then they amused themselves stroking and prodding his pale skin and meticulously examining the blue coat he was wearing.
These ten families made an impressive group, with everyone in excellent health and high spirits. This jocular band agreed to accompany Robinson back to his camp, laughing and shouting all along the way, until they breasted the hill above Kelly’s Basin. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and fell silent. Coming toward them were a group of white men in a boat.
Robinson was livid with anger at the curious convicts who had disobeyed his order to stay out of sight. Knowing he had no hope of inducing the Ninine to take another step, he went alone to his camp. Early next morning he anxiously climbed the same hill and was distressed to see that the Ninine had slipped away. Wooredy and Truganini followed on their tracks for next two weeks, being led in a game of hide-and-seek, making sporadic contact with the Ninine, only to have them disappear at whim.
Palpably frustrated by his failure to effect “conciliation” with the local population, Robinson was equally perplexed by the attitude of his guides. He was alarmed when the Tasmanian men told him they could round up the Ninine for him if only he would give them his pistols. Alternatively, his convict retainers advised that alcohol would be the most effective weapon, explaining “it would only be necessary to make them drunk and you could take them anywhere”.
Robinson expected this kind of response from convicts, which is why he kept them far away from any possible contact, and he was alert to the potential antagonism from the men from other language groups, but it was beyond his comprehension that Wooredy should want to capture a people to whom he was closely related. Robinson began to suspect his loyal and trusted companion could be causing the extreme wariness of the Ninene, especially when he heard Truganini warn them that her husband “did not like toogee”.
It was a genuine shock to Robinson to realise that all his expedition team thought the purpose of their travail in this rugged, wet and wind-ravaged landscape was to capture the inhabitants. No one appeared to understand him when he reiterated that his friendly mission was merely to gain the confidence of the west-coast clans. Taking captives was never his intention, he insisted, oblivious as always to the implicit message he was giving. His Tasmanian guides were already captives. Captivity was the new order in which they lived and it was apparent to them that even the white men who carried the supplies were captives.
To what end had Robinson marched them across the island, his bemused companions might have wondered, if not capture and removal? What other motivation could there be for such an insane expedition through this barely penetrable wilderness?
I was driving down a main street in Canberra’s north a few weeks ago when a young boy fired a few shots at me from the back of his father’s bike. I didn’t see the gun at first. It was black and camouflaged in the shadow of an overhanging oak tree. But as I approached from behind, the bike rolled into the sunlight.
I blinked in surprise; people don’t have guns in Canberra. Why did this child have a gun?
The boy, no older than four, had seen me now. He turned the barrel towards me, twisting awkwardly in his seat. I saw his lips move before I heard him. “Bang, bang, bang” he yelled as he pulled the trigger, invisible bullets flying towards my windshield.
As I drove out of view a few minutes later, I was confronted by my disapproval at this boy’s behaviour. Children have long played at war, but when did it become a public nuisance that I could reasonably expect to avoid?
It seems to me that my response reflected something important about the entitlement that adults have assumed over public space in this country.
Over the last 100 or so years, children’s play has increasingly been moved off the streets and into fenced backyards, schoolyards, nurseries and playgrounds. Instead of sharing the privileges of the streets, children have suffered restrictions of movement and been prohibited from certain play activities in the urban space.
Losing the battle for the streets
Playing on the streets has always been an activity of negotiated boundaries.
Simon Sleight’s research shows that, before the outbreak of the first world war, children not only played a central role in the construction of the urban space, but also contested existing adult street cultures and found avenues to assert their agency.
Nevertheless, in the late 19th century and early 20th century the efforts of social critics to reimagine Australian young people as victims of urbanisation and social degradation increasingly forced children out of view – in some places more than others.
Concerns over the dangers of the streets intensified in the post-WWI period as the rise of car-related accidents fuelled debates over children’s safety. As a Nowra council member observed in 1924, boys playing on the streets was “really dangerous”.
The situation became so dire in Sydney in 1933 that the New South Wales lands minister, Ernst Buttenshaw, supported Leichhardt Council’s proposal to turn Balmain’s old burial ground into a recreational area for children, despite the state government’s previous lack of enthusiasm for the plan. It was essential, he said, that children should be kept from playing on the streets.
Young people continued to assert their shared ownership of the streets throughout the mid-20th century, but their resistance increasingly came at a cost: innocent games of marbles, football and billycarts ended with fatal collisions with cars, trams and trucks.
In 1951, Senior Constable Smith reported that of the 28 children under the age of six who died in traffic accidents in NSW the previous year, most had been playing on the streets.
Figures like these presented a powerful argument for increased restrictions of children’s mobility. City children felt the transformation of the streetscape far more keenly than many of their rural counterparts. Even today, street cricket and barefoot scootering are common in some small towns and suburbs.
Anxieties over war toys and militarised play
During the mid-20th century, anxieties over the traffic-related risks of street play also opened up space for education do-gooders and social theorists to voice their opinions about the civil and social benefits of play. Certain types of play, they argued, were especially dangerous for children.
Militarised play, of course, was at the top of their list. War toys “are making our children used to war”, declared Ruby Rich of the NSW section of the International Peace Council in 1937. Urging a boycott of war toys at a public meeting in Newcastle Town Hall, Rich said that these were teaching children “to love the things that may have killed their fathers in the last war”.
There have been times, however, when militarised play has been tolerated, even commended, in the public space.
In 1915, Melbourne boys between the ages of four and ten, armed with bamboo guns and wooden spears, were reported playing at soldiers in “local beauty spots”. The activity finally reached its “limit” when a group of boys dug up the lawns of Queen’s Park in Essendon to build a trench in anticipation of the German advance. One local newspaper acclaimed that it was unfortunate that they damaged the lawns because their bravery was “worthy of Australians”.
Debates over militarised play and war toys still have currency in Australia. In 2015, an image of a child holding a replica AK-47 rifle, his finger on the trigger, near Sydney’s Martin Place sparked calls for a complete ban on toy guns. The fact that a terrorist attack had recently taken place at the nearby Lindt Cafe only heightened public outrage over the incident.
When the ABC surveyed children about their views, there was widespread agreement that although toy guns shouldn’t be banned, they should only be played with at home. “I think toy guns should be allowed but not in public,” Pierce said. Jacob agreed, concluding that “our friend’s house is the best place to use them”.
Such responses reflect the way many children have internalised adult-centric street cultures.
For young boys to dig a trench and enact a foreign invasion in a Melbourne park, or to march around the streets of Hobart dressed as soldiers armed for war as they did in 1900, would today likely be considered a dangerous public nuisance.
The rise of the adult streetscape
Over the past century, urban streets have increasingly become thoroughfares, transient places of movement where all kinds of rules and codes of behaviours have made them less friendly to children and their imaginations.
The intense disapproval that I felt at being the target of an imaginary drive-by shooting in Canberra last month captures something of the shifting traditions of street play and ownership in Australia. The prerogative that my adult self has assumed over the streets, as well as the cultural sensibilities that have arisen surrounding particular types of play, led me to condemn the boy’s behaviour.
It was not that his behaviour was dangerous, though it might well have been, it was that it threatened the comfort I had come to expect of Canberra’s streets.
13. I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. 14. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: 15. And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.