Tag Archives: forgotten
Warning: This story contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who are deceased.
The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served with Australian forces in the first world war is estimated to be in the range of 1,000-1,200. But the precise figure will never be known, because a number of those who served changed their names and birthplaces when they enrolled to get around racist enlistment practices.
Despite fighting and dying for Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still weren’t considered citizens upon their return from the war. Many of these veterans were also denied repatriation benefits, and excluded from returned services clubs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long sought to gain recognition for the service and sacrifices of their men and women. Some do this by telling stories in their families and local communities about the military careers of their forebears.
These stories often take the form of oral histories. Oral history projects by groups of Aboriginal people have proven valuable for redressing the unrecognised service and racist treatment of their ancestors who served in the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916-18.
Commemorating the Battle of Beersheba
Although most Australians know little or nothing about the Battle of Beersheba, the Australian government funded its centennial commemoration at Beersheba (now in southern Israel) in October 2017.
One hundred Australian and a few New Zealand military history reenactors attended the joint service as part of a commercial tour, during which they rode in period military outfits along the route of their ancestors.
A group of Aboriginal men and women, who were descended from some of the estimated 100 Aboriginal members of the Australian Light Horse, also participated in the tour. Several had ancestors who were in the “Queensland Black Watch”, a predominantly Aboriginal reinforcement unit.
The group’s participation was enabled by a transnational network of organisations, but the key driver was Rona Tranby Trust, which funds projects to record and preserve Aboriginal oral histories. In 2017, it a group of Aboriginal men and women to complete 11 histories of their ancestors who fought and died in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign.
Like the other reenactors, Aboriginal participants were honouring their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. But they also wanted to document the neglected stories of their service, and the racial discrimination their forebears experienced.
Here we share, with permission, some of the stories that came from the trip, and from the family history projects the group members continue to work on.
Gunditjmara man and retired Army Sergeant Ricky Morris was officially invited to lay a wreath on behalf of all Indigenous veterans at the service in Beersheba. Morris is the 19th of an astonishing 21 men and women Anzacs in his family. He served in a progeny of the Light Horse unit of his grandfather, Frederick Amos Lovett.
At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were neither citizens nor counted in the census, Frederick and his four brothers left the Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission, 300 km west of Melbourne, to sign up.
But their service counted for nothing. Gunditjmara people were subjected to a “second dispossession” when they were forced off Lake Condah under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The scheme granted land to returning soldiers, but like almost all Aboriginal applicants, the brothers were denied soldier settlement blocks.
Morris is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Veterans Association Remembrance Committee and gives talks at schools about Aboriginal culture and his family. He interviewed two elderly aunts for his family history project, which he described as:
…a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who fought and died for Australia, and the diversity of Australians who put their hands up to answer the call.
In remembering Anzac Day, what do we forget?
Mischa Fisher and Elsie Amamoo
Mischa Fisher and her daughter, Elsie Amamoo, undertook the tour to obtain information for a website about Mischa’s grandfather, Frank Fisher.
Frank was born into the Wangan and Jagalingou community in the goldmining town of Clermont, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. He was one of 47 men from Barambah Aboriginal Settlement who enlisted in the first world war. While Frank was away, his wife Esme was prevented from accessing his salary. After Frank was discharged, he was again placed under the control of the superintendent at Barambah.
Mischa and Elsie have interviewed Frank’s descendants, and accessed archival footage from the Ration Shed Museum – an Aboriginal heritage, educational and cultural centre. Elsie only recently learned that Frank, who is also the great-grandfather of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, was a member of the “Black Watch”.
While training for a reenactment of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, she tearfully told a reporter what the project meant to her:
To me, it feels like I have got a missing piece of the puzzle of who I am […] That’s what it basically means to me: just being able to have that ability to close the gap in terms of my identity and knowing who I am and where I fit in the Australian history, but also within my family as well.
Michelle and Peta Flynn
Sisters Michelle and Peta Flynn are descendants of “Black Kitty”, a Cannemegal/Warmuli girl, who, in 1814, was among the first group of Aboriginal children placed in the Parramatta Native Institution at the age of five.
The sisters have been researching their family history for over 20 years. Their ancestors include the three Stafford brothers, who were in the Light Horse.
At Beersheba, Peta explained her motivation for writing a book about her great uncle, Charles Stafford:
My daughter, niece and nephews will be able to take [the book] into their schools and communities and actually be proud of who we are and where we come from – and ensure our family’s history will not be lost to future generations.
Lessons and legacies
The experiences of Ricky Morris, Mischa Fisher, Elsie Amamoo, and Michelle and Peta Flynn show how exploring family histories can generate feelings of solidarity, honour and closure.
Although group members were on a reenactment tour, their emotions were typical of the inward pilgrimages often experienced by genealogical tourists. Past and present family connections were heightened by being there; feelings of sadness, solidarity and pride arose.
At the same time, these stories show the benefits of combining academic, public and vernacular accounts to study silences and absences in the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The official commemoration at Beersheba will only ever be studied by a handful of specialist scholars, but the family histories of this group will have enduring value for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike.
It was the greatest infrastructure project the world had ever seen. When the 77 kilometre-long Panama Canal officially opened in 1914, after 10 years of construction, it fulfilled a vision that had tempted people for centuries, but had long seemed impossible.
“Never before has man dreamed of taking such liberties with nature,” wrote journalist Arthur Bullard in awe.
But the project, which employed more than 40,000 labourers, also took immense liberties with human life. Thousands of workers were killed. The official number is 5,609, but many historians think the real toll was several times higher. Hundreds, if not thousands, more were permanently injured.
How did the United States government, which was responsible for the project, reconcile this tremendous achievement with the staggering cost to human lives and livelihoods?
They handled it the same way governments still do today: They doled out a combination of triumphant rhetoric and just enough philanthropy to keep critics at bay.
U.S. engineering might
From the outset, the Canal project was supposed to cash in on the exceptionalism of American power and ability.
The French had tried — and failed — to build a canal in the 1880s, finally giving in after years of fighting a recalcitrant landscape, ferocious disease, the deaths of some 20,000 workers and spiralling costs. But the U.S., which purchased the French company’s equipment, promised they would do it differently.
First, the U.S. government tried to broker a deal with Colombia, which controlled the land they needed for construction. When that didn’t work, the U.S. backed Panama’s separatist rebellion and quickly signed an agreement with the new country, allowing the Americans to take full control of a 16 kilometre-wide Canal Zone.
The Isthmian Canal Commission, which managed the project, started by working aggressively to discipline the landscape and its inhabitants. They drained swamps, killed mosquitoes and initiated a whole-scale sanitation project. A new police force, schools and hospitals would also bring the region to what English geographer Vaughan Cornish celebrated as “marvellous respectability.”
A path of destruction
But this was just the beginning. The world’s largest dam had to be built to control the temperamental Chagres river and furnish power for the Canal’s lock system. It would also create massive Gatún Lake, which would provide transit for more a third of the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The destruction was devastating. Whole villages and forests were flooded, and a railway constructed in the 1850s had to be relocated.
The greatest challenge of all was the Culebra Cut, now known as the Gaillard Cut, an artificial valley excavated through some 13 kilometres of mountainous terrain.
Imagine digging a trench more than 90 metres wide, and 10 storeys deep, over the length of something like 130 football fields. In temperatures that were often well over 30 degrees Celsius, with sometimes torrential rains. And with equipment from 1910: Dynamite, picks and coal-fired steam shovels.
The celebratory rhetoric masked horrifying conditions.
The Panama Canal was built by thousands of contract workers, mostly from the Caribbean. To them, the Culebra Cut was “Hell’s Gorge.”
They lived like second-class citizens, subject to a Jim Crow-like regime, with bad food, long hours and low pay. And constant danger.
In the 1980s, filmmaker Roman Foster went looking for these workers; most of the survivors were in their 90s.
Only a few copies of Fosters’s film Diggers (1984) can be found in libraries around the world today. But it contains some of the only first-hand testimony of what it was like to dig through the spiny backbone of Panama in the name of the U.S. empire.
Constantine Parkinson was one of the workers who told his story to Foster, his voice firm but his face barely able to look at the camera.
He started work on the canal at 15 years old; like many, he may have lied about his age. He was soon a brakeman, probably on a train carrying rocks to a breakwater. On July 16, 1913, a day he would never forget, he lost his right leg, and his left heel was crushed.
Parkinson explains that his grandmother went to the Canal’s chief engineer, George Goethals, to ask for some sort of assistance. As Parkinson tells it, Goethals’s response was simple: “My dear lady, Congress did not pass any law … to get compensation when [the workers] [lose limbs]. However, not to fret. Your grandson will be taken care of as soon as he [is able to work], even in a wheelchair.”
Goethals was only partly right.
At the outset, the U.S. government had essentially no legislation in place to protect the tens of thousands of foreign workers from Barbados, Jamaica, Spain and elsewhere. Administrators like Goethals were confident that the labourers’ economic desperation would prevent excessive agitation.
For the most part, their gamble worked. Though there were scandals over living conditions, injuries seem to have been accepted as a matter of course, and the administration’s charity expanded only slowly, providing the minimum necessary to get men back to work.
In 1908, after several years of construction, the Isthmian Canal Commission finally began to apply more specific compensation policies. They also contracted New York manufacturer A.A. Marks to supply artificial limbs to men injured while on duty, supposedly “irrespective of colour, nationality, or character of work engaged in.”
There were, however, caveats to this administrative largesse: the labourer could not be to blame for his injury, and the interpretation of “in the performance of … duty” was usually strict, excluding the many injuries incurred on the labour trains that were essential to moving employees to and from their work sites.
Despite all of these restrictions, by 1912, A.A. Marks had supplied more than 200 artificial limbs. The company had aggressively courted the Canal Commission’s business, and they were delighted with the payoff.
A.A. Marks even took out a full-page ad for their products in The New York Sun, celebrating, in strangely cheerful tones, how their limbs helped the many men who met with “accidents, premature blasts, railroad cars.” They also placed similar advertisements in medical journals.
But this compensation was still woefully inadequate, and many men fell through its deliberately wide cracks. Their stories are hard to find, but the National Archives in College Park, Md., hold a handful.
Wilfred McDonald, who was probably from Jamaica or Barbados, told his story in a letter to the Canal administrators on May 25, 1913:
I have ben Serveing the ICC [Isthmian Canal Commission] and the PRR [Panama Railroad] in the caypasoity as Train man From the yea 1906 until my misfawchin wich is 1912. Sir without eny Fear i am Speaking Nothing But the Truth to you, I have no claim comeing to me. But for mercy Sake I am Beging you To have mercy on me By Granting me a Pair of legs for I have lost both of my Natrals. I has a Mother wich is a Whido, and too motherless childrens which During The Time when i was working I was the only help to the familys.
You can still hear McDonald’s voice through his writing. He signed his letter “Truley Sobadenated Clyante,” testifying all too accurately to his position in the face of the Canal Zone’s imposing bureaucracy and unforgiving policies.
With a drop in sugar prices, much of the Caribbean was in the middle of a deep economic depression in the early 1900s, with many workers struggling even to reach subsistence; families like McDonald’s relied on remittances. But his most profound “misfortune” may have been that his injury was deemed to be his own fault.
Legally, McDonald was entitled to nothing. The Canal Commission eventually decided that he was likely to become a public charge without some sort of help, so they provided him with the limbs he requested, but they were also clear that his case was not to set a precedent.
Other men were not so lucky. Many were deported, and some ended up working on a charity farm attached to the insane asylum. A few of the old men in Foster’s film wipe away tears, almost unable to believe that they survived at all.
Their blood and bodies paid mightily for the dream of moving profitable goods and military might through a reluctant landscape.
The link below is to an article that looks at various Vice Presidents of the USA forgotten by history.
Here at History for Today, I like to look into the more famous and well known epochs of history, but also the obscure and sometimes trivial bits of history that can easily be forgotten or overlooked. The article linked to below has a look at the ‘Hokey Pokey’ – you know, ‘you put your …’
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