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



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

Heather Goodall, University of Technology Sydney

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

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

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

Isabel pictured around 1980.
Heather Goodall

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

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




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


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

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

‘I was terrified when I stood up there’

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

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

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

The Liberty Picture Show, circa 1980.
Heather Goodall

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

Campaigning for a place of peace

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

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

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

Decorated graves at the Collarenebri cemetery.
Author provided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The long and complicated history of Aboriginal involvement in football


Roy Hay, Deakin University

Over the next two weekends, the Australian Football League celebrates the contribution of Indigenous peoples to the history of the game.

At the same time, a new documentary will show how one of the modern Indigenous superstars of the sport, Adam Goodes, was driven from it by prejudice and repeated denigration.

Clearly, Indigenous players have made huge inroads in professional Australian football leagues. In fact, to mark this year’s Indigenous round, the AFL Players Association recently updated its map celebrating the 84 male Indigenous players and 13 female players in the league and showing where they come from.

But in order to understand how we got to this point, it’s important to know the full history of Indigenous involvement in the sport, including the discrimination faced by players like Goodes, and all those who came before him.

Indigenous men playing football in a paddock at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, 1904.
State Library of Victoria, Author provided

The early days on missions and stations

In my latest book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century, I examine the long history of Aboriginal involvement in Australian football since the game was codified in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a story of resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their participation.

By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria had been drastically reduced to just a few thousand people, due largely to massacres, disease, and the other impacts of European settlement. Most of these people were confined to missions or stations in remote parts of the colony under the control of “protectors.”




Read more:
The Aboriginal football ethic: where the rules get flexible


In the second half of the century, the Indigenous inhabitants of these institutions saw the white settlers playing football and sought to take part. They brought skills developed in hunting and their own games like marngrook and joined the white players in football games, first as individuals and then by forming their own teams.

Eventually, the Indigenous teams started taking part in and then winning local leagues. It was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity.

This story can only be told because the deeds of these early generations of Indigenous players were reported in the sports pages of newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia. Indigenous deeds on the field were being recounted positively, a contrast to the typical media reports of the day focused on “outrages” committed by – or less often, against – our original inhabitants.

Dominating and winning league titles

The numbers of Indigenous players remained small throughout the 19th century and getting leave to compete from the missions and stations was often difficult or inconsistent. Indigenous Australians may have found it slightly easier to break into individual sports like pedestrianism or boxing than team games like cricket and football at the time.

But many Indigenous teams found success. At Coranderrk in the Upper Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Indigenous people from the station began playing regularly in the 1890s, forming a team to compete in local competitions involving three non-Aboriginal teams, Healesville, Lilydale and Yarra Glen.




Read more:
What if Indigenous Australians didn’t play footy?


Dick Rowan was invited to play with the South Melbourne club in 1892, but when he sought permission to play again the following season, he was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines of Victoria. Their reason: if he was allowed to play, others would wish to follow. The board wanted to keep Indigenous people on the periphery.

In 1911, the Coranderrk team won the local league against white teams for the first time, but could not field a team the following year after several of their players were recruited by other clubs.

Other dominant Indigenous teams of the era included Framlingham, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers and above all Cummeragunja. Cummeragunja had suffered heavy defeats in the late 1880s, but the team eventually became so strong that it won the Western and Moira League five out of six years, and was promptly handicapped. (They were not allowed to field players over the age of 25.) In 1900, they ran rings around a strong Bendigo team and gave a Ballarat team a close game, as well.

The Redgummers, the name given to the team of combined Barmah and Cummeragunja players, 1905.
State Library of New South Wales, Author provided

Lake Tyers in Gippsland followed a similar pattern. After the first world war, the team became the receptacle for Indigenous players moved from other stations and missions around the state and was extremely successful, winning the East Gippsland League in 1934, 1938 and 1939.

Critics will point out that this was only “bush football”, but that was all that was on offer to Indigenous teams. They could not get regular matches against professional Melbourne teams, and Indigenous players were denied opportunities to play in senior leagues owing to racial bias.

There were a few exceptions, including Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunja, who was later knighted and became governor of South Australia. He rhapsodised about playing the game:

Once on the football field, I forget everything else. I’m playing football. I never take my eyes off that ball. My aim is not only to beat my opponent, but also to serve my side. I realise that in football as in other things, it’s team-work that tells.




Read more:
Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own


My aim in writing this book was to show how the history of the game could be rewritten to better reflect Indigenous contributions and experiences by using newspapers and other materials of the day as a basis, even the much maligned “colonial record”. This may assist Indigenous peoples to tell the story from their perspective about what happened to their ancestors and their more recent history.

As the Wiradjuri historian Lawrence Bamblett argues, this could have a positive impact on the sport and help counter the racism and discrimination that Indigenous peoples still face both on and off the field.

…broadening the discourse will bring representations of Aborigines in the writing about sport more closely into line with the richer lived experiences of individuals, and this in itself combats racism.

My hope is that some young Indigenous people with an interest in football will take up this story and tell it from their unique perspective.The Conversation

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

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


Hidden women of history: Ennigaldi-Nanna, curator of the world’s first museum



The National Museum of Iraq photographed in February 2018. Many of the pieces discovered at the ruins of Ur, arranged and labelled by Ennigaldi-Nanna, can be found here.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

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

“It belongs in a museum.” With these words, Indiana Jones, the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist, articulated an association between archaeologists, antiquities, and museums that has a very long history. Indeed, even Jones himself would likely marvel at the historic setting of the world’s first “museum,” and the remarkable woman who is believed to have been its curator, the Mesopotamian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna.

Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of the moon deity Sin, and the daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus. In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.

C. Leonard Woolley (left) and T. E. Lawrence at archaeological excavations in Syria, circa 1912-1914.
Wikimedia Commons

This collection was considered by the British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, to be the earliest known example of a “museum”.

In 1925, Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur (now in the Dhi Qar governate of southern Iraq). They discovered a curious collection of artefacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. Especially unusual was that while the items were from different geographical areas and historical settings, they were neatly assembled together.

An example of Sumerian script on a foundation tablet 2144-2124 BCE (Lagash II; Ur III).
The Walters Art Museum

The items ranged in dates from around 2100 BCE to 600 BCE. They included part of a statue of the famous early king, Shulgi of Ur, who ruled around 2058 BCE, a ceremonial mace-head made of stone, and some texts. The statue, Woolley observed, had been carefully restored to preserve the writing.

There was also a Kassite boundary stele (called a “kudurru”), a written document used to mark boundaries and make proclamations. The stele was dated to around 1400 BCE, and contained, Woolley noted, a “terrific curse” on anyone who removed or destroyed the record it contained.

Many items were accompanied by labels giving details about the artefacts. These were written in three languages, including Sumerian. The labels have been described in modern scholarship as early examples of the “metadata” that is so critical to the preservation of antiquities and the historical record.




Read more:
Fifteen years after looting, thousands of artefacts are still missing from Iraq’s national museum


The museum, over 2,500 years old, was centred on cultural heritage, and it is thought to have perhaps had an educational purpose. Along with her other roles, Ennigaldi-Nanna is believed to have run a scribal school for elite women.

When considering the discovery, Woolley noted that the discovery of a museum associated with the priestess was not unexpected, given the close connection between religious specialists and education. He also commented on the “antiquarian piety” of the time of the museum’s construction — an interest in history was a common feature among monarchs from the Neo-Babylonian period.

A family fascination with history

Indeed, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appreciation for the past seems to have been a family trait. Her father Nabonidus had a fascination with history which led him to conduct excavations and discover lost texts. Many of the items in the collection were discovered by him, with Nabonidus sometimes described in the modern day as the world’s first archaeologist.

Stela of Nabonidus made of basalt.
Wikimedia Commons

Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and a religious reformer. His eldest son, Belshazzar, ruled as his regent for many years, but is perhaps best known for his appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel. In a famous scene, the unfortunate regent sees the end of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom coming when it is foretold through the writing of a disembodied hand on a wall.

King Nabonidus’ interest in history didn’t end with archaeology. He also worked to revive ancient cultic traditions relating to the moon deity, Sin (Sumerian Nanna). His daughter Ennigaldi was an important part of these efforts, indeed, her name is an ancient Sumerian one, meaning “the priestess, the desire of the Moon god.”

A boundary stele/kudurru showing King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar.
Wikimedia Commons

The appointment of Ennigaldi as high priestess in Ur reinvigorated a historical trend made famous by Sargon of Akkad, who installed his daughter, the poetess Enheduanna, in the role over 1000 years earlier.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author


By the time of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment, the religious role she would inhabit had long been unoccupied, and the rituals associated with the post had been forgotten. Nabonidus, however, describes finding an ancient stela belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I, and using it to guide his actions.

The historic aspects of the appointment of Ennigaldi-Nanna were further emphasised by Nabonidus when noting his research into the requirements of her role. The king describes consulting the writings of a previous priestess, a sister of the ruler Rim-Sin named En-ane-du.

Rim-Sin reigned over 1200 years before Nabonidus came to power. While some scholars doubt Nabonidus’ discovery of the stela of Nebuchadnezzar I, his recovery of the writings of the priestess, En-ane-du, has greater acceptance.

Ruins in the town of Ur, Southern Iraq, photographed in 2006. Around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered here, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.
Wikimedia Commons

Little known today

Ennigaldi is largely unknown in the modern day. An exception to her modern anonymity may be found in the luxury fashion line, Ennigaldi, which creates pieces inspired by ancient Babylonian architecture.

While relatively little is known of the life of Ennigaldi, there are other well-known women in her family tree. Ennigaldi’s grandmother, Adad-guppi, was also a powerful priestess involved in the political world of her son, Nabonidus. Adad-guppi is best known in the present day from her “autobiography,” a cuneiform account of her life, written in the first person. Adad-guppi’s autobiography records the blessings she received from the moon deity such as living to the age of 104 with a sound mind and body.

The city of Ur and its museum were abandoned around 500 BCE, due to deteriorating environmental conditions. These included a severe drought, along with changing river and silt patterns. The prevalence of drought has also been cited as a likely cause of the falls of many earlier kingdoms from the Bronze Age.

The story of the world’s first known museum, its curator, and her family, shows the timeless appeal of conserving the treasures of the past. At the same time, the disappearance of this early institution of learning over two millennia ago demonstrates the significant overlap in the important areas of cultural heritage and environmental conservation.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

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


Tampering with history: how India’s ruling party is erasing the Muslim heritage of the nation’s cities


Sudipta Sen, University of California, Davis

For centuries many millions of Hindus have gathered at the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Sarswati in northern India for the festival of Kumbh Mela. Their pilgrimage, which ends with a sacred bath in the Ganges, takes them through the historic city of Allahabad.

Allahabad is no longer on the map of India. In October 2018, officials of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed its name to Prayagraj. Allahabad was founded by the Mughals, Muslim rulers from Central Asia who governed India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This name change emphasises the primacy of the Hindu gathering over the city’s Mughal heritage.

This renaming is part of a growing trend in the lead-up to India’s current general election, which is expected to return the BJP government. To appeal to its voter base of Hindu nationalists, the BJP is attempting to erase India’s Mughal legacy both from the landscape and from the history books.




Read more:
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India and the Mughals

Emperor Akbar the Great.
Wikimedia

The Mughals had a more than 300-year presence on the subcontinent and exerted a significant influence on Indian art, architecture, language and cuisine.

Allahabad’s Mughal history begins with the Emperor Akbar (1542-1605). Akbar was struck by the natural setting and serenity of Prayag and commissioned the old settlements on either side of the Ganges and their adjoining villages to erect a new city. He named it Illahabas, adding the Hindustani word basa (home or abode) to ilahi, the Arabic word for “divine”.

Allahabad Fort on the banks of the Yamuna river.
Arun Sambhu Mishra/Shutterstock

Akbar secured the city with an imposing fort overlooking the sacred waterway and put an end to the long-established practice of ritual suicide by penitent Hindus. They would typically jump into a well or into the torrents of the river from a giant and auspicious banyan tree. The tree was now placed inside the fort in a chamber that became known as the Patalpuri Temple, where Hindu pilgrims continued to offer their devotions.

During the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, best known for building the Taj Mahal, the city became popularly known as Allahabad.

The Taj Mahal is the most iconic example of Mughal architecture.
JTang/Shutterstock

The rise of Hindu nationalism

Yogi Adityanath.
Wikimedia

The campaign to rename Allahabad was led by the Hindu priest and activist Yogi Adityanath, who rose to fame as the founder of a militant Hindu youth-wing group. Adityanath is now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous northern state.

As one of the most outspoken members of the ruling party, he has repeatedly indulged in vitriol against religious minorities, especially Muslims. According to Adityanath, the identity, history and traditions of India must be salvaged from the taint of alien, Muslim invaders.

The rechristening of Allahabad reflects a strident demand of Hindu militants at the helm of Indian politics to reclaim towns, streets, airports and railway stations which are seen as reminders of India’s “Muslim” past. These calls have grown louder and more insistent during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister and leader of the BJP.




Read more:
Why giant statues of Hindu gods and leaders are making Muslims in India nervous


Rewriting history

Another notable case is the recent renaming of the British-era railway junction of Mughalsarai. The word sarai denotes a rest house or inn. Mughalsarai, less than 20km from the sacred Indian city of Varanasi, is one of the busiest railway yards in the country. It is located along the historic Grand Trunk Road, one of the oldest roads in Asia, which connects Northern India to Central Asia.

The Indian government’s nod to the proposal to rename the station came, again, from Adityanath who wanted to claim it in the name of Deendayal Upadhyaya (1916 –1968). Upadhyaya, a leader of the Jan Sangh Party, was an early ideologue of Rashtrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to the memory of Deendayal Upadhyaya.
Wikimedia

The move led to an uproar in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. Opponents of this proposal argued that Upadhyaya was not a “freedom fighter” or a truly national figure. Other critics see this move to commemorate an early proponent of right-wing Hindu nationalism as the BJP’s attempt to elevate its leaders to national prominence.

In the popular imagination, the early leaders of the Congress Party (the BJP’s main opposition) are still seen as the key architects of India’s freedom struggle. The memory of Congress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru is honoured throughout India in the form of public monuments and landmarks. The BJP’s move to elevate Upadhyaya is an attempt to insert one of the founders of its political creed into the public memory of India’s independence struggle.




Read more:
India Tomorrow part 2: the politics of Hindu nationalism


From decolonisation to erasure

What we are witnessing is not simply a facile attempt by a majoritarian government to strip facets of the popular memory of the northern Indian plains and its shared, historical landscape. It is also the extension of a patriotic animus once directed at the historic markers of the British colonial era that found recompense and solace in changing place names such as Bombay to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai.

Decolonising Mumbai. In 1996, the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus after a local warrior king.
Mazur Travel/Shutterstock

The new dispensation targeting places like Allahabad and Mughalserai sends clear signals to multitudes of the Indian nation that, much like the British, the Mughals who shaped more than 300 years of Indian history were also outsiders and should not feature in the story of India’s one true national heritage.The Conversation

Sudipta Sen, Professor of History, University of California, Davis

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


The Murujuga Mermaid: how rock art in WA sheds light on historic encounters of Australian exploration



The Enderby Island ship image depicting His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid, which visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project

Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Deakin University

It is understandable that Captain Cook is a trigger for debates about our national identity and history. However, we often risk being blinded by the legacy of Cook. Around the continent, early encounters with outsiders occurred on other days, and in other years before 1788. Across northern Australia these did not involve Europeans, but rather Southeast Asian trepangers.

The earliest documented European landfall was at Cape Keerweer, Cape York, in 1606 with the landing of the crew of the Dufyken. For coastal Aboriginal communities around Australia each moment of encounter was unique, significant and – in many instances – cataclysmic.

Image of ‘Boon-ga-ree’ by Phillip Parker King.
Phillip Parker King, album of drawings and engravings, 1802–1902, PXC 767, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The history of the exploration of Australia’s coast became a media story with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that a A$6.7 million replica of Cook’s Endeavour would be built to circumnavigate Australia. Of course, James Cook never circumnavigated Australia. This was done by Abel Tasman in 1642 (albeit at a great distance) and most effectively accomplished in 1803 by Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was accompanied by Boongaree, an Aboriginal man from Port Jackson, now remembered as an iconic Aboriginal go-between for his ability to move between the Indigenous and settler worlds.

Remarkably, Boongaree would circumnavigate Australia a second time in 1817-18, accompanying Phillip Parker King, a consummate explorer. King would captain four expeditions circumnavigating Australia and filled in many details on the map. He and his crew remain unsung heroes of exploration compared to Cook.

Phillip Parker King c.1817, by unknown artist.
ML 1318, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

During archaeological field recording in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), Western Australia, our team working with Murujuga Land and Sea Unit Rangers encountered an engraved depiction of a single-masted sailing ship. This image is on an elevated rock panel in an extensive Aboriginal engraving (petroglyph) site complex near a rocky water hole at the south-western end of Enderby Island.

We argue in a new paper that this image depicts His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid, the main vessel of the historically significant British Admiralty survey captained by King.

‘View of Mermaid Strait from Enderby Island (Rocky Head) Feb 25 [1818]’, in Phillip Parker King – album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902. Mitchell Library, PXC767.
Mitchell Library, PXC767.

The Mermaid visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818. It was not the first European vessel to visit – that was William Dampier in the HMS Roebuck in 1699. But King and his crew recorded encounters with Yaburara people. They observed fresh tracks and fires on the outer islands, and described how Yaburara people voyaged between islands on pegged log rafts.

Phillip Parker King, Native of Dampier’s Archipelago, on his floating log not dated, pen, ink and wash and scratching out on card, 7.9 x 11.5 cm (sheet). Transferred from the State Library Board of Western Australia, 2000.
Reproduced with permission of the Art Gallery of Western Australia

Murujuga is globally renowned as one of the world’s largest rock art estates. Our work has documented the tens of thousands of years of human occupation, the extraordinary production of rock art and the historical presence of American whalers.

The depiction of the boat on Enderby Island overlooks the bay where the Mermaid anchored two centuries ago. When they went ashore the crew observed Aboriginal camps, and the formidable rocky landscape. Boongaree went fishing, while the expedition’s botanical collector Allan Cunningham planted a peach pip near a fig tree. While there, it appears someone scratched the image of the Mermaid.

The Enderby Island ship image showing view across Mermaid Strait to the Intercourse Islands.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

A scratched technique

There are various surviving documents from the Mermaid expedition, such as log books, day books, journals, watercolours, and coastal views. Interestingly, in their writings, King, midshipman John Septimus Roe and Cunningham all neglect to mention the engravings, and they did not mention making this image of their ship. We are confident the ship was not made by Yaburara people, as the scratched technique used is very different to the surrounding Yaburara engravings.

A) line drawing (by Ken Mulvaney), b) The ship engraving, Enderby Island, c) King’s detailed section of the Mermaid (Phillip Parker King, ‘Album of drawings and engravings’, Mitchell Library, PXC767)
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

While our investigation suggests that a metal tool was not used to make the image, the imagery – which demonstrates detailed knowledge of the ship’s rigging and proportions, and the inclusions of water in this “sketch” of the craft, leads us to the conclusion that this ship was sketched on the day that the crew of the Mermaid visited this area.

So, who made the image? We really don’t know (but do have some ideas).

The artist clearly knew the ship in great detail. The similarities to the Mermaid are profound, allowing us to rule out other possible vessels to visit the islands in later years such as two-masted whaling barques and pearling ships.

Both King and Roe made many images in their records of the Mermaid – was this one of theirs? Perhaps another unnamed crew member got involved. Perhaps Boongaree was impressed by the extensive rock art legacy that he encountered. Being from Sydney with a similarly rich rock art heritage – which includes the depiction of post-contact sailing ships – perhaps he depicted what was by then utterly familiar to him – a tiny sailing ship on a voyage across the unknown seas.

Whoever’s hand, if this is the Mermaid, as we argue, this new finding is of nautical and historical significance to Australia and Britain as well as being significant to the Aboriginal people of the west Pilbara.

Significant timing

The timing of King’s visit is significant. He was there for eight days in February and March, a time when monsoonal rainfall rejuvenates the rock pools on the outer islands and when turtles were hatching: a seasonal pulse in Yaburara island life.

During that week the crew of the Mermaid described their contact with family groups that were camped on several of the inner islands, as well as the widespread evidence for outer island use. Their encounters with people included the observations of their unique water craft, camps and a range of subsistence activities. One Yaburara man was kidnapped from his mangrove raft, and taken on board the Mermaid where Boongaree tried to reassure him by removing his own shirt to reveal his body marking and black skin. The visitors offered the Yaburara man glass beads, which he rejected.

King’s voyages of discovery left behind other marks along the West Australian coastline. At Careening Bay in the Kimberley in 1820, King had the name of the Mermaid carved into a boab tree, where it can still be found today. At Shark Bay, King had a post erected with “KING” spelt out in iron nails – today this is in the WA Museum.

Mermaid Tree, Careening Bay
Courtesy: Kevin Kenneally

Collections from the Archipelago included plants and stone artefacts still held in the British Natural History Museum. King’s daily journal helped him create his official account, published as two volumes in 1826 titled Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.

There was no marked national commemoration in 2017 of the 200-year anniversary of the start of King’s voyages. However, as Murujuga’s nomination to the World Heritage Tentative Listing proceeds, this new evidence adds further significance to the Mermaid’s brief encounters with the Yaburara.

It provides new insight to King’s Expedition around this continent’s seascape as well as adding to the deep-time record of Murujuga’s Aboriginal history – and place-making inscribed on this landscape.The Conversation

Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University

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


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