Dreaming and Nightmares in Central Australia

I was gratified to be approached by the producer-director of First Australians, Rachel Perkins, who wanted to use material from my self-published account of some of the events in Central Australia in the 1880s, God, Guns and Government on the Central Australian Frontier, but there was also reason for caution. First Australians was a project of SBS Television and it was likely that its starting point would be SBS’s house version of that compound of victimocracy, anti-Westernism and weird genetic theory that makes up ethnic identity politics. But its approach was also to be historical, and since Ms Perkins and her colleagues (from now on, “the producers”) wanted to make use of my work, how could its virtue fail to rub off?

The Central Australian episode was based on three men, Moses Tjalkabota and, surprisingly, because they are not Aboriginal, the policeman William Willshire and the telegraph station master Frank Gillen, who had extensive dealings with Aboriginal people in the 1880s and 1890s.

I may flatter myself but I think I led the producers to Moses Tjalkabota. We have one marvellous resource on him, a memoir he dictated in middle age when he was blind, in his native Western Aranda language. This fluent and detailed memoir has only recently been translated by the retired Lutheran Pastor, Paul Albrecht. It is a historically accurate account of the early days of the Hermannsburg mission, from the perspective of a man who was a young child when the missionaries arrived, was baptised at the age of twelve and spent his life as a preacher and leader based at Hermannsburg.

In Tjalkabota’s account we see one highly intelligent person’s transition from the magical cosmology of pre-contact Western Aranda life to the more naturalistic worldview of the missionaries. (The missionaries themselves, as Biblical literalist anti-evolutionists, might have rejected my label for their cosmology, but it is fair when one compares them with the Western Aranda of the time.) It seems to me that it was Moses’s intellect, more than the missionaries’ material inducements, that led him to accept as a child a worldview that he found more competent to deal with the new social and material realities than the teachings of his parents. When he chose the baptismal name Moses he, or his missionary advisers, foresaw the leadership role that lay ahead of him.

While the producers have accepted the fruits of Moses’s conversion, their version of the man demeans his faith. Instead the issues of cultural and religious change are prejudged by editorial assertions. The first comes in the title of this episode: “No Other Law”. The point is amplified in the narration, which tells us that the Altjira (the pre-contact cosmology of the Western Aranda) “leads them in their life and is their law”, apparently referring to all Aranda people today. Such a conclusion is neither historically accurate nor adequate as description of the current state of Aranda culture. It seems to be a product of an alliance between the politics of the middle-class urban Left and some of the big men of modern Aranda traditionalism. One such man, Max Stuart, provides the comment that the missionaries “conned” the people, while claiming that Moses Tjalkabota was a both a traditional leader in the full sense and a Lutheran leader, denying the real struggle between the two worldviews.

Professor Marcia Langton considers the missionaries’ purposes constituted a “mad vision”. We are left to come to the obvious conclusion about how sane present-day Aranda Lutherans may be. And how sane would the first missionaries have been had they really afflicted the Western Aranda with “endless sermons in German”? In fact their policy was to learn the local language, and they translated into it and taught in it for several years before English was taught. That is why we have Moses Tjalkabota’s memoir.

Moses was initiated as a Western Aranda man shortly after his baptism, when the missionaries’ attention was fully occupied by the Swan–Taplin inquiry of 1890. To have refused would likely have proved fatal, and in the traditional way of thinking the important thing was to submit to the authority of the senior men. It seems that all young Western Aranda men were initiated during the entire period of the mission’s existence. Initiation was, however, but the first step in a lengthy process of ceremony and instruction through which a young man became in time qualified to occupy the senior positions of cultural and political power. But according to Moses and also T.G.H. Strehlow, who interviewed the surviving senior men forty years later, young men of the period were not interested in, and not trusted with, the higher secret-sacred knowledge of their elders, a loss of faith that reflected a loss of the senior men’s authority. The initiation experienced by Moses may be considered an attempt to maintain basic Western Aranda social structure in a world transformed. It is also true that in Aboriginal societies, as in others, cosmological faiths can lose their authority with an alarming swiftness, while the cultures of family, clan and community continue their dogged hold on our lives. It is true that traditional Aboriginal culture in Central Australia did not die, but it has been transformed, in several ways, with the traditionalism represented by Max Stuart just one of them.

It seems to me that Moses Tjalkabota’s Christianity was as informed and authentic as any other person’s religious faith and more firmly held than most. It is also beyond reasonable doubt that the Aranda Lutheranism of which Moses Tjalkabota was a leading co-creator was, and continues to be, a distinctly Aranda production, perhaps the most important cultural product of the Aranda peoples since first contact. These issues could have been explored by the producers, at least from a current perspective, since there are now Aranda Lutheran pastors who continue Moses Tjalkabota’s work of leadership. Their voices are not heard. This is a pity, since even an atheist can find it plausible that a doctrine based on a loving God might benefit a society where justice is based on revenge and a child could be killed without compunction for unintended disrespect. To deal with such issues would have required the producers to go beyond the romantic stereotype of traditional Aboriginal life and thought. Clearly they have found that a political step too far.

To demean Aboriginal Christianity is to demean one kind of choice Aborigines made after contact in favour of other choices. One is reminded of the common practice on the cultural Left of treating Albert Namatjira’s great talent as inauthentic while praising the abstract dot-painting style that has followed in its pioneering tracks. The episode provides similar treatment to the choices made by some Aboriginal women of the time. As one of the characters in my story put it (in my paraphrase): “I like white men. They don’t knock you about and they give you plenty of food.” That’s faint praise by our current standards, but perhaps she was better qualified to judge her options than we are. Certainly the missionaries’ detestation of the pastoral stations on the upper Finke owed much to their observation that mission training was providing girls with a useful preparation to be stockmen’s mistresses, and that women on the stations were better fed and clothed than women on the mission. Instead the episode tells us, through the always-useful Professor Langton, that it was “terrifying” to be an Aboriginal woman on the frontier, calling up the assumption that there was widespread abduction and rape by white men. If that were true—and the missionaries’ criticisms provide no support for it—it would have been a continuing theme rather than a novelty in the lives of Aboriginal women.

A relative of Moses Tjalkabota, Mavis Malbunka, whose dignified and clear-headed contribution is one of the highlights of the episode, acknowledges with regret the choices made by some Aboriginal women a century ago, but describes their role as “learning and helping”. In a more balanced account of the time the producers might have acknowledged that the missionaries made possible for Aranda Lutherans, eventually, a kind of marriage between Aboriginal men and women that was more sustainable in a transformed world, and more politically correct.

As for the men, First Australians gives their choices even less dignity. If they worked on the stations they were “slave labour”, ignoring the evidence that men moved freely in and out of employment by whites, that pastoral work was congenial to the demands of traditional culture for regular long absences and ceremonies, that the goods supplied in exchange for labour were very attractive to Aboriginal men, that stations would employ known cattle-killers and were sources of food for dependants in times when, even without competition from cattle, other sources of food would not have been available.

The employment of Aboriginal men as native police seems even less acceptable to the producers. I have met educated, worldly people who cannot understand why an Aboriginal man would have joined the frontier police. The producers simply assert that some were compelled, while others volunteered. I know of no evidence that any native constable in the Centre at this time was compelled to serve. William Willshire pressured the missionaries’ first convert, Andreas, to join him but was unsuccessful. It is likely that Willshire’s motive in this case was a desire to one-up the missionaries. A policeman would have been a great fool to have gone bush accompanied only by armed and resentful men who knew all about ambush and murder. The missionaries’ second convert, Thomas, joined Willshire’s troop about two years after his baptism, and within months was part of Willshire’s “murdering expedition” east of Hermannsburg, the country of Thomas’s enemies, some of whose relatives Thomas had previously killed. The implication is clear, as is the significance of young constables with several wives. The producers appear to prefer the interpretation of motives we find in Rolf de Heer’s film The Tracker, where David Gulpilil’s character responds to the violence of his policeman boss (who quotes some of Willshire’s words while torturing Aborigines) with a mixture of shoulder-shrugging detachment and bitter irony. A truly pathetic travesty of traditional Aboriginal manhood.

My support for the veracity of the killings for which William Willshire was tried for murder in 1891 was probably the other reason for my presence in this episode. We know beyond reasonable doubt that Willshire had his Aboriginal troopers shoot two men in cold blood at Tempe Downs station in February 1891. He instructed the troopers to wound one of the men, Ereminta, so that he, Willshire, could cut Ereminta’s throat. Unlike many stories of frontier violence these two Willshire murders are well documented. What emerges from the shallowest scratching into the documentation, however, is that Willshire’s act had nothing to do with policing. The key to the Willshire killings was a woman. Willshire was engaged in a personal vendetta with Ereminta which had more in common with the endless cycles of revenge killing that made up much of the life of an Aboriginal man in Central Australia at the time.

William Willshire, like Joseph Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, had become ambiguously nativised, experiencing the same “strange commingling of desire and hate” under the combined pressures of his own unhinged ambitions and the release of legal and social constraints entailed by isolation. How that came about, and how South Australia reacted to it, throw light not only on the character of the individuals of the time, but on their faiths, their institutions and their government. That is what makes the story much more interesting than a morality tale in which the players’ parts are pre-determined by their writers’ and audiences’ prejudices. And that, surely, is why we bother to do history rather than fiction, or that form of disguised and reflexive fiction that is mythology.

It would be a giant leap from the evidence to conclude that Willshire’s Tempe Downs killings represented normal policing in Central Australia, even government policy. Writers of the radical Left make that leap as a matter of course. Bruce Elder, whose account of frontier violence, Blood on the Wattle, has proved durably popular, speaks, ludicrously, of “literally thousands” of Willshire victims. The poet Barry Hill explained the Willshire period as one formed by an “unofficial policy of genocide”, if you can make political sense of that. In fact, the lessons of the Willshire story are complicated. He was given to big-noting himself and he published, so his claims and insinuations are readily available. The more murderous Mounted Constable Erwein Wurmbrand, who killed in pursuit of his own brand of justice, has been largely ignored in First Australians and his crimes, by implication, lumped onto Willshire (a manoeuvre also achieved by Willshire’s police superiors 120 years ago).

To start with the obvious, there was no policy of genocide. Murder, in any number, was a capital offence. The policy towards the indigenous people was conciliation, and practice on the ground may be summarised, crudely, as accommodation consistent with the progress of British settlement. Aborigines were, from 1836 on, nominally full British citizens of South Australia, with the right to vote after 1857. Central Australia’s Aboriginal people had special rights to occupy and take their living from pastoral leaseholds, and were under the disciplines and protection of British law. There was a large gap between principle and practice but it is important to be clear where the law and government stood at the time. There was no licence for white to kill black. There was always the prospect of a criminal trial for anyone who did. Unfortunately, there was little concern with black killing black.

Unlike Adelaide, or earlier in Port Jackson, the meetings between strangers, black and white, in Central Australia were located at a long distance from the seat of their government. Central Australia’s connections with the larger polity and economy were stretched as thin as the telegraph line running from Adelaide to Darwin, without which white settlement may well have been delayed another generation. It was remote in a sense we cannot find in Australia today; three months’ slog and a small fortune remote. You could be on your own as few people know it today. You had what you brought with you, the cultural as well as the material baggage. Anything else that you wanted you had to make or do without. The point applies to the basics of government.

Allowing for the obvious partiality of government, favouring the white electors and taxpayers over the non-voting Aborigines, it had a real problem. At some points the relations between white and black—ignoring for a moment the provocations involved—would pass from peaceful to warlike. After all, the Aborigines knew nothing of British law. They had their own incompatible version, providing a repertoire of responses ranging from accommodation to slaughter, and the governments of the day had few resources on the ground to instruct or enforce. What had British law to say about that? The short answer was, in effect, “call for the police, and wait”. For weeks or months, if you were in Central Australia. When fear and anger, often enhanced by ignorance, are driving men, more decisive action is demanded. The state is responsible for law and for war, but usually each operates in a separate domain—law at home, and war abroad. On frontiers there is a need to deal with both circumstances in relation to the same populations, but there was in South Australia no clear legal doctrine on which to call.

In 1840 the South Australian Governor sent out a retribution party that hanged several Aboriginal men in response to the slaughter of the men, women and children who had survived the shipwreck of the Maria. This version of justice was retributive, demonstrative and collective. Helpfully, the Colonial Office advised the Governor that the act was technically murder. Justice Cooper, in 1840, attempted to circumscribe such acts of retribution by limiting them to Aborigines “who had never themselves been subjected to our dominion, and between whom and the colonists there has been no social intercourse”, a formula that could only work in the short term. By the time Central Australia was occupied, courts were enabled by law to receive Aboriginal evidence with less formality than was required of evidence from others, but police presence on the Central Australian frontier was so thin that the dynamics of retribution were likely to be determined by the civilians involved.

It was all unsatisfactory, but as late as the attack on Barrow Creek telegraph station in 1874 we can find evidence of government attempting to proceed by legal means (arrest warrants for named offenders), in the midst of a general fear of a black rebellion, before discovering they had no effective means to prevent more arbitrary collective punishment. To judge how the inevitable balancing acts between law and war worked out on the frontier we really need to examine the evidence closely with that difference in mind. It seems easier to assume white brutality as a sufficient explanation.

First Australians continues that tradition in its Central Australian episode. Professor Langton comments that Aborigines “could be shot to protect the cattle and the water supplies” and that Willshire’s “murderous campaign was regarded as lawful”, assuming both an extensive program of killing over Willshire’s decade in the Centre and a general endorsement by government. Neither can be supported on the evidence. Willshire was nominally in charge of the retributions for the attacks on Anna’s Reservoir station in 1883, during which a number of Aboriginal people were killed. Between the high-conflict period of 1882–85 and his 1891 murders there is a highly suggestive lack of evidence for Willshire killings, and some clear evidence that his work was ineffectual in discouraging cattle-killing. More importantly, there is no evidence that government ever authorised the use of killing as punishment for cattle-killing, as distinct from attacks taking or threatening the lives of white people.

The private use of violence in expelling Aboriginal people or discouraging harm to cattle, which we can label “dispersal”, was not usually, on the limited evidence available, lethal in the Centre. It was also practised illegally by police, or with their connivance. There were also instances in which the minister with financial responsibility for policing in the Centre encouraged pastoralists to shoulder responsibility for making their own peace, and even clearer evidence of a reluctance on the part of some pastoralists to do so, from a combination, one can conclude, of moral scruple, fear of legal consequence, and optimism about the discouraging effect of uniforms on Aboriginal warriors. The way senior police turned a blind eye to the evidence of illegal conduct by their subordinates is another and more interesting matter, better illustrated by the calculated murders of Erwein Wurmbrand in 1884 than by Willshire’s more eccentric behaviour.

Willshire’s trial for murder is a case study of government at work in 1891. I have devoted two chapters to it, but can do no more here than give my conclusions. The trial happened because, once exposed, arbitrary murder of black people was not acceptable legally or politically. It was a corrupt trial, with both the judge and the prosecutor failing to do their jobs. There is no evidence of a conspiracy between judge, prosecutor and government, but the outcome could hardly have been different had there been one and the jury was favourable to Willshire, but that did not determine the result. Professor Langton, again, concludes that the trial could not have been fair, presumably on racial grounds, but historically speaking the question must be regarded as open. Had the trial been held in Adelaide rather than Port Augusta, and conducted according to the legal standards of the time, it might well have been fair, and yet resulted in acquittal.

Willshire’s greatest ally and justice’s enemy was not racial prejudice, but, I conclude, the need to defend the institutions of government from embarrassing exposure of their failures, and to protect the government of the day from being held accountable for them. There are instances of Aboriginal men receiving fair, even favourable, treatment from the courts at the time. However, any judge then, as now, might have regarded the evidence as too tainted for use in his court. People mourning that fact in retrospect might take a more restrictive view of the admissibility of evidence offered against people arrested in the course of jihadist activity today. At the time, official South Australia reacted as if Willshire had been found guilty, tightening its grip on Central Australian policing.

Once we allow for the fact that South Australia’s government of the Centre was bound to be government on the cheap under difficult circumstances, it is government recognisable to us today in its moral assumptions and institutional behaviour. To put that another way, the problem in Central Australia was not vicious government, it was not enough government.

If the pre-contact life of the Centre’s Aboriginal peoples was indeed as arcadian as this episode of First Australians presents it, and if the Aboriginal people were really deprived by the white presence of all opportunity for choice in their lives, then the quantity and quality of the government available to them is irrelevant and we are faced with an unalloyed tragedy. That makes good television, but it’s not history.

Should one fuss about the way the producers of this episode of First Australians have transposed faces and places to other people, places and times? I care that Nabarong is not Nungoolga, and that some of the native troopers shown were not Central Australian, that the trials of the mission and of Willshire have been compounded, among other things, but perhaps that is just a private grief. The problem with small inaccuracies lies in fencing them off from larger ones embodied in the editorial line of this episode.

About two years ago the commentator Alan Ramsay wrote a column in the Sydney Morning Herald holding our former foreign minister Alexander Downer to account for the fact that his grandfather, John Downer, was William Willshire’s barrister, a role that in Ramsay’s mind made John Downer in some sense an accessory to Willshire’s offences, and thereby incriminated his grandson. Distorted versions of the past can be used to justify crude bigotry today. Worse, they support bad policy.

It seems to me we should get better history from our publicly-funded broadcaster than I find in this episode of First Australians. Perhaps the other episodes are better. According to the head of SBS, speaking at the launch in Sydney, First Australians is intended to become the authorised version of our contact history in our schools. That seems to me likely to happen.

God, Guns and Government on the Central Australian Frontier by Peter Vallee was published in 2007.


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