The Durack Sisters’ Kimberley Dreaming

When Germaine Greer asked about the possibility of “assuming” Aboriginality, her indigenous friends in a remote community told her that she could be adopted. This was attended to without delay. She was “assigned a skin and taught how to cook shellfish and witchetty grubs, with no worse punishment for getting it wrong than being laughed at”. In her own words, she then “went back to my white world and got on with earning a living, seldom thinking of the Aboriginal people who had been so generous with their time”.

I first learnt of this moment of transfiguration in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London, an auditorium encircled by a famous eighteenth-century mural by James Barry called The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, a work once described as Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. Here, in this auspicious setting, a standing-room-only audience had gathered for the launching of Germaine Greer’s latest book, Whitefella Jump Up. It soon emerged that the author’s personal experience, her moment of transfiguration, underpinned her central idea: Australians should imagine a destiny that was officially a hunter-gatherer nation, committed to a hunter-gatherer system of values.

The book reveals that when Germaine was growing up in Australia her “condition of unknowing” about Aboriginal affairs was identical to that of an older and wiser male friend, a fellow author who said that he had “no conscious memory of ever seeing a black Australian, let alone actually meeting one. I was vaguely aware that they existed somewhere out there in the bush.”

Confessions of this kind have been made by a number of intellectuals brought up in the Australian suburbs, mostly Melbourne-based, who are now regarded as leading commentators in this field. Nonetheless, like them, the outspoken author in the Great Room was not to be deterred by any feeling of humility referable to her initial ignorance or by the innate sense of caution that often accompanies decision-making in a complex and contentious area. Far from it. The outspoken author in the Great Room went on to affirm with a breezy confidence that the notion of Aboriginal sovereignty only makes sense if it is understood to be sovereignty over the whole of Australia. “Imagine if all the hunter-gatherer peoples of the earth understood that Australia would plead their case in the international forum.”

I see from the notes I made while standing at the rear of the auditorium that when the proponent of this eccentric vision was asked by a member of the audience whether there was any actual example of a modern country becoming a nation of hunter-gatherers, she brushed aside the issue and denounced the questioner as a cynic.

The author acknowledged, early on in Whitefella Jump Up, that some of those with an interest in this troubled field of contemporary Australian life might say “that I have lost my marbles”. Others, whom the media recognise as her friends, would obligingly respond “that ‘Germs’ was always crazy”. The possibility of any adverse criticism having been laughed off in this way, she noted that Aboriginality will come into existence as a consequence of sharing traditions and pointed to a huge increase in the number of Australians claiming Aboriginal origin. “The explanation is to be found not in a population explosion among Aboriginal communities but in a change in the perception of Aboriginal identity.”

Inevitably, the author in the Great Room went on to demonise not only early Australian settlers but also, by implication, anyone, well-meaning or not, from missionaries to administrators, who had acted as so-called “controllers” of Aboriginal affairs prior to 1971—the year when a visit to Australia led to Germs taking a look at the outback. The time has come, she concluded, to sit on the ground as hunter-gatherers do, and think.

The audience quickly perceived that the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London wasn’t the best place to act on this advice. Instead, the author’s pronouncements were greeted with loud, upstanding, rapturous applause: the surge of adulation now specially reserved for drawcards on the Australian literary scene, from Robert Manne to David Hicks.

On this occasion, the usual “two-hat trick”, whereby the speaker stands before the adoring throng not only as a fearless opponent of injustice but also as the frail victim of beastly abuse, was pulled off by attaching an addendum to the book—letters expressing some comparatively mild doubts about the author’s proposal were characterised as an “assault”.

When the applause in the Great Room finally subsided, Germs took a bow, signed copies of her tract, and swept off the stage with her retinue of publicists and minders, leaving the silent figures in the Barry mural to dwell upon the drama to which they had just been exposed, and doing what they could, no doubt, to avoid picking up anything harmful that might still be floating about in the atmosphere below.

Another Australian expatriate, Philip Knightley, writing for the Independent the following day, had no hesitation in picking up and applauding the rhetoric of Whitefella Jump Up. He described the book as “a powerful polemic, skilfully organised and powerfully written”. In the course of praising the author for having offered her idea “modestly and with some diffidence”, Knightley observed in a tone of indignation that the “assault” upon his heroine was led by a daughter of the late Mary Durack, author of Kings in Grass Castles: a popular history of the Durack family’s pioneering enterprise in the Kimberley region.

Philip Knightley’s remarks were less strident than those of Germaine Greer herself—she had derided the critique in question as part of the “Durack hagiography industry”—but he didn’t improve his case by citing a curious illustration of Greer’s modesty: “she says she did not expect her readers to bear her in triumph through the streets of Sydney and Melbourne”. 

The scene I have just described can be regarded as one of many similar examples of what now passes for debate about Aboriginal affairs in Australian literary circles, a field where indignation reigns, hyperbole is dangerously contagious and sanctimonious fingers of suspicion are pointed in all directions. It is against this background that I come to Brenda Niall’s recently published biography True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack. Books have to be considered in their context and in this case, unfortunately, the nature of the era is such that certain names bring with them a host of preconceptions that bear upon the biographer’s task and the process of assessment.

Anton Chekhov once said that a writer’s task was not to provide solutions, only to describe a situation so truthfully, to do such justice to all sides of the question, that the reader could no longer evade it. Such an approach, a judicious study of the past, may assist a society to arrive at a better understanding of what it is and to see more clearly the problems it faces. There is something of this in Brenda Niall’s treatment of the Durack story. Quietly and thoughtfully, eschewing polemics, she recreates the experiences of the two sisters at the heart of the narrative and shows the way in which changing attitudes were reflected in their lives.

The tale begins with a family growing up in rural poverty in County Clare and a move to the colony of New South Wales in 1853. It wasn’t long before Patsy Durack embarked upon a series of ventures to improve his prospects, culminating in a two-year overland trek to the Ord River region in the 1880s. In later years, Patsy’s eldest son, Michael Patrick Durack, known as MPD, became the formidable manager of the Durack properties Ivanhoe and Argyle with leases on Newry and Auvergne in the Northern Territory.

MPD always contended that the Kimberley stations were essentially a commercial proposition and were not intended as a dynastic inheritance. This set the scene for a fateful irony—the next generation’s love of the region was taking shape as the commercial viability of the various stations declined. In the end, with a touch of King Lear about him, MPD dispossessed himself and his children. It was for this reason, we are told, that the subject of the book became “a story about place, dispossession, and imaginative possession”.

For many decades the sons and daughters of the patriarch lived in the shadow of a heroic legend. In Brenda Niall’s words:

So much striving on the part of the earlier generations: what had it all been for? Triumph or tragedy? Discovery or invasion? How to count the cost to the indigenous Kimberley people whose lives were changed by these and other ventures? By bringing up his children on an enthralling legendary past MPD made it almost inevitable that his sons and daughters would look north for fulfilment, but of what kind?

These questions reveal immediately that complexities are to be explored which lie well beyond the range of hagiography or agitprop theatrics in the great rooms of political correctness. Brenda Niall’s treatment of her subject demonstrates that in order to see the past clearly we have to understand the way in which the people of the relevant era saw what they were doing, and learn to what extent it lay within their power to effect improvements. 

In 1909, the year in which the middle-aged MPD married the much younger Bess Johnstone from Adelaide, the Durack cattle empire was a commercial success. He and his bride took a horse and buggy from Wyndham, stopping overnight at Ivanhoe Station, and crossing the Ord River to arrive at Argyle. This was an entirely new experience for a city girl but for the next few years Bess enjoyed the northern life, although she would often be left for long periods with only the Aborigines on the property for company.

The Duracks’ first son, Reg, was born in 1911, soon followed by Mary, Elizabeth, Kim, David and William. A lack of amenities in the north led to the purchase of a home in Adelaide Terrace, Perth, where the children were brought up. During the 1920s, in the wet seasons when work stopped on the cattle stations, MPD came home to his wife and growing family, bringing with him a range of exotic gifts and animals from the north, so that, according to Mary in later life, “we all lived with the north as a kind of legend and a kind of dream”.

Unfortunately, looked at in the light of changing financial circumstances, it was a dream that had to end. While the children were growing up the family was considered well off but that was an illusion. They were brought up thriftily and the promise of better times to come was ever-receding. Beef export prices slumped because of competition from Argentina. The family company, Connor, Doherty and Durack, burdened by the slump, the onset of the depression and the need to provide dividends to distant family members, went heavily into deficit with the result that bank interest absorbed nearly all of the company’s annual income. By the time these financial realities were being played out, the older sons, Reg and Kim, had become accustomed to working in the north.

Mary Durack left school without qualifying for university entrance so that she could act as her father’s driver in moving around the station properties. This led to a semi-professional life in journalism as she drew on her Kimberley experiences for articles published in the Western Mail and the West Australian. Her younger sister, known as Bet, was restless also. So it was that in April 1933 the two young women left on the coastal ship Koolinda for the family property Argyle Downs, an experience that would permeate their entire lives.

Mary and Bet entered into the life of Argyle Downs with gusto, taking part in the daily work, listening to the stockmen’s stories, watching corroborees, looking after visitors such as the members of the Moseley Royal Commission who were inquiring into the conditions of Aboriginal workers on pastoral properties. The two sisters eventually moved on to Ivanhoe Station on the Ord River where a cook was needed. Here, they began working on the first of their various books about life in the north, works for young readers such as All-About and The Way of the Whirlwind—Mary’s words, Bet’s illustrations. They depended entirely on one another and on the Aboriginal women and children around them.

When Mary went back to working as a journalist in Perth, the more impetuous Bet, affected by an ill-fated romance, attempted to find a role for herself as a nurse in Darwin. Dissatisfied, unwilling to return to the dictates of her mother’s household, she travelled to Sydney where she met her future husband Frank Clancy—a charismatic writer whose life had been touched by a tragedy that now occupies a special niche in Australian literature. He was on board the Sydney ferry from which one of his journalist friends, Joe Lynch, fell to his death—the accident inspiring Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem about time and mortality, “Five Bells”.

Mary was being courted by a knockabout airline-owner and pilot, Horrie Miller. Some years older than Mary, and soon to be divorced, he had no obvious charm but Mary, contrary to her parents’ wishes, accepted his proposal. A ceremony in a Catholic church was ruled out so they were married in a Melbourne registry office, before returning to Perth to live. Paradoxically, the bohemian Bet finished up having the full grandeur of the Catholic Cathedral in Sydney, St Mary’s, with the Governor-General and his wife, Lord and Lady Gowrie, playing the parental role as hosts. They had befriended Bet while visiting Ivanhoe some years earlier.

Strains were soon placed upon both marriages by motherhood, wartime privations and the wayward personalities of the husbands. Throughout this period the sisters corresponded frequently. Like Bet in Sydney and Reg and Kim in the north, Mary was often alone, as her husband’s way of life as a pilot didn’t change. She kept in touch with the women and children she had known at Ivanhoe by making many trips to the north, and she continued her practice of writing at night. In an ABC broadcast during the war years called “Solving Our Problems”, firmly and confidently she tackled the issue of Aboriginal rights, almost certainly enraging many friends and relatives.

For Elizabeth, reality became an upstairs flat at McMahon’s Point and two small children. As her marriage became more tenuous she eventually found refuge at Ivanhoe where she arranged for a makeshift studio to be built on the banks of the Ord River, to which she could come and go, often painting in the company of an elderly Aboriginal artist, Jubal. Her first solo exhibition was subjected to a scathing review by the Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic. This affected her confidence, but she pressed on. Some years later she was one of only three women represented among fifty artists in a ground-breaking exhibition of Australian artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. 

MPD died at the age of eighty-five soon after disposing of the station properties in 1950. In the years that followed, from the homes they had managed to establish in Nedlands by the Swan River, Mary and Bet pursued their careers while journeying to the north and juggling family commitments. Mary’s first major work, Keep Him My Country, appeared in 1955. According to Brenda Niall, the station manager at the centre of the novel was “perilously like” the author’s brother Reg in situation and temperament—portrayed as a pioneer’s grandson burdened by family tradition—but fortunately there were no recriminations.

Having taken possession of MPD’s papers and diaries Mary was by now deeply immersed in what was to become the non-fiction family saga that would make her name: Kings in Grass Castles. This was followed later by Sons in the Saddle, which took the Durack story through to the 1920s. She became a leading figure in the Fellowship of Writers but still found time to complete several plays and an extensively researched work, The Rock and the Sand—an account of eighty years of missionary effort in the north.

True North deals with various domestic tragedies including Kim’s early death after many disappointments, and the unexpected deaths of two of Mary’s daughters. These events and the various ups and downs in the relationships between the siblings are covered sympathetically and underscore the extent to which the younger generation managed to free themselves from their formidable father’s influence. Until her death in 1994 (a few years after a near-fatal traffic accident) Mary’s energies on behalf of the Aborigines were dedicated to whatever causes came her way provided they enhanced pride in indigenous culture and understanding between the races.

A dramatic moment came for the sisters some years before Mary’s death with the damming of the Ord River which, in the course of creating Lake Argyle, drowned Argyle homestead. This inspired one of Mary’s most powerful poems, “Lament for a Drowned Country”, written in the first-person voice of an Aboriginal elder Maggie Wallaby, and echoing the cadences of the voices Mary had known so well for many decades: 

I got to tell that fish—you go back—talk strong my country. Some time you gonna see that sun again. You gonna find all that moon and star. You gonna feel that warm wind blowing. You gonna look out that sky.

Mary was not to know it, but a talent for recreating personalities the sisters had known in their youth reappeared some years later when Bet, in a mood of experimentation, drawing upon her time with Jubal and other artists, painted a series of innovative works under the name of an imagined Aboriginal artist, Eddie Burrup.

Brenda Niall deals with the ensuing fracas at considerable length, including allusions to earlier controversies such as the Ern Malley hoax and the writings of the Serbian migrant who won acclaim by taking on a new identity as the indigenous writer B. Wongar. She concludes that Bet painted the controversial works from an inner necessity—artistic and personal.

The Burrup paintings may be understood as her attempt to see as an Aboriginal might see, a way of reconciliation, a coming together. It was naive to use the Eddie persona, but not a deliberate exploitation.

It seems that to the mild-mannered artist the existence of the controversy remained a matter of puzzlement until her death a few years later in May 2000. To Bet, innovation, the reworking of personal experiences, flights of the imagination—this is what artists do. Her creativity was inseparable from her love of the north.

Today tourists come from Kununurra to look at the recreated Argyle homestead by the lake. Outside but close to the house are the family graves. Reg, Mary and Elizabeth all chose to be buried there.

In the way they lived their lives and through their artistic aspirations the Durack sisters tried to understand the Kimberley region they loved. They played a part in the sharing of traditions. Unlike Germaine Greer and others of her ilk, they didn’t burden the public with sanctimonious denunciations or wild theories unrelated to a lived experience. They attended conscientiously to tasks suited to their talents and to improvements that lay within their reach.

It is apparent from their works that Mary and Elizabeth greatly respected the indigenous people of the north and sought to find a secure place for them in the modern world. Brenda Niall’s thoughtful and beautifully written biography confirms that the Durack sisters were widely admired by the friends they made.

Nicholas Hasluck’s latest novel, Dismissal, recreates the downfall of the Whitlam government.

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