Why is this Picture in the Australian War Memorial?

The picture atop this post is a painting of an Australian Army Centurion tank on operations in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, in July/August 1971. This was at the Battle of Suoi Ca, in which I was involved.  It was not a major battle, but it has some significance in that it was one of the final operations in which Australian tanks were involved in active combat.  Not only in South Vietnam, but to this day.

The painter is Kerry Slavin. As a national serviceman he was a crewman in that very tank at that very action.  After his discharge from the Army, Kerry studied painting and is now a professional artist.

Kerry gave this painting to my friend Gary McKay, who was also an infantry platoon commander during that action.  Gary was severely wounded in the very last battle fought by Australian troops in South Vietnam – the Battle of Nui Le, in which we suffered 5 KIA and 30 WIA.  Gary was also awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in this action – the last awarded to an Australian officer.

Gary offered the painting on permanent loan to the Australian War Memorial, which declined the offer, presumably because they already had two of Kerry Slavin’s paintings in their collection.

I think Gary’s, which now hangs in hall of the Kiama/Jamberoo RSL Sub Branch, is a superior painting which shows the tank as infantrymen saw it in action.  It has a more ‘fog of war’ feeling about it. Nonetheless, compare any of Slavin’s paintings with the one below.

It is described on the AWM website thus:

‘Death of Major at Nine Mile’ was exhibited in Freddie Timms’ solo exhibition at Watter’s Gallery in 1999 which explored the history of the Aboriginal rebel and bush ranger Major, who was shot dead by the Western Australian police in 1908, after killing whites at Blackfella Creek. According to Giga legend, Major was an Aboriginal man, likely Wardaman from Country near Katherine, who at a very young age was bought to Texas Downs, near Warmun, by a man named Jack Kelly. Suffering terrible treatment and abuse as a child, and later after several brutal incidents, he took to the hills north of Turkey Creek, where he held up travelers as a bush ranger. There in the hills he was hunted down by police and killed at a place called Nine Mile, to the east of Warmun.

Before Major was captured and killed, he himself had murdered three white men at Blackfella Creek, which at that time featured a small station settlement that is now part of Lissadell. Major is said to have killed these men in retribution for the terrible murders and the atrocities that had been made against a large number of Gija people at a place called Mistake Creek. Those who survived that massacre, including Timms’ grandmother and her sister, were taken to Blackfella Creek by the white men. After murdering the white men, Major rescued Timms’ grandmother and her sister and took them back to join his party of Gija in the hills.

Major is a hero for the Gija. Timms, for example, grew up learning of Major’s life from his Grandmother who had witnessed his death. Major holds a strong place in Gija history, much like Ned Kelly in European Australian history, but remains an ambiguous hero, as his knowledge of the bush repeatedly led white men to Gija camps, leading to terrible massacres. Timms’ depiction of Major was influenced by his visit to an exhibition of Sydney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, evident in the squarish shape he gave to Major’s head.

As to the technical merit of this painting, I will leave that to others to judge, not being at all a lover of ‘outsider’ simplistic art. However, I have a real problem with its inclusion in the AWM collection, as it bears no relationship whatsoever to the functions of Memorial which are:

♦ to maintain and develop the national memorial referred to in subsection 6(1) of the Australian War Memorial Act 1962 as a national memorial of Australians who have died:

(i)  on or as a result of active service; or

(ii)  as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service;

 (b)  to develop and maintain, as an integral part of the national memorial referred to in paragraph (a), a national collection of historical material;

(c)  to exhibit, or to make available for exhibition by others, historical material from the memorial collection or historical material that is otherwise in the possession of the Memorial;

(d)  to conduct, arrange for and assist in research into matters pertaining to Australian military history; and

(e)  to disseminate information relating to:

(i)  Australian military history

(ii)  the national memorial referred to in paragraph (a)

(iii)  the memorial collection; and

(iv)  the Memorial and its functions.

♦The Memorial shall use every endeavour to make the most advantageous use of the memorial collection in the national interest.

Just to be clear, according to the Act, Australian military history means the history of:

♦ wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and

♦ the Defence Force.

It is clear from the description of the painting that it relates to the capture and death of a bushranger.  It has nothing to do with war or warlike operations. It was a law-and-order matter.   Despite his name and the fact that he is described as a ‘rebel’ as well as a bushranger, there is no evidence he conducted any warlike operations against the colonial power.  There is even a suggestion, in the above text, that he, at times, aided the colonial power.

As to him killing the three white men at Blackfella Creek ‘in retribution’ for the massacre of a large number of Gija people at Mistake Creek, that is somewhat problematic as Major was killed in 1908, some seven years before the Mistake Creek massacre, which is recorded in the University of Newcastle Massacre Map:

In 1915 Constable John Franklin Flinders reported to Inspector Drewry (who in turn reported it to the Colonial Secretary) that telegraph linesman (and former East Kimberley Policeman) Mick Rhatigan and his two Aboriginal workers, Nipper and Wyne, ‘shot and burned five or six Aborigines’. The ‘charred remains’ of two bodies were found at Mistake Creek and the bodies of five others named ‘Hopples, Nellie, Mona, Gypsy and Nittie’ were found some distance away. (The Advertiser, April 2, 1915, p 8.) This was supposedly in reprisal for allegedly killing Rhatigan’s cow (Owen, 2016, p 438). The Sisters of St Joseph erected a small monument at the foot of the old boab tree at Mistake Creek to mark the place where the massacre occurred (Monument Australia).

So, if that’s his claim to be a rebel, it rests on more than somewhat shaky foundations.

I can’t find any other online reference to Major, so I haven’t been able to confirm the year of his death, but it’s quite possible that the AWM got it wrong, and he was killed not in 1908 but, say, 1918, although the AWM description seems to be quite firm on this point.   That would not alter the fact this appears to be a verbal anecdote passed down over a couple of generations.  As such, it might pass muster (indeed, no doubt, would) in Albanese’s proposed Truth Telling Commission, but it has no place in a repository of history established, primarily, to honour the Australian Defence Force and the sacrifices of those who served in it.

25 thoughts on “Why is this Picture in the Australian War Memorial?

  • davidbarton says:

    Great article Peter, and very good points. I understand that the AWM has a number of ‘Aboriginal’ paintings in its collection portraying the ‘valiant Aborigines’ who allegedly fought against the ‘invading colonists’ in the so-called but improperly named ‘frontier wars’ and the numerous yet often unsubstantiated ‘massacres’.
    I agree with you 100% that these ‘artworks’ are not a part of Australia’s military history, are in breach of the AWM’s functions as you have listed, and have no place in the AWM .
    Australians should not be conned by these childlike depictions with their re-invention of our history. Apart from the many thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been spent to purchase them, they do not belong in the hallowed halls of our War Memorial and should be removed.

  • March says:

    Good grief what an attrocious attempt to put paint on paper.
    Great points Peter, has no place in the AWM.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Basically the Woke activists who infest the public service and (presumably) the War Memorial hierarchy are agents of chaos. Their actions are based not on reason and logic but on emotion. Their objective is always to scandalise and disorient people with conservative values.
    So now they want to glorify an imaginary war of independence against the white oppressors who had occupied Aboriginal land. In reality there was no such war, but never mind. If the government is determined to provide a venue for this exercise in fantasy it should be nowhere near the current War Memorial. Perhaps Ayers Rock would be a good location – if Macquarie Island is regarded as too inconvenient.

  • Paul W says:

    I would like to draw your attention to the designation of his victims as ‘whites’. This is obviously a racial description but why are they not called Australians? I understand that before 1901 some people may dispute the use, but after 1901 there can be no doubt they were Australians.
    I believe they avoid this because it would remind Australians that themselves they are the people whose murder is being celebrated.

  • Sindri says:

    I wonder what the many people who have given the AWM, on loan, some very significant items think about these developments.

  • STD says:

    Good point’s and great piece Peter.
    Since Whitlam/Fraser the politician’s have and are purposely and deliberately dismantling and destroying Australia and all the values this fair land stood for, and this is another act of cancelling the Australian MINDset -game set and match- from the river to the ‘see’ it’s a multicultural (Bob Hawkes social fabric) mosaic. Sadly to use the word’s of Rod Dreher “the culture has been lost” – the bureaucrats and politicians (without asking) have dismantled every part of our world as we knew it. From the Single desk wheat board, the dairy industry, sexuality and gender and much much less boarder security ,they’ve given our country to the rest of the world ( to the left-the UN agenda).
    Rest assured Peter it won’t be long before the Koranic call to Arms will have pride of place in the YES capital of Australia- all that’s needed are the pillar’s of Islam adorning the FOUR CORNERS of the AWM and the call to Arms will be proportional and one might say,” be biblically complete”- according to secular values, no less!
    Maybe it’s time to undo John Howard’s gun laws and give non Islamic Australians a chance of defending themselves against the barbarian Trojan from within our once safe peaceful and idyllically peaceful culture- soon to be enclaves as the real Australia diminishes into cultural oblivion thanks to the efforts of the ALP, Greens and the Liberal paltry/party, which these day’s has well and truly distanced itself from the aspirations, values and beliefs and ideals of R G Menzies.
    We Australian’s would like a say on immigration and multiculturalism and in particular I for one would prefer that the evil roots of Islam can find somewhere in the peaceful confines of the Islamic world to practice it’s idea of submission -human flourishing .

    • RML says:

      Seriously, STD? Is it also Whitlam’s, Fraser’s, Hawke’s, the bureaucrats’, the politicians’ (what, all of them?), the ALP’s, the Greens’ and the Liberal Party’s fault that your argument depends on inserting apostrophes where they do not belong, omitting them where they do belong, capitalising words which are not proper nouns and failing to use comprehensible sentence structures.

      Your argument includes, as I read it, that the “once safe peaceful and idyllically peaceful culture” we once enjoyed should be restored by shooting people.

      RG Menzies would be appalled.

      • STD says:

        RML, you left out the key word in your misconstrued understanding – DEFENDING.
        As for immigration and multiculturalism, if the politician’s put it to a referendum; the Australian people will give them the answer they won’t want to hear. To put it in plain English/Australian, the Australian people are fed up with immigration not to mention the sheer numbers of unwelcome immigrants that we are being swamped with. Take your blinkers off and walk around Chatswood for example, it should be renamed Chatswong.
        As for Islamic immigration,nobody, and I mean nobody wants these people in our country-these people are playing Australia and the West in particular for the absolute fools we are:or at least the idiot politicians are buying the oleaginous Waleed schmooze. Islam is a real threat to the sovereignty of this country as it is to the existence of Israel and all human life that these people deem as Islamic infidelity (Islamaphobia).
        In plain language the politicians and the yes minister bureaucrats have sold our country out to the UN.
        Furthermore it was that idiot Malcolm Fraser who lied to the Australian people in regard to amount of Vietnamese people he let into this country, as he said” if I told the Australian people the truth they wouldn’t have allowed them in”.
        And yes you are correct RG Menzies would be very appalled at what you have suggested that I have inferred.
        Furthermore Fraser was warned specifically about immigration from the Middle East, in particular Lebanese immigration, but chose not to listen. I for one know of some so called Lebanese who purportedly were residing in Lebanon but in actual fact we’re living in the south of France and we’re trying to get sponsored access to Australia via a Lebanese conduit here in Australia. They wanted to come here and someone -presumably his Lebanese brother was getting paid know doubt to facilitate visas.
        Anyway it does not matter what I think, just give the Australian people a vote on immigration and multiculturalism and we will see whether the corrupt politicians , developers and the corporate sector and bankers are willing to accomodate/placate the democratic wishes of all/other Australians.
        RML your right, since October 7 common sense tells me we need more loyal Moslems living in Western civilisation so we can feel more comfortable about life and living.

      • STD says:

        By the by, in regards to the Palestinian War cry- “ From the river to the sea Palestine ‘will’ be FREE….. paraphrased, ‘we want all Jews out of Israel -which they will then call Palestine.. It means there will blood from the river to the sea and as such free of Jewish life.

  • lbloveday says:

    Thanks. Sent it to all my ex-ADF mates.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Peter and I agree with your assesment of the value of the Timms painting, which in my view is ridiculous and nonsensical while the Slavin is a real paining worth of display in a war museum.
    Concerning the veracity of the massacre, as with all the others, the only facts that can possibly have any credibility in my mind will be those backed up by the written reports at the time, and an objective examination of all the facts.
    No anecdotal, emotional story telling should be taken into final consideration and conclusion.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Spelling correction “painting worthy of display in a war memorial “.

  • Jason Gardner says:

    Ever since I joined the Regular Army in 1995, trips to the AWM have been a part of any visits to Canberra. After reading this, I won’t be going back. Thanks for the heads up, sir. This is something we need to bring to the attention of our local members, to see if a new Coalition government can make it a priority to clean out the Augean Stables of the AWM.

  • Sir Peter says:

    I hope the AWM keeps up the good work. I’m always happy to see to neomarxist public servants upsetting serving and former military personnel. I dream of the day when they decide enough’s enough and march on the museum to drag the mongrels out and administer some rough justice.

    Back in the real world I hope that on Day 1 of the new coalition govt after the next federal election the Minister responsible determines who made this ridiculous choice of paining and sack “he/she/it” immediately.

  • davidcoath says:

    I am a long time member of the AWM and subscribe to their Magazine “Wartime” and visit the AWM when ever I am in Canberra. I have noticed over recent years that this publication has tended to be losing its focus and has a disproportionate number of article about Gay service personal, indigenous service personal and more recently updates to AWM displays to reflect the latest statements from the Ben Roberts Smith Civil action. This was a tipping point for me and I was moved to write to the AWM to state that they were not fulfilling their purpose. I received a defensive and self justifying email (as expected) from the AWM. Bottom line is that they have lost their way and seem to have been polluted by the kind of group think that has already permeated our Universities and Corporations. This latest celebration of the death of a Bushranger is just another step by an organisation that has lost the vision of the people who they are supposed to be remembering and celebrating.

  • Searcher says:

    For the woke, any narrative will do.

  • cbattle1 says:

    Australia is undergoing a “Cultural Revolution”, in effect, and the work is being done by an equivalent of Mao’s Red Guard, which we might identify as the “Woke Guard”. This seems to be the inevitable consequence of a free-enterprise liberal democracy, as seen throughout the West. We might learn a lesson about national identity and patriotism from Vietnam; when I was in Saigon/Ho Chi Mihn City, a while back, I visited the “War Atrocity Museum” as I think it was then called, and there was no ambivalence about the story being told!

  • pmprociv says:

    I can’t help wondering what all those other poor buggers who fought and died for this country could have possibly thought about this idiocy. But if the AWM is truly expanding its horizons, to drag in the mythical “frontier wars”, why stop there? How about the “war on terrorism”, and “war on drugs”, “war on waste”, maybe wars against climate change, rising sea levels, or extinctions? To take in the really big picture, how about “war on stupidity”?

  • en passant says:

    How long before we excise the dreadfully racist Gallipoli Campaign as it was fought against Turkikish Moslems? Oh, and Beersheba has to go too.

  • Quilter says:

    It is also insulting to the many indigenous Australians who participated in our military in various wars and
    UN actions. And I am cynical enough to consider it quite likely that the AWM only got the date for the Mistake Creek massacre “wrong” because it is much more emotive to suggest he was murdered. Very few Australians will be aware of the date that Mistake Creek happened so the AWM is mostly safe in its wokeness.

  • STD says:

    Why is this Picture in the Australian War Memorial?
    I’ll tell you why. It’s because unlike other peoples wars, we now have our own modern day ‘civil war’ on our own doorstep.

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