Tag Archives: Aboriginal Australians

Rural research unearths plenty of reckonings

“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians.”

LONDON-BASED author Patsy Trench is the first to admit the workings of Australia’s farming history were not a natural subject for her to spend years researching. But her latest book A Country To Be Reckoned With tells the story of how a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ got to grips with our rural past through the experience of her influential ancestor, George Matcham Pitt.

“As a ‘townie’ living in London, the world of Australian 19th century agriculture was about as far outside my familiar sphere as it’s possible to get,” Trench said.

“I got to know my great-great-grandfather G.M. Pitt while I was writing my first book (The Worst Country in the World) about his grandmother, our pioneer migrant Mary Pitt.

“He was obviously a great character – larger than life, with a passion for rhetoric and a fondness for quoting from Shakespeare and Burns, which I understood was rare among farmers.”

Despite much hesitation, Trench said she started from the knowledge that the stock and station agency her ancestor founded — Pitt, Son & Badgery — was well-known in country circles, even though the company was taken over decades ago.

“In the end I decided to turn my ignorance to advantage: like the ‘New Chums’ who arrived in New South Wales in the 19th century expecting to make their fortune on the land knowing not the first thing about farming.

“I came at the topic as an outsider and I make no bones about it.”

Trench made several trips to rural New South Wales with Australian family members during her research, which she describes as “mystery tours” that led to several revelations about her subject and family.

“I knew ‘GM’ had taken up land in the Gwydir district in the 1840s, but there was also evidence he visited the district ten years earlier, along with his de-facto stepfather William Scott,” she said.

“On our first visit to Moree we could find no trace of him in the 1830s, but further research revealed that Scott and he had acquired a licence for a property on the Gwydir River, which was taken from them after several years in complex circumstances.”

Patsy also discovered a possible connection with an Aboriginal Pitt family.

“There was a Tom Pitt born in 1838, the year my great-great-grandfather arrived at the Gwydir in search of land,” she said.

“There are no signs of Aboriginal Pitts before that time, but there are now hundreds living in the area and I’ve been in touch with them and hope to meet up with them one day. It’s believed they got their name from GM, one way or another.”

Bush character re-examined

A Country To Be Reckoned With is Trench’s second major work on her family’s Australian origins, and brings to life a relatively unknown ‘Bush’ archetype: the auctioneer.

“I could quote a poem I reproduce in the book, which appeared in a Pitt, Son & Badgery anniversary leaflet,” she said.

PIONEER PITT George Matcham Pitt (1814-1896).

“They describe the auctioneer as ‘the fellow with his coat off in the pen’: a man of charisma and personality with a remarkable gift of the gab. A master at handling men and getting things going, often asked to MC events such as weddings; with a retentive memory, sharp wit and ‘captivating smile’, manipulative, optimistic and perennially cheerful.

“All that said, having witnessed an actual cattle auction last year in Wagga Wagga, the auctioneer’s job is to get the thing done as quickly and efficiently as possible, so not a lot of time for captivating smiles or clever jokes.”

Trench, a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ who migrated to Australia in the 1960s to further her acting career, eventually returned to the United Kingdom. She believes researching and writing about her adoptive country’s past has evolved her view of it.

“When I lived here in my hedonistic youth I thought Australia was paradise and the people the most friendly and welcoming people in the world,” she said.

“Now I know a bit about Australia’s colonial past I see things, and the people, a bit differently. It’s still a stunningly beautiful country with great people in it, but there’s this undercurrent of a dark past that has only really emerged in the past thirty years or so.”

Since her family was responsible for taking land that belonged to Indigenous people, Trench ruminates on whether she is complicit in this confronting history.

“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians and the attitude to their colonial history seems to change every time I come here.”

In the same way that Trench’s first book The Worst Country in the World led to the journey that became A Country To Be Reckoned With, her new book seems to be demanding more storytelling of this writer.

“It’s the Aboriginal connection I would like to get to the bottom of,” she said. “Who was Tom Pitt, born in what was to become the Moree district in 1838? He seems to have hundreds of descendants but nobody seems to know who his parents were, or how he acquired his name. I am hoping to hook up with some Aboriginal Pitts who I’ve been in contact with online. There are some great stories to be told.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A Myall in my shoes

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

SWING
LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted eye-popping racist responses from Sydney Morning Herald readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

SMOKE
WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

Surviving the heat of the Olympic flame

By Michael Burge Photo: BBC

FOCUS on Russia’s gay and lesbian rights track record reached a peak in the lead-up to last week’s Sochi 2014 winter Olympics opening ceremony, but equality advocates in Australia really have nothing to crow about.

The same inquiring analysis cast its eye over Australia’s human rights standards at the Sydney summer Olympics in 2000, and I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered.

International press attention quite rightly found the majority of Australians wanting when it came to knowledge of Aboriginal culture and politics, and with Aboriginal athletes and performers taking centre stage at the world’s largest sports carnival, there really was no excuse for us to have so little idea about even the basics.

Fourteen years ago, I doubt most Australians could name the traditional Aboriginal nation in which they resided. I thought I did, until I realised I was living right at the junction of at least six of them.

I learned this not from my formal education, but from maps exhibited at Australia’s interpretive show for the world about the history of this land, once considered a ‘new’ world by European explorers, but in reality an island continent inhabited by the oldest established culture on earth.

These days, the names of Aboriginal nations are commonplace. The issue doesn’t stop there, of course, but once the disenfranchised have a name, they can never remain a blind spot, even for an entire nation.

In time, I believe an observable change in Aboriginal equality will stem from the year of the Sydney Olympics, because after the world witnessed the human face of our country, Australians had no more excuses for ignorance.

During the penultimate moments of the Olympic flame lighting, a technical glitch caused the rising movement of the cauldron structure to malfunction. It was supposed to rise around Kuku Yalanji and Birri Gubba woman of Far North Queensland, and international athlete, Cathy Freeman.

The four-minute pause allowed the world to take a longer-than-planned look at a living, breathing, self-defining Aboriginal Australian woman. Australians were in the box seat for the viewing – we probably needed to witness it more than anyone – and with the technical fault’s tinge of embarrassment, the reality of Cathy Freeman can never be extricated from the moment.

Australians should consider ourselves lucky we got off very lightly compared to other Olympic human rights controversies, and we should not point the finger so quickly at Russia. If we do, we’ve forgotten the sting of the Olympic human rights flame as it shone the light on us.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.
Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords