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In a minor key

In his conclusion to Triumph of the Nomads, Geoffrey Blainey mused that some Aborigines may well have celebrated the arrival of ‘the matting sails’ of Macassar boats, the ‘summer birds of passage’ that had come to the Gulf country and elsewhere for hundreds of years, to trade peacefully. This he contrasted with the white sails of English ships on the East Coast in the late 18th century; Blainey described the latter as ‘harbingers of a gale’ that would eventually ‘silence the sounds of hundreds of languages’.

In a considered account of the early Anglo-Saxon presence in the Gulf country, Tony Roberts’s Frontier Justice reveals—in frequently disturbing detail—the confrontation between an ancient tribal society and a civilisation from another world that was dependent upon livestock, trade and expansion; both needed the same land. The clash in the Gulf country began a little over 130 years ago. As Roberts reveals, it was a meeting of the unknowable and unknowing; it was punctuated at rare moments by humanity and the beginnings of understanding, but mostly it was just a tense era of mistrust, fear and bloodshed on both sides. With such sentiments holding court, minor initial confrontations grew quickly to larger-scale conflicts, and by the early 20th century a bloody fight had been settled in favour of the men of livestock. The cost to indigenous cultures was high—many languages were indeed silenced.

The era was also a complex one. As Frontier Justice makes altogether clear, some of the whites involved had much blood on their hands. Yet these same men and the lives they led in ‘opening up’ the Gulf country to pastoral franchise are also at the heart of Australia’s frontier mythology. That Roberts can present all of these concurrent realities in one scholarly and thoughtful book is a significant achievement.

Frontier Justice begins with a description of the Gulf country and what would become—for the whites at least—its major artery: the Coast Track, a rough trail stretching a thousand kilometres from far north-west Queensland to Katherine in the Northern Territory. The early passages of the book provide an important summary of how life was lived up until the first confrontations, including the way that land was divided up between many distinct Aboriginal tribes in the Gulf country and the breakdown of tribal lands into ‘estates’ that had their own ‘owners’ (ngimarringki) and ‘managers’ (jungkayi). The former had ‘primary spiritual responsibility for the estate’, and were also liable for infringements on sacred sites and damage to the estate—even any damage that they were powerless to prevent. Managers organised ceremonies and decided ‘who may enter the estate’.

By the 1870s, both types of custodian would have their hands full. Frontier Justice describes very clearly the white pioneers’ ignorance of the Aboriginal connection with the land. As men walked along the Coast Track with their cattle, bound for an arbitrage opportunity in distant Palmerston (modern-day Darwin), they passed unknow-ingly over ‘sickness sites’ and many other types of sacred ground. Given the Aborigines’ duties to their lands and to each other as ‘managers’ and ‘owners’, and the lack of communication between black and white, it is not surprising that spearings of cattle and their wranglers and the retaliatory shooting and hanging of Aborigines began. Roberts’s well-paced narrative suggests that there were very few voices of reason amidst the conflict. One government resident, John Parsons, warning in 1884 of a worsening situation and proposing the establishment of reserves, wrote:

I fear unquiet times may be expected in connection with the native tribes. The blacks are beginning to realise that the white man, with his herds and his fences, and his preservation of water, is interfering with what they properly enough, from their point of view, regard as their natural rights. Their hunting grounds and game preserves are being disturbed and their food supply both diminished and rendered uncertain.

Such insight may have been worth something, if afforded more importance by the Gulf country’s ruler in absentia, the South Australian government. But Roberts portrays that government as slow to think and act on this distant matter, preferring to subcontract the ‘keeping of the peace’ to a newly established Top End Native Police. This force seemingly had no time for dialogue, but rather, a quotidian imperative to keep the cattle flowing and the stations safe from native attack. Founded thus in profound ignorance on both sides, a tussle unfolds between whites who work cattle through strange and harsh country, under threat of deadly attack from blacks who are ‘very savage, cruel and treacherous’, and Aborigines who perhaps do not really understand these white men, but are bound by their own conventions of stewardship (and probably a healthy dose of fear and indignation) to repel them. And if they did not understand the white man himself, they seemed to have understood his exotic animals even less: in one instance—one of many in a book replete with excellent oral history insights—Roberts records a group of Yanyuwa people being confronted by men on horseback for the first time. ‘What kind of dog is that?’ they asked each other. They decided to flee, on the basis that ‘those big dogs might bite us all!’ ‘Of strange lands and people’ indeed.

Amidst all of this confusion and violence, work went on to open the Gulf country to pastoralists. The photos in the book document the lonely and drab iron-frame homesteads of the period and the sparse buildings of nascent Borroloola, midway between the Roper River and the Queensland border—population in 1891: 29 men, five women, 11 children. The life Roberts documents was hard for these people, interspersed as it was with Aboriginal attacks, a harsh climate and, for a time, hundreds of impatient, often lawless itinerants in transit to the Kimberley gold rush of 1886.

And wherever there were cattle, there were duffers too; Roberts recounts one of the most famous legends—the theft of 1000 cattle from Bowen Downs near Longreach, allegedly by Henry Readford, an ‘outstanding bushman’, ‘known to police in New South Wales as an intelligent, imaginative and resourceful horse thief and cattle duffer’. Without naming Readford, one participant was later to document this astounding drive, which took the cattle down the back country of the Thompson and Cooper rivers for sale in South Australia. Readford was arrested and stood trial, but, as Roberts relates, was acquitted; ‘it was rumoured that the jury were impressed with his audacity [and] bushmanship’, among other things. Amidst a conflict that was silencing languages, there was room enough for some dashing bush myth to take hold, too.

While relating the thefts, adventures, hardships, violence and loss, Frontier Justice also documents the improbable beginnings of a more genteel life: the description of the Borroloola Municipal Library—housing over 3000 volumes of classics, science and literature and on loan to members from all parts of the Top End—is a charming and unexpected vignette. Those of us who sweat to travel across this country in four-wheel drives today might pause to consider forebears who might have ventured forth with a copy of Great Expectations in the saddlebag.

Frontier Justice does not shy away from painting these human complexities, and is the better for it. But for all of its catholicism, it is the wars between Aborigines and Europeans—and the tale of a losing battle that eventually becomes a thoroughgoing killing spree—that are the focus for the book.

Roberts devotes separate chapters to each of the different regions of the Gulf country and, through a large selection of police reports and other documented and oral histories, relates the stories of how justice was dispensed on each of these frontiers. He suggests that a good portion of the Aboriginal violence may have been in retaliation for the theft of women—‘lubras’—by white men. Time and again the book recounts the work of whites organised into groups—‘vigilance parties’—for the purposes of ‘dispersing’ Aborigines. There are chilling accounts of dawn raids on sleeping Aboriginal camps. The oral histories relate grim tales of men and women shot where they lay, or as they ran away; babies were dispatched sickeningly.

There is much hard reading to be done in Frontier Justice and the passages relating these raids are among the hardest. Roberts’s discussion of the relative insignificance of cattle spearings compared with the much more prevalent problem of cattle duffing gives the lie to suggestions that the response to Aboriginal violence and misconduct was in any way measured. In 1883, one of the vigilantes was to admit as much, in a written request for greater police presence on his property, arguing that:

the harm [the Aborigines] do is to kill a few head of cattle, which they have a right to do, as all their country has been taken away from them, whereas hundreds of cattle are taken away by whites and not a word about them.

At many points in this fine, scholarly and harrowing book, the darker events of Australia’s past intersect with happier, more familiar myths. Some of the cattle duffers and bushmen were perhaps worthy of an Errol Flynn movie. One of the men well known for violence towards blacks was, it transpires, a fine bushman and veteran of the Boer War. Was he a bronzed soldier-hero or just a vicious bastard?

Whether he was one or the other, or a mixture of both, our judgments will not bring the silenced languages back. What is important is that Frontier Justice introduces a minor key into the ballad of our bush history—a little discord to the jingoism of the lotus-eaters.

Evidently, the author has travelled extensively through the Gulf country over many years and he himself recorded many of the oral histories contained in Frontier Justice. His book is clearly a labour of love; it is also quite lucidly written and structured. His commitment to thorough footnoting is perhaps some guarantee against the worst of revisionist mischief-making. At times, the tenor of Roberts’s narrative can be less than objective, as he confronts the worst of the white abuses; there is, at times, a pinch in the narrative voice that perhaps does not need to be there. But given the subject matter, this is understandable. Frontier Justice tells us that the bloody clash of two alien peoples began in ignorance; it also shows us that understanding and the rule of law took far too long to impose themselves on the scene.

Frontier Justice documents the Gulf country history to 1900. A companion work will continue the story to 1950.     

Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900, Tony Roberts. University of Queensland Press, 2005. isbn 0 702 23361 7, rrp $32.95

Luke Fraser lives and works in Canberra.


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