Robert Macklin, Hachette Aust, 2019
As a child, like so many, I was enthralled by the Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe. When I discovered that there was a book about my own family being ‘crusoes’ on a remote island, my fascination with the ideas of islands, remoteness and survival became more personal. But unlike the subjects of the first two books, my family were not castaways or shipwrecked. In 1878 they chose to be landed on the island, unaware that the stores for which they had paid the ship’s captain, were rotten, mouldy and inedible. They expected the captain would return in six months, as promised, with more stores and a way off the island if that’s what they wanted. He didn’t and they were forgotten. So in that sense they were castaways, stranded with six small children, with no means of escape and few resources other than their own knowledge and skills, much of which they had learned from Maori peoples from their years in New Zealand. On the island there were no indigenous people to give them sanctuary.
So a book entitled Castaway by the writer of Dark Paradise (2013), his book on Norfolk Island I had read some years ago, attracted me. Not only did I learn about the castaway but I also entered a world, both physical and imaginative, another far north (see my earlier blogs on the far north of Scotland), this time in the southern hemisphere. People in the know have been talking about Indigenous land management practices for many years–fish traps, agriculture, fire management– but since the horrific bushfires of 2019-20 and the publication of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2018), finally this seems to be taken more seriously. Since returning to Australia after so many years in UK and Europe, I find myself needing to find out more about the often contentious hidden history of this land, particularly as successive Federal governments are dragging their feet in terms of the constitutional recognition the Indigenous people are asking for.
Twenty years before my great-great grandparents stood on the beach watching a retreating ship, sailor Narcisse Pelletier, 14, was cast onto a beach by a vengeful crew after a shipwreck off the coast of New Guinea in 1858. As he was on watch at the bow when the three-masted barque Saint-Paul struck a rock, he was held to blame. Narcisse was from Saint-Gilles in the Vendée, on the River Vie on the west coast of France and had been at sea for two years, first as a cabin boy then as crew. The Saint-Paul, with a cargo of Bordeaux wine for the men of the British Empire, went first to Bombay then onto Hong Kong. After unloading the remainder of the wine, the ship left Hong Kong with a ‘cargo’ of 317 Chinese miners enroute to the gold fields of Nouvelle Hollande. Disaster struck as the ship took a short cut south through island chains off the eastern tip of New Guinea. In a thick fog no one saw the dark mass of rock to port until it was too late and they were hard aground on the tip of a coral reef, 3000 kilometres from shipping lanes or civilisation. They abandoned ship, salvaging what they could and three boats. The crew and the Chinese were ferried to what became known as Ilot du Refuge. A late night attack by a party of Melanesians and a search for water took them to the bigger Rossel Island where they were again attacked. Captain Pinard then decided to take the longboat and crew under cover of darkness and leave the Chinese to their fate. (When a rescue voyage arrived more than seventy days later, only one of the 317 Chinese had survived, some dying of starvation, the rest falling victim to the formidable chief of Rossel Island, Muwo, a psychopath with an insatiable appetite for human flesh).
After twelve days and 1200 kilometres, the crew in the longboat grounded on a white sand beach on the eastern side of northernmost part of Australia, Cape York. After four days of searching for water and food, the injured Narcisse, sleeping from exhaustion and thirst, was left behind by the vengeful crew. The longboat was gone. Expecting to die, he lapsed into unconsciousness only to be woken by a trickle of water on his parched lips. Three dark brown faces were bending over him, speaking softly.
He spent the next seventeen years living with the people who rescued him, the Night Island People or the Uutaalnganu. Narcisse became Amglo, learned their ways, their language, their songs, dances and stories. He was initiated into the tribe as a warrior and hunter and made his own weapons and tools. In the fascinating story Macklin weaves based on interviews with Narcisse after his return and other contemporary accounts, Amglo was given one wife, a warrior’s widow, then a second younger wife. He fathered several children and provided for his family. With the men, he hunted dugong, crocodile, turtle, cassowary. He learnt to build shelters and double outrigger canoes, fought bravely against neighbouring Sandbeach tribes over grievances and submitted to their law and to punishments for wrongdoing, trial by ordeal. Until, seventeen years later, the crew of a pearling vessel came ashore in search of water and spotted him, a white man, among ‘savages’. He was kidnapped at gunpoint, and the ship sailed off, leaving a family and a people to mourn him and Amglo was forced to become Narcisse again.
He was brought back to France and to his astonished family in Saint-Gilles, where he became a short-lived sensation. His return isolated him, emphasising how little understanding European peoples had for ‘savages’ and ‘heathens’. Unable to fit in and to return to his former life, he was made to undergo exorcism by the local priest. Finally it was all too hard—both for him and for his family. He took a position as a lighthouse keeper in Saint Nazaire and married a local seamstress, Louise Désirée Marbileau, 22. There were no children. We can only imagine how Narcisse coped with the contrast between his communal life with the Night Island people and the isolated life of a lighthouse keeper. He suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown and died at 50.
Robert Macklin intersperses the story, of Narcisse-Amglo’s life with the history of the Frontier Wars, particularly in the region that officially became Queensland in 1859. For much of the twentieth century, and for many non-indigenous Australians, this was a silence in our history. The writer Robyn Davidson, whose 2700 kms trek from Alice Springs to the West Australian coast in the mid-1970s with four camels was immortalised in her book Tracks (1980), recalls her first meeting with an Indigenous Australian. ‘Like most Australians, I had never spoken to, walked past, seen an Aborigine. I had read about their culture in books; they were as remote from me as the ancient Greeks.’ (Robyn Davidson, ‘Alice Springs’ 1989 in Travelling Light, 2017 p93). Growing up in Sydney and country NSW, I also never knowingly met any Indigenous Australians. My great-aunt gave me books by a Mrs Aeneas Gunn about shy Aboriginal servant girls and stockmen on outback stations but this was as outside of my experience as Baroness Orczy’s stories of the French Revolution which also came from my great-aunt. In fact my first conscious encounter was as a teacher in inner-city Sydney where I taught a number of girls from Indigenous families. Even then I remember my discomfort in teaching Australian history to Indigenous students, focussed as the curriculum was in telling the British story of the ‘discovery and settlement’ of the Great South Land. The Indigenous Australians were included as a sort of Stone Age, nomadic prelude to Australian history. At that time, no school history textbook mentioned massacres, nor the Native Police in their true form, nor any sustained resistance. It seemed after 1788, aside from a few named individuals like Baneelon or Bennelong, and engravings of ill-dressed groups of Aboriginal people sitting in the dusty roads of early Sydney, often drinking, the Indigenous people quietly faded away and mostly disappeared except for an occasional disturbance on the streets of Redfern. Then in 1988, the year of the bicentennial of the arrival of the First Fleet, Indigenous Australians defiantly made their presence felt in Sydney. They had of course always been there but many of us did not have eyes to see or ears to listen. And so began the battles for truth-telling, recognition, land rights, reconciliation and treaty. The Lost Generation, the forcible removal of children from their families, the impact of the missionaries, the deaths in custody, the riots and tragedies all brought this shameful history into the public realm. Unseemly disputes over numbers here in 1788, of how many were killed, of how many massacres, of what constituted genocide, of how long indigenous people had been here, raged among academia as the History Wars, then Prime Minister John Howard and conservatives dismissing attempts to rebalance the conversation as ‘black armband history’. Henry Reynolds was quoted as responding, ‘better a black armband than a white blindfold’ (Bratlinger). Shamefully more than thirty years later, the battles are still being fought. Macklin’s stories of the Frontier Wars, based on Henry Reynold’s groundbreaking research (one 2000 work is entitled ‘Why Weren’t We Told?’) and others, of the killing fields of the Queensland frontier, are vitally important to our national conversation.
Simon Winchester in an interview for his new book Land, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, talks about the Mohican people who had originally occupied the land he owns in Wassaic, Massachusetts. In their world it was not possible to own land–hunt, gather, use, improve, yes–but not possess. This collision between British and Europeans’ proprietary attitude to land ownership and the notion of being of the land but not possessing it, shaped what happened in Australia as well. Sixty-six years after James Cook took possession in the name of King George III of the east coast of this newly-charted territory in 1770 and forty-eight years after the eleven ships of the First Fleet anchored at Sydney Cove in January 1788, the British Government officially declared Australia as ‘terra nullius’, conveniently asserting that the land belonged to no one prior to the British Crown taking possession. This ‘story’ ‘nullified at least 60,000 years of attachment to the only country the indigenous people knew’. Think about that. The oldest sustained civilisation on Earth, confirmed by newer DNA studies (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/dna-tests-suggest-aboriginal-australians-have-oldest-society-planet-180960569/ accessed 2 Feb 2021) 20,000 years before Homo Sapiens crossed from the continent to what we now call Britain. In one declaration by a foreign power, Indigenous Australians lost all rights to country, trespassers on the land to which they and their ancestors belonged. Using ‘othering’ language all too familiar to us today, dehumanising the Indigenous people as ‘vermin’, ‘heathens’ and ‘savages’, from 1840s in what became Queensland, would-be landowners, settlers and officials waged a frontier war, driven by an insatiable need to possess the land. A triumvirate of Native Mounted Police recruited from southern Aboriginal nations captained by British officials, missionaries and colonial governments ‘destroyed the cultural foundations of the Aboriginal people’. Men with educations from Charterhouse, Eton, Westminster School, Britain’s best universities and the British Army or Navy—Thomas Brisbane, William Denison, George Bowen, Robert Herbert, John Jardine, Frederick Wheeler—used familial connections and colonial service, some as vice-regal governors and premiers, as pathways to wealth and position in Britain and Australia. Like the families who made enormous wealth and gained their political positions through the British Slave Trade, these men and others generated wealth, power and influence from their advantageous positions and connections in the colonial service. They either ignored, tacitly condoned or actively colluded in what was done.
The British had perfected the art of divide and conquer, ‘exploiting inherent differences between individuals, language groups and nations’ in Ireland, the Indian sub-continent, North America, the African continent and China. The notorious Native Mounted Police were a manifestation of this, based on ‘the sepoy and sowar armies of British colonial India, the Cape Regiment in South Africa and the Malay Corps in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’. The men were recruited from tribes and language groups far away, and used against other Indigenous peoples. Those who didn’t abscond ‘were utterly corrupted by their part in the murderous catalogue.’ For more research on this see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-24/native-mounted-police-indigenous-history-aboriginal-troopers/11296384
British journalist Cal Flyn in her 2016 book Thicker than Water, History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir found her Scottish Highland bible-reading ancestor’s murderous assaults against the Gunai people of the Gippsland plains in Victoria followed the same pattern. Descend before dawn with shotguns, pistols and swords on sleeping peoples, mass killings, arsenic in handouts of flour and sugar and fruit puddings laced with strychnine, poisoned water sources, reprisal after reprisal with little or no action taken by authorities. The official term used was ‘dispersal’ of all those who impeded or came between the newcomers and their land and the fiction perpetrated that this was ‘Crown Land’ being settled, and no territory was being conquered.
After Narcisse was forcibly taken from the Night Island People by the white crew of a pearling lugger in 1878, the front line of the Frontier War continued moving north. In 1924 the combined forces of the ‘white invaders’ reached the Sandbeach people— three ‘kingdoms’ of the Umpila, Kuuku Y’au and the Uutaalnganu (Night Island) people. Backed by the Queensland government, an Anglican mission was established at Lockhart River, in the centre of the Night Islanders’ territory. These clans who had lived in harmony with the sea and the land for tens of thousands of years, competing with each other, were undermined and their culture destroyed. The missionaries followed a well-worn path of combining enticement with Western food, ‘only one jealous God’ Christian evangelism, and the notion of ‘shame’ against nakedness. Enticing remaining tribespeople to move into the mission by ‘commandeering the children’, banning of their languages and separating children from their parents deliberately undermined spiritual, tribal and familial culture. The three distinct fighting tribes were forced together and combined as one. The mission was finally closed in 1967 with historical connections ‘irrevocably disrupted’.
At the end of the program Richard Fidler on ABC Radio National’s Conversations asked Macklin whether researching and writing this story had changed him.
Bratlinger, Patrick “Black Armband” versus “White Blindfold” History in Australia: A Review Essay. Paper given at Transnational Seminar, October 15th, 2004, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, downloaded from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/4813658.pdf on 4 Feb 2021
Davidson, Robyn, Travelling Light, ETT Imprint, Exile Bay 2017
Flyn, Cal, Thicker than Water, History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir, William Collins, London, 2016
Macklin, Robert, Castaway, Hachette Australia, 2019
Reynolds, Henry, Why Weren’t We Told?, Penguin Australia 2000
Reynolds, Henry, The Other Side of the Frontier, NewSouth, Uni, NSW 2006
Reynolds, Henry, The Whispering in Our Hearts Revisited, NewSouth Uni. NSW 2018
Winchester, Simon Land How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, William Collins, London 2021
ABC RN Conversations with Robert Macklin podcast, 26 June 2019
ABC RN Late Night Live interview with Simon Winchester, 5 February 2021