SURVIVORS IN COMMON
first published in TableAUS, July-August 2016
I was scared when three Aboriginal kids asked me to come with them to the bush just outside the Tambellup school yard. It wasn’t the bush near the Tambellup (W.A.) school in 1957 that was scary. The sandy soil did not produce many tall trees. Instead there were thickets of parrot bush among degraded mallee. The spiny-leafed parrot bush was quite good at attracting small birds like endemic honeyeaters and exotic flycatchers. The sand teemed with ants and beetles and the greatest fright might arise from coming suddenly upon a bobtail or a snake.
The Aboriginal kids made their approach to me with a mixture of aggression and conspiracy. I was eight years old. I didn’t like doing what the teacher had told us not to but I was intrigued by the Aboriginal kids. They lived in tents on the town reserve or in humpies on our farm and they had darker skin than mine. They had a great sense of fun but they also smelled of danger. From my parents I sensed strong ambivalence as to whether or not I should have them as playmates.
On this cool sunny day, I just wanted to know why they had approached me. As Playtime always seemed to go on for ever we slipped over the fence with no concern about time, and the four of us trekked about 50 yards into the bush out of sight of school buildings.
Though as a farm kid I was accustomed to the outdoors, I sensed that the Aboriginal kids were more at home here than I was. They stood around me in a little circle and began to tell me a strange story. It was about their grandparents, they said. I thought of my adored Nan and Grandad snug in their little cottage in town. Their grandparents, they assured me, had run away from some nasty people. They had hidden behind trees, and still some of them fell down. Some of them swum across the river. They were very brave. They lost the fight but we remember them. I wondered if it was a bit like Anzac Day, but I didn’t have time to ask, because the piece of railway line which served as the school bell was being struck and it rang out calling us back to class. We scrambled to be back in line before the teacher noticed we had left school grounds.
This story stayed deep in my memory. I dreamed of tall white gums and my Nan and Grandad running with the local Noongars and swimming in our local river and holding their breath where there were branches under the water. I woke up holding my breath with the images strong in my mind’s eye.
The story was revived about three years later. Again I was beguiled into leaving the school grounds. This time I understood a little more because the Headmaster often asked me to help the Aboriginal kids with their sums and stories. I could remember times table and grammar and they forgot from one day to the next. I always took them out of class to help them with their school work, and I noticed how they relaxed once they were no longer imprisoned by the cream walls and the ceiling of the classroom. Outside was their place.
So when they asked me to come with them to a place out of school, I was intrigued and went more willingly with them into the bush than I had the first time. I noticed again that they were more comfortable among the parrot bush and lizards and insects than I was. This was their country. They told me the same story. The guns of the nasty people shooting at their grandparents. The bravery of their old people running away, hiding where they could. Some of the women and children in the river hiding in the reeds under the water breathing through reeds and watching the water turn red with blood. The courage of the warriors throwing their spears and killing sticks. The screaming of the white men’s terrified horses, and panic erupting when one of the wedulahs was killed. It seemed that the old people had won this battle if only because the story was passed on.
There were strong images in my dreams after this. A brown river running red with blood, the red flow surrounding me. The screams. Then the silence underwater, and the breathing through reeds, and the difficulties of breathing as fear and nature conspired to reduce the efficiency of the straw snorkels. The cracks of fire from modified muskets and pistols. The acrid smells of cordite, gunpowder and burning. The horses rearing and screaming, their riders clinging to their halters and necks.
Thus planted in my dreams I lived this story frequently in my teenage years.
I heard it told again when I was teaching at Brookton Junior High School 120 kilometres north of my home-town. On a friend’s farm, three or four of my Aboriginal students, Year 6 boys, took me aside – outside – and told me the same story with the same pride. The narrative was a little clearer to my adult ears, and so was the urgency for me to understand and share the story.
This was an Aboriginal story, a Noongar story, that I had been given three times with pride and energy. I was told that I had permission to pass it on to others, encouraged, in fact, to share it.
Years later I read the academics’ account of the Pinjarra massacre. In 1834 – I had thought the events must have taken place in 1934 because of the immediacy of the story I heard outside the school yard in 1957 and 1959 – Governor James Stirling led a detachment of 25 heavily armed soldiers, policemen and settlers against 80 Noongars, Pinjarup people. There was ill-feeling between the settlers and the Pinjarup people, who had stolen some of their cattle and damaged their crops. The settlers were constantly moving the indigenous people on, and out of the most fertile areas.
Governor Stirling, in an effort of good-will had started to issue a ration of flour to the indigenous people. Stirling had then returned to England. Calyute and other Aborigines believed that this food supply was their right. They went straight to the source and took half a ton (about 450 kg) of flour from the South Perth flour mill and carried it all the way to Mandurah 42 miles (68 km) away. Calyute, Gummol, Yeydong and others were captured and brought back to Fremantle for punishment in a cart loaned by Thomas Peel. Calyute, Gummol and Yeydong were flogged.
Blaming Peel for this humiliation, Calyute decided to attack Peel, and stole a horse to draw Peel away from his Mandurah house. But Peel sent two men, Hugh Nesbitt and Edward Barron, instead. These men were attacked. Nesbitt was killed and Barron wounded and escaped to report the incident.
On Governor Stirling’s return from England, he decided to help Peel and his efforts to open up settlement around modern-day Pinjarra 12 miles (20 km) further on by offering military protection and if possible finding Nesbitt’s killer.
Stirling set out with his force of 25 men, each armed with a modified Brown Bess musket or a pistol or maybe a new Baker rifle and with a good supply of ammunition. Early on the morning of October 28 in 1834 they made contact with a group of Aborigines, but were unable to establish whether these were Calyute and his associates. No-one is sure who started the fighting. Some say the Aboriginal warriors let loose a volley of spears. Others say Captain Ellis fired. In any case, the Governor’s men, with their superior weapons killed 30 or more – or fewer – of the Pinjarup people.
One of the witnesses of the carnage was the colonial chaplain, the Reverend John Wittenoom, who watched from horseback a little apart from the mêlée. He apparently approved the killing.
I recognised this story as the story I had been told so often that I had lived and breathed it. I had turned and stood my ground with the Noongar warriors. I had run till my heart could not beat so fast, then held my breath under the water of the Murray River with the women and children, and I had held my head high as a survivor of the massacre.
I am a wadjelah. Just another whitefella. It was my great-grandparents who were protecting their cattle and possessions from Noongars. I should have no part in this story except shame. But this story had been bequeathed to me by the Noongars as a gift.
This event is correctly described as a massacre. Archbishop Peter Carnley addressing a packed St George’s Cathedral in Perth about this event called it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. He kept calling it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Every time he used the word ‘Battle’ there was a hiss in the congregation. I was perplexed. Who would dare hiss the Archbishop on this sensitive subject? ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. ‘Hiss’. ‘Battle of Pinjarra.’ ‘Hiss’. The hissing took me back to my dreams, and the frightening images of blood spreading through water, spears and bullets targeting the soft vulnerability of human flesh, the gasping for the breath of life hidden among the reeds.
Then I realised that it wasn’t a hiss. People were saying a word. They were all saying ‘Massacre’.
Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre’. Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre.’ They were not dissing His Grace; they were correcting the Archbishop’s designation of the slaughter of the Pinjarup Aborigines.
I looked more closely. It happened that the people who were saying ‘massacre’ were all people I knew quite well. They were all West Australian born and bred. They had all grown up in the bush. This could not be coincidence, so I made a point of asking as many as I could find afterwards firstly, if they had been saying the word ‘massacre’, and secondly, if they had heard the story as children. ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘Aboriginal kids made a point of taking us into the bush and telling us.’
Rob from Narrogin in Balardong country; Peter from the Perth Hills in Whadjup; John down in Bibulmen country at Bridgetown; as well as Bill from Pinjarra, and me from Koreng country – from all over Noongar Boodjar, wadjelas, we whitefellas had been seeded with this story.
As I’ve reflected on this extraordinary story-sharing, I’ve come to realise what a generous act of reconciliation this has been. Noongar people had invited us into the story, into its horror and into its pride, so that we become not only the descendants of murderers, but fellow-survivors as well. The Massacre of Pinjarra is also a story of the old people of all of us and our common history in this land.