Saturday, May 20, 2006

Black Pioneers

In the early years of the twentieth century, a legend was established about rural Australia: the pioneer legend. It differed markedly from the bush legend. The bush legend emphasised itinerant workers and the nomadic masculine spirit of Waltzing Matilda; whereas the pioneer legend was one of land owners and settler families. It emphasises hard work, perseverance and individualism ahead of the she’ll-be-right laid-back mateship of the bush legend.

This image of Australia was constructed by the poet Frank Hudson in his poem “Pioneers” (which was on the Victorian school syllabus for 50 years.) One verse goes
“We wrought with a will unceasing
We moulded, and fashioned, and planned
And we fought with the black, and we blazed the track,
That ye might inherit the land”

It is a celebration of courage, hard work and doughty enterprise. It is an heroic ode to the European settlement of the Australian bush. But as Whitlock and Carter said in their “Images of Australia: an introductory reader in Australian studies” (1992) the legend is instructive as much as what it leaves out as it includes. Pioneers' enemies were "drought, flood, fire, sometimes Aborigines; never low prices, middle-men, lack of capital, or other pioneers.”

The pioneer legend is much beloved of conservatives. It encourages reverence for the past, individuality and land ownership. The only problen was, the blacks were excluded from this compact.

Henry Reynolds wrote the “Black Pioneers” in 1990 (initially under the title “With the White People”) as an attempt to put them back in the picture. Reynolds explores the role of Aboriginals and Islanders in the development of colonial Australia. He debunks the notions that indigenous people didn’t contribute to the pioneer spirit and that modern Australia is based on a purely European foundation.

Blacks worked in roles across a wide spectrum of 19th century occupations: trackers, domestic servants, stockworkers, police troopers, horsebreakers, gardeners, miners, timberworkers, interpreters, labourers and pearl-divers. They worked with and for whites. It wasn’t a “hard, clean, bloodless conquest of the land.” The law was not applied equally across black and white when it came to a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. White women didn't have it either but “The gins”, the Aboriginal women, were at the bottom - treated as sexual objects to be enjoyed and tossed aside when finished with. Black children were chattel bought and sold without compunction. Aboriginal parents were loosely attached to their offspring and so would be better off raised in Christian civilisation. No care or attention was given as to whether parents and childran might miss each other.

"Black Pioneers" discusses the contribution made by Aboriginals to the exploits of the early explorers. Their knowledge of the land and of bush food was invaluable to Thomas Mitchell, Ludwig Leichhardt and John Oxley as they beat their paths through the difficult lands of the interior. In ‘The Future Eaters’, Tim Flannery showed how the Aboriginal practice of firestick farming kept the bush vegetation vibrant for thousands of years in a nutrient poor environment. Reynolds said firestick farming moulded the configuration of Australia and created the vast expanse of open, lightly wooded grasslands that pioneers were later to exploit. Explorers used Aboriginal tracks which George Grey compared to English pathways. Aboriginals showed white travellers the locations of waterholes and bush food and also acted as ambassadors when dealing with hostile tribes.

Pioneer squatters followed the explorers into the new lands. White people were initially few and far between and blacks played a large part in property life. Even in 1886 they comprised half the workforce in the Queensland pastoral industry. They had advantages over whites; they were cheap labour and always at hand. They rarely needed to be paid, they would sleep anywhere they could and they were plentiful. They quickly picked up the industry skills and were skilful horse and cattle handlers. The women were ‘maids of all work’ as well as nurses, cooks and child carers.

Aboriginal knowledge of their environment got them jobs as troopers, the Native Police. Their bushcraft was ideal for law enforcement in wild country. They were initially used to track runaway convicts but later mostly employed to brutally end Aboriginal resistance to white settlement. There was no love lost between tribes and the troopers were deliberately put together with non-kinsmen so that no favouritism could occur. With their white officers they were a law unto themselves and usually took to their tasks to extinguish opposition with brutal relish. They were in Reynolds’ words ‘an ideal vehicle for the execution of a policy that could never be openly admitted and that was always of doubtful legality.’

From the earliest days, whites had few compunctions in kidnapping young Aboriginals to make them become personal lackeys. They came cheap and received no salaries. Children could be passed on to others with little regards for their feelings on the matter. Settlers leaving to go back to Britain would leave their Aboriginals behind to fend for themselves. They were expected to work for long hours for no pay, and inadequate food and clothing. They were often beaten. Girls had an additional worry; molestation usually began at an early age. Many children died due to illnesses to which they had no immunity such as measles, influenza and whooping cough.

The new towns attracted Aboriginals in large numbers in search of food, work and excitement. They usually became fringe dwellers in camps outside town. The bigger towns had two or three such camps. They were usually out of town and several kilometres from the nearest houses well away from the town’s water supply. Whites became concerned at the wildness and nakedness of their neighbours and the stealing of goods that accompanied them. Many jurisdictions imposed curfews on blacks forcing them out of town between sunset and sunrise.

But the camps were tolerated as they were a pool of cheap labour that whites could draw on. It was the white working class that most looked down on the blacks as they saw them as competition, undercutting them in the race for employment. Aboriginals were never accepted into white society. Communities across the country resisted the entry of Aboriginal children into state primary schools. They were not permitted to learn trades or own land. The social Darwinism of the 1920s led to a state policy to ensure full-bloods would die off and half castes be assimilated into white society.

Reynolds said the fact the importance of black labour in the pioneer story was still resisted, was itself is a form of residual racism. It is a story of two great themes; confrontation and collaboration. He sees these as living issues that will continue to dominate the indigenous debate in Australia and he does not know which theme will prevail. “If they are to be reconciled, it will be by future generations, in circumstances at present unforseen,"  Reynolds concluded.

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