Issue 4, January 2007 | Gillian Cowlishaw

No-one Could Creep up on Uncle Billy

This article is an excerpt from new work by Prof Gillian Cowlishaw which will be appearing in D. Gare and D.L. Ritter (eds), Land without Limits: Australian History and Society since 1788, Thomson Learning, 2007 (forthcoming).    

Let us begin with an early frontier as narrated by Aboriginal people, first the Rembarrnga of Bulman on the southern border of Arnhem Land, where I first conducted ethnographic field-work in 19751.  A white cattle-man called Billy Farrar arrived at Bulman about 60 years before I did. His place in local memory, or history, is a challenge to the warriors on both sides of the history wars. An elderly Rembarrnga man told me in Kriol:

I grew up gotta [with] my old grandpa old Billy Farrar. He was married to my sister-in-law Mrs Farrar, Judy.
Billy Farrar used to have pistol revolver. He’s Queensland man.
He was riding along. Well, he was tracking another lot of blackfella you see — they chased those cattle. Then bush blackfella way, [the others] come along behind and BANG with shovel spear. Bang at that man.
They got shot. Two or three men might be, or six or seven. That’s why we shifted out [from] there.

Here ‘old grandpa’ is also the murderous white invader. I first heard of Billy Farrar from his widow, old Judy Farrar who I camped with during my first field work in 1975-6. ‘Aunty Judy’ (or Mula, or Gaengana, or Biangduyu)2 talked of her long deceased husband as ‘that old man’ with pride in the toughness he had shown to ‘myalls’, or ‘bush blackfellas’, who killed cattle. It was said that ‘No-one could creep up on Uncle Billy’. While we might assume that if Billy Farrar shot ‘myalls’ he was an enemy of Aborigines, this is not the view of his Rembarrnga kin. He is not seen as typifying or representing an era or a people, but as protecting his cattle. In other words, Rembarrnga people seldom dealt in stereotypes and nor did they echo the moral values implicit in much contemporary history3.

In 1976 another Rembarrnga man explained:

The first thing people see was that black tobacco, what it tasted like. He found something that is very, you know, good. ‘Who from that special thing nikki nikki come?’ Not only that but sugar, first time people taste different thing from any bush tucker. Different from sugar bag [wild honey]. Different from yam. A lot of the people keep telling one another  ‘Where you get this from?’ They used to say ‘Well we got this from a place called Mainoru.[cattle station].
So one or many people, tribe —  get a taste of that thing tucker, or damper, all travel then. Even though they was told there was white bloke, different from us …

A more succinct account of how people were seduced into joining the cattle station enterprise was give by an old man: ‘Soon as people been tasting smoke, we say “We’ll have to walk this way [Mainoru] now.” So everyone came to this place then.’

A lot could be said about these fragments of stories. For instance, the candid expression of surrender to the desire for things that are new and ‘very good’, could be contrasted with the prevailing stockman’s ethos of pride in self-denial. White men of the outback gained gratification from being able to do without, a view of the self that was not shared by their black companions. More relevant here is the evidence of a shared and accepted Aboriginal story of how the frontier was transcended, as a semi-nomadic people reliant on hunting and gathering, joined the enterprise of the invading pastoralists and became something called ‘workers’. Fifty years after the events, these stories are told both as explanation and entertainment, but not as parable. That is, I found no explicit moral order being defended or attacked4.  Frontier violence and bloodshed are part of Rembarrnga narratives but do not negate or contradict the thrilling experiences offered by participation in whitefellas’ activities. When we recognise that the frontier included excitement, exploration and new horizons as well as disruption, destruction and a future of oppressive governance, there emerges a more morally complex, confusing but also more accurate account of what happened when white people began to ‘open up’ the country, ‘settle’ the land, and ‘establish’ the cattle industry. These latter terms yield white settler’s meanings; the meaning that the past has accrued among Aboriginal people is different and is available to those who might be interested.

Another glimpse of an Aboriginal view of frontier historiography is from Bourke, western NSW. Gladys Darrigo complained to me about the iconic photos in school books of chained, half naked, Aboriginal men in Western Australia being stood over by a uniformed police-man. Gladys said: ‘Why do they show them pictures to our kids? That was never done to us. The kids think yous all used to treat us like that. It makes them angry. That’s why they’re doing all this thieving and stuff’5.  Gladys is not echoing Keith Windschuttle’s complaint that the level of frontier violence in our history has been deliberately exaggerated by professional historians. Rather, she is objecting to these particularly degrading experiences becoming representative of Aborigines’ relationships with Gubbas (whitefellas). Gladys was one of a number of older Aboriginal people who expressed great affection for particular white people. Although she was infuriated by Gubbas who ‘look at you as if you shouldn’t be here’, she refused to allow a generalized sense of pain and suffering to obliterate rich experiences and inherited memories6, of lives lived while the pastoral industry was being established and flourished in western NSW and southern Queensland.

Finally, another story from Gladys illustrates a counter-narrative historiographic method. North of Bourke we drove past a place named Poison Point Plains. Gladys told me this was ‘where they shot all the blackfellas’ and that lots of bones had been lying there when she was a kid. She said her family had not known then that these were the bones of their own ancestors. She then told of how one white bloke came to Bourke and paid a blackfella to take him out there and show him where the bones were. Then he’d come back later and collected the teeth and used them to provide people in Bourke with false teeth! ‘He was a dentist’, she added as she named the characters in this tale. She not only took pleasure in evoking and embroidering the macabre, but also presented whitefellas, not just as murderers, but as people whose money hunger led them to raid the bodies of the dead. Here, allegations about grotesque white practices are made part of history too.

These are glimpses of worlds of meaning that are outside the nation’s public history. Local experiences and remembered details will always resist direct inclusion in the overarching narratives that come to dominate public consciousness. But it is important to distinguish between the nation’s history, that is, ideas about the past that become established and debated in the public arena, and academic history, which, initially at least, attempts to establish ‘what really happened’ in some particular arena at some particular time. The former will always be simplified, built around commanding images and events, and thus it is ‘inaccurate’. It plucks colour and enhancing details from the plethora of material the past has left us. Its moral framing has to do with today’s interests and evaluations, rather than any specific quality of the past.

  1. Where I first conducted ethnographic field-work in 1975.  More details can be found in Cowlishaw, Gillian 1999 Red-necks, Egg-heads and Blackfellas: a study of racial power and intimacy in northern Australia. University of Michigan Press.
  2. These are ‘skin’ and kin terms, just three of dozens which map the everyday discursive kinship universe. The fact that educated Australians are often quite oblivious to this complex, autochthonous system of social organization is relevant to my argument.
  3. Question of generalizations and parables are more complex than I can convey here. These quotations are from stories that were originally recorded out of an interest in their cultural underpinnings rather than to establish some verifiable narrative of the past.
  4. This contrasts with the Captain Cook stories recorded across the north of Australia, which pose an explicit and fundamental challenge to the moral order represented in the nation’s settler narratives (D. B. Rose, 1984 The saga of Captain Cook: morality in Aboriginal and European Law Australian Aboriginal Studies. V. 2. 24-39).
  5. G. Cowlishaw 2004 Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the hidden injuries of race. Oxford, Blackwell
  6. I use the term ‘inherited memory’, rather than ‘oral history’, to emphasise the personal and intimate nature of the memories and experiences of a particular parent or grandparent. Other accounts of local memory in western NSW are in Jeremy Beckett, 2000 Wherever I Go. Melbourne University Press; Isabel Flick and Heather Goodall 2004 Isabel Flick: the many lives of an extraordinary Aboriginal woman. Sydney, Allen and Unwin,