Movement at the station
More than 20 years after their first publication, the stories of the Aboriginal stockmen of the north resonate in unexpected ways, writes Nicolas Rothwell
IN the mid-decades of the 20th century, across the wild frontier reaches of northwest Australia, a deep transformation was under way. The great pastoral stations of the Kimberley, stretching from the Fitzroy River across the Leopold Ranges, from Derby as far as Turkey Creek, had all been claimed and occupied. The stock had long since been overlanded, there was a pressing need for labour and the work was hard.
So began one of the most exotic and contradiction-laden chapters in the history of the north: the tale of the Aboriginal stockmen of the wide Kimberley plains. It was a time of grand achievements and folkloric adventures, a time rich in toil and suffering as well. It began gradually, with the slow recruitment into station life of young men from desert and river tribal groupings, and it came to an abrupt stop in the late 1960s with the passage of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission’s equal wages decision mandating that pay scales for indigenous drovers should be the same as for nonindigenous drovers, and the rapid modernisation of the cattle industry that followed.
Two generations of Aboriginal stockmen gave the best of themselves to the Kimberley pastoral enterprises before their lives in the saddle ended. The last survivors still live on the communities and outstations of the region, reminiscing, telling stories, still wearing with pride and sadness their cowboy boots and jeans and dark wide-brimmed hats, staring out as if they were still perched on the top-rail gazing at milling cattle.
The initial Kimberley memoirs of the golden days of the pastoral era were told from the white perspective: narratives of broad plains and bright sun, long rides and big mobs. If the indigenous labour force figured at all, it tended to receive brief mention, first names only, slightly out of focus on the margins of the tale.
Then, in 1989, came the first edition of Raparapa, a set of narratives told by a group of nine black stockmen whose lives were spent on the large, lush stations that cluster around Fitzroy Crossing.
Raparapa was one of the earliest productions of Broome-based, state-backed Aboriginal publisher Magabala Books. It was a joint winner of the WA Week nonfiction literary award and has sold strongly since. The book is richly illustrated, its photographs complementing the remembered stories that weave through its pages: recollections of bush childhoods, early hardships and the struggles of the protest era in the north.
But Raparapa is also the record of a shared bush rite of passage: the testimony of men who grew up on horseback, riding, roping, broncoing and branding. Some of the memories they offer are difficult to bear: the violence of the Kimberley frontier had abated by the time this generation of station men were pressed into work but the taut, dark threat was still present. Massacres were remembered, the sites were known. Lashing and beating were still occasional features of the Aboriginal stockman’s life.
Working on Go Go station, Jock Shandley was frightened even to set foot in the white man’s quarters: ‘‘ I was afraid that I might get hunted out, or get a bullet, or anything.’’ If there was noise in the Aboriginal camp down on the riverbank beneath the station, the manager would come down with a rifle: voices raised, children crying, camp dogs barking, the discipline on offer was the same. Chapter and verse is given in these pages. Consider Ernie Bird, once manager of Brooking Spring station, who held the mail contract for the run between Derby and Fitzroy Crossing. He used a bullet to settle a dispute with one of his best stockmen, and the tale has a certain plausibility, told as it is by Jimmy Bird, a Bunuba stockman whom Ernie reared from childhood. Such was the Kimberley frontier, arbitrary and harsh.
The station characters were colourful, and on the strange side, too. There were old-line