Steve Hawke has pro­duced a land­mark ac­count of one of the most strik­ing so­cial ex­per­i­ments in north­ern Aus­tralia, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Cross­ing Story

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ACROSS Aus­tralia, the 1960s was a time of tu­mult, but the chaos and re­peated up­heavals may well have been most over­whelm­ing where they were least chron­i­cled: in the far north, in the re­mote reaches of the Abo­rig­i­nal Kim­ber­ley, where the deep struc­tures of a colo­nial so­ci­ety were be­ing torn down and re­made.

That rev­o­lu­tion is the sub­ject of Steve Hawke’s suc­cinct and jewel-like book A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Cross­ing Story. At once nar­ra­tive and oral his­tory, this is a work that records the arc of many lives and has been half a life­time in the mak­ing. Hawke, the son of for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke, came to the Kim­ber­ley as a 19-year-old ac­tivist in 1978 and was caught — by the coun­try, its peo­ple and its his­tory.

His as­so­ci­a­tion with the re­gion has lasted and his knowl­edge of the deep back­ground to its sto­ries breathes in ev­ery sen­tence of his tale.

A Town is Born of­fers not just an ac­count of one of the most strik­ing so­cial ex­per­i­ments in north­ern Aus­tralia, but of the hid­den forces that shaped and steered it: not just what the main fig­ures in the un­fold­ing Fitzroy saga did, but what they felt. Hawke braids his ac­count to­gether from dis­tinc­tive sources and from two worlds: he makes use of the punc­til­ious records in western ar­chives and the mem­o­ries of the town’s most prom­i­nent men and women.

This, then, is an ini­tial sketch for a de­tailed his­tory of the fron­tier, a sketch made up of in­ter­wo­ven im­pres­sions and story threads. It opens on the very cusp of the drama. At the be­gin­ning of the 60s, the pas­toral em­pires of the Kim­ber­ley were in­tact. A few years later, all was re­made, as Hawke writes: By Steve Hawke Maga­bala Books, 212pp, $35 In th­ese trop­i­cal parts the winds of change blew down an in­dus­try, a regime, a cul­ture that for the best part of a cen­tury had thrived on a semi-feu­dal sys­tem of code­pen­dence be­tween the all-pow­er­ful sta­tion bosses and large com­mu­ni­ties of un­paid Abo­rig­i­nal work­ers and their fam­i­lies.

The foun­da­tion his­tory of that regime had been harsh and well-masked: the land was won by skir­mish and con­quest, by in­di­vid­ual killings and small-scale mas­sacres and dis­creet poi­son­ings that have long since van­ished in the murk of time. In the mid-cen­tury, the cat­tle in­dus­try was well-es­tab­lished; in­deed it was thriv­ing. It had grown through a strange amal­gam of dis­pos­ses­sion and co-op­er­a­tion, of ac­com­mo­da­tion and con­straint. The pi­o­neer pas­toral­ists had taken the lands oc­cu­pied by tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and trained the men as stock camp work­ers: their fam­i­lies were fed and shel­tered, if in rudi­men­tary style.

For Tim Emanuel, the grand­son of one of the great Kim­ber­ley pas­toral fig­ures, it seems clear in ret­ro­spect that a kind of con­sen­sus had de­vel­oped: ‘‘ There was a sort of un­writ­ten law that it was our sta­tion but their coun­try.’’ The Abo­rig­i­nal stock­men of the cen­tral Kim­ber­ley were skilled and as­sid­u­ous and had a sta­ble place on the fron­tier: at once ex­ploited serfs and val­ued col­leagues, vi­tal part­ners in a grand, de­mand­ing en­ter­prise.

They were paid, but their wages dis­ap­peared in ‘‘ book-up’’ at the sta­tion stores. Many of their num­ber lived per­ma­nently in rough tents, with­out run­ning wa­ter. Ev­ery dry sea­son they would ride out on long drov­ing jour­neys down the stock routes that criss­crossed the north. There was an epic scale to those trav­els: the Fitzroy Cross­ing men who made them re­mem­ber those days well, and their sto­ries are in th­ese pages.

Tommy May, a prom­i­nent Wal­ma­jarri leader, born in the Great Sandy Desert, found work with a Vestey’s drover and ranged as far as Wave Hill and the Mur­ranji, as Ten­nant Creek and El­liott and Eva Downs. Mervyn Street, a Gooniyandi man from the Fitzroy Val­ley, roamed even farther, into the Pil­bara and gold­fields: he reached Mar­ble Bar and Wiluna, Kal­go­or­lie and Ji­ga­long.

But pres­sures from be­yond the Kim­ber­ley bore down and the cat­tle em­pires were un­done by a se­ries of blows.

The equal wages rul­ing made in 1965 by the

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