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
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