A void is peo­pled once again

A pi­o­neer­ing ac­count of colo­nial life in the Pil­bara re­gion fi­nally has its much-de­served pub­li­ca­tion, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well Land­lords of the Iron Shore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ITS rock un­der­foot has the ring of me­tal, its deep red ranges run straight for hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres, its spinifex is lemon yel­low, its skies have the bleached grey blue of some som­bre heaven. Yet for all its vast sim­plic­ity and its ag­gres­sive beauty, the Pil­bara re­gion re­mains lit­tle known in wider Aus­tralia.

The harsh sto­ries of its set­tle­ment are quite un­fa­mil­iar, its whole past is an empty, silent void. If it comes to mind at all, it is as a quarry, a net­work of mine sites, tra­versed by un­end­ing ore trains, over­flown by jets full of shift­work­ers shut­tling from their far-off homes.

It was to this coun­try, then still al­most un­touched by Western man, that John Slade Durlacher came in 1876, still in his mid-teens and un­der the shad­ows of fam­ily dis­grace. His fa­ther Al­fred, a mag­is­trate at Ger­ald­ton and an early stu­dent of Abo­rig­i­nal tra­di­tions, had been caught up in a fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment scan­dal and had hit the colo­nial head­lines.

The son made for the re­mote Pil­bara: he spent years on that fur­thest fron­tier, liv­ing in the com­pany of tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple as much as that of Eu­ro­peans.

Set­tle­ment was in its early stages then: the land was still be­ing ex­plored, claimed and re­shaped. There were pearling boats at the jet­ties of the new ports, there were vast sheep sta­tions in the hard­scrab­ble in­land. Durlacher saw this new world, and the world that was be­ing pul­verised to build it, and set down his im­pres­sions in brief form.

Land­lords of the Iron Shore is the first pub­li­ca­tion of his man­u­script, which is strik­ing for its sym­pa­thetic ac­count of Pil­bara in­dige­nous life, be­liefs and be­hav­iour, and has no By John Slade Durlacher In­tro­duc­tion by Peter Gif­ford Hes­pe­rian Press, 106pp, $25 ob­vi­ous par­al­lel. He was a man­ager of properties and he ranged wide: he knew the table­lands above the great river sys­tems of the north­west; he knew the Ash­bur­ton and its un­du­lat­ing peaks.

But he was look­ing for the end of the line and he came to rest on the last beach­head, West Lewis Is­land, part of the Dampier ar­chi­pel­ago. The re­mains of old pas­toral build­ings can still be seen there to­day, close by the North West Shelf Gas Pro­ject. Durlacher writes: ‘‘ The main­land op­po­site to our home­stead, and the is­lands ad­join­ing the Fly­ing Foam Pas­sage, namely An­gel, Gi­d­ley, Dol­phin, Hauy and a num­ber of other small is­lands were in­hab­ited by a mixed tribe of na­tives, some be­long­ing to the coun­try.’’

But the land­scape round about was al­ready be­ing claimed and oc­cu­pied, it was a chaos of con­cen­tra­tions and dis­pos­ses­sions, over­laid by the con­tin­u­ous move­ment of chancers from the fron­tier world: ‘‘ Oth­ers had fled there out of the reach of the law, as the coun­try is very rugged and in­ac­ces­si­ble and the shore in parts fringed with dense man­grove thick­ets which made splen­did hid­ing places for the out­laws and law-break­ers from the sheep sta­tions and set­tle­ments of Roe­bourne and Cos­sack.’’

Here Durlacher worked, watched, sketched and wrote. His de­tailed, rather child­like draw­ings pro­vide a record of the ma­te­rial cul­ture of the Abo­rig­i­nal groups he moved among. Durlacher pro­vides a suc­cinct ethno­graphic over­view — their so­cial sys­tem, rit­u­als, dances, songs and cer­e­monies — but his chief in­ter­est is in the day-to-day, life as it was lived by the in­dige­nous fam­ily groups he knew: So, reader, let me lead you in fancy to the great open plains of the un­set­tled dis­tricts. Imag­ine your­self ly­ing peace­fully by your camp fire, on the grassy banks of some creek or river, and for a back­ground the wide, al­most tree­less plain, reach­ing out for miles un­til earth and sky seem to meet, in an al­most un­bro­ken line.

Day­light comes, the quiet gives way. Men head off for the kan­ga­roo hunt and Durlacher’s prose quick­ens. The men stride over the rugged hill­sides ‘‘ as eas­ily and qui­etly as we would move on a grass lawn’’. They see the tell-tale traces of their prey, they close in, to wind­ward, fire is lit in the spinifex, there are whis­tles, all is set. The kan­ga­roos ‘‘ are sit­ting bolt up­right in the grace­ful po­si­tion that th­ese crea­tures as­sume when alarmed’’. The end comes fast.

Durlacher goes on tur­tle and du­gong hunts. He is caught up in their pace and ten­sion. It is an ac­tive, ur­gent world he brings to life. But that world had been placed in servi­tude.

When Durlacher reached the far north­west, the fron­tier econ­omy there was boom­ing: wool, pearl­shell, pearls, san­dal­wood were all har­vested and ex­ported at high profit. Labour costs, in that ini­tial phase of the Western in­ter­ven­tion in the Pil­bara, were next to noth­ing, ‘‘ the de­spised Abo­rig­i­nal black fel­low’’ pro­vided the wood-cut­ting and cart­ing work­force; were the divers, beach­combers, boat­men, shep­herds, stock­men and rough rid­ers along the shore­lines and across the sheep sta­tions of the north.

But when Durlacher came to look back a gen­er­a­tion on, at the cen­tury’s end, that work­force had been dis­pensed with: the pearlbeds were bare, the san­dal­wood trade was played out, the ‘‘ in­evitable wire fence’’ had made sta­tion shep­herd­ing a dead trade. Durlacher had ad­mired the ‘‘ an­cient laws and cus­toms’’ of the peo­ple he met in the bush; now he saw a bleak prospect for the Pil­bara’s in­dige­nous peo­ple: ‘‘ A fast de­cay­ing race they are, di­min­ish­ing rapidly in num­bers, de­graded by their in­ter­course with the white race.’’

He is touch­ing here on the dra­matic de­pop­u­la­tion of the north­west, one of the least-ex­am­ined ques­tions in the story of Aus­tralian set­tle­ment — for the Pil­bara has been rel­a­tively ill-served by his­to­ri­ans. There is the ma­jes­tic over­view pro­vided by Shirley Kay For­rest in The Chal­lenge and the Chance, now al­most two decades old — and lit­tle else, for a whole prov­ince.

The rivers and the gorge val­leys were well peo­pled be­fore the com­ing of the set­tlers, as even a ca­sual bush trip to­day makes all too plain, and the early sta­tions sup­ported large Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. Dis­ease and dis­rup­tion took their toll, sup­ple­mented by their usual un­der-ac­knowl­edged ac­com­plice: or­gan­ised killing. In this case, the sharpest im­pact came from the reprisal raids known nowa­days as the Fly­ing Foam Mas­sacre, a se­ries of at­tacks car­ried out in the coastal coun­try where Dampier and Kar­ratha now stand. Durlacher was in the coun­try eight years af­ter this cam­paign and makes light of it, per­haps not quite grasp­ing the episode’s true scale: it is the sole note in his nar­ra­tive that jars.

What forged this ob­ser­vant, open-hearted man? Eth­no­his­to­rian Peter Gif­ford sug­gests in his in­tro­duc­tion to this book that the fam­ily tra­di­tion of en­gage­ment with in­dige­nous af­fairs might have in­flu­enced the young Durlacher’s de­ci­sion to head north. Go­ing to the Pil­bara in 1876 would give him the op­por­tu­nity of see­ing an in­dige­nous cul­ture be­fore its atom­i­sa­tion — it would give him the ex­pe­ri­ences his fa­ther had been given a gen­er­a­tion ear­lier around Ger­ald­ton and Toodyay.

Hence the tone of mea­sure and as­sess­ment in his pre­sen­ta­tion. He is not just a chron­i­cler, he is also a voice of so­cial con­science.

On his death in 1918 his rem­i­nis­cences re­mained un­pub­lished. The hand­writ­ten man­u­script, it seems, passed to his daugh­ter, Janet Drum­mond Nan­son, a well-known Perth jour­nal­ist who wrote un­der the by­lines Sigma and Aunt Mary in The West Aus­tralian and The Western Mail. Per­haps through her, Durlacher’s ac­count even­tu­ally came into the hands of a much more prom­i­nent and de­ter­mined jour­nal­ist, the ad­ven­turess Ernes­tine Hill, a woman with pro­nounced ideas about prose style and a keen taste for fron­tier nar­ra­tives.

Hill typed up a ver­sion of the man­u­script, sharply re-edited. She gave the work its cur­rent, rather baroque ti­tle and an edi­tion of some kind was planned.

"But,’’ Gif­ford tells us, ‘‘ as with much of Hill’s later work as she be­came af­fected by ill­health and chronic money worries, the type­script was never pub­lished and lay for years in the col­lec­tion of her pa­pers held by the Univer­sity of Queens­land li­brary.’’

This archived ver­sion led that sleuth of the out­back, Hes­pe­rian Press pub­lisher Peter Bridge, to track down the hand­writ­ten orig­i­nal, which had been sold to the National Li­brary in Can­berra by Hill’s niece, and on­sold to the Bat­tye Li­brary in Perth, each time for sub­stan­tial sums, each time with­out the Durlacher fam­ily’s knowl­edge. The de­tec­tive work has at last borne fruit. Durlacher’s own text has been re­stored for its de­but in print. As Gif­ford ex­plains, he deserves this courtesy: he was there, liv­ing on the fron­tier, change and up­heaval all around him. ‘‘ He had no Euro­pean com­pan­ions for much of his time and so he oc­cu­pied him­self by care­fully ob­serv­ing and not­ing how his how his in­dige­nous neigh­bours lived and worked for their liv­ing.’’

Now Durlacher’s time has come. His word por­traits of Abo­rig­i­nal life have a mar­vel­lous fresh­ness and sweet­ness. He is ex­ten­sive and plunges into by­ways of de­tail: war, cui­sine, bush to­bacco, in­dige­nous aes­thet­ics and colour sense — he cov­ers them all.

Some years ago word of the work’s ex­is­tence fil­tered out to the Pil­bara: Roe­bourne shire was pre­par­ing its own ver­sion of Durlacher’s man­u­script at the same time

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