A culture clash now understood as war
Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier By Libby Connors Allen & Unwin, 268pp, $32.99 There has been a huge shift in the study of Australian history. It started slowly about 35 years ago with the release of Henry Reynolds’s The Other Side of the Frontier and has been gathering pace since as one breakthrough leads to another. We are approaching something like critical mass in this movement now, the point where the evidence is so compelling, so complete and so well argued that it has few serious critics left.
The issue? That the frontier conflicts fought around the continent in the first 100 years of settlement were in fact a war of nation against nation. That may sound obvious; after all, what were the tribes if not nations, people united by language and custom? But the consequences for any historian adopting this position are dramatic. It forces them to consider the internal machinations of the Aboriginal body politic; to acknowledge the legal and judicial systems; and, ultimately, to concede they know very little about any of these things.
Enter Queensland historian Libby Connors. Her new book, Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier, examines the efforts at international diplomacy and the eventual breakdown of it that followed white settlement in Brisbane.
Using the narrative of Dundalli, the charismatic lawman of the Dalla people, as a shaping device, Connors explores in great detail the policies and customs that governed the Aboriginal response to white incursion. It is rarely less than fascinating. The story begins with an account of Dundalli’s death, who is to be hanged in front of the Brisbane jail while his wife and children watch from the fringes. It’s horrifying, full of tension, and shows Connors’s willingness to think of her readers. This is not dry facts-and-figures history (although there are footnotes if you want them). This is history told with flair, and the general reader will find a lot to like. From there we take a brief tour through Dundalli’s infancy, the birth rituals of the Dalla, their social organisation, and the roles played by each gender.
The account of Dundalli’s birth points us to another interesting aspect of the book, namely Connors’s willingness to speculate. As an account, it is clearly just informed fiction — there are no records that attest to any of it. But speculation of this kind is something Connors does well. Her familiarity with the everyday life of the southeast Queensland nations is often breathtaking. While we can debate the merits of putting imagined accounts into a formal history, when dealing with the Aboriginal side of the frontier speculation is often the only tool available to the historian.
The event at the centre of the book is the well-documented attack on Andrew Gregor’s station in October 1846. A party made up of Pine River, Durundur, Dalla, Ningy Ningy and Gubbi Gubbi men approached the farm, beat Gregor to death with clubs and killed his servant Mary Shannon with tomahawks. Shannon’s husband, Thomas, and their daughter, Mary-Ann, survived, and so did an Aboriginal boy, Ralph Burrows, who was working for Gregor. The repercussions of this attack, including arrests, trials and reprisal killings, take up much of the rest of the book and eventually culminate in the arrest of Dundalli, who was one of the men present.
Attacks of this kind were extremely common right across the continent. Isolated settlers living on Aboriginal land presented themselves as easy targets to the predations of angry warriors — or at least this is what we’ve often been led to believe. But what is so fascinating about Warrior is the way in which it presents a convincing Aboriginal rationale for the attack based on traditional law. Connors argues that Gregor was likely killed in reprisal for the earlier killing of Aboriginal leader Multuggerah, an act that provoked outrage in the communities around Brisbane. As such, the Gregor attack was not the display of treacherous savagery the local press at the time believed but represented the careful application of the laws of payback that governed the relations among the tribes.
The point, of course, is that the Gregor case brought to a head the growing political differences between the fledgling white settlement and the still-sovereign Aboriginal nations. As Connors says, the question facing Aboriginal leaders was whether ‘‘the old ways of ancestral law’’ could stand up to the challenge of an alien people who lacked the ‘‘courtesy and honour’’ the legal codes demanded. It was clear to them the European system of justice was imprecise and often escalated, rather than settled, disputes. Aboriginal law, on the other hand, focused on satisfying all parties and ending conflicts in a kind of realpolitik approach. The attack on Gregor station seems to have been aimed at settling the grievances of Multuggerah’s family in just this fashion.
Connors situates the arrest of Dundalli, his trial and execution in this larger context of national relations. She believes that, as a leader, Dundalli represented a ‘‘martial code’’ that preferred ‘‘honour and chivalry’’ to the cold European system that refused to let a man ‘‘stand up and fight in defence of his honour, in defence of his brothers, in defence of his wife and children’’. The difficulty for men such as Dundalli lay in becoming savvy enough with European law to leverage the military, moral and legal power the tribes held until at least the 1860s. Had they done so, they might have forced the Europeans to the negotiating table. This never happened but Connors’s book suggests a treaty was perhaps a possibility in Queensland.
It’s a rare book that can illuminate the choices facing the Aboriginal leadership so clearly. Without this kind of scholarship, we are left to guess at their motives. Connors has inched back the curtain a little wider for us.