A cul­ture clash now un­der­stood as war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rohan Wil­son

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.