The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright, (Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2013).
This book is bold. A bed-time story this ain’t. Its prose slaps you around the face to make sure you are paying attention. It is assertive and provocative. It sucks you into the time that was, on the Ballarat goldfields of the mid-nineteenth century.
The history of Victoria’s gold rushes and the Eureka Stockade is one of Australia’s well-worn foundational stories. Each year the story is told in school classrooms throughout Australia and children dutifully do their Gold Rush project with varying degrees of interest. Students are told about the flood of people from all over the world rushing to Australia to find gold. They learn about the crowded diggings, about the mass communities of tents which suddenly appeared only to be taken down in great haste when rumour told of a find of gold somewhere else. The lessons go on to tell the story of the miners’ grievances about the compulsory miners’ licence and their complaints about their treatment by authorities on the gold field. They culminate in the rebellion known as Eureka Stockade and the deaths of miners and soldiers after a raid on the Stockade by government forces.
This story could be interesting but the only memory I have of my grade five Gold Rush lessons is how deadly dull they were. One of my daughters didn’t see the point of the project at all. Yet to my surprise a few months ago the same child, now an adult, told me how much she enjoyed reading an academic article about the Gold Rush for her first year university history course. The article was by Clare Wright, the author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. I was aware of the impending release of her book but the fact that Wright’s academic writing had excited a student who had a personal history of thorough disinterest in Gold Rush history made me eager to read the book.
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Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.
My Ngarrindjeri Calling by Doreen Kartinyeri and Sue Anderson (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2008).
“Never put black history on white paper” the elders taught her. One time Doreen Kartinyeri did not follow this instruction. She wrote about secret women’s business on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island), South Australia, in a bid to stop the desecration of important Aboriginal sites on the island. The instruction, “to be read by women only” was written on the outside of the sealed envelope and it was sent to the office of the Federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra.
In this memoir Doreen Kartinyeri gives her explanation of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy of the 1990s. Kartinyeri shares the story of her life and explains how she came to know about the secret women’s business. Her life story clearly establishes her expertise in Aboriginal knowledge and her identity as a Ngarrindjeri woman.
Kartinyeri was devastated when the Federal shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan, threw her instructions aside and tabled the contents of the envelope in parliament. “I knew I would pay for this error of judgement”, she says. “That day my mi: wi [soul, spirit] was ruptured. I should never have put black words on white paper, and my punishment for breaking that Ngarrindjeri law was about to begin.” “It was still no consolation when two days later McLachlan did resign or even when Deane Fergie brought the secret envelopes back from Canberra. I was feeling really disturbed, really sick to my stomach about it all”.
A Royal Commission was held in South Australia to ascertain whether the Aboriginal women had fabricated evidence about secret women’s business. It concluded that they had lied. “I cried enough tears to flush the River Murray”, said Kartinyeri.
This book sears with emotion. Kartinyeri’s childhood on a mission living in a two-room house built from flattened kerosene tins was rent apart when her mother died. At the age of ten she was forced to leave the mission and live in the Fullarton Girls Home in Adelaide. Continue reading
A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, (Melbourne: Penguin, 2013).
Do you remember becoming separated from your parents by accident as a child? That moment when you realised that you could not find your parents and were lost in a strange place was terrifying. You may have been rooted by fear, or madly dashed around. You probably called out for them in between sobs.
Perhaps you have lost one of your own children. My husband recalls the panic he felt when the tram he had just boarded started moving and he realised that our five-year old was still at the tram stop. He yelled at the tram driver to stop but the tram kept going. Hubble left the tram at the next stop and vividly remembers his mad sprint down the road to the tram stop where our daughter was still standing.
Fortunately for most of us that moment is transitory. Parents find their children after a couple of minutes or kind strangers take the child to the store manager or police who find their parents. Parents and the child resolve to be more careful in future and life resumes.
The nightmare for five-year old Saroo and his mother was not transitory. Saroo was lost on the streets of Kolkata and his desperate mother was unable to find him. The separation became permanent. Yet while kind strangers were unable to reunite the child with his mother they were able to provide the care he needed. Now an adult, Saroo Brierley tells his story in A Long Way Home. Continue reading
Paint Me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2005).
One day I was reading brief accounts in the newspaper written by some people who were over one hundred years old. And there she was, Margaret Somerville, the link to the book Paint Me Black, that was waiting on my bedroom floor to be read.
I was a missionary, I went to Croker Island, just off Darwin, and was a cottage mother at a home for part-Aboriginal children. The government had asked the church to take over care of these children. I’d been up there a few months when Darwin was bombed and then we had to be evacuated. The government and the church worked together to get us to Otford, a [then] campsite on the NSW south coast. It took six weeks to get all 95 children there. We spent four years at Otford and once the war was over, I was the only staff member that went back to Croker Island. I was there for 24 years.
Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2013.
Claire Henty-Gebert was one of those children evacuated from Croker Island under the care of Margaret Somerville and her fellow missionaries. Henty-Gebert’s memoir, Paint Me Black, is an absorbing read. The clarity of her language and the power of her story engrossed me in this book. She has an amazing story to tell.
Henty-Gebert’s mother was Aboriginal and her father was white. She was born sometime in the 1920s in a remote part of the Northern Territory. Along with thousands of children like her she was removed from her Aboriginal family at a young age. Continue reading
Australians: Eureka to the Diggers by Thomas Keneally (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011).
Reading Thomas Keneally’s, Australians: Erueka to the Diggers, made me reflect that writing a national history must be the hardest historical work that anyone can undertake. So many choices have to be made. Such a book cannot include everything – what should the author leave out, what should they prioritise what should be covered in just one paragraph?
Then I thought about the research involved. This is not a project for someone at the beginning of their career who needs to do the research from scratch. The author needs to rely on a lifetime of reading and understanding. Inevitably they will need to rely on the work of others, but which books and journal articles should be consulted? The reader should be considered in writing such a book. The book needs to sustain interest and to avoid becoming a turgid chronological list of important people and events. The author needs to consider which reader to appeal to. A publisher such as the publisher of this book, Allen & Unwin, wants to appeal to the book buying public, the ‘average’ reader. Who is the average reader?
Australians: Eureka to the Diggers covers Australian history from 1860 to the close of World War I. Keneally tells the stories of Australia’s past through a number of vignettes highlighting the successful and unsuccessful lives of a few Australians. This gives freshness to the delivery of aspects of our history that have been drummed into us at school and by the media.
Rather than a traditional tale of greatness, Keneally writes empathetically about people who muddle through life. I was particularly engrossed by the muddling story of one of Charles Dickens’ sons, Edward ‘Plorn’ Dickens. Much of his Australian life was based in the New South Wales outback town of Wilcannia. Like so many settlers this man struggled with the incompatibility of English cultural values and the unrelenting Australian environment. Dickens aspired to be a great white man but never quite achieved it. His story allows a touch of New South Wales parliamentary politics to be told from a western New South Wales perspective casting a different light on the outback/urban divide of the time. Continue reading