Reminiscences: A New Look at an Old Document

Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, written by his daughter Constance, provides detailed accounts of many aspects of Aboriginal culture and relates the experiences and adventures of Tom and his family from the 1830s to the 1860s. Reminiscences first appeared in serial form in the Queenslander from 26 April 1902 to 7 August 1903, though not in its entirety; it was published in book form in 1904. For a work that is extensively cited and recognised as an authority on Aboriginal and settler history in southeast Queensland, Reminiscences has attracted little critical analysis apart from Mark Cryle’s Introduction to the 1992 edition.

Reminiscences is a mix of several genres, including autobiography, biography, ethnology and anecdote, all of which rely on oral evidence. In 1905, A. G. Stevens called it “one of the most interesting and valuable books yet printed in Australia.” While it is an important historical document it contains elements of the colonial adventure romance. Reminiscences portrays a drama of the brave, enterprising settler/pioneer struggling to make a life for himself on a violent frontier. The story reinforces the positive image of a humanitarian, larrikin ancestor/colonist against the backdrop of a wild and savage land, perhaps satisfying the urge to recognise that which is best in ourselves in our “glorious” past.

Whether or not Reminiscences is accurate in every aspect, it has been accepted and lauded as an authentic account of life in early Brisbane. It was one of many memoirs of this type, written by squatters in their later years. W. H. Wilde and David Headon state in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature that

the stream of memoirs and reminiscences continued undiminished in the second half of the nineteenth century. The writers, usually erstwhile squatters, government officials and public figures, reflected, often from heightened imagination of their twilight years, on the lively colonial times they had lived through.

According to Cryle, Reminiscences is important as a source because it is impartial and tells the past as Petrie saw it, and that “Petrie offers a rare glimpse—a ‘non-official’ perspective with no vested interest in reporting what ought to have happened. Rather it relates what did happen.” Perhaps one of the strongest declarations in Reminiscence’s favour was made by F. W. S. Cumbrae-Stewart in the Presidential Address he delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Queensland in 1918: “Mr Petrie’s book consists of two parts, the first of which relates to the blacks of Moreton Bay. On this subject it is the authority. No one knew more about the native inhabitant of this country than Thomas Petrie, or was on better terms with them.” As a historical source, Reminiscences is cited extensively in The Petrie Family: Building Colonial Brisbane (1992) by Dimity Dornan and Denis Cryle and appears in the Select Bibliography of The Commissariat Store (2001) by Tania Cleary and published by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. However, it ranks no mention in historian Raymond Evans’ A History of Queensland (2007).

Constance’s inclusion of her own research, such as in the form of botanical names of plants, enhanced the perception of Reminiscences as being written in the scientific mode, thereby increasing its perceived authority and authenticity. An example of this appears on page 107 of Reminiscences: “Other dillies were made from bark-string, such as that of the ‘ngoa-nga’ (Moreton Bay fig-tree), the ‘braggain’ (Laportea sp.), the ‘nannam’ vine (Malaisia tortuosa), and the ‘cotton bush’ or ‘talwalpin’ (Hibiscus tiliaceus), found on the beach at Wynnum or elsewhere.”

Tom & Constance Petrie

Constance paints a picture of her father as a benevolent “master” or “brother” to the Turrbal who supposedly adored him, and he reveals himself to be a mischievous type who enjoyed sharing stories and jokes. Seen through Constance’s eyes, her father is a hero, an almost mythical personage she has constructed from the stories he had told her since her birth. To be sure, Constance was never going to write anything that would bring disrepute on her family; on the contrary, Reminiscences was written to reinforce the public image of the Petries, especially her father, as paragons of virtue and great pioneering heroes in Queensland’s history. Reminiscences is a collection of narratives, many of which were passed on to Tom by convicts, squatters and Aboriginal people.

Arguably the greatest acclaim for Tom Petrie and Reminiscences comes from Maroochy Barambah, Turrbal songwoman and law-woman, a direct descendant of Kulkarawa, whom Tom knew and mentions in the book. In her speech at the unveiling of the Tom Petrie Memorial in Petrie in 2010, she acknowledged the value of Tom’s accounts of the Turrbal people and his experience of them as “one of the most invaluable sources of information about life in the Moreton Bay penal colony.”

Beyond upholding the Petrie reputation, one of the principal reasons Tom and Constance wrote Reminiscences was to defend the Aboriginal people by providing justifications for their behaviour and to refute their portrayal as a treacherous and barbaric race. One example of this is when Constance presents a long dialogue between Dalaipi, the epitome of the “Noble Savage” who has refused the temptations offered by the whites, and Tom (182/83):

Before the whitefellow came,” Dalaipi said, “we wore no dress, but knew no shame, and were all free and happy; there was plenty to eat, and it was a pleasure to hunt for food. Then when the white man came among us, we were hunted from our ground, shot, poisoned, and had our daughters, sisters, and wives taken from us. Could you blame us if we killed the white man? If we had done likewise to them, would they not have murdered us?

Reminiscences was written at a time of a decline in fortune for Tom and his family due mainly to drought, and must have produced sorely-needed income. The book was the catalyst for the recognition Constance sought for her father and which came about when Governor William MacGregor unveiled a monument to honour Tom’s deeds in 1911, the year after his death. The ceremony was accompanied by the change of name of the community from North Pine to Petrie. Unfortunately, this decision sparked controversy and opposition from the local population for many years after the event and was one factor that ultimately led to Constance’s decline in health and her incarceration in the Goodna Asylum where she died in 1924, her father’s greatest defender.

Author Interview – Australian Authors

Mt Mulligan Map

Australian Authors: Tell us a little about yourself? Perhaps something not many people know?

I first left Australia aged twenty excited at the prospect of discovering the world. Over the years, the more I travelled the heavier my backpack became as I replaced non-essentials such as clothes with books. Travelling through Europe, the US and then overland through Asia, living and working in diverse countries was a huge learning experience. For many years I read only nonfiction as I learnt about religion, philosophy, society, culture, the environment and so on. The first time I put pen to paper (apart from the rare letter home) was during a writing retreat in the south of France. Poetry was my preferred mode at the time and I eventually compiled a collection which has never seen the light of day. All these life experiences have contributed to how I see the world and the way I now write historical fiction.

Australian Authors: What made you want to become a writer?

I have always been an avid reader but only came to writing in my thirties when I started with poetry. In what seems like another life I taught astrology and when my students suggested I write down my teachings I did so. My book on astrology and meditation was published (in French) in Switzerland. As a teacher (ESL, astrology) I tried to make learning fun. The environment and nature are of great interest to me and I wanted to create a learning resource on the subject that was fun and exciting for students. My next work was a workbook for secondary students that explores ecosystems and Indigenous peoples of the world.

Historical fiction has always been a preferred genre with the likes of James Michener, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwall, Kate Grenville, Wilbur Smith, Margaret Atwood, Conn Iggulden, Tom Keneally, Diana Gabaldon, Peter Carey etc. among my favourites. I am fascinated by history and these authors offered a window to the past: the cultures, customs and beliefs of our predecessors.

In 2004 I fulfilled a lifetime ambition and did a BA at university with majors in writing and environmental studies. I then set up a website for Francophiles before continuing my studies through Honours (a memoir set in France) followed by a PhD in creative writing. The PhD involved writing an exegesis on authenticity and the historical novel and writing the novel “Turrwan” set mostly in Queensland in the nineteenth century. Feedback from readers of “Turrwan” led me to expand the story of the Petrie family into a saga spanning one hundred years.

Australian Authors: What gives you inspiration for your book(s)?

My first novel “Turrwan” was inspired by the story of Tom Petrie who arrived at the Moreton Bay Penal Colony with his parents in 1837. Six-year-old Tom grew up with the local Aboriginal people, learnt their language and became initiated as one of the clan. There are very few novels treating Queensland’s early history and relationships between blacks and whites on the violent frontier. Tom’s daughter Constance recorded her father’s experiences which were published as “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland” in 1904. This work, recognized as an authority on Aboriginal customs, stories and beliefs, was the foundation on which my novel was built. My second novel “White Ghosts” begins in 1824 and recounts the arrival of the first whites to settle in Queensland and the consequent establishment of Brisbane. The past holds many lessons that can help us understand the present.

Australian Authors: Now, the big question, are you working on another book?

Yes, I am. I’m working on a story set in the coal-mining ghost town of Mt Mulligan about 100 km due west of Cairns in Far North Queensland where I spent the first four years of my life until the mine was closed down in 1957. The mountain, Ngarrabullgan as it is known to the Kuku Djungan, is one of the most sacred and oldest sites in Queensland with proof of human habitation dating back 40,000 years. What the local Aboriginal people know as the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent is a tabletop mountain 18 km long by 6.5 km wide and rising between 200 to 400 metres above the surrounding countryside. In 1876, intrepid explorer James Venture Mulligan discovered payable gold along the Hodgkinson River which flows along the eastern flank of the monolith (ten times bigger than Uluru). Miners flooded to the area but the field was never as rich as the Palmer to the north. When coal was discovered under the mountain in 1907 the gold had petered out. On a September morning in 1921 a massive explosion rocked the mine resulting in the death of all 75 men working underground at the time. Aboriginal people are supposed to have said that it was retribution for digging into the sacred mountain. The only original building remaining is the hospital which is now the homestead for a working cattle ranch that welcomes visitors.

Australian Authors: What genres do you prefer to write in?

Historical fiction and memoir.

Australian Authors: What do you think about the ebook revolution?

At first it looked like the ebook revolution would lead to the demise of the physical book but this has not been the case. The advantage of the ebook is the low cost as it allows for greater access to stories worldwide without the sometimes prohibitive cost of freight. Personally, I prefer the feel of a book, its weight, the crisp paper, even the smell emanating from the pages and also because it too has a history.

Australian Authors: Do you start a book with a definite plot, or do you just write?

For “Turrwan” I started with a rough story outline that built on Tom Petrie’s life and experiences as they unfolded. As my stories are closely tied to the historical record this acts as the base for the plot. In an early draft of “White Ghosts” I kept jumping back and forwards in time until I realised how confusing this approach was.
Australian Authors: Pen or type writer or computer?
So far all of my work has been hand written with a mechanical pencil. I then type everything on the computer which allows for a first edit.

Australian Authors: Do your characters seem to hijack the story, or are you always in control?

Mostly, I’m in control, I think.

Australian Authors: Are your characters based on real people or completely imagined?

My main characters are based on real people and some that I have created. I didn’t want to write a biography and have inserted fictitious characters to challenge the factual ones and to enliven the narrative. I have been told that some of the characters I have invented seem more real than the historical figures. Some real people such as the infamous absconder and raconteur Sheik Black Jack Brown in “White Ghosts” would be almost impossible to imagine and readers would find it hard to believe that this person could exist but he did.

Australian Authors: Have you thought about joining with another author to write a book?

Not really. I prefer to work by myself.

Australian Authors: Who are your favourite authors?

I cited a number of historical fiction authors above but I also enjoy crime and thrillers from the likes of Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Deon Meyer, Ian Rankin, Tony Park, Jane Harper, J K Rowling, Lee Child, John Grisham, the list is endless. Then in general fiction: Alex Miller, Melissa Luckashenko, Richard Flanagan, Peter Temple, Isabel Allende, Tim Winton, Joanne Harris. . . I also read a lot of non-fiction for my research and I have posted a bibliography of works consulted in writing “Turrwan” and “White Ghosts” on my website.

Australian Authors: What’s your advice to Authors? On writing? Publishing? Marketing?

The old adage “write what you know” comes to mind as it certainly makes life easier. Having lived in the Brisbane region for over twenty years allowed me to explore the places where my stories unfold and get a better grasp of what the early settlers might have experienced. It’s always important to keep the reader in mind – who are you writing for?

An emerging author has little to no chance of being taken up by a major publisher so self-publishing is the only avenue. However, writers beware as there are a lot of sharks and dodgy publishing houses that are only after your money. I use which is funded by the Arts Council in the UK while Ingram Spark is another possibility.
Marketing is probably the hardest bit for most authors as we would prefer to be writing rather than trying to flog our books. There is no end of “how to” books telling us what we should be doing: book launch, author talks, website, social media etc.

WHITE GHOSTS By Richard Carroll – A review by Tony Cole

I have just finished reading this book by a local writer and I am happy to say that I enjoyed it enormously, and also that it gave me a lot of food for thought about how the European occupation of this country was managed and Queensland came to be the place it is.

At its root, this is historical fiction based on the lives of a real local family, the Petrie family, but as they were a very significant part of the history of this part of Queensland and were also very closely involved with the Aboriginal people of the area, it is also a history of Queensland, and more significantly, Brisbane.

The story is told through the experiences of a rich cast of characters starting with the first convicts to be sent here until the end of the first world war, so it is a huge canvas that Richard uses, and in fact it is a pretty large book as well.   But he manages his story remarkably well, and it remains spellbinding right up to the last page and our sympathies with the various characters, both European and Aboriginal, remain to the very end.

The characterisation of these people, mostly actually real people, is intriguing and for my part, I found that I cared about them all, both evil and “normal”, to the end of the book, and as an Englishman who obviously didn’t grow up in Australia, it gave me a much better insight into why things are as they are here – so a useful book on a number of fronts.

White Ghosts deals unflinchingly with the horrible way that both the convicts and the Aboriginal people were treated by their masters, and gave me a much better understanding of the horrors of both colonialism and the idea that you can create a functioning country by means of convicting your poorest people and sending them there.

Altogether an intriguing and highly readable book, that held my attention till the very last page, and left me in a thoughtful state as I mulled over in my mind the many points it made about the events that happened here over the last couple of hundred years.

So I can recommend it unreservedly as an enjoyable read, a way to discover a large chunk of local history and to give you a better understanding of the relationships which we all have with the land and each other.

White Ghosts is a book that should be read and thought about by everyone in Oz.


The Australian Billy-can has an Interesting History by Richard Ross

THERE is an interesting history connected with the Australian billy-can. The story dates back to the early gold-mining days of Victoria, when food was fairly difficult to procure and still more difficult to take to the diggings. It was found necessary to import from abroad large supplies of preserved pro-visions—tinned meats, stews and soups, &c. Among such supplies were cases of canned meats from France. These tins, branded -“Bouilli,” contained meaty mixtures and thick, soup-like stews for which the diggers developed a ready taste. The miners were unable to pronounce the trade-name of the mixture, so it was soon dubbed “Billy,” and in this way was struck the name that was soon to be adopted to distinguish the “Bouilli” brand of provisions. (“Bouilli” means boiled meat It is in the English dictionary.) The tins that contained the mixtures were of a very handy size and, when empty, many found use as water-boiling vessels. That they made suitable kettles and teapots was thus an automatic discovery. And so the “billy”-can was gradually introduced into general use.

A quick-witted fellow, anticipating that it had arrived to stay, decided at once to arrange for the factory manufacture of cans of similar pattern, and before long there appeared on the market the billy-can, pint-pot and quart- pot with neatly made lids and wire handles. Today they are sold in all sizes throughout Australasia and beyond by the millions: still simple, they remain much the same in shape and size as they were decades ago. Like a smoking pipe, the billy is not at its best until it becomes stained and blackened with usage—or, as the sundowner says, with “experience.”

Billy-boilng contests used to be popular in the Australian bush. The older the billy the quicker it boils. Experts carry billies burned to tissue- paper thinness, keeping them in calico coverings. Such billies will boil in two minutes. The competitors in these bush contests are required to gather leaves and wood, light fires, race to the creek and fill their billies, put them on and stoke the fires until the cans have boiled. Surreptitiously dropping a stone into another man’s billy is an old camp-fire joke. When the other quart-pots are boiling the “doped”‘ billy has still a long way to go, and the owner usually cannot understand it.

The Australian stockman’s outfit should include four billies—of four quarts, three quarts, two quarts and one quart capacity; they fit inside each other, so that the set can be carried by one handle. The largest size is used to carry water from the creek to the camp fire, the next to boil the mutton, the two-quart to hold the vegetables, and the smallest for tea.

To boil a billy quickly, place length-wise on the ground a petrol tin and cut in it a round hole just smaller than the billy; then cut out from a side of the tin a square large enough to accommodate the sticks. Next punch small holes all around the tin so as to create a draught and when this has been done make a fire inside and place the billy over the hole. The billy is an essential part of every bushman’s equipment. The original round, squat type is still the most popular, but several ingenious “improvements,” including convertible and collapsible types, have been placed on the market. The drover’s battered tin quart-pot is part of him. Being wider at the bottom than at the top, it is steadier and exposes more surface to the flame. A folding handle at the side enables it to be pushed into the fire, a mug fits into the top. The three-pint size is in most demand. A two-pint size is often carried inside it.

The average bushman considers billy tea the drink of drinks. Even many wealthy squatters, while out on the run drafting and dipping, &c, prefer it to the kitchen-brewed tea—providing it is properly made. For there is an art in preparing good billy tea.

Effort was once made to affix the trade name of “camp-kettle” to the billy-can, but it failed. Australians prefer the old tag. Henry Lawson’s famous “While the Billy Boils” should always remind us of the tradition that clings to the simple invention —an Australian heritage!

Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), Saturday 18 September 1937, page 13

Patrick O’Brian: Master Historical Novelist

master-and-commanderWhile reading a novel by Greg Iles I came across the name of Patrick O’Brian and looked him up on google. How could I have missed this master of the historical novel during my PhD research? I went straight to the library and borrowed the first book in the Aubrey/Maturin series, Master and Commander, published in 1969.

The story is loosely based on historical events during the Napoleonic wars. Jack Aubrey is a likeable, cheerful fellow, a strict but not tyrannical captain, an adherent to naval tradition, and one hell of a sailor. He loves music and enjoys wit and humour (though he is no wit himself). While he is a genius at sea he is quite hopeless on land and easily falls into the hands of miserable shysters who fleece him of his hard-won gains. Known as “Lucky Jack” because of his success in taking prizes, he works his way up through the ranks of the Royal Navy.

His particular friend Stephen Maturin of Irish/Catalan descent and described as quite ugly in appearance is a qualified physician and natural philosopher who has written a book about the treatment of sailors. His botanical studies and writings underpin his reputation as a brilliant scholar.

Jack and Stephen meet through music and it is this shared love that forms the foundation of their relationship as they spend many an evening at sea playing fiddle and cello together. Steven signs with Jack as ship’s surgeon so that he can visit far-off lands to pursue his research of flora and fauna. Stephen is also a spy for the British Admiralty and often finds himself in hairy situations.

O’Brian has created two wonderful characters with great depth and psychological insight; hms-surpriseother minor characters are well-rounded. He describes everyday life aboard a fighting ship in detail, taking the reader in for a close look at how the navy functions. One of the most important aspects of his writing is his use of language. Here is an example of how he describes some rotters: “slack-arsed, bloody-minded, flute-playing, fiddle-scraping, present-seeking, tale-bearing, double-poxed hounds.” He uses many old-fashioned words and phrases no longer used today to add much colour to the narrative. While this adds to the pleasure of reading it can at times be confusing as the meaning is not always clear. He also goes into much detail about sailing and one has to persist in learning the nautical terminology or simply let it slip past like the water rushing along the side of the ship as Jack adds more sails to coax an extra knot’s speed in his chase of a fat prey. Just the same I now know the difference between a spritsail and a topgallant.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is a 2003 film starring Russell Crowe as Jack and Paul Bettany as Stephen, which is based on three of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. If you enjoy the first book of the series you can look forward to another twenty, the last of which is an unfinished manuscript.

White Writing Black: 1 Whiteness and Representation

Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about appropriation and the ensuing reactions prompted me to dust off “White Writing Black” a major chapter in my PhD thesis. Here I present a revised edition of the first section and will follow with more later.

conrad-martens-stockmanThe non-Indigenous writer creating stories set in Australia faces a dilemma: whether or not to write about the Aboriginal people and their culture, and if so, how. In the words of José Borghino, policy director at International Publishers Association, “the politics of speaking in an Aboriginal voice, if you’re not Aboriginal, is at best fraught and at worst a nightmare.” However, to write a novel set in early Brisbane, as mine is, with little mention of the original inhabitants would be to provide a false impression, an inauthentic portrayal of the true situation and to perpetuate the myth of terra nullius. Yet, as a white person, if I include Aboriginal characters, I need to be aware of the complexities involved in speaking for and about their experiences.

Many Indigenous people still feel resentment and anger about our colonial past and the inability of whites to understand the circumstances that created the present situation. Aboriginal people are also angry about the way they have been portrayed in white literature. Jackie Huggins contends that much of what non-Indigenous people have written about the Aboriginal people “has been patronising, misconstrued, pre-conceived and abused.”

The majority of representations of the Australian Aboriginal people in literature before 1788 were for the most part negative. The original inhabitants of this continent were described as “the miserablest People in the World” by William Dampier, and as “naked, treacherous, and armed with Lances, but extremely cowardly” by Sir Joseph Banks. When Cook wrote about Australia in the 18th century, he said the Aboriginal people were uncivilised, thus paving the way for terra nullius and possession. They were further stereotyped by the early Sydney newspapers which ridiculed the so-called “civilised” Aboriginal people, thus creating the stereotype of the “‘ignoble savage’: an ugly, comic figure whose image persisted well into the twentieth century.”

Australian colonial texts were dominated by a “discourse of savagery,” Clare Bradford argues, which situated the Aboriginal people “on the very border between men and animals.” On the other hand, stories that explore the violence and displacement suffered by the Aboriginal people as a consequence of settlement, “call into question the legitimacy of Australia’s foundation and undermine notions of progress and growth, and they thus constitute a threat to colonial discourse.”

Larissa Behrendt argues that frontier narratives are “colonial constructions” that can promote a false image of settler interactions with the first people of Australia. She asserts that we must challenge the stereotypes embedded in the colonial mindset in order to combat its inherent prejudices in contemporary society and, in particular, the law. One such frontier narrative is Eliza Fraser’s story. Following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836, Fraser became a cult figure after her rescue and supposedly factual account of her time spent with the Aboriginal people passed into folklore, the extremely negative images of the Aboriginal people planted firmly into

Spearing of Fraser

Spearing of Fraser

the subconscious of countless whites. The impact of these types of narrative on Australian society was significant because they created “a version of history, which constructed stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians that gave impetus for the development of government policies and then continued to create societal support for ‘civilising’ through assimilative and segregative policies.”

The Aboriginal voice is totally absent from these “captivity” narratives which are used as vindication for politicians to intervene and control Aboriginal people, because “they” are dangerous and pose a threat to “Empire.” The real story, according to Behrendt, is that Fraser was saved by the Butchulla women, as she would not have survived without their help. The silencing of the Aboriginal voice denies the positive role the Aboriginal people played on the frontier–that is, they worked hard for the white people in various roles and, most importantly, how the women helped with childbirth and childcare. Fraser’s narrative, and others like it–which are supposedly authentic accounts of the past–disempower Aboriginal women and deprive them of “authority, responsibility and independence, making misogyny a legacy of colonialism for Aboriginal women.”

Colonial folklore and the law perpetuate the dichotomy of them/us, empire/other, civilised/barbarians. In response, Behrendt constructs her own narrative based on the 1997 Report, Bringing Them Home: “captured by savages . . . suffered cruel abuse at the hands of the savages . . . treated like slaves . . . suffered a fate worse than death.” In this way, she shows that it was the Aboriginal people who suffered violence at the hands of the colonisers, not the other way around.

reminiscencesTom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, though not a novel, is one example of a work written through “a sense of loss for traditional Indigenous lifestyles.” Walter Roth, Chief Protector of Aborigines, states in a letter to the editor included as a Note in Reminiscences that “the aborigines are fast dying out, and with them one of the most interesting phases in the history and development of man.” Constance Petrie was thus encouraged to record her father’s memories of the Aboriginal way of life before it was too late. In the mid-twentieth century, according to Margaret Merrilees, Australian novelists such as Eleanor Dark, Katherine Susannah Pritchard and Xavier Herbert were determined activists whose writing and political actions played a major role in bringing Aboriginal people into the drawing rooms of the white populace “at a time when few Aboriginal people had the resources, the language or the will to do so.” Contemporary Australians now have access to a wide range of writing by Aboriginal authors, beginning with David Unaipon’s Native Legends (1929) and continuing through the works of Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Kim Scott and Alexis Wright.

As a non-Indigenous writer I am aware that the Aboriginal people do not need me to tell their story and my decision to make those who inhabited the Brisbane area in the nineteenth century central figures in my novel is, as writer Margaret Merrilees puts it, “a conscious choice: a political choice, in the context of the times.” Moreover, I believe that a work that recounted Tom Petrie’s life without the Aboriginal people could in no way be an authentic rendering of the past.

In my opinion the interaction between the colonisers and the Aboriginal people is a shared heritage that can and should be explored by both black and white and that there are benefits for both sides in this process. Allan Robins argues that observing a culture from the outside can be beneficial and that representing Indigeneity from the exterior can promote understanding between cultures:

With due care, non-Indigenous representations of Indigeneity may prove useful, not only to the representer, but also to the represented: as Indigenous people become more aware of how they are perceived, and the changes that take place in those perceptions over time, they may become more able to formulate more and more effective understandings, responses and counter-representations of their own.

Positive representation of Aboriginal people by a white writer can lead non-Indigeindexnous readers to the realisation that Indigenous people are not really that different from ourselves. According to Melissa Lucashenko, Nene Gare in her The Fringe Dwellers (1961), “had the imagination and the life experience to portray for a white audience—and maybe for the first time—a world in which Aboriginal men and women are both decent and normal, despite their being treated as far less than that.” This positive recognition of the “other” heightens understanding and is a step along the path to reconciliation.

Young and Haley argue that, rather than harm Indigenous culture, writings by outsiders can benefit those cultures by stimulating interest and creating an audience for Indigenous literature. They further highlight the value of literature in inter-cultural understanding:

In the process of communication between cultures, literature has a vitally important moral role to play. It is through literature that readers undertake to imagine what it would be to be someone else, someone perhaps completely different, just as women can understand and imaginatively identify with a male character from the inside and vice versa, so can members of other cultural communities.

Stories written by a non-Aboriginal person about our common past thus represent an opportunity for discussion and the advancing of the reconciliation process. In order for contemporary Australians to move beyond the barriers of racism we need to look at our past relationships and recognise how they have shaped our present attitudes. According to Merrilees, “part of the way we unlearn our white racism is by telling stories, as honestly as we can—our stories of what’s happened, the interactions between races in this country.” It is this knowledge of where we came from, who our ancestors were and what they did that can lead us to greater tolerance and compassion for those who are different to ourselves. And these stories, especially if they are told by someone who has experienced Indigenous cultures, are important for all Australians. However, the way we tell these stories is critical to the way they are received by Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers alike.


Behrendt, Larissa. “The Eliza Fraser Captivity Narrative: A Tale of the Frontier, Femininity, and the Legitimazation of Colonial Law.” Saskatchewan Law Review 63 (2000): 145-84.

Borghino, José. “Rumbles in the Zeitgeist.” Australian Book Review 256 (2003): 46-47.

Bradford, Clare. Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne UP, 2001.

Huggins, Jackie. “Respect V Political Correctness.” Australian Author 26.3 (1994): 12-13.

Lucashenko, Melissa. “Introduction: Fighting in the Margins.” The Fringe Dwellers. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012.

Merrilees, Margaret. “Tiptoeing through the Spinifex: White Representations of Aboriginal Characters.” Dotlit 6.1 (2007): 1-14. 8 May 2012 <>.

Petrie, Constance Campbell. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland. St Lucia, Qld: U of Queensland P, 1992.

Robins, Allan. “Representing Indigeneity: A Reflection on Motivation and Issues.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. 12.1. April (2008). 17 August 2010 < >.

Young, O. James and Susan Haley. “‘Nothing Comes from Nowhere’: Reflections on Cultural Appropriation as the Representation of Other Cultures.” The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Ed. Young, O. James and Conrad G. Brunk: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.


Settling the Dust: Fairbairn Dam 1969/70:

I awoke at 6.30 am to the piercing shrill of my alarm clock and dragged myself out of bed. It was mid-December and the sun was already well into the sky and promising another scorcher. This was my first day of work in my first real job. I had just finished Grade 12 at the Emerald High school in Central Queensland where I had been named Senior Dux – not such a great feat as there were only eleven in the class.

tflood22c tm22/208/17 Fairburn dam still flowing freely on Thursday, February 21My step-father Bill worked for the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission (IWSC) and was the storekeeper during the construction of Fairbairn Dam on the Nogoa River about twenty kilometres southwest of Emerald. He had managed to get me a job as a labourer. At sixteen, I was 178 cm, skinny as a rake and wore thick black plastic-framed glasses. Not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The first day I was set to work on a compacting machine that vibrated and bounced up and down like a frenzied robot out of control. I was supposed to hold it and direct it along the bank of a small coffer dam. I think I actually bounced more than the bloody machine! At the close of the day my arms felt like they had been wrenched out of their sockets. I was totally exhausted and collapsed gratefully into my bed straight after tea.

Fairbairn Dam was being built to provide water to irrigate the rich black soil plains around Emerald. The small township built especially to house the workforce consisted of several distinct sections. The lowest of these was the quarters for the single men, row upon row of barracks, the great mess hall, and the shower and ablutions block. Next were the two-bedroomed huts for the married men, three-bedroomed huts for the married “staff” workers and a little further up the hill were the barracks for the single “staff.” Right up on top of “snob hill” were proper houses reserved for senior staff such as engineers and supervisors.

On my second day of work the foreman took pity on me and put me with a gang digging trenches for water pipes to feed a new section of huts. I swung a pick and heaved on a shovel until my hands were red and blistered. But worse was to come. For some unknown reason I found myself one day on the steep rocky slope of the proposed spillway, a huge jackhammer, that weighed about as much as I did, in my hands. The shaly rock had to be cut back to the required angle and this was the only way to do it. Since then I have done a large variety of jobs but this was by far the worst. I couldn’t get to sleep that night as it felt as though I was still on the spillway, my whole body and especially my hands still vibrating to the rhythm of the hammer.JackHammer

The dam wall was to be made from compacted clay and would stretch across the river between two high points. A vast area across the valley floor had been cleared of timber, which bulldozers had pushed into massive pyramids. I was handed a box of matches – my job: set fire to these stacks and pick up all the scattered bits of wood missed by the dozers. I thought I had landed in hell as the fires blazed. The usual temperature of forty degrees Celsius was cool to what I experienced that day.

Then I got lucky. I was assigned to look after the filtration plant that supplied water to the township. The small fenced complex sat on the top of a hill well above the houses. Muddy brown water was pumped from the river far below to a square tank on a tower. From there it passed into two conical shaped flocculation tanks where alum was used to settle the silt out of the water, after which lime was added to rectify the ph and finally chlorine was added to kill any germs. The water was then stored in an enormous block of a tank before being distributed to the town. My job was to ensure the right mix of chemicals went where they were supposed to and to make sure everything worked correctly. It was a cushy job and I had time some days to sit reading a book and smoking my pipe in the cool shade under the flocculation tanks.

When I turned seventeen in January and got my driver’s license I was given a ute to drive to work, an arrangement that was soon cancelled when I turned too sharply into the complex and the steel fence post scored jagged gashes along the left side of the ute. With head bowed, I showed it to Karl Moser, the German foreman, who exploded. “Vot haf you done to my car? Bloody hell!” Needless to say, I had to walk up the steep hill to work after that.

In the few weeks I was guardian of the water there was only one other real disaster. One day I forgot to turn the pump from the river off – it was automatic normally – I don’t know what happened but river water was coming up and no chemicals were going into the system. When the people in their houses turned on their taps, a thick brown undrinkable mess poured forth. I kept a low profile until the dust had settled, literally.

“Country” and Aboriginal Heritage

Aboriginal rock artCountry embraces all aspects of the Aboriginal people’s relationship to the flora, fauna and physical nature of their environment. They see themselves as integral to, and responsible for, the land they inhabit. Country also encompasses the spiritual world; the landscape comes alive through spiritual beings and ancestors. Aboriginal people know their country intimately – their survival depends on their knowledge of flora, fauna, landscape and weather.

Photo by Alberto Otero Garcia

The Australian Aboriginal people see themselves as guardians of the earth and its creatures, they are an integral and vital part of a multitude of interdependent bonds with the universe; their attachment to where they live is their essence. Professor Deborah Bird Rose defines country as “a place that gives and receives life”, she imbues it with consciousness. Country nourishes the body, mind and spirit, it is home and peace. Aboriginal people believe they are responsible for the wellbeing of the country and as Rose says: “A fundamental proposition in Indigenous law and society is that a country and its people take care of each other”, and that “those who destroy their country destroy themselves”. The birds and animals are regarded as relations, while country is perpetuated through every aspect of daily life and particularly in ritual, dance, song, stories and art.

The fundamental nature of the relationship between the Aboriginal people and country makes it essential to any discussion of heritage. The Department of the Environment and Heritage states that, “Although people’s attachment to place is an integral component of understanding heritage values, this has been neglected in the past”. Aboriginal heritage is as vast as the land of Australia and as deep as the wells of the universe, but despite 50,000 years of continuous habitation, the Aboriginal people have left relatively little material evidence of their society.

Yet their country is full of monuments and their culture is steeped in meaning if we are prepared to look beyond the superficial. Of course the land they have walked for countless centuries bears witness to their presence in the shape of middens, quarries, bora rings, rock art and so on, and these are important parts of their heritage. But in many areas the links between Aboriginal people and the land are not necessarily evident to the western eye. We have difficulty discerning the significance of sites where no direct physical evidence of habitation is present; this is why it is essential to understand the Aboriginal concept of country because it highlights the links the Aboriginal people have with the land. Sacred sites may look ordinary to westerners, a particular landscape feature may seem banal, but to the Aboriginal people it could play a vital role in the Dreaming or it may be the manifestation of an ancestor.

Aboriginal artPhoto by Alan Levine

One of the most important aspects of Aboriginal heritage is their knowledge of the natural systems in which they evolve. Unlike the majority of westerners, the Aboriginal people have lived in close proximity to the earth for millennia; they know the life of ants and kangaroos, they know what plants are good for food or medicine, they know where to find water in an arid waste, they know when to burn the land. This knowledge, this heritage, is precious; it must be preserved and used to preserve…country.

The Bunya Pine

800px-Old_Araucaria_bidwillii(Photo by Bidgee)

Before the arrival of the white colonists, the bunya pine was of significant importance to the Aboriginal people of South-East Queensland. Despite its name, the bunya pine (Araucaria bidwilli) is a conifer and not a true pine. The genus name Araucaria has its origins in the word Arauco, an area in Southern Chile where the monkey puzzle tree (A, araucana) grows. The second part is named after the botanist John Bidwill the first “scientist” to describe the tree in detail. The first whites to see the bunya pine were escaped convicts in the 1820s. According to Constance Petrie in Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland 1904, her grandfather, Andrew Petrie, first discovered the tree and gave some specimens to Bidwill who sent them to England where the tree was named after the botanist, rather than Petrie.

The bunya is endemic to Queensland, being found in the south-east of the state and in two small stands in the far north. The tree is thought to have a life span of 600 years; it occurs naturally on basaltic soils and in areas where the annual rainfall is greater than 1000 mm. The conifers are considered to be very ancient with relatives dating back to the Jurassic period, 175 million years ago. The tree can grow to a height of 45 metres with a diameter of 1.5 metres while the branches form the shape of a dome.

Every three years, the bunya pines produce an abundant crop of nuts packed into a cone bigger than a man’s head, and capable of cracking the head if it happens to interfere with the cone’s descent when it eventually falls from a high limb. Roasted in the coals, the nut is delicious and the Aboriginal people loved it. The Aborigines considered the “bon-yi” as they called it as sacred. When a multitude of nascent cones appeared on the trees, messengers were sent far and wide to invite everyone to a great feast in the Bunya Mountains and the Blackall Range. Each tree was owned by an individual and no one      else was allowed to harvest the nuts; the “owner” would climb the tree using a vine and toe holes cut in the trunk though Tom Petrie said that the Aborigines would never have cut a tree and only used a vine to climb. People came from as far south as northern New South Wales and north to Bundaberg, numbering 600 to 700 in the Blackall Range but perhaps in their thousands in the Bunya Mountains. The nutritious nut was eaten either raw or roasted, though it was not the only food eaten during the festival.

Paddy Jerome, Jarowair elder and Bunya Mountains custodian, underlines the importance of the Bunya Mountains and the bunya pine to the Aboriginal people:

The Bunya Mountains, that means our Mothers’ breast – Boobarran Ngummin. This is a very sacred place. To us it is equal in status to Uluru. To all the tribes of South-East Queensland and Northern New South Wales it has been very significant, in fact for thousands of years, perhaps 60 000 years and that’s a long, long time. Our people would gather at the Bunya Mountains from these areas. It is very important that we get the right perspective on these gatherings. Some people think it was just to gorge on bunya nuts. No, it was very deeply spiritual arousing of ceremony. We went to suck the breast of our Mother, who gave us this, the spirituality that was so intense that it was part of our bearing in this country, our Mother Australia, the Earth. We are sucking the breast, sucking the milk, the bunya nut, from her.


(Photo by Dgies)

The festival was a huge celebration featuring corroborees, exchange of news, trade, marriage arrangements and fighting. Popular belief held that the Aborigines were cannibals and would feast on those who died in the fights or from disease and old age; some people went as far as to say that they made sacrifices as well.

There seem to be few written accounts or legends about the bunya; the only legends found were presented by John Mathew in Two Representative Tribes of Queensland, 1910:

The Rivals

The Bonyi (bunya) and the Kuloloi (cypress pine) being rivals, at one time had a great fight…Then they began to fight and Bonyi speared Kuloloi low down, hence all its lower branches are like spears. As for Bonyi, it was speared high up, which accounts for the lower part of the stem being clear of branches to this day.

The Revengeful Lover, or How the Nicks Came on the Wild Plum

There was once a Bonyi that fell in love with a dainty little tree called Kulvain, which bore a bluish-black fruit like a plum. So he went to Kulvain’s father thinking he had only to ask and the girl would be his and he said unceremoniously…[ The father refuses and Bonyi is enraged] Bonyi then slashed away at Kulvain’s father, and that is why the fruit of the Kulvain is marked all over with nicks at the present day.

The widely available scientific details about the bunya pine are indisputable for the most part. That the bunya is ancient seems beyond doubt; however the facts concerning its evolution are contentious due to the difficulty of obtaining exact information from fossils. Tests done on the nut show it to be a rich source of carbohydrates, and therefore confirm its importance as a seasonal food source to the Aborigines. Scientific knowledge of the bunya is of great help to westerners in a pragmatic sense. Yet the doors are closed on the metaphysical aspects of Indigenous knowledge, which are deemed beyond the realm of scientific endeavour and therefore of little significance. Perhaps the most important document concerning Aboriginal contact with the bunya is Constance Petrie’s recording of her father’s experiences. His eyewitness account of the actual festival is of great value as a historical record, though there may be some inaccuracies due to Petrie’s memory of events.

There is much more scientific information than Indigenous knowledge regarding the bunya. It could be argued that westerners are obsessed by detail and that we have the technology and means to satisfy our curiosity. Science is only interested in instrumental values and the benefits that can be gained from knowing something scientifically as opposed to the Aborigines who venerate nature for its intrinsic value as well. The dispersal of the Aborigines led to the demise of the bunya festival towards the end of the nineteenth century. Aboriginal knowledge and tradition was handed down orally from generation to generation; the destruction wrought by the colonists on Aboriginal society has meant that much knowledge has been lost. Much Indigenous knowledge is secret, only available to initiates and therefore beyond the reach of westerners.




Tom Petrie Monument

tom petrie memorial 1911 queenslanderTom Petrie passed away in 1910 and was honoured the following year when the Governor of Queensland, Sir William MacGregor unveiled a monument in his memory. At the same time, the name of the township that had grown where Tom had settled some fifty years earlier was changed from North Pine to Petrie. Many people in the area were opposed to the change and the debate raged in the community for years afterwards.
When first erected, the monument stood about fifty metres from the School of Arts on the opposite side of Redcliffe Rd. The 15 ft 6 in. (5 metres) high structure consisted of a sandstone obelisk with a marble tablet set into its surface on which Tom Petrie’s epitaph was inscribed: “Pioneer, Patriot, Philanthropist.” A stone water trough connected to a nearby windmill lay alongside the monument. A tap and small bowl on one side allowed people to drink. The monument has since been moved and now stands in front of the School of Arts building.
The inscription on the monument is as follows:

(1831 – 1910)
ON JULY 15TH 1911,

NP school of arts

North Pine School of Arts