ANNE SCRIMGEOUR On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike, Western Australia 1946–1949. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan
Anne Scrimgeour’s history of the Pilbara Aboriginal Strike recounts a pivotal moment in Australian history when white pastoralists had to start paying their Aboriginal workers.
In 1946 Aboriginal workers on the remote sheep stations of the Pilbara walked off the job in support of better wages and conditions. It was the start of a three-year battle against pastoralists, police and the punitive Native Administration Act that, against all the odds, the strikers won. Skilfully blending official documents with newspaper accounts, letters, and her own interviews with the participants, historian Anne Scrimgeour tells the story of this long-running strike. She builds a picture of almost anthropological complexity of the relationships between the local Aboriginal population, their pastoralist employers and the authorities. It’s a detailed, scholarly work, with footnotes and a list of over 70 characters, but the storytelling is front and centre.
Scrimgeour begins in the 1860s, with Europeans moving into the Pilbara to establish sheep stations, securing the land by force, killing the local Nyangumarta people (marrngu) or bringing them on to ‘native camps’ to work on the station or in the homestead.
By the 1940s:
… the overt violence with which pastoralists had originally secured and retained Aboriginal labour had … been replaced with a complex relationship in which loyalty and paternal benevolence overlay a continuing undercurrent of intimidation and denigration.
The local police force could always be brought in to intimidate, bringing back workers who stayed away in the bush too long, or mounting dawn raids on camps to shoot their dogs.
Long-lasting friendships did spring up between white and Aboriginal children, in spite of the power imbalance. But in general the rich cultural life of marrngu was of no interest to the white settlers. Although heavily dependent on their labour, station owners claimed that allowing Aboriginal people to stay on the station was an act of charity. In a claim that was repeated often over the following years, it was said that for every stockman employed they were also supporting a crowd of freeloading relatives and indigents. This was not true, as Scrimgeour shows — almost everyone worked on the station or in the homestead, often for no pay. Even as the pastoralists sentimentalised the relationship, the workers were clear-eyed about the distance between them and resented it. As Caroline Jula told Scrimgeour:
‘We only get little bit of bread, and meat, stink, you know, and old tea. Everyone bin get’m, for dinner. In the hand, no plate, nothing.’
According to Billy Thomas (Pitpit):
‘… whitefellas are giving us pretty low. We’re doing more work than whitefellas. He’s sitting down there and writing that he’s doing that, but we’re doing that, not him. We don’t get paid for that. We live on rough tucker and never treat us proper way.’
Chapter 4 introduces us to miner and prospector Don McLeod. Starting out with mainstream racist views –
‘I said, well, blackfellers like living in the open and the squatters fed them, and they’d be a charge on the state if they didn’t feed them – just the normal thing that people had to say about blackfellers, because I knew no better’
— he was to become a tireless and strategic battler for Aboriginal rights. His visits to Perth, where he met communists and other left-wing activists, was one factor in opening his eyes to the causes of Aboriginal disadvantage. But it meant he quickly became tainted as a communist, and the authorities used this against him at every opportunity, refusing to negotiate with him, even when it was clear that he, and not the local Protector of Natives, had the knowledge and confidence of marrngu.
One of the best features of the book is Scrimgeour’s interviews with the local Aboriginal people recorded in the 1990s, which makes their perceptions equal to the documentary evidence and allows different views of the same events. For example, in Don McLeod’s memory the genesis of the strike was when he was invited to a meeting of lawmakers from all over the state, where he explained the principles of organised action, ‘and they said … “Well will you guide us and show us how to go about it?” And of course, I was silly enough to promise that I would.’ According to Clancy McKenna (Warntupungkarna), the old people had been discussing for years the injustice of their situation and how they might get greater control over their lives. They respected McLeod because he informed them of their rights, but he was only one part of the picture. As McKenna put it, ‘McLeod gave us hint about the strike and we took it up.’
White complacency was an essential factor in enabling the strike to be organised. Although the authorities kept an eye on McLeod, much of the work was done under their noses by local men who travelled from station to station across the Pilbara, assessing the willingness of the stockmen to withdraw their labour. For people who had long experience organising ceremonial and law events across country, it wasn’t so difficult. The police constable at Port Hedland, Les Fletcher, recommended the removal of four of these men, but this was overruled by the Native Affairs Inspector who doubted that Aboriginal people had the organisational capacity for a strike.
The strike was set for 1 May 1946, the beginning of the shearing season. It wasn’t an immediate success. The police went from station to station threatening the workers with jail. The complex relationship with the station owners made it difficult to stay on the station and not work. On some stations they won a temporary increase in pay for the shearing season, but other station managers refused to negotiate and evicted them. But the fuse had been lit. After leaving their stations to attend the race carnival in July 1946, many stockmen and domestic workers refused to go back to work and instead went to a campsite near Port Hedland.
Over time this camp and others developed into strong communities, subsisting on kangaroo meat and trading ration cards for the tea, sugar and tobacco they had become addicted to. They found alternative sources of income through tin mining and selling kangaroo and goat skins. In spite of frequent visits from the police and Native Affairs trying to return strikers to the stations, visitors from Perth to Twelve Mile camp found a clean, well-organised communal kitchen and a school for the children.
For half a century the Native Administration Act had been used to control and supervise all aspects of Aboriginal life. The legal means to dismantle the camps existed, as:
… marrngu who refused to shift their camp when ordered to do so by a Protector of Natives could be prosecuted … or removed to an institution under ministerial warrant, but the number of strikers involved, the strength of their organisation and the high degree of public interest in the situation led the Department to shy away from employing these options.
A significant group of Aboriginal people living, working and travelling about independently undermined the whole point of the Act, and over the next three years, the police, the Department of Native Affairs, the courts and the Parliament all weighed in to try to get marrngu back to work.
The Department thought that the arrest, imprisonment and removal of ringleaders would be a solution, and two organisers were sentenced to three months for trespass. The strikers declared themselves willing to fill up the jails, and a larger group was arrested and charged with ‘enticing Aboriginal workers away from lawful employment’ in contravention of the Act. But the sight of 32 men arriving in chains and handcuffs at the Marble Bar jail did not play well down south, or even in the town itself:
The association of chains with slavery, together with the fact that many Aboriginal workers were unpaid, gave rise to national and international accusations of slavery in Western Australia.
The Seaman’s Union threatened to ban the shipment of wool from ‘slave stations’.
After three fruitless years deploying its customary tactics, the Department finally came to believe the solution lay in giving the strikers what they were asking for and pressured pastoralists to lift their game. They still refused to deal with McLeod, and this caused tension between the strikers who simply wanted to improve their working conditions and those who wanted the right to organise and choose their own representatives. During 1949 many went back to the stations, this time with signed employment agreements, guaranteeing better pay and freedom of movement. Others chose not to return to stock work but continued mining in smallholdings across the Pilbara.
By the end of the strike the tight nexus between the pastoralists, the Department and the police had broken down in mutual recriminations. The Pilbara strike served as a warning to pastoralists in other districts to improve conditions for Aboriginal workers on their stations. Marrngu were now aware of their rights and that could never be undone.
This exhaustive, but not exhausting study sheds a fascinating light on a neglected corner of Australian history, and the many factors — the good and bad intentions, the misunderstandings, hubris, pragmatism, idealism, timing and luck — involved in the process of social change.
Anne Scrimgeour On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike, Western Australia 1946-1949 Monash University Publishing 2020 PB 540pp $39.95
Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.
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