Award-winning author Liam Pieper reflects on his research and writing revisionist historical novel Bittereinder, which explores the fate of Indigenous Australian soldiers who fought for the British in the Boer War.
Liam Pieper is the 2018 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.
Image: Burning Farm Houses (detail), c. 1902, nla.cat-vn3408903
*Speakers: Kevin Bradley (K), Liam Pieper (L)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 31 July 2018
K: For those of you who don’t know me, Assistant Director General, Australian Collections and Reader Services so – which gives me the great honour of carrying the responsibility for the Library’s outstanding Australiana collections. And my great pleasure tonight is to introduce you to our guest speaker this evening, journalist and writer, Liam Pieper. But as we begin I acknowledge the – and celebrate the first Australian on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present. And tonight’s presentation makes this acknowledgement of traditional owners especially pertinent as Liam’s research has pursued those lesser known stories of indigenous Australians who participated in the Boer war at the very end of the 19th century.
Now Liam’s background may already be familiar to those of you who have dipped into his memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year and this – I won’t make it as long as the book, don’t worry, Liam, that’s – this hilarious but bittersweet tale of misspent youth is Liam’s third book and with all three titles being published by Penguin Australia and hitting the shops before he turned 30. Liam’s CV records that he also worked extensively as a ghost writer so there may be several more works hiding out there in the marketplace. He neither confirms nor denies, I know.
As Liam relates in the autobiography he was born in Melbourne, a starry-eyed flower child of hippie parents who inhabited a 35-room Victorian mansion cum group house. Liam’s worked as a cook, a music critic, an itinerant labourer and gained an honours degree in English literature from Monash University and a Grad Dip in journalism from RMIT. He has since been a regular writer for The Age, The Good Weekend and Meanjin and an in demand panellist at literary festivals and a frequent guest on the radio including Radio National, ABC Melbourne and independent radio, 3RRR.
In pursuing his talent for writing Liam has stacked up numerous awards including winning the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Christina Stead Fiction Award in 2017 for his debut novel, The Toymaker. The Feel-Good Hit of the Year was shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime Award. And if that wasn’t enough he was also the inaugural Creative Resident at UNESCO’s Prague City of Literature program in 2015 and corecipient of the 2014 M Literary Residency alongside Man Booker shortlisted author, [Gique Fail] 2:30. To add more – one honour to that heady list Liam of course was the 2018 Creative Writing Fellowship for Australian Literature here at the Library sponsored by Ray Matthew and Eva Kollsman Trust, a generous bequest made by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing in memory of Australian poet and playwright, Ray Matthew. The Fellowship offers a grant to support Australian writers working in any literary genre to undertake an intensive period of creative development at the Library using the rich and varied collections as an inspiration or to incorporate or transform sources into a new creative work.
Now Liam completed his Creative Writing Fellowship residency in mid-May which he used to research the historical backdrop to his new novel, Bittereinder or The Bitter End or Bitter End. It is evident from his literary output that Liam does not shy away from difficult topics. The Toymaker took on the subject of the holocaust and his new novel continues this curiosity for topics difficult and less told. As Liam reflected in the 2016 Guardian interview, I write in both fiction and nonfiction because they allow different approaches. Sometimes you need the power that only veracity can bring to writing, sometimes you need to explore the deeper truth that can only be excavated through fiction. With this approach in mind we are very excited to hear tonight Liam’s experiences researching the elusive topic of Australia’s indigenous Boer war soldiers through the Library’s collections and his reflections on the creative process of reinterpreting history through friction – through fiction - and friction, I’m sure, in the process – and translating the historical episodes into characters, dialogue and gripping storylines. Please welcome Liam.
L: Thank you very much. Can I just check that my levels are good? Can everyone hear me? And if you could please lower your expectations. When you read out the bio all in a row like that it sounds impressive but I assure you I’m just a guy with a poorly researched talk.
I would like to take a moment, please, to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and the Nganbury people and pay my respects to elders past and present as well as any elders who may be present with us today and/or watching through the miracle of technology. This is an acknowledgment that the sovereignty of these lands was never ceded and the moral and legal implications of invasion are still unresolved. To the traditional owners of this land and custodians, thank you for having me.
I’d also like to thank the National Library of Australia for having me as well. Your generosity and investment in my work has allowed me to be here tonight and it’s an extraordinary privilege, a once in a lifetime opportunity for a humble word schmuck like myself. Specifically I’d like to thank the Eva Kollsman and Ray Matthews Trust whose generous bequest allows the creative fellowship program to flourish and there are just too many wonderful staff, librarians and researchers to individually thank but I’d like to extend my gratitude to Director General, Dr Mary-Louise Ayres – am I pronouncing that even remotely correct? Wonderfully. And Fellowship leader, Susan Thomas, for shepherding us fellows so wonderfully. The Oral History Department as well, shout out to you guys, without you I’d be lost. And I’d like to extend special thanks to Rebecca Bateman, the Indigenous Curator here at the NLA for her guidance and advice in cultural and storytelling matters. And slightly further afield, Michael Bell, Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial for the same.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that the following talk contains images and stories of deceased people.
I was hoping to fill up my entire talk just with my thanks but I guess I’m going to have to get into the meat of it now. The vast majority of that – of what I’m talking tonight comes courtesy of better researchers than me. I wish to acknowledge the research – no, I'm not done yet, back into it – the research inspiration and perseverance of many historians, John Maynard, Dale Kirwan, Philippa Scarlett, Colin Henshaw, Bill Willmay, Peter Backer, many others, historians both professional and volunteer who have collectively worked together to piece together the history of Aboriginal people’s involvement in the second Boer war.
And I should start by talking about what made me want to write on this subject in the first place which is the legend of the lost Aboriginal trackers of the Boer war. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this story it goes something like this. The Boer war of course was a colonial conflict between the British empire and two independent Dutch-speaking Boer republics, the Boer being a Dutch Afrikaner word for farmer. And originally a pejorative it was reclaimed as a point of pride you know we’re the Boer, we’re tough, we’re people with the land.
The war had three phases. In the first short phase the infantry dominated British army. Up until then pretty indomitable, was besieged at several points by [amount] 7:53 of Boer forces that were more mobile and better suited to South Africa’s rough terrain. The second phase of the war saw the British launch a major counteroffensive and then it left them in control of most of the major towns in South Africa including the two Boer capitals, Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
The third phase was the longest, lasting from September 1900 to the end of the war in May 1992. During this time the Boers conducted a guerrilla campaign against British forces, hitting supply lines, logistics, camps and the British struggled to counter. The Boer would appear from the veldt, hit the British and then disappear, leaving nothing to shoot at but ghosts. They called themselves the Bittereinder or the bitter enders and swore they would never surrender. The British responded famously by imprisoning Boer civilians, women and children, in concentration camps where they died by the thousands.
By late 1901 facing an international PR nightmare the British were desperate to put an end to the fighting. Recognising his force’s weaknesses, particularly poor mobility and susceptibility to ambush, Commander of the British Forces, Lord Kitchener, requested trackers from Canada and the colonies of Australia. William Willis, a New South Wales parliamentarian, a stock agent, who was making a fortune from the war selling horses and fodder to the army began to agitate for sending over the requisite trackers. He secured Prime Minister Barton’s backing and informed Barton that he would send 50 bush trackers on board a steamer ship called The [Uralis] 9:23.
On 15th of March 1902 Barton wrote to Governor – to the Governor General stating that Mr Willis will dispatch 50 bush trackers aboard The [Uralis] carrying a consignment of horses for the High Commissioner and asked that Kitchener be notified by telegram which we see here. The steam ship, [Uralis], departed Sydney on 14th of March 1902 and arrived in Durban on 21st of April 1902. On board was a consignment of the much coveted Australian [waywar] 9:53 horses, so-called because they were bigger, stronger and healthier than anything else the empire could offer and, so goes the legend, 50 Aboriginal trackers.
When the conflict ended in 1902 troops returned home but it was slow-going. There was a large number of Australians who had been left behind after the war, not taken back on the troop ships or who had already been in South Africa before the war either to work as mercenaries or who’d been living there for years before the conflict and they sought to return home to Australia as the South African economy went into recession.
In 1907 George Velda, a commercial agent for New South Wales and South Africa, was sent to repatriate distressed Australians. He spent three months in Capetown finding Australians who could not pay their passage home and arranging loans for them. In a long, long document home he provides a list of Australians trying to get home and flags the problem under the heading, the colour question, raising the issue of several Australians of colour wishing to be repatriated. Here's an excerpt from the document. As you can see here, the colour question. It’s long, I won’t go into it but a pertinent part of it – as the Immigration Restriction Act states that coloured persons from Australia cannot be allowed to return unless they have prior to leaving the Commonwealth obtained a permit, advised these applicants accordingly. He refers to maybe – I don’t know exactly how many people but some Australians with darker skin who wouldn’t be allowed back into Australia, specifically singles out two or three of them as Aboriginal. Yeah.
So he wrote to the Prime Minister seeking clarification who responded that all persons born in Australia must obtain a special permit from the Commonwealth before they are permitted to land. They’re referring obliquely here to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 which is a policy that excludes people of colour from entering Australia on moral grounds, commonly known as the white Australia policy. So it would appear that Aboriginal Australians, elite soldiers, trackers, travelled to South Africa to fight for Australia and when they tried to return home they were refused entry into the country their ancestors had lived for 50,000 years on the basis of the colour of their skin. After that they disappeared, the trail goes cold, they simply disappear from history stranded far from home.
Now when you work in literature you're always looking for stories that sort of serve as an exemplar of greater injustices to work as a sort of microcosm to the state of one’s nation or of the human condition and so the idea that our soldiers who are you know our diggers are one of the few sacred institutions in our society. The idea that Aboriginal soldiers were abandoned abroad because of domestic racism raises the hackles, it’s a horrifying idea.
So I started researching the story here at the Library with the view of writing a novel about it and the question I came up against very quickly, thanks largely to the work of the aforementioned researchers, is did it really happen? Were there really Aboriginal trackers left behind in South Africa or is it the stuff of legend? And after spending a month in the archives I can confidently answer that it is a resounding maybe.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The shipping manifest for departure lists – and list of passengers lists apart from crew only four men on board The [Uralis] described as tradesmen and stock agents. So what happened to the 50 bush trackers that Barton promised were on that ship? Hundreds of horses are a lot of work for four stock agents so it’s very possible there were people, maybe 50 people, on board the boat but left off the manifest. Years later Willis, the stock agent running the boat, would boast in the papers that he’d sent over 600 troops altogether using this method. And this fact dovetails very nicely with the testimony of John O’Sullivan, a mounted police officer from New South Wales who writes that over 50 members of his New South Wales mounted police who included Aboriginal men in its ranks served in the mounted bushmen.
I should take a minute to talk about the term, bushman. Bushman is a term you see thrown around a lot in the press back then you know 1900, 1901 and it was sort of a catchall term for the stereotypical Australian frontiersman, rugged, resourceful, the sort of man who could tame the wild bush and reforge it to look you know more like England.
In the latter stages of the war several Australian bushmen’s [contingents] 14:42 - whenever I’m doing this it’s because something’s in quotes and I’m not articulate enough to expose that through my voice so you're going to see a lot of these tonight - several bushmen’s [contingents] were raised specifically for service in South Africa even in Australia or actually in South Africa from Australians who travelled there on their own steam and then joined regular brigades. These men were required to be good shots and of sound physique, men who had lived – who through their lived experience had been you know on the frontiers of Australia were naturally suited to guerrilla combat with the Boer.
Military experience was not essential, in fact it was frowned upon and if one goes and looks through the diaries of the soldiers, many of which are available in the Library here - I spent a lot of time reading terrible handwriting, just you know Dear Mother like whoof – but if you look at these diaries particularly before the war many are sceptical of military process, of drilling, of training. They thought these would be counterproductive to the natural horsemanship and marshal ability that just came with being Australian, being Australian was meant to be sort of a superpower. It’s not unlike the attitude the Socceroos took in the recent Cup. Sorry.
I think it’s worth paying attention to how romantic the idea of fighting this war was to the men who would actually fight it before they left. Kenneth MacKay, a politician, pastoralist’s son, poet and officer who in 1901 took command of the 6th Imperial Bushmen in South Africa, had six years earlier published a science fiction novel called The Yellow Wave, a romance of Asiatic invasion of Australia in which a combined Chinese and Russian invasion force in Queensland is repelled by a militia of untrained bushmen. Six years after publishing that novel he raised a militia of untrained bushmen and took them to South Africa.
We have his papers here. He’s a very influential figure of Australian history who went on to I believe found the army reserve after world war one. He’s a famous military figure but within his papers I found this thing which is quite charming. These are newspaper clippings from an American paper which are basically cartoon depictions of the Rough Riders who are – if you’re unfamiliar with them they’re an American volunteer cavalry that fought in the Spanish American of 1898. They were led by Colonel Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt who – Teddy Roosevelt, we all know him. And it was very sort of a macho – it was as much a cultural institution as a military force you know cowboys going to war. And it would appear – I read in the papers that Kenneth MacKay was very much influenced by these men and tried to emulate something like that in South Africa. I just think it’s very interesting, this idea that this austere military figure who’s been so influential in Australian history had kind of a boyish side, kept a scrapbook with these heroes of his.
By the way are you familiar with scrapbooks? They have some wonderful scrapbooks here – they’re based you know as people cutting out things from the paper or whatever that were interesting to them and like keeping it. You know like I’m sure we all did it in our youth but it turns out they’re quite valuable historical documents when a researcher years later is going through it. It’s not unlike if someone was to discover your Google history, you know? Or your you know your hobbies and your innermost things. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt researching this book it’s that you should destroy your documents when you die. I think if the Library want me to communicate one thing to you it’s leave no trace for the next generation ‘cause you know someone will eventually be up in front of a mic stalling and denigrating your pictures of the Rough Riders.
Anyhow so the bushmen were an Antipodean answer to American cowboys and they captured the public imagination. Our populism held that to outmanoeuvre mounted farmers the army needed mounted farmers, men who’d ridden and shot and found their way through the bush so if 50 trackers were secluded on The [Uralis] chances are they would have ended up in one of these units to emulate the Rough Riders. And actually some of the best soldiers in Australia for this kind of combat were Aboriginal men.
The Australian native police were a paramilitary force made up of Aboriginal troopers from several language groups that usually operated in small units overseen by a white officer. They operated largely in Queensland and were instrumental in the dispersal of Aboriginal people during the Australian frontier wars – war period, particularly active between 1850s and 1900. Dispersal was a colonial euphemism for the displacement and ethnic cleansing of people from their traditional lands. The native police of Queensland in the 19th century were a uniform force, crack shots, expert horsemen, skilled trackers, well trained in drilling tactics and proven killers. They had a very particular skillset and had proven hugely effective in putting down insurgencies and tracking guerrilla fighter through hostile country. They were the plutonic ideal of the sort of fighters Kitchener was asking for. In the modern context they might be compared to a special forces unit. They had a fearsome reputation and that wasn’t lost on their officers.
Now this talk will have some racialised language in the original sources. We don’t use these terms anymore but they used them back then so I will quote them with my apologies. Here’s a telegram from the police magistrate of Burketown offering the services of one of his troops, a half-caste, a mixed race volunteer. One is offering that he is a good man by a white man and an Aboriginal mother and has received schooling. There is no recorded response to whether this offer was taken up but it’s one of those echoing silences in history, a tantalising possibility but it’s not proof.
The Chief Protector of Aboriginal People in Queensland, Archibald Meston, wrote to the Queensland Premier offering to organise and lead a small body of around 50 bushmen who could act as guerrilla fighters and scouts. There’s that magic number 50 again. He didn’t specify that these bushmen were to be Aboriginal but 16 years later during the great war he sent through another offer to raise another unit of north Queensland Aboriginal warriors who were skilled in hand to hand fighting and would equip themselves well in the trenches, to quote.
Again no response is recorded but the likelihood is the offer was ignored or declined. No matter how good these troops were the colour of their skin would have been an issue, certainly was in world war one, there were specific laws against people of – you had to have largely European heritage to enlist in world war one but that came later. There were no specific proscriptions against Aboriginal men serving in the armed forces but colonial Australia was a profoundly racist place, not in the sense that some people are racist but that the entire imperial system and the colonial enterprise was predicated on an idea of racial hierarchy and those ideas filtered down into every aspect of society.
The war between the British and Boer forces was in theory a white man’s war. The English command was fighting to save British colonial prestige and they weren’t going to enlist coloured troops against a white enemy. It would have been a terrible look in Europe where many of the great powers were already sour – relations against the British had soured because of their treatment of the Boer and to send in Indian or African troops from across the empire to kill white people would have gone against the racial attitudes of the day and undermined the empire’s own racist propaganda.
There’s a Rudyard Kipling short story which was published in December 1901, height of the war, called A Sahibs’ War. Does anyone speak Urdu here? A Sahib was a colonial term for master, basically. And in the story – sorry, in north India during the Raj. In A Sahibs’ War a Sikh officer makes a decision, captures some Boer guerrillas and makes a decision to hand them over to an Australian unit because to execute them himself would be above the station of the Indian troops. White man’s war.
So when Australia offered up soldiers of colour it appears that they were largely ignored even though there was no real rule against it but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. There are a handful of stories of black trackers serving in Australian units either in contemporary press reports or that turn up later on in memoirs and other books. Banjo Patterson mentions an Australian regiment that brought over a black tracker who got himself lost in the bush. An article in The Sydney Morning Herald highlights two black trackers, Davis and F King who were taken on the strength you know taken as a whole unit. And there’s a very highly publicised story from a 1902 book, The Black Police of Queensland, that tells the story of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy who served in South Africa and won a bet for Australian troops because some superior British officers insulted his tracking ability and so he challenged them to try and escape him, five of them in the bush and he tracked them all down one by one and won the Australians – I think it was either cash or rum but was there a difference back then?
Mostly though sources when they mention a black tracker don’t specify that they were Aboriginal men. The sources don’t bother to mention you know if they were you know from Gadigal or [Yonga] 25:01 or - for example, they were simply black and because of that description they were very possibly African because even though it was ostensibly a white war the British ended up bringing in reserves from across the empire and both sides used African labour. About 10,000 black men were attached to Boer units where they performed camp duties and as the war wore on – when I wrote that sentence I didn’t realise how it would say – they were armed and – these Africans were armed and unofficially engaged in combat. The British Army employed over 14,000 Africans as wagon drivers and within those ranks they recruited spies, guides, trackers and eventually armed them too. By 1902 there were about 30,000 armed Africans within the British Army.
Now you don’t see a lot of them in the sources. These photos were taken from a soldier’s personal camera, these are not official war photographers, they’re not from the press, this is just somebody’s happy snaps of the war and they give you an idea of just how prevalent and how common soldiers of colour would have been in the war even if they weren’t [centred] 26:28. I’m also very jealous of this guy’s outfit, he looks supercool. Look at that boater.
So this is – gives you a clue to the reality of what it was like to be a soldier of colour serving in this war. But when you look at the official sources you get something more like this. This if you read the newspapers from the day is what an African messenger working for the British military looked like. So the disconnect between the reality and the presentation of this war and in many ways they were representing contemporary media filtered through many, many layers of systematic prejudice, you know? It’s – it seems fairly clear that soldiers of colour weren’t entered into the narrative because they didn’t fit into the colonial view of the world. Some scholars have asserted that this legendary 50 trackers I spoke of at the top would have had their names left off the nominal rolls because they were indigenous. The facts stand, though, there isn’t much hard evidence that the 50 indigenous trackers were sent over on The [Uralis].
Since the legend first surfaced early in 2000 military historians have been combing nominal rolls and have found little supporting evidence. If they were sent over as part of the army even ostensibly as cooks or bullock drivers or grooms or whatever, if they had a cover story they would have been paid, receipts would have been kept for equipment and weaponry. And there is the fact that indigenous trackers were specialised, valuable and highly prized by police and paramilitary forces in Australia. They would have been missed.
One reason - the legend persists though and one reason I think it has is because it inspired so much interest in the modern context because we rely on historical sources especially newspapers and back circa 1900 we have what appears to be a good old-fashioned Australian media beat-up. On the 6th of January 1902 The Bendigo Independent inexplicably reported that Kitchener had asked the Governor General to send black trackers. He did ask for Canadian – first native Canadian trackers and Canada offered first nations’ trackers but the black seems to be a flourish from The Bendigo Independent. The next day the same newspaper declared that Kitchener had also requested black trackers from Australia. An article in The South Australian Advertiser, Aborigines for South Australia, suggested that King Jackie of Turramurra and King Tommy of Bennelong, aforementioned warriors, bold and lusty, could be advantageously employed in South Africa.
The spectacle of one of our Aborigines – I apologise for the use of the term – in full attire of white [clear] 29:16 stripes, [fluff], spear and [waddy] suddenly appearing at dawn would severely bother both and perhaps demoralise the most adamantine dobber. Even I’m a better writer than that but it gives you a window into it. The language is hyperbolic and antiquated and not especially chill in its depiction of indigenous Australians but it is fawning in a demeaning, exoticising, objectifying kind of a way. It reads a little bit like a fan fiction. And if you look at the papers and at the popular literature of the day there’s something of a vogue for what they called black trackers.
Across the colonies there was a lot of public interest and enthusiasm for the ability of some indigenous people to track people across country. There are many stories of legendary trackers who were able to assist lawmen track down bushrangers or escaped convicts or in finding lost children by reading tracks and landscapes. Media coverage of trackers who had helped apprehend high profile bushrangers and fugitives included Ned Kelly and Jimmy Governor, made for intense public interest in the skill. The papers of the day feature not infrequent human interest stories where a child wanders off into the bush or a drover gets lost and rescued with the help of trackers. So people were interested and sources show that people would be dismissive and disrespectful to most indigenous culture but in awe of this one part of it.
In his 1911 history of mounted trooper politics in Australia A L Hyden writes - it’s not so much a chapter as a paragraph in which he insults Aboriginal art, culture, intelligence, genetics, family, social structure and then in the same breath rhapsodises about the beauty of some men’s ability to track animals and people through the bush. As becomes a people living so purely in the wild state the Aborigines had developed certain arts and crafts to a degree that bespeaks of very high intelligence. It’s almost like they’re written by different people. Still condescending but nicer than what came before. One only needs to refer to their marvellous power of tracking human beings and animals, for example. But it’s a good example of the sort of double standards in play, on one hand the rhetoric was dehumanising, at the same time it described respect to the abilities to those traditional tracking skills.
So what do they mean when they say black trackers? Essentially it’s a catchall term for Aboriginal Australians with a specific set of skills, the ability to follow tracks, signs, spore, footprints and an intimate and often vast geographic knowledge of land and country. Often these trackers worked with police and law enforcement and were quite high profile. In the Library collections here in Oral Histories there are wonderful interviews with Aboriginal lawmen and trackers through the years that give a window in how they worked. They’re really – they’re fascinating, you know? As someone who spent much of my – the early years of my professional life trying to avoid detection by police it’s incredible to get this window into another world.
For example everyone when they walk barefoot will leave a different footprint and men who worked in these communities – who worked in communities could tell who had left a footprint just by the tread of their gait. If a child had wandered off they knew exactly where that – who that child was, where they were going and how far they would walk. Skills in tracking animals too. It’s worth checking these interviews out just for their – to get a window into how it all works ‘cause it’s quite wonderful. For example the only animal that couldn’t be tracked by very skilled trackers is the wombat because it’s so kind of chubby and low to the ground that he destroys his own tracks as he walks so you can’t tell when he’s moving forwards or backwards. Which would actually be a good animal to put on the Australian flag, I think. If anyone from the House is here tonight you can have that for free.
So a tracker working in a community will know the footprints of everyone who lived there and the habits. There’s a great oral history of a tracker working in the 1960s in the NT who was able to work out who robbed a convenience store just because they knew the tread and state of wear of every tyre in the town. What colonial Australians thought of as supernatural tracking ability, it seems from the way it’s described by these men can be attributed partly to the intimate understanding of the land and how people would respond to it. You know this lost child would be going this way ‘cause it’d follow the gentle slope of a hill down into a valley. These bushrangers would be hiding out on this outcrop because it provided a view of this valley and you could go around this way to jump them.
Once a tracker picked up a trail they could surmise where it went. Some of them were as much forensic psychologists as they were bushmen. There’s a great story in Dawn magazine published in 1957 that tells the story of a tracker named old Ned who was an elderly man who had the habit of wandering around town and picking up cigarette butts and emptied them into a little tin and then rolling them up later on. But whenever the cops – so police – whenever the police could not solve a crime they would call him in. And there’s this one case where they – he was called to a remote cabin and there was an old miser who lived there, was famously sitting on a fortune, they found him murdered. There’d been heavy rains, no tracks, no clues.
So they called in old Ned and old Ned came in and like he wanders around and just pokes at this and that then he picks up the cigarette from the ashtray and opens it up and tips it into his little tin and then he announces that the suspect is a tall man, tall, bald man in tennis shoes wearing a trench coat. He then – police match this description, they went down, got a warrant, came upon the suspect and sure enough he had the loot from the crime scene. And they asked Ned how he’d done it and eventually he gave it up and said he just knew how everybody rolled their cigarettes and the murderer had smoked a cigarette and he threw in the other details just for theatre. So it’s a cool skill and understandably the public were enamoured by these trackers and the idea that when Kitchener asked for Canadian trackers, the idea that their trackers were better than Australians sparked some sort of weird parochialism that overrode even the racism.
So this flurry of media interest and the troop-raising efforts from officers, that’s as close as hard evidence as we have to the 50 trackers that left on The [Uralis]. There are any number of references to Australian native bushmen who served in the Boer war but this is kind of confusing as contemporary resources refer to – when they refer to a native Australian they usually refer to a second generation European immigrant and as far as we can tell the bushmen’s contingents were predominantly white. There were however Aboriginal soldiers, not necessarily trackers, who did go to South Africa. From what we can tell they were treated as equals by their fellow soldiers and returned home safely. Altogether between 10 and 12 Aboriginal men have been confirmed as having served in South Africa.
Alfred Ernest White for example was an Aboriginal man from Gongolgon, New South Wales who enlisted in the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles, served with distinction throughout the war. His discharge papers rated his war conduct and character as exemplary. After the war he could not find work in Sydney and travelled to New Zealand where he settled in South Auckland, raised a family and lived happily ever after. Very different fate to what one would imagine.
A few of the troops that have been identified seemed to enjoy their experience of war. John Locke, a [Darag] 37:45 man from Sydney, enlisted in the Colonial Mounted Rifles and served with distinction and wanted to do it again. So a man named Alick Bond did two tours of the Boer war. He served once, came back a bit war-weary but then missed the life, went back again. When the great war broke out he tried to enlist repeatedly but was knocked back because of his age, he was quite – of quite an advanced age by then but he kept going back again and again until finally they let him reenlist despite the proscription against Aboriginal men serving in world war one and he served the last months of the war on the base just so that they could say that he’d served. It was important to him to serve the country, it would appear.
Anecdotal evidence points to a few unnamed Aboriginal trackers being part of contingents from other Australian colonies including four who were part of a unit and were reportedly abandoned in South Africa and left to find their own way home. Confirmation of this has proved elusive, much of it is anecdotal and much of it can’t be backed up by other sources. So this is a photograph of Jack Alick’s unit. The New South Wales and Queensland companies. He’s up there on the top right. Here’s a detail about it. You can’t really see him but there he is. There were Aboriginal men in the war and it’s seen as at least in this case they were treated no differently than anyone else.
So there were Aboriginal men in the war. The big question that struck me, that stirred my curiosity more than anything else is why? Given the rawness of the frontier and the savagery of colonial annexation why would any Aboriginal man volunteer to fight for the invading British army? The answer seems to be for the same reason any young man would want to fight, for glory, adventure, money, the desire to defend country.
There’s another soldier who fought in the Boer war, signed up for the great war, started it in Gallipoli and ended up on the western front in France, saw some of the most horrific battlefields in history. To fight two wars for a country that’s taken so much away from you in the previous four or five generations you know to go from living a traditional way of life to being on the western front, what an incredible thing. What does that do to a person? What sort of journey is that? What motivates you?
I’ve spoken to indigenous soldiers who reckon these men would have fought for the same reasons they did in modern conflicts, fighting pride, love of country. The desire to be part of something greater than yourself. What motivates any soldier? These men remind me that we should be reflecting on these stories with pride, with - the fact that these men served is something that should be celebrated. But still why? It would take me a lot to go to war, I’m not really the height for it. But it’s worth looking at the culture at the time.
At the beginning of the conflict the Australian Boer war was incredibly popular, it was top of the pops, really. The prospect of war was the most exciting thing to happen to Australian forever. All across the empire everyone wanted to be a part of it. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem, The Absentminded Beggar, which was I guess the colonial equivalent of a viral hit. He was already one of the empire’s most popular emerging poets but this poem was published – syndicated across the empire. It’s an appeal to give to the war fund. It was set to music about three weeks after it came out and it became a huge dance hall hit, people would go and see this song performed and then pass around the hat and donate money to the cause.
It’s hard to underestimate what a cultural hit this song, this poem and the fervour it raised was. It raised a quarter of a million pounds which is a chunk of change back then and Kipling was offered a knighthood which he refused. Which is unlike him, he was normally quite a self-promoter. In Australia people waited outside newspaper offices to read the latest despatches from the battlefronts. News at the relief of the seize town of Mafeking was greeted with parties like in 1918 and 1945. Effigies of the Boer leader, Paul Kruger, were attacked in the street by crowds of children. Papers printed photographs and profiles of officers and soldiers like modern-day sports stars.
They were just – they would run these kind of like little profiles of the officers who were serving and what they were doing. It was all very glamorous. To go to war was to make yourself – was to literally expose yourself to sort of syndicated newspaper fame. Here’s the home boy, Winston Churchill, who served in the war as a young journalist. He’d already been in conflicts in Africa before then but he covered the war for the British papers and his reports from the war are both rousing and somewhat self-aggrandizing. So you can see the glamour attached to this.
Volunteers who went must have been terribly excited. The idea was that you would join one of these Australian bushmen contingents and prove yourself better than Tommy and the English troops. The whole country seemed to get behind it. To record the coming victories and those of the rest of the army Australian sent a dozen or more war correspondents including Banjo Patterson who was covering it for The Sydney Morning Herald. Rest in peace. It’s a very sad day for an old hack like me.
Also bound for South Africa were the first members of what would prove to be a steady stream of Australian men who stowed away on a ship or paid their own passage, often at reduced or indulgence rate to enlist at Cape Town, Durban or Port Elizabeth in an irregular consignment. This is a thing – this is another one of those interesting little gaps in history. Men would stow away on a ship and thereby be undetected, be off the record and then <inaudible> 45:14 pop up in Africa and then join the army. So you never know.
Why were people so eager to fight? Looking back on it it seems like Australians should have naturally sided with the Boer. The idea of a bunch of ragtag farmers fighting a hopeless war against an impressive imperial invader matches pretty closely with Australia’s image of itself. At the time however we saw ourselves differently, we were good citizens of the empire. Australians generally thought of themselves as British with a secondary identity as colonial citizens of say Victoria or New South Wales rather than the rubric Australian.
As Mark Twain noted when he toured Australia, when Australians use the word, home, it usually meant Britain. And it was said in an almost unconscious, caressing way. Yeah but you know Mark Twain could go on. But there’s that famous opening line from The Go Between, the past is a different country and they do things differently there. Things were different back then.
As racist and horrible as the treatment of many people were we tend to look at indigenous colonists’ relations with the homogenous view you know we look back with our view tinted by the horrors of the stolen generation, the missions, the indentured servitude, the genocide but it isn’t that simple. Australia in 1900 was not Australia as we know it, we are not federated yet, we were a collection of colonies under the protection of the British crown, each with their own laws, economies and attitude.
At the same time these colonies were plonked in the lands of existing language groups, each with their own laws and customs so things were complicated and granular. A farmer on one part of the land would be a completely different relation to another further up the bay.
There’s an incredible wealth of oral histories here at the Library and if you listen to them you get the sense that things weren’t so clear-cut. Colonists’ attitudes to Aboriginal Australians were not uniform and therefore not uniformly negative or condescending. Often they were well meaning if a little condescending, some people it turns out spoke a little language and had a curiosity of and a rudimentary understanding of culture. You can read pages of the day and find letters to the editor about settler Aboriginal friendships, even poems.
And up until federation when racist [legislation] 47:38 started to be hard-baked into our society you’ll find examples of people who had curiosity and admiration for first nations’ people although of course this too was influenced by prevailing attitudes of the day. But generally the general living conditions and freedoms of Aboriginal people, particularly in the north, things were quite bad in Victoria but at the turn of the century they were not complex – I mean they were complex, they were not uniform.
In some areas, particularly across New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland people had managed to re-establish themselves on country either through traditional modes of living or adopting western farming practices or a mixture of both. Records indicate that Aboriginal families prospered on farmlands they cleared, fenced and grazed on, winning prizes, making money, opening bank accounts. It’s important to recognise the freedom, movement and opportunity for Aboriginal people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were far greater than that – than they would endure through most of the 20th. The level of institutional and legislative racism and restrictions that came with that began to accelerate after 1910 and particularly so around the first world war. But when the Boer war broke out there was no official restriction on Aboriginal people enlisting in the Australian military. And the colonial world was much more mobile than you would think. Australian Aboriginal people found work on ships, travelled to other countries in the colony.
There’s actually an Australian guy who turned up in a Maori unit in New Zealand who turned out to be an exemplary tracker. There was a goldrush to South Africa in the 1890s so it’s entirely possible that Aboriginal men travelled there to try their luck as miners. So even if the legend of the lost trackers to support it there were likely Aboriginal tackers embedded in Australian units and there were definitely soldiers in the ranks and there were certainly Aboriginal people in Australia in 1907 – sorry, Aboriginal Australians in Africa in 1907.
The [Velder] 49:37 Report clearly states that out of the thousand or so men, women or children seeking to return home a number were coloured people who were natives of Australia and two or three were either Aboriginals or Aboriginal half-caste. Now evidence strongly suggests that these men were military as 80% of [Velder’s] applicants produced discharge papers. The math played out that these men were probably soldiers. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they make it home? We don’t know. Archival sources are limited and the Boer war experience of Aboriginal soldiers offers more gaps in the stories than full closure.
We know that some men volunteered to fight for the British empire and were turned away while others were accepted and fought with bravery and distinction and as such they should be honoured in the same manner as all Australian veterans. And we know there were at least three Aboriginal people stranded in South Africa who were probably soldiers. They aren’t the mythic 50 trackers but they were three people and three people is too many. One is too many.
So that’s the stories I identify. And that’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been able to establish as fact. But how does one translate that into fiction? As loath as I am to admit it as a middleclass white man there are some stories that are not mine to tell. It would be deeply inappropriate of me to appropriate a story of any of the men I’ve spoken of tonight and even if I was going to go there I don’t know how I would do it justice, I don’t have enough of the story. But there are those gaps in history that are shadow <inaudible> 51:18 clues and within them there are echoes of truth. When you write fiction that’s sort of where you play. You find these gaps in the facts and you try and excavate the greater truth. Like I said earlier that was me when I was a lot smarter.
The story I’m writing apropos of all this information, I don’t think – I won’t go into it to too much detail ‘cause it’s all very arcane and in case my agent is watching, she’ll expect a manuscript. Hi Grace – I think the greatest story is at home. I think there is – I’m writing a story about soldiers in Africa trying to get home. Everyone knows what it’s like to want to get a home, it’s a universal truth applicable to all people. And one tries to find those universal truths in very specific stories but there is a greater story back at home, the story of dispossession you know the story of the young man who – don’t know what he looks like yet, don’t know what he acts like but something drove him to leave this country and fight in another because of something here. That’s a hell of a story and I think there’s enough here to write that.
But of course you know how that takes shape, I don’t know, it would probably have to be – but there’s a juxtaposition we found in the story of the Boer war and the story at home. There’s a war in Africa and there was a war at home. Concurrent to the South African war there were still murders, still dispossessions, still dispersals happening across country here. Those stories need to be told too. And there’s clues out there in the archive that I’ve picked up which we won’t have time to go into today. But the wealth – when you're writing historical fiction you're always sort of taking a guess to how things were. My time in the Library here has been invaluable for that because one of the most valuable things about the vast archival wealth here at the Library is that they hang onto the ephemera of everyday life you know Pompeii was such an important archaeological discovery not because you know the – any great historical figures were there although Pliny, the elder, did cark it there but there was no you know there was no Rosetta Stone found there, there was no you know Tutankhamen but there were you know the ephemera of everyday life you know there was a complete Roman city preserved in one moment.
The homes were – the way homes were built around the social hierarchies, the obscene graffiti on the walls, the way people dressed all got preserved in time. And in Australia we don’t have Pompeii but we do have tabloid newspapers and if you look at the newspapers you can see what mattered to a society. And not just in the articles and letters to the editor but the advertisements, you can see what was important to the people by what they advertised to then, entertainments of the day, the pop songs. You can do – one of my favourite authors does what he calls shoplifting you know I couldn’t tell you exactly how someone spoke in 1915, you know? In 1901 but the oral histories here for example recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s are people recalling their childhoods in 1900 and 1890. And that’s – then you can find out how people talk, you can get their speech patterns down, you can borrow that. You can read contemporary paper reports to get an idea of what people thought. You can look at what people did for entertainment, you know? Minstrelsy was in vogue back then which gives you an idea of how things must have been for some sections of our society.
And with that ephemera you can also read between the lines you know the Boer war was covered in minute detail by the press but by and large the coverage was a certain kind of – by a certain kind of white male adventurer self-aggrandizing, often white supremacist. Who knows how much – how true it is you know Banjo Patterson wrote reams of material about what a good horseman he was but there’s an oral history here of – by a soldier who worked with him in the first world war when he got a gig breaking horses and he says that he was terrible with horses, that he was rude and impatient and cruel to his animals. So you can’t believe everything you read and the Boer war was a grand adventure for these men, who knows how much truth they’re telling, even their own truth?
If you read about Waterloo or Stendhal or even Tolstoy, the bullets are whistling merrily and people fall off horses and are killed but there’s none of the sickening butchery that war is. James Salter who flew jets in the Korean war said that in a war that – in a war without unanimous moral urgency a soldier can be obsessed with making a place in history as the war in itself may not warrant one.
So I guess with this book I’m trying to write here I’m trying to make that place in history for a war that is looked back on as one without particular moral urgency and one in which atrocities are hidden. And at the same time atrocities are hidden at home, these are things I’m exploring in the work. Although the numbers of Aboriginal men serving in the Boer war may have been small it appears that similarly to the first world war those that did serve may not have returned home to a life recognised as heroes. While some of them went on to enjoy full lives others seem to have become disillusioned on their return to Australia. One Western Australian trooper, John Seal, survived the war but apparently tried to commit suicide shortly after his return.
Jack Armstrong, another soldier, was found shot through the chest next to a discharged rifle. If these men went to war hoping to prove themselves as equal to the white coloniser or to prove something to themselves or refute they’re emasculating racist stereotypes about Aboriginal men. They must have come home disappointed. Australia only grew more condescending towards first nations’ people with tragic consequences we are all familiar with. One can look at the archival sources of the day and see the rot start to set in and I think that’s something worth exploring and in fact <inaudible> 58:41 on the matter, that’s when fiction tries to step in and that’s what I’m trying to do. And thus ends my rant.
K: Liam, thank you, thank you. We’ve got time for a few questions and Susan has some microphones so if you’d like to ask Liam something more, something further, raise your hand. One up the back here and we can wait for the mic ‘cause we’re streaming so the world –
A: Liam, why fiction rather than writing a factual history of the Aboriginal involvement in the Boer war?
L: Excellent question. The facts – I don’t think that’s my story to tell. The factual history of the Aboriginal soldiers in the Boer war has been very adeptly and well explored by Aboriginal researchers and academics who have a more personal stake in it than they do – sorry, than I do. Some stories aren’t mine to tell but the reason why I guess the story of these black trackers who went over and disappeared who may not have ever existed so it appeals to me. It’s a black story but it’s also a white story, it’s the story of a greater injustice upon which this country was built explored in a different theatre. Often I think you can explore ideas more adroitly by taking it slightly away from the focus you know you look at it cockeyed like a magic eye puzzle, you let your vision go fuzzy until it snaps into focus again in a different way.
I guess part of the reason why I wouldn’t write a nonfiction book here is because that isn’t my story to tell. Another part is I’m not that good you know my talents seem to lie in fiction these days and fiction provides – fact is great and stirring and the facts deserve to be recorded and told and told again but I work slightly adjacent to that you know fiction gives you a slightly broader canvas to work with, it lets you zip all over the place, it lets you bring in ideas that might not necessarily seem to make sense at first, when I’m trying to explain this to answer your question, for example. The juxtaposition, the correlations between the colonial war in Africa which had horrifying ramifications for people of colour in Africa, things went very badly.
As a direct consequence of the war Africa was sunk into – South Africa was sunk into recession and as part of – as one solution of that the brutal system of apartheid rose as a way to exploit African labour and try and repair the African economy. That’s a very simplistic view but it’s part of it. So things went terribly for people of colour in Africa after the war and not well in Australia either. So there’s this centrifugal moment when the two countries met in conflict and the idea that an indigenous soldier would be part of that with no idea of what the future held, I think there’s a friction there so yeah, friction was correct at the top which is fascinating you know has those sparks that just kind of seem to – that’s a very, very vague and not a very satisfying answer but this is why I write novels instead of go on the radio, my articulateness lies elsewhere. Thank you for the question, I’m sorry if that doesn’t answer it very well.
A: I just wanted to say that if you have a pedagogic intent to inform people about this massive injustice then wouldn’t a historical narrative be more persuasive? Because people are not meant to believe what is in fiction. This is difficult.
L: True. True but my you know my ancestral enemy’s the factchecker and I have – there are some stories that are best examined through the lens of a single person. I don’t have enough information on any of these soldiers to really – to do their story justice but there are elements you know there are elements of stories here and here and here. So you can provide like a picaresque you know a sweeping view of one event and the way it links to the next and the one links to the next that you can’t – in the way history happens. We tend to look back on history as you know the big events, you know? Like a sort of a mighty ship cruising through the ocean but it doesn’t – history doesn’t happen like that, it takes a long time to happen and all the events that are happening, we might not be privy to at the time and to stack them up next to each other is a form of artifice and it’s a form of skill that when it’s done right is incredible and exemplary, you know? Formative texts like The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire or you know there’s some incredible books on world war two. There’s been a book or two written about world war two, heck, I wrote one but those vast sweeping texts are a very specific skillset and you need a lot of facts and a lot of research and I don’t have that, I have fragments and shadows. you know. But there was enough for Plato, he could run his cave off the back of those so you know I’ll throw back to that tradition in this case. Thank you for the question.
A: Thanks Liam, a terrific topic. In your research did you discover what Aboriginal storytelling or oral tradition, does that touch on this story? And flipping the coin are there any Boer references to Aboriginal trackers?
L: There are war references to Aboriginal trackers, one or two. And anecdotal and not backed up. In oral histories in communities with you know in Aboriginal families and so forth there are people who have been in the Boer – who were in the Boer war, not as trackers but as troopers. And we found out about them later on you know they often – it was never recorded on your war record that you were - if you were a soldier in the Boer war you know it wasn’t recorded that you were an Aboriginal man. They – there’s a few newspaper reports that refer to a soldier being Aboriginal but normally it was pieced together by historians and researchers. A guy called Peter Backer who’s done incredible work in this field by like going back and crosschecking Australian soldier nominal rolls against names in communities and the stories that have just been handed down from person to person you know like oh yeah, my great-great-grandfather was in the war, yeah, he didn’t talk much about it.
There was a you know there’s a number of reasons why stories are lost or kept private you know some stories aren’t for my ears. There’s also the fact that the Boer war was – grew unpopular shortly afterwards you know while it was a very popular war to begin with you know British atrocities damaged the prestige of the empire and it became less fashionable and less popular and people seemed to look back on it with less pride from what I can tell. You know when I was a child the only real education we got on the Boer war was we would watch that movie, Breaker Morant, you know and only on those afternoons when the teacher was hung over you know and she would put on a VHS. So the image we had of the war was that it was you know Australian troops being used as cannon fodder by the empire that didn’t understand them you know sort of a precursor to Gallipoli, I guess we’re looking back at it thorough that historical lens.
So are there – I’m yet to discover any oral histories of what they would have called black trackers in Africa. Several soldiers but they just might have not talked about their experience. And then you know stories get lost in time so if anyone has one please holler at me, I’m very keen to hear them but for now yeah, I’m still holding out. Thank you.
K: Well I’d like to thank Liam, I think we’ve got to come to a close there but that was wonderful and I find it – I become very proud of our collection when I hear what incredibly detailed things people are doing with the collection, looking at the broad sweep but finding the detailed complexity of individual story. That was – I’ll come to work with double the enthusiasm tomorrow just based on that so – but we’ve run out of time but we can continue the conversation outside with some refreshments. So may I recommend our next fellowship lecture on the 22nd of August when National Library fellow, Elizabeth – Dr Elizabeth Burrows analyses how mainstream and alternative media have enabled, hindered and documented the development and transition of the Aboriginal rights movements in her lecture, Mediating the Movement, Aboriginal Rights and the Media, From Origins to <inaudible> 10:37. Until then please join me in thanking Liam Pieper.
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