Invisible Country

How to Cite

Hair, M. (2005). Invisible Country. M/C Journal, 8(6).
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

The following article is in response to a research project that took the form of a road trip from Perth to Lombadina re-enacting the journey undertaken by the characters in the play Bran Nue Dae by playwright Jimmy Chi and Broome band Kuckles. This project was facilitated by the assistance of a Creative and Research Publication Grant from the Faculty of Communications and Creative Industries, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. The project was carried out by researchers Kara Jacob and Margaret Hair.

One thing is plainly clear. Aboriginal art expresses the possibility of human intimacy with landscapes. This is the key to its power: it makes available a rich tradition of human ethics and relationships with place and other species to a worldwide audience. For the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands, their appreciation of this art embodies at least a striving for the kind of citizenship that republicans wanted: to belong to this place rather than to another (Marcia Langton in Watson 191).

Marcia Langton is talking here about painting. My question is whether this “kind of citizenship” can also be accessed through appreciation of indigenous theatre, and specifically through the play Bran Nue Dae, by playwright Jimmy Chi and Broome band Kuckles, a play closely linked to the Western Australian landscape through its appropriation of the road trip genre. The physical journey taken by the characters metaphorically takes them also through the contact history of black and white Australians in Western Australia. Significantly, the non-indigenous characters experience the redemptive power of “human intimacy with landscapes” through travelling to the traditional country of their road trip companions.

The road trip genre typically places its characters on a quest for knowledge. American poet Gary Snyder says that the two sources of human knowledge are symbols and sense-impressions (vii). Bran Nue Dae abounds with symbols, from the priest’s cassock and mitre to Roebourne prison; however, the sense impressions, which are so strong in the performance of the play, are missing from the written text, apart from ironic comments on the weather.

In my efforts to understand Bran Nue Dae, I undertook the road trip from Perth to the Kimberley myself in order to discover those missing sense-impressions, as they form part of the “back story” of the play. In the play there is a void between the time the characters leave Perth and reach first Roebourne, where they are locked up, and then Roebuck Plains, not far from Broome, yet in the “real world” they would have travelled more than two thousand kilometres. What would they have seen and experienced on this journey?

I took note of Krim Benterrak, Paddy Roe and Stephen Muecke’s Reading the Country, a cross-cultural and cross-textual study on Roebuck Plains, near Broome. Muecke talks about “stories being contingent upon place … Aboriginal storytellers have a similar policy. If one is not prepared to take the trouble to go to the place, then its story can only be given as a short version” (72). In preparing for the trip, I collected tourist brochures and maps. The use of maps, seemingly essential on any road trip as guides to “having a look at” country (Muecke ibid.), was instantly problematic in itself, in that maps represent country as colonised space.

In Saltwater People, Nonie Sharp discusses the “distinction between mapping and personal journeying”:

Maps and mapping describe space in a way that depersonalises it. Mapping removes the footprints of named creatures – animal, human, ancestral – who belong to this place or that place. A map can be anywhere. ‘Itineraries’, however, are actions and movements within a named and footprinted land (Sharp 199-200).

The country journeyed through in Bran Nue Dae, which privileges indigenous experience, could be designated as the potentially dangerous liminal space between the “map” and the “itinerary”. This “space between” resonates with untold stories, with invisibilities. One of the most telling discoveries on the research trip was the thoroughness with which indigenous people have been made to disappear from the “mapped” zones through various colonial policies. It was very evident that indigenous people are still relegated to the fringes of town, as in Onslow and Port Hedland, in housing situations closely resembling the old missions and reserves.

Although my travelling companion and I made an effort in every place we visited to pay our respects by at least finding out the language group of the traditional owners, it became clear that a major challenge in travelling through post-colonial space is in avoiding becoming complicit in the disappearance of indigenous people. We wanted our focus to be “on the people whose bodies, territories, beliefs and values have been travelled though” (Tuhiwai Smith 78) but our experience was that finding even written guides into the “footprinted land” is not easy when few tourist pamphlets acknowledge the traditional owners of the country. Even when “local Aboriginal” words are quoted, as in the CALM brochure for Nambung National Park (i.e., the Pinnacles), the actual language or language group is not mentioned. In many interpretive brochures and facilities, traditional owners are represented as absent, as victims or as prisoners.

The fate of the “original inhabitants of the Greenough Flats”, the Yabbaroo people, is alluded to in the Greenough River Nature Walk Trail Guide, under the title, “A short history of Greenough River from the Rivermouth to Westbank Road”:

The Gregory brothers, exploring for pastoral land in 1848, peacefully met with a large group of Aborigines camped beside a freshwater spring in a dense Melaleuca thicket. They named the spring Bootenal, from the Nyungar word Boolungal, meaning pelican. Gregory’s glowing reports of good grazing prompted pastoralists to move their flocks to Greenough, and by 1852 William Criddle was watering cattle for the Cattle Company at the Bootenal Spring. The Aborigines soon resented this intrusion and in 1854, large numbers with many from surrounding tribes, gathered in the relative safety of the Bootenal thicket. Making forays at night, they killed cattle and sheep and attacked homesteads. The pastoralists retaliated by forming a posse at Glengarry under the command of the Resident Magistrate. On the night of the 4th/5th July they rode to Bootenal and drove the Aborigines from the thicket. No arrests were made and no official report given of casualties. Aboriginal resistance in the area was finished.

The fact that the extract actually describes a massacre while purporting to be a “history of Greenough River” subverts the notion that the land can ever really be “depersonalised”.

At the very heart of the difference lie different ways of being human: in Aboriginal classical tradition the person dwells within a personified landscape which is alive, named, inscribed by spiritual and human agents. It is a ‘Thou’ not an ‘It’, and I and Thou belong together (Sharp 199-200).

Peter Read’s book Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership contains a section titled “The Past Embedded in the Landscape” in which Read discusses whether the land holds the memory of events enacted upon it, so forming a tangible link between the dispossessed and the possessors. While discussing Judith Wright’s poem Bora Ring, Read states: “The unlaid violence of dispossession lingers at the sites of evil or old magic”, bringing to mind Wright’s notion of Australia as “a haunted country” (14).

It is not surprising that the “unlaid violence of dispossession lingers” at the sites of old prisons and lock-ups, since it is built into the very architecture. The visitor pamphlet states that the 1890s design by George Temple Poole of the third Roebourne gaol, further up the great Northern Highway from Greenough and beautifully constructed from stone, “represents a way in which the state ideology of control of a remote and potentially dangerous population could be expressed in buildings”. The current Roebourne prison, still holding a majority of Aboriginal inmates, does away with any pretence of architectural elegance but expresses the same state ideology with its fence topped with razor wire.

Without a guide like Bran Nue Dae’s Uncle Tadpole to keep us “off the track”, non-indigenous visitors to these old gaols, now largely museums, may be quickly led by the interpretation into the “mapped zone” – the narrative of imperialist expansion. However, we can follow Paul Carter’s injunction to “deepen grooves” and start with John Pat’s story at the Roebourne police lock-up, or the story of any indigenous inmate of the present Roebuck prison, spiralling back a century to the first Roebuck prison in settler John Withnell’s woolshed (Weightman 4). Then we gain a sense of the contact experience of the local indigenous peoples.

John Withnell and his wife Emma are represented as particularly resourceful by the interpretation at the old Roebourne gaol (now Roebourne Visitors Centre and Museum). The museum has a replica of a whalebone armchair that John Withnell built for his wife with vertebrae as the seat and other bones as the back and armrests. The family also invented the canvas waterbag. The interpretation fails to mention that the same John Withnell beat an Aboriginal woman named Talarong so severely for refusing to care for sheep at Withnell’s Hillside Station that “she retreated into the bush and died of her injuries two days later”. No charges were brought against Withnell because, according to the Acting Government Resident, of the “great provocation” by Talarong in the incident (Hunt 99-100). Such omissions and silences in the official record force indigenous people into a parallel “invisible country” and leave us stranded on the highways of the “mapped zone”, bereft of our rights and responsibilities to connect either to the country or to its traditional owners.

Roebourne, and its coastal port Cossack, stand on the hauntingly beautiful country of the Ngarluma and seaside Yapurarra peoples. Settlers first arrived in the 1860s and Aboriginal people began to be officially imprisoned soon after, primarily as a result of their resistance to being “blackbirded” and exploited as labour for the pearling and pastoral industries. Prisoners were chained by the neck, day and night, and forced to build roads and tramlines, ostensibly a “civilising” practice. As the history pamphlet for The Old Roebourne Gaol reads: “It was widely believed that the Roebourne Gaol was where the ‘benefit’ of white civilisation could be shown to the ‘savage’ Aboriginal” (Weightman 2).

The “back story” I discovered on this research trip was one of disappearance – indigenous people being made to disappear from their countries, from non-indigenous view and from the written record. The symbols I surprisingly most engaged with and which most affected me were the gaols and prisons which the imperialists used as tools of their trade in disappearance. The sense impressions I experienced – extreme beauty, isolation, heat and sandflies – reinforced the complexity of Western Australian contact history. I began to see the central achievement of Bran Nue Dae as being the return of indigenous people to country and to story. This return, so beautifully realised in when the characters finally reach Lombadina and a state of acceptance, is critical to healing the country and to the attainment of an equitable “kind of citizenship” that denotes belonging for all.

Author Biography

Margaret Hair