This is the first of a series of articles on the battles for control of land and water along the Northern Territory’s Roper River from the time of first incursion by non-Aboriginal settlers to the current day. This first part examines the period from about 1870 through to just after World War II.
‘A Nigger Hunt’ was the original title of a long-excised chapter in Jeannie Gunn’s largely fictional 1908 autobiography, We of the Never Never. There Gunn described an expedition that she, her husband Aeneas and the stockmen at Elsey Station undertook in pursuit of local Aboriginals that had been ‘interfering with’ their cattle.
A black fellow kills cattle because he is hungry and must be fed with food, having been trained in a school that for generations has acknowledged catch-who- catch-can among its commandments. And until the long arm of the law interfered, white men killed the black fellow because they were hungry with a hunger that must be fed with gold, having been trained in a school that for generations has acknowledged ‘Thou shalt not kill’ among its commandments.
And yet men speak of the superiority of the white race, and speaking, forget to ask who of us would go hungry if the situation were reversed. But condemn the black fellow as a mild thief (piously quoting now it suits them) from those commandments that men must not steal, in the same breath referring to the white man’s crime when it finds them out, as getting into trouble over some shooting affairs with blacks. Truly, we British-born have reason to brag of our inborn sense of justice.
Elsey Station–a few miles east of the small town of Mataranka 400 kilometres south of Darwin and now much reduced in size than in Gunn’s time, straddles the headwaters of the Roper River. The Roper is not called “Big River country” for nothing, with a catchment of over 80,000 square kilometres it is the second-largest river catchment in the Territory and runs for 1,000 kilometres from its headwaters to the Gulf of Carpentaria.