Elsey Station 1907

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.

Today Gunn’s book—and the 1981 film of the same name–which Executive Producer Phillip Adams described as a ‘Disneyfied … distortion of a distortion’–are viewed by many as flawed portrayals of a Territory history that in reality never existed.

Gunn’s book has rarely been out of print and you can still see the ‘Disneyfied’ version of life in the Never Never on a loop at the bar of the Mataranka Homestead resort just before you take a dip into the local hot springs or a wander around the fake homestead.

In 1999 Northern Territory historian Mickey Dewar told the ABC’s Lorena Allam that We of The Never Never represented a construction of:

… the wise paternalistic society, the embattled little woman who’s virtuous and who brings virtue to Elsey Station and the surrounding area, because of course she’s writing at a time when we’re well aware that most of the European men who are out in the pastoral area are engaged in sexual relations with the Aboriginal women, and Jeannie comes in and she describes a much purer territory, where all the white stockmen are good blokes, sensitive blokes who have a great deal of respect for the white woman, and this issue of inter-racial sexuality is never mentioned.

Violence towards Aboriginal people is not mentioned either.

‘Nigger Hunts’, ‘punitive expeditions’, ‘a picnic with the natives’–all describe a brutal reality that We of The Never Never couldn’t reveal. The early settler society of the Northern Territory saw violence towards Aboriginal people as a necessary incident to ensure access to and control of lands and water needed to run cattle, which, apart from small cropping, was the only land use regarded as economically viable at that time.

Linguist and anthropologist Francesca Merlan describes this period as one of guerrilla warfare that began at the time of the construction of the north-south telegraph line and intensified as more country was taken up by pastoralists.

Tony Roberts has written extensively on the violence that followed the early European settler invasion of the central regions of the NT.

The following is from his 2009 essay in The Monthly, The Brutal Truth.

In 1881, a massive pastoral boom commenced in the top half of the Northern Territory, administered by the colonial government in Adelaide. Elsey Station on the Roper River – romanticised in Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never – was the first to be established. These were huge stations, with an average size of almost 16,000 square kilometres.

At least 600 men, women, children and babies, or about one-sixth of the population, were killed in the Gulf Country to 1910. The death toll could easily be as high as seven or eight hundred.

Roberts tells of one ‘punitive expedition’ against the Mangarrayi, the traditional owners of the land at Elsey Station and along parts of the Roper River to the east that he says was ordered directly by Northern Territory Police Inspector Paul Foelsche and that “would have been” authorized by the South Australian Premier Sir James Penn Boucaut.

On 30 June 1875 at the Roper River, a telegraph worker from Daly Waters had been killed, and his two mates badly wounded, probably by Mangarrayi men. As a consequence, Aboriginals along the length of the river were slaughtered by a massive party of police and civilians for four weeks solid in August 1875.

Foelsche issued these cryptic, but sinister, instructions: “I cannot give you orders to shoot all natives you come across, but circum-stances may occur for which I cannot provide definite instructions.” Roper River blacks had to be “punished” … He boasted in a letter to a friend, John Lewis, that he had sent his second-in-command, Corporal George Montagu, down to the Roper to “have a picnic with the natives”.

Roberts credits Foelsche as the mastermind of many of the massacres in the Northern Territory. He was “cunning, devious and merciless with Aboriginal” people but was supported by every South Australian government from 1870, when Darwin was established, through to his retirement in 1904, at which time King Edward VII presented him with the Imperial Service Order.

This state-sanctioned slaughter continued throughout the NT’s Roper and Gulf regions for thirty years until the Commonwealth—reluctantly—assumed control of the Northern Territory from South Australia in 1911.

Notwithstanding that Commonwealth control of the Northern Territory ushered in somewhat more benign relationships between Aboriginal people and European settler society—particularly in relation to access to and control over land and water–lingering tensions remained just below the surface.

The Northern Territory was then–as it remains in the imagination of a dwindling few now–the last Australian frontier. Those early frontier battles for land and water in the north came later than elsewhere in Australia.

In her 1995 monograph, The Black War in Arnhem Land Northern Territory historian Mickey Dewar notes that:

The process of land alienation underlies the history of Aboriginal-European contact in nineteenth century Australia. As European settlement spread throughout the continent, the preoccupation of identifying technological advancement as synonymous with progress allowed no reflection on the possibility that Aborigines had a prior right to the land. Arnhem Land is significant because, in a sense, it became a twentieth century allegory for Aboriginal-European interaction of the nineteenth century.

The failure to recognise the prior rights of Aboriginal people persisted across the pastoral north until the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the introduction of land rights legislation in the NT and later litigation, the success of which resulted in the recognition of native title rights and interests in the NT and elsewhere.

Pastoral expansion and development along the Roper River in the early years of the twentieth century could best be described as a series of overly enthusiastic fits, tentative starts and manifest, frequent and expensive failures. Government policy of ‘closer settlement’ along the Roper and elsewhere saw a number of large stations created only to be abandoned or amalgamated soon after. Other grand schemes—peanuts, cattle, sheep, small holdings—all failed miserably due to a combination of tropical torpor, a lack of markets and skilled labour, poor political vision and insufficient funding and, during the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties, the disastrous effects of the great depression.

Mataranka-–established by the quixotic NT administrator Dr J A Gilruth in 191–was envisioned as the inland capital of a thriving Northern Territory but failed to thrive and withered, then as now little more that a small hard-scrabble piss-stop of a country town.

As the north became more settled local Aboriginal groups shifted from violent resistance to begrudging acceptance of the economic and political force of the invaders, with many realising access to country and ceremony was an acceptable compromise. Jane Gleeson notes that:

When Aboriginal camps were set up on the stations in the 1890s … [c]amping on the stations solved problems for both sides. Aborigines did not have to hunt so often for food, since the station occasionally provided beef, flour, sugar, tea and tobacco. Pastoralists had cheap labour …

Notwithstanding this apparent amelioration of inter-racial tension, violent competition for land, as Jane Gleeson points out, continued to underpin relationships between Aboriginal and European outside of the Territory’s major townships.

… sporadic violence continued until World War II, when the presence of army camps bought a new economic relationship and reduced the power of pastoralists over Aborigines. In the intervening period, possibilities for mutual exploitation blurred the hitherto distinct cultural divisions in Roper society … It was not simply a matter of changing sides in a continuing battle; rather, it represented a drastic alteration in the nature of the battle.

As the pastoral stations became more established, and many operated as private fiefdoms beyond the reach of the law the focus of violence and disputes shifted from between pastoralist and Aboriginal to inter-pastoralist disputes over access to water and land and ownership of their herds. Most of these stations clung precariously to existence: they still relied on feral ‘scrubber’ herds, were unfenced, barely economic and were poorly developed runs dependent upon their Aboriginal labour force for their economic and operational survival.

The small NT police force—stretched thin across the vastness of the Top End—was reluctant to become involved in inter-pastoralist disputes, regarding them as civil matters. Gleeson reports that:

Disputes tended to develop into full-scale feuds before civil action was taken as a last resort … There are no records pointing to good relations between pastoralists though presumably they existed. Available evidence points always to conflict.

Gleeson describes one dispute that will be the subject of closer analysis in the next part of this series.

One such feud concerned the damming of Red Lilly lagoon, on Elsey Station, which, according to successive lessees of Roper Valley Station, reduced the amount of water flowing down the Roper River to that station. For many years it had been an Aboriginal custom partially to dam the lagoon with small sticks for the purpose of conserving fish and attracting ducks during the latter part of the dry season

The first formal complaint was made by J W Rogers of Roper Valley in 1926, and Rogers continued to register annual complaints after Harold Giles was appointed manager of Elsey [Station] in 1927.

While relations between pastoralists were, as they were with Aboriginal people, frequently violent, there are several examples of cooperation between Aboriginal groups and local pastoralists–mutual self-interest is always a strong agent for change and compromise. Such arrangements though were rarely evenly balanced and often exploitative but there are several examples from the Roper River country that serve as useful case studies of the value of local indigenous knowledge of and about local land and water resources.

Much of this change was driven by the lingering effects of the equanimity–if not equality–shown to Aboriginal people by the armed forces of both Australia and the United States in the course of  the armed forces occupation of the Top End of the Northern Territory during the latter part of World War II. After the World War, life on the Roper would never return to any pre-war “normal” state.

The politics and practices of life on the pastoral runs along the Big River were changing–albeit slowly–forever.

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Photo: Elsey Station homestead, 1907.

Further recommended reading

Whose ‘Never Never’? Produced by Lorena Allam. Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday 12 September  1999.

The Brutal Truth: What happened in the gulf country. Tony Roberts. The Monthly Essays, November 2009.

Frontier Justice: A History Of The Gulf Country To 1900. Tony Roberts, UQP, 2005.

‘Making People Quiet’ in the Pastoral North: Reminiscences of Elsey Station. Francesca Merlan. Aboriginal History, 2: 70. ANU 1978.

The Black War in Arnhem Land: Missionaries and the Yolngu 1908-1940. Mickey Dewar, North Australian Research Unit, 1999.

Blocks, runs and claims : Mataranka and the Daly, two studies in the history of settlement in the Northern Territory, Gleeson, Jane, and Richards Michaela  in three settlements in the Upper Roper River district, 1911-1942, by Jane Gleeson, North Australian Research Unit, 1985 in Mataranka and the Daly, Two Studies of the history of settlement in the Northern Territory. NT 1985.