Peter Sherwin, who passed away earlier this week, was, as this anonymous blogger noted, a man viewed through many prisms.
For many he was the Cattleman’s cattleman, for others a reclusive bumbling hillbilly, a David tilting at Goliath corporate and banking windmills or a megalomaniac dreaming of control of 3 per cent of the nation’s cattle herd and 1 per cent of the land mass.
Sherwin will always be the employer who saw tragedy when two of his young jackaroos perished in the West Australian desert and who couldn’t find it in his stoney heart to measure sympathy to the families of those boys. He was a fearless bare-knuckle pugilist who was said to wield a pistol against those whom he thought were against him.
For blackfellas across the north of the country Sherwin was no icon, rather a bad neighbour resolutely opposed to the interests of Aboriginal people.
For all the plaudits handed out at his passing of him as a cattle king or baron—he undoubtedly had an astute head for business matched with a ruthless courage— Sherwin had a glass jaw of magnificent proportions, not least in regard to the Aboriginal people who worked on or made claims to land he “owned.”
According to Norm Barber, Sherwin would:
… buy a station, cut off the water to anything that didn’t make money, overgraze the land, exhaust the infrastructure, not pay the employees, beat up anyone who got in his way, steal the jackeroos’ equipment, and spend big to arrive at a bush meeting with a lawyer flown out from Darwin. He was the hunter who returned with fresh kill, while others were afraid to pull the trigger.
Tensions between pastoralists and Aboriginal people in the Top End of the NT date back to the 1870s when the first cattle herds were driven across the NT-Queensland border.
Sherwin’s poor relations with Aboriginal people surfaced publicly in the early 1980s. In 1981 Senator for Western Australia Ruth Coleman raised her concerns with Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Baume. Senator Coleman asked if the Minister had followed up on his comments to the media concerning the expulsion of 50 Aboriginal workers and their families from the north-western Gordon Downs station, then owned by Peter Sherwin.
The West Australian of 16 January 1981 quoted the Minister as saying:
I am concerned about the expulsion or removal of any traditional Aboriginal people from land with which they have strong ties. My Department has sent an officer from Kunanurra[sic] to Halls Creek to investigate all matters concerned with the reported expulsion. He will be reporting to me as soon as possible.
The following day the Minister provided further advice to the Senate.
The fact is that the Aboriginal people from Gordon Downs were evicted by the station management on 2 January and they then moved to Halls Creek. The people have established a camp at a rock hole about one kilometre east of Halls Creek town centre.
Three years later Sherwin attracted the attention of the Northern Land Council (the NLC), which at the time was representing the Wompaya, Jingili, Ngarnji and Gurdanji people claiming vacant Crown land on the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory.
As Land Rights News reported in 1986, at the time Sherwin was—almost— at the top of his game, controlling the largest cattle empire in the world, said to be worth upwards of $100 million.
The Wompaya, Jingili, Ngarnji and Gurdanji were claiming NT Portion 1099, 2300 square kilometres of landlocked vacant Crown land the southern, western and parts of the eastern boundaries of which adjoined land controlled by Sherwin. There were no public roads to NT Portion 1099 and in the course of pursuing the claim the NLC’s lawyers requested access across Sherwin’s Anthony Lagoon station so that they could visit the land and document sites of significance in preparation for the land claim.
Sherwin’s lawyers refused the request for access. The Land Council, noting that access by helicopter was prohibitively expensive and that alternative vehicle access was difficult in the extreme—on one trip an NLC four-wheel drive vehicle travelled 15 kilometres in two days and suffered 9 punctures—sought relief from the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, seeking orders to allow access across Sherwin’s station.
Predictably, that access was resisted by Sherwin’s lawyers, who claimed that the installation of a gate on the station boundary was unacceptable. The Land Commissioner took that assertion with a very large grain of rock salt.
It is very interesting that Mr Sherwin doesn’t want a gate on his boundary with some other property. That is a luxury that would be almost unique in the Northern Territory: that he had a boundary with land, inaccessible Crown land, so he did not have the bother of neighbours to put up with … It does not impress me greatly. It would be nice not to have neighbours …
The Land Commissioner ordered Sherwin to grant access and the claimants, notwithstanding a later appeal to the Federal Court seeking to overturn the Commissioner’s ruling, were able to access the property. Following the Federal Court’s decision that the Commissioner’s decision should stand, Sherwin launched a further appeal to the Full Bench of the Federal Court.
Three years later Sherwin was locking gates and barring access to Aboriginal land claimants again. In 1989 Land Rights News reported on an injunction sought by Sherwin’s lawyers against access sought by NLC lawyers on behalf of traditional owners seeking to claim land at Pigeon Hole, on the Victoria River Downs Station, south-west of Katherine in the Northern Territory. In early April, NLC lawyers and claimants travelling to Pigeon Hole were confronted by “padlocked gates, and a roadblock of trucks and a helicopter” when they attempted to access Pigeon Hole along the Main Camp road.
The following day they faced similar obstacles while trying to access Pigeon Hole through the Camfield Road to the east, and were served an injunction —by helicopter—issued by then Chief Justice Asche of the NT Supreme Court.
The next month, Sherwin’s lawyers applied for a full injunction against the NLC and the two lawyers involved. Justice Nader refused the application, lifted the interim injunction and granted an order allowing one of the NLC lawyers access to interview claimants at Pigeon Hole.
By 1990, having been bought out by Robert Holmes a’ Court’s Heytesbury Holdings, Sherwin was long gone from Victoria Downs Station but problems for the traditional owners at Pigeon Hole continued.
In May 1990 Land Rights News reported that, in relation to Sherwin’s opposition to the application by the NLC to access the property, Justice Nader in the Supreme Court of the NT noted the evidence of one of the Pigeon Hole claimants about the conditions while Sherwin operated Victoria River Downs:
The story this woman tells is the story of their being imprisoned there. The men are only allowed out to work; they cannot get visitors and they cannot visit other people. I find it extraordinary that people could behave so savagely in 1989 against fellow human beings.
Meanwhile Peter Sherwin was facing other challenges. As the anonymous blogger has noted.
Sherwin wanted to control more of Australia’s cattle properties, to double the size of Sherwin Pastoral Company through a takeover of Australian Agricultural. A broker said: “Sherwin had just been a herd builder. He was like a Hindu, where wealth is measured by how many cattle you’ve got. Shareholders needed cash flow, profits; but that was an anathema to him. He just wanted to get bigger.” Sherwin’s own barometer for success, size rather than profits, was only one of the problems; so too was his failure, or inability, to communicate. It sent the city types into despair.
Norm Barber provides some perspective on Sherwin’s fall from grace in Death in the Sand, in which he examines the deaths of James Annetts and Simon Amos in 1986 on Sherwin’s Nicholson Station near Halls Creek in the far north of Western Australia and the—largely unrelated—financial catastrophe that followed.
Sherwin was determined to camouflage the sad state of affairs, but auditors Pannell Kerr Foster refused to sign his 1987 accounts. They said his estimated herd size of 347,000 beasts hadn’t been independently verified. Sherwin was no smooth talking Alan Bond, but a taciturn recluse who thought he still retained absolute control of his company. Some creditors and shareholders saw him as sneaky. Maybe he was fiddling the books. Like a stock camp manager picking ‘killers’, corporate predators circled Sherwin Pastoral Company, like wild dogs slathering over a weakened animal separated from the herd. Shares floated at $1.00 slipped to 83 cents then the October 1987 stock market crash knocked them to 60 cents. Elders and Bankers Trust Australia began buying in preparation for a takeover bid. Elders offered Sherwin 88 cents for each of his shares in June 1988. Bankers Trust raised it to $1.12 eleven months later. But the bells tolled when Australia’s most feared corporate raider sent a plane over Sherwin’s herds. Its spotters estimated numbers might be as low as 280,000.
Traditional owners of Pigeon Hole were finally granted their application for a mere 31 square kilometres of their traditional lands in August 1992. Then NLC Director Mick Dodson noted that the once prosperous Bilinara nation:
… has been decimated by more than a century of massacre and brutality, and they have been landless ever since colonisation. But now they have a small piece of land they can call their own.
NLC Chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu said that the action by the pastoralist [Sherwin] was a clear attempt to thwart the rights of Australians gaining legal title to their land.
Great cattle empires were built on the sweat and blood of the Bilinara and they deserve their land. They deserve better than to be harassed.
- Bob Gosford is employed by the Northern Land Council in Darwin.