This is part 2 of an examination of the mass poisoning of 17 Aboriginal people at Alice Springs in 1981 that remains unsolved. Seventeen Aboriginal people were affected by a lethal dose of strychnine placed in a bottle of sweet sherry. Two people died. The case remains unsolved. You can read Part One here.
The Coronial Hearings ran over five days between late July and mid-August 1981. A Mr Loorham, solicitor from Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) appeared for the next of kin of the deceased. Coroner Barritt’s Findings were delivered on 16 October 1981 at Alice Springs and ran to a meagre seven pages.
Transcripts of the hearings reveal Loorham’s concerns about the quality of evidence provided to the Court by the witness Dick Bundy Jabarula, who was clearly having difficulty giving his evidence in English.
Loorham told the Court that he had found it:
Very difficult to follow the witness’s evidence. If this inquest is going to seriously examine this important issue, it is my submission that all aboriginal witnesses should be entitled to the same interpreting services as immigrants to this country are entitled to and that proper interpreters should be available to Your Worship and to this court.
Loorham then asked Dick Bundy Jabarula whether he was happier speaking in Luritja or English, to which Dick Bundy Jabarula gave his preference as Luritja.
Then followed this testy exchange between solicitor Loorham and Coroner Barritt.
I think the better course would be for you to question this witness and see how you go. It might well be that he will respond more. The difficulty that I have encountered with interpreters is that very often an interpreter is speaking in a different dialect to the witness and through no fault of that interpreter’s ability, they mess it up as to what the witness is saying. You can have an error made by an interpreter. For example, if this gentleman comes from an outstation of Papunya, particularly the outstations which are out towards the Western Australian border, his dialect can be quite different from a person living in Papunya and mixing with Warlpiri’s and even Aranda’s that changes their dialect … A lot of people who speak Luritja never go within 200 miles of other people who speak it. That is only my experience of using interpreters I am generally loath to do it because I find that there is difficulty in the use of interpreters and from a court point of view, you might put too much emphasis on what an interpreter says a witness has said when, in fact, the witness has not said anything like the interpreter interprets as having been said.
Loorham responded to the effect that this situation is just a reflection on the failure of our society to acknowledge that there is another society in this land many of whom speak another language.
Coroner Barritt was not pleased with that response.
I do not know whether it is necessarily right to make statements which are of a political nature in a situation such as this.
I was just addressing myself to the generality of the interpreter situation I appreciate the fact that the interpreter services in this town are not as good as they should be, but that should not excuse the situation and we should not have to make do with half-hearted evidence, your worship.
There is no use in delving in politics in that regard because as far as the white Australian society is concerned, it has made provision to have interpreters and desire that there be interpreters, they have provided the money to train interpreters.
You would not know it from walking into this courthouse your worship.
From my examination of the transcript of proceedings no interpreter was provided for any of the Aboriginal witnesses at the Coronial Hearing other than, on the last day of hearings, for the witness Howard Ross Jabanunga, where interpretation was provided by Alma Ross.
Notwithstanding the lack of interpreters, the accounts from the police witness statements of the Aboriginal victims of the poisoning and their families are chilling.
Sammy Inkamala: Everybody they were drunk they were sitting circle the bottle in the middle … I take some in my mouth just to see what they were drinking. It is not tasty, it taste like strong tea. I went round and round in my head, I was sick and I fall down. I don’t remember one thing then.
Sabin Jagamara: What I have drink I take one mouthful and I give bottle to Douglas Wheeler and Sam Inkamala. Quickly after I finish that drink I get giddy, funny head and legs funny and guts, and I fall down and throw up, I vomit it.
Gilbert Daniel Jungari-Jungala: I just have one drink from that bottle then I give that bottle to Isliam. After I have drink I start shaking all over and I fall down. I see all the other people drinking and falling down too.
Isliam Abbott Nabarula: I just have little bit from that bottle, that rubbish one, no good. I taste him and spit it out because it no good. Then I shake and fall down and nearly finish up. Then I go to hospital.
Joanne Nambajimba, wife of Bronson No. 2: I’ve been see him [Bronson] drink a little bit sweet sherry. Then he been comeback and him fall over from that sweet sherry, and he’d be shaking all the time and he was rolling around on the ground, he wasn’t singing out. Then that ambulance come. And took Bronson away. Then I been see everyone who been drinking was sick.
Bronson No. 2: Dick Bundy gave me a bottle of sherry with the yellow label, I have a taste. It taste all right, then I feel funny and then I fall over. I do not drink much that time before then I was sober. I then see these other people they start falling when they drink this sherry.
Lois Nambajimba: Then I heard people singing out they was crying. Then saw those people shaking. I saw that woman first that one that died. I saw that woman first drop and then shake.
Coroner Barritt’s formal findings were that:
Nabutta Abbott Nabarula then aged about 50 years formerly of Papunya and David Charlie then aged in his late 30s formerly of Indulkana, met their deaths on Sunday, 29 March 1981, at Alice Springs after drinking wine poisoned with strychnine. I find that analysis of blood taken from the deceased ABBOTT disclosed 0.9 mg strychnine/L and that from CHARLIE 3.3 mg strychnine/L. Analysis of the liver of deceased ABBOTT disclosed 4.4 mg strychnine/L and deceased Charlie 14.6 mg strychnine/L4. I find that on the reference “Disposition of toxic drugs and chemicals in man,” by Randall C. Basett, such concentrations constituted fatal blood doses to each of the deceased, and a fatal liver concentration in the deceased CHARLIE. I find that the wine was poisoned by the addition of strychnine and left as a bait in public to lure whoever was attracted to it, and that its contents were intended to kill. I therefore, find that both the deceased were murdered by a person or persons name unknown.
I’ve lived in the Northern Territory since 1984 and first heard of these terrible events while working with a Darwin-based band of ratbags, potheads, no-hopers and dancehall kings called The Swamp Jockeys.
The Swamp Jockeys had a chilling song entitled Strychnine in The Bottle, the first verse of which went something like this:
Somebody put strychnine in the bottle
Somebody bought strychnine that day
Somebody put strychnine in the bottle
And somebody died that day
Murder! Murder! Murder!
For some reason I’d always thought the story behind the song was apocryphal until one day I came across the front page of the NT News from Monday 30 March 1981 while researching the history of cannabis plantations in the NT.
But that is another story … or ten.
The deaths of Nabutta Abbott Nabarula and David Charlie remain unsolved.