From the white person’s perspective
Davis criticises the protection-style policies and the paternalistic and racist attitudes of those in positions of power. The Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr Neville, and the law and order officials discriminate against the First Australians and treat them as sub-class citizens. How: (the sign represents the official attitude) According to the stage directions, the sign to Mr Neville’s office identifies the First Australians as equal in status with birds and beasts. “Government of Western Australia. Fisheries, Forestry, Wildlife and Indigenous Australians”. The officials believe that, as “blithering stone age idiots” and “incompetent savages”, the Indigenous Australians need to be “helped” to “take their place in Australian society”. Condescendingly and crudely, they believe that this involves lessons in basic hygiene. In his letter to Mr Neal, Mr Neville expresses his contempt for the “uncivilised” behaviour of the children and their “dirty little noses”. He believes they require “practical training” in basic health standards. (Later, in his speech to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society he praises the valiant efforts of the pioneers who defeated the natives in many reprisals that erupted throughout the state from 1834 onwards.) in the sign.
Stereotypically, the First Australians are “dirty” people; they are thieves who cannot be trusted. The Indigenous Australians are controlled through the ration system. They are also controlled by curfews and under the Aboriginal Act it is an offence to supply aborigines with alcohol. The ration system, which amounts to two shillings and four pence per week, is designed to control and restrict the movement of the Indigenous Australians. It also represents an unfair system as their rations such as soap and meat are constantly restricted. (14)
Whilst the white officials typecast the indigenous peoples as “savage”, Davis suggests that people like Neal are particularly barbaric because they misuse their power in shameful ways. In the stage directions, Davis notes that Neal brutally punishes Mary because she valiantly and proudly defies his orders. Neal is infuriated that Mary refuses to work in the hospital at the Moore River Native Settlement because she believes she will be raped like so many of the Indigenous girls. He takes this as a personal challenge to his authority.D egradingly and contemptuously he tells her, “Millimurra seems to have learnt you well. Well I’m going to unlearn you”. Mr Neal not only intimidates the Indigenous and walks around with a “cat o nine tails”, and he is prepared to use it against the Indigenous women who defy his orders. Mary does not want to work on a farm because many girls are raped. One girl was assaulted by the “boss’s sons” who, “you know, force her” and eventually the trackers killed the baby and “buried it in the pine plantation” (57) Even Mr Neville notes in his official papers that 30 out of 80 girls who went into domestic service returned pregnant. Not only does Mary fear rape, but she is brutally assaulted when she refuses to work in the hospital which would expose her to Mr Neal’s advances.
Neal whips her barbarically with a “cat o nine tail” over the bag of flour. *** The audience hears Mary’s pitiful scream that becomes a powerful symbol of aboriginal resistance in the face of shameful violence. (p 87 and 101). (She was “seven months bootjari”).
From the indigenous person’s perspective
As a proud indigenous activist and “troublemaker” (“ringleader”), Jimmy draws attention to social injustice and the discrimination they face on a daily basis. He believes that the theft of land has caused terrible scars. Jimmy states that the whites (wetjalas) “took our country” and therefore the Indigenous Australians are in a helpless position of dependence. How: in the stage directions, Davis states that Jimmy nicks his finger with the axe and raises blood. This is symbolic of the violent act of dispossession, which so infuriates Jimmy. He chastises (criticises) the Indigenous Australians who “danced” for the white man.
At the Moore River Settlement, Jimmy asks Mr Neal if he voted for “Jimmy Mitchell’s lot”. He knows that their forced removal was just a political stunt and that Mr Mitchell wanted to protect his power “so he could have a nice, white little town, white little fuckin’ town” (94). After his confrontation with Mr Neal, Davis suggests in the stage directions that Jimmy “is left alone, shouting”. Throughout the play, Jimmy is isolated and marginalised and treated like a “troublemaker” or an “unruly nigger”. Davis depicts the circumstances of Jimmy’s dehumanising death and Mr Neville’s attitude as deplorable. HI death comes to symbolise the difficulties faced by the First Australians and their sense of hopelessness.
Davis suggests that the First Australians are sufficiently resourceful and inventive as well as proud. These qualities enable them to survive in a world where they suffer from racist-protection-style policies, and where they must adapt and blend lifestyles in creative ways. Gran uses the ashes and “live” firestick to clean the afterbirth and ensure the healthy birth of Mary’s and Joe’s baby. She does not use the Johnson’s baby powder. The birth of the baby and the fact that Mary is a “good milker” symbolically suggest survival. Also Mary proudly wins her fight against Mr Neal and withstands his barbaric actions. She restrains Joe who wishes to assault him, and states, “He got wild ‘coz I wouldn’t knuckle under to him” (101) Although Billy represents a First Australian who is trapped by the white man, he still finds a way to help Joe and gives him the whip. His true allegiance will always lie, Davis suggests, with their own indigenous kin. Joe uses Billy’s whip to catch rabbits and Sam gives him the knife. These are symbolic tools of survival in a harsh bush landscape. (Sam notes that “he can always make another one”) Gran’s poignant song in her North West language at the close of the play suggests that the indigenous culture and language will survive as long as the First Australians have the courage and pride to defend their cultural heritage, and to remember the heroic struggles of their ancestors.
Davis suggests that many aboriginals are trapped and become complicit in a system that exploits them. Jimmy criticises those who “dance” for the white people and who forget their culture. The fact that Billy holds Mary “outstretched over a pile of flour bags” also raises questions about the complicity of the Indigenous Australians in the colonial settlement. (Billy is typical of “them blackfellas dancin’ for ’em” (10). After “Neal raises the cat o nine tails” there is a blackout. )
Throughout the play, and as an important structural device, Davis refers to the conflicting historical narratives between the settlers and the First Australians. This conflict draws attention to the violent encounters between the two groups of people and shows how the First Australians suffered disproportionate violence. This leads to sympathy. Indirect racism: the historical stories of the aborigines such as that of the massacre are overlooked. The white man favours the stories of the pioneers. The massacre reveals the misuse of power: the white men kill the aborigines in an inhumane manner. The violence is disproportionate to the threat. The white people kill the whole tribe out of revenge for the one death. (Act 2)
Billy relays the story of the massacre (in Aboriginal English) and mimes the violence. His use of both Aboriginal English and the North West language reinforces cultural differences and places emphasis on oral stories in the indigenous historical narrative. Davis includes Billy’s story to foreground the disproportionate and indiscriminate violence that occurred during the colonial period. In this case, the massacre occurs as retaliation (punishment) for Midja’s George’s death, who flogs a stockman for no apparent reason. As Billy relates, the “big mob” comes and “shoot ‘em everybody mens, kooris, little yumbahs”. (The white people kill with impunity.) They “chuck ‘em on a big fire, chuck ‘em in river” (62) Davis also shows how the oral indigenous version of history differs from the pioneer narrative which foregrounds the notion that bravely, the settlers fought hostile and violent indigenous tribes. (Right at the beginning of the play, Davis refers to the fact that the media and white civilisation is always “commemorating the pioneers whose lives …) Clearly, the colonial government with its “big mob politjmans” are the ones to massacre the children and mothers and “chuck ‘em on a big fire”. (62) Billy’s story about the massacre shows that revenge by the white officials was indiscriminate and disproportionate. Mr Neville’s official recount of the massacre seeks to exaggerate the threat (up to 60 to 70 natives were in the confrontation and “more natives appeared from shelters”) and minimise the official level of violence by the “detachment” : 27TH October 1834, the Murray River at Pinjarra, “the official estimate was fifteen to twenty dead, but only eight women and several children were finally rounded up”. (81)
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