Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2015

Warrior, by Libby Connors #BookReview

WarriorIt’s an ambitious quest, to write the story of an Aboriginal hero of colonial times.  Reading Libby Connors’ account of the life and violent death of the warrior Dundalli and how she untangles events from sources that are inevitably Eurocentric makes for fascinating reading.  Warrior is an important contribution to the debate around the exclusion of the colonial frontier wars from the national military narrative and its associated memorialising.

Events unfold in what became Brisbane in the 1840s as the fledgling British settlement came under attack.  Dundalli, a powerful warrior and lawman who led indigenous resistance against incursions onto traditional lands, was captured and executed after a shambolic trial which had no legal reason to take place.  Connors also shows how the indigenous justice system of ‘payback’ ritual spearing escalated into much greater violence in response to cases when the British broke their own laws.

What’s interesting is the way Connors unpacks the documents to show that there was initial accommodation of the interlopers and how crucial Aboriginal politics were to the disaster that eventually unfolded for Dundalli and his people.

Connors’ painstaking recreation of events shows that early settlement was peaceful enough.  Some Aboriginal groups apparently welcomed it because it gave them advantages over others – better axes and other tools that they inventively adapted were useful for hunting and fishing or as gifts for trade with other Aboriginal groups in what was then a rich regional economy.  This is demonstrated in well–documented examples of the Aboriginal economy trading in partnership with the British economy.   Occasional outbursts of ‘payback’ over perceived European infringements were consistent with Aboriginal law – but these were not recognised as such by the British.

The Indigenous and European legal systems operated in parallel, and the leading participants of each assumed that their own system was the dominant one.  It is as if in these early years neither the Indigenous nor European communities appreciated how effectively the other’s set of laws functioned within its own sphere.  (p.180)

However, as  observed by colonial missionaries, there was serious rivalry  – which sometimes erupted into war – between the Aboriginal peoples in the area.  Dundalli was from the Dalla people whose lands in the Blackall Ranges were surrounded by the Wakka Wakka to their west; the Gubbi Gubbi people along the Mary River; and by the Undambi in the east.  (There is a helpful map which clarifies these geographic relationships). These Undambi were also known as the ‘Mwoirnewar’ (Saltwater) people and their communities included the Ningy Ningy in what is now Brisbane’s bayside, and on Bribie Island, the Joondaburri.  Southwards was the Yaggera language group, with the Mianjin in what is now the Brisbane CBD; the Quandamooka in the southeast mainland of Moreton Bay; the Ngugi on Moreton Island; and on Stradbroke Island, the Nunukul and Goenpul.  (I must say, that as a tourist in these places, I like to see the increasing signage that acknowledges our Indigenous Peoples.  I like to know the story of the land I stand on, and I like to pay respect to its history, no matter how fraught that may be).

Anyway, all these peoples were keen to take advantage of useful new European tools which could enhance their trading and political superiority.  Tragically for Dundalli, they also manipulated the settlers into settling some scores for them, and the complexity of Aboriginal internal politics makes for interesting reading.  I’m not an historian, so I can only note Connors’ acknowledgement that sources from an Aboriginal point-of-view are scant, but her arguments are convincing:

From what we can perceive of the debate inside Aboriginal society, its politics were just as sophisticated [as the Europeans’ were].  In the summer of 1842-43 all the south-east Queensland peoples had agreed that the settlers were base and ignorant people whose unlawfulness could not be tolerated.  The question was how best to respond to them.  Should the old ways of ancestral law continue to have primacy when Europeans were so lacking in the courtesy and honour that Aboriginal law required?  Europeans had powerful technology and no sense of proportion, so their vengeance lacked all subtlety – it would be wreaked upon those living in close proximity to European settlement and would always escalate disputes.  Those who persisted in asserting that traditional ways were sacred and immutable could flee to their mountain fastnesses and island homes.  In the 1840s any regions without roads or accessible waterways generally remained safe for Aboriginal people.

The Stradbroke Islanders, Mianjin and Jagera of Ipswich and South Brisbane did not have such easy sanctuary.  Since they couldn’t avoid them, they preferred to exploit naïve Europeans to settle their own scores.  Settler understanding of Aboriginal politics was crude, and at times it was easy to persuade them to act against one’s opponents, whether they were European wrongdoers or Aboriginal rivals or offenders.  For, just as Europeans were preoccupied with their own national and family problems at the same time that they were debating frontier relations, Aboriginal law and politics continued to be about more than just the malevolence and savagery of Europeans.  It was Aboriginal-focused, not European-focused.
(p. 109-110)

The Nunukal people used the Europeans too (p.143) and it was eventually Aboriginal treachery that led to Dundalli’s arrest and subsequent execution.

But Connors’ PhD (1990) was about the operation of the law in pre-Separation Queensland from 1839 to 1859, and Warrior traces not only the clash between legal systems which led to conflict but also the shameful failure of British justice on the frontier.  The Aborigines were entitled to think the settlers dishonourable when they did not give warning of payback but they could not have known that the deception and treachery of luring the victim into range during vigilante/police paybacks for summary execution, with no attempt at arrest, was illegal under British law too.  But the authorities who dealt with these cases knew, and they failed to act.  What’s more, Aboriginal men on trial for their lives usually had little or no legal representation and they were precluded from giving evidence in their own defence because they could not swear on a Christian Bible.

In the case of Dundalli, the settlers were out for blood because for twelve years he had led the resistance against them and he had mythic status because of his size and strength.  It seems quite clear from Connors’ analysis of court documents, newspapers accounts and the judge’s memoir that the courts should have thrown out the conflicting evidence of young witnesses browbeaten into changing their story under the relentless newspaper campaigns for vengeance.  But the judge capitulated to public pressure…

This book would be an essential reference for teachers of history at Year 9, for the topic ‘Making a Nation’ because it dovetails so well with this theme:

The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (ACDSEH020)

But it’s also essential reading for anyone interested in Australia’s Black History…

PS I can’t yet find any reviews by professional historians online, but will add links to them if they come to my attention.  Any suggestions for who to link to would be most welcome.

Update 21/12/15

Here’s a review I’ve been waiting for, by one of my favourite historians, Janine, at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip. It’s brilliant.  (PS Warrior was one of my Best-of-2015 ).

Author: Libby Connors
Title: Warrior
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781760110482
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Availability

Fishpond: Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier
Or from good bookstores everywhere.

 

 

 


Responses

  1. I feel such angst when I read books about Aboriginal history. So destructive and cruel. I am on a one woman campaign in Hobart with the Theatre Royal to show good Aboriginal drama. We used to get this each year but now for 4 years have had nothing except the occasional dance. Drive me insane when I know it is available. Enjoyed this review and interesting how hard it is to find any links.

    • HI Pam, I am hopeful that other reviews in the mainstream press will surface before long. These stories are important!

  2. It’s a fairly new book (released about three weeks ago), which may account for the dearth of reviews so far. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

    • True, Janine, but LOL The Australian’s Review usually beats me to it with books like this.
      I’m looking forward to your review, and hopefully Yvonne will review it too, because you two as historians have skills in interrogating a text like this that I don’t have. I read it as an Australian interested in history, and I think (all modesty aside) there’s value in that because it may bring the book a wider audience if it reassures some people that you don’t need to be an expert to find it highly readable and very interesting. I think that’s important because ordinary Aussies need to know their own history better, and we need more books like this that make history accessible to non-experts.
      But I do think that the book’s academic values ought also to be tested by historians who know how to do that properly, so I will be linking to anything I can find in due course.

  3. I’m reading the book at the moment, and particularly like the fact that it is very accessible to non-historians (or so I think). I saw it on sale at Brisbane airport within days of its release, so Allen & Unwin seem to be treating it that way.

    I will be reviewing it on my blog in the next week or so – but with the qualification that I’m a friend of Libby’s, and I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements, so not exactly unbiased.

  4. Hello Marion, thanks for dropping by:)
    Yes, I think I read somewhere in the author’s acknowledgments that Allen and Unwin are very supportive of bringing these stories to a wider audience.
    I’m very impressed by how Connors has done it. It can’t be easy to make the transition from scholarly writing to a style that suits popular fiction, but she’s done it really well.
    I’m off up to the Gold Coast tomorrow (my father’s in hospital again) – I’ll check to see if it’s on sale at Melbourne and Coolangatta too.

  5. Thanks for your review Lisa. It is great that people who are not historians review histories, especially with a view to assessing their readability for the general reader. Sadly I won’t be able to review this book. I have way too much in my TBR pile and am waaaaay behind on my reviews.

    • Oh yes, it gets like that, doesn’t it?!

  6. LIsa – I’ve just reviewed this book here http://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2015/10/10/libby-connorss-warrior-wins-premiers-prize/ (having promised 5 months ago in the comment above to do it ‘soon’). I put in a link to it on the Australian Women Writers website, and thought I’d check how many people had reviewed it. My review is the first – which is a pity – but more to the point, there’s no link to YOUR review there, and there should be.

    • Heavens, Marion, do not feel guilty about writing your own book instead! There are so many calls on our time, my attitude is, I do my best, and if I don’t get to something in a timely manner, well, that’s life getting in the way, eh?
      Anyway, I like your review, I like the way you’ve personalised it. I’m so glad she won a prize, as you say, it should give the book a sales boost and more importantly help to make it more widely read.


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