You don’t need to look hard to find proof of Australia’s brutal past. The nation was founded on inhumane acts all along the frontier and in the convict settlements. Inhumane acts which continue to this day in our “offshore processing centres.” Still, it’s a shock when the true history of your own sleepy southern home town jump out at you from the page. It allows you to conceive of that brutal era through personal geographic familiarity. History was brought to life in this way for me in a report I read recently.
I’ll start from the start.
I was born in Sydney in the suburb of Surry Hills at the old Crown Street Women’s Hospital. They closed it down in the 1970’s but the building is still there. Or at least part of it is. Now it’s an apartment complex on the corner of Crown and Albion streets, a block from the famous Oxford street. It’s a very busy, very central part of inner Sydney.
Until the mid-1970’s the hospital was the centre of child adoption in NSW. It was because of my own adoption in 1970 that I occasionally still go to one of the nice cafes in the complex and have breakfast. I like to do that because it gives me a small feeling of connection to my birthplace. It’s not much but like a lot of other adoptees feel about this sort of thing, it’s at least something. And the breakfast is pretty good too.
I used to go there a lot more before I finally found my family. I used to make a point of walking past the place every time I was in Sydney. I would often come in on the train and walk the five or six blocks from Central station up the hill to the old hospital. There used to be an old remnant sign way up the top of the building saying “The Women’s Hospital” which gave me some comfort because it was a visible link to my past (when I had virtually no other) but they covered that over at least 10 years ago. I was sad about that.
In the 1990’s I dug around and finally obtained all my birth records. They indicate I was taken from the hospital on the 19th of November 1970 by my social parents. I call them “social parents” because I believe the late 20th century Australian model of adoption was very much a state-sponsored social experiment which severed all links from the birth family and attempted to erase biology to make the child “good-as-new” with all elements of shame (unwed mother, poverty, rape, Aboriginality) washed clean.
My social parents weren’t Koori. But my (birth) mum was. Back then I don’t think the authorities thought twice about displacement and removal from culture. Indeed, the social work records from the time say that she “reported that she was of Aboriginal heritage.” However, “it was noted she did not have Aboriginal features.”
Another document from the era noted she was “a lover of sport, her main interest being basketball and hockey, and she had a good tan.”
A good tan. I roll my eyes every time I read that.
My dislocation from community and culture, with the confusion and fear that creates in a kid is a full article for another day.
Suffice to say, I was whisked away by plane (something my poor mum could never have afforded) to the regional New South Wales city of Albury to begin, well, my life.
My social parents turned out to be salt-of-the-earth, battling, white, Aussie hardworkers who had upbringing issues of their own. Alcoholic fathers, mainly.
So I had a difficult childhood and like a lot of adoptees, I never felt I belonged. I had a long-running fantasy where I imagined my parents were aliens who had come from outer space and were playing at being human beings. I used to try to catch them out by sneaking up on them to listen in. But I never did hear them speaking any interstellar dialogue. Just plain old English.
I’ve since found out that this is one of the fantasies adoptees have. That it’s all a dream and there is an explicable reality hiding just underneath the surface.
My own unique language back then was confusion and constant withdrawal into shame. The “reality” I sought did indeed exist but no-one ever came to reveal it—fuck I waited a long time for someone to come and validate that horrible empty feeling. I still do, to some extent.
In a way I’ve been lucky because I have now found my family and had a form of resolution. But there are huge gaps in my self-confidence and I constantly battle with fear and confusion about who I really am.
It didn’t help my identity issues either that as a kid people would mistake me for being various ethnicities. I got called Chinese, Croatian even “Eskimo.”
The fearful thing was that I could never confirm if they were right or wrong. They knew as much about it as I did.
Where I grew up in Albury there was a public housing estate nearby with a few Koori families. I didn’t mix with them much. I mean, none of the white (I have fair skin) kids did. Except the ones who were really poor. Poverty is a great cultural leveller.
We were probably lower middle class. Not rich—or poor—so the words of one of my childhood favourites George Orwell really resonated:
As soon as I could I left for University. Anything to escape and try to find “reality”. I also began to think deeply about Albury and how I belonged there. I used to wear an Aboriginal flag T-shirt around, years before I found out I was Koori. I copped a lot of grief from people for that. They’d say quizzically “Why are you wearing that?” Genuinely mystified as if to say, “you’re white and white people don’t wear those colours.”
I couldn’t answer them, I just had a feeling. Wearing that flag felt right. When I finally met mum, years later, I told her and she softly said “You knew all along.” Every Koori person I’ve mentioned this to since has said the same thing.
The other thing I had a burning need to do was find out about the true (Aboriginal) history of Albury.
Not easy. Albury is the sort of southern Australian town where dispossession and relocation happened a long, long time ago. And most locals would much prefer those stories stay in the distant past.
Certainly, we all grew up in the shadow of the “great” explorers Hume and Hovell who were the first white men to travel from what is now Sydney to Melbourne. Hence the name of the major highway which connects the two cities.
In fact, most everything of any note in Albury is named after those two men. There is a photo in the local museum of the locals having a great celebration for the centenary of them passing through in 1824.
Of the original inhabitants there was always a great silence. I knew of nothing and never, ever heard anyone speak of them specifically.
Albury’s official history, sponsored by the City Council, wasn’t of much use either. “Border City: History of Albury” by historian William A. Bayley is a volume of some 240 pages, including an entire chapter on the “epic journey” of Hume and Hovell. First published in 1954, references to the thousands of years of human history up to the arrival of the epic journeymen consists—in its entirety—of two dismissive, typically dehumanising asides.
On Page 19 Bailey writes:
“Aborigines were numerous. They continually speared or maimed or killed the squatters’ cattle and sheep and frequently skirmished with the white newcomers who kept their huts well supplied with loaded firearms. Drovers, travellers and settlers faced constant danger, several losing their lives, their bodies being mutilated by the aborigines who carried a plentiful supply of nullah-nullahs, boomerangs and spears. As time passed the natives became fewer. Some were killed by the white settlers, others fell victims to white man’s diseases, liquor and tobacco and the remainder moved on to quieter and more peaceful hunting grounds, leaving the rich river flats and grazing lands for the white men.”
And on page 32:
“William Howitt visited Albury in 1855 and wrote in Land, Labour and Gold that he saw on the Wodonga flats blacks of the Murray tribe ‘…surrounded as they always are by great swarms of dogs’ of which they are fonder than of their children.”
Later, I found a slim document published by the local development corporation which offered a generalised description of the local Kooris, mostly focusing on archaeology in the area, all written in the past tense.
For a long time after I found that archaeology document I stopped focusing on Albury’s Aboriginal history. This was a time of unearthing a lot of my own history, including finally connecting with my Mum and family at La Perouse in Sydney. I never stopped wondering about Albury though.
Finally this year I came across a document which sheds some much needed light on the early history of Albury before and through the traumatic invasion (Aboriginal world-view) or settlement (Australian world-view) period of the early 19th century.
The document is “Nineteenth Century Indigenous Land Use of Albury (NSW)” by Cultural Heritage Management specialist Dirk Spennemann. In his 35 page report Associate Professor Spennemann has answered many of the questions I had always wondered about regarding the early history of the town I was forced to grow up in.
Spennemann’s research has gone some way to answering the simple question I had as a child. A question which many Australian children from towns like Albury (which seem so, well, white) have asked at one point or other, and which is never satisfactorily answered by the grown-ups. Namely:
What happened to all the Aboriginal people that lived here?
As a child my question remained unanswered, but Spennemann has filled in some of the gaps. After the initial (inevitable) period of conflict in Albury it seems several local Kooris “attached themselves as servants to white settlers and officials performing menial tasks in return for food of low quality.”
This was during the 1840’s when a certain George Augustus Robertson passed through the area.
Albury seems to have been no different to other Australian frontier towns with Spennemann noting that “relationships between ‘master and servant’ were often strained, with at least one suicide of an Indigenous person attributed to maltreatment.” Like everywhere else on the continent, the coming of the British was a catastrophe for Aboriginal people, heralding the collapse of the social structure and law handed down from the ancestors since the beginning of time.
By the 1860’s the mission and reserve system was established and an anonymous commentator “proudly commented when describing Albury, ‘the wastes that formed the hunting grounds for wandering tribes of aborigines have been converted into pastures for countless flocks and herds’.”
The report notes that the first Protector of Aborigines in 1882 stated that removals to missions were so complete to that year that “only a single Indigenous person remained as a resident in Albury.”
A most bracing section of the report concerns burial sites and uncovers a darker, hidden side of Albury’s history. I reproduce in full;
“A sand dune existed at the southern end of Olive and David Streets, Albury, which was used for Indigenous and also for early European burials (Anonymous, 1860a, 1861c, 1861d, 1861e, 1896b, 1910b; Vagabond, 1896). 34 Indigenous burial in that dune, with bodies placed between two sheets of bark, are on record for 1840 and 1841 (Bushman, 1842). As Albury grew, that dune was increasingly quarried for sand for purposes of house construction and the cemetery was in an increasingly bad shape (Anonymous, 1862). Over time, the sand delivered to the buildings sites frequently contained human remains (Anonymous, 1874).
On at least two occasions Indigenous human remains were also discovered in situ. A tibia and femur were excavated between St. Matthew’s Church and the courthouse in 1877 (Anonymous, 1877). Found 30cm below the surface, there was no indication that the bones had been carted in with sand. In late September 1878, a skeleton was encountered at the ‘new down-river road skirting Hospital Hill’ (now Monument Hill). The skeleton, which was reported as in a good state of preservation, was assumed to belong to an Indigenous person and was taken charge of by the police (Anonymous, 1878). The location suggests that the burial was located south of Monument Hill, at the edge of the flood plain.
Indicative of the sentiment at the time, the skull of an Australian Aboriginal person, presumably obtained somewhere in the Albury area, had apparently been exhibited as a talking point in the boardroom of the Albury Pastures Protection Board.” (Anonymous, 1904c)
So houses in Albury are literally built with the remains of Aboriginal people from a sacred burial site. To quote Henry Reynolds, “Why weren’t we told?”
This isn’t a shock though. Every town in Australia has its own dirty little foundation secret. The pioneering men weren’t 10 foot tall supermen. They were British colonisers on the make. Many with an unhealthy interest in phrenology.
Indeed, capitalism and phrenology seemed to have gone hand in hand on the Australian frontier. Paul Daley writes of a pioneer working in Queensland—as a butcher then hotelier—named Korah Halcomb Wills. Daley quotes Wills, from his own handwritten notes in the State Library of Queensland, gathering “specimens” for wealthy phrenologists who were presumably more than willing to pay. After participating in a massacre justified in the name of “our own white people [who] were crying out for room to stretch our legs on” he recounts his work soon after on the fallen corpses:
“I took it on my head to get a few specimens of certain limbs, and the head of a Black fellow, which was not a very delicate occupation I can tell you. I shall never forget the time when I first found the subject that I intended to anatomise, when my friends were looking on, and I commenced operations dissecting. I went to work business like to take off the head first and then the arms, and then the legs, and I gathered them together and put them into my pack saddle and one of my friends who I am sure had dispersed more than any other in the colony made the remark that if he was offered a fortune he could not do what I had done.”
I wish these histories weren’t so covered up, that the pioneers from then and Australians from now were more honest about how all that land became “available.”
The Aboriginal people of Albury didn’t “move on to quieter and more peaceful hunting grounds” as Albury’s official history states. They were murdered, raped, enslaved and herded onto missions. That is the reality of how the modern nation called “Australia” came into existence.
Daley also describes the colonial frontier logic pioneering men had toward Aboriginal women. Constable William Willshere was a frontier policeman posted to Alice Springs in 1882. In Willshere’s book titled “The Land of the Dawning” published in 1896, Willshere writes:
“Men would not remain so many years in a country like this if there were no women, and perhaps the Almighty meant them for use as He has placed them wherever the pioneers go … what I am speaking about is only natural, especially for men who are isolated away in the bush at out-stations where women of all ages and sizes are running at large.”
For now, the mainstream historical focal point in Albury is, like that of many Australian towns, the massive Monument to World War One, sitting resplendent on what is now called “Monument Hill.” It’s no coincidence that the same monument represents the city on the front cover of the official history.
World War One, ANZAC and that era is “safe” history for white Australia. Occurring after the British colonial period, black population diminished, the remainder out of sight and largely locked away in missions, land assumed, federation achieved, White Australia Policy in force, post-WW2 migrants yet to arrive, Phar Lap running in the Melbourne Cup and Bradman at the crease.
But there is a more important history. A creation story. The foundation of the British colonial project called “Australia.”
Thank you Associate Professor Spennemann for blowing some dust off that history and how my home town came into being. Because of your report from now on I’ll refer to Monument Hill by it’s real name “Dirremer” and I’ll call Albury “Bungambrawatha” as much as I can, in memoriam to the Koori people and their descendants of whose land it was, is and always remains.
It helps me personally as well, as a thrice displaced Aboriginal person (place, family and culture) to feel a deeper sense of belonging to, and an understanding of, my adopted home town.
Where the “settlers” used the bones of Aboriginal people to build their houses.
William A Bayley, ‘Border City: history of Albury, NSW’, 1976, Albury City Council, pp. 19,32.
Dirk HR Spennemann, ‘Nineteenth Century Indigenous Land Use of Albury (NSW)’,as reflected in the historic sources. Institute for Land, Water and Society Report nº 83, 2015, Albury, NSW: Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University.
Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, ‘Aboriginal archaeology of the Albury-Wodonga region’, 1982, Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation.
Paul Daley, ‘Restless Indigenous Remains’, Meanjin, 2014, Vol. 73, No. 1.
George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, 1937, Left Book Club, London.