On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike is a history of the great strike of marrngu (the Pilbara’s Aboriginal pastoral workers) during the later 1940s. This week we feature two reviews of the book, one from the historian and social scientist Tim Rowse, and the other from a former senior Commonwealth bureaucrat in Indigenous affairs, Michael Dillon. Each review brings a perspective that reflects the readers’ background and expertise, but both are agreed that Anne Scrimgeour has produced a masterful work of history, an important guide for future policy makers and an enduring legacy in the wake of her untimely death earlier this year.
Indigenous Agency and Policy Transition
Though it is not as well known or as frequently commemorated as the Gurindji walk-off in 1966, the 1946-49 strike by Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Pilbara region has been the subject of several historical works and novels. What Anne Scrimgeour brings to this topic is her thorough approach to sources (including interviews with participants conducted as long ago as 1991) and her willingness to question received interpretations. As well, I will argue, she illuminates the Western Australian government’s shift, in these years, from ‘protection’ to ‘assimilation’. That policy transition has usually been presented as the outcome of rethinking by politicians, senior public servants and academic experts. While these actors were undoubtedly important, in some times and places new forms of Indigenous agency compelled a policy change. That is, policy change became necessary as a solution to a problem that old approaches had created by ignoring or discouraging Indigenous agency. In On Red Earth Walking Scrimgeour tells the story of the exhaustion of one mode of state authority and the inauguration of another – a transition made easier by a change of senior government personnel but made necessary by Aboriginal refusal en masse to live by established habits of compliance. When marrngu (the Pilbara’s Aboriginal pastoral workers) collectively demanded better pay and conditions from the region’s wool growers, they exposed weaknesses in the state administration of Aboriginal affairs and stimulated policy innovation.
Marrngu began to discuss striking for higher pay in 1944; they were encouraged to do so by a non-Aboriginal contractor Don McLeod who was himself an employer of marrngu. From around July 1945, marrngu close to McLeod promoted strike action around the region’s stations, and it was agreed that 1 May 1946 would be the date to stop work, though strikes on some stations had won wage rises by that date. The police responded to people walking off the job by arresting and gaoling leaders such as Clancy McKenna, Dooley Binbin and by arresting and fining McLeod. Such actions provoked protests by solidarity groups in Perth, but they also intimidated many marrngu. The numbers of strikers grew in July 1946 when many marrngu refused to return to their stations after their permitted visit to the Port Hedland horse races in July. By the first week of August, there were two striker camps – Twelve Mile (near Port Hedland) and Moolyella (near Marble Bar) – their residents surviving on what we would now call a ‘hybrid economy’, a mixture of rations, hunting and tin-mining.
The Western Australian Labor government (led by Frank Wise) aligned with the pastoralists in this industrial dispute; police and ‘travelling inspectors’ enforced laws such as the Aboriginal Rights Amendment Act 1936 that severely abridged the citizenship rights of people classed as ‘natives’ and the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 that set out the criteria by which a magistrate should judge a ‘native’ request to be exempt from such controls. Employers who paid the government for a licence to employ Aboriginal people believed (with good reason) that what they were buying included police and travelling inspector assistance in resisting any challenge to employer authority. However, the government’s most potent enforcement tactic – imprisoning or fining those considered strike leaders – proved to be frail. McLeod, McKenna and Dooley Binbin appealed their convictions twice – unsuccessfully in Western Australia’s Supreme Court (November 1946) and then successfully in the High Court of Australia in March 1947. In addition, officials who could threaten individuals effectively had no answer to the solidarity and economic viability of the growing striker camps at Twelve Mile and Moolyella.
The election of a Liberal government in March 1947 created the opportunity for a change of state tactics and senior bureaucrats, and the Bateman Report (1948) warned the McLarty government that communist agitation would become more influential among the State’s Aboriginal people if the government did not take a more sympathetic view of their grievances as workers. Old habits died hard among Pilbara officials, however, and their advice led the new Commissioner of Native Affairs, Stanley Middleton (appointed August 1948), to continue the old tactics: declaring Twelve Mile an area ‘prohibited to natives’ in December 1948 and arresting and removing activists in the first half of 1949. Such repression aroused more criticism from the State’s civil society, and by July 1949 the strikers were provoking the government to arrest them. That repression was actually weakening the state-employer position was highlighted in the period April-July 1949, when the Seaman’s Union refused to move wool from Port Hedland as long as strikers were in gaol. From the state government’s point of view, tactics of repression were backfiring – crippling the region’s wool industry and promoting communist influence. In July 1949, Middleton sent a new public servant envoy to talk to the strikers, Sydney Elliott-Smith, and soon he and the strikers had agreed to a new wage-scale.
The McLarty government rejected this agreement, believing that it was influenced too much by Elliott-Smith’s dealing with McLeod. Scrimgeour argues that McLeod made an error of judgment in enabling his communist allies to publicise the agreement as their victory. The political objective of conceding no legitimacy to communist leadership of Aboriginal people continued to guide the government’s revised approach to settling the industrial dispute. The state thus ended negotiations with the strikers and focused on persuading the pastoralists to pay what the strikers had said they would accept. Pastoralists did so – station by station – in negotiation with the workers who had previously worked with them. The gains of the Aboriginal workers were real; conditions were no longer similar to slavery, and many workers sought and were granted wages without ‘keep’ (rations) – a step toward the household autonomy from employer long considered normal for Australian workers.
That is the story in bare outline. In the rest of my review I want to underline Scrimgeour’s contribution to the way that we write the history of Aboriginal policy.
One of Scrimgeour’s themes is the emergence of the Pilbara Aboriginal workers as a collective actor that could enforce discipline on its members and be accepted by pastoralists and the state as a legitimate negotiator. In this possible political trajectory McLeod’s communism seems to have been both an asset and a liability. There is no doubt that his ideological commitment underpinned his respect for the latent political capacities of Aboriginal workers and that his work with key Aboriginal individuals contributed to the realisation of those capacities. But Australian governments, fighting the Cold War, treated his communism as a threat in itself, and this coloured their evaluation of the nascent Indigenous collective action with which McLeod was associated, reinforcing a common, racist devaluation of Aboriginal intelligence. The state government’s resolution of the strike in the winter of 1949 effectively pre-empted the further development of Aboriginal leadership, lest that leadership flourish under communist influence. Middleton’s assimilationism was nonetheless a progressive policy, in that it was better that the state assume the role of Aboriginal people’s defender in their dealings with other interests than simply remain the enforcer of the pastoral interest.
This realignment of the state government under Aboriginal pressure can be seen in the wider context of the changing relationship between governments and other forms of colonial authority. In adopting ‘assimilation’ as a policy around 1950, Australian governments were differentiating themselves from and – to a degree – competing with other forms of colonial authority. This change is clearest in the remote regions of Australia where, until World War Two forced public investment in northern Australia, the state had been administratively weak, delegating authority over Indigenous Australians to pastoralists and missionaries. Any tremor in the effectiveness of those two delegated authorities brought up the issue of whether the state should be doing more: to supervise pastoralists and missionaries and perhaps even replace them as the authority effectively present in Indigenous Australians’ daily lives. One of the defining structural changes in colonial authority in remote Australia after 1945 was the expansion of state (both Commonwealth and States) capacity to manage the Indigenous population, with the corresponding eclipse of non-state authorities such as missionaries and pastoralists.
It is productive to read On Red Earth Walking as a ‘policy history’ and not just as a retelling of an industrial dispute because Scrimgeour gives us so much detail about how Western Australian government officials were re-positioning themselves in the years 1946 to 1949. They had to cast state authority into a new mould because pastoral authority had suddenly failed. Central to the ‘business model’ of pastoral colonial authority was that Aboriginal populations could be managed as cheap labour pools; nothing more was required of the State government than that police and travelling inspectors discipline Aboriginal mobility, inhibiting the formation of a regional labour market. That task was made easier (requiring few public servants) by Aboriginal custom – the attachment of mobs to their ‘country’ – and by the evolved ‘feudal’ relations of mutual obligation between pastoralist and resident mobs.
Scrimgeour’s story begins at the moment when that ‘business model’ (my term not hers) broke down under the pressure of increasing state regulation of a particular sector of the Aboriginal population. Those immediately aggrieved were people of mixed Aboriginal and European descent, sometimes self-described as ‘Euralians’; some were members of the Australian Workers Union and some had formed the Euralian Association in 1934. During the war, they were suspected by the state and federal governments of being susceptible to collaboration with invading Japanese, and they were seen as a health and moral risk to sexually active soldiers. To deal with both problems, Port Hedland was declared a ‘prohibited area’ in November 1942. The mixed descent people experienced this regulation as an unjustified break in their merited advancement to equality with whites, a feeling reinforced by the government’s increasingly rigid war-time administration of the permission to employ Aboriginal people. Euralians suddenly found that they were treated as if they were mere ‘natives’. Their anger inspired Don McLeod, an activist in the Anti-Fascist League and himself a regulated employer of Aboriginal labour (well-sinking, fencing), to agitate against the racial stratification of war-time labour regulation. He was emboldened by his friendships within Western Australia’s small Communist Party of Australia network (mostly Perth-based), all espousing the principle that every colour of humanity had equal rights. He quickly found allies around Port Hedland among Aboriginal men of initiative. That it was within Aboriginal people’s collective capacity to refuse the pastoralists’ terms of employment was an idea nourished both by local conditions and by the ideological confidence of outsiders such as McLeod.
Much of Scrimgeour’s narrative is about the slow and piecemeal spread of the strike. Not everyone downed tools on 1 May 1946 because customs of mutual service and the threats of police and travelling inspectors (including showing chains to the targets of their homilies) were reasons not to rebel. However, the High Court’s March 1947 ruling, disallowing Western Australia’s earliest exemplary arrest of ring-leaders, revealed that the state government’s coercive powers were not as great as government officials, pastoralists and marrngu had assumed. So, by 1947, the two mutually reinforcing sinews of colonial authority in the Pilbara – habitual assent to employer command and state policing of those who chafed at employer command – were severely damaged. Would sheer material need restore the old obedience? Scrimgeour shows how resourceful marrngu were in provisioning themselves at the Twelve Mile and Moolyella camps. Under striker Tommy Sampie, the Twelve Mile residents even started a school.
This was a crisis of a particular form of pastoral authority, but not the end of a Pilbara pastoral industry. There were still employers willing to profit from growing wool, and there were still workers willing and able to make their living from managing herds and shearing sheep, on country. They just needed to rethink the terms of their relationship. Some employers saw this more quickly than others and McLeod and his associates promoted their approach – respectfully negotiated terms and conditions – as the desired mode of pastoralist authority.
This required changes in the state itself. The defeat of Labor and the installation of a Liberal-Country Coalition (under Liberals Duncan Ross McLarty, Premier, and Robert Ross McDonald, Native Affairs) enabled Western Australia’s reconsideration of settler colonial governance. These conservatives were receptive to the argument presented by anthropologist A.P. Elkin that Australia’s states could learn from the federal government’s exemplary colonial administration in Papua New Guinea. Commissioner of Native Affairs, Stanley Middleton, recruited from that PNG service, brought with him the idea that many decisions were best devolved to the level of the ‘district’. It took some months before Middleton realised that, in the Pilbara district, the officials serving him were still operating from the only model that they knew, in which upstanding Aboriginal people were better arrested and removed than negotiated with, based on the assumption that Aboriginal people were the child-like beneficiaries of pastoralists’ generosity. One of the rewards of Scrimgeour’s immersion in the State archives is her portrayal of officials such as John Wriede Bulmer Gribble, Thomas Emmes Jensen and Laurence O’Neill – men who had acquired their reputations for ‘knowing the natives’ under the ‘feudal’ conditions that pastoralists were now having to surrender. After a few months, Middleton was astute enough to realise that he must replace such champions of the collapsed colonial paradigm, in order to re-establish Native Affairs as a plausible advocate of Aboriginal workers within an industrial relations system closer to what Australians considered ‘normal.’ It is interesting that his new man on the spot, Sydney Elliott-Smith, was of Tasmanian origin, with experience as a magistrate and military officer in Papua – not a product of local training.
The book under review was prepared over thirty years, and it reveals Scrimgeour as an industrious, devoted and thoughtful historian of a region in which remarkable things have happened and continue to happen. Could the recent destruction of rock shelters at Juukun Gorge be another local crisis in the relationship between state and corporate authority, precipitating wider substantive policy change?
At the end of On Red Earth Walking, Scrimgeour notes that some strikers who had experienced the autonomy of Twelve Mile and Moolyella camps did not go back to herding and shearing sheep for pastoralists but made enterprises of their own – such as harvesting grass seed and ‘yandying’ for tin, columbite and tantalite – with McLeod again their partner. By 1952 there were 700 such miners. I hope that someone will write a book telling the story of this series of enterprises – arguably the most practical prefiguration of ‘self-determination’ in Australian history.
A Map for Future Governance in Indigenous Affairs
Australia emerged from World War Two with an energised economy, a greater focus on international trade, a Labor Government in Canberra with a focus on post war reconstruction and building economic resilience. In Western Australia too, Labor held office through the war, from 1936 to 1947.
In the Pilbara, economic activity consisted primarily of sheep farming on large pastoral leases and sporadic small-scale mining. Iron ore mining only emerged in the late 1950s. The pastoralists relied heavily on Aboriginal (marrngu) labour, both male and female, and exercised extraordinary control over the Aboriginal labour force by virtue of the provisions of the Western Australian Native Administration Act 1936, which, while ostensibly intended to protect Aboriginal people, contained restrictive provisions that controlled all aspects of their lives, including provisions governing employment.
This was the political, economic and social context that provided the foundation for a major political campaign, built around an extended strike by marrngu workers for better wages and conditions on pastoral leases, and an associated political campaign for access to traditional lands. The strike and political campaign, while slow to emerge, extended over three years and created the foundation for a broader Aboriginal social movement involved in small scale mining enterprises, the later purchase of a number of pastoral properties by marrngu interests, and the development of a post contact social system based on cooperative principles. The strike also led to allegations of communist interference, the arrest, neck-chaining and imprisonment of numerous Aboriginal strikers, the gaoling of various strike leaders and supporters, litigation that went to the High Court, and intense bureaucratic and political manoeuvring not only in Port Hedland and the Pilbara, but at the highest levels within the Western Australian Government.
Anne Scrimgeour’s masterfully detailed exposition and narrative explores the background and underpinnings of the political campaign, critically assesses alternative perspectives, and elucidates its broader significance and implications. Her analysis is based on detailed and extremely thorough archival research to provide a step by step account from the perspective of government agencies (primarily the Department of Native Affairs (DNA) and the police) and, to a lesser extent pastoralists, complemented by extensive first and second hand interviews with marrnguinvolved in the strike. Her analysis of cross-cultural relations between marrngu and pastoralists is sophisticated and nuanced, exploring the contradictions inherent in relationships that while structurally oppressive were often personally warm and friendly.
The unfurling of the campaign and associated strike is inherently interesting. After all, it recounts a David and Goliath struggle, involving the least powerful members of society — who while entitled to become citizens by virtue of the WA Natives (Citizenship Rights ) Act 1944, were still required to apply and meet certain stringent criteria — and one of the most powerful interest groups in the state, the pastoralists, who had the full support of the Labor state government and its agencies.
Scrimgeour is particularly strong in explicating the challenges faced by marrngu in sustaining their campaign. These included maintaining unity, finding alternative sources of income and sustenance, accessing external support from churches, progressive well-wishers in Perth and amongst the unions, and not least in avoiding the draconian consequences of breaching the Native Administration Act 1936. This legislation controlled who and where marrngu might meet supporters, where they might travel, and ultimately provided for the forced exile from the Pilbara of marrngu individuals deemed troublesome. One of the threads running through Scrimgeour’s account, is the extent to which government officials’ actions, and particularly their words, were overtly racist (albeit reflecting their times). The DNA worked hand in glove with the police and pastoralists to maintain a reliable and cheap Aboriginal labour force, and to constrain individual marrngu capacities to offer their labour beyond the current employment. While informal practice by the police was much more robust than provided for by the law, Scrimgeour’s account demonstrates how publicity for the marrngu cause beyond the Pilbara ultimately forced the police and the DNA to adopt much more cautious and legally appropriate administrative processes.
As the political campaign and strike developed, the pastoralists and the DNA struggled to design and implement an effective strategy to contain it. Scrimgeour recounts in detail how at first, they underestimated marrngu resolve and the impact of their alliance with progressive supporters in Perth. Later, their focus on developing strategies aimed at decapitating the leadership of the movement and exiling them to departmentally controlled Aboriginal settlements such as Moola Bulla in the Kimberley or Moore River settlement fell short due to a fear of attracting adverse publicity.
A particularly complex issue for anyone keen to understand the Pilbara campaign and strike is to assess the role of the marrngu leadership, and their relationship with a local non-Aboriginal Pilbara activist, station worker, miner and wharfie, Don McLeod. Scrimgeour’s narrative proffers a detailed and ultimately persuasive assessment that acknowledges McLeod’s initiative and ongoing role as well as the reality that without endogenous marrngudetermination and commitment the strike and political campaign would have failed. This interpretation was not shared at the time by the DNA, the police, nor the politicians, who overwhelmingly saw McLeod as a ‘communist agitator’ manipulating Aboriginal people. This was one of the mistakes that led to the ultimate success of the strike
Scrimgeour has provided us with an extraordinary account and insight into the unfurling of the strike over three years in the Pilbara. As it developed, Scrimgeour’s account makes clear that those involved on the government side came to see it as having wider and more problematic ramifications. On the marrngu side, Scrimgeour also recounts how deeper aspirations for access to country and self-determination were also at play, albeit less overtly articulated. Still, it is fair to say that most of those involved on all sides probably saw the conflict as a local or at most regional struggle.
While the core thematic driver for Scrimgeour’s narrative is the strike, she provides fascinating insights into numerous other issues of historical interest: the ways in which the lopsided but mutual dependence of pastoralists and marrngu manifested; the biographical backgrounds and personalities of the key strikers and their leaders; the early development of Aboriginal controlled schools in the Pilbara; the development of successful small scale mining enterprises by the strikers; highly informative biographical insights into key bureaucratic officials; and so much more.
As mere narrative exposition, On Red Earth Walking provides by far the most detailed, comprehensive and sophisticated assessment and analysis of the Pilbara strike available. Along with Mary Ann Jebb’s terrific history of the development of the Kimberley pastoral industry ‘Blood, Sweat and Welfare’, and Chris Owen’s eye-opening history of Kimberley colonial policing ‘Every Mothers Son is Guilty’, On Red Earth Walking is an essential contribution to the historiography of colonial and north west Australia. However, the significance of On Red Earth Walking is much more than that.
Scrimgeour’s account of the strike opens portals to myriad issues of much more contemporary significance: how to identify the public interest in the face of private sector lobbying; the appropriate role of security services and use of intelligence in domestic politics; the challenge of hearing Indigenous voices; who should choose Indigenous leaders and representatives; the importance of non-Indigenous allies to successful Indigenous advocacy; the independence of our judicial system; and much more. These are not inconsequential issues, and all were salient at various points in the Pilbara conflict. Scrimgeour generally does not comment overtly, but provides more than enough information to ensure readers themselves ask the questions: how was that allowed to happen? … and could it happen today? In this vein, perhaps the most important issue to emerge from Scrimgeour’s account is the structural embeddedness of racially discriminatory policy within the institutional framework of Western Australia. And of course, this raises the question: how far have we come in removing all vestiges, formal and informal, of those policies?
Finally, it is worth observing that Scrimgeour’s account is largely devoid of anthropological or sociological theory, while simultaneously laying out detailed evidence which might be used to support theoretical discussion and conclusions. So for example, drawing on Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory, there is ample evidence in her detailed narrative account that the genesis and development of the political and industrial conflict was influenced strongly by both the constraints and opportunities allowed by institutional structures and the initiatives of individual and group actors to challenge, and ultimately shape those institutional frameworks. Similarly, following Pierre Bourdieu, one might argue that Scrimgeour presents ample evidence for the existence within police and DNA staff of internalised expectations in support of settler interests leading to habituated assumptions of marrngu incompetence, laziness, lack of intelligence and so forth. These and other potential theoretical interpretations are left for readers to ponder. This is a book that challenges readers to ask further questions.
In relation to ideological and political matters, Scrimgeour avoids simplistic left/right ideological tropes, while evincing broad support for the aspirations of the strikers. She is prepared to be sceptical of McLeod’s claims to have been given authority to represent marrngu at a meeting in 1942 at Skull Creek, questioning the dates and his interpretation, while acknowledging his status amongst the strikers. She recounts without overt comment the hard-line pro-pastoralist policy of the Wise Labor Government and its Minister for the North West, Bob Coverley, and the more progressive shift towards assimilation by the new Liberal Minister for Native Affairs Ross McDonald from March 1947. Again, readers are implicitly challenged to question preconceived notions that Labor governments are inevitably progressive and Liberal governments conservative.
I raise Scrimgeour’s theoretical and ideological parsimony not as a criticism, but to make the point that while On Red Earth Walking is the best book on the Pilbara Strike written to date, and will remain essential reading for anyone interested in this issue for many decades to come, it contains evidence and insights that have a much broader import than a narrative case study of settler/Indigenous relations in a particular region, the Pilbara.
Scrimgeour’s singular achievement has been to write a sophisticated history that traverses complex historical terrain from multiple perspectives, and over the course of this journey, to sift and winnow fact from surmise, identify areas of doubt or uncertainty, elucidate likely motivations, and suggest potential interpretations. In doing so, she has implicitly pointed the way for further research on multiple fronts. On Red Earth Walking is not the last word on the
Pilbara strike and its simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary protagonists; it is the starting point for new journeys of interpretation, and historical analysis, and thus will stand the test of time in its own right.
My single complaint regarding the book is that the maps and photographs could have been more extensive, detailed and better quality. They compare poorly with the maps and photographs in Monty Hale’s 2012 bilingual memoir Kurlumarniny: We Come from the Desert, which Scrimgeour edited. In the scheme of things however, this is a minor quibble.
On Red Earth Walking deserves a wide readership amongst and beyond historians. It implicitly poses questions that are central to our nation’s future. The culmination of her life’s work seeking to document the political and cultural aspirations of marrngu people in the Pilbara, in On Red Earth Walking Anne Scrimgeour has bequeathed the nation a map into our future.