A Nigger Hunt was the original title of a long-excised chapter in Jeannie Gunn’s largely fictional 1908 autobiography, We of the Never Never. There Gunn described an expedition that she, her husband Aeneas and the stockmen at Elsey Station undertook in pursuit of local Aboriginals that had been “interfering with” their cattle.

“A black fellow kills cattle because he is hungry and must be fed with food, having been trained in a school that for generations has acknowledged catch-who-catch-can among its commandments. And until the long arm of the law interfered, white men killed the black fellow because they were hungry with a hunger that must be fed with gold, having been trained in a school that for generations has acknowledged ‘Thou shalt not kill’ among its commandments.

“And yet men speak of the superiority of the white race, and speaking, forget to ask who of us would go hungry if the situation were reversed. But condemn the black fellow as a mild thief (piously quoting now it suits them) from those commandments that men must not steal, in the same breath referring to the white man’s crime when it finds them out, as getting into trouble over some shooting affairs with blacks. Truly, we British-born have reason to brag of our inborn sense of justice.”

Elsey Station — a few miles east of the small town of Mataranka, 400 kilometres south of Darwin and now much reduced in size than in Gunn’s time — straddles the headwaters of the Roper River. The Roper is not called “Big River country” for nothing; with a catchment of over 80,000 square kilometres it is the second-largest river catchment in the Northern Territory and runs for 1000 kilometres from its headwaters to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Today Gunn’s book — and the 1982 film of the same name — which executive producer Phillip Adams described as a “Disneyfied … distortion of a distortion” — are viewed by many as flawed portrayals of an NT history that, in reality, never existed.

Gunn’s book has rarely been out of print, and you can still see the “Disneyfied” version of life in the Never Never on a loop at the bar of the Mataranka Homestead resort just before you take a dip into the local hot springs or a wander around the fake homestead.

In 1999, Northern Territory historian Mickey Dewar told the ABC’s Lorena Allam that We of The Never Never represented a construction of:

“… the wise paternalistic society, the embattled little woman who’s virtuous and who brings virtue to Elsey Station and the surrounding area, because of course she’s writing at a time when we’re well aware that most of the European men who are out in the pastoral area are engaged in sexual relations with the Aboriginal women, and Jeannie comes in and she describes a much purer territory, where all the white stockmen are good blokes, sensitive blokes who have a great deal of respect for the white woman, and this issue of inter-racial sexuality is never mentioned.

“Violence towards Aboriginal people is not mentioned either.”

“Nigger Hunts”, “punitive expeditions”, “a picnic with the natives” — all describe a brutal reality that We of The Never Never couldn’t reveal. The early settler society of the Northern Territory saw violence towards Aboriginal people as a necessary incident to ensure access to and control of lands and water needed to run cattle, which, apart from small cropping, was the only land use regarded as economically viable at that time.

Linguist and anthropologist Francesca Merlan describes this period as one of guerrilla warfare that began at the time of the construction of the north-south telegraph line and intensified as more country was taken up by pastoralists.

Tony Roberts has written extensively on the violence that followed the early European settler invasion of the central regions of the NT.

The following is from his 2009 essay in The Monthly, “The Brutal Truth“.

“In 1881, a massive pastoral boom commenced in the top half of the Northern Territory, administered by the colonial government in Adelaide. Elsey Station on the Roper River — romanticised in Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never — was the first to be established. These were huge stations, with an average size of almost 16,000 square kilometres …

“At least 600 men, women, children and babies, or about one-sixth of the population, were killed in the Gulf Country to 1910. The death toll could easily be as high as seven or eight hundred.”

Roberts tells of one “punitive expedition” against the Mangarrayi, the traditional owners of the land at Elsey Station and along parts of the Roper River to the east that he says was ordered directly by NT police inspector Paul Foelsche and that “would have been” authorised by the South Australian premier Sir James Penn Boucaut.

Roberts credits Foelsche as the mastermind of many of the massacres in the Northern Territory. He was “cunning, devious and merciless with Aboriginal” people but was supported by every South Australian government from 1870, when Darwin was established, through to his retirement in 1904, at which time King Edward VII presented him with the Imperial Service Order.

This state-sanctioned slaughter continued throughout the NT’s Roper and Gulf regions for 30 years until the Commonwealth — reluctantly — assumed control of the Northern Territory from South Australia in 1911.

Notwithstanding that Commonwealth control of the Northern Territory ushered in somewhat more benign relationships between Aboriginal people and European settler society — particularly in relation to access to, and control over, land and water — lingering tensions remained just below the surface.

The Northern Territory was then — as it remains in the imagination of a dwindling few now — the last Australian frontier.

Peter Fray

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