Was True Blue a Blackfella?
By Neil Murray, The Age, Saturday 6 July 2002


At its heart, Australian culture must credit the Aboriginal heritage as its cornerstone. The premise that we cannot know ourselves without knowing the land drives us there. Those among us who know the land the best are our Aboriginal countrymen.

The newcomer, in order to better survive should seek Aboriginal advice. This dictum applies in any age to any country in the world. In Ireland and the Americas, those immigrants who got on the best had sought the help of the indigenous inhabitants. To ignore their teaching was perilous. Of the early European explorers in Australia, the most successful always had Aboriginal guides; Burke and Wills did not.

The mythic bushman of Australian culture is self-reliant, tough, resourceful, antiauthoritarian. He is normally imagined as a white man with such occupations as droving, (the man from Snowy River) prospecting or shearing. He may just as readily be an Aboriginal. (Though if he were he would not normally be alone, he would have companions.)

How did the heroic Australian bushman get his skills? One way or another he learnt a lot of it from blackfellas.

One of my own ancestors, William Ford, trekked overland from Victoria to Western Australia and with Arthur Bailey discovered gold at Coolgardie. He could not have done this without the bushcraft he had learnt from Tjapwurrung people while growing up at Wickliffe on the Hopkins River in western Victoria.

Similarly, Australian rules football may never have arisen if not for a young Tom Wills seeking the company of Tjapwurrung playmates in the 1840’s.

Waltzing Matilda, arguably our most identifiable national song, could readily be the tale of an indigenous person who, faced with the loss of his native game as a result of European encroachment, “rightfully” takes a sheep for a feed. Leave alone suicide, plenty were shot for less. For my money there is more truth in Waltzing Matilda than there will ever be in Advance Austral Fair.

And what of women? The first women in Australia were Aboriginal. By having intercourse with the strange pale-skinned newcomers, they discovered they were after all, just men, white men. Not ghosts at all.

Nothing would be that cut and dried again. Aboriginal Australians were destined to become the most misunderstood and misrepresented of peoples.

Most of what we know of our history has come through European eyes. A few, such as James Dawson, (a Western District grazier who published a book in 1880 on Aboriginal culture in his region) were genuinely interested in what the natives thought and felt, but it was still extraordinarily difficult to be precise as to the meaning of their responses.

For example, on the Victorian frontier, it was reported that some Aboriginal women had said “bye and bye we all jump up like whitefellow”. Typically, amused settlers thought it a quaint wish to be European, consistent with the widely held view that the natives believed Europeans were their own kind returned from the dead. Aboriginal belief systems would accept the women’s remark being made from a clear understanding the “child spirits” in the land would continue to find birth, irrespective of parental ethnicity.

By the mid-1800s it would have been apparent to Aboriginal women that their numbers were declining, whereas the ‘halfcaste” population was increasing – latter benefiting from a gene pool that provided some resistance to foreign disease. The women might conclude their people’s chances of survival were better by intermarrying with the whitefellas and appearing – over time – to be like them. In most instances, it was Aboriginal men who were killed before women on the frontier. The women often had little option but to be with whatever men (Indigenous or not) claimed them if their own husbands had been killed or were absent.

Even as late as the mid-1900s, it was still popularly assumed by the white population that breeding out skin colour would destroy Aboriginality. Much Indigenous culture and language has been lost but, at the very least over each generation, a sense of Aboriginal identity always remained, like an inherited code for entry into the land.

The presence of Aboriginal women is pervasive and integral to Australia’s history and culture. They were there, accompanying and comforting their menfolk whether they were Aboriginal European, Afghan or Asian. Barely referred to in official history, they remain in the shadowy background or disguised as ‘the drover’s boy”. (There are dreaming stories that account for women impersonating men to survive.)

That many Aboriginal women were sexually exploited is acknowledged. But for every story of exploitation there is another of genuine love and long-term companionship, and of women choosing to be with those who treated them well.

History does not really record their individual lives. They are the generic lubra in the camp. We hardly know their names but one of them – Truganini – has left us with the most compelling portrait of a haunted women ever captured in a photograph.

Truganini and her husband-to-be accepted a lift with some woodcutters in a boat from Bruny Island to mainland Tasmania. Mid way during the 0.8 kilometer voyage, the woodcutters threw her husband overboard. When he tried to climb back on board they cut off his hands. Truganini was probably raped afterwards.

Her life was one of unspeakable hardship. She witnessed most of her people die out and was commonly referred to as the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine. Despite her pleas, after her death her bones were robbed for scientific trade.

According to Henry Reynolds, it was Truganini who convinced the Tasmanian Aboriginal resistance to cease hostilities towards the settlers. In most official histories it was white man George Augustus Robinson (and Truganini’s rumoured consort) who was credited with his. There are many people, both in Tasmania and on the mainland, who claim to be descended from Truganini.

While women were generally behind the scenes looking after the camp and the children, it was the men who were expected to engage newcomers. As the two cultural world views collided, and the indigenous one yielded, Aboriginal men would suffer and continue to suffer a greater sense of disempowerment than women.

Nonetheless, Aboriginal men were keen to prove their worth (and even mastery) to the newcomers, and salvage their pride in the process. The entire pastoral industry throughout Australia would never have got off the ground if not for the skill and labour of Aboriginal men and women.

In Victoria, during the goldrush, when grazing properties were faced with a shortage of labour due to outbreaks of gold fever, Aborigines filled the demand.

There is no denying the skill and knowledge that Aboriginal people had. This was not unnoticed by their non-indigenous co-workers and bosses. Many a “new chum” would owe their lives to Aboriginal bushcraft and resourcefulness, and still more would keenly observe Aboriginal ways in order to better equip themselves to a hostile land. In time, these independent white bushman developed their own mythology with little or no reference to their Aboriginal countrymen.

John Williamson’s song True Blue is a lament of a vanishing culture. True Blue is, again, an extension of the Aussie bushman, the rugged, quiet, dependable “good bloke” of the post-war years. He’s a hero made in the image of Australians of Anglo-Celtic heritage – those who value honest, hard work and decent, principled conduct.

You can say a lot about True Blue but we know he wasn’t a skiter. And he wouldn’t dob his mates in either – and how far that can be morally correct we presume he knows. We pray he’s not like those frontier squatters and their “conspiracy of silence” about the massacre of natives.

True Blue is fair dinkum, reliable and always does the “right thing”. He’s the bloke who comes along on a miserable day when you’re broken down and stranded. And nothing is too much trouble for him. He’s seen plenty. He’s not flash; he’ll tie it up with wire and get you going. Probably make you laugh too.

In today’s post-Internet global world, True Blue would be eaten for breakfast. He just would not have the skills to keep up, to make himself heard, or be understood. His accent is odd, antiquated, un-American. What passes for common business practice he would abhor. It’s every man for himself now, and it’s money that matters.

By now, he has understandably, long gone. Propping up a bar in some remote dusty town, or living like a hermit in a cave or caravan park. He is the last of his tribe.

He has company, if he chooses. There’s plenty of blackfellas who will drink with him.

For True Blue to survive, he must adapt and transform. In the end True Blue, or the Aussie bushman, has no colour or creed. He is faceless and genderless. He/she is neither black nor white. He/she is in essence a collection of values. The question is, are these values worth anything now?

Does the idea of “always give the bloke beneath you a lift” matter? After Tampa and the asylum seekers, one could be forgiven for assuming that it doesn’t. We turn from humanity that easily, with barely a ripple on a sea of indifference. God help us if the situation were reversed. Who would want boatloads of sniveling Caucasians?

We all know there is crisis in our Aboriginal communities, but I can say from my own observation and experience, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re down on your luck you won’t be turned away from an Aboriginal camp. That is why, throughout our history there has been a steady stream of whitefellas being taken in by their indigenous countrymen.

Where are the rest of the fair-minded Australians? Are they, are we, becoming a minority? Why did it take us so long to help East Timor when World Was II diggers had been telling us for years that we owed them and West Papua too?

Why do we ape America? What is so attractive about their culture? Why do we still validate ourselves, and our writers, musicians and artists on the extent of their acceptance and recognition overseas? Don’t we know what’s good? Why do we need someone to tell us?

Many Australians have yet to truly arrive in this country. They may have lived here for several generations but still they don’t belong. Their focus is elsewhere; they are turned to events and appraisals overseas. They live on Australia, not in it. They pass over the landscape, not through it. They are inclined to think there is nothing wherever there are no towns or shops. They are inclined to think nothing.

Is it any wonder then, why we are still not able to be a republic? The cries of don’t muck with a stable system (the monarchy) are ironic, because if we were truly comfortable with ourselves we would have become a republic last century. Recent immigrants, especially those from war-torn countries, are relieved; they see a level of surface stability and support the status quo to maintain that. They don’t have an understanding of Australia’s history and culture to think otherwise.

The psychosis of racism and discrimination is proportional to the degree of alienation felt in the psyche. The guilt of land theft and murder, for having taken without asking, the knowledge of being an interloper, a squatter without the owners’ blessings, having acquired by unlawful means or benefited from crimes in the past all eat at the psyche and provide for instability.

With this discomfort, all outsiders are a threat, viewed with hostility and suspicion – especially those who have a legitimate claim. Without complete acceptance of the truth, healing is not possible. One can never belong or be truly “at home” without respect for and forgiveness from the aggrieved.

The gift of reconciliation for non-indigenous Australians is that it gives them the opportunity to ask, to observe proper ceremonial protocol in entering another’s country. To ask with genuine respect and humility to be received. The hope is to be warmly welcomed with grace and hospitality.

The hope is to be welcomed as a guest then ultimately accepted as family. For it is that kind of relationship where the imparting of knowledge and guidance occurs naturally.

For non-indigenous Australians, reconciliation – whether as a private spiritual need or as public people’s movement – is about asking for acceptance and forgiveness from the owners.