Was True Blue a Blackfella?
By Neil Murray, The Age, Saturday 6 July 2002
WHEN ABORIGINAL MEN AND WOMEN EXTENDED THEIR
HAND TO NEWCOMERS, THE LEGEND OF THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHMAN WAS
BORN, WRITES NEIL MURRAY.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.