Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tom Petrie

I remember travelling to Petrie as a child to play against the Pine Rivers soccer team.  It seemed like a long way away.  Reading Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland makes it seem even further.  

Tom Petrie was born in Scotland in 1831.  In that same year his father Andrew accepted a post as supervisor of works in Sydney, and in 1838 the family transferred to the penal colony in Brisbane, then a ramshackle affair just over a decade old.  When Queensland was opened up to free settlement a few years later and his position was abolished, Petrie senior refused the offered transfer back to Sydney in favour of setting up his own building business in the younger colony, and the Petries became pillars of early Brisbane society.

All this meant that Tom had a very unusual childhood.  Brisbane in 1838 was not really a community, it was a prison.  Although there were some women prisoners the population was dominated by male convicts and soldiers.  There were virtually no European children.  Even Petrie's own siblings were much older than he was, virtually young adults by the time they arrived in Brisbane.

Young Tom also seems to have had a freedom of movement unthinkable for a child in 21st century Brisbane.  As a result, he sought out the only potential playmates available, the children in the Aboriginal camps at York's Hollow (the current Exhibition Grounds and Victoria Park), Bowen Hills and elsewhere around the settlement.  These were predominantly Turrbal people, the original custodians of the Brisbane area, but there were regular visitors from further afield.  He became an accepted presence in these camps, learned their languages, observed their ceremonies, and even travelled with them as an adolescent to the annual Bunya Nut Festival in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.  

All this made Tom quite unique among the European residents of early Brisbane.  Most Europeans seem to have viewed Aboriginal people with a mixture of scorn and fear.  Nor was the fear entirely misplaced.  A number of Europeans were killed by Aboriginal people, although the killings were far from unprovoked.  Yet Tom rarely if ever had cause to fear, and even worked closely with a number of Aboriginal people suspected of "murdering" Europeans.  His personal friendships and understanding of their cultural boundaries meant he managed to avoid offence and negotiate more cooperative relationships.  

A good example was his decision to settle in North Pine in the 1850s.  A number of previous European farmer/graziers in the area had been killed or abandoned their properties for their own safety.  Tom, however, consulted with the Aboriginal elder D'alipie (whom he had known since childhood) about where he should settle and, with his blessing, set up his station at a place he called "Murrumba", the Turrbal word for "good place".  D'alipie and his family subsequently spent a lot of time at Murrumba, helped Petrie establish the place and cared for it while he was away.

In the early 1900s Tom Petrie's daughter, Constance Campbell Petrie, decided to record some of his stories for posterity.  These appeared first as a series of articles in The Queenslander and later in a more extensive form in Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland, first published in 1904.  

This is a very important document in the history of Queensland, especially for its record of the languages and cultural practices of the Turrbal and other original South-East Queensland peoples.  It includes detailed descriptions of their hunting and gathering methods, food preferences, medical practice, marriage customs, child rearing, initiation ceremonies, mourning practices and the ritual battles which ended many of their large gatherings.  It is appended with a substantial list of Aboriginal place names and other words, although it is not entirely clear which language or languages these come from.

It's also not clear exactly how Constance Petrie gathered the stories and information she uses in the book.  Tom himself was still alive when it was published and it's possible he had some hand in it, but there's not much sense of his active involvement in its production.  I wonder if perhaps he was unwell by the time it was written.  Sometimes the stories are told in his voice as if Constance has recorded them verbatim, but more often they are told in the third person and some of the sections on Aboriginal culture seem to use other ethnographic sources too and read more like a work of anthropology than a memoir.  Did Constance and Tom sit together and work on the book, or is Constance remembering stories he told her in her childhood?  Did Tom write some of this down himself over the years, or is it all from his memory?  Are we meant to take all the stories as fact, or are some of them campfire yarns and classic Aussie tall tales?

This wasn't the reason I felt uneasy as I read this book, though.  You can't expect a memoir to adhere to high standards of scholarship.  

The first thing that made me uneasy was the clear assumption of European superiority.  Certainly Tom treated his Aboriginal companions fairly, kindly and even respectfully, and it seems they returned the favour.  Yet once he is an adult there is no question that he is in charge.  The book tells a series of stories about Tom's timber-getting expeditions to the Maroochy River in the company of a group of Aboriginal men.  At one point 25 of these men ask him to brand the backs of their hands with a "P" using traditional scarring methods.  He complies.  It sounds disturbingly like slavery.  There is certainly no suggestion in the book that his Aboriginal helpers were paid wages.  They seem to be working for rations.  

The second and even more nagging unease was about what happened to them.  The book is vague about dates, but seems to peter out by about 1870.  Where were the characters mentioned in it in 1904?  It is clear that some of them were still alive because Constance Petrie mentions a visit she made to the sanatorium at Dunwich where some of the elders were sent to end their days.  She says they received her very warmly as Tom's daughter and that they remembered him fondly despite not having seen him for decades.  He doesn't seem to have gone with her on this visit.  None of them seem to have been consulted on the stories in this book, or asked to tell their own versions or their own stories.  We don't know if they had children.  If they did where were they when the book was being written?

And this is where I was really squirming.  We know from other sources that there was a strong Aboriginal presence in the area around North Pine right up until the late 19th Century.  However, in 1897 the Queensland Parliament passed the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.  One of the effects of this Act is that over the following decade virtually all the remaining Aboriginal population of South East Queensland was forcibly relocated to Aboriginal missions like Cherbourg and Woorabinda. This process was under way as Constance Petrie was writing this book.

You wouldn't know it, reading the book itself.  It reads as if the Aboriginal communities belonged to the distant past.  Even in Tom's youth, according to Constance, the strong, athletic and energetic people he first met were turning into torpid, unhealthy alcoholics in the urban camps, courtesy of the alcohol, tobacco and sugar they received from Europeans.  She doesn't quite say it, but she conveys a sense that they were dying out, the few elderly people at Dunwich the last of a once-proud people.  Their demise, she seems to be saying, was sad but inevitable.

It is true that there was much destruction over Tom's and Constance's lifetimes.  People were killed by European settlers, by the Native Police, by imported influenza and other viruses, by poisoned flour, by alcohol.  To her credit, Constance doesn't sugar-coat this, and she makes it clear that many of the European settlers were killed in revenge for attempted poisonings.  Their culture was irreparably damaged by their steady eviction from their traditional land, forced beyond a boundary that kept on expanding.  The 1897 Act finished the process of cultural genocide, forcing the remaining Turrbal, Jagera and Kabi from their lands and splitting them up between the various reserves.  

Yet for all this they didn't 'die out'.  There is a kind of bitter irony in the fact that their descendants are now forced to look up the details of their languages and cultures in Constance Petrie's book.  It's likely that Tom Petrie was the best friend they had in the European community but it seems that in the end his friendship was like that of the king of Egypt, "that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it".  
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