Thomson's treaty

Age - 28th June, 2000

DONALD Thomson was a man ahead of his time. When the last big punitive expedition against Aborigines in Arnhem Land loomed in 1933, he saw a chance not only to avoid it, but to usher in a new approach to the treatment of Australia's first people.

Thomson, a young anthropologist from Melbourne, was in Queensland at the time, a distant and passive observer to calls for a display of force against those who had killed five Japanese trepangers and the police constable McColl, who was dispatched to investigate their deaths.

He was in the process of offering his services as peacemaker when others embarked on a mission that led to the arrest of three sons of the legendary leader of the Djapu clan, Wonggu, for the slayings, and of resistance fighter Dhakiyarr for the policeman's murder.

Dhakiyarr would later assert that McColl had handcuffed and later raped one of his wives in order to draw him out of the bush and then tried to shoot him as he came to her aid. As Thomson wrote later: "If he had been a white man his action would have been self-defence and ... justifiable homicide."

Facing a murder charge in Darwin, Dhakiyarr was found guilty and sentenced to death after his lawyer refused to put the charge of sexual misconduct before the court.

The three sons of Wonggu faced the same judge, a man named Wells, over the slayings of the trepangers - farmers of the sea cucumber believed to be an aphrodisiac. Their defence was that the Japanese had intruded into their territory to smoke trepang, held and abused their women and beaten those who tried to rescue them. Each was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. "Perhaps the kindest thing to do is to hang them," said the judge.

Against the backdrop of increased resentment from the Yolgnu people, who felt they had been betrayed, and a public outcry from the southern states and abroad at the severity of the sentences, Thomson was finally summoned to Canberra to discuss his offer to "go alone into the troubled area to make friends with the Aborigines and to report on the true facts".

He wrote later of his discomfort in facing the minister for the interior, John Arthur Perkins, who had earlier supported "a show of force" against the Arnhem Land Aborigines "to uphold the prestige of the Administration".

"I had not been back in civilisation very long and faced at last with the cold and formal air of Canberra, so remote from the problems of the people of Arnhem Land, I felt embarrassed and bewildered," Thomson wrote.

"This was a world bleak, soulless, far from the friendly, warm-hearted people for whom I had come as advocate, and I experienced a great depression of spirit - a feeling that I was never able to overcome in any of my subsequent visits to Canberra." It is a feeling experienced by many advocates for the indigenous cause today.

His mood was not helped by a last-minute request he received from Sir Colin McKenzie, the director of the Institute of Anatomical Research, to collect Aboriginal skulls in Arnhem land as he set about his primary task of reconciliation.

"I feel that Judge Wells is in a better position to collect skulls for the Commonwealth Government than I am," he protested.

It was several more months before Thomson was granted his commission and, in the meantime, the High Court had ordered the release of Dhakiyarr, who immediately disappeared.

As Thomson wrote later: "No high-level official inquiry was ever made as to his fate, but the Aborigines are unanimous about this: `Policeman shoot 'im' was their verdict."

So began an eight-year association between Thomson and the people of north-east Arnhem Land, an association that ended ironically in 1943, when Thomson was asked to establish a guerrilla force of Aborigines to defend Australia from Japanese invasion.

IF it is true that the so-called black armband view of Australian history - with its clear-eyed view of the atrocities inflicted on indigenous Australia - has largely eluded mainstream Australia, it is also the case that many stories of reconciliation have failed to penetrate the nation's psyche.

The story of Thomson in Arnhem Land is a case in point with particular relevance now, as the approaching centenary of nationhood focuses public attention on the question of reconciliation.

First presented in Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, a book compiled from Thomson's writings after his death by Canberra anthropologist Nicolas Peterson, the story has been revived in a compelling documentary from Film Australia, to be screened on ABC television tomorrow.

It tells how Thomson embarked on his journey in March, 1935, intent on averting another punitive expedition (a euphemism of the day for massacre) and believing he could usher in a new approach to indigenous affairs, one that afforded "recognition of their rights as human beings".

His long-anticipated meeting with Wonggu, after days of trekking across Arnhem Land, has been described as akin to the most electric moments in the history of exploration. "Although he must then have been over 50, he appeared still to be in the prime of life - a tall, powerful man with an intelligent face, deep-set eyes and a heavy beard, trimmed almost in Van Dyck style," Thomson wrote. "He was frank and completely fearless, and with each day my respect increased for this gallant warrior, who, with only his little group, had defended his territory and his womenfolk against the white men and the Japanese who, carrying firearms, had blundered into his territory bent on despoiling."

Thomson carried a message stick from Wonggu's sons in jail in Darwin and told Wonggu he had spoken to them and they were in good health.

In return for Wonggu's assurance to keep the peace, also conveyed by message stick, he would later secure the release of the leader's sons, and sail back with them to Arnhem Land. It was, if you like, a treaty.

THOMSON also wrote a report outlining the "essential basis for an enlightened policy". Some 65 years later, his seven-point plan makes compelling reading.

Here it is, in Thomson's own words.

1. Absolute segregation within the Arnhem Land Reserve to preserve the social structure in toto. By this I do not mean for all time, but until a sound working policy in the best interest of the Aborigines had been established and tested over a long period.

2. Acceptance of the nomadic habits of these people as an integral part of their culture. The collecting of people into compounds and institutions should be prohibited. If it is desired to teach Christianity to these people it should be insisted that the Christian teacher or missionary be prepared to visit the people in their own country, and not to gather them about a station or mission school.

3. The establishment and maintenance of patrols to move among the Arnhem Landers to protect them from interference and exploitation, and to maintain a state of domestic peace.

4. The employment of a medical officer to work exclusively among these people is essential. By this means a systematic attempt may be instituted to eliminate leprosy, yaws and acquired diseases introduced since alien occupation of the country.

5. Abolition of the present anomalous system under which police constables act as "protectors" of Aborigines.

6. Adoption of a settled, uniform policy for the treatment of the whole of the Aboriginal population of Australia.

7. Immediate establishment of a department of native affairs staffed by men selected solely for their special qualifications and sympathies for dealing with Aborigines.

One can only imagine what might have been the legacy had Thomson's plan been accepted. Suffice to say there would be no need for the Prime Minister to apologise to the "stolen generations". They would never have been taken.

In other reports and articles, Thomson strongly advocated "native land rights" and urged the kind of legal action that led finally to the High Court's Mabo decision of 1992. In 1949, he noted how the Macassan seafarers had long recognised the native ownership of land and surrounding waters and paid tribute to the clans of north-east Arnhem Land in return for fishing rights.

While Thomson was supported by the University of Melbourne, he had few other allies and some formidable opponents, none more so than his nemeses, A.P. Elkin, the head of anthropology at the University of Sydney.

Elkin described Thomson as a mixture of zoologist, anthropologist and journalist, adding: "There are not many men so temperamentally unfit to do work in a field in which Aboriginals and white men are concerned." Will Stubbs, the assistant coordinator of Yirrkala's Buku Larrngay Mulka Arts Centre, offers a counter view: "He was an excellent person in the true sense of the word. He excelled at photography, anthropology, linguistics, natural sciences and as a fighter, a hunter and a strategic thinker. He wasn't any good at kowtowing to the ethno-centric white authorities of the day."

While Elkin formed an alliance with the man who became known as "Black Jack" McEwen, which laid the foundation for the assimiliationist policies that endured until the 1967 referendum, Thomson's was a voice the government chose not to hear.

Not that he was deterred from speaking out. "I think that it should be remembered that in making black white men of these people, we do them the greatest of all wrongs, since with our rigid adherence to the `white Australia' policy, we are not prepared to admit them to real social equality, which would obviously be the only possible justification for such action," he wrote.

Would he command more attention if he was around today? "I imagine that he'd have a similarly poor relationship with governments and missionaries," says Professor Marcia Langton , chairwoman of indigenous studies at Melbourne University. "But several hundreds of thousands of people would support what he was saying."

THOMSON returned to Arnhem Land in January, 1942, and recalled being greeted by Wonggu like a son. "Last time I had seen him I had come to tell him the government was not pleased by attacks on the Japanese and that they had to stop," Thomson wrote. "This time I had to tell him I had come to enlist his support in preventing the Japanese from landing in his country, to tell him the government now wanted him to kill Japanese ..."

Wonggu appreciated the irony, but promised the men Thomson wanted, including five of the six sons who were with him. Three of them were the ones jailed for killing the Japanese at Caledon Bay.

Thomson died in 1970 a disappointed man. As his second wife, Dorita, puts it, his commitment to the cause cost him the childhood of his twin sons, who were born when his offer to go to Arnhem Land was accepted. "He always said the Aborigines were betrayed and so was he."

But he left a powerful legacy in the form of an immense body of written work and a collection of more than 10,000 photographs and 7000 artefacts that comprise the Thomson Collection at Museum Victoria. Parts of the collection will be on display when the new Melbourne Museum opens in October.

And Wonggu? He died peacefully in 1959, having lived to about 80 and having had between 20 and 30 wives. He is remembered as a visionary leader whose willingness to make peace may have averted another grave mistake by those intent on teaching the blackfellas a lesson they would never forget.

Gatjil Djerrkura, a leading advocate of reconciliation and the former chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, is one of Wonggu's many grandsons.

He describes the message stick Wonggu sent back to the white authorities in Darwin as one of the great symbolic gestures of reconciliation in Australian history.

But, more than that, he believes his grandfather showed how reconciliation could proceed by his willingness to share knowledge and his belief that white man's law and Yolgnu law could complement each other, and that Yolgnu beliefs were not incompatible with Christianity.

"He was the most feared, war-like king of Arnhem Land, a man respected by all the communities, and yet he provided leadership in reconciliation," Djerrkura told The Age. "He's certainly shaped my way of doing things, my hopes for the nation and my commitment to the journey of reconciliation - I think it's beginning to work. We can only hope."