The Forgotten Australian War Behind This Harrowing Photo


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The Forgotten Australian War Behind This Harrowing Photo

In the late 1800s, the Kimberley was invaded by Europeans bearing guns and neck-chains.

Warning: This article contains images of Indigenous people now deceased. Their identities are unknown.

The photo was taken in Wyndham, Western Australia in 1901 by a photographer named A.J. Campbell. There are men seated on the ground, chained by the neck. These are Indigenous lawmen, all strong warriors, but their guard is a white man, standing over them. The photograph first appeared publicly in a biography of Michael Durack, written by his daughter, Mary. The caption beneath says the men were arrested for "cattlespearing."


It's hard to know who the white man is, or what happened to the men in chains. Time and wilful silence has almost totally buried their stories. But the photo isn't alone. In collections across the country, there are images of Indigenous men, chained at the neck. These men were forcibly marched into towns where they'd often be prosecuted on little evidence and sentenced to hard labour. At night they were chained to floors and fed a diet of flour and water.

Indigenous men linked together by chains around their necks. Taken sometime between 1898-1906. image via the National Library of Australia

Historian Dr Chris Owen, whose book covers this period, told VICE that these images are predominantly from the Kimberley in Western Australia, at a time when the area was at war. "There was an insurgent war going on," Dr Owen explains. "This photo is an example of triumph: Look how many blacks we've arrested." The conflict in the Kimberley was never declared, nor was it even called a war at the time. It simply began with raids and revenge killings between the local population and pastoralists like the Durack family, before turning to a fight over resources and turf, before finally ending with occupation.

In Wyndham, the resource at the centre of the fight happened to be cattle. When the town's gold rush ended in 1888, the 500 or so townspeople left behind became completely dependent on the local pastoralists and their cattle. These were frontiersmen who had secured huge tracts of land and filled them with livestock driven overland from Darwin at great personal and financial risk. They saw themselves as rugged Australian heroes with a lot to lose, who'd taken empty land and put it to work, despite all the hardship they'd faced.


Chained men, again in the Kimberley. Date unknown. Image via the Australian National University

One of these hardships, in the eyes of the pastoralists, were the locals: the 10,000 or so Indigenous people from 30 different language groups living in the Kimberley. For as long as these people could remember, the land had been theirs, until one day they woke to find it fenced off. Their access to water was cut off, and their traditional food sources couldn't compete with the introduction of cattle. The result was starvation and desperation. Those living closest to the cattle stations were often the first to feel the effects. Many were forced off their land, essentially becoming refugees in their own country. Landless, they were vulnerable to whoever the neighbouring Indigenous community happened to be.

"At the time, those people didn't even know about the queen," explains Wayne Barker, a Jabbir Jabbir man and Festival and Cultural Events Coordinator at the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre. "They didn't know about the British Empire, or colonies, or that any of that existed. Then suddenly, this alien mob comes over armed with chains and guns, bringing these hooved animals. They were shitting everywhere as well. Waterholes are sacred, so it was like going into a church or another holy place with a herd of cattle, in Christian terms. It's a crude example, but accurate."

Like anyone facing a losing battle, Indigenous people had a choice—to collaborate or resist. Diary entries from the Durack family subsequently paint a picture of the guerrilla campaign waged by the locals. There's mention of people climbing telegraph poles to knock out the lines that provided Wyndham locals with their only immediate contact to the outside world. For others though, the choice to resist was taken away from them—young men and women were often picked up in police raids, and sent to work for the Duracks as station hands and housekeepers. These people were mistrusted by both the white and black population. The Duracks kept them away from guns, for fear they might "turn."


Prisoners in chains with a white man holding the end of the chain, probably in Wyndham, ca.1930. Image via the State Library of WA

When a white man was speared, all hell would break loose. The killing would strike terror into the community, and the victim's mates would retaliate by forming what Mary Durack euphemistically called the "special police" in her diary. They would strike back against the any Indigenous people they could find, who were often the station hands and housekeepers. "They would shoot the lot," Dr Owen explained. Which is where the neck chains came in. From 1890, the police carried out "dispersals" where people were shot to keep them off pastoral land. After 1901, mass arrests became the favoured method of control.

"The police would go out and arrest all the senior Indigenous men," Owen said. "The police would just target all the senior men and pull them off the stations. So you had all these kids without fathers. That's where a lot of the resistance came from, because a lot of these kids were growing up watching their fathers being taken." The police had an impossible job—they were meant to protect both property rights and Indigenous people from mistreatment. But very quickly the officers learned they couldn't touch the most powerful people around, the pastoralists.

The cops were also uneducated, underpaid, and under-resourced. The chains they used to keep their prisoners from escaping were bought out of their own money, making each set unique. This also meant the meal allowance they were paid for every prisoner, witness or accused, worked as an unofficial bounty. By 1901, the year of Australian Federation, it was a common enough sight to see groups of 20 to 40 people being marched through the bush towards Wyndham. Four years on, a Royal Commission would examine the use of neck chains and recommend their abolishment.

And though they lost the PR war, the pastoralists won the war on the ground and to the victor went the spoils. The Durack family in particular lost at least two men to the fight, but over time they grew fantastically rich. But the locals lost in every single way imaginable.

"The people in these photographs are sovereign people," says Barker. "War is only recognised or given any weight or value if the other group are seen as a sovereign group of people.

"And where are they now? Where are those Wyndham people now? Their children are in jail and the descendants of these men chained in that photograph still wait for the day when we, as equals, can sit down with other Australians and address the issue of sovereignty."

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