Inside Story

Her childhood friends

Extract | A new biography probes the remarkable life of the Indigenous rights campaigner Mary Montgomerie Bennett

Sue Taffe 28 March 2018 2327 words

Driven by memories: Mary Bennett in 1960.

On 26 January 1938 Aboriginal people in Sydney marked the sesquicentenary of the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the first fleet with a Day of Mourning. When the protesters gathered, Mary Montgomerie Bennett, the English-born daughter of a successful Queensland cattle and horse breeder, was there too, having travelled across the deserts from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia after hearing of their plans.

Bennett supported the Aboriginal cry for recognition that this day marked the beginning of the invasion of their lands. Eighty years later, Australian society is beginning to recognise the insensitivity of a national day being celebrated on the day marking such loss for Indigenous Australians.

Mary Bennett was the daughter of a successful squatter. Although she wrote with love and admiration about her father in her book Christison of Lammermoor, by the end of her life she would describe Western Australian squatters as the “enemy” of Aboriginal people. In 1927 she referred to the 1891 striking shearers as “a cruel and cowardly lot,” but three decades later she worked with their union, the Australian Workers’ Union, to gain wage justice for Indigenous workers.

Although she has been described as a feminist, she fell out with Perth feminists in the 1930s when they failed to oppose the removal of Aboriginal children from their mothers. She never went to school herself, but she became a gifted and progressive educator on Mount Margaret Mission. Her thinking about Indigenous Australians and their place in Australian society displayed great intelligence, a strong moral compass and a palpable love for the first peoples of this land.

On her death in 1961, a large crowd of Wongatha, the Aboriginal people from the Kalgoorlie region, gathered in the heat on the red earth of the area’s main cemetery to mourn the loss of their friend and patron. There were elderly folk, weather-beaten pastoral workers and family groups carrying their young children. The mourners’ lives would become more difficult with the loss of their friend and advocate.

It was Mrs Bennett they visited to work out how to apply for an age pension, and Mrs Bennett who could assist them when a bureaucrat disputed their age. She helped them when they could not get the rations to which they were entitled because their guarantor was on holidays. She tried to find work for them, and was with them in court to help them understand the white man’s legal processes. She encouraged them to send their children to school, and helped to provide that education. Writer, speaker, talented educator, fierce advocate for social reforms, she was far ahead of her time.

Born in 1881, Mary was the eldest child of Robert Christison, a Scot who came to Queensland in the first rush of land speculation almost twenty years earlier and established a pastoral station on the remote, undeveloped northwestern plains. Mary was reared away from the property in the small communities on the eastern escarpment, and then in London when her mother, Mary Christison, could no longer stand the heat, dust and insects of northern Australia.

Back in Australia with her mother and siblings in 1893, aged twelve, she lived for the first time on her father’s station, Lammermoor, the location of so many of his stories. She was entranced by the wide skies, the tall swaying grasses, the bellowing of the cattle being mustered, and the worldview she learned about from the Dalleburra people, on whose traditional land Lammermoor stood.

During summer, Mrs Christison and the children avoided the Queensland summer heat by living in cooler, greener Hobart. At Lammermoor during the winters, aspects of Dalleburra culture became etched on her developing mind and conscience. She learned some of their language, asked questions about the natural world and came to understand and respect a way of life that saw plants, animals and humans as a part of an integrated, meaningful whole.

Mary never forgot those teenage winters. One woman in particular, Wyma, had left her home country to travel to Tenterfield to look after Mary and her sister when they were toddlers. Reconnecting with this lively, intelligent woman who was valued in the Christison household, the young Mary was beguiled by her spontaneity and generosity of spirit. She never forgot her.

In 1927, thirty years after those magical Lammermoor winters, as they seemed to her, Christison of Lammermoor was published. It was intended as a tribute to her father’s achievements as a successful pastoralist who improved the soil, established artesian wells and pioneered the beef-freezing industry while maintaining cordial relations with the local Aboriginal people. In the process of researching her father’s early years in Queensland, though, she came to understand that the cattle stations of Queensland had emerged from violent frontier wars. This realisation was the beginning of Mary Bennett’s conflicted identity as she strove both to exonerate her father from any wrongdoing and to influence the white majority who seemed to accept frontier violence as inevitable.

A reviewer of Christison of Lammermoor described Mary’s political stance as Tory, and yet within the next decade she would become known in Perth as a vociferous adversary of the state government, and would be described as obsessive and fanatical by one senior bureaucrat. She shocked Perth society by speaking publicly about the sexual abuse of Aboriginal women by white men in the north of the state.

Mary’s second book, written quickly, was The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, published in 1930. She dedicated it to “My Childhood’s Friends,” the Dalleburra people, whose ancestral lands were a world away from London, where she was living at the time. The book set out what seems self-evident to twenty-first-century readers — the case for the full humanity of Aboriginal people. At the time of publication, however, the “Aboriginal race” was considered inherently inferior to the white races, and Social Darwinist thinking that “inferior races” would die out was still commonly accepted. Mary’s title confronted and rejected these prejudices, but she was aware of her limited firsthand knowledge of life for Aboriginal people in Australia in the 1930s.

She left England and travelled alone to the west coast of Australia for the first time. Her much-loved husband had died three years earlier, in 1927, and her parents were dead. Aged forty-nine, she was childless and estranged from her sister and brother, who had moved to the east coast of Australia some years previously. In Western Australia she would teach Aboriginal children and attempt to educate an apathetic public about the living conditions of the dispossessed.

From then until her death in 1961, Mary Bennett spoke and wrote in vehement opposition to Western Australian policies of removing mixed-descent children from their Aboriginal mothers. She was influential in the shift away from that policy in the 1950s, though it was not until the 1990s that the “stolen generations” became widely known.

Mary believed that Aboriginal people should be allowed to stay in their own territories. She argued in 1934 that fifty reserves should be created in Western Australia, spaced through the different tribal districts. Communities where tribal government was still intact should, she believed, be granted land in perpetuity. Such an idea seemed outlandish at a time when views of Aborigines as a dying race were still current and people of mixed descent were seen as having a future only within mainstream society.

It would not be until the 1960s that the call for an Indigenous right to land was heard more widely, and another three decades before the High Court of Australia recognised the native title of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait in the historic Mabo case. Mary Bennett was making this argument in the 1930s.

We might wonder how a woman who described her young self as a “shocking imperialist” and was described as a Tory when her first book was published could develop ideas that were so radical for her time. Many contributing factors — meeting influential people, the death of her husband, her intense, imaginative nature, her unusual upbringing, her loyalty, and her conflicted response to her parents’ shortlived fostering of an Aboriginal girl — all played a part.

She often seemed haunted by an intense realisation of the sufferings experienced by displaced and neglected generations. She regarded the squattocracy as a self-serving group (although she excluded her father from this judgement). She saw traditional Aboriginal cultural life destroyed by colonialism yet clung to her memory of an idyllic childhood, telling people that she “grew up with the Aborigines” on her father’s cattle station.

She wrote often about her pangs of conscience and of guilt, but her most painful memories of adolescence, and her response to the sufferings of the Aboriginal child, remained buried and unmentioned. Might that experience have driven her to dedicate her life to working for justice for Aboriginal Australians?

Mary Bennett was by no means the only daughter of a pioneering Australian pastoralist to write hagiographically about her father. Mary Durack, daughter of Michael Patrick Durack, who had established a vast cattle kingdom in northern Australia, and Judith Wright, whose family established its pastoral interests in the New England region of New South Wales, both admired the pioneering achievements of their fathers and grandfathers. Their imaginations, like Mary’s, were stimulated by family stories of heroic struggles to establish their cattle stations against tough odds.

Also like Mary, family loyalty played a crucial part in their various accounts of how these stations were established. Wright’s family history, The Generations of Men, is in the heroic “pioneer against the odds” genre; decades later, The Cry for the Dead considered the losses of the Wadja people in the making of the Wyndham estate. Durack acknowledged the consequences of the sexual relations between white men and Aboriginal women; the children of these unions were often taken away by the police so they could “learn to read and write and sew fine seams… and learn the godlessness of [their] mother’s people.” In her writing, she confronted the “blind exploitation of the Aborigines” and acknowledged that her father was complicit in such exploitation; out of loyalty, though, she omitted telling anecdotes from her published work.

Judith Wright’s journey from The Generations of Men to Cry for the Dead was also a journey of acknowledgement. In the earlier book her interest was in the family story of “the great and almost unchronicled pastoral migrations in which my forebears had taken part.” The later book took her into “dark places,” although, like Durack, she avoided confronting her ancestors’ likely involvement in shooting parties against Aborigines. Through the act of writing, both women grappled with what seems to have been their own pangs of conscience.

Mary Bennett’s journey was a different one. She seemed unwilling or unable to face the likelihood that her father was involved in violent altercations with Aborigines on the frontier. She seemed to avoid the issue of sexual relations in north Queensland, where there were few white women when her father took up land — though her sister did write about this in an unpublished novel, set in Queensland, whose protagonist seems to be based on Robert Christison. Mary wrote about the stab of conscience, of her conscience being burned, and at the end of her life wondered why she had grown up and lived “so ignorant in a world of desperate need.”

In many ways, Mary Bennett has remained an enigma. Historians have researched her achievements in public life from about 1929 to her death in 1961, but have shown no interest in her childhood and early adulthood. Christison of Lammermoor has, with one exception, been accepted rather uncritically as a source of information about her father. No one has so far researched her mother’s history, and there is no published information about her sister.

In White Hot Flame, I look more closely at these sources, and at Mary’s story of “growing up among the Aborigines.” I attempt to track the family’s movements — and they were constantly on the move — throughout her youth. Mary once wrote that her mother was taken from her. She wrote that her father intended to write about the Aborigines but didn’t have time. She claimed that he also wanted to build a hospital for the Aborigines.

None of these assertions has been questioned. My aim in investigating the circumstances in which they were made is to deepen our understanding of Mary’s life and character. Her story leads us to the silences, evasions and unfinished business of our past, and highlights what can be achieved when a just solution is imagined and worked towards with passion, intelligence, dedication and love.

Mimi, as the young Mary was known within her family, was the daughter of a member of the male gentry. She sang at Christmas concerts for the poor children of Burwell village in Lincolnshire. She knew the Australian squattocracy but she disputed their right to control the lives of the Aboriginal people whose land they took. She might have looked like an English gentlewoman but she became a forthright critic of governments. She held, throughout her life, to the principle that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must apply to all people.

“These two strands — the love of the land we have invaded and the guilt of the invasion — have become part of me,” wrote Judith Wright in Born of the Conquerors. Mary Bennett would have agreed about the guilt of the invasion, but for her the love was of the people who had suffered as a consequence. From the 1930s she sought to reshape the debate about the place of Indigenous people. Her life story speaks to us as we rethink the appropriateness of celebrating Australia Day on 26 January, re-engage with the discussion about recognition of First Australians within our Constitution and recognise the damage caused by racial stereotyping. ●

This is an edited extract from A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett — Author, Educator, Activist for Indigenous Justice, published this month by Monash University Publishing.