Academic journal article Hecate

The Brothers Up North and the Sisters Dowm South: The Mackay Family and the Frontier

Academic journal article Hecate

The Brothers Up North and the Sisters Dowm South: The Mackay Family and the Frontier

Article excerpt

As the beneficiaries of the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples, European women, along with men were complicit in an imperialist civilising project that saw the near destruction of Australia's indigenous peoples and their language and culture.1

The question now arises as to whether it is possible to have a reconciled history of Australia, within which all Australians can locate themselves.2

As non-Aboriginal Australians many of us wake from what has been termed the `great Australian silence' about Aboriginal history in Australia and mindful of the contemporary struggles about Native Title, the Stolen Generation and Deaths in Custody now struggle to shape a history that is neither totally schizophrenic nor the `parallel histories' noted by Peter Read.3 Amid the debates of a `black armband history' opposed by a `white blindfold history'4-we can ask along with Noel Pearson whether 'a reconciled history' is possible.5 A number of historians, writers and public intellectuals, among others in the Australian community, are looking for a way forward. Ann Curthoys has written: `Like many others I am now looking for ways to confront the past in an honest way which is energising rather than threatening.'6

While there was earlier a tendency to position white women, along with Aboriginal people, as victims of white men, recently there has been a greater recognition of white women as complicit and as beneficiaries.7 Jackie Huggins has shown how white women mistreated young Aboriginal women working as domestic servants.8 Grimshaw et al have noted that `European settlement of Australia was necessarily a female as well as a male enterprise,'9 but there have been few close explorations of that complicity.

The past is a `hotly contested territory'10 in Australia and a reconciled history is not yet possible. The Australian Declaration towards Reconciliation states: `Our nation must have the courage to own the truth' about the past.11 It is important to re-vision our past and in this paper I explore the notion of the complicity of settler women in the dispossession and near destruction of the Aboriginal people through an examination of the experiences of one family, the Mackays, who came to Australia as poor dispossessed crofters from Scotland in 1855. Initially they settled in the southeast of South Australia but, a decade later, a number of the brothers began to travel north to make their fortunes. While one brother, Alick, was a government surveyor in the Northern Territory, the others were landtakers, who built up a large squatting empire in Western Australia. The mention of the brothers up north and the sisters down south is at once a stylistic device, which suggests a feminine and settled south and a masculine, violent northern frontier. But it is also close to the actual situation of this particular family, with a number of the brothers out on the frontier in northern Australia and the sisters, and their mother, living in the by-then pacified south.12

It is interesting to look at the Mackay family, because of the apparent great differences between various siblings. Indeed the question might be asked, how could these people all be in the same family? On the one hand, in the southeast town, Mount Gambier, there was Mary Mackay, teacher, Labor Party supporter and Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) activist and her younger sister, Catherine (referred to throughout this paper by her married nameCatherine Martin), teacher and writer. In 1923, Martin published The Incredible Journey, which told of the quest of two Aboriginal women to recover the son of one of them, who had been taken away by a white man. Aboriginal people are represented in this text in what is, for the time, a relatively sympathetic manner. The Canadian author of the first book-length study of the representation of indigenes in Australian fiction, J. J. Healy described Martin as a writer who `sensed the rich, often gentle world of Aboriginal mythology. …

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