Aboriginal Australians have produced some of the finest sportsmen and women in the world…what many don’t know is the part that sport played in keeping the Lore alive during the colonisation process… Forced onto Reserves by the Native Police force, the Ngarakbal warriors kept morale and Lore breathing at Brunswick Heads Reserve – Byron Bay- until it was wiped off the maps by the crown.
The Ngarakbal / Githabal people of what is now the Byron Bay Tweed Kyogle area know a lot about the history of the colonisation of Australia…they were there….their grandparents and great grandparents were forced into created Reserves; or exterminated…Today many of the Reserves have been removed from the maps….but they haven’t been removed from the memory of the people….and the traditional art of Wrestling played an important role…
On the East Coast of Australia– New South Wales as it was all known then – the enforced Aboriginal relocation process was implemented over a period of 50 years before the crown moved to take over the west of the continent from the Dutch…..
Commencing in 1848, when the Native Police force was formed, and until the late 1800’s the focus of these forces was primarily to ‘round-up’ the aboriginal population and to assist the crown in surveying and gazetting the East Coast into States [Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania] in preparation for colonisation by free settlers….at this time the western three quarters of the continent was still under Dutch rule
English had only claimed the eastern coast of Australia, so naturally, the East Coast tribes were the most brutally hit by the invasion forces….The crown had commenced carving the country up in the 1860’s after removing the ancestral people…removal often meant extermination of entire tribes…they then began selling land to the first ‘free’ settlers at specially organised land auctions using the Crown Land Act along with each newly created state’s own legislation for the same – in New South Wales [NSW] this was the Robertson Lands Act – This paved the way for the East Coast ‘land grab’ to begin….
The crowns treasure vaults were filling from the sales of the ancestral estates, and the surviving original people were forced onto specifically created Reserves, Stations or Missions….Forty years later, the crown now had enough money to fund a war against Holland to take the western three quarters of the continent by force.. The Borer War was fought in Africa against the Dutch; and England won…the prize was the west Australian lands…… So now all of Australia could be remapped and renamed – no longer NEW HOLAND, it was becoming the commonwealth country of Australia, wholly held by the British….and “by 1901 as white colonialists were undergoing their rite of passage into nationhood, the original Australians were also participating in a rite of passage- but of quiet a different kind”…G. Souter .
This historical photo of Australian Troops training in 1899 in readiness to assist the British attempt to exert control over the Dutch in South Africa in the conflict known as the Boer War – the political process of claiming and retaining control of Continents is dependant on maps & Geographic names and APARTHEID processes
So, by 1901 the Aboriginal people lost all recognition for, and claim to, their own individual countries and their respective ancestral estates – by force of the crown….They were no longer known as the Ngarakbal, or the Githabal on the East Coast, or the Pinjantjatjar in the centre or the Ngarrindjerri in the south, or any of the other distinctive tribal countries that existed before invasion [ of which there were over 350 individual countries] ….Now, as part of the crowns invasion, claiming and renaming [the maps] process everyone was classified as just being Aboriginal, right across the continent – no distinctions…By 1901 the crown had successfully locked them all into Reserves, Missions and Stations and classified them as Flora and Fauna…’Operation Invasion’, complete….
On the East Coast the Native Police Forces were the initial administration body for the reserves…during this period [the first wave] the ancestral people had no option but to retreat and relocate…..if they didn’t they were terminated…..many battles were fought and many lives were lost endeavouring to hold their lands against the guns – they’d never seen guns…..yet to this day, the crown refuses to recognise that any wars were fought. Which can only be concieved a complete self-serving myopic view, as these following extracts from the governments Byron Bay Native Title reports reveal….
…”The first wave of the relocation process by the Native Police occurred in the early 1850’s ….. Documentary and oral accounts suggest the actions of the native mounted Police had a direct impact on the Aboriginal population numbers occupying the region. The Native Police were active in the area throughout the 1850’s and engaged in punitive raids”….[ Waters 1999;14 McKeown NSW-NTS 2005: 19]……………
“Oral accounts suggest further massacres occurred in the [native title] claim area at Suffolk Park, and further north at Hastings Point [Cudgera] and at Mount Warning as the Troopers returned north”…. [McKeown NSW-NTS 2005: 19 ; Reibe 1999: 97-99]
These reports are [as expected] very pro-crown; despite stacks of evidence within the Ngarakbal/Githabal Oral Lore about the epic battles with the invaders…but it challenges the crowns tenure; so it’s been quashed…..Anyway….., over time there was a second wave of administration where the Aboriginal Reserve’s management was transferred from the Native Police and taken up by church groups…..The respective faiths [churches] obtained leases to land and created the ‘Missions’ …..and some of these were so large that they were known as ‘Stations’ and they held stock belonging to the crown….It is of note too that most of the church leases were for 27 years, after which time they kicked the Aboriginal people out and sold the land for profit….
Anyway….The first wave of the invasion administration [the Native Police] had fought the wars against the ancestral people – reducing the population numbers……Then the second wave [the churches] enforced a new religion onto the people and it was the function of this second wave to break the ancestral knowledge apart and reprogram them….Children were taken and placed into separate Mission institutions to learn to speak English and worship a foreign god in the expectation that they would forget about their ancestral lore and language….Adult survivors were sent to Station Reserves and hired out by the police administration [ ironically re-titled the Aboriginal Protections Board ]…they were used as labourers for the first settlers, denied access to their children and punished if they spoke their language or followed their lore….They were allotted numbers [for ease of administration beside their ‘new’ English names] and they could not leave the reserves unless they had authorised administrative permission from the central administration office which was then the Armidale Police
This administration process served to sever entire families who were divided and sent to different Reserves, Mission’s or Stations – to break down the ancestral culture……if anyone who was [or had been] an antagonist survived, they would be relocated multiple times…sending them further and further away from their ancestral estate area and their family – often sending them interstate 1000’s of km because the legislations were harsher in the remoter unestablished areas of the colony away from prying eyes….it was brutal heartless administrative policy…..genocide by paper – the power of the pen…
Surviving men –warriors- were targeted the most severely throughout…..The lush landscape of the East Coast was deemed ‘ perfect for colonisation’…. for the Ngarakbal/Githabal men this meant many were sent cross border into Qld to a police labour camp known as Barambah….”a dumping ground for the lame, the halt and the incorrigible….the black criminals of the state”…W J Bleakley 1913
…”since the establishment of this settlement in 1904, it has been the dumping ground for natives of all classes from all parts of the state but principally those whose removal from undesirable environments on the fringe of civilisation became necessary for disciplinary reasons…”….W J Beakley 1934….
From Barambah, any antagonists or ‘troublemakers’ who still opposed the invading process would be punished and relocated yet again….often up into Far North Queensland or across to Military Reserves on the Sunshine Coast….some survivors got moved up to eight times….further and further away from their ‘country’ and their kin… Today that same reserve, Barambah, is called Cherbourg and it’s still the largest Reserve in Queensland, but it’s got a lot of beautiful people there with a lot of culture and lore and, surprisingly, compassion ….all survivors of a very dark history and despite this they hold no grudge against the white settlers….displaying a level of forgiveness that many [white] church going citizens could only hope to aspire too.
Back in Ngarakbal/Githabal country [now gazetted as the Tweed, Byron and Kyogle shires] the small reserves began to be ‘reclaimed’ and reallocated as crown land, or sold off by the churches….they just shut them down and moved everyone off into the more centralised Missions and Stations in less desirable country …..systematically heaping more and more people from all different places into ‘controllable’ space, and further and further away from their ancestral areas and their kin…..Overcrowding, deprivation and lack of sanitation caused illness, depression and death….population numbers dwindled and no-one seemed to care….the invasion process orders were on schedule and the outcome was expected to be total genocide via assimilation, within three generations……
What many people today don’t realise is that there were lots and lots of small Reserves everywhere on the East Coast….Nor do they realise that they have been systematically removed from the maps – Sanitising the history and the evidence – Nor do they know about the important role that the sport of Wrestling played at the Reserves…but the Ngarakbal/Githabal do….their role as the keeps of the first portion of the transcontinental songline requires that they keep the historical Bootheram [Lore]…and they do………
Now, the Reserve at Tweed Heads is well known and documented…however it was also reclaimed and is now a shopping centre, hospital complex and a housing estate – it even makes a mention in the box office hit “Muriels Wedding” – where a sleazy councillor takes the reserve away to redevelop – the sub-plot for the film was based on a true story ……but, here is the one the crown tried to hide – probably due to a Native Title claim in the late 1990’s over Byron Bay
At Brunswick Heads [Byron Bay] there was a small Reserve, It was the southern administration facility to the northern one at Tweed Heads… and; thankfully, despite the best efforts of the invasion process, the lore, land and language survived intact….and, how they did that is another story for another time, and its an awesome inspirational story too… I will however, tell you a bit about Charlotte Williams who was sent to the Brunswick reserve as a young woman….
Above is a close up of the Brunswick Reserve, and below is picture of the village of Brunswick, it shows the same Reserve which was wiped off the maps….this is one of the crowns own maps. Note it has cancelled written across it….its that simple – they just cancel it and remap a new one….this happens with all their maps.
Charlotte Williams [nee Brown] – Granny Charlotte as her descendants call her- was one the Ngarakbal survivors shuffled by the Administrators…She was a noted midwife, and this granted her ‘authorised’ travel permits between the Brunswick and Tweed Reserves….at that time no-one could leave the reserves unless they had written authorisation and every aboriginal person had been allocated a number – Charlotte had a number and an important purpose…into her was entrusted the Bootheram [Dreaming Lore]….. The crowns administrative policy was strict – “No number, No authorisation, No travel” – culminating in arrest and punishment if “No Paperwork” could be produced…for the Cultural Lore to survive it had to go underground…..This following extract was prepared in conjunction with the Native Title process of Byron Bay….however Charlottes descendants have never been recognised as originating from Byron Bay by the crown….the maps had been sanitised…..
“Charlotte Williams was an ‘ARAKWAL’ woman who, with her family in tow, frequently moved between the coast and the Nimbin area. For a time the Williams family lived at Middle Pocket near Mullumbimby and it has been reported that a woman known as Queen Charlotte performed domestic duties at homes between Skinners Shoot and Tyagarah in the period c.1925-30. Charlottes Williams clearly had traditional knowledge of the Byron Bay locality [e.g. the myth of the Fairy Emus and the song Wao] and a great deal of knowledge was passed on to her daughter Millie Boyd”….[Colins1990:45]
Women were the last to be relocated from the coastal Reserves – deemed less troublesome…As a young woman Charlotte had been allowed to remain on the Brunswick Reserve in her ancestral lands but over time she was systematically relocated many times as well….Charlottes Father was a white man…[Aboriginal women were often exploited by the Administration]… Her half Brothers had previously been sent to other Reserves….Tom [Close]was one of her half brother’s…He was sent to ‘Stony Gully’ Reserve near Nimbin and then onto Mulli Mulli Station….Charlottes Full-blood Ngarakbal warrior Grandfather – ‘Johnny Brown’- was relocated many times due to his opposition to the invasion….He eventually was sent to military Reserves located at Lake Cootharaba and Tin Can Bay near Fraser Island Queensland as punishment, but he sure gave the crown some hell before he was captured…. Also a story for another time…..Anyway, how does Wrestling come into all this???…..
Well, despite all the tragedy the Ngarakbal warriors, of which Johnny Brown was a senior Lore man, kept their spirits and their warrior skills alive whilst incarcerated at the Brunswick Reserve….and to do this [undetected] they used Sport…
The spirit of Sport is universal and it provided entertainment for the Native Police and the White Administration to watch….Among the most ancient of all sports are Wrestling and Running….Of course the warriors were denied their weapons which were traditionally used in their sport events….spear, boomerang and nulla nulla [club] throwing contests to demonstrate strength and proficiency were common before invasion… but the sport of wresting was something they could still do whilst held captive on the Reserves… it also meant they could train for combat.
So, let’s look at traditional wrestling….Now, the object of traditional wresting amongst the Ngarakbal was not to link or grip their opponent in such a way as to overpower them and make them helpless and unable to move…..It was instead the skill and agility in grappling with the opponent, to throw him to the ground clear without him holding you…..but, he could hold you as long as he could carry you….the craft taught combat skill, endurance, patience and timing
It works thus…..First there are three persons selected from the one totem tribe, and another three from another totem tribe…..for ease of explanation I will call the first group the Pelican Men and the second group the Emu men
This 1890 photo of Byron Bay Aboriginal Men appears in the book Time & Tide Again – Library of NSW PXA689 no.14…..
….”A clear ground, free from shrubs or rocks, is selected, a soft sandy spot. Before the contestants arrive, the members of the respective tribes congregate to witness and barrack for either side……then the men arrive, their bodies may or may not be smeared with oil and ochre…presently a person steps forward and he holds in his hand a boomerang and a small throwing nulla nulla [club]
He turns to the contestants, addressing them…” You are called upon today to uphold the honour of your tribe. One of you may win or take the prize”….and he holds before them the newly made boomerang and nulla nulla
These weapons are placed into the ground, like you would with cricket stumps/wickets at one end of the ring …..The referee then calls to the men who will defend these weapons…..[in this example] it’s the Pelican totem men who step forward…and their supporters shout encouragement…and they walk to the end of the ring that has the weapons standing upright in the ground.
The three Pelican totem men stand in front of the weapons, facing the opposing team members of the Emu totem who are standing ten to twenty metres back at the other end of the ring…..then the referee calls to the Emu totem men to take the weapons from the Pelican totem men
The first of the three Emu men walks forward towards the weapons and at half distance he is met by the first of the three Pelican men, who grapples with him to prevent him from coming closer to the weapons…..Now, let’s suppose the Emu man throws the Pelican man to the ground…He can now rush forward where he is met by the next Pelican man [number 2] who has come to defend the weapons… The Emu man now must wrestle with Pelican man -number 2…. and suppose he also throws him to the ground…. Emu man rushes on and is now met by Pelican man – number 3….and now the war begins….The third Pelican man strains every muscle to defend the prize and the honour of his tribe… he must prevent the Emu man from advancing to where the weapons are standing upright in the ground….They wrestle, both falling to the ground, and then rise….. The Emu totem man is getting nearer and nearer; he reaches out to take hold of the ‘nulla nulla’,….almost gets it, but his strength fails….He gives up and returns back to his team members with a feeling of defeat. Now… the second Emu totem man makes the attempt, but he may not have the skill or the strength to tackle the three Pelican totem defenders….but still, in honour of his tribe he will try….he also fails and must return to his team at the other end of the ring…….Now comes the third Emu totem man….instead of walking he runs and perhaps knocks the first Pelican totem defender down, then meets the second and throws him to the ground….Now he grapples with the third Pelican totem man, throws him to the ground and takes the ‘nulla nulla’ and returns to his team companions amidst cheering from his tribe….
Now they are given a rest….perhaps an hour or more.
The referee then takes the boomerang, and places it on the side of the Emu totem men….and says “Take the weapon from the Emu totem”
The first Pelican totem man goes forward and is met halfway by an Emu totem man, they begin wrestling and perhaps the Emu man lifts him and throws him upon his shoulder, and then carries him to the end of the ring back to his Pelican totem team…this means he lost – he doesn’t continue to wrestle with the others…..
So then, the second Pelican totem man also fails in the same manner…he can’t continue either….so, it’s up to the third Pelican totem man to defend his tribes honour and capture the boomerang….But he tries and also fails…..
Then the barrackers of the Emu tribe shout with joy, because the Emu totem men have won the prizes; the boomerang and the nulla nulla…
The Pelican totem men in their defeat will take it in good spirits and wave as a sign of friendship and of expressing desire to meet again in the future in a similar challenge…”….adapted from original by D. Unaipon
So…. it’s an attack and defend version of wrestling, running and endurance….and as you can see by the photo above, being placed in Reserves didn’t stop the Ngarakbal warriors from practicing their training….training for a war to defend their land…more on that later thou…..
Some of the more complex traditional games can involve up to 50 men who, using a wooden cross like object that is spun on the surface of the competition ground [moving it like a football between the teams] teaches the important skill of hunting agile game, like kangaroo, emu and wallaby….This ancestral game has also produced some of the best natural footballers in the world
Then there are other more complex gaming events that involve whole tribes gathering to compete….many of these game events will last an entire day, and some even longer….to an outsider these events appear to be war….but this is not the case…the object of these gatherings and sporting events is to solidify community ties and also serves the purpose of exchanging information that improves the skills of making boomerangs and spears…for the women it is a great opportunity to learn new weaving techniques and meet with kin…..but most importantly it was the opportunity to gather and entertain each other with the added bonus of maintaining the spirituality of the land and all it contains….
Upholding the Bootheram [Dreaming] Lore through performance, dance, song and oral tradition is one side of the lore….maintaining a living culture unbroken despite all attempts to wipe it off the map or lock it away to die in Reserves requires stamina…No…the culture never died…it adapted…Taking the best qualities of whatever it was exposed to, maintaining morale and morals, applying the lore’s of healthy competition, endurance, skill and patience…aka, the art of wrestling.
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