THE DURACK FAMILY
... [A] colony in quicksand ... black men wandering and white men riding in a world without time where sons do not inherit and money goes mouldy in the pocket, where ambition is wax melted in the sun, and those who sow, may not reap ... the Northern territory of Australia ... land of an ever shadowed past and an ever shining future, of eternal promise that never comes true ...
THE LIGHT aircraft raises a puff of red as it touches down on a tiny dirt strip. It's almost lost from sight among the thick pandanus grasses standing more than two metres - the result of a good Wet season. The Wet is all but over, but access by plane is still the only guarantee of reaching this remote station in the Northern territory. The pilot climbs out. His skin, slightly sweaty, is adjusting to the oven-like heat. This pale, thin man with milky blue eyes looks strangely out of place in a country where the sun beats down so relentlessly. A small black cloud of flies immediately descends around him. The pilot is John Durack. He is a Perth solicitor, but thirty years ago he was heir to this property. He grew up here, part of the fourth generation of Duracks to manage this land. Now it's an Aboriginal station: Amanbidji. The dispossessed Ngariman people, who were once the Durack station workers, have had their traditional land returned to them.
In the 1880s the Duracks were among the first white settlers in the East Kimberley region. Taking two years to move themselves and their cattle across from the east coast, these overlanders opened up vast acreage to the cattle industry. At their height the family ran a string of cattle stations with a total land area roughly the size of Belgium. The dynastic patriarch, Patsy Durack, likened these extensive holdings to a European principality, and for the first two generations the Duracks ran their secluded leasehold as latter-day feudal lords. Amanbidji, or Kildurk as it was called by the Duracks, is a fraction of the original leasehold, but still amounts to 283,000 hectares. Between sixty and eighty people live here now. It's a difficult place for intensive agriculture: the ancient soil is generally poor and friable, the community isolated and the pastoral industry of less intrinsic value to the Amanbidji community than to the settlers who first brought cattle here.
As John Durack walks around his old station, waving away the flies, he is met by two Amanbidji elders, Annie Packsaddle and Eileen Humbert. They know John - they know all the Durack mob. Who could forget the old benevolent white-fella bosses? To Eileen and Annie, the Duracks are always welcome. They walk into the small wooden homestead - galvanised iron above, dirt floor below. Eileen and Annie can remember better than John the former layout of the old house - who slept where, the location of the stove and the office. Annie points to the rusting bread oven standing outside the house, an ageing testimony to the long-gone days when John's mother and Amanbidji women would bake loaf after loaf for hungry cattlemen. Their memories brim with intricate detail. As the writer Mary Durack, John's aunt, once said:'... perhaps typical of a people whose culture has been perpetuated from time immemorial by the spoken word'.
This skeleton of a house is used as a storeroom. It was never luxurious; a rudimentary home built by John's tenacious father Reg and a band of ringers. A house built because Reg was determined to stay on the land his father and grandfather had occupied, despite the odds. Annie tells John they'd like to keep the house and the rusting ovens as monuments to 'old man Reg Durack'. Thousands of kilometres away in the city of Perth and on the east coast, the Duracks were once regarded as part of the pastoral elite, but this perception was never reflected in the lives of Reg's family: tough, spartan and raw. John picks up a saddle lying forlornly in a corner of the room. Annie and Eileen think it might be his old saddle, still functional after thirty years. John doesn't want to stay at the old homestead for too long. It's no longer his home. The station looks tatty, the grass is long, no cattle can be seen, a few mangy horses stand in the paddocks. The army is expected to arrive any day now to clean up the debris caused by the Wet. The Duracks are always welcome, but now they're mere visitors. They can only dream about the land they once occupied. And they do dream of this place. John's sister Anne says her dozing visions are full of the things on the station that once lulled her to sleep as a child: 'The sound of the didgeridoo and the clicking sticks and the lovely monotonous song, that lilting, droning song that the women used to sing.' For the Duracks life on the station was wonderful.
The Durack pastoral dynasty was established by John's Irish catholic great-grandfather, Patrick (Patsy) Durack. Ireland, in the 1850s, was racked by famine - any who could escape leapt at the chance. when news arrived that gold had been discovered in Victoria and New south Wales, the Duracks, along with thousands of others, decided to act. In 1853 the family landed in Australia with nothing. When his father was killed a few weeks after the family's arrival in the colony, Patsy, the eldest boy, became the main breadwinner. At eighteen, patsy was a slim, dark-haired youth with blue eyes and fair Irish skin that constantly burnt and peeled under the harsh Australian sun.
He was a determined young man with an eye for the main game, he made his first fortune after eighteen months on the Victorian goldfields. This windfall bought the family's first property in Goulburn in New South Wales. The 1850s was a time of speculative land grabs, and the Durack brothers were keen to take the risks and reap the rewards. Patsy's mother, amazed at her son's frenetic pace, once commented that he worked as though he had 'the devil on his tail'. 'And so I have,' he said, 'but he'll not be catching up with me this side of tomorrow.' He encouraged many other friends and relatives in Ireland to follow them. In a letter filled with the spelling mistakes of a man who had little formal education he wrote:
I sed I would let you know when it was a good time to come out, well no time is to good if ye look at it from the shady side but this will be as good as any time and I have a smawl block taken up forty acres about thirty miles from Goulburn.
Relatives did join the Duracks, but Patsy soon tired of the steady life in Goulburn. In 1863 he set out with a group that included his brother 'stumpy Michael' and brother-in-law, John, to find more rugged land in south-west Queensland. The trip was a disaster. The party took over two and a half months to reach the tiny outpost of Bourke. From here the arduous trek became life-threatening. The men rode the southern reaches of Queensland, through dusty mulga and brigalow scrub and eventually onto the plains. With their tongues blackening from thirst, they desperately sought water. Only two years previously the explorer Robert Burke had died in similar terrain. when the party eventually neared the Bulloo River, the 400 head of cattle smelt the moisture and stampeded towards its source. Half the heard drowned and the remainder got bogged after the desperate cattle and horses drank the river dry.
Auvergne Homestead, Northern Territory
The flagging beasts had to be shot. Despite the loss of their herd and most of the horses, the men determined to go on. Patsy believed in miracles and perhaps he thought what happened next was proof of his beliefs. Patsy's life was saved, not by rain falling, but by a group of Aborigines. They revealed a secret well of stagnant water hidden by brushwood and stones and fed the white men roasted goanna and grubs. Disregarding the calamities, the indomitable Patsy endeavoured to keep moving north. But even he had to give up when it was made clear the Aborigines would only help if the party returned south. The indigenous men showed them hidden waterholes en route until they reached less drought-afflicted country. Perhaps if the Aborigines had known the Duracks would soon return to claim traditional lands, they might have withheld their expertise and kindness.
Patsy's stubborn determination was never more evident than when, despite the ill-fated nature of this expedition, he decided to move his family to south-west Queensland. He, his wife Mary and their family returned in 1868 and established Thylungra station on a tributary of cooper Creek. Not content with this prize, Patsy and brother-in-law John rode approximately 25,000 square kilometres, laying claim to land between Kyabra Creek and the Diamantina river. These were later sold off in parcels, most often to Irish friends and relatives. It was at Thylungra that Patsy met and began working with a local Aboriginal man. The young man introduced himself as Burrakin; Patsy called him 'Pumpkin'. Patsy and Pumpkin, as Burrakin soon renamed himself, would work together for thirty years. Mary Durack writes that Pumpkin was the only man ever to question Patsy's management decisions, and Patsy believed Pumpkin was a key to the initial success of the family enterprise. At Thylungra the Duracks prospered, but the ever-acquisitive Patsy was thirsty for more - he longed to find land free of the twin curses of drought and flood.
Patsy's colonising ambitions were given a new focus when Alexander Forrest returned from his exploration of the East Kimberley in Western Australia. Forrest claimed to have discovered some 12 million hectares of land capable of sustaining sheep and cattle. Patsy thought this was an opportunity too good to miss. Though there was no market for cattle, Patsy and a business partner began organising the finance for his brother to lead an expedition to examine this little-known region more closely. This expedition, which included two Queensland aboriginal stockmen, took six months to reach the Kimberley via the coast, but it was worth the journey: the land possessed magnificent ridges, waterways and lush grasses that were swarming with emus, pelicans and dingoes and its rivers were home to large and plentiful barramundi. It struck these hopeful if native pioneers as a dream come true. They arrived in the Dry and with satisfaction the party cast their eyes over the grassy plains and crystal-clear creeks.
Patsy's dream to escape flood and drought seemed realisable. Grasses and brushwoods indicated the high-water level reached when tropical rains swept down the channels, 'but there was no evidence of inundation on the plains above and the vegetation was nowhere that of a country subject to long, Rainless periods. Here the trees spread broad trunks and luxuriant foliage in marked contrast to western Queensland's stunted mulga scrub. As the group made their camp under the spread of wild figs and Leichhardt pines they imagined an exciting future. In their enthusiasm they couldn't foresee the swollen creeks, soil degradation, swarms of malarial mosquitoes or the cattle ticks that would nearly destroy the East Kimberley cattle industry. For these optimists, only the remoteness of the Kimberley count3d against it. However, Stumpy Michael reasoned that where one man dared, others were not slow to follow, and with the rumours of gold on everyone's lips the Kimberley would certainly soon have a burgeoning white population.
Stumpy telegraphed his brother with the good news. Patsy quickly secured the lease holdings on hectares of wilderness and set about moving the family and eight thousand head of cattle to this remote region. He dreamed of a Durack dynasty living forever on the fat of this new land. His ambition outweighed his pragmatism. In May 1883 the Duracks' treacherous journey began. From the safety of his Queensland properties, Patsy directed these proceedings. The group trekked 3000 kilometres overland from cooper Creek to the Ord river. It was one of the world's longest cattle treks. It took more than two years and half the cattle died in transit. The party faced disease, a ruthless climate and hostility from squatters and Aborigines.
Booka and Chris Durack
Finally, in September 1885, they reached their destination. As 'first-footers', the name given to the area's first white occupants, the Duracks would ultimately lay claim to a tract stretching from the mouth of the Ord River in the East Kimberley of Western Australia across into the northern territory. For the next sixty-five years they leased and managed almost 3 million hectares of land. ON this vast acreage there were several stations, the most important being Argyle (on the banks of the Behn), Ivanhoe (the station closest to Wyndham Port) and later Auvergne (stretching into the Northern Territory). The Auvergne station was added after the Duracks established a business partnership with two other Irish fortune-seekers, Francis Connor and Dennis Doherty.
The nomadic Aboriginal communities must have watched the arrival of these white intruders with alarm. The Duracks were squatting on land these people had always inhabited, and had used since the Dreamtime for hunting, fishing, gathering food, trading and ceremonies. If they couldn't roam over their traditional land they faced disease and hunger. As the first-footers built their homes, Aboriginal tribesmen tried retaliating, mostly by spearing the hoofed beasts the whites had brought with them. Almost a third of the cattle were killed - and two of the Durack men suffered the same fate. The first-footers made no attempt to come to any understanding or even establish friendly terms with the indigenous communities. With unconscious arrogance they settled on the fertile banks of the Ord River and waited until the Aboriginal people realised they had only two choices; either to work for the cattlemen or to keep out of their way. It would take ten years before the Duracks could feel settled and relatively safe as many Aboriginal people yielded to the awful inevitability of their situation. Patsy had fled a country where Protestant Irish had taken possession of the land occupied by his Catholic countrymen, and perhaps he felt justified in now taking possession of someone else's soil.
The Durack family established their mudbrick, dirt-floored homes by the long, clear course of the Ord River, its banks fringed with trees, bamboo and pandanus palms and framed by the mighty red ridges in the background. Initially patsy was kept informed of his new stations via letter and hoped the next generation, his six living children, would play their part in his new enterprise. In particular, he wanted his eldest son, Michael Patrick, to succeed him. In 1886 Patsy ordered his two eldest sons, fresh out of a genteel New south Wales boarding school, to Western Australia. The two young men, Michael Patrick (MP) and John, were reluctant but were impelled to follow their father's directive.
Shortly after, Patsy assigned his Kimberley interests to his four sons. MP and John arrived at the head station at argyle downs just in time for the Halls Creek gold rush. with the discovery of gold the Duracks had a swelling local market for their beef. On his twenty-first birthday MP Durack weighed out 1200 pounds in raw Kimberley nuggets. His bullocks sold at 17 pounds a head. The autocratic Patsy considered this additional wealth ample justification for the risks he had taken. By 1886 Patsy was a prosperous and influential Queensland businessman, but couldn't settle into a staid middle-age. The following year, with the trusty Pumpkin, the spirited Patsy made the difficult journey to Argyle. On his arrival Patsy admonished his sons for their shoddy building skills. Then he and Pumpkin set about mustering and branding cattle and building yards, seemingly oblivious to the stifling heat of the Kimberley.
But the Kimberley gold years were shortlived and Patsy's optimistic spirit was dealt several blows. In 1889 Patsy was at Argyle when he received a letter telling him to return to Queensland post-haste. The patriarch's fortune had come to grief in the regular boom-and-bust cycle of the Australian economy. He had lost the Queensland business. The 1890s depression bankrupted thousands of landholders. But by assigning his Kimberley interests to his sons, Patsy had stayed one step ahead of complete disaster. Left with only household possessions, Patsy brought his wife Mary to live in the wilds of the Kimberley. A few years later, at the age of fifty-one, Mary died - as did so many - of malaria. To add to his grief, Patsy found himself sidelined by his sons who, perhaps because of their father's own business failure, were not highly receptive to his financial advice. Patsy was never to see his fortune secure, and ended his life a lonely and rather cantankerous man.
He understood the tenuous nature of Durack money and assets, and once described the family as 'kings in grass castles, that may be blown away upon a puff of wind'. After the death of his wife in 1893, Patsy's closest companion was Pumpkin. Patsy thought Pumpkin unusual among Aboriginal people - a 'better sort of black'. Pumpkin served his white 'lord' with devotion, insisting on leaving his traditional home at Cooper Creek to settle way up north with Patsy. He was the old man's final confidant. Patsy died in 1898, his ill-starred and problematic legacy passing to his sons. Patsy's eldest son MP heard of his father's death while riding in the Northern territory. The news brought back into his mind a letter Patsy had written to him sixteen years earlier: 'One day I will be leaving ye in the saddle, so to speak, and I hope in God ye will know enough to take the right direction when that time comes.'
Taking the right direction was a task that would haunt the new patriarch of the Duracks for the rest of his life. MP, now thirty-three, had been 'saddled' with a vast acreage in an alien land. This prince regent would have preferred an urban principality to a huge rural estate. His daughter, the noted writer Mary Durack, described her father as a 'man of considerable versatility, at home in stock camps and salons, experienced in the handling and judging of stock, an able company director and for some years a conscientious politician'. But in his heart MP was a scholar, not a natural cattleman; only his loyalty to his father's dream and a belief the stations would inevitably reap consistent rewards bound him to the dynastic vision.
Among Enid Durack's many achievements was setting up the first primary school in the district for many of the station workers' children. (Enid Durack)
MP remained uneasy on the land his father had claimed. He dreamed of an academic life in the ivory tower of a city university. Instead he battled the locusts, mosquitoes, heat and rain. Family photographs show MP as an upright Edwardian gentleman. His neatly trimmed red beard, immaculate cream suits and straight-backed posture, even on horseback, gave him a regal bearing. The long days riding the rugged land he found mundane and tedious. He envied his brother Jeremiah who had been able, as the youngest son, to pursue an academic career. But MP felt it his filial duty to carry on the dynastic inheritance, no matter that it was in a country where brute survival was the standard.
It was the Aboriginal communities, however, who bore the brunt of much of this brutality. The punishment for spearing cattle or white settlers was swift. It became common to see Aboriginal people chained neck to neck as they walked to the Wyndham lockup. Indigenous life was torn apart; the people had lost land and they faced starvation and violence from police and pastoralists. In those early years no Aboriginal person brought to trial was acquitted and no white man charged with mistreatment or murder of Aborigines was convicted. Neither MP nor his father before him took part in the cruel maltreatment of Kimberley Aboriginal people, but they did hold with the prevailing white viewpoint that aboriginal people were inherently inferior to Europeans.
MP also found the appearance of 'half-caste' workers alarming as 'it being common-knowledge that the half-breed inherits the worst characteristics of both races'. In the year of his father's death, MP wrote in his diary that he 'shot a beast today for bush niggers hanging about the station - the most wretched, haggard looking lot of 38 individuals I ever saw together - all suffering from sore eyes, sickly and hopeless looking'. But like his father, MP didn't criticise the source of Aboriginal misery: the squatters.
With the loss of their land for hunting and threat of draconian punishment for spearing cattle, many communities knew their safest option was to resign themselves to the takeover and seek work with the white bosses. with the end of the gold rush and the resultant loss of European labourers, the Kimberley pastoralists found they needed a black workforce. The pastoralists needed the skills of the Aboriginal people, their physical work, their understanding of natural cycles. They could read the bush, they knew how everything worked. And then the Aboriginal people needed settlers' food and clothing and at times their medicines. With the Aboriginal world turned upside down and the gold rush over, white cattle barons and black communities forged an uneasy interdependence. MP Durack's second daughter, Elizabeth, coined the phrase 'mutual exploitation' to describe how she saw this fragile alliance. The Duracks were regarded by their Aboriginal workers as 'better than average' bosses.
From the turn of
the century, life on the Durack cattle stations was built round
predictable cycles of time and season. During the Dry there was constant
mustering, branding and driving the stock to Wyndham abattoir. The long
working day began at sunrise and finished at sunset. Sunday was a day
for going to the races or polishing saddles and boots for the following
week. At Argyle station alone there were around 25,000 herd of cattle
roaming the cracked plains.
The majority of the ringers were young Aboriginal men. As one white stockman described in a letter to his family:
There are twelve of us in this camp - (three white men) - the rest blacks. Boxer the oldest boy, is about 30 years old. He came from Queensland and has been with the Duracks for over 20 years. He is a fine all-round fellow ... The other stock boys are also good sorts, pretty good horsemen and generally a big help to the pastoralists. The same cannot be said of the outside blacks who are a constant menace to both cattle and horse.
Kimberley women were put to work in the homesteads - sweeping, cleaning, making bread. There was also a cook who would do what he could with the limited food stock. Meat, flour, jam and tea were the staple provisions. When schools of resplendent silver barramundi were spotted, ringers would grab their spears and provide bonus fare. During the four-month Wet, station work almost ground to a halt. The swollen rivers transformed the dry plains into bogs, drenching the ground and making mustering impossible. From December to March, life centre on sedentary work: repairing saddles, packs and boots, drawing up inventories and reading. For the black station workers it was the season to meet with their tribal group and conduct community business. Where once the passing on of sacred rites and tribal traditions had been a year-round activity, it was now confined to the Wet. Much later in a poignant short story, Mary Durack wrote of the gradual loss of Dreamtime knowledge:
The old people had gone now, and the children were scattered around the stations, the missions and the bush towns. Some of the younger men had been through two stages of initiation. They knew something of their past but had given no more than half their hearts to it, and only a hole heart could be entrusted with the last and greatest secrets, the powers and the magic.
Unlike his daughter Mary, MP Durack had no interest in the loss of tribal knowledge among his station workers. He wanted to extend the family business and dreamed of finding riches under the soil that would far exceed those upon it. He was convinced that oil worthy of the Texan fields lay under the Kimberley rock and spent many years trying to create government interest in exploration, but it proved fruitless. MP never envisaged what actually did lie underfoot - diamonds. By the time the now world-renowned Argyle diamonds were discovered, the Duracks had long left Argyle. MP felt little affinity with the locust - and crocodile-infested Kimberley.
More at home in the city than the bush, he gladly fled his remote stations before the torrential rains marked the start of the Wet. The sedate city of Perth was where MP conducted much of his business. His significant landholdings ensured an immediate entree into Western Australia's small, elite business and political circles. He settled his wife Bess and six children in a mansion in central Perth. As befitted the now established squatter, he offered his offspring a genteel and educated city life. But come the Dry season, the dynastic responsibilities beckoned - and MP would wearily venture north to manage the family enterprise.
Australia - Dynasties - The Duracks - Part 2
Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia
Australian Aboriginal Anthropology
Australian Aboriginal Music