Australian Biography

Neville Bonner - full interview transcript

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Neville Bonner, where were you born?

I was born on a little island in the mouth of the Tweed River on the New South Wales side of the border.

And who were your parents?

My mother was Julia Rebecca Bonner. Before she was married she was Julia Bell, Julia Rebecca Bell. I don't remember my father -- he left -- he deserted when [I] was just a little tiny tot. I don't remember him.

And were there other children in the family?

There was an older boy than me, my eldest brother Henry, and then I came along and my father as I said deserted Mother, and then later Mother picked up with another chap, another Aboriginal chap, and she had three ... four children to him so that there's only myself still living, and my sister. The three brothers are all passed on.

Was your father Aboriginal?

Yes.

And your mother? [INTERRUPTION]

Did your mother come from that area?

No, my mother's from here. My mother was born at an Aboriginal community just outside of Ipswich called Deebing Creek. That was the first Aboriginal community established by government in this area, back in 18 ... something-or-other. My grandmother was from Beaudesert and she came across here as a young girl, and married my grandfather who was from this area.

And he was an important person in this area, wasn't he?

My grandfather. Yes, he was one of the surviving Elders of the Jagara tribe. Jagara's tribe was from the mouth of the Brisbane River to the foot of the Divide -- Great Dividing Range. My grandfather and his brother Stanley were two of four surviving members of that tribe. There were two others: Willie McKenzie and Bobby Hagan. Now, my grandfather and his younger brother Stanley were raised by the Lumley-Hills who owned Bellevue Station. They were taken out of the tribe as young teenagers and raised by the station property owners.

And when you were born, what sort of circumstances were you born into?

Well, in the days when my ... I was born, Aboriginal women were not admitted into hospitals. They were treated at the dispensary, as they called it in those days, and sent home, and when my mother gave birth to me it was in a gunyah at the foot of a palm tree that is still growing on Ukerabagh Island, in what was termed as the 'blacks' camp'. So the circumstance of my birth was pretty hazardous and pretty horrible for my mother; that I and she both survived is a miracle, when I heard the stories of what was happening at Ukerabagh Island in those days.

But that was standard for Aboriginals in ...

... It was standard for Aborigines throughout Australia practically, dispossessed, detribalised, living in shanty towns on the edges of towns and cities, not allowed into the towns after sunset or before sunrise of a morning. That was the norm in most cities and towns around Australia. Queensland was no better than New South Wales nor New South Wales better than Queensland -- they were all much the same.

What did the family live on financially after your father left?

Well, my mother worked for a time until we moved from Lis ... from the Tweed to Lismore where she met the man that she lived in a de-facto relationship with, Frank Randell and he provided the funds and I also helped, when I was old enough, helped my grandfather and my stepfather and when they took scrub-falling, cutting scrub trees down and digging out the lantana bushes and things like that, for people to use for cultivations and things like that. So we all had to do something -- some work. My mother worked for hotels as a washwoman and I often helped her because in those days we, Aboriginal children, were not allowed to go to the normal schools, and for a long time there was no Aboriginal school anywhere near where we lived, so I grew up as a young child mainly helping Grandfather or helping Mother with the copper boiler, keeping the wood up to the fire, so she could do the boiling of the white men's clothing and bed clothing, sheets and things like that, and for that she was rewarded a whole five shillings for two days' work.

So you didn't go to school at all?

I had a very short spell at a small school that was on the bank of the Richmond River near Lismore ... now known as the old Robert White Bridge. It was in an old dairy, a concrete floor and blackboards just standing up against the wall, and then when a lot of the Aboriginal people -- excuse me [INTERRUPTION].

If you could tell me about the time that you did go to school?

Well, my first attempt at school ... my stepfather Frank Randell was working as a tracker for the police station, and I used to go in and help him clean out the stables and that of a morning, and the Inspector of Police was possibly there one day and asked Frank why I wasn't at school. Frank explained that we weren't allowed to go to the schools, so he said, 'How many children have you got of school age?,' and Frank told him that there was my older brother Henry, myself, and the next in line was my sister Eva and we were all of school age. So the Inspector spoke to the Head Teacher at the North Lismore School and -- oh sorry, the South Lismore School -- and he very kindly said, 'Look we'll give it a go, they can come along.' So, Mother was very handy using cotton and needles and she had some second-hand clothing that she had cut down and made nice pairs of trousers for Henry and I, and she dressed us up and sent us to school on the Monday morning. We arrived at school at about eight o'clock in the morning, half past eight, and by the time school started, we were the only three children left at school because the white families learned that we black kids were there, and they came and took their children out of the school until finally the Head Schoolmaster said, 'Look, I'm sorry children, you'll have to go home.' That ended my first attempt at acquiring an education. Then a lady, a Mrs Hitchcock, talked the New South Wales Government into giving her sufficient finance to start a little school, which she did on the bank of the river at a little dairy, and we were in the old cow bales, with a concrete floor, and the whole bales were still there, and for about three or four weeks I attended that, and then they moved that school out to a place called Tuncester about three miles out of town, and for a short time I went to that school for about six months, and that was all the schooling I had until after Mother died when Grandma took over the responsibility of raising myself and my younger brother Jim. She brought us into Queensland, and at the age of 15, they took me into the Beaudesert State School. I'm sorry at 14, and let me go on until I was 15. I did one year's formal education at the Beaudesert State School. I jumped three grades in one year.

And that was really the period where you learned to read, write and do what you can do?

That's right, yes.

Right.

I owe a lot to my grandmother, she was a very well-educated lady. She was raised by station owners outside of Beaudesert before she was sent across here to Deeping Creek, and she spoke flawless English, and one of the things she assisted us with was teaching us to speak English as English is supposed to be spoken. Because she always said that if you didn't have an academic education, and you were able to speak well, people would not notice whether you were educated or not, and it would get you, you know, get you through life. And I think she proved that quite well.

Yes.

In my case anyway.

You've obviously proved that quite well. You mentioned that your mother died. When was that?

In 1933. I was about eight, eight or nine, years of age. My grandma ... [INTERRUPTION]

... Do you remember that?

Oh yes. Yes, I remember. Mother was in hospital for quite a considerable time, and we lived on the bank of the Richmond River in ... in very shocking circumstances in those days. Grandfather cleared out under the lantana bushes and went to the rubbish dumps and got pieces of iron and sort of built a shelter underneath the lantana bushes and that was where we lived. And I used to walk into the hospital to see Mother every afternoon, it was quite a distance -- it would be at least four miles I suppose or better from where we were living, and I was with her right up until the night before she passed on. And when I left she took her wedding ring off her finger that afternoon, and put it in my hand, and we got the word the next morning that she had passed on.

What did she die of?

It was very ... I don't know, I was too young to understand the ... the kind of illnesses people suffered ... all I knew was that mother was ill and she passed on.

So after that your grandmother looked after you and taught you to speak so well, and brought you back to Queensland ...

Mmm ...

Did you notice, apart from the fact that in Queensland you were allowed to go to school, any big difference in your life after you crossed the border?

Oh yes, to be able to go to school, that there was other than black kids, was quite an experience for me, although there were a number of Aboriginal children going there, it was predominantly a white children's school, and I made some very wonderful friends amongst the white students as well as the Aboriginal students. I had relatives there of course, Grandma's relatives, and the teachers were very kind to all of us, and there was no discrimination as we understand it today, there was no difference whether you were black or you were white, you were all children at school and I had just as many white friends in the school as I had Aboriginal friends.

Did you encounter no racism at all?

Not that I can recall, not in the school. [Coughs] I'm sorry, I'll have to get a drop of water I think. [INTERRUPTION]

At this new school were none of the children cruel to you?

Did -- I beg your pardon?

Were any of the children at the new school you went to cruel to you?

No, no, there was -- oh sure, there was arguments and there was sometimes fisticuffs too but you were just treated like any other kid.

You weren't called names?

No. Not in a racial sense. Oh yes, you were called names by other kids when you got into arguments and fights and things like that, but no, there was nothing in a racial way. Not that I recall anyway.

So, what did you do after you finished your year of schooling, you were 15?

Well, Grandma died just before I'd finished my 12 months, and I was staying with my grandmother's nieces. There was two nieces there, lived there, and then I got a job after I left school, on a dairy farm, and I worked on that for a few months, and then my oldest brother had stayed in New South Wales, and I was kind of lost in a sense, because all the people that I really grew up with and knew well, were still back in New South Wales. Whilst I was living with family, that I'd never known because they were still in Queensland and we were over in New South Wales, I decided that I would leave my job, and I did in the early hours of one morning, rolled my few belongings up in a hessian bag and headed back to New South Wales. I went back and I worked around in New South Wales on banana plantations ... the Indians and Italians had banana plantations and bean farms and things like that, so I earned some money working for them, and during the summer months I cut paspalum grass and got the seeds and sold that to the seed merchants, so I could you know ... I knocked around for about 12 months doing that, and then my mother's oldest brother came down from way up in Central Queensland looking for the children of his sister -- that was my mother -- and found me and took me back to ... brought me back through into Queensland, and up to an Aboriginal settlement called Woorabinda outside of Rockhampton. And I lived there for quite some time, and I worked on a dairy farm there -- of course I'd been accustomed to working around dairy farms and that, and they had dairy farm there -- and I worked there as a dairy hand for quite some time; as well going out every now and then to jobs out outside the settlement, working for ringbarking contractors and things like that.

Now, your whole childhood and youth was spent basically with an Aboriginal background, and an Aboriginal family ...

Right.

Did that bring you into contact with customs and cultural patterns that were clearly Aboriginal?

Yes ... My grandfather and grandmother taught me quite a lot of our own culture and customs, but because of the racial discrimination and actions of non-Aboriginal people towards us, we didn't put our mind as kids to learning the language, because if you spoke your language in the streets amongst the white kids or white people, you were told you know, 'Oh you blacks, if you want to talk your language you're back on the bank of the creek where you belong' and things like that. So we were kind of forced to become ashamed of our own culture, our own language and our own history and the whole works, and so unfortunately we lost a lot of it. I still remember a few words of my grandfather's tongue and my grandmother's tongue, that I retained a lot of the stories and parts of the culture that they passed on to me. I still retain them.

Did they teach you any bush craft?

Oh yes, Grandfather taught us how to hunt in the bush for our own natural foods, and we did quite a lot of that, chasing wallabies and various kind of animals and, you know, getting the various types of fruit that grew in the bush and all that. We learnt all that. We learned how to track and where -- how to find water -- and all those things that were necessary to survive in the bush. Grandfather taught us all that.

Later in your life when you were a senator, we all saw you doing boomerang demonstrations outside Parliament House. Do we owe that to your grandfather?

I do indeed. Grandfather taught us to make boomerangs, not in the manner that we do today, of course, we didn't have the modern machinery to help us in those days -- you had to cut the roots of the trees out with an axe, and then out of one root you'd probably only make one boomerang. Today, out of the same root, you'd cut it up with a band-saw and get, say, six, five or six boomerangs out of it. But yes, Grandfather taught us to make boomerangs and to throw them, and how to make them return, and I retained that all my life.

Now, what about the tribal law, did you learn any of that?

Oh yes. Grandfather taught us all about the tribal customs and laws, and I've retained all that.

And your spiritual life as a child, was that Aboriginal?

Yes. My grandmother was a ... was a Christian, well she was raised as I said by station property owners and embraced the Christian faith, and she taught us of course, the Christian faith. But Grandfather also taught us our own spiritual beliefs and the Aboriginal spirituality was handed down through Grandfather more than Grandmother.

And, how did you make sense of this? These two messages you were getting?

Well, I find that there is no conflict in my Aboriginal spirituality, as with my Christian faith, for there's a lot of our ... our laws are based much similar to what the Christian laws are. We believed in a supreme being, we believed that some supreme body created everything, and we believed that you shouldn't take something that belongs to someone else. So a lot of the laws in Aboriginal culture are -- have very little -- have little or no conflict with the laws which are based -- our laws are based on Christian faith anyway.

Did you see this as a child? Or did you see, or did you feel, that they were different? Did it seem natural to you as a child that that these two systems ...

... Well, I don't recall any conflict in it. The only conflict that I detected was that what we were told by the missionaries, and the Ministers of churches and that, about the God that we worship -- a loving, kind, considerate, all-forgiving God -- where in his kingdom all people are equal, but it seemed odd that the white man was much more equal than we blackfellas were. And so it seemed to me that the white man put himself up higher than the God that we were all supposed to worship. Because he thought he was better than -- not only thought, he acted and believed that he was better than we because we were black and he was white. So there was a conflict there, but it didn't conflict with my embracing the Christian faith and still retaining my own Aboriginal spirituality.

You just found a bit of a gap between what they were saying and what they were doing?

And what they practiced. Yes.

So, when you had grown up and taken off and done these various jobs, what was the next big thing that happened in your life?

Well, I suppose the next big thing was that I met my first wife as a young woman. She was working on a cattle station and so was I, and the cattle station that I worked on ... when we were coming into town we came through the same property to get to the main road as um Mona worked on, and of course we got together and we finally got married and had a family and we lived at a place called Hughenden and we worked on cattle stations for some time, then we decided to live in town, and I worked as a woodcutter, cutting wood for bakeries and things like that. I was subcontracting to a bloke who had a wood depot, and I'd be camped out in the bush from Monday till Friday afternoons. Mona was living with ... well we were living in a house with friends, another chap and his wife, and Mona was -- instead of sitting around the house all through the week, she found herself a job with an ambulance bearer's wife, and one week while I was out at work she had an argument with the lady that she was working for, and the lady -- Mona was ironing and she burnt a hanky or something with the hot iron -- called her a stupid black bitch, and of course she slapped her, and under the Act, the Aboriginal Government Act in those days ... [INTERRUPTION]

... When you were living in Hughenden, what happened that made you move away?

Well, my wife and I were living in a rented house with another young couple and whilst I was out working, Mona didn't like just sitting around the house, so she got herself a job with the ambulance bearer's, superintendent's, wife, as a domestic. And one day she was ironing some clothing ... scorched a hanky as she was... [INTERRUPTION]

Yes. So your wife had got a job.

Yes, Mona had got a job with the ambulance superintendent's wife, as a domestic. Her job was washing up and ironing, washing clothes and things like that. One day she was doing some ironing, and she happened to have the iron a bit hot or something, and she scorched or burnt one of the hankies that she was ironing, and the superintendent's wife grabbed hold of her hanky and said, 'You stupid black bitch. What did you do?' And of course Mona slapped her. Well, under the government regulations and rules pertaining to Aboriginal people, that was very, very naughty, and so she was picked up by the police, held in the police station and escorted ... sent back to Palm Island under escort. I came home -- that happened about Tuesday, Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday -- I got back to the house on the Friday afternoon, there was no-one at home so I went downtown thinking that Mona and our two friends were downtown somewhere, found my two friends and they told me that Mona had been sent home to Palm Island. So, you know, the laws pertaining to Aboriginal people wasn't very kind in lots of ways. But we survived that. Mona was ...

What did you do?

Well, there was nothing I could do. I couldn't stop us... I couldn't reverse the decision, it was a decision made by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, so I got myself a job on a cattle station and I worked on the cattle station and then I went down and spent some time on Palms for a couple of weeks holiday, and Mona fell pregnant whilst ... [INTERRUPTION]

What did you do?

Well, I got myself a job on a cattle station, and having worked on there for a short time, I took a couple of weeks off and went down to visit Mona at Palm Island. I was down there for a week or so, and when I went back to the station to work, Mona had got in touch with me by letter and told me she had fallen pregnant. So, Mona ... the baby was born on Palm Island, and after the baby was born of course Mona came back, and by this time I'd become Head Stockman on the cattle station, and so I had that Head Stockman's quarters and Mona came and lived with me out on the station. But my son was about six or seven month old, and he contracted an illness, amoebic dysentery, and we very near lost him before we got him into town, he'd almost you know, from dehydration, and the roads were bad and by the time we got to Hughenden, he'd almost died, so that frightened Mona, and she decided that living on the mainland, on cattle stations and things like that with a baby wasn't for her, so we decided to go and live on Palm Island. So for 16 years I lived on an Aboriginal community called Palm Island, just outside of Townsville.

But my understanding of Palm Island was that it was in fact a very tough and difficult place to live?

Yes, it was set up as a penal island where Aborigines from various towns or from other communities who, according to the authorities, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Authorities, misbehaved themselves, they could be sent there and would have to remain there at the pleasure of the government and the department, which was set up by the government, and as to whether they got back on the mainland again were determined by the superintendent and his officers as to whether they were regarded as worthy of being allowed to go back and live on the mainland. I went in there voluntarily to keep the family together, my wife and my son Patrick, and whilst the rules and the laws of the community laid down by the department were harsh, I managed to survive there, and a lot of other people lived of course as well. We had four or five sons altogether and as they were growing up the education, according to the department on the government's laws, was only up to fourth grade, and I didn't feel that that was all the education my children needed, so I decided that I'd come out onto the mainland, come back onto the mainland, and give my children a chance with a better education. So I came down here to Ipswich. Well, I came to Brisbane, and friends of mine got me a job outside of Ipswich at a place called Mount Crosby, managing a dairy farm, and I brought my family down and we lived there from 1960 and [then] I left that job and worked for the Brisbane City Council at the Water Works at Mount Crosby and the family all grew up and there we are. [INTERRUPTION]

How did you occupy yourself on Palm Island, what work did you do there?

Well, when I first went there, the health of children was pretty bad, and a lot of it was -- the responsibility of it came down to hygiene, bad hygiene. So the superintendent set up a kind of hygiene gang and I was given the responsibility of being in charge of it. I was a kind of a Health Officer, in the days when the DDT was the great thing for killing flies and pests and things like that, and my responsibility was to go around to the homes and make sure that people cleaned up their yards, had a gang of men who dug pits and all the rubbish was thrown into the pits, we sprayed houses out for cockroach and flies and things like that, and I did that for quite a considerable time. A doctor that came there at the time, Doctor Ben Short and his wife, they set up a baby clinic and of course all this sort of dove-tailed in with what we were doing. They set up a clinic where babies were ... had to go to the clinic every week and be examined by the doctor and they were given special foods and things like that. I did that for quite a few years, and then was given the job -- sort of as an experiment -- given the responsibility of making concrete bricks. I was given a gang of five, six including myself, and we made these ‚ our superintendent at that time, George Sturges, was a very capable fellow, he made up these special moulds where we made these concrete bricks, and we made quite a number of them, and -- he then said to me, 'Well look, we've got enough bricks for what I wanted, now we'll just leave it stand at that.' So there were a lot of out-houses, you know what an out-house is, the old wooden building out the backyard, and they were in a pretty bad state, so George Sturges asked me if I'd ever laid bricks; well I hadn't. He said, well it seems simple, it's a pretty easy job, so they put down a concrete base, and gave me a stack of bricks and some cement and sand, and I built my first out-house out of bricks, which started off at the right size at the bottom and finished up you know coming out like this ...

(laughs)

... a bit, but I improved, and I was given a gang of chaps. I carried out building all these out-houses out of bricks, and every house on Palm Island -- Aboriginal home that is -- had a brick toilet. Then the superintendent acquired a machine to make bricks, so he put me back on the brick machine with a gang of blokes, and we made four or five thousand of these bricks, and I was living in an old wooden house at the time and George Sturges asked me if I'd like to have a go at building a house out of these new type of bricks. So I said, 'Well, yes I'd like that.' 'Well,' he said, 'You can build the first house for yourself.' So I built a brick house, four bedroom, lounge, kitchen ... house, out of these bricks.

[end of tape]

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