Australian Biography

Neville Bonner - full interview transcript

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You've told us about your early life, you must have been a young man when the Second World War broke out?

Yes, I was in my late teens. I was out in the central west of Queensland working on a sheep station, and I had some mates of mine, and one of them was coming down to Cherbourg to be married, this was in 1940, early in 1940. And so we all decided to come down to Cherbourg with him and I stayed on in Cherbourg for some time and I enlisted in Cherbourg with quite a number of other Aboriginal men, and we were told that we were going to Maryborough for the draft, and we were all packed and ready to go and we were sent a telegram to say don't come that day, that they'd notify us. Well, they didn't for quite some time, so I decided that I would not wait any longer, so a chap and I came to Brisbane, and we tried to enlist in Brisbane. We went to Kelvin Grove Barracks, and they sent us out to Enoggera, and we were told that they weren't taking any Aborigines because they were afraid that because of our nationality, we would not be able to stand up to the climatic conditions into which they were sending the troops, so we weren't accepted. So I gave up my hopes of getting into the army, and went back out into the west, back onto cattle stations, and worked for the cattle station all through the war. I was called up from the cattle station, but a few months before I'd had a very nasty accident, I'd been in the rough riders riding a buck jumper and I ripped my arm and wrist all smashed up, and of course I wasn't then fit to get into the army, and I went back and worked on the cattle station all through the war.

I suppose there would have been a big demand for people to work that way with all the men away?

Yes, well, they told me not to feel bad about it because troops had to be fed, and beef was one of the main diets of the Australians, and so we were doing just as important a job by keeping the cattle industry going as we would have been if we'd gone to war.

Why did you want to go so much?

Well, I felt that I had an obligation as an Australian, our country was at war, we had joined Britain of course to fight against the Nazi regime, and I felt I had an obligation to be a part of the troops that went over to defend our mother country and our own country.

How did you feel when they told you that they weren't going to take you?

I was terribly disappointed. I was bitterly disappointed. As a matter of fact, I suppose there'd still be records of it in the Queensland and the Brisbane paper of the old Truth. Now, they interviewed us and they gave us quite a write up about it and demanded that we be given a chance, but of course it never eventuated. But we were very, very badly disappointed about it, we felt that we were offering our services to our nation, and we were rejected because we were Aborigines.

I'd like now to ask you about the women in your life. You've had some fairly significant women that have played a big part in shaping the way your life went. First your mother and then your grandmother, your first wife, and Heather your present wife, have all been women that have been significant to you. Would you like to tell me a little bit more about your mother and what she meant to you, and the other women that have played a role in influencing you?

Well, my mother was a crippled woman. When she was very young she fell out of a tree and broke her hip and she walked with a very bad limp. Of course, when she was deserted by her first husband we moved to Lismore and she met up with another chap by the name of Frank Randell and they had another three children between them, and Frank was a very lazy person in lots of ways, and he depended on my mother to earn the money to pay for the food, and Mother worked as a - I mentioned earlier, I think, working for a hotel doing the washing and ironing, and we used to walk about two miles every morning, two days a week of course, walk down and I'd make the fire under the copper and Mother would wash and boil the clothing and sheets, and then we'd stay there until they all dried and take them or took them off the line and put them in baskets, and the next day she went back and she did all the ironing, and this went on for quite a few years until she became very ill, and she died.

And you'd go back at the end of this hard day to a place in the lantana bushes?

That's right, we had lived on the bank of the Richmond River. I could still go back to the exact spot where we lived under these lantana bushes and life was very, very tough, and Grandfather used to go out and do a bit of work for a dairy farm, and he'd bring in a little money, and of course Grandma was very thrifty and was able to make that money spin out, plus what mother earned, and of course Frank got his share of it before any went into food, but it was ...

... What did he spend it on?

Well, whatever he wanted to. Mostly drink. He drank a lot, and of course so did Grandfather, and one of my jobs was to be on hand when Grandfather got paid so as I could grab his pay and take it home to Grandma. If I didn't it would all go on grog. So you know, alcoholism is not a new thing, it's something that's been with us as Aborigines for a long long time.

There were no welfare cheques?

No welfare cheques in those days, no. The New South Wales Government in those days did issue some rations to some people but you had to qualify for it and I don't know exactly now -- I was only too young to realise what the qualifications were, but we were never in receipt of any of those.

Did this shelter that you had really protect you from the elements?

Well, in a sense it did because ... Grandfather got sheets of iron from the rubbish dumps and things like that and bent it over so as the rain ran -- water ran off, and we dug drains around so as the water falling on the land would bypass our[shack] and we sort of built up underneath the lantana bushes with what is called bladey grass, you know.

Were you ever wet, cold?

Oh yes, many times. Yes.

Hungry?

Yes, I've known hunger, I've known cold, I've known all of those emotions -- I lived through it.

What did you think about the drinking of the men in your life?

Well, I was a bit young to really understand what it was all about, except that I knew that we would have a lot more to eat if there was no money spent on drink so whilst I was only about nine or ten years of age, in Lismore, but then as we moved away from there to other places, and I grew, I got to about 12 or 14, I started to think well, my gosh, when I grow up to be a man, I'm not going to spend my money on that sort of thing, I'm going to make better use of my money than that. I think that's stood me in pretty good stance over the years.

But ...

I'm not ... mind you, I'm not a teetotaller. I have my few beers the same as any other Aussie does, but I don't spend a lot of money on it.

There must have been a lot of young Aboriginal boys who'd come to exactly the same conclusion, but nevertheless themselves fell into the drinking habit.

Yes, not all but quite a few, yes, did fall into it.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think it is such a problem?

Well, there's a whole lot of things, I mean, the kind of lifestyle we live, we knew discrimination, we knew prejudice, we were denied an education that would qualify us for good paying jobs. So most of our jobs were the menial jobs, were low income, loss of culture, language and all of those things that were important to us as Aboriginal people. I think a lot of those things -- in desperation, looking for a crutch or oblivion, I have been intoxicated so I have an idea what it's like to be intoxicated. You are not thinking rationally and you feel that the bravado in you from the alcohol, it befuddles your mind, you feel that you're as good as anyone, you can walk down the street and push people off the footpath and say, 'I'm as good as youse,' or better. When you're sober, the realities of what your life is, where your place is in the community, hits you pretty forcefully, and a lot of people [want to] go back to that oblivion that the accursed grog brings to you, and the bravado that builds up in you, and so they go back to the drink again. So there's a whole lot of reasons why, and I think some of those are some of them, basically it's this way, a lot of Aboriginal people do drink to excess.

So, do you think that it was your achievements and the self-esteem that brought, that enabled you to avoid that past?

Well, I suppose so, I'm not quite sure what forces there were that helped me to do better than some of my counterparts did. I suppose being a Christian, I believe that God's hand was in it all, God works in mysterious ways, there's wonders to behold.

Drink remains a really big problem for Aboriginal communities generally today, mind you for white communities as well, in Australia ...

The ratio of population is a darn sight worse in the white community than people would admit. Yes, it's a big problem, but it is being tackled by Aboriginal people, there is a lot more now, of Aboriginal organisations who are working to educate and to help find a solution to these problems, and I think that is the way it should have been going long before this. Far too often, and for far too long, I've said this before in many speeches in parliament and outside of parliament, that all the decisions concerning we the Aboriginal community has been made for us by non-Aboriginal people, looking at the problem through their own eyes and coming up with solutions that fit into their particular priorities and values, and then saying, 'You need or must do this,' or must do that or must do something else. Instead of sitting down with us and discussing the whole problem with us and asking us to come up with solutions to our own problems, and then, working together so that we can bring about a change by the ideas that come from us as Aboriginal people. We are of a different culture, we are a different race, we are a unique race of people, we never had these problems prior to the coming of the white man to the country and so we fell easy prey to all of these things, but now, what we're saying is, 'Let us now start making some of the decisions that affect us. Let's look at the problems through our eyes. Let us find solutions. Let's use our priorities, our values, let us make our own values of what the problem is and how we find a solution to it.'

Do you think the circumstances in which you lived there on the banks of the river, with rather unreliable men in her life, children dependent on her, and the difficulties that she had to cope with every day, led to your mother's death?

I think you'd better let me have that again, I wasn't quite up with that.

Did you think that the circumstances in which your mother had to live, the problems and difficulties of her life, led to her death?

Well, that would have been part of it, yes, but I think the cruelty of the man that she went with also played a part in her ill health.

In what way was he cruel?

Oh, he beat her quite consistently, knock her down and kick her with -- he used to wear heavy boots, and he used to kick her with boots and things like that so, as I say when Mother died, I was only about nine years of age, but I remember her calling out for help and assistance and Frank continually beating her, so I would imagine that must have played some part in her health, ill health. I don't know really what the prognosis was by the medical profession, but my own estimation was that, as you rightly say, the conditions and everything else, plus the continual flogging and beating by Frank Randall played a part in her finally passing on.

How did you feel about that?

Well, I don't like to say that one hates someone, but I think my feelings towards him would have been -- there would have been a lot of hate in my feelings towards him because my mother was a very kind and loving person, and worked hard and did her best to raise a family, and ... the things he did was not something that would endear him to anyone, I shouldn't think, and so I think my feeling towards him was very close to hate, if it wasn't really hate.

Do you remember the day she died?

I was with her the night before she died, I wasn't with her actually when she died, but I was with her and she was still able to talk or in a whisper, and my last memories of her sometimes still haunt me because she was very thin and very frail and her voice it was very weak so ... I still have the moments that often come to me in quiet moments when I'm on my own.

Did Frank Randall see to it that she was buried properly?

Well it wasn't his ... he didn't do much about that, my grandmother of course and my grandfather and her sisters, Aunt Janet and Aunt Mary and all of us, we got together and she was buried in a pauper grave. We had no money, we could not have paid for a funeral so ... I think they call it indigent graves now, but in those days they called it a pauper's grave.

That was unmarked?

Absolutely yes. I've been back to the cemetery a couple of times but there was no way for ...

[end of tape]

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