Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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Elizabeth, what kind of person was your mother?

Well, she was a wonderful mother for a start and she had a very warm personality, a lovely sense ... a sense of laughter. I can often recall mother's laughter and she was a ... a practical person but she loved ... loved fun. She wasn't an intellectual person but she ... she read novels but she didn't read deeply. And she ... she was, as I say, a loving mother to us all.

How did your parents meet?

Yes, mother had a sister who was ... who was a nurse and she travelled. Mother was an Adelaide ... a South Australian girl, the daughter of a legal man. Lived at the semaphore. He was magistrate at the semaphore outside Adelaide. And one of her sisters ... They were a big family of girls. One of her sisters became a nurse and came to Western Australia and she was doing special nursing, private nursing, and it happened that one of her patients was J.W. Durack and she nursed Uncle Jack back to health and then went back to ... to Adelaide and there she was talking to the rest of the family about having met this ... members of the family, the Durack family, that had opened up the Kimberleys and ... and so on. And then when dad was down I think a few months later, he called on the Johnstone family and met mother and from that time the romance developed. And they were married on the 22 September 1909. How's that for memory? [Laughs]

There was a big difference in their ages.

There was. There was a considerable difference. Mother was in her early twenties and dad was forty-five, I think, when they married - a big difference but it was a long and successful marriage. One that you would think would have been under a lot of stress because by the time we had a townhouse, mother was more in Perth than in the north, which she had been with us in the early days, and so there were, oh, perhaps for more than half the year they were separated and yet the marriage survived any of that. There was never any thought for a moment of ... of their being too great a strain on mother. She ran a big household too, you see. Those were the days we had our English nurse. We'd have a ... we had a domestic. We had help coming in. You can imagine it was a fairly big household with six children - a regular gardener, a regular laundry ... the laundry seemed to be a big feature of life as it is, I suppose, anywhere. It was on the stations too. She'd come on Monday and then on Tuesday to do the ironing, so life went on like that, but mother had a busy social life too. And enjoyed the theatre a lot and was, of course, the centre of a big family group. All the ... Quite a lot of relatives - our Uncle Pat, our Uncle Jack - and they lived there and kept in very close contact.

Was it ever considered to ever bring down any Aboriginal domestic help from up north?

Never for a minute. Oh no. No women were brought down. It was just the men.

Why not?

Oh, I don't think ... well, it just wasn't thought of. No, no, we didn't think of ... No, Aboriginal women so far north wouldn't have adjusted to the cold of the winter for a start. No that wasn't on but some of dad's particular ... particular mates, you could say, if you like, did come down with him over the summer period, yes.

And what was he like? How would you describe him?

Dad? Well, he too was a very loving father, very proud of us. He was never at home for any ... any of the births and ... except for my brother William. And it was ... it is interesting that there was the very, a very special bond between my father and my brother, Bill. He was the fifth child and dad called him 'Quintus Superbus' and Quinty for short and they were very loving to each other - not that he showed favouritism or anything but Bill was his special ... special favourite in fact.

Did your mother have a favourite?

No, she was very even-handed. She was wonderfully even-handed particularly with ... with Mary and me, although, again, I can remember that Mary might have got more invitations than ... than me or something. And then I'd say, 'Can I go too, me too', you know, 'Me too' at six or seven years old, and our mother would say, 'You can't go everywhere with Mary', you know, just, 'You haven't been invited this time'. She'd be quite firm but all very reasonable.

Were there any clouds over your childhood?

Clouds? Failing music, failing mathematics, [laughs] sitting for it time and time again, the deepest clouds. I remember failing music exam. I'm not musical and that upset me. But I can't remember serious clouds, no. We were ... we had a united childhood. Again our ... our Uncle Jack, the one that Auntie Gert had nursed was literal ... you'd call him parent in ... in loco parentis because he was there once or twice a week at our place. He was in charge of the ... of the office in Howard Street, the Connor, Doherty & Durack office.

Your father had been intimately involved with the whole process with his father and so on of opening up the north and pioneering all that Kimberley region and setting up the Durack properties up there. What do you think that land and those properties meant to him?

I think he ... he was attached to the life I think and he appreciated it and he ... he took a lot of very good photographs of it but I don't think he ever lost sight of the fact that ... that the stations were for sale. You know, there was a better, richer life beyond the Kimberleys. He was not keen on us getting too deeply involved with the Kimberleys. And then there was the interesting situation with my brother, Kim, who was ... came north from ... getting high honours at an agricultural college and looking at the north for the first time with a very critical eye, a very critical eye. I can remember the first time I heard the word 'erosion' was used by Kim who would ... who noticed, I think, perhaps. among the first. that it wasn't the fact [that] they thought the seasons were getting lighter and the grass wasn't growing as well but it was due to the degradations that the cattle had made on the river banks for fifty years, you see. And it was Kim's horror at the sight of the big breakaways opening up and seeing the land breaking up, deteriorating and eroding that set him off on his idea of recouping the land and entering into experiments with agriculture and dad was quite intrigued about the idea and Kim brought the first plough up to Argyle, I can remember. And then ... then went further: he was growing different crops there and then he wanted to have a bigger place and so, quite formally, some land was excised on ... from Ivanhoe Station, Carlton Reach, a beautiful permanent water hole, and Kim set up, in conjunction with the West Australia Government and CSIRO in Canberra. Mr. Christianson seemed to be around in those days and set up the first research agricultural station in the Kimberley, and then he wanted to go further with it but ... but the government wanted to do more experimenting and then the bigger research station was set up at the present location: the Kimberley Research Station in Kununurra. A very big story on it's own Robin, but I'll just enter into it with regard to the ... what it impinges on dad, who was proud of what Kim was doing. He'd take people to see the magnificent crops - small crops - that he was raising and yet at the same time he was nervous about Kim. He was ... it was ... he said, 'Of course if this goes ahead, they'll reclaim all our river frontages with no compensation', and the ... this ... this started a sort of argument within the family, within the ... And then ... then Kim also was the first one, in conjunction with the chief engineer here - he was Mr. Dumas but he was knighted later - and he got him up and Kim walked the length and breadth of the Ord River and found the ideal spot to drop a block to dam the Ord, you see. So Kim was the one that conceived the idea of the Ord. Had that as a marvellous position ratified by the chief engineer, by Sir, perhaps, Donald Dumas - I've just forgotten his Christian name - Russel, Sir Russell Dumas, of course. And then the prospect of damming the Ord loomed but in the meantime, he was ... he was very interesting and [a] strange personality because, although he wanted to instigate the conservation of water in the ... in the region, by the time the ... the Ord was becoming more than just something to talk about, he was frightened of the idea of sinking huge capital money into a project before it had really been proved. And ... and he ... then he fell out with the West Australian Government, in a way, and he went ... went over to Canberra to try to set up a Rivers Authority. He wanted the rivers of the Kimberley to be properly assessed before they went [ahead] but by that time, Sir Russell Dumas and the Premier - this was fairly early in the reign of Charles Court - they saw that the Ord as the whole object. So you see, the whole story is very fascinating but ... but it's very sort of evoluent [sic] and then dad was then still ... he was getting more and more nervous about the prospect of the resumption of properties because within the lease, you know, it wasn't ownership, it was a lease. Within the lease any land could be resumed. This was the wonderful part about a pastoral lease. This is the danger of the present situation. If they are going to make pastoral leases freehold, it's another situation. They were not freehold, they were pastoral leases for the rights to the surface grazing of the land but if a better use was found for the land, they had to give way. And within the pastoral lease, land could be resumed at any time for another use, you see. It's a very complex and interesting thing, a pastoral lease. So at any rate, the beginning of the family argument over it was that Kim wanted to discreetly develop water conservation on ... on the Ord, smaller catchments, trying out different areas and integrated with the pastoral industry. And ... but that isn't what occurred. So in the meantime, dad had got more and more determined, under these ... under these what he felt as threats to the original holding of the land. He became more and more determined to sell ... to sell before it was too late and before he died because he was very old now, you see. And the end of the story is that against enormous persuasion on my part, I persuaded - but I had no power of course - against the sale particularly from Kim and me, the sale went through and that was the end of the Connor, Doherty & Durack leases in the Kimberley region. And so the feeling ... my feeling about the ... about the Ord is very mixed, you see. It's both the ... I still have Kim's arguments running through my head about the folly of starting off such a huge project before anything was proven and, of course, Kununurra and the agricultural work there is ... is itself now fifty years old. It's taken a long time, but they are getting on top of it and I think it's quite ... very successful now.

But it meant the drowning of large tracts of land.

Yes it was the best pastoral property in the north, Argyle, because we were in first and had the pick of it.

Your father saw the land, from what you say, as really a commercial venture. Would you say that that was how it was in his mind?

I think that, yes, outback properties were regarded as commercial properties and there were times when there were a lot of family into certain properties and then they sold out in about 1915, or something, when it was a good price going. And dad used to say, 'We should have sold out then you know, when the prices were good', but yes, those properties were always up for sale, not only dad's but some of them. That was the attitude towards that ... those pastoral lands. It wasn't only dad.

Your father placed primarily a commercial value on the properties and the land that your family had pioneered. How did you see it?

Well, of course, the next generation got much more deeply into it and certainly my brother, Reg, and Kim and I were ... were terribly bound up with the north, which again worried dad a little bit although he ... he ... he went along with everything, He was a mild man and ... but overall this contention over the land and the prospect of leasehold becoming another form of tenure under an agricultural arrangement, that ... that ... that was the pressure that dad wanted to somehow ... was a pressure behind dad's increasing urge to sell the properties. Yes, to tidy everything up before he went but ... and of course, I can remember ... remember vividly and quite heart breakingly remember Kim and dad sort of having arguments - not bitter arguments but very wordy arguments - and dad said that he'd ... 'No, I'm going to sell, I'm going to sell, that's all [there is] about it. I'm going to sell'. There was a good prospect of a buyer at the time and Kim said, 'You can't sell, dad,' and dad said, 'Why can't I sell?' He was the biggest shareholder. He'd been gathering the shares. He was the total authority of the company. And Kim said, 'Because if you do dad' - and Kim had enormous blue eyes and he looked at dad - and he said, 'If you do dad, it will kill you'. And dad said, 'What nonsense! I'll be killed if I have to put up with all this worry and all this to-ing and fro-ing and all the buyers coming and then dropping away and all this. What nonsense!' And poor dad was dead three weeks after the sale and so it was sort of a very, very traumatic time and coinciding with this ... Kim was a sort of a seer in some ways. You know, sometimes he'd say things. He was like that from the time he was a little boy. He had a sort of a prophetic sense. And he was ... yes I'm thinking back now of his childhood so I won't digress into that.

What about you? Did you have a terrible sense of loss?

Oh yes, and of course I was deeply bound up with my brother by this time. If we ... we were running as a complete team over the whole thing. This was contemporarily with ... with my time on the banks of the Ord, with my studio and everything, you see. And the ... I ... Kim and I had enormous plans drawn up for the new homestead at Argyle and what we'd do with the gradual introduction of ... of the now proven success with certain crops and things like that. And what had happened by this time was that I was bonding more with my brother than ... than with the ... with my married partner in far in the south in another area altogether. If I come ... come ... coming into it more fully ... I can remember, Frank saying rather bitterly once, 'I think it was Kim that broke our marriage', but whether it was I don't know. I don't know why I get into these personal tracks. You lead me somehow. You nodded me like that Robin.

When it was lost and you no longer had it, then subsequently the whole area was ... was drowned ... was drowned by the dam, I noticed from old footage that your mother and Mary were at that occasion and you were not there. Was it because you couldn't bear to go?

I think it might have been too. Yes, yes, mother went up for the formal opening of the dam. It was opened by the Prime Minister McMahon and yes, yes, it was very mixed feelings over that whole country. It's full of ... full of emotions pulling one way and another. Still is.

Now your father was attached to the land in one way, and the loss of it, in a sense, marked the end of his life. You were attached to it in another way, and then there was the great attachment of the Aboriginal people that you observed and painted. Do you feel that there were any parallels between the way you felt about the land and the way the Aboriginal people felt about it?

Oh, very closely, I think: feeling again a feeling of loss, a feeling of irreparable loss is a ... is a haunting ... haunting pull within the ... in the inner areas of my being I think. To that extent it, it draws us together I think. But ... but again there are fresh horizons both for them and for me.

What was your father's relationship with the Aboriginal people who worked on his land like?

Well he was the big boss. He was the big boss but he was a ... because the stations had managers but dad was the overall ... and they called him Yumagin, old Yumagin within whom they had deep respect. There's not the slightest doubt about that. That's what makes one of the upsetting things within the modern context of things: to hear accusations made against our father by one person writing a book. Perhaps I won't mention his name but it doesn't matter if I do. It's a young anthropologist, perhaps, called Pederson. He's written a story about one of the so-called resistance men of the Kimberley and he said that M.P. Durack was known to be an advocator of genocide. Well it's absolute libel because no ... nobody did more than our father to give the Aboriginals a footing and a new release of life within a new ... new context within the ... within the industry. And, you know, it was a very bad thing and I went to a lawyer about it but there's nothing you can do. You can't libel ... the dead are not capable of libel ... being libelled - whatever it was. But it deeply upset me and my brothers to have these things printed in paper ... in the paper.

He was there during the time that we now know that Aboriginals at times were put to work in chains, that they were rounded up and forced ... what was his attitude towards that?

Well, another thing too, just to get back ... Mother was there as a bride with the beginnings of the family. In the early teens ... now you have the feeling that it was a great mass of ram ... rampaging capturing of Aboriginals and turmoil. Mother and dad, mother and the children, lived at Ivanhoe when dad wasn't there and this would have been in the ... when they were very small. You know it was so peaceful. It was so quiescent over the much present day publicised pictures of the ... of the Aboriginal spearing cattle. Well it's a difficult and vexed thing to talk about just off the top of your head Robin, because it does send chills down your ... down the back of your spine when you hear it. But they were ... they were running an industry. Again the police were in control and if reports came in, that cattle were being slaughtered or speared and of course the spear wasn't a very effective killing agent for a beast, a big beast. You know, they never ... a spear was ... could be efficient, well directed towards a kangaroo but you try to kill a ... a cattle with a spear, all you'll do is wound it. So that they stirred the cattle up. The cattle ... they ... they'd turn away from the water. They'd disturb the whole industry. If the ... if the ... if they had have been allowed to go on spearing cattle, there wouldn't have been any cattle there probably. Oh no, that's ridiculous because there were more cattle than ... it was a lightly populated area of Australia as you know. But there ... there was control used over that. The distances were great. There were no vehicles and how do you ... how do you get ... how do you control it? I can't go into all the details that ... Aboriginals stealing cattle were brought in to Wyndham, but it was done with the police and you know that ...

So how was this problem of the cattle stealing dealt with on your property? Did they ... did ... I mean did ... you mentioned that cattle were killed and given to the Aborigines.

Oh yes, that's right, you're right there. Yes.

Could you tell me that?

Yes, well, what was always said is, 'If you will come in to the bush camp, we will kill for you', and that went on. That's ... the bush camp was on all the stations. They would kill for them. But whichever way you did it, it was destruction for an Aboriginal society. If they were to sit down and just be fed, that was the end of their old life. If, you know, they ... they ... if ... the pastoral industry destroyed Aboriginal culture and the old way of life. That's the fact of the matter, you see. But so did ... you know, so did the ... so Australia destroyed Aboriginal culture, full stop.

And your father's approach to that was to give them a place in the new ways.

Yes, yes, yes. And they were responding. And of course, the ... the earliest ones taken were responding tremendously. Men like Argyle Boxer came over completely and they ... I don't think, I wouldn't say that Argyle Boxer actually killed anyone but by gosh he'd shoot over the top of the heads of any troublemakers, you know. And he'd just say that a lot of awful ... a lot of ignorant blackfellas up there, there's myalls .... they're spearing cattle, you want to get on to police old man. You know, Boxer was real, well ... what you'd call him. I don't know, but so many of those men had physically and mentally left their old life and they were ... With enormous clarity, they were seeing that there was no hope of the past. But that's all become confused within the present. But within the present situation, when you read with amazement that they seem to project via the television the idea that some of them are living in their pristine condition: walking in and catching fish and doing this sort of thing, whereas these ... these communities are ... are living on the same food as we're living on here.

You clearly had a great deal of feeling and sympathy with the old culture, with it's meaning and with it ... what it meant for the Aborigines to have lost it. Did your father see it that way at all?

I don't know. He was terribly interested in their old life and it was he and Boxer and Bulla and all those men that would ... we would go on riding expeditions to some wonderful cave sites, cave rock paintings and so forth but, well, you live within the conscience of your times, I suppose, you see. I can't more than answer that but with ... with this enormous sort of change of attitude and with the ... the recalcitrant and revengeful elements that are already within this society, you can see how the conflict sets in.

Who is Eddie Burrup? Who is he?

I can't answer it. Can't answer it. Perhaps it will be answered in the future. Perhaps it will work itself out as his work progresses. With his ... with his feeling of terrible distress and upset at the ... the loss of the old culture and the ... the ... the way ... they way the old relationships with the totemic world being overlooked by modern judgements concerning land issues in this country. It's a complex ... he's a complex character.

And one in some considerable inner conflict with himself about where things are heading and what's the next best thing to do.

Yes, he is, because it's the last ... the very last of something and again, Eddie Burrup is a composite of different people. To whom can he hand on all his knowledge? I mean, the ... the young people are sadly not able to carry on but I can't put it all into words. It's too deep for me and too deep for Eddie Burrup. All he can do is to ... is to try to express it through his paintings.

What does Jeff, your classificatory son, think about the emergence of this character in your life?

Well, he's such a good natured, pleasant personality for a start. He certainly wouldn't have thought anything very much but with the ... with the way the Aboriginal world is linked up today, I think some people still, for goodness knows why, objecting to the emergence of Eddie Burrup, contacted the Warringarri community at Kununurra and they had a meeting about it. And the meeting said, I think, to sum up, that they'd leave it to Jeff because to tell his old mum to stop doing it. But he never did. He never rang me up. He never did anything and of course I saw him the other day and the meeting was perfectly amicable. I told him I thought he'd like the paintings that I'd done and, of course I talked about old Argyle Boxer and the way Boxer could come back without warning. He knew what I was talking about there and about Djanba. We had quite a long conversation. I can't recap it at this time because it was in ... in the Aboriginal English.

Something that has been very important to you and in the context of your ... of your Eddie Burrup persona has been two dance cycles, two important myths or traditions, that are in the Aboriginal culture that have been important to you as sort of principles. Could you talk about that and describe their place in your work and in Eddie Burrup's work?

I think you must be referring to Djanba and Mulaga, the two great cult heroes of which I've only got scattered knowledge myself but they ... they ... they do represent the complete polarisation of attitudes towards ... towards the gudea, towards the ... and Djanba is the definitely the spirit of ... of co-operation and of benign relationship and Mulaga is the opposite. He's revenge and retribution. And, of course, the way things are working out in Australia there's not the slightest doubt about it that the ceremonies of Mulaga, in whatever form they are taking, are ... appear to be transcendent over Djanba. But there's always hope that Djanba can ... can ... can eventually work out. Now Djanba was a bit interesting because, you see, it's a big song cycle and ... and that would circulate right through from, say, Halls Creek. The corroborees followed through in like ... like a moving theatre, you see, and that went up to Wyndham. Came through Argyle, out to Newry, down to Auvergne and looped around, not as far south as ... as Alice Springs but would have come in ... would have come in about the Tanami, and below Billiluna and the ... the ... any corroboree that had to do with Mulaga was forbidden by Argyle Boxer within that whole Djanba circle of songs. I ... I would have to think more deeply before this would make more sense Robin but that is it in brief ... in ...

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