Twenty years ago when still very young in my research career I come across a series of letters written in the late 1850s. The letters had been published in the Moreton Bay Courier (later to become the Courier Mail) and were written by two Aboriginal men and signed as “Delegates of the Breakfast Creek Blacks”.
Their names were “Dalinkua” and “Dalipie”. The letters were extraordinary not just due to who had written them but what they wrote and how they were written and have as much meaning today as they did 157 years ago.
All letters, except one, were addressed “Aborigines to the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier” and at first, Dalinkua and Dalipie introduce themselves as “Delegates for All Blackfellows” then they go on to use a “Biblical argument” (Aborigines to the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, 17 Nov 1858, p 2) in criticising the inhuman behaviour of their “Anglo-Saxon Brothers” and in “accusing them of the theft of many Aboriginal hunting and fishing grounds” (Aborigines to the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, 24 Nov 1858, p. 2).
The letter writers criticise their “Anglo-Saxon Brothers” for their treatment of Aborigines. They “Condemn the introduction of Alcohol, Disease and the Degradation of their Language” (Aborigines to the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, 11 Dec 1858, p. 2). They also lodge an official “Complaint against their White Brothers” for unchristian behaviour and their unwillingness to share knowledge of a spiritual nature.
They list a number of “Aboriginal grievances against Our White Brothers and Sisters” (Aborigines to the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, 29 Dec 1858, p. 2). There is no doubt when reading the letters that we are witnessing a progression of narrative that highlights not only a highly conceptual Indigenous intellectual knowledge-base but more importantly a highly developed understanding of their non-Indigenous counterparts and the strategies that were being implemented as policies against our mob at the time.
In one letter they ask the “Whitefella” to “provide the Aboriginal community with a bullock to roast on Christmas day”, though the English used in this letter is not as well articulated as in the others and falls more into a broken Aboriginal English, posing the question: Were Dalinkua and Dalipie teaching other Aboriginals to write to the paper? This letter is signed “Yours, a Subscriber” and not headed “Aborigines…” but simply, “To the editor…” (To the Editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, 15 Dec 1858, p 2).
When I first saw these letters I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was 24 years old and thought I had just discovered the Holy Grail of Indigenous intellectual colonised resistance. With my self-confidence and Aboriginal pride overflowing, I marched into the office of my superiors at the Brisbane City Council where I was working and showed them my find.
To my surprise both my non-Indigenous and Indigenous supervisors were well aware of the letters. I hadn’t discovered anything! They were well read and known by those who had already studied the period and local history of Brisbane, only they had not been included in Australia’s written history.
I was shattered. Such dreams of the extraordinary were only meant for books of fiction and film. I was told quite clearly the authenticity of the letters was to be questioned – the majority of the White population of the Australian settlement period could not read and write, so the possibility that two Aborigines could construct such letters had to be placed in doubt. I was told that it was probably Quakers in support of the local Aborigines who had written the letters on their behalf and that was that. Until years later…
In 1998 I had a chance meeting with Dr Henry Reynolds, a well-respected Australian academic and historian, who has spent a lifetime documenting the atrocities committed against our people in ensuring that the active strategy of resistance applied by them did not become lost in the pages of White history.
“Colonists in the nineteenth century… wrote and spoke endlessly about the Aboriginal question. Aboriginal resistance was much more challenging, prolonged and various than subsequent accounts allowed… it was spirited and determined and exacted considerable cost in European lives and property and peace of mind,” Reynolds had written in 1999.
During our conversation Professor Reynolds not only authenticated the authorship of Dalinkua and Dalipie’s letters but also told me I needed to arrange a meeting with Professor Raymond Evans in relation to his research regarding the letters.
Deep within the bowels of the University of Queensland, in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, surrounded by old and dusty books, I met with Professor Evans. It was illuminating.
Professor Evans stated without reservation that the letters were indeed written by the hands of the Blackfellas who signed them and he was passionate in his response.
Dalinkua and Dalipie were trained by German Lutheran missionaries at an Indigenous settlement called Zion Hill situated in Nundah north of Brisbane. Dalipie in particular showed much promise in the literary arts and was able to speak and write in many languages including English, Greek and Latin.
This was not as amazing as it would seem since many local Aborigines were reared with the capacity to be multilingual, having to speak any number of our languages when growing up in the south east corridor prior to colonisation.
Professor Evans then showed me text he had written in regard to an historical account of the letters in his “Wanton Outrage” report:
“…that in instinct and moral principle the Aborigines were immeasurably our superiors. You live like a bird of prey, two missionary-trained Breakfast Creek blacks, Dalinkua and Dalipie, had admonished whites in the late 1850’s, and if you amass wealth, you soon become a bird of passage… you do not seek the good of the land where you dwell,” Professor Evans said on page 87 of his 1992 report.
When I look back at this period of my life what was most disappointing about what had happened was that my Indigenous supervisor at the Brisbane City Council who had censored the letters from further publication was part of my extended Aboriginal family and community.
And that supervisor was like many others of today who are denying the truth of our resistance and instead demonstrating compliance with relentless government policies against our culture, where they have become both influential and well respected as Indigenous scholars, successful and people to be looked up to and relied on by the standards set by mainstream White Australia.
Those of us who have retained the fight of these Blackfellas who write against the tide of racism and oppression we faced so many years ago are left to become alienated and segregated, just as I had become.
There has never been any compensation, financial or otherwise that allows our people to develop unique Indigenous learning or our cultural values outside government funded programmes. These programmes assimilate the very practices opposed to our ways rather than support our unique history and connection to land, kinship and family.
The argument is of course that it is too late. But these letters were written as the invasion was happening and just as continues to happen to this very day these requests continue to be denied. When you read the letters requesting acknowledgement of our hunting grounds being stolen and condemning the introduction of alcohol, disease and the degradation of our languages you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if these requests had been met when Dalinkua and Dalipie first wrote those letters. It is the same with the Black Deaths in Custody recommendations or the Bringing Them Home report. Where would we be today if these documents were taken seriously instead of being rejected and the government continuing to persevere with its assimilationist policies?
But get a mining magnate by the name of Andrew Forrest who has made billions of dollars off Aboriginal lands to write a report on how we are to be managed, where our People will be denied access to basic human rights and segregated from the White community and every policy is to be implemented.
I want to make it clear also the letters written by Dalinkua and Dalipie were by no means unique. Letters written by Aboriginal people were commonplace during that period of colonisation throughout Australia. One instance is particularly well-documented.
In March 1847 a petition was presented to Queen Victoria’s Secretary of State for the Colonies and signed by eight Tasmanian Blackfellas who were then living at the Wybelenna settlement on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. The signatories were among the small number of Aboriginal people who had survived the “conciliated” removal from the Tasmanian mainland by George Augustus Robinson.
The programme of forced relocation had been put into effect from 1830 to 1834 following a significant escalation in the violence of the conflict between Aboriginal people and the colonial invaders over the decade before.
Like the letters written by Dalinkua and Dalipie the opening paragraph of the document provides an insight into the ways in which our people of the period understood their circumstance and their political position:
“The humble petition of the free Aborigines Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land now living upon Flinders Island … That we are your free children, that we were not taken prisoner but freely gave up our country to Colonel Arthur then the Governor after defending ourselves. Your petitioners humbly state to your Majesty that Mr Robinson made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement which we have not lost from our minds since and we have made our part of it good. Your petitioners humbly tell Your Majesty that when we left our own place we were plenty of people, we are now but a little one … (the eight free Aborigines, of Van Diemen’s Land)
There is much in common between this example and the letters written by Dalinkua and Dalipie, with both groups concerned about the degradation of their communities and acknowledging that they were once “plenty of people… now but a little one”.
As with the case of Dalinkua and Dalipie, the Wybelenna settlement people saw themselves as a free people who were involved in a conflict over land and country and now looked towards a sense of moral justice and virtue to resolve the conflict: “Your petitioners humbly state to your Majesty that Mr Robinson made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement which we have not lost from our minds since and we have made our part of it good”.
Another example is outlined in Kim Scott’s PhD dissertation, “An Anomalous History and a Noongar Voice: a literary Investigation of the ‘Friendly Frontier’”, demonstrating that Aboriginal people had acquired acute awareness of what was happening around them during the early occupation of Australia:
“Manyat, a Noongar guide who led expeditions in and beyond his own territory showed his awareness of another favoured cultural form when he treasured up in his memory a detailed recollection of the various incidents and scenery, arranged in the form of a Diary… Manyat’s account of their journey to his compatriots suggests a tradition which could easily create an Indigenous literary novelist,” Kim Scott said in 2009.
Now, looking back 20 years ago to when I found the letters written by Dalinkua and Dalipie, you can’t help but question how different could my own personal circumstances have been? Like many of our mob I have had to overcome the poverty, alienation and being dismissed as an Indigenous person throughout my life. The hardest lesson has been in accepting that any thought that we as Aboriginal people possessed some form of cultural unity as a cohesive amalgamated form of solidarity connecting our social conscience has become broken over these last 20 years.
I had no idea back then that what I would become exposed to was an ever-changing and evolving Indigenous cultural position that had moved outside of my own terms of reference as a young Aboriginal man.
Young and very naïve, I had assumed that Aboriginal teaching still occurred as word of mouth shared as life experiences, which created a knowledge base we all agreed on.
My mother and family had told me and I had always believed in my mind that we had never ceded, that assimilation was a dirty word and through our Ceremony and Dance we had continued our own cultural maintenance.
This is why I have often felt so let down over the last 20 years. Now, today, I am a PhD recipient who, like Dalinkua and Dalipie, the eight free Aborigines, inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land living on Flinders Island and the Noonger guide, Manyat I have prioritised my language and culture above all else.
Rather than deny my own potential and accept the consequences of colonisation, I have chosen instead to write in homage not only to these fine Aboriginal soldiers of resistance but to my mother, her mother and father, their sisters and brothers and in legacy to my children and my children’s children.
“Ngiyani ngiima yilaadhu yalagiirray ngiyani gimiyandi gaalanha yilaalu-gi gi” is a Kamilaroi prayer which means “We are here today as we were yesterday and will be forever”.
Dr Woolombi Waters is a Kamilaroi language speaker and writer and is a lecturer at Griffith University.