The Ballad of Jimmy Governor

Emeritus Indigenous curator Djon Mundine wrote this essay on the occasion of a production of Posts in the Paddock a play about Jimmy Governor by the company My Darling Patricia. The performance included members of the both families involved. Mundine addresses questions of familial and national forgiveness.

My name is Jimmy Governor
On the Talbragar I was born
I've roamed those lofty mountains
From night til early morn.1

In Cicero’s De Oratore (55 BCE), following the collapse of Scopas’ banquet hall, the poet Simonides of Ceos is described as inventing a 'system of loci’ memory where he was able to locate and name the dead under the rubble. In our history, is the challenge knowing who and where the dead bodies are buried? Is our memory about reclaiming things from ‘under the rubble’? A retrieval operation?

The story of Jimmy Governor is a ‘memory walk’ across a physical and social terrain, evoking many emotions and feelings. It brings out and plays on all our human qualities: sorrow, pain, hate, regret, stoicism, expression, success, joy and optimism. The posts in the paddock are the frame posts of the O’Brien family home - the scene of a murder. The posts recall to mind the Tiwi Pukumani grave posts that changed the course of Aboriginal art history in 1958 at the Art Gallery of NSW. Similar spiritual objects existed in carved trees throughout New South Wales. The carved trees provided the location of where the bodies lay; they are both burial markers and revelatory. They remind; they are mnemonic entities.

Physical work can have a spiritual dimension. The remaining O’Brien posts are spaced at angles, reminding one of the fence posts that Jimmy Governor split and erected under contract for a number of white properties over the district – 10 shillings per 100 posts, 10 shillings for boring the holes and 12 shillings for erection. Such work, as with ritual, is physically demanding. Jimmy was fit and was at a time of life when one enjoys the physical challenge.

"Jimmy wanted to be white! He wanted to be white! He had more opportunities than any other Aboriginal man of his time!", an Aboriginal curator almost shouted at me in 2011. But for me, this is almost too easy and too personal. What is meant by opportunity? Deep in our soul what do we, as present day Aboriginal people, really yearn for? Is the curator’s comment true, or did Jimmy merely want to be accepted and respected as a human being in the society he was expected to aspire to? A wider context needs to be examined.

My motto as a photographic portraitist has always been “Truth” – but truth in a pleasant form. .. I have always paid the greatest attention to the production of negatives as nearly as possible perfect expression, lighting and pose.2

J. W. Lindt wrote of ‘truth’ in 1888; but over 1873-76 he had invited Aboriginal people from the Clarence River district to disrobe and pose in his studio in Grafton. For authenticity he used the backdrop of an Australian landscape but placed his Aboriginal subjects amidst a curious mix of utensils and weapons from all over Australia. As examples of generic, authentic, Aboriginal people, Lindt’s portfolio won a gold medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, and became probably the most widely distributed images of Aboriginal people of the 1800s. They became the public view of what an Aboriginal supposedly looked like.

A current debate is taking place. What makes you white? If your mother is white, does that make you white? If your father is white, does that make you white? Of course the concept of ‘the Aboriginal’ itself was a faulty construction, given Australia was a continent of separate, distinct language groups and societies. Colonial law (white people) determined this identity. Whether you lived on the reserve or outside the reserve created divisions within and defined this identity, and it varied over time. Sometimes only full-blood Aboriginals could live on reserves – also decided by colonial authority.

Jimmy lived in the time of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Marx argued for a fair return (a share of the profits) for the labour input of the workers. This was also the time of the rise of unionism and the beginning of the Australian Labor Party, the workers’ party. Freud talked of trauma and memory. How long does it take a society to recover from the trauma of the brutal colonisation that took place? Of murder, rape and brutality upon men, women and children on a large scale and to a profound degree. Jimmy wanted personal respect. What do I mean by personal respect? Possibly that you see the other person as having qualities you admire. Jimmy was thrice cheated. Firstly, there was the widespread colonial dispossession, disempowerment, containment and dispersion of the Aboriginal clans in Australia from 1788 onwards. Then Jimmy’s father was cheated out of a silver mineral deposit he found and that a group of white ‘friends’ profited from. And finally there was Jimmy’s own life, the shabby cheating of his hard labour and the insults concerning his choice of a ‘white’ partner.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one witnesses it, does it make a sound? There are histories that are quiet, stories that are quiet. How far away can you be and still hear a leaf fall, the ticking of time, a heartbeat, a gunshot, a body fall? Is it the same for each ear? People can make themselves heard through many means.3

A youth participating in the 2011 London riots said, You only come to hear us now [after the riot]!

... Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost …
Pina Bausch, Pina by Wim Wenders, 2011

Jimmy was born in Emil Durkheim’s time. Durkheim, borrowing from Guyau, brought into sociological discourse the term ‘anomie’ in 1897 to describe a state of being where an individual feels rejected in their positive actions to adjust to changing or seemingly ambiguous social norms. This can lead to a feeling of lawlessness, resulting in suicide or deviant behaviour. It’s understood that an individual who is never allowed to contribute to society (Aboriginal or white) will exist in a state of extreme normlessness.

In Aboriginal society all art is a social act. Ceremonies are the coming together of different groups of people to collaborate along prescribed lines to create art in song, dance and structured ritual. Some sing specific song cycles for others to perform, some dance specific dances in response, still others paint particular, precise images and arrange performance spaces. It was the way in which society could be thought of – in action. Jimmy’s generation found it difficult to convene and to organise these important spiritual events with so many missing parts. They were unable to restructure these age-old arrangements. When any number of these participating groups are exterminated, how is society to continue? How does one contribute to that society and affirm one’s identity when you are someone on the edge?

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,
Tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun will never shine
I would shiver the whole night through
Kurt Cobain, In the Pines: Anon. traditional song from circa 1870.

The story of Jimmy is to some extent the story of Ethel. It seems obvious that they were in love. Jimmy and Ethel lived in the time of The Yellow Wallpaper, the 1892 short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the 1800s not only ‘blacks’ as a class were discriminated against, but also women in ‘white’ Western society. Women were treated like commodities – locked up, controlled, traded and owned – truly domesticated. Like blacks, women didn’t have the right to vote, were insulted, useless and disempowered. Both Frank Clune (Jimmy Governor, 1959) and Thomas Keneally (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1972), among others, posited that Ethel was a promiscuous person of low intelligence and did not credit her as an adult person of some character, also seeking to be respected as a human being. They suggested (without evidence) that Ethel’s children weren’t Jimmy’s, perpetuating the racist line still current in some quarters that if Ethel slept with a black man she would obviously sleep with anyone. Keneally ending up playing a lecherous cook character, harassing Ethel in her place of work in the 1978 Fred Schepisi film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Jimmy and Ethel’s marriage was an enormous affront to the ‘white’ society of the time. Crossing the race lines was an intensely felt issue. Post-colonial writer Frantz Fanon and others have said one way to move into white society and move up the class strata was to marry a white person. Possibly if Jimmy had stayed on the reserve, even after his marriage to Ethel, and hadn’t aspired to enter ‘white’ society in some form and to move above his and Ethel’s lower class position, their marriage may not have been so contentious.

Two often-anthropomorphised animal spirits in the Aboriginal world are the dingo and the possum. The Dingo is seen as lawless – a being who sleeps with anyone. Men in Arnhem Land jokingly say to each other “nhe watu”, which means “you dog”. A canine is a wild animal that is controlled and domesticated. How do you domesticate a wild animal? By feeding it, making it dependent? A dog on a leash. Jimmy was constantly reminded of the length and limits of his leash.

Possums, on the other hand, are seen as sexy in Aboriginal spiritual terms. They stay up at night, are playful, mischievous, noisy, cheeky, athletic and full of life. In numerous accounts of Jimmy, he was described as young, athletic, intelligent, witty, quick and handsome. Was Jimmy seen as sexy to local white women? Although condemned in polite ‘white’ society, in the psycho-sexual environment in which white men slept relatively freely, forcefully, brutally and indiscriminately with Aboriginal women, was Jimmy seen as sexually desirable to the white women of the district? Was there the attraction of the forbidden fruit? This would have added terribly to any tension between Jimmy and the white men he dealt with.

Jimmy murdered nine white people (two men, three women and four children and teenagers). Much has been made of his killing of women and children. Jimmy was born in 1875, a year before Custer’s Little Big Horn defeat and death when he attacked a massed camp of Native Americans gathered for a religious ceremony. Custer was criticised for the foolishness of dividing his forces in this battle. However it would appear his intent, which he had practised before, was to draw the Native American men away with one group and so leave the way open for Custer himself to attack, murder and capture the then undefended women and children with his other force. In killing or taking hostage the women and children, the reactions of the defending men would be severely compromised and defeated. The women and children were mere pawns in his game. Their deaths mattered little.

Previous writers on Jimmy Governor suggested that the colonial country in Jimmy’s lifetime was already settled and at peace; the Aboriginal population had been violently and totally subdued. This subjugation has remained in societal memory till the present day. Jimmy lived during the time of Ishi, the now famous Native American from California. Shortly after his birth, Ishi’s extended family were largely murdered by American colonists in two unprovoked attacks in the mid- 1860s, and, after hiding for nearly 40 years, were attacked again in 1908, with only Ishi surviving. Found alone in 1911, he spent the rest of his life as a living specimen in the University of California, Berkeley Museum of Anthropology. Although in Australia and the USA, much of the continent had been taken by European colonists and the native populations subdued and cleared off the land for livestock and agriculture, another form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ silently persisted into the 20th century. In this, groups of colonial farmers or ranchers could, and did, without serious interference from the authorities, disperse, murder, assault, rape and make cruel play with any Aboriginal populations they found still within their vicinity.

I have none, because there were no people to name me
Ishi [1862-1916].

On a more positive note, around the time of Federation and Jimmy’s execution in 1901, according to the anthropologist couple R. M. & C. Berndt, we see the beginning of the Gunapipi (Kunnapipi) religious ritual cycle in Arnhem Land, one of the largest attended religious ritual events in contemporary Aboriginal life that continues today.

Posts in the Paddock (2) is a complex and serious project. The individuals involved include descendants from both Jimmy’s family and those of the other victims — the O’Brien family. How much can we forgive? Can forgiveness in a personal issue so as not to be held hostage to the past, be applied to societal issues and a history approaching a ‘holocaust’? How do the personal and the societal relate to each other? The Jewish response to the Holocaust and how it was largely ignored by civilised Western society was a defiant ‘Never Again’, not ‘I forgive you’. Melbourne-based Bindi Cole suggested to me that in order for Aboriginal people at large not to be held hostage to the trauma of a colonial past that they should also now forgive ‘white’ Australian society for this brutal history (See page 44). I did not agree with the proposition; yes, there may be a need to be free of the personal psychological baggage but there is more to a society and a history than me. I cannot speak for all Aboriginal people, and very serious historical and political consequences need to be resolved before the trauma can be healed. Of course there can be forgiveness, but within that must be a willingness to secure and retain the truth. Forgiveness is not about forgetting but remembering.
In former times in Aboriginal society, emotions and feelings around murders or other crimes could be resolved through recompense in ritual, ceremony or sacred gift payment or duty to observe certain obligations rather than direct violent retribution leading to endless vendettas.

The glory of our race is power of communication. We share our strength and knowledge and rise as one; we share our failure and weakness and help each other bear it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1891.

In the end you must value one life as much as that of thousands – in this case there was no possible necessity to slaughter thousands of Aboriginal people, and no need to murder a select few. Possibly communication isn’t always in speech and words and what we see is convenient avoidance and forgetting, a lack of honesty, and a real failure of communication.

As brother Malcolm said:
We declare our right on this act
To be a man
To be a human being
To be given the rights of a human being
In this society
In this act
On this day
Which we intend to bring into existence
Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, 1992.

1 19th Century popular ballads about Jimmy Governor include: The Breelong Blacks by Gilbert Best, Ballad of the Breelong Blacks by Arthur Noonan, and My Name is Jimmy Governor collected by John Meredith and Mrs Doris Corliss at Forbes; See also ‘The Ballad of Jimmy Governor, H.M. prison Darlinghurst, 18th January 1901’, by Les Murray in The True Story of Jimmy Governor, Laurie Moore & Stephan Williams, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001, pp196-214.

2 Posts in the Paddock, a visual theatre work created by descendants of Jimmy Governor and the O’Brien family, directed by Clare Britton and Halcyon Macleod for My Darling Patricia in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, at Performance Space, Sydney, Nov 2011.

3 J W Lindt, ‘Notes on modern photography’, McCarron, Bird & Co, Melbourne, 1888 p 52. See also Ken Orchard, ‘J W Lindt’s Australian Aboriginals (1873–74)’ in History of Photography, vol 23, no 2 spring 1999, pp 163–69; quote from 'Town and Country Journal' in Orchard K ibid p167.