How much do the stories by Alice Duncan-Kemp tell us about Aborigines before white settlement?

The article below is rather hagiographic but considerable skepticism about it is warranted. The author claims that the stories concerned tell how the First Australians lived. But ignores the salient fact that Duncan-Kemp was a 20th century author, writing long after 1778. And there are many indications that her stories were romanticized.

So her stories at best describe a late period in the influence of white settlement on Aborigines. They describe Aborigines who were the product of contact with whites. Were the activities she described white-adapted or "original"? "A bit of both" is the obvious verdict and disentangling them would be a very speculative enterprise. They tell us NOTHING certain about Aborigines before white settlement

It’s hard not to be enchanted by the lost books of Alice Duncan-Kemp when they resonate so deeply with the nation Australia would become. A photograph of her, on a winter’s day 90 years ago, shows her tapping out tales of her childhood on Mooraberrie station, a speck in the red dirt of southwest Queensland’s far-flung Channel Country. The story of boom and bust in the bush, of hope given over to despair, of cattle dying of thirst one day and drowning the next in a frothing flood, is as old as the Outback ­itself. We know it by heart.

What sets Duncan-Kemp apart – and why the rediscovery of her work is causing a stir in academe and out in the field where scientists use it like a “road map” to unlock the secrets of how the First Australians lived – is the detailed and partly disputed account she provides of the contact era. A voice like hers was rarely heard at the time: ­admiring of the tribal ­Aborigines she grew up with, heavy of heart for a way of life in its death throes. Recalling the Aboriginal nanny who helped raise her on the family beef run, 1200km west of Brisbane, she wrote in 1933:

The seed of my knowledge, of that corner of sand-hills, was implanted within me as a mere babe straddling Mary Ann’s hip, or toddling with little black mates after the billy-cart. In later youth the seed grew and fruited. The secret lay in a profound respect for the aborigines (sic) and their customs. In return, these trusty folk taught me to read, with wonder and pleasure, in Nature’s Infinite Book of Secrecy, the reading of which was as simple as ABC to them.

Duncan-Kemp’s name and oeuvre – running to five out-of-print volumes and many more unpublished manuscripts – was forgotten by all but her family until a new generation of Australian historians dusted them off. Tom Griffiths, of the Australian National University, was 14 when he chanced across her second book, Where Strange Paths Go Down. He loved it, inspiring a lifelong passion for her work. Decades later the W.K. Hancock Professor of History would extol “the exciting truthfulness of her memoir – one tinged by innocence and nostalgia and prey to the glitches of memory, but faithfully told. A precious possibility emerges that Alice’s books comprise one of the richest ethnographic sources Australia possesses”.

University of Queensland archaeologist ­Michael Westaway began tracking down the scenes and places she described. There were dead-ends, of course. (“Alice was a bit airy-fairy on distances,” her grandson Will explains.) But in instance after instance, 21st-century technology and old-fashioned legwork confirmed her observations. Traces of sizeable Indigenous villages were found where she said they had been; a thriving trade in the narcotic pituri leaf did indeed span the length of the great inland ­rivers, from northwest Queensland to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, just as she described it; the jarra-jarra millstones she saw Aboriginal women sweat over to grind grass seed and other bush “grains” came from vast quarries dotted across the nearby desert; rare medicine plants continued to flourish in the out-of-the-way spots she had documented.

“It’s a bit like following the Iliad to find Troy,” says Westaway, referring to Heinrich Schliemann’s 1870 feat to unearth the ruins of the fabled city in Turkey through clues in Homer’s text. “You know … we’ve been able to go through what she wrote and test it as a hypothesis: here’s a site or activity or plant she mentions, so let’s go and find proof of it.”

But some things haven’t changed. The critics are still at it, chipping away at Duncan-Kemp’s credibility. Take this 1961 review of book three, Our Channel Country. “Mrs Duncan-Kemp ­proceeds to unfold improbable tales of her childhood which dwarf most previous ‘tall ­stories’ of the outback,” the Sydney Morning Herald’s man sniffed. “It is impossible to take many of them seriously.”

These days, the carping is couched in more academic terms. The revival of interest in Duncan-Kemp engaged serious people in serious research that underpinned a successful Native Title claim by the Mithaka people of southwest Queensland in 2015. At the same time she was quoted approvingly by Bruce Pascoe in his polemic Dark Emu, which challenged the ­orthodoxy that Aborigines were “hapless” hunter-gatherers prior to European settlement and argued that they had developed the makings of an agricultural society. That willing skirmish, as we will see, has spilled into the reappraisal of Alice Duncan-Kemp’s work and legacy and in turn the national debate over the Voice, with its denouement at today’s referendum.

Linguist Dr David Nash has picked apart her writing phrase by phrase. An honorary senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s School of Literature, Language and Linguistics, Nash compiled dozens of examples of her ­appropriating Aboriginal vernacular and plagiarising text from other writers. “Users” of her work need to be wary, he cautions.

Will Duncan-Kemp is a keeper of the flame, carefully tended in a two-bedroom cottage in Toowoomba cluttered with his grandmother’s manuscripts, papers and family memorabilia. Bearded and full-bellied, the retired geologist, 66, wouldn’t look out of place in the sepia-tinged photos we’re looking through. He points to a faded image of Alice and her sister, Laura, as young women, standing beside a flooded river, backs to the camera, about the time she started on her debut book, Our Sandhill Country. “It was a hard life out there,” he says quietly.

Then as now, the vast chameleonic landscape on the edge of the Simpson Desert defied the efforts of mere mortals to tame it. The region, cut by intermittently-running rivers such as the Diamantina, Thomson, Barcoo and Cooper Creek, wasn’t even explored by Europeans until the 1860s; Burke and Wills would have approached the western boundary of Mooraberrie on their ill-fated trek through the interior. The pioneering Durack family settled there before embarking on a cross-continental cattle drive to open up the Kimberley in 1883. When Alice’s father, William Duncan, ­arrived eight years later to manage the 93,000ha station, ­violence with the Mithaka clans was still an ever-present threat. Native Mounted Police ­detachments – death squads in all but name, ­according to the ANU’s Griffiths, made up of Aborigines from outside tribal groups under the command of a white sergeant – would roam the Channel Country terrorising the black population.

Occasionally the young warriors would strike back and spear an unlucky squatter, unleashing a fresh round of bloodletting. The Mithaka refused to lie down. In her celebrated memoir Kings in Grass Castles, Mary Durack captured the raw brutality of late colonisation, citing the settlers’ belief that far southwest Queensland would only be made safe when the last of the Indigenous inhabitants had been killed off, “by bullet or by bait”.

Still, some graziers were sympathetic. What became known as the Debney Peace was ­brokered by a friend of William Duncan in 1889, ending the vicious frontier war. Scottish-born Duncan was himself an enlightened figure among the hard-nosed settlers, well-read and deeply interested in the emerging science of ethnography. After securing the leasehold to Mooraberrie, he would refer to the Aborigines as his “landlords”, making them welcome on the property. Alice, the second of the couple’s four children, became “twice born” at the age of two during a midwinter drama on a raging Bulloo River. Negotiating the flood in 1903, her father had slammed their horse-drawn buggy into a semi-submerged tree, nearly overturning the carriage. Then a heavy bough crashed down on where the infant lay swaddled, gravely injuring a harnessed colt. Somehow, Alice emerged unscathed. The astonished black stockmen accompanying them, Wooragai and Bogie, lit a ceremonial fire and started up a chant: from then on, she would be the reincarnation of a spirit sacred to the Aborigines.

In due course, she was initiated and given the name Pinningarra, or leaf spirit. But there were limits even for her open-minded parents. Duncan put his foot down after the red-hot stone tip of a naming spear was drawn across the little girl’s chest, leaving a welt. There would be no more ritual scarring, he insisted. But for the rest of her life, Alice wore the faded mark above her heart with immense pride, a visible link to the Mithaka.

The death of her father in a riding fall when she was six reinforced their role as her second family. Between showering her with affection, Mary Ann Coomindah – Bogie’s wife and the sisters’ nanny, who possibly breastfed them as infants – taught her to see the world through different eyes. Years later, Duncan-Kemp would write of the day Mary Ann took her on a long walk through the bush with Laura and ­little Beatrice. (Their older brother, David, had died of diphtheria aged four.) They were hours from the homestead when the sky clouded over. Mary Ann sniffed the air and told the children a wildfire was bearing down on them. Hurry! Their only chance was to get to Teeta Lake, 2km away. Running through the reed beds, they were overtaken by Indigenous families and wildlife fleeing to the shallow water. Mary Ann ushered the frightened girls into the deepest part of the lake, leaving only their heads exposed, shielded from the radiant heat and falling ash with strips of wet bark and sacking – and when that failed, with her own body. Leading the children home, testing every step to make sure the scorched ground was safe, the selfless woman said nothing of the second-degree burns she had incurred. Instead, she whispered to Alice: “This is our country, missee.”

You can only shake your head at how the ­settlers clung to their heavy British clothes and customs that were as out of place as could be in this remote corner of the Outback. One ­summer, Duncan-Kemp would write, the ­thermometer hovered between 123F and 125F (50.5-51.6C) for three endless days and nights. Her mother, now managing Mooraberrie on her own, hung blankets set in tubs of water across the doorways and windows in an attempt to cool the place down.

The homestead was built of pale anthill clay, the 60cm thick walls paired with 3.6m high ­ceilings. Drinking water was hand-drawn from an outside tank; what was needed for cooking, laundry and personal care came from the waterhole at the back, past the open-sided kitchen shack that was washed away the year Farrar’s Creek erupted. Regardless of the outside temperature, meals were prepared in enervating proximity to the wood-fired range; well into the 20th Century, carbide-powered lamps lit the living spaces after dark.

Young Alice would sit on the canegrass ­veranda listening to the stockmen talk of epic ­cattle drives and the characters they met along the way; for the women, life was a drudgery of caring for children, cooking and housework. The nearest town, Windorah, lay 210km away across the empty blacksoil plains. Yet where other Europeans saw arid desolation, Alice perceived beauty and the promise of renewal; when they complained about the heat and the interminable, all-consuming waiting for rain, she enthused about “one of the healthiest ­climates” going, dry and clear unlike the “clammy” coast, in the “great heart of Australia stretching away for hundreds of lonely miles beyond the Cooper, Diamantina, beyond Birdsville, Bedourie and Alice Springs; destined yet, with the advent of railways and population, to pour out through countless channels a hidden wealth that will command wonder and envy”.

Yet to the Mithaka, the world was held in Yamma-coona’s net, tethering every living thing by invisible silken threads to a mythical witch. Yamma-coona held court with the spirits of the trees and the air beneath a needle bush, while her left hand spun the lives of people. Those who strayed too far felt a tug at the heart that made them ache for home. Her net, the blue sky, was set in the morning; at night, the spirits drew it in and gathered the souls of the dead, Alice recounted.

At first the bush frightens and repels; the loneliness of the open spaces, lack of companionship, the hardships, dangers and privations, seem too big a price for so little a gain. Then by degrees the bush awakens interest; the open spaces begin to have a magnetic charm all of their own; the ‘bush sense’ develops. At last, it holds men’s souls in an iron clasp that relaxes only with death. The woman wizard makes magic and entangles them … spinning, spinning, always spinning her net until the strands of her captives’ lives run out.

Along with her sisters, she spent most of World War I at boarding school and then worked on another station as a governess. On returning home, she married a bank clerk, Fred Kemp, but was adamant she would preserve the family name to become Alice Duncan-Kemp. They moved from post to post in southwest Queensland with Fred’s bank, raising cattle and sheep on the side. But Duncan-Kemp, by now a softly-spoken woman in her thirties, busy with her own family, never let go of her childhood with the Mithaka. As a girl, she had always jotted her thoughts down in a notebook and now she began writing her memoir in longhand, ­typing and retyping drafts until she felt ready to approach a publisher, Griffiths discovered.

Our Sandhill Country, completed while she was staying at Mooraberrie with Laura, who’d taken over from their mother, was released in 1933 by Angus & Robertson and did well enough to be reprinted. But Duncan-Kemp wasn’t finished yet, not by a long way.

Scattered over the river-flats and highlands maybe seen the remains of humpies, circular impressions where a one-time humpy stood with earth scooped out and piled around the back and sides to form a moat or drain for river waters; yerndoos, or cracking stones, where they cracked their shell food before or after cooking; jara-jaras, or large sandstone grinding slabs, some with elaborate hieroglyphics and carvings upon them; stone chisels and bluestone tomahawks; burnt-out clay ovens; charcoal ridges in the soil that denote middens and the dead ashes of many campfires; a few battered wooden or flint weapons; old wooden coolamons and smaller pitches corroded by age and sands; mounds of red and yellow ochre, in chalky slices of lumps mixed ready for some long forgotten corroboree; glittering mounds of crab and mussel shells bleached white by sun and winds – are all that remain to record the passing of the original owners of this bushland. To anyone who troubles to read them, these mute records unfold a poignant story.

Michael Westaway made it his business to absorb just about every word Duncan-Kemp had published. The 52-year-old archaeologist reached out to Griffiths in 2017, keen to recruit him to what would become a multifaceted exploration of the region’s pre-colonial history. Supported and guided by Mithaka elders, field teams comprising dozens of scientists and support staff from three universities have been busy excavating sites and cataloguing native plants identified through her writings. What they found partly vindicates the Dark Emu ­theory that Aborigines developed village-like settlements and technology beyond that of ­nomadic hunter-gatherers. Westaway, however, stops short of Bruce Pascoe’s contentious conclusion that they were early agriculturalists who behaved much like subsistence farmers the world over to till the soil, sow crops, irrigate, and build dams and permanent stone homes, their lives rooted to a single spot.

The reality, he believes, was more nuanced. An ever-changing landscape, never far from those extremes of feast or famine, demanded mobility and quick-stepping adaptability for these people to survive, let alone thrive. In the absence of written records – rock art and artefacts such as stone tools or weapons can only say so much when there was no textual ­language, Westaway says – the observations of the explorers and first settlers are critical. Sadly, detailing their experiences, if any, with Indigenous populations wasn’t a priority for most of them. This is where Duncan-Kemp comes in. She grew up only a generation removed from the fraught contact period in the Channel Country, schooled by Mithaka teachers still steeped in the ancient ways. “She provided a ­diverse social history of these communities at a time when they were basically disintegrating, when all of this accumulated knowledge of the country, traditional practice and lore was being lost,” Westaway says. “You would never see any record of that in the archaeology alone; we could never hope to reconstruct it from the archaeology. So what we’ve done is go, ‘OK, Alice says people did this or that at a given place we can identify from her books’. We treat that as a hypothesis we can test – we go out on country and look for the proof. We’ve been doing this for seven years now and I feel we’re very much in the early stages. But … there’s nothing really that we’ve been able to detect to say that she was bullshitting. Nothing substantial at all.”

One eye-opening finding was that the ­Mithaka practised “industrial-scale mining” – Westaway’s words – for millstone. The quarry fields contained tens of thousands of pits, so vast their scope could only be seen with satellite imagery. The scale of the enterprise suggests the completed grindstones, typically weighing 6kg-7kg, and often elaborately carved, would have been traded up and down an Indigenous silk road tracking the great inland rivers. ­Nicotine-laced pituri leaf, prized for ceremonial use and as an everyday pick-me-up, was carried on human backs to destinations as far north as Arnhem Land and south to the red-rock Flinders Ranges. The footsore porters returned with rock axes, red ochre and razor-sharp stone knives.

Duncan-Kemp’s account of the Debney Peace is the only known record of the 1889 agreement to end the frontier war in the ­Channel Country. A ceremony to seal the deal brokered by George Debney, manager of ­Monkira station, was attended by more than 500 people from the local clans. ANU’s Tom Griffiths, who is writing a biography of ­Duncan-Kemp, says the colonial authorities kept the accord secret, probably to avoid having to acknowledge the standing it conferred on the Indigenous parties to the peace.

Clearly, Duncan-Kemp could not have been writing from first-hand knowledge. But her ­father kept a meticulous journal, which she had access to. (Griffiths believes the Debney Peace might have been one of the factors that drew William Duncan to Mooraberrie, after which he married Laura, the daughter of a ­Sydney ­solicitor. Her sister also wed a local grazier.) Duncan owned an impressive library filled with the books and journal articles of early Aboriginal anthropologists such as Walter Roth, one of the many unattributed sources Duncan-Kemp would later use and, in some cases, ­appropriate. This brings us to the thorny new question that hangs over her writing: how much of it was the work of others?

After the release of Our Sandhill Country, she struggled to find a publisher for the planned ­follow-up. In the event, life would have intruded on the busy young mother’s time: while she juggled family responsibilities with managing the cattle properties that she and Fred acquired, the 1930s devolved into the Great Depression and a Second World War. Her next book, Where Strange Paths Go Down, building on her experience of growing up with the Mithaka, didn’t come out until 1952, almost 20 years later. It was followed by Our Channel Country in 1961, Where Strange Gods Call in 1968 and People of the Grey Wind, published privately by the family after her death in 1988, a few months short of her 87th birthday.

The dismissive reviews continued. The commissioned historians of western Queensland’s Barcoo Shire scoffed that she had been “only a child or a very young woman” during the period she was writing of, and couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. It must have hurt. Yet Duncan-Kemp kept at it, typing and retyping drafts on her old Remington Rand.

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