Last night my good friend Libby Connors won the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance for her book Warrior: A legendary leader’s dramatic life and violent death on the colonial frontier (Allen & Unwin, 2015).
To my shame, I’ve been meaning to review Warrior for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a few months now, but it has been on the backburner – well, okay, my whole blog has been on the backburner this year, as I try to finish my book.
Now of course, with the recognition that comes with winning the major prize in the Queensland Literary Awards for 2015, Libby will get all the publicity she needs without my poor endorsement but, for what it’s worth, Warrior is terrific: an engrossing read and an enlightening new perspective on racial accommodation and conflict at Moreton Bay. It is also a high wire act. Unlike most of those who write about race relations in Australia, Libby has chosen to write from the point of view of Dundalli, the warrior of the title, a lawman from the Dalla tribe in the mountains north of Brisbane who later moved to Bribie Island, and who was hanged in Brisbane in January 1855.
In Connors’ account, Aboriginal people are not generic victims of generic white abuse, but have names, tribal affiliations, objectives and agency – and their own customary law. Aboriginal dispute resolution might lead to fights, and occasionally to deaths, but it had its own internal logic, and it was not disproportionate to the original offence.
In March 1842 a terrible offence occurred when the shepherds of Kilcoy Station gave out flour poisoned with arsenic. Somewhere between 30 and 60 Aboriginal men, women and children died. Connors forensically examines how this event affected Aboriginal politics, and how certain men were legally designated to avenge the crime. More killings followed, a clash of cultures that culminated with another judicial killing, the hanging of the lawman, Dundalli. Like most forensic examinations, the story is fascinating but hard to summarize – and you really should read the book.
The Queensland Literary Awards have been controversial in recent years. One of the first acts of the previous LNP government, under Premier and Minister for the Arts (!) Campbell Newman, was to cancel the Premier’s Prizes. The Premier justified the act as a way to save money, although the savings were infinitesimal compared with the ill will generated in the arts community – and arts communities, as Federal Arts Minister George Brandis learned to his cost, can express their resentment in creative ways.
The response in Queensland was the keep the prizes going through crowdsourcing. This meant a smaller pool of money for prizes – but for many writers, perhaps most, the publicity generated by winning a prize is still valuable, especially as the subsequent boom in sales brings more royalties anyway.
The prize money has now been restored under the new Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, while Campbell Newman experiences the sour aftertaste of disapproval, with some Brisbane bookshops refusing to stock his new biography. (I can see Avid Reader’s point, but this seems to smack of censorship to me.)
One unspoken reason for the Premiers Prize controversy, I suspect, is that writers from Down South frequently dominated the Queensland prizes. That tends to be the case with prizes: in any one year, a few titles do the rounds of all the competitions. Their domination may be deserved, but sometimes it feels like the lazy option, and in any case, there’s an argument that local awards should honour local writers. Hence the ‘Work of State Significance’ category. Connors deserved to win on merit, but winning this category with Warrior also says much, I hope, about Queensland’s maturity, its ability to confront the centrality of Aboriginal dispossession in the state’s history.
Connors was in many ways the ideal person to write this book, for it depends on a sympathetic understanding of the local landscapes around Moreton Bay, and Libby’s environmental credentials have served her well. She is probably more familiar to most Australians as an environmental activist than as a historian. She has stood as a Senate candidate for the Greens, and is associated with the Lock the Gate Alliance that has campaigned against coal seam gas mining, initially on the Darling Downs.
In addition, like many academics these days – especially, dare I say it, women with more senior partners – Libby has spent her life as a #FIFOacademic, commuting between her home in Brisbane and her job at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. I know that has made research and writing difficult at times, but it has also taken her regularly through Dundalli’s lands, across the Brisbane Valley, through the backwaters of the river systems – the Stanley, Bremer, Brisbane, Pine and Caboolture – that mix and merge on their way to Moreton Bay.
In Warrior, this intimate knowledge of the landscape comes through very clearly:
The Brisbane Valley stations formed a crescent around the spine of Brisbane’s D’Aguilar Range. They occupied the river and creek flats of the Brisbane River as it curved west and north of the old penal station, and the pastoral leases reached right into the foothills and scrubs of the mountains that fed the river. These mountains were Dalla heartlands. [p.58]
Dundalli’s country. Congratulations, Libby, you’ve done him proud.