The history of Aboriginal people in Australia’s northwest differs greatly from those on the east coast or in southern WA due to a colonial quirk. The British Colonial Secretaries Office decreed in 1865 that due to the extreme heat no convict labour was to be used further north than the 26th parallel. Consequently, rather than being slaughtered as on the east coast, local indigenous people were pressed into service in the burgeoning pastoral and pearling industries, meaning that their white “owners” were paradoxically depleting their workforces whenever they wanted to imprison local Aborigines for minor offences (an unsurprisingly regular occurrence).
The story of Jandamarra or “Pigeon” gives an interesting perspective on relations between Aborigines and white settlers. Jandamarra, a member of the Bunuba group, was made a “tracker” in the 1890s, and was expected to work with the white police force to weed out Aboriginal criminals. When rounding up a group of such “criminals” at Lillimooloora Police Station in 1894, Jandamarra’s loyalties to his people returned to the fore, and he killed a policeman, Constable Richardson, instigating a three-year “war” between his followers and the police force. His escapes from Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek entered folklore – in the latter case the police staked out one end of the tunnel for days, in the belief that it was a cave, while Jandamarra escaped from the other end. Ironically, it was another Aboriginal tracker who caught and shot Jandamarra at Tunnel Creek in 1897.
By the 1880s, huge numbers of Aboriginal people were “black-birded”, or uprooted from their traditional communities, and marched for hundreds of kilometres to pastoral or pearling stations. With pastoralism dominating the area’s economy for the next hundred years, it took a shamefully long time for the mistreatment of indigenous workers to end, and it was only in 1966 that equal pay was granted to Aboriginal stockmen and farm workers. Unfortunately, this did not bring an end to Aboriginal suffering, as the increased mechanization of the farming industry resulted in the now-unwanted labourers being driven off the stations and into towns far away from their traditional land.
Today, the harsh realities of indigenous life are displayed at every turn in the Kimberley, particularly in towns along the highway such as Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. On a more positive note, Aboriginal art is a growing force across the region, bringing funds in to poor communities and in some cases alleviating social problems. The galleries and workshops in Roebourne and Kununurra are well worth a visit.