February 18, 2014

Whitewashed: The Northern Territory Library's disturbing commemoration of the life of Paul Foelsche

Most of my work as a linguist has been working with senior Aboriginal people who are the last speakers of their language. It is challenging and important work, adding fragments to the relatively meagre records that testify to these languages existence. Languages don't disappear simply because parents don't teach them to their kids. Significant historical and social forces are always at play. A key historical factor in the Australian context is the events on the frontier that led to a drastic reduction in the already small number of speakers of languages. In the Northern Territory, that 'reduction' (read: wholesale slaughter and murder of Aboriginal people) was often under the knowing watch of Paul Foelsche, Sub-inspector in Charge of Police in what is now the Northern part of the Northern Territory from 1870 to 1904.

Paul Foelsche
The Northern Territory Library, situated inside Parliament House, has produced a temporary exhibition 'commemorating' Foelsche and his 'life work' coinciding with the centenary of his death. My view is that the exhibition is a disgusting misrepresentation of his 'life's work', failing dismally to explicitly acknowledge his key role in organising, covering up, ignoring or condoning brutal violence that occurred in the Top End in the late 1800s. Before discussing the exhibition in further detail, I'd like to share some reference material on Foelsche that the NT Library exhibition doesn't tell you.

In historical accounts of the frontier era of the Top End of the NT, Foelsche's name comes up regularly which is understandable given he was a prominent figure and headed the police for decades. How that era is portrayed by historians has changed over time. In the early to mid 1900s the prevailing attitude was to romanticise the frontier, when the goal was nation-building and Aboriginal people were still thought of as a 'dying race'. In recent decades, historians are much more ready to delve into the sinister sides of the frontier.

Gordon Reid's 1990 book 'A Picnic with the Natives: Aboriginal-European relations in the Northern Territory to 1910' provides some telling information on Foelsche. The book's jarring title is in fact taken from Foelsche's own words. Following the murder of Charles Johnson in the Roper Area, Foelsche authorised a retaliation party of ten to go and 'have a picnic with the natives'. The warrant Foelsche obtained included unknown Aboriginal people, which he described as 'the loophole' (p. 67) - a sinister suggestion that the retaliation party could kill indiscriminantly. In a personal letter to a friend, Foelsche wrote he would've gone himself were it not for 'too many tale-tellers in the party', a suggestion that he didn't want stories of him getting out that portrayed him with too much blood on his hands.

Reid doesn't just discuss Foelsche's role in frontier violence, also describing how "some writers present Foelsche as being sympathetic towards the Aborigines" (p. 71) and that he "later became known as an expert on the Aborigines of the Territory" (p. 69). Reid didn't find convincing evidence of either characteristic. On Foelsche's supposedly 'sympathetic' attitude, Reid quotes from another personal letter:
Of course you have seen all about our Nigger Hunt in the papers. ... I left it to Stretton, and I could not have done better than he did so I am satisfied and so is the public here.
On Foelsche's reputation for expertise on Aboriginal people and cultures, Reid found that "his knowledge however seems limited and he lacked any sympathy for them" (p. 69).

Foelsche's reputation for harsh treatment of Aboriginal people isn't restricted to historians who could be dismissed as sympathisers of Aboriginal people. Bill Wilson served on the NT Police force for 27 years before writing a PhD on the history of the NT Police Force from 1870-1926 (2000). He also relays the above quotes from Foelsche's personal communications and, somewhat diplomatically, writes that Foelsche "was not patient towards Aboriginal people who resisted the invasion of their land" (p. 80).

The historian who has most recently described the NT frontier is Tony Roberts, most notably in his 2005 book 'Frontier Justice: A history of the Gulf Country to 1900'. Roberts describes a request Foelsche made to the attorney-general of South Australia, Sir John Downer, in 1881 revealing his proposal on tackling violence occurring in the Limmen Bight and Borroloola area.
He asked the government for immunity from prosecution for his men, so they might slaughter sufficient numbers of the locals to teach them "a severe lesson". He said he wanted to "inflict severe chastisement if the government will legalise it" and to "punish the guilty tribe without trying to arrest the murderers" (Roberts 2009).
(Note: that 'guilty tribe' could well have been or included Marra people, whose now-critically endangered language I have been documenting for several years now).

Fortunately, Foelsche was not permitted to go ahead with his proposal, but Roberts claims the denial of his request had a worrying consequence: "Foelsche learned not to seek prior approval in future, and successive governments continued to ask no questions" (Roberts 2009). Roberts' research leads him to the following devastating conclusion:
The man who masterminded more massacres in the Territory than anyone else was Inspector Foelsche. A former soldier, he was cunning, devious and merciless with Aboriginals... Some considered him an expert on Aboriginals, not knowing that the skulls he studied were not merely collected by him (Roberts 2009).
One hundred years after the death of Paul Foelsche, the NT Library has put together a 'commemorative' exhibition, "Paul Foelsche: A Life's Work (1831-1914)". I was very interested to see how they would portray him, especially after seeing the celebratory tone of the exhibition launch invitation (left) which was at complete odds with what I'd been learning about the man.

I finally made my way to Darwin to see it for myself and, my fears confirmed, I found it to be a disturbing and disgusting whitewash of a man who, without too much of a stretch, could easily be considered to have played a key role in attempted genocide.

It's only a small exhibition and to be fair doesn't attract much traffic. Those who do take the time to peruse it can see a few artefacts and read about Foelsche's legacy. Or rather, a distinctly positive and comfortable interpretation of his legacy. Seven panels cover various aspects of his life under headings such as 'The Ethnographer', 'Collecting the Territory', 'Founder of the Force' and 'Developing Darwin'. Each describes with palpable positivity the contributions Foelsche made to various domains. On living in Darwin during the city's infancy, he "was a significant part of its emerging social life becoming known as a 'perfect encyclopaedia in Northern Territory affairs and people". His "excellent photographs" are discussed in some detail. We're also told how his police work "won him high praise as an intelligent resourceful officer ... with a thorough knowledge of the law". We're told of his amateur ethnographic work and how "with meticulous detail Foelsche documented [artefact's] language terms and precise function".

The exhibition ultimately summarises his legacy like this:
Foelsche was an integral part of Northern Territory development, both for his policing activities and his engagement in Darwin's cultural life. With his camera he created a valuable pictorial record of early Territory life. Many of Foelsche's images reveal a time and place no longer visible today. His life's work - the photographs together with his natural and cultural history collections and ethnographic writings have come to occupy and important place in the story of the Northern Territory.
Paul Foelsche: A Life's Work exhibition
As I've stated above, I found this exhibition to be an inappropriate and offensive whitewash. How can the findings of several historians be completely omitted, who say that he treated Aboriginal people horribly and was implicitly involved in the deaths of dozens or hundreds of Aboriginal people on the frontier? Reid has also found no evidence that his ethnography and knowledge of Aboriginal people was remarkable, in contrast to how this exhibition portrays him.

Yet there are subtle hints incorporated into the exhibition that suggest some of the aspects of Foelsche's life that I'd read about. The coffee table nestled in with the exhibition has relevant reading material sitting atop it, including the books by Tony Roberts and Gordon Reid. Sections of the exhibition text refer to the violence of the era that Foelsche was a part of. There are mentions of "punitive expeditions" that "sometimes went out to teach whole groups 'severe lessons'" and that "many deaths and the destruction of camps and possessions followed". Note though the careful wording that ascribes no agency to Foelsche or anyone else who is known to have led or organised such expeditions. The mention of "many deaths" doesn't even make it clear that those deaths were virtually all Aboriginal people.

Excerpt from the first panel in the exhibition
Another sinister and problematic aspect glossed over with neutral language describes how "Foelsche collected and supplied the South Australian Museum with skeletal remains". The way this is phrased dismisses the subsequent grief that the historical removals (i.e. thefts) of Aboriginal human remains causes many Aboriginal people today and fails to acknowledge what an abhorrent practice it was. On top of that, that some argue that "the skulls he studied were not merely collected by him" (Roberts 2009) makes this neutral portrayal of Foelsche's 'ethnographic studies' even more problematic.

Tony Roberts' raises a very important question when he asks:
Why does a river in the Gulf Country honour a man like Foelsche? ... Must we rub the noses of Territory Aboriginals in this dark history? They were treated as expendable and earmarked for discreetly achieved extermination. (2009)
Historical events cannot be viewed in isolation. They have contemporary manifestations. Aboriginal people are still coming to terms with what non-Indigenous people did to their ancestors, their languages and their cultures. Garrwa artist from Borroloola Nancy McDinny's recent painting depicts the "Story of Mayawagu", a man who resisted pastoralists in the 19th century and goes on to say:
In Mayawagu's country, called Karlarlakinda, there is a river called the Foelsche River... [Foelsche] was responsible for masterminding the massacres of hundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children, including Garrawa. We would like to change the name of the river and call it the Mayawagu River (in Ferrall and Green (eds.) 2013: 62).
The NT Library's exhibition Paul Foelsche: A Life's Work commemorates the life of someone who these days would quite likely be considered a war criminal. His "life's work" is presented in a blinkered and offensive way. It should not be allowed.

The commemorative exhibition Paul Foelsche: A Life's Work (1831-1914) is free and hosted by the Northern Territory Library, Parliament House, Darwin. It runs until March 23.

I should also note that the exhibition's curator kindly met with me and heard my concerns but I'll keep our amicable meeting off the record as it was an unofficial discussion. I mention it here just to note that I have also conveyed my views to the curator in person.


Ferrall, Charles & Felicity Green (eds.). 2013. Togart Contemporary Art Award 2013. Toga group: Darwin. Link: http://www.togartaward.com.au/downloads/Togart_Award13_catalogue.pdf 

Reid, Gordon. 1990. A Picnic with the Natives: Aboriginal-European relations in the Northern Territory to 1910. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne.

Roberts, Tony. 2005. Frontier Justice: A history of the Gulf Country to 1900. University of Queensland Press: St. Lucia, Qld.

Roberts, Tony. 2009. "The Brutal Truth: What happened in the Gulf Country". The Monthly. 51. Link: http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/november/1330478364/tony-roberts/brutal-truth

Wilson, Bill. 2000. A Force Apart? A history of the Northern Territory Police Force 1870-1926. PhD Thesis. Northern Territory University.


Davo said...

Doing a Henry Reynolds? hmm, a police trooper during the frontier wars era implicated in massacres. Sorry to say this is not surprising, I would be more surprised if he had refused to participate in or organise such events, most likely he would have been relieved of his position if that had been the case. It is always difficult to view history through the ideology of the present day. Life was much cheaper back then, convict times, high infant mortality, pretty low life expectancy generally, also just think how dissenting whitefella workers got treated during those times - shearers strikes - massacres, murders, poisonings etc there too. I think most of the settlers and whatever state apparatus existed during this period were actively engaged in the dispossession and elimination of Indigenous landholders - the land etc being what they were here for and in no mood to negotiate joint tenure.

David said...

Excellent piece. Davo, it may not be surprising that Foelsche was implicated in massacres but that's no reason to pretend it didn't happen.

Lydia said...

Thanks for writing this and for voicing your concerns to the curator.

Unknown said...

The comments are valid and your integrity commendable. My Grandmother, Nellie Flynn, a great Territory Pioneer in her own right, was a Woolwonga child whose tribe was massacred in 1884 under Foelsche's rule. She was "adopted" by Henry Roberts at 8 yrs of age, just 4 years after the massacre, according to Police census reports of 1899. This was the same Henry Roberts who was wounded by the Woolwongas who worked in the mine at Daly River. Roberts part-owned one of the most successful Gold Mines of the day, the Extended Union, keeping Nellie for her "usefulness". As only a small minority of Woolwongas survived, Grandma not only lost most of her family, she was forced into servitude and very likely, sexual slavery at a young age, while the elite power base celebrated the successes of the gold fields around her. The violence, the shame and the fear of the regime quashed the culture and silenced 2 generations of men and women including my mother and aunts. The bitter-sweet irony is that it was Foelsche's pedantic record-keeping that now provides our family with knowledge and evidence of the events and our family is now beginning to find answers thanks to digitalisation of archival records, for which I am grateful. A plaque commemorating the Woolwongas was unveiled on 27 September 2014 and can be found at the old Burrundie siding, NT. RIP.

lloyd.green1@outlook.com said...

Love your work and integrity, I am very familiar with Borroloola as my wife has worked there for two years. In my time there I have learned alot about Aboriginal people and i certainly have come to gain a better understanding of their situation.I would like to help these people to be heard and make a difference.

My wife knows Nancy Mc Dinney and I will speak to her when I go back to Borroloola in a few weeks. What I would like to know is if it would be possible to display the content of your article in Borraloola, perhaps the art centre, museum, and also at the Folshe crossing? Many tourists and locals frequent this crossing it is still a place where people stop to meet and talk, natural beauty as it was a long time ago.

Don't know much about changing a name of a river, but with enough people power behind it got to be in with a chance.lloyd.green1@outlook.com