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Indigenous soldiers remembered: the research behind Black Diggers

In August 2012, I was invited by the Sydney Festival to work with Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, to assist in developing Black Diggers, currently playing as part of the…

Black Diggers tells the stories of young Indigenous soldiers who fought in the first world war. How did their stories get forgotten? Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

In August 2012, I was invited by the Sydney Festival to work with Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, to assist in developing Black Diggers, currently playing as part of the 2014 Sydney Festival.

This major theatre project set out to explore Indigenous military service in the first world war, and reflect upon the remarkable absence of those stories from our national history and mythologising of that conflict.

Unknown soldiers

Black Diggers premiered at the Sydney Festival last weekend – and initial inspiration came from the discovery by festival director Lieven Bertels, that a young Aboriginal soldier, Private Rufus Rigney from Raukkan in South Australia, was buried in the memorial cemetery near Bertels’ home town in Belgium.

How did this young man come to be buried on the other side of the world, fighting for a nation that refused to acknowledge him as a citizen?

It was our job to try to find this out, and also to find a way of translating this and other experiences into theatre.

Black Diggers onstage. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Remarkably, these stories are not more widely known, despite the efforts and enthusiasm of researchers such as Rod Pratt, David Huggonson, Philipa Scarlett, Doreen Kartinyeri, Gary Oakley and Garth O’Connell, among many others.

Beyond service records held as part of the collection of the National Archives of Australia, the photographic collection of the Australian War Memorial, a small number of scholarly works, and the occasional family history, the significant military service of Indigenous soldiers in the first world war remains a shameful gap in the Australian historical record.

Our research for Black Diggers primarily comprised of painstaking trawls through archival collections, and long conversations and consultations with various cultural and institutional experts. As a result of this process, we encountered the stories of many Indigenous soldiers, but in most instances the stories were only fragmentary – incomplete accounts of small parts of the lives of these men.

Clearly, the research for this theatre project has only begun to scratch the surface of this subject. But the stories that did emerge to form the basis of the script for Black Diggers by Tom Wright are compelling and deeply moving.

Australia, 1914

When the first world war broke out in 1914, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not considered citizens of Australia, but were rather the wards of the local “Protector of Aborigines”.

They were paid low wages, were often forced to live on reserves and mission stations, could not enter a public bar, vote, marry non-Aboriginal partners or buy property. They were actively discriminated against – and yet when war was declared, many Indigenous men wanted to join up and fight for Australia.

Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

The Defence Act of 1903 (amended in 1909) prevented those who were not of “substantially European descent” from being able to enlist in any of the armed forces. Many Indigenous men who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race, but others managed to slip through the net.

In 1917, following the defeat of a conscription referendum, those restrictions were slightly eased. A new order stated that:

Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force [AIF] provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.

Despite the difficulties, it seems that at least 1,000 Indigenous soldiers managed to join the AIF, out of a total of only 80,000 Indigenous people thought to be living in Australia at the time.

Some did so despite being rejected several times for being insufficiently white. Some lied about their age, name or parentage, and some were granted formal permission from their local Protector of Aborigines to serve.

Once past the initial barriers to enlistment, these soldiers fully integrated into the AIF. While almost exclusively of low ranks, the black diggers were paid the same as other soldiers, underwent the same training, and experienced the same hardships.

An unrecognised contribution

As Gary Oakley of the Australian War Memorial has noted on several occasions: “The Army was Australia’s first equal-opportunity employer". In their civilian life they had to endure constant racist slurs and attitudes. But in the trenches, any negative stereotypes about many Aboriginal diggers quickly disappeared as they lived, ate, laughed and died with these young men.

Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Indigenous diggers fought in every significant engagement of the war – from Gallipoli, to Palestine, to the Western Front. They served as infantrymen, machine gunners, light artillery and as lighthorsemen. They won the respect of their fellow soldiers, and won many bravery awards and commendations.

Many were wounded, some were captured, and dozens were killed. But the most tragic aspect of their service was not that they offered their lives for a country that did not recognise them as citizens, but came after they returned to Australia.

When they came back home they were shunned, their sacrifices ignored and their families oppressed even further by the government. Very few Indigenous diggers were given the land grants offered to returned soldiers, and in many cases the land for grants to war veterans was taken away from Indigenous communities whose men had fought overseas. War pensions and back-pay were frequently denied, and very few Indigenous diggers were welcomed at their local RSL – except sometimes on ANZAC Day.

Black diggers today

Even though their small number seems relatively insignificant compared to the 416,809 men who enlisted in the AIF to fight in the first world war, the significance of the black diggers to modern Aboriginal history is immense.

In recent years, the long-forgotten service of these men has started to be acknowledged and celebrated. The Ipswich re-burial in April 2012 of Trooper Horace Dalton, 11th Lighthorse Regiment, with full military honours and traditional ceremony, is a welcome example of this shift.

Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Today the bodies of Indigenous Australians who fell in the battlefields of France, Belgium, Turkey and Palestine remain buried thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes.

Their brave spirits deserve the honour of remembrance – lest we forget again.

Black Diggers by Tom Wright, directed by Wesley Enoch, plays at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival until January 26. It will play at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, as part of the Brisbane Festival from September 6-27.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "How did this young man come to be buried on the other side of the world, fighting for a nation that refused to acknowledge him as a citizen?"
    Well, none of his comrades were Australian's citizen's either. Australian citizenship did not start until 26 January 1949, when every single Australian, which also meant every single Aborigine also became a citizen.

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    1. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Not quite correct, Andy. Aborigines may have been implicitly defined as citizens under the 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act (not 1949), but most of them did not have the full rights of other citizens. The 1949 Electoral Act had allowed returned Aboriginal servicemen or those few indigenous who already had a State vote to vote in federal elections. But most aborigines could not vote in federal elections until March 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to allow Indigenous people to enrol to vote in federal elections if they wished. The right to vote in State/Territory elections in WA/NT was not extended to Aborigines until the same year; not in Qld until 1965. Aborigines were not counted in the census until after the referendum of 1967.

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    2. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      You can be legalistic but unless you dispute the assertions in this article it seems that this country treated its indigenous soldiers who fought in WW1 very poorly.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to David Roth

      This article was posted on 24 Jan. I responded with the precise date Australian citizenship for that very reason - 26 January. The 1948 Act specifically says citizenship does not take place until that symbolic commencement date - 26 January, 1949. This article three times describes injustice towards the black diggers in terms of a race-specific denial of citizenship, when in fact no Australians - white, black, yellow, red, green, purple - for another three decades. An yes, it was in 1949, and not 1948. An no, citizenship was not merely "implied" for Indigenous Australians, but applied to ALL born in Australia, who were British subjects at the time. Indigenous people had been British subjects since the 19th century.
      There was no such thing as "full rights of citizens". Remember, Australia has never been a "rights"-based society. But that is ultimately not relevant to the citizenship point, which is what I want to clear up.
      Again, this was all stuff I studied in high school.

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Henry, do you really think there is any need to write an article to state the case that indigenous people were treated very people? I want to clear up a very specific specific point about Australian citizenship.

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    5. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, I'm very happy that you studied all this Aboriginal 'stuff' in high school, despite your saying that there was far, far too much of it in another thread. Presumably that experience was OK for you but not for others.

      I said 'implied' because the 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act (its formal designation is 1948, not 1949) didn't specifically mention Aborigines.

      It's seems a bit oxymoronic in a modern democratic society to have law-abiding and sane citizens who can't vote. Or with fewer rights than other citizens. That was my point.

      Anyway, we were both off topic since the article is about WW1 diggers.

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  2. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    We had Indigenous Diggers (from WWII and later) visit our school, including hosting one ANZAC Day service in High School.

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    1. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, please don't let these facts get in the way of the story here.

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    2. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      The article was about the treatment of WW1 indigenous soldiers not WW2.

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to John Crest

      See my comment to Andy above. Factual maybe, irrelevant to the premise of the article definitely.

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    4. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Andy's comments were not entirely factual either, as I pointed out.

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Henry, yes this article is about WWI. However, "diggers" and ANZAC Day commemorations cover all Australians who have served in wars. It has been several decades since diggers from WWI have led ANZAC Day commemorations at schools, or anywhere else, as they have passed on. My own personal experience at high school included Indigenous Diggers leading ceremonies, who included the history of Black Diggers, whose role in WWI (and all other wars) we also explicitly covered in the class room.

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  3. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    The lack of official acknowledgement of Indigenous WW1 diggers and their subsequent shabby and unfair treatment relative to white diggers is one of the wrongs that should be rectified.

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    1. Elly Cooper

      carer

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      My own family history is consistent with claims in the article. My mother's uncles fought for Australia. As Indigenous people they were only allowed to live in town because their mother was the midwife for the whole community (Aboriginal and non Aboriginal). As a mother who lost many sons in the War/s she was welcomed to lay the wreath at the country town's War Memorial. Small comfort - the surviving sons had to deal with the racism back in their home town.

      None of them were recipients of any special treatment for returned servicemen.

      As highlighted in the article, the details of these men and their lives is scarce. I know in my own experience, my mother was the only one with living experience of the men who returned.

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    2. Troy Howard

      Mechanic at -

      In reply to Elly Cooper

      Whilst vastly better than WW1 standards it has taken a long time to improve.
      Unfortunately the treatment of aboriginal veterans was still poor up to Vietnam, whilst they may have received their formal entitlements they weren't exactly welcomed back into communities with open arms.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Troy Howard

      Troy while that is unquestionably true, it is also true that ALL Vietnam vets were treated appallingly.

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  4. john r walker

    artist

    David We really enjoyed the play. The acting ,script /story telling were really good.
    And it was also great to see something about Australia and ww1 that wasn't another rework of the usual 'gallipoli' cliche !
    BTW It would be interesting to know how many other diggers were not from Anglo/Celt backgrounds, for example Chinese or Jewish .

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  5. john r walker

    artist

    Post WW1 Australia was carrying a huge war debt and about %25 of the 18-40 years group were carrying wounds that meant that they could not work at full capacity(if at all). This had obvious impacts on Australia's national income and created pressure to ration pensions across the board.
    As a result the treatment of many/most WW1 veterans, across the board, was pretty poor and sometimes outright cruel.
    Many were refused even part pensions and many that were granted pensions were subject to annual reviews where they could suddenly find their pension cut by %50 or more despite them missing legs, carrying wounds that would not heal, the lasting long term effects of gas and mental damage that would not heal- suicides after return were common.

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    1. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to john r walker

      Yes, that's all unfortunately true about the shabby treatment of WW1 returned servicemen in general, but we are talking about black diggers here, who got even less. There were land schemes (most of which failed) but black diggers got very little.

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    2. john r walker

      artist

      In reply to David Roth

      David
      In the play there is the story of a parcel of marginal land that had been indigenous land, being taken and carved up into soldier settler blocks. These resulting small blocks could not support a wallaby, and one of the resulting blocks was a swamp: "what are they gona do, farm yabbies?"

      The authorities did not take viable land for soldier settler blocks.
      The play is fantastic for the way in which it tells stories that have been largely buried under the Gallipoli cliche.

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    3. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to john r walker

      I don't know much about the history of the soldier settlements other than the fact that many ex-diggers just walked off their farms, particularly in WA, because the land was generally poor and the blocks small. There were some reasonably successful schemes in SA. It's quite probable that some of the land was taken from the traditional owners.

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    4. john r walker

      artist

      In reply to David Roth

      The soldier settler scheme was a extension of similar prewar schemes aimed at 'improving' poor white city types by giving them a block of forest and an axe.
      Tom Griffiths "Forests of Ash" is worth a read.

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  6. karen austin

    Post Graduate at Flinders University of South Australia

    Thank you David for your interesting article and news of this exciting event staged for the Sydney Festival. I came across similar information about the lack of acknowledgment given to Indigenous diggers in both wars in an interesting book written in 1989 by R. Hall The Black Diggers: Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. I felt deeply saddened and shocked, not just at the senseless loss of Aboriginal lives in war, but at the lack of…

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  7. Julie Anne Reece

    Retired history teacher

    I read with great interest the article on the production by Lieven Bertels 'Black Diggers' which has links to a young Ngarrindjeri soldier Pte. Rufus Gordon Rigney from Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay Mission- on the lakes and Coorong of SA.) In 2005 I established the 'Connecting Spirits' project for Meningie Area School following an Anzac Day commemoration at Marks Point where the soil from Rufus Rigney's grave in Harelbeke, Belgium was brought home to country. If your readers are interested to see…

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