Since publishing my third novel, Turn on a Light, in 2016, I’ve been writing the fourth and fifth. The fourth, still with the provisional title Life Sentence is, I think, nearing completion.
Set in 1899, it’s fictional but based on considerable research into Rottnest as a prison for Aboriginal people in Western Australia in the late 19th Century. The plot is about the incarceration of Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest and particularly that of an old Ngalawangka man, imprisoned for longer than anyone knows, for the murders of two stockmen in the Pilbara. Doubts over the legitimacy of his imprisonment and that of three other Aboriginal men, two Yindjibarndi and one Banyjima, are central to the story.
It involves a dangerous escape, a tortuous overland journey to the Pilbara, a search for evidence to overturn the convictions of those imprisoned and to try to vindicate the actions of three whitefellas who assist them. The theme is how the combined wisdom of people from different cultures can create the capacity to overcome often seemingly impossible odds and barriers by walking together: wilaguma in Yindjibarndi language and what Ballardong people tell me is koort koorliny in Noongar.
Three Wayijbala (whitefella) men, a warder, an assistant warder, and a young clerk from the Prisons Department, begin to assess the validity of the incarceration of all four Aboriginal men. The warder, in his late twenties, is the son of a cattle station leasee whose property is on Yindjibarndi country. He has a relationship with the two Yindjibarndi prisoners as childhood playmates and adult stockmen on the station. The clerk is a country boy who’s greatest asset is his ability to read and write, while the assistant warder was originally a helmsman, and part of the pilot service operating off Rottnest for several decades to the beginning of the 20th Century.
The three purposes in writing and producing Life Sentence are to:
• Illustrate how aspects of the Western Australia legal system affected Aboriginal peoples and their cultural beliefs, or what I call their ways of knowing and doing;
• Attempt to reach more Australians, most of who still have limited or no understanding of the historical intended and unintended consequences of imposing British systems, morés and processes on Aboriginal groups; and
• Suggest the value of preserving and retaining Aboriginal cultural ways, both for the concept of identity, and a strategy for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to seek joint solutions for the future of Australia.
The last point strikes me as preferable to continuing the one-way traffic that has been the compulsory model of assimilation for the past two or more centuries.
Life Sentence was inspired by visits to Rottnest Island over many years, by some work I did for the Rottnest Foundation around moves to create a worthy memorial for deceased Aboriginal prisoners, and by research into historical facts and stories about the island. Glen Stasiuk’s work, Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as Black Prison & White Playground motivated a vast amount of research for which I am grateful, while Far from Home by Neville Green and Susan Moon provided wonderfully stimulating ideas.
Green and Moon present a clear precis of the hardships suffered by prisoners on the island, of the attitudes of non-Aboriginal people towards Aboriginal people and a litany of flaws in the entire legal process and system. As near as they get to a judgment is on the dust cover summary.
“(There is an) historical account of the Rottnest establishment and prison life, describing the experiences of men who were separated from their families and sent to a cold and dreary island off the coast of Western Australia. For more than 370 it was a one-way journey and today, denied the recognition they deserve, they lie in unmarked graves far from home.”
Each time I read those words, I react emotionally, partly for the past, but also for the present. Others are entitled to believe what they will but for me, even current efforts to recognise those deceased prisoners will never alter the haunting image created by the last eight words: “they lie in unmarked graves far from home”.
Perhaps the inspiration for Life Sentence was wishful dreaming: that at least of a few men avoided deaths on Rottnest , doomed to spend eternity in an unmarked grave, entombed with the bodies of other dead prisoners.