Old Man Urwunhthin

1998 January, 1

Old Man Urwunhthin

I was six years old when this tall American who everybody said was ‘half Chinaman’ or ‘half Filipino’ came to stay in our back street at Hope Vale. He was staying at Old Man Billy Muunduu’s place, two doors away from our house. He was learning Guugu, our language.


When I went over to my yumurrMary McIvor’s house every day, to play cards or marbles under the mango tree, to listen to Amy’s Charley Pride records and to pretend to look for wuugul, lice, on Mary’s head, I wondered why this white couple next door chose to live amongst all the blackfellas, instead of with the European staff and school teachers at the top side of the mission.


Like the rest of us, they were using an outside bathroom with no hot water, the outhouse toilet, and they were eating black people’s damper and mayi, food, all the time – what was the matter with them? Maybe they were the hippies the elders at church and Sunday school were warning us about.


The tall American, I later learned, was the eminent linguist John Haviland, who in time wrote a rigorous and comprehensive description of Guugu Yimithirr. John became formidable in his grasp of ‘true Guugu Yimithirr’ – as my old friend Urwunhthin would later say, ‘alu uwu mindiir’.


When I was a kid I knew Old Man Urwunhthin as Roger Hart, father of Janice and Bernard and that mob. He was one of the many people who formed the social universe of my childhood at Hope Vale. I didn’t see him much during the 1970s when he was out working in the cane fi elds at Mossman, but I knew who he was and he would have been able to tell that I was Glen Pearson’s son, Charlie’s grandson and old Arrimi’s great-grandson. It’s like this when you live at Hope Vale. He would have known more about me than I did.


I grew up thinking that Roger Hart was just another mission man who spoke Guugu Yimithirr and was removed to the Cape Bedford mission as a child, same as my grandfather Charlie. When I began to tape some oral histories with older people for my honours thesis at the history department at the University of Sydney in late 1985 and 1986, I was surprised to be told by my father that I should go and talk to Roger Hart, who spoke his own language. I had known from an early age that Roger’s country was Gambiilmugu, northern neighbours of my great-grandfather’s country, Bagaarrmugu at Jeannie River. But I knew nothing about a Gambiilmugu language. And it was still spoken?


I only knew people at Hope Vale who spoke Guugu Yimithirr and my mother’s language, Kuku Yalanji. A couple of old people used to speak some Lamalama languages, but I had not heard of the Barrow Point language being spoken by anyone in the mission.


I went to see Old Man Roger and there began our friendship. It started on the verandah of the old people’s home in the company of another newly found mate of mine, and Roger’s childhood friend and relation from Cape Melville, the late Bob Flinders. It turned out that a number of old people, including Bob, the late Leo Rosendale and Lindsay Nipper, could speak snippets of Roger’s language. I decided to learn Roger’s language so I could converse with him.


Athirr wulu, alcohol, and mathiirmul, brainless, were early additions to my vocabulary. Roger appreciated my desire to learn, and we soon had our own secret language in which to observe and mock those around us.


Sitting with the old men on the verandah, looking down at the village, watching the mission life, I would spend hours and days yarning. About language, about history at the mission, about history before the mission, about customs, about hunting, about birds and animals and plants. About the weather. About the past and about the present. About the future. About Christianity and the church. About politics. About land rights.


Roger and I would spend days under his mango tree talking. I was lucky to find this friendship, because it came at a time when identity and history and land rights were uppermost in my thoughts. My long hours and days and weeks of talking with Roger and Bob and the other old people turned into years, during which time Roger and I mourned the steady passing of our friends.


Urwunhthin, Roger Hart, had a desire to record the traditions of his people of Iipwulin, Barrow Point. The arrival of John Haviland – who learned Roger’s language as well as Guugu Yimithirr – made this possible. The book John and Roger have written, Old Man Fog and the Last Aborigines of Barrow Point, is the best evocation we have of life in the wake of the devastation wrought by the violent invasion of the Cooktown hinterland after the Palmer River gold rush. That is, of life on the fringes, outside of the mission.


This history covers the period from the turn of the century to the Second World War. Remnant Aboriginal groups lived an itinerant traditional life where they could, caught between the frontier cattlemen, miners and fishermen, who inhumanely exploited them, and the government and missionaries, who wanted to take the children away from their families and to bring this camp life to an end. The government and missions eventually succeeded and a handful of lonely old people ended their days on the reserve at the edge of Cooktown.


My great-grandfather Arrimi, who appears in Roger’s story, inhabited my childhood dreams. He was an outlaw bushman who evaded the police and could only surreptitiously bring mayi, food, to my father at Cape Bedford Mission. I often wondered how he and the people who still lived a bush life managed to survive. Roger’s book tells me something about this life.


Roger’s story tells of the last days of the bush people. In many respects life in these circumstances – occasional work for whites, hunting and travelling around the countryside – sounds like it might have had possibilities. If only they could have been free. If only they had some land for themselves. If only the whites weren’t so inhumane and there was no exploitation. Maybe they could have kept their families and remained on their country.

If there is much sadness and loss in Roger’s story about the removal of the people from their homeland and his eventual loneliness as the last survivor of the mob born in the bush, the land claim that Roger and his family and other Yiithuwarra people would eventually win before the Queensland Land Tribunal in the early 1990s tells a hopeful story of reunion. The Gambiilmugu people are alive and well, and they have a future. Roger, through his diligent accumulation of knowledge and through the patient recording of this knowledge, as well as that of other old people like the brothers Bob and Johnny Flinders, made it possible for his descendants to reclaim Iipwulin under the land rights opportunities that have arisen in the twilight of his life.


As well as having a strong memory and sharp mind, Roger is the most gracious and generous of men. My affection, which blossomed instantly, remains steadfast for athunbi anggatha, my friend, from Iipwulin.