The history of Western Australia is one that is rarely covered in popular media. By that I mean the complete unedited story, the story that brings to light the experiences of Aboriginal people in this State across centuries of colonisation, is too often silenced and forgotten. The acknowledgement of Aboriginal Peoples as the traditional owners of this land and the repeals of repressive laws and institutional mistreatment has been a slow, recent, and an ongoing process. In established Aboriginal communities, elders weren’t able to lead their community until The Aboriginal Communities Act (1979) was passed. And it wasn’t until 1993, only 24 years ago, that it was acknowledged by the Australian Government that Aboriginal Peoples have the title rights to the land their ancestors lived on at the time the British invaded Australia. Playwright Jack Davis, a Noongar man from Perth, born 1917, lived through these many lows and highs.
No Sugar tells the story of the Millimurra/Munday family, a Noongar family living in the early decades of 20th century Western Australia. The family’s story represents the experiences of other Noongar people who lived in that time in similar circumstances. Davis himself had experienced and witnessed many of the events that occur in the play. The resistant narrative he creates by having the play be told from the perspective of Noongar people brings the stories of the mistreatment of Aboriginal People in the past and in the present into the public consciousness.
The Decades Following the Aborigines Act of 1905: No Rights, No Freedom, No Selfhood
The play is set between the years 1929 and the late 1930s, some time between A.O. Neville’s 1936 speech and N.S. Neal’s move out of the Moore River Native Settlement in 1939. A few decades prior in 1905 the West Australian Government passed the Aborigines Act that lead to the creation of a “Chief Protector” who had forcible power over every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives for the “protection, control, and segregation of Aboriginal people”. In A.O. Neville’s own words (the State’s second appointed Chief Protector), the West Australian Government believed that:
“The native must be helped in spite of himself! Even if a measure of discipline is necessary it must be applied, but it can be applied in such a way as to appear to be a gentle persuasion… the end in view will justify the means employed.” – A.O. Neville in his book Australia’s Coloured Minority
We see some extent of this control and the hypocrisy of the law in the scenes where Milly and Gran are attempting to collect rations from the government and are not given even the basics like soap. When the Sergeant tells them that the men of the family should find work if they want “luxury items like soap”, Milly retells how “last week my Joe cut a hundred posts for old Skinny Martin and you know what he got? A pair of second-hand boots and a piece of stag ram so tough even the dawgs couldn’t eat it; skinner than old Martin ‘imself.” (page 17)
This Act also meant that Aboriginal peoples’ homes were taken away from them by the State, and most were forced to live on reserves (areas of land away from White suburban areas such as the Government Well Aboriginal Reserve) or missions (places where Aboriginal people, particularly children of the Stolen Generation, were sent to to try and strip them of any sense of their Aboriginal identity such as the Moore River Native Settlement). Because most Aboriginal people had their property taken away from them, they were also stripped of their right to vote. For those in positions of power they believed these decisions to be beneficial for both the White people and the Aboriginal People; more-so for the White voters who believed the dominant narrative Neville publicly spouted about Aboriginal People.
JIMMY: You reckon blackfellas are bloody mugs. Whole town knows why we’re goin’. Coz wetjalas in this town don’t want us ‘here, don’t want our kids at the school, with their kids, and old Jimmy Mitchell’s tight ‘coz they reckon Bert ‘Awke’s gonna give him a hidin’ in the election. (page 44-45)
The Forgotten Massacres
Act 1 opens with Joe Millimurra reading aloud the “special centenary edition of the Western Mail”. This prop conveys to the audience the historical context of the play: 1929, the start of the Great Depression, and 100 years after the first British colony was built in Western Australia. The decades that followed the British invasion saw numerous violent campaigns by the British against Aboriginal People, many that are still unknown today to most of the non-Aboriginal Australian population. The following massacres are referred to in No Sugar:
The Pinjarra Massacre led by Captain James Stirling, which is alluded to in Neville’s speech.
NEVILLE: On the twenty-seventh of October, 1834, Governor Stirling led a detachment of soldiers and civilians to the Murray River at Pinjarra. In the early morning they came across a camp of some sixty or seventy natives … The party opened fire … The men defended themselves with spears, while the women and children sought shelter in the river. For one hour they were subjected to crossfire from twenty-four guns … The official statement was fifteen to twenty dead, but only eight women and several children were finally rounded up. (page 80-81)
The Oombulgarri Massacre Billy recounts in Act 2 Scene 6.
BILLY: … Big mob gudeeah. Big mob politjmans, and big mob from stations, and shoot ’em everybody mens, koories, little yumbah … They chuck ’em on a big fire, chuck ’em in river. (page 62)
The Tasmanian Massacre and a number of unnamed massacres in the South-West of Western Australia.
NEVILLE: When referring to Australia’s treatment of her Aborigines we are apt to refer somewhat scathingly to Tasmania’s harshness in ridding herself of her natives within the first seventy years of settlement. In that time some six thousand natives disappeared and only one was left alive. Yet here, in the south-west of our State, within an area about twice the size of Tasmania between 1829 and 1901 seventy-two years—a people estimated to number thirteen thousand were reduced to one thousand four hundred and nineteen, of whom nearly half were half-caste.” (page 81)
The Tasmanian Massacre is also briefly alluded to in a passing joke the Sergeant makes about how it’s “Too late to adopt the Tasmanian solution” (page 39). Most disturbing about these passages described by the White characters is the way these massacres are discussed in an indifferent manner, as if the speakers bear no second thought on the immorality of their predecessors committing mass murder against people. This narrative is consistent across a number of Aboriginal communities from all over Australia. In Stan Grant’s Speech on Racism and the Australian Dream (2016), Grant describes the treatment of Aboriginal people by the British in the Eastern States.
“And when British people looked at us, they saw something sub-human, and if we were human at all, we occupied the lowest rung on civilisation’s ladder. We were fly-blown, stone age savages and that was the language that was used… Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of enlightenment, a man who was instructed to make peace with the so called natives in a matter of years, was sending out raiding parties with the instruction, “Bring back the severed heads of the black troublemakers.”
Over a century later and this same language used to refer to Aboriginal people, the racial slurs and dehumanising terms found in 19th century writing, is still being used by the White characters of the play in the 20th century. These terms that had become naturalised in everyone’s vernacular made its way into written Government policy and remained unchanged for decades.
The Moore River Native Settlement changed names in 1951 and continued operating until 1974; eleven years prior to first performance of No Sugar in 1985. The recounts of the place included in the play came from Davis’ one year stay at the mission. Everything that happened there before his stay and after he left until its closure exists in another story outside of this one. There are also hundreds of more untold and silenced stories from other Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the rest of the country. So, what more can you find about Western Australia’s forgotten history?