Saturday, 20 May 2006

R M Williams' Autobiography

Whilst waiting at Alice Springs for our flight back to Melbourne on 13 May 2006 following our 5 day Sahara Adventures red centre tour I bought a copy of R M (Reginald Murray) Williams autobiography (ISBN 0-7251-0753-7), and finished reading it last night. What an amazing read about an amazing bloke! Essential reading in my view for anyone seriously interested in the study of the development of primary industry in Australia. I’ve recorded below a just few of the things that I learned and want to remember or views he expressed that I think are worth sharing. What’s below is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what his book has to offer.
How Aborigines in desert areas made fire
RM spent a great many years in direct contact with Aboriginal people, meeting some who he believes had no prior contact with ‘the white man’. He held them in high regard, recognizing their amazing skills, and deep understanding of the environment in which they lived. On page 28 he explains how they made fire:
“To make fire they shredded dray kangaroo dung into a crack in a fairly substantial piece of wood, then two of them would rub the hard burnished surface of a spear-thrower across the crack, causing smouldering material from the log to fall into the tinder in the crack. When enough had gathered they tipped it out into a bunch of dried grass, waiving this into the air to fan it into a flame. Thus they seemed to make fire without much effort; it wasn’t quite as easy as striking a match but it took only a few minutes.”
Aborigines and religion
The core content of RM’s autobiography is obviously his recounting the major events of his life, but he puts forward his thoughts on Australia and the world at large, including the subject of religion. On page 29 he shares what he comments on the religious beliefs of the Aboriginal desert people he met during the 1920’s and beyond.
“These desert people lived in a state of mental contentment. I attribute this to the centuries-old practice of a religion that was not a spiritual seeking but rather a total immersion in the mysticism that provided a pragmatic solution to any problem of survival. Whereas my needs for spiritual satisfaction included a promise of change, a hope for something better, the Aborigines – and in fact most Stone Age people – live and die content in the complete religion that explains an environment they do not want to see altered.”
Aboriginal mission without white man interference
In about 1934 RM received a call from Dr Charles Duguid who he describes on Page 64 as ‘a surgeon with considerable care for the Aborigines.” One outcome of this contact was the formation of a Committee (with RM as a member) which established a medical mission for the Aborigines at Ernabella in the Musgraves, and Dr Duguid was “determined it should be one in which the natives were left to follow their own way of life … where they would have time to adjust to the changes that were coming whether they liked them or not, and thus have a chance of survival. The most basic feature was the concept of freedom – no interference with tribal customs, no compulsion and no imposition of white man way of life”. On Page 66 RM goes on to say “Ernabella Mission was to become a big factor in preserving the state of Aborigines in the Musgraves, and it still stands as something of a bastion against white intrusion.”
Discipline and Aboriginal children
On Page 66 RM talks about how the Aboriginal people did not disciplined their children. In his words “there was no need, for the struggle of life itself was a discipline. Long marches on a hungry belly, fierce laws that demanded death if broken, skill to kill as the essential element for survival, and a surrounding of enemies produced by a society of people made honest by necessity.”
The Bushman’s Handbook
On Page 68 RM talks about how he wrote and published The Busman’s Handbook, which was designed to “assist young bushmen and others who wanted to make things of real worth and serviceability: saddles, boots, stockwhips, belts – anything that could be made of leather, beginning with the tanning of the hide.”
RM on the behaviour of modern day politicians
On Page 73 RM talks about his involvement in the formation of the Australian Rough Riders Association and goes on to say how “In this organization I made many life long friends, fellows who have proved themselves to be champions in every way, and when I hear our politicians abusing each other in Parliament I recall that none of our members would speak in such a manner unless he were prepared to do battle on the grass.”
Man’s responsibility for the environment
On Page 127 RM explains: “The essential difference between man and animals is that man has a … quality of being able to change his environment. When he plants a seed he does so with the knowledge that some day it will become a tree, and that the tree will provide shade or sustenance. He plants a garden with the knowledge that some day it will give him pleasure. He preconceives the outcome of his activities. To carry this argument to its logical conclusion we must arrive at the decision that we are responsible for the environment in which we live.”
Cattle and salt licks
On Pages 140 and 141 RM explains how he used to use salt licks as a mechanism to integrate his own cattle with those they were wild, and in this way he was able to muster most that were on the country he had legal access to. It was toward the end of the drought years of the late 1960’s that the Queensland Department of Primary Industry “had discovered that cattle given licks of a mixture of molasses and urea and phosphoric acid maintained health and condition even though the available grazing was extremely poor, and they would ingest materials they would normally ignore, such as wattle and whitewood leaves, and prickly pear.”
Adaptation of the Pioneers to the environment
On Page 183 RM sets out many of the ways in which the Australian Pioneers (especially the cattlemen) developed methods and attire for survival. I’ve personally worn elastic sides boots from the time I was very young, and until reading RM's Autobiography confess that I was not aware of the real reason they were invented. As RM explains, the cattleman’s “boots were made easy to get on, because of the need for fast action if cattle rushed in the night.”

No comments: