Here I address two subjects that speak to an experience of place that is richly dialogical: our relationships with ghosts and a meeting with a character called Old Man Crocodile, who-like ghosts and spirits-inhabits place, but who is both 'here' and 'not-here', 'seen' and 'not-seen'. Most of the material focuses on the Edward and Holroyd River regions of the Pormpuraaw community at the south-west base of the Cape York Peninsula, though my discussion draws on research throughout the Peninsula region.
My project to collect oral histories from elderly residents of Cape York Peninsula was a deliberate attempt to engage with the history of people through their own stories, and to supplement and challenge the written record. This process of engagement, through field research on the Cape in 1999 and 2000, involved a deep inter-personal exchange and the people themselves, the land itself, and the stories they have told me have not only informed me but affected me profoundly.
Ghosts and supernatural beings have been excluded from modern western history as causes because they cannot be 'known'. Forces that are 'unknown' nonetheless act upon us and within us. This work is engaged with what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) describes as translating life-worlds, what Richard Rorty (1989) and Homi Bhabha (1998) call bringing newness into the world; I focus on images, chase metaphors, respond to language and look for ways to relate the stories I was told to other stories so that I might understand them better.
The Place of Ghosts; Familiar Hauntings
I have spent a lot of time talking with ghosts, engaged in conversations with my own ancestors and with those of other people. Communicating between worlds is both a personal and a cross-cultural project. Interrogations of the past are a way of connecting the Europe of my forbears with the country of my birth.
In 1999, the first year of my academic research into oral histories of Cape York Peninsula and the year my father died, I had a dream about the 'work I had to do'.
I had to write letters to the people who couldn't be there. I had to write really heartfelt, soulful letters and put them in a lacquered box and that was 'sending them'. I realised somehow that these were dead people-people who physically could not be with us - and somehow I was responsible for making them stay with their presence in the sky. That was my job. (Private journal entry, 16 September 1999)
Along with other supernatural phenomena, ghosts have been excluded as agents and actors from western academic history and modern life. This exclusion has banished them from our daily life and the places where we live. Dipesh Chakrabarty gives a memorable example of incommensurable differences in relation to non-western histories and other cultures (see Provincializing Europe ). But what is history if not a way of dealing with our ghosts and ancestors?
In 'Jesus and the Dingo', Deborah Bird Rose describes an Aboriginal spiritual connection with place and with the past as communication between the dead and the living, across time and space (372). I wrote of my own experience of conducting oral history interviews with Aboriginal people:
The people I talk with, my old people, talk about their 'old people'.
It is not only an unfolding of generations.
The passing of time is embodied in them. The dialogue between past and present is alive in them. The conversations I have with them go further back to the conversations they had with their old people and reach my own present.
I am talking to the dead.
I am used to conversations with the dead.
I come from a literary culture, which builds its dialogue in paper and ink.
There are other ways of talking with the dead; through memory, through spirits, through objects, through places. The land is populated by ghosts.
We are, as Chakrabarty describes it, straining against language to translate life-worlds into history (77-83). I have found the pursuit of metaphors most rewarding; these metaphors are not 'stand-ins' for meaning but are embodiments of meaning. As such, they are especially suited to the multiple and dense meanings that inhere in place.
In An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin writes: 'Our imaginations are inhabited by ghosts'; he introduces his 'investigations of the familiar ghosts which reassure, the lazy ones which make us obstinate and, above all, the frightening ones which discourage' (vii). James Hillman writes of old age as a time which puts people in closer contact with ghosts; we start talking to them, receiving 'an instruction from the "dead" (that is, from what has gone before, become invisible, yet continues to vivify our lives with its influences)' (70). Some of my ghosts are far more literal than Zeldin's or Hillman's, they are not only ghosts of the mind, but I agree on the importance of talking to and becoming familiar with that which haunts us.
Ghosts haunt places, they also act in stories and they tell us things.
My father/uncle found all these skulls, big pile in the roots of the tree.
He get my grandfather, grandfather sing out-'I know you there, I'll bury you'. They not there then, but he say 'I know you here now, we won't forget you'.
(Margaret Cottis, interview, 6 September 2000)
The skulls of Maggie's ancestors told her grandfather where they had been put, without proper burial. They tell her of a massacre. They talk through their appearance of things that were only heard of in stories.
Ghosts offer a point of contact not only between past and present, but between different views of the past and of place. The ghosts of colonisers haunt both their own heirs and the disinherited. One of the activities of European settlement of Australia has been to populate the land with new ghosts. The identification with the land through the ghosts of explorers and settlers is strong, the folk story of a Jolly Swagman's ghost more popular than the official national anthem.
Indigenous ghosts are far from silent, even if European preoccupation with them has often involved a denial of the living (Read). Australian literature that sympathetically talks of the ghosts of dead Aboriginal warriors softens the violent past which people lived and witnessed. Europeans have also looked on Aboriginal people as ghosts, relics of the past, already dead and dying. In melancholy images of the past Aboriginal people are shown as already faded memories (for example, Henry Kendall's 'The Last of His Tribe').
We are reluctant to believe that ghosts have power over us. Ghosts continue to inhabit our landscapes whether we credit them with an external, physical existence or not.1 Despite our denial of their ability to intrude on our lives, they haunt us.
In his ethnography of Pormpuraaw, John Taylor explains that the presence of ghosts was emphasised in storytelling because they 'directly bore on everyday activities' (Taylor 237). One would encounter ghosts in daily life, whether the malevolent kind or one's own 'old People' who might be cantankerous as well as knowledgeable and helpful. The ghosts of the old people might be asked for food from their land, or they might appear in dreams and teach a new dance (Taylor 239). Ghosts seem to come from another world but they are connected to place, they inhabit a location. Ghosts, like the old people, can be present and not present. Many Aboriginal people describe the experience of returning to the land from which their people were removed as a simultaneous awareness of both the absence and presence of their ancestors. Ghosts connect people to place and to the past.
It is commonly stated that many Aboriginal people identified European colonisers as ghosts. This perception of white people is often presented as a misconception rather than part of an important ongoing process of identification. Europeans came to intrude more frequently into the lives of Aboriginal people and became something they might encounter in daily life but not necessarily understand. The relationship between Europeans and the spirits of the dead was a complex one. Lauriston Sharp wrote of his time spent with Thyorre and Yir Yoront people between 1933 and 1935, that 'European foodstuffs had acquired such a value that the abodes of the spirits of the dead overflowed with tea, sugar, flour and beef as well as traditional foodstuffs' (330). Aboriginal clans are each responsible for particular plants and animals and also for made objects. In Pormpuraaw European goods, such as steel axes, belonged to the 'ghost-clan' meaning the white people (335). Like the ghosts of the old people, white people could be asked for food and they taught new ways of doing things; they were also capable of malevolent violence.
On the Cape one encounters many ghosts, and amongst the warriors and the adventurers are the officials. The ghost of Frank Jardine embodies all three. It is not just for those who believe he haunts Somerset but the way he haunts the imagination and inhabits stories of the Peninsula. The Jardine family founded the first cattle station at Somerset on the most northerly point of the Cape in 1863. Frank Jardine became magistrate and Police protector for the region in 1868 (after his father). The residence at Somerset was maintained by the family until after the Second World War, but Frank Jardine died and was buried at Somerset in 1919.2
While he was alive Jardine played the ghost; stories have him riding helter-skelter with a smoking beard through the Aboriginal camp. Like the explorer Kennedy and others it has often been said that he was buried standing up, indicating that these fierce colonial men will never rest. Jeannie George well remembered her time at Somerset in the 1960s when she and her husband were caretakers of the old homestead (since demolished). Jeannie awoke in the middle of the night to see the ghost of Jardine in her bed room. While she scared him away her husband was convinced that the ghost was going to tell him where to find hidden treasure (Jeannie George, interview, 2 August 2000).
Maggie Cottis agrees that Somerset is haunted but she is not afraid of Jardine. Her grandparents lived and worked at Somerset and the skulls there belong to her ancestors.
I like to live at Somerset because I used to the place.
Doesn't matter old Jardine torment me (laugh).
[JT: You think you're big enough for him?]
I big enough to chase him too, tell him to get!
No, I don't frighten from ghost this time . I'm really brave now.
I don't know why them things don't worry me,
You just frighten for nothing, you know.
When you fear you got fear for nothing.
You got to [be] brave, you got to have faith in God to chuck all these things out.
And if anything like that you just ignore them, because I think they got to be there too somehow.
(Margaret Cottis, interview, 2 September 2000)
While Maggie talks of not being touched by the ghosts, she also recognises their need to exist somewhere. For Maggie, Jardine is a tormented soul in limbo.
I don't think Jardine hurt you, you know, he might frighten you, because, you see his spirit not going anywhere. His spirit not going anywhere because his spirit it bin do bad thing, and he got no road to go to heaven.
[JT: So he has to stay there?]
He got to stay there and wait until the great Judgement Day.
Poor thing-he could have been a good person here on this Cape.
People, you know, people think he's good because he got everything organised and things like that; he got his base there at Somerset, boat slip and they build up boat and everything-even he survey that area.
But he was a bad man, he killed a lot of people.
(Margaret Cottis, interview, 2 September 2000)
Those who admire Jardine will say he had little choice but to kill the people who attacked him because of his intrusion on their land (and like many arguments on the invasion of Australia there are fierce differences over the numbers involved). Whether seen from the perspective of coloniser or colonised, Jardine represented and enacted the European occupation of the country and continues to do so through his haunting of the remote northern outpost.
Why Officials are like Ghosts
Ghosts and officials are human but they are something else as well. Government officials also inhabit another world; they do not live the same life but their appearances and messages have important bearing on life as it is lived. Officials of the Cape inhabited the place and embodied state power while maintaining their source of authority elsewhere. These representatives of officialdom were responsible for an administration that was on the one hand removed, absent, impersonal and on the other deeply intrusive, ever-present and very personal.
The Department of Native Affairs was in control of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders through its official representatives and under the authority of an 1897 Protection Act. Missionaries and Police were the authorities responsible for Aboriginal people and they had control over everything from where they lived, what they wore, what they ate, what work they did, to who they could marry and whether they could keep their children.3
In the Queensland Government archives, I read past conversations between people living and dead. The systems of control and bureaucracy are obvious, though labyrinthine (see Kidd), but I found signs of individuality and humanity in these documents; the ghost in the machine. Largely absent from the daily life of the people over whom they had control, the Chief Protectors did have personal encounters: hand-written letters detail requests, demands and injustices-asking for money, to buy something, or to visit relatives-in attempts to broach an alienating system and an alien world through personal contact.
Against the general activities of removal and administration the exceptions stand out. One time when Chief Protector Bleakley visited a community on the Cape, a man approached him and asked for news of his wife who had been sent to Fantome Island. Bleakley was moved by the man's request to send word of his wife in a note. Because it was irregular, and in the nature of a personal correspondence, Bleakley asked for the letter to be destroyed but his own department kept a copy of it.4 The Kafkaesque system of control is transformed into something like Vaclav Havel's façade of bureaucracy where it is the masks that people wear that ensures the smooth running of the machine (see Havel). The mask slips when people, like Bleakley, act in an effort to maintain their own humanity. The letters and personal approaches did have an effect, they provoked responses and disrupted the smooth running of the department.
Richard Davis, in his paper 'Enchanting the state: Benjamin in Indigenous Australia', describes how sorcerers of the Torres Strait Islands use letters and personal correspondence to 'penetrate' the bureaucracy of the state. The interpersonal communication creates a direct relationship, the psychic and emotional reality of which involves penetration of the powerful government/official or representative body. This infiltration by sorcery is a subversive act, which challenges the power of the governing body.
Emotion was described by psychologists in the mid-twentieth century, who wanted to deny its power to cause, as the 'ghost in the machine' and the 'hypogriff, the demon and the entelechy' (Ryle and Dunlop, quoted in Hillman 36). Hillman summarises: 'The argument here has been: since emotions cannot be touched, pointed to, cut up, they are not real, but are immaterial and immaterial events are ghosts which cannot cause'. The denial of emotion is related by Hillman to a denial of psychic, or psychological reality ('where hippogriffs and demons are real'); 'since a denial of emotion is also a denial of that ghost in the machine which has for quite some time been called the psyche' (Hillman 37).
By relating supernatural ghosts to the ghosts of the mind I do not intend to reduce one to the other: demons are not simply emotions, nor emotions demons. I see this as a process of cultural translation through metaphor, much like Chakrabarty's example of the identification of Hindi and Moslem deities through characteristics and attributes (Chakrabarty 84-85). More than this though I do not assume the separation of mind and world prevalent in the west. I am inspired in part by a Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, who talks of 'facing our demons' or sitting with that which frightens us-she also advocates the Tibetan Buddhist practices of visiting charnel houses and graveyards-but who does not distinguish between the demons that exist within us, which visit us in our dreams or the external terrors which confront us.
Jardine is more than a ghost and an enemy to Maggie, he is a part of Somerset. Her family's history and his are intertwined, for better or worse.
You know Jardine go and shoot all the natives around,
shooting down all the natives and he saw my grandmother.
My grandmother was a little girl, he said;
'That'll do me, for my wife, you know, my wife's maid'.
So he took her and they rear her up.
(Margaret Cottis, interview, 2 September 2000)
Ghosts connect people to place and to the past. If we don't have a relationship with our ghosts then we can't ask them things; we can't interrogate them or demand favours. Establishing relationships with our ghosts brings us closer to both the living and the dead. In the process some ghosts might become less demonic and more human, though not all will lose their terror.
In Cape York Peninsula, Frank Jardine, as both a malevolent and familiar haunting, maintains a connection to historical events and is a participant in other 'psychic' or spiritual realities. My most powerful encounter, though, was not with a ghost but with another character, both material and mythic, who inhabits Cape York Peninsula. My meeting with Old Man Crocodile was not a singular event but consisted of a growing awareness of his presence and significance through stories and experiences.
A Personal Connection
My research has never been clearly separated from the rest of my life. Because I see life itself in the nature of a spiritual journey the division of secular and sacred has always appeared to me as suspect. My 'new-age alternative' upbringing involved several related beliefs; that cause and effect relate to spiritual and not merely material events, that spiritual and psychic realities are of the utmost importance, that individual experiences are respected and different interpretations accepted (a kind of pluralistic spirituality).
I am a child of Aquarius.5 I was conceived on a boat in Trinity Inlet, Cairns. I have since heard that the inlet is known to Indigenous people as a big baby-spirit place. Certainly on this occasion a baby-spirit saw an opportunity, and my mother named me for an Aboriginal word meaning 'spirit' before I was even born.
My parents were neither married nor in a stable relationship. In fact my mother told me she went to see my father to have a fight with him. As one might expect from volatile relationships, the passion that drove my mother to anger got them in bed together, on the top bunk of a tugboat berth. My mother left thinking that was the end of the affair only to discover a couple of months later that she was pregnant. My father, a bohemian, Polish mariner and artist continued his life apart.
My mother went with friends down south to work on the Aquarius Festival at Nimbin. She was involved in the early stages of preparation and by the time the festival started she was very pregnant with me. I was nearly the first 'hippie' home-birth at Nimbin, but after 30 hours of labour they threw the I-ching, read 'lack of confidence / no blame' and trundled into town. I was born at Lismore Base Hospital on the 8 th of June, 1973. The cold of a Lismore winter (mild by many standards) was in my mother's opinion an obstacle to breast-feeding and general well-being so we promptly returned to North Queensland a couple of weeks later. We later moved back to Northern NSW, via Brisbane.
The early seeds of my interest in the history of far North Queensland first took root with a journey to Cairns and Cooktown resultant from a new friendship, with an Aboriginal elder Peter Costello from Hopevale, and a reengagement with my estranged father. I have found myself piecing together my father's history even while I have been researching other histories. When I started my doctoral research into the history of Cape York, my father died. His was a sudden and accidental death by drowning.
The connections between my own life history and the history of Cape York have been numerous. One time when I was talking with my mother about crocodiles, she reminded me that when she first met my father in far North Queensland he had been crocodile hunting. They used to say, when he went off by himself in one of his moods, that 'that old man crocodile spirit' had got him.
Meetings with Old Man Crocodile
Crocodiles are a powerful presence on the Cape. They have a presence both seen and unseen. Undeniably impressive in their physical form, it is the awareness of their existence when not witnessed that is most pervasive. I first remember encountering crocodiles in their natural environment on the Bloomfield River when I was 12 and I visited my father there. They became more familiar to me later, in my travels through Cape York doing research. But then that old man crocodile followed me back down south; he started coming into my dreams as I was leaving the Cape in 2000, and he hasn't stopped since. I was told some of the most evocative crocodile stories at Pormpuraaw.
John Coleman gave me the story of his own father being taken by a crocodile. We were visiting John's traditional land when he told me this story.
This river where we fish
My wife and daughters fish here, I go over the other side there
One story I want to tell you
My father got taken by crocodile.
(John Coleman, interview, 17 October 2000)
The family were away from home when John's father was attacked and wounded, they had been visiting people to the south.
We went fishing,
My dad, me and my brother.
That crocodile come take him,
Me and my brother drag my father away from the water,
We drag him far as that corner of scrub [50m].
That crocodile he follow that blood,
Me and my brother trying to stop him.
We poking him with sticks
But he turn on us then because we hurt him too much
He take my father, put him down in his mouth
Then lock the front teeth like that
He couldn't let go my father then
My brother take that rod, got sharp end
Poke him in the eye
He can't let go my father.
(John Coleman, interview, 17 October 2000)
The boys tried to stop the crocodile from going after their wounded father but he was too big for them. Even though the boys fought on, the crocodile would not release their father. The boys returned to camp upset and angry.
We calling out for help all the time
When we get back we mad with them, they not come and help us
We take those old men, show them where it happen
Tell my mother, father gone
Bad because it not his place too.
That place where my father used to fish
I never go fish there.
(John Coleman, interview, 17 October 2000)
It is significant that the tragedy occurred on someone else's country, as this would have implications for 'payback'. Although John's father was killed in other country, respect for the death means John does not fish at his father's customary fishing place.
Robert Holroyd told me of the fighting that started when his mother's first husband was attacked by a crocodile. 'You see when that crocodile come, someone must have sent him; Payback. Three tribes were involved in the fighting over that dead man' (Robert Holroyd, interview, 5 July 2000). As indicated by Robert Holroyd's story, the question of 'who sent the crocodile?' was/is of great importance. The use of crocodiles as agents of shamans was/is a commonly recognised form of sorcery or purri purri. If a crocodile kills a human being it implicates other humans: as with all untimely deaths this meant 'payback' (Taylor 513).
In the myths collected by Ursula McConnel in the Holroyd River region in the 1920s and 1930s, the old man crocodile is 'the enemy of law and order'; breaking sexual taboos and sleeping with every woman (McConnel 99-100). The crocodile is the transgressor of human laws, but he has his own law. People who establish a relationship with the crocodile can ask him to act for them; the sorcery used to control the crocodile is described as making him a 'son' to the shaman (McConnel 10).
The old man crocodile plays a significant role in my discussion of the violence and warfare that occurred in the north-west and central Cape in the 1930s and 40s. The main sources of conflict between Aboriginal groups, which obviously involved the presence of white people, are identified by oral historians and documented sources as 'jealous business': land and women. The form of the conflict often involved purri-purri and payback in cycles of violence. This violence erupted frequently into the childhood lives of the people I interviewed.
Rowan Pootchemunka from Aurukun, after telling me how the old people used to eat crocodile, indicates that despite new laws against crocodile hunting, the crocodile still follows his old ways.
Maybe you putting that law, not that crocodile!
Crocodile he got no friend, to no-one
. if he want to attack you he attack you any time.
(Rowan Pootchemunka, interview, 21 August 2000).
Rather than a simple binary of animal/human law, I see the crocodile as having a predatory and primal energy that is shared by humans. The crocodile is outside of human relations, he is the alpha predator to which humans become prey. The crocodile embodies the reptilian motivations of aggression; lust and greed. When humans turn against other humans, they become predators. Thus both crocodiles and predatory humans display an aggression that, when it erupts into the human world, has the potential to tear the bonds of human law and relationships.
The phrase 'no friend' caught my attention in another account from Aurukun where it was used to describe the violence of the old people (Sutton 103), before the missionary 'quietened them down' (Sutton 85). It was not the absence of law but the pursuance of traditional/Aboriginal law and justice which resulted in violence. The European colonial response was to 'control' the situation and the people through repressive violent force; they were killing the 'beast', exterminating the 'brutes', civilising the world, by proving themselves to be the 'stronger' animal.
Violence does not assume an absence of all law, but the presence of different and conflicting laws; your law, their law. Victoria Burbank in her introduction to Fighting Women: Anger and Aggression in Aboriginal Australia (1994), points to the pervasive perception in Western discourse that social control and repression are the only effective solutions to 'bestial' anger. She suggests that some forms of 'acting-out' anger, rather than weakening relationships, are socially and culturally affirming (Burbank 4, 94). Violent acts may in fact denote relationships of passion, loyalty, honour and moral right-as they often have in European history.
I have pursued the old man crocodile even as he pursued me. I have gone to his home and hunted in his rivers. Like ghosts, the animal spirits have got to live somewhere. We also might learn something from them and the world they inhabit.
I follow stories, like the models of translation Chakrabarty describes in the identification of Hindi gods with Muslim deities; using image, metaphor, alliteration rather than reason and argument (Chakrabarty 84-85). Metaphors may (as Victoria Burbank describes it), make the abstract concrete (Burbank 49), but as Richard Rorty argues they are not merely vehicles for meaning but acts more akin to a slap in the face or a kiss (Rorty 18). I'm not sure if it is foolish or brave, but I want to bring a new understanding of the world, and for me this means paying attention to a multiplicity of worlds and a poetics of language.
The crocodile is not an easy presence to live with, and yet I would not wish him gone. There is something beyond reason and sentiment to be understood by the crocodile: just as he is seen and not seen, he is known and unknown. Putting the beast in the cage fails to recognise that it lives by its own laws. The crocodile erupts into consciousness as suddenly as he launches into view. Like the ghosts, old man crocodile has something to teach us about the past, which is also present.
Way back when my friendship with Peter and his family first began, when I was first told histories of the old people at Hopevale, I wrote of my deep attachment: 'It's like I've pegged my heart down and am slowly stretching away from the point to which it is pinned, stretching this bloody tissue like skin, pulled, twisted and dragged like a surrealist painting' (Private journal entry, 28 June 1996).
When describing to a friend my feeling of being positioned somewhat precariously on the edge of the discipline of history (some might say 'beyond the pale'), I jokingly referred to the 'cutting edge'. My friend smartly rejoined with 'sounds more like the bleeding edge'. I took these words to heart. Not only does this image capture the ancient symbols of the mental acuity of the mind's sword cutting through the fleshy emotions of the heart, but it opens the question of which 'side' of the blade one identifies with. My empathic engagement with the personal histories I had collected demanded that I opened my heart rather than closing it. To understand the suffering of others I had to develop my capacity for compassion, I had to stretch my heart. It seems to me that if we are to approach real understanding and reconciliation with other human beings then we have to be willing not only to change our position through ideas but be prepared to inhabit different worlds and to be internally altered.
Violence and death, ghosts and crocodiles, are things which we all have-in one way or another-to deal with. It may be of some benefit if we see the forces that act within and without us as having a power and character which is sometimes, though not always, beyond our control, as well as challenging the limits of our understanding. Talking to ghosts is painful. Our fear of chaos, of uncontrolled energy, of death, reveals our ignorance of all these things. Pema Chödrön talks of leaning into that which hurts us and facing our demons as essential to the development of loving kindness for all beings. This to me is what it is to be human. The exclusion of spiritual (and emotional) concerns, as our motivation and inspiration, would appear to me to be weak-hearted.