Henry Rollins said, “A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” I learned a lot about Australia while living overseas from 1987 to 1996. Books like Alice Nannup’s When The Pelican Laughed (Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1992) helped my education. And from her memoir, I learned about the Stolen Generation and a connection with my Nan.
Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned this blog post contains the names, images and words of people who have passed away.
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, in the 1960s and ’70s and (honestly!) had no idea the state took Aboriginal children from their parents and communities. I was also ignorant of the systemic discrimination faced by Indigenous people. A young white male, mine was an insular life in the world’s most isolated city on the world’s largest island continent. Travel broadened my outlook.
It was in England in 1988 that I learned of Australia’s shameful history. Back home, White Australia was celebrating the Bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet of colonial settlers and convicts. At the same time, Indigenous Australians and their supporters were protesting against Invasion Day. And in England, the BBC aired news of the protests and documentaries showing the good, the bad, and the damn ugly parts of Australian history.
Alice Nannup’s Story
I bought When The Pelican Laughed on a trip back to Australia in 1992. It was the first book I read with a personal account of the Stolen Generation.
Alice Nannup was born on a Pilbara station in the northwest of Western Australia in 1911. Her mother was an Aboriginal woman who belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe of the region, and her father was a white man whom Alice never met.
In 1923, Alice was taken from her community and didn’t see her mother again — she was only twelve. At first, Alice was sent south to Perth and then to the Moore River Mission for “education”, a euphemism for training as a domestic servant.
The Moore River Native Settlement is infamous for its harsh treatment of Aboriginal boys and girls. ABC Australia published an investigative piece in 2018 titled, A journey into ‘hell on Earth’. The article states, “Hundreds of children lost their lives in brutal conditions at Moore River.” And Alice’s chapter on the settlement in her memoir is subtitled “The Walls Have Eyes”.
The Williams Police Station
In 1927, after four hard years at Moore River, Alice was sent to work for Robert and Julia Larsen in the Wheatbelt town of Williams, 160 kilometres south of Perth. Larsen was the officer in charge of the Williams Police Station. His wife, Julia, was crippled with arthritis and confined to a wheelchair.
As well as general domestic chores, young Alice was responsible for looking after Julia, who she described as “a big woman, about six foot tall, and broad”. Julia told her, “You’ve got to bath me, put me on the commode, and you’ve got to cook.” Alice admitted she didn’t know how to cook but begged for a chance to learn. Because as she related in her memoir:
I didn’t want to be thrown out and sent back to Moore River.
Alice spent a year with the Larsens in Willians. But Julia’s health deteriorated, and in 1928 they all moved back to Perth, to a “half-house” in Daphne Street, North Perth, before moving to a new, larger house in Mount Hawthorn. However, Julia’s health continued to fail, and she died in Alice’s arms on New Year’s Eve, 1928.
Alice Nannup and my Nan
Reading Alice’s chapter on Williams had personal resonance for me. My brother and I had lived with our Nan and Pop as boys. And Nan often regaled us with tales of her childhood, including the period when her father was officer-in-charge of the Williams Police Station.
Nan and Pop had met in Williams and married there in 1929. Alice had lived in the town for a year from 1927, working for Robert Larson, the officer-in-charge at the police station. Could Alice Nannup and my Nan have known each other?
I wrote a letter to Nan from England in 1992 with questions based on details from Alice’s memoir. Recently, I took down my copy of When The Pelican Laughed from the bookshelf and was browsing through it when Nan’s beautiful cursive handwritten response from September 1992 fell out. (It’s my habit to use mementos — tickets, newspaper clippings, letters etc. — as bookmarks.)
About the book, the baker’s shop was run by a chap called Kernutt. Keeleys was the grocer. My dad took over the police station from Constable Larson. Not sure of the date, but I think it would [have been] before 1927.
Wow! In her book, Alice said the Keeleys had run the bakery. And the dates didn’t quite match. But these were minor discrepancies, especially as by 1992, Alice and my Nan were both in their eighties. However, there was a connection in the handing over of the police station from Robert Larson to Nan’s father. Had they met to hand over the keys? I don’t know. It’s more likely they passed driving in opposite directions on Albany Highway to and from Perth.
But this wasn’t the only connection between Alice’s story and my Nan. As Alice recounts, she returned with the Larsons to Perth in 1928 and lived for a while at number 10 Daphne Street, North Perth, before moving to Mount Hawthorn.*
Nan and Pop and their three children (my aunts and uncle) moved from Williams to the outer Perth suburb of Kelmscott between 1937 and 1938 (when my father was born). Shortly afterwards, the family of six moved to number 21 Daphne Street, North Perth. Ten years on but only ten houses from where Alice had lived in the street.
*Details confirmed in Daphne Street — The biography of an Australian community by Geoffrey Bolton (Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1997)
Black Armband History
It was fanciful to think that Alice Nannup and my Nan could have met and perhaps spoken to each other. Growing up in Perth in the 1960s and ’70s, I knew no Aboriginal people and had no interest in Indigenous issues. Things were hardly likely to be more enlightened in the 1920s when Alice and Nan lived in Williams.
This story from Alice’s memoir of an afternoon with her kids at a Geraldton cinema in the 1950s underscores the racism long endured by Aboriginal people. Please note: I’m quoting Alice’s exact words, including the N-word:
I used to take my kids every Saturday afternoon to the matinee in town. We’d all go in, sit down and try to enjoy ourselves, but there were a few white kids in town who were really terrible. They’d turn around and poke their tongues out, or sling off at us with ‘Nigger, nigger, boong, boong, pull the trigger you’re dead.’
Sadly, there are still politicians, commentators and shock jocks today who, along with a depressing number of White Australians, argue Australia does not have a black armband history. And to those people, I say, follow Henry Rollins’s advice, leave Australia, look back, and learn!
And to everyone, read books by Indigenous writers, like Alice Nannup. Hopefully, you will gain a greater understanding of Australia’s real history as I did. And if you’re lucky, you may also find a connection.
When The Pelican Laughed is now out of print. There is an entry for it on Trove at the National Library of Australia. But your best chance of buying a copy of this remarkable book is probably Google and browsing second-hand bookshops.
Alice Nannup’s author page on the Fremantle Press website (removed after 2020) recorded that she married and raised ten children. Known as “Nan” to everyone who knew her, Alice lived in Geraldton surrounded by her friends and extended family until she passed away in November 1995, aged eighty-four.
My Nan was also known as “Nan” to everyone who knew her. And she, too, passed away surrounded by family in July 1996, aged eighty-nine.
© 2020 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might also like to read another of my blog posts about living with my Nan and Pop. And you can listen t my narration of the story of Alice Nannup and my Nan on the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead. A writer-editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.