Anne Scrimgeour, On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike, Western Australia 1946-1949, Monash University Publishing, 2020.
Anne Scrimgeour’s On Red Earth Walking is an engaging and thoroughly researched account of the 1946 Pilbara Strike, when hundreds of Aboriginal workers walked off pastoral stations in protest against their slave-like conditions of employment. Not only were Aboriginal workers on the stations denied award wages paid to white workers, but some – commonly female domestic workers – were paid no wages at all. Strikers demanded freedom to leave their employer and the right to elect their own representatives: both rights denied to them under the punitive provisions of the Native Administration Act. Drawing upon extensive interviews, including translated Nyangumarta oral history recordings, newspaper articles and methodical archival research, Scrimgeour’s account explores how the strike and labour movement solidarity defeated the mechanisms of colonial control used by pastoralists and the Department of Native Affairs to keep Aboriginal workers subjugated.
On Red Earth Walking spans 27 chapters, beginning with an account of how wealthy “squatter” (pastoralist) families came to hold power over marrngu people, aided by “native protectors” (commonly also police), who were tasked with enforcing legislation that controlled every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives. In subsequent chapters we are introduced to a cast of characters (listed at the end of the book), which includes Indigenous strike leaders, communists and union militants, including the indomitable Don McLeod, as well as politicians, public servants, priests and police. Two strike camps – Twelve-Mile Camp, located outside of Port Hedland, and Moolyella, located inland near Marble Bar – became home to hundreds of strikers and their families. Strike communities cooked and ate together, and established work teams to hunt, gather pearl and prospect for minerals. Self-taught strikers established two schools, one at each camp, and teachers read reports about the strike to camp dwellers. Meanwhile, the Department vigorously attempted to thwart their efforts, arresting and imprisoning strike leaders, denying the strike camps access to ration cards and attempting to lure strikers away from their camps with the promise of education and employment opportunities at a church-run mission. Drawing on interviews she undertook with strikers and family members in the 1990s, Scrimgeour places Aboriginal voices front and centre in her storytelling.
In the 1860s, when European settlers first established sheep stations along the De Grey and Yule rivers, they took control over both Aboriginal land and labour through violence. When marrngu speared sheep for sustenance on lands from which they had been exiled, punitive expeditions soon followed. For those “black-birded” (forcibly recruited) into the pearling industry and those who became station workers, brutal treatment became routine. Sensitive to the criticism the Colonial Office was receiving for such a state of affairs, the British Imperial Government stipulated that, as a condition of Western Australian self-government, £5000 or one percent of state revenue (whichever was the greatest) be allocated to the Aboriginal Protection Board to fund Aboriginal education and welfare. Though this provision was enshrined in Section 70 of the colony’s 1889 constitution, by 1897 powerful pastoral interests had successfully agitated for its repeal. The colonial government’s Aborigines Department was granted significantly less funding and subsequently tasked with implementing the infamous provisions of the Aborigines Act 1905, which confined Aboriginal people to reserves, denied them freedom of movement and appointed local police officers to serve as native “protectors”. Following the Moseley Royal Commission, the 1905 Act was replaced by the Native Administration Act 1936 and the newly formed Department of Native Affairs was granted even more powers of control over Aboriginal people.
Pastoralists were well-represented in the state’s parliament, ensuring that the Department of Native Affairs and the police worked to serve their interests. Aboriginal people received rations of tobacco, tea, sugar, flour and meat in return for their labour, but were required to reside in “native camps” close to station homesteads. Typically, these camps were located in dry riverbeds and evacuated during the wet season, when Aboriginal residents were forced to share the shearing shed with the station’s sheep. “Repeated displays of violence by the police served to maintain settler dominance over Aboriginal people,” explains Scrimgeour (p.27). She cites recollections by pastoral workers of beating and floggings for alleged misdemeanours and dog culls carried out in dawn raids on marrngu camps by police without warning, used as a means of intimidation. Pastoralists sometimes alerted police to the presence of children of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parentage, thereby facilitating their removal, and on other occasions acted to prevent such removals. Nonetheless, their actions served to maintain the subordination of their Aboriginal workforce.
The coming of World War II brought significant changes to the Pilbara. Historians have argued that temporary employment opportunities for Aboriginal workers at better rates of pay, both within the army and in jobs normally the preserve of white workers, raised expectations and contributed to the strike. A labour shortage gave Aboriginal workers, especially those of mixed descent, bargaining power and access to award wages and conditions for the first time. Additionally, it has been argued that military personnel from the south brought with them more enlightened views about racial equality. Scrimgeour, however, asserts that it was not temporary conditions of equal pay and status for Aboriginal workers that contributed to the strike. Rather additional barriers in the form of discriminatory wartime restrictions forced a tipping point that gave rise to widespread industrial action.
While Aboriginal pastoral workers were excluded from wartime construction projects, Port Hedland’s “mixed-descent Euralian population” as they were then known, were called upon to fill a labour shortage when non-Aboriginal civilians were evacuated south, in March 1942. Some were employed as wharf labourers, unloading munitions and supplies. However, they were treated with deep suspicion and frequently denied enlistment in the armed forces. Following the deployment of large numbers of troops in Port Hedland, Native Affairs Commissioner Francis Bray declared Port Hedland a prohibited area: Aboriginal people were not allowed to enter the town without a pass. The rationale for doing so was an irrational fear of fraternisation between male soldiers and Aboriginal women. In a bold display of defiance, Euralian community leader Lawrence (Pop) Clarke and his sons burnt their passes. According to Clarke’s daughter Rose Nowers, “All of these men worked on the wharf all this time and all of a sudden they had to have special passes and yellow tickets”. The pass system, she argued, “caused a lot of bad feeling, a lot of ill feeling” (pp.54-55).
Commissioner Bray rejected army proposals to evacuate Port Hedland’s Aboriginal population to inland internment camps. Nonetheless, the Department of Native Affairs increased surveillance and control over the Euralian community, imposing a requirement for work permits to be held by employers of Euralians. It was at this time that Don McLeod, who had worked throughout the North West as a wharfie, miner, fencer, well-borer and mechanic, rallied to their cause. He concluded that the repressive measures of the “slave act of 1905” were intended to keep “Blackfellows illiterate, isolated and destitute”. The law, in McLeod’s view, was set up by pastoralists and politicians to prevent “liberal-minded persons” from working to improve the livelihoods of Aboriginal people.
McLeod, a regular listener of the Anti-Fascist League’s radio show, came to view the struggle against fascism in Europe as linked to the fight for Aboriginal rights at home. After acquiring a copy of the pamphlet New Deal for the Aborigines, and corresponding with Communist author Katherine Susanna Prichard, McLeod joined the Australian Community Party in 1944. In the lead-up to the strike, McLeod addressed the party’s state conference, telling delegates he had joined the party because it “was the only political party with a policy to fit the situation and the only one honestly prepared to put up a fight.” Prichard, Communist Party organiser Graham Alcorn and Workers’ Star correspondent Joan Williams saw in McLeod an ally to advance the party’s program for Aboriginal rights.
In McLeod’s account of the strike, How the West Was Lost, he recalls the idea of a strike first being canvassed at a meeting of Aboriginal Lawmen from across the state at Skull Springs, on the banks of the Davis River, in 1942. McLeod records that he was the only white man in attendance at the six-week long meeting and that he was delegated to represent the group in negotiations with the Department of Native Affairs, in Perth. According to Scrimgeour, marrngu accounts suggest the Skull Springs meeting did not take place until 1945, following a long period of gestation for the strike idea involving many discussions between McLeod and marrngu workers, and that the strike was incidental to the purpose of the meeting. Nonetheless, McLeod was no doubt persuasive in his discussions with marrngu that strike action could be “a useful weapon” to challenge the power of the pastoralists and the authorities. The Skull Springs meeting must have impressed upon McLeod that marrngu bonds of kinship and culture, and resilient social organisation, could provide a strong foundation for the strike movement. While McLeod gained the respect of marrngu for standing up for their rights, he was just one agent for social change in a wider movement. According to one of the strike leaders, Clancy McKenna (Warntupungkarna), marrngu elders had been discussing the injustices they faced for years. McKenna observed, “McLeod gave us hint about the strike and we took it up” (p.94).
In April 1946, Dooley Bin Bin set off to stations around the Pilbara by foot and by rail with the message, “Strike on 1st May 1946!” The date chosen was both symbolic and strategic: it was International Workers’ Day and also the beginning of the shearing season. Yet the strike was far from an immediate success. Some station owners coaxed workers back with an offer of higher wages; others called upon the police to evict strikers and their families. Laurie O’Neill, the Department of Native Affairs’ northern inspector and a former Kimberley policeman, threatened to remove strike leaders to other parts of the state. Native Affairs Commissioner Francis Bray later wrote that “natives were warned of the mischievous propaganda of Communist McLeod” and that McKenna was especially targeted “because he was a channel for McLeod’s insidious propaganda”. Bray and O’Neill were convinced that strike action could be averted if a few bad apples were removed from the barrel.
The state’s immediate response was to come down heavily on strike leaders. First McKenna and then Dooley were arrested and charged with “enticement to strike”. Their conviction was a foregone conclusion. Both were officially represented by the same Department officials who were seeking their conviction. O’Neill hoped that their arrest would not only serve as a warning to others, but that they could be persuaded to give evidence against McLeod. While McKenna and Dooley served out their sentences in Marble Bar, McLeod was arrested and detained in Port Hedland on the charge of entering a “native camp”. The arrests awakened a powerful solidarity movement in the south.
From the strike’s commencement, the West Australian Communist Party newspaper Workers’ Star carried frequent reports on the strike. Workers’ Star reporter Joan Williams claims these reports were vital in combatting a “news blackout by the West Australian after its first report on the strike”. On 19 May, two hundred people attended a meeting on the Perth Esplanade, calling on the Justice Minister Emil Nulsen “to revoke the sentences and free the imprisoned strike leaders” (p.147). A week later, a three hundred-strong meeting at Perth Town Hall launched the Committee for the Defence of Native Rights (CDNR). The CDNR obtained support and strike fund donations from a dozen WA union branches, the ALP, university and women’s organisations, as well as the Australian Council of Trade Unions and federal ministers. A CDNR appeal to the United Nations alleged that the strike leaders’ arrests amounted to “feudal treatment of Aborigines in Northern Australia” (pp. 155-6). In London, the Anti-Slavery Society took up the cause.
Throughout the strike, arrests and imprisonment of strikers and supporters became a frequent occurrence. In August, CDNR secretary and Anglican minister Rev. Peter Hodge travelled to Port Hedland to meet with the strikers and, much to his surprise, was arrested alongside McLeod for visiting an Aboriginal camp. Hodge was fined, while McLeod was sentenced to three months imprisonment. In October 1946, the WA Court of Criminal Appeal rejected appeals by McLeod and Hodge against their convictions. However, a subsequent appeal to the High Court quashed the convictions, giving the strikers more freedom to organise. This reprieve proved only temporary. McLeod was arrested in total seven times during the three-year dispute. McKenna was jailed again in January 1947, along with ten others, after being charged with preventing several Warrawagine station hands from working.
Having failed to intimidate the strikers with the strong arm of the law, authorities attempted to starve the strikers into submission. The strikers had no union and therefore no established strike fund. With post-war rationing still in place, essential supplies could only be purchased with ration coupons. However, these were in the hands of their station bosses, who insisted that they would be provided only if the strikers returned to work. Again, the strikers stood firm. A war of attrition between the parties now ensued. However, the tide was slowly turning against the pastoralists as community sentiment began to shift.
As the 1949 shearing season approached, 32 men were arrested when police intercepted their walk off from Warrawagine station. The men were force marched in chains and handcuffs along the Nullagine and De Grey Rivers before being imprisoned at Marble Bar. Reports of such brutal treatment, giving rise to claims of slavery, sat at odds with the new image the Department was seeking to project. Native Affairs Commissioner Stanley Middleton, appointed in August 1948, had begun to steer the Department’s Aboriginal affairs policy in an assimilationist direction. As Scrimgeour puts it: “The task ahead…he believed, was to…guide Aboriginal people from primivism to modernity, from segregation and denigration to inclusion and acceptance into the social and economic life of mainstream Australia society” (p.363).
The Seamen’s Union called for the prisoners’ immediate release and announced a ban on the shipment of wool from all but two stations that had acceded to strikers’ demands. The threat of a wool ban proved persuasive. Middleton’s newly appointed deputy, Elliot-Smith, assured McLeod that the wages and conditions negotiated at Mount Edgar and Limestone stations would be applied throughout the Pilbara. Middleton and the minister for native affairs, Ross McDonald, both claimed Elliot-Smith had outstepped his mandate and continued to resist any formal agreement involving McLeod. Nonetheless, the once all-powerful common front of the pastoralists, the Department and police had been decisively weakened. Some Aboriginal pastoral workers now returned to the stations with signed contracts that guaranteed improved wages and conditions. Others remained in self-managed communities, operating mining ventures they had established during and after the dispute.
Scrimgeour argues that through strike action, “marrngu had stepped out of the shadows and made themselves visible” (pp.458-9) and, in so doing, not only won concessions from their employers, but achieved a new sense of independence and self-confidence. Sadly, she passed away in January 2020, just before her book’s publication. On Red Earth Walking is a comprehensive compilation of a lifetime’s research and a testament to the power of solidarity between organised labour and an oppressed people struggling for their rights. It shines a light on decades of brutal treatment of Aboriginal workers in Western Australia and explains how their bold defiance opened a new chapter in the struggle for Aboriginal rights.
Brown, Max 1976, The Black Eureka, Australian Book Society.
Davies, Lloyd 1988, ““Protecting Natives?: The Law and the 1946 Aboriginal Pastoral Workers’ Strike”, Papers in Labour History, 1, pp.31-42.
Hess, Michael 1994, “Black and Red: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike”, Aboriginal History 18, (1), pp.65-77.
McGrath, Ann 1987, Born in the Cattle: Aborigines in Cattle Country, Allen & Unwin.
McLeod, DW 1984, How the West Was Lost: The Native Question in the Development of Western Australia, self-published.
Williams, Justina 1993, Anger & Love, Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
Wilson, Deborah 2015, Different White People: Radical Activism for Aboriginal Rights 1946-1972, UWA Publishing.
 See also McGrath 1987, pp.107-108.
 See for example, Davies 1988, p.33 and Wilson 2015, pp.40-42.
 McLeod 1984, p.17.
 In July 1944, he wrote to CPA member Ernie Thornton, National Secretary of the Federated Iron Workers Association, describing himself as “a Party member undisclosed”. Cited in Hess 1994, p.69.
 Brown 1976, p.123. The state conference, the first since the end of the war, was held in Perth in March 1946.
 McLeod 1984, pp.40-41.
 McLeod 1984, p.101.
 Williams 1993, p.128.
 McLeod records that he was arrested “three times for being within five chains of a congregation of natives, three times for inciting natives to leave their lawful employment, and once for forgery”. McLeod 1984, p.49.