“Sacred” stoush

DR BOB REECE, professor emeritus in history at Murdoch University, is president of the Fremantle History Society. His latest book is The Invincibles: New Norcia’s Aboriginal Cricketers
1879-1906. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, Dr Reece discusses the significance of Arthur Head to the Aboriginal community, following claims by Mr Iva Hayward-Jackson, chairman of the Rottnest Islands Death Group Aboriginal Corporation, that Arthur Head is “sacred” and should not be the site of a proposed new tavern.

I VA Hayward-Jackson’s rhetoric about Arthur Head’s negative significance for Nyoongahs (‘“Sacred”’, Herald, June 3, 2017) should not distract from the issue at hand: Sunset Events’ renewed efforts to develop a tavern-cum-brewery at Bathers’ Bay. His opposition to the tavern is welcome, but not if it is based on the misrepresentation of history

It is clear from the presentation made by the company’s spokesmen recently at the ill-fated Fly By Night Club that the only change to their original plan is removal of loud music from the tavern’s menu.

The image of a glamorous beach-side, family-friendly restaurant portrayed by their commercial artist does nothing to lessen the threat that the tavern poses to an A Class public reserve notable for its associations, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal.

Arthur Head is a cultural landscape that reminds us of our shared heritage, not all of which we can be proud.

The question is: how can we best manage that heritage and interpret its complex meanings for the benefit of successive generations of residents and visitors?

There is no shortage of information about Arthur Head, ranging from its prehistoric use as an Aboriginal camp site to its more recent accommodation of town lock-up, magistrates’ courts, whaling and ship-building enterprises and military facilities.

As one architect put it jokingly, ‘it’s the best-researched piece of dirt in the whole of Western Australia’.

Most intensively researched are its Aboriginal associations, which were examined in professionally-conducted reports commissioned by Fremantle City Council in 1984 and 1998, the latter an exhaustive study of almost every aspect.

What is abundantly clear from these reports is that while Arthur Head was a seasonal (summer) camping and trading site, the absence of Aboriginal artefacts indicates that pre-contact Aboriginal use was limited. Relevant Dreaming stories are rare.

It was the whaling industry at Bathers’ Bay after 1837 and incarceration in the Round House lock-up that attracted a substantial permanent Aboriginal population to the town.

The establishment in 1841 by the Revd George King of an Aboriginal school on the Cicerello’s site nearby also helped to swell indigenous numbers.

The preparation by its Guides of a new interpretative display at the Round House, financed by a Lotteries Grant, presents an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the various uses of Arthur Head, and of the Round House in particular. However, incredible as it may seem, the project has been stymied by Fremantle Council’s reluctance to pay for the installation of electricity, upon which the plan is dependent.

At the same time, there can be no real progress in a community-generated project of this kind unless the spirit of blackfellow-whitefellow reconciliation replaces the irrelevant and distracting hyperbole of slave-trading, ANZAC and Auschwitz.

Needless to say, there ought to be Aboriginal representation on the body responsible for designing the new Round House display’.

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