The secret life of Hepburn Tindale


A not very good picture of Hepburn, but the best we could find

Today we go down a rabbit hole. It starts with what we thought was a cute story about (possibly) the first Christian in Perth to convert to Islam and ends with lies at the inquiry into the Forrest River Massacre. If that’s not a rabbit hole, we don’t know what is.

But first, the story we originally thought we were going to tell.

In 1935, Hepburn Joseph Tindale underwent a ceremony at the William Street Mosque to formally convert to Islam. An old Guildford Grammar School boy, he had studied at Oxford University, before taking a degree in theology, working in South Africa, and then coming here as a freelance journalist for Sydney’s Bulletin.

Taking the new name Sadig Akber, he spoke about how all people needed to unite under one God, and this would eliminate war and racism. Which we thought was rather inspirational, even if it’s not a solution to world problems that particularly appeals to us.

So needing to know more about Hepburn’s spiritual journey, we looked him up in the archives. Which is where the Forrest River Massacre comes in, because he was one of the key witnesses during the inquiry in 1927. Only there he held a Masters in Anthropology from Oxford, was a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and, as one of the leading experts on Aboriginal life, he was currently writing articles about them for the Manchester Guardian.

Which is a completely different story to the one he told eight years later.

As it happens, Hepburn was the cousin of Norman Tindale, whose anthropology is still considered masterful today. You’ve probably seen his map of Aboriginal language groups prior to European settlement. But Hepburn was not an expert on anything. In fact, he had no degree from Oxford, no Fellowship from the Royal Geographical Society, and had never written for the Guardian. To be fair, he had gone to Oxford in 1923 but left the same year with no qualifications.

But the inquiry didn’t know this and took him at face value as an expert on Aboriginal life in the Kimberley. Norman Tindale would have been. Hepburn Tindale was not. His testimony on how Aborigines lit fires and their cremation practices made it very difficult for the inquiry to prove beyond all reasonable doubt there had been a massacre.

So, it appears we have a Walter Mitty character, desperate to appear important in the eyes of others, and willing to do anything to be noticed. And the poor worshippers at the Mosque may have been the unknowing witnesses of yet another one of his fantasies. Certainly, we can’t find any more references to a ‘Sadig Akber’ after 1935, but the secretary of the Morowa Road Board in the 1940s was an ‘H. J. Tindale’. Could this be where our man finally ended up?

The WA head hunter

Frank Hann

Hero or villain?

Today we would like to introduce you to the two faces of explorer and pastoralist Frank Hann. First up is the face you get if you read the, normally reliable, Australian Dictionary of Biography. To our regret, the article was written by one of our favourite local historians.

In the ADB you will read about his amazing feats of “bushmanship and endurance” and how he traversed into one of the most difficult areas in Australia which was “peopled by unwelcoming Aboriginals”.

Un-fucking-welcoming? You’d probably not welcome someone who decided to steal 2,590 sq km of your country either. But you won’t find that in the ADB, for there is not a single criticism of this great hero in the article. To discover more you have to keep scrolling down to the ‘Additional Resources’ section.

Readers are advised that the following contains a scene which may be distressing, particularly to Aboriginal people.

In 1909 Hann boasted of his exploits in shooting at some Aborigines who were resisting the invasion of their land:

Had I shot the black with a red band I would have cut his head off and sent his skull to Mr. F. Brockman, of Perth, who asked me to send him one, as a friend of his in London wanted one. I was very sorry that I could not send him four, but later on I got him a splendid one.

WTF? Hann is proud he decapitated an Aboriginal warrior and sent his head back to Perth. And it was gratefully received by Frederick Drake-Brockman.

Such boasting might have played well with Hann’s mates in the Kimberley, but it was too much for the residents of Perth. The Aborigines Department demanded a police investigation, and the Premier announced that Hann was to no longer be paid by the Government.

The Anglican Bishop, Charles Riley, was outraged as well. He demanded a full inquiry, for which Hann vowed never to speak to the bishop again.

But then Hann tried to back down, claiming anything and everything to take the heat off. He’d been joking, he’d acted in self-defence, he loved Aborigines and would never hurt any of them.

Various friends also came to his aid, claiming he was man who really liked Aboriginal people, and it had all been just a campfire yarn really.

And what of Frederick Drake-Brockman? He rapidly wrote to the media and was forced to admit he had received a skull, which he had posted to England “for scientific purposes”. After all, it was difficult to get hold of Aboriginal body parts where the dead person’s blood hadn’t been mixed with other races.

But, he said, it didn’t look fresh to him. It was probably an “old man, dead some years.” Oh. Well that’s all okay then. And guess whether you’ll find any mention of Fred’s collecting habits in his ADB entry? Did you guess right?

From this distance it does appear probable (but not certain) that Hann did not actually murder anyone for their skull, but that is not our key point here. We want to draw attention to the whitewashing of WA ‘heroes’, whose real natures remain buried under romantic talk of bushmanship and exploration.

A little fair play


Quairading School. Image shamelessly lifted from State Heritage Office site.

Depressing news that the heritage-listed Quairading School burnt down last night. As a piece of architecture it was completely average, but this was a key battleground in ensuring Aboriginal children received the same right to education as white kids.

For those who’ve seen the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, you will know the head of the Aborigines Department, A. O. Neville, was demonised in the film. But he turns out to be the good guy here, fighting the Education Department for the admission of Aboriginal kids to Quairading School when they had been excluded on racist grounds.

If you want the full story on the school check out this link.

But the real hero was John Kickett who simply wanted his offspring educated, and kept moving his family in the 1910s, struggling to find someone who would teach them. In a heart-breaking letter he sent to his local MP, John set out the reasons why Aboriginal children deserved better.

We have left the original spelling in the small excerpt below to show that John was barely literate, and writing a lengthy letter with all the formalities required in his day must have been a real effort. But his passion for ensuring the next generation did better shines through.

I wont a little Fair Play if you will Be so Kind Enough to see on my Beharfe since reciving the Letter from the Department Dated 30th April 1918 that My Children Cannot attend school at Quairading.

I see that the Education Department as let Johnny Fitzgeralds Children enter the State School north west of Quairading. They are attending the school four months just now this is not Fair at all. They were turned out of the Quairading State School for some reason and let them enter another. What I here is that Baxter made it right for them Because one of them is at the Front Fighting.

Well Sir I have Five of my People in France Fighting. Since you were up here in your Election one as Been Killed which leave four. Cannot my Children have the same Privelige as Johnny Fitzgerald…

Would you Be so Kind Sir see if they can goe to Dangin or the same school north of Quairading if I send them their? Sir I Cannot see why my Children could not attend here at Quairading.

My People are Fighting for Our King and Country Sir. I think they should have the liberty of going to any of the State.

I had Fifteen Parents of whos Children are attending the State School have signed the Petition knows my Children well so they could goe to School here But was refused By the Department.

My Childrens Uncles are Fighting. Could you do some thing for the little ones.

A wagyl’s revenge

Matt Benson-Parry, Wagyl & Dewi (2007)

Matt Benson-Parry, Wagyl & Dewi (2007)

The last time Dodgy Perth was in Claremont was to see a band at the Claremont Hotel. But next time we’ll be making a short pilgrimage to see a verified home of a wagyl.

Some white folk have an impression that wagyls (there were many of them—not to be confused with The Wagyl) were well-meaning creative spirits who just happened to look like big snakes. Not even close.

Wagyls were extremely dangerous and their presence alone at a place could make it winnaitch (taboo). And such was the case at Karbomunup Hill in Claremont, roughly where Osborne and Bindaring Parades meet.

Once on this hill, according to legend, some children broke an important food law, and the wagyl living there became so boogur (angry) it came out of the hill and swallowed all the men, women and children of the place. All except one woman, who was gobbelguttuk (pregnant).

A peculiar shaped stone on or near the shore at Claremont was supposed to have actually been the gobbelguttuk woman. The stone and the hill were ever after winnaitch. Just to go there was to risk death.

In 1894, when the Osborne Hotel was built on Karbomunup Hill, the owner announced a corroboree as one of the opening-day attractions. Naturally, no local Aborigine would take part, so some North West folk were recruited instead.

A much retold story says that two of the North Westerners fell down while dancing, and although taken to the white man’s hospital they soon died. Locals said that had been wagyl bom—wagyl struck.

Definitely worth a trip out to Claremont to see if the wagyl is still active.