Tribute to Aboriginal cattlemen

Headshot of Katherine Fleming

For 10 months of the year, in the heat and swirling red dust of the Kimberley, a teenage Eric Lawford spent weeks at a time on horseback mustering cattle and droving huge mobs across the rough terrain.

The Walmajarri man, a member of the Stolen Generation who was taken from his family when he was six, recalls in a book the years he spent droving, branding cattle with an iron, training horses, building fences and making ropes from cattle hides.

He wasn’t paid, just given a couple of shirts and trousers, a hat, boots and a swag.

Then, with a bag containing flour for damper, tea, salted and tinned meat, perhaps some tins of jam or cheese, he and a few other drovers were sent to round up the cattle that were spread across the region.

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Mr Lawford’s story is in Raparapa, a new edition of the 1989 book being released this month by Magabala Books, about the Aboriginal men who worked the vast pastoral stations along the Fitzroy River during the past century.

Often skilful horsemen, they were cheap labour, also valued for their knowledge of the land.

But they were frequently treated inhumanely by their bosses, the kartiya, or white men, who whipped, beat and even shot them if they stepped out of line.

Lochy Green, a Mangala man who died in 1994, remembered droves of six or seven weeks at a time mustering hundreds of cattle.

They would spend hours in the saddle from dawn to dark, before taking turns watching the herd overnight.

They had particular horses, quiet animals not easily startled, and “with a good night horse a bloke could be asleep in the saddle and the horse would keep circling the mob”, he wrote.

While on the stations, they also worked to retain their culture.

The workers were often allowed to go walkabout when the wet season came, Mr Lawford said, so they would “roll their swag up with the blanket and boots the station had given them and put it in the storeroom. Then they used to get their naga (loincloth) and go bush”.

Despite the harshness of the work, many remembered it fondly, speaking sadly of being forced off the land by station owners after Aboriginal people were granted equal pay in 1967.

John Watson, former drover and later chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, said the Aboriginal men and women who worked the land were the backbone of the cattle and sheep industries.

Retelling their experiences would enshrine their place in the written history of the Kimberley, from which they’d been largely excluded, as well as recording the Aboriginal place names for the area before they were forgotten, he said.

Further information is available from www.magabala.com.

Countryman has a copy of Raparapa to give away. To go in the draw, put your name, address and phone number on the back of an envelope and send to Countryman Fitzroy River Drovers, GPO Box 2923, Perth WA 6800 by COB June 9, 2011

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