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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country by Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, 224 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2013, ISBN 9781922059390 (pbk), $29.95.

The story of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve and the campaign of its residents for justice and self-determination has been the subject of great interest among scholars in the field of Aboriginal history. From its inception in 1863 to its official closure in 1924, Coranderrk’s history is a rich and complex one; it became not only a vibrant centre for the Kulin peoples of central Victoria and for refugees from more distant clans, but also the focal point of often bitter debate among settler Victorians about the destiny of the Aboriginal population. Certainly the most dramatic point in this story was the 1881 Parliamentary Inquiry on Coranderrk, which investigated the conditions and management of the reserve. Unique among nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry due to the prevalence of Aboriginal voices, it brought the plight of the Kulin into the mainstream of public opinion and revealed the resilience, adaptability, and political sophistication of Victoria’s Aboriginal population. The immediate result was the removal of Coranderrk’s manager and an abandonment of the Protection Board’s plan to close the reserve and relocate its residents to a remote location on the Murray River. It was a major victory for the Kulin, who believed that Queen Victoria had granted Coranderrk to them in perpetuity.

Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, by Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, is a companion book to an eponymous theatre production, which was conceived by Nanni and developed in collaboration with James as part of the Australian Research Council-funded ‘Minutes of Evidence’ project. The book is an excellent record of an innovative verbatim theatre performance, which had successful seasons in Melbourne and Sydney. The performance (which I attended in Melbourne in February 2012) drew its text almost exclusively from the Minutes of Evidence of the 1881 inquiry. It started its life as a simple reading of excerpts, but evolved into an intricately staged performance that gave life and vitality to a highly significant historical document.

The first chapter of Nanni and James’ fine book provides a scholarly but accessible history of the Coranderrk reserve, with a focus on the events leading up to the 1881 Inquiry. This is followed by a carefully annotated version of the script. Each scene begins with an introduction that provides biographical details on the witness being examined and some reflections on the significance of the testimony. When combined with the script itself, these introductions amount to a fascinating and insightful history of the Inquiry itself. At the end of each scene there is a detailed record of even the most minor editorial changes; moreover, the sequential numbering of questions from the Minutes of Evidence is preserved in the margins of the script. A great value of this structure is that it allows the reader to ponder the choices made by Nanni and James about which testimony to include, and how to reorder the selected material to achieve a coherent narrative that is both historically sound and dramatically compelling.

The annotations identify the few moments when the script departs from the Minutes of Evidence; for example, to include extracts from letters and petitions from Coranderrk residents, or proceedings from the Inquiry that were excised from the minutes but published in the press. A good example of the latter is the heated exchange between Edward M. Curr, a prominent member of the Board for Protection of Aborigines and a key advocate of the closure of Coranderrk, and Anne Bon, an ally of the Kulin and one of the commissioners. It is very clear from the annotations that the script was carefully researched and thoughtfully prepared.

In some instances, the reordering of questions in the script adds a layer of meaning. For example, the testimony of Rev. Frederick Strickland, the Coranderrk manager, opens with a series of questions and answers about the number of Aborigines at Coranderrk, their tribal affiliations, and proportion of Aboriginal heritage. The annotations show that these are faithfully based on questions 1 to 10 in the Minutes of Evidence, with only minor edits. The script then jumps to questions 74–75, about the numbers of cattle on the station, before returning to the earlier part of Strickland’s testimony. This editorial intervention might imply equivalence in the mind of the questioner between Aborigines and cattle, which is not in itself apparent in the Minutes of Evidence, even if it fits more broadly with what we know about the history of Aboriginal enumeration. Such changes (and they are quite rare) might serve a dramatic purpose in an actual performance, but to some extent they undermine the script’s claim to be verbatim theatre. Nevertheless, it is to their credit that Nanni and James have opted for transparency on these issues. By laying bare their editorial decisions in the annotated script, the book becomes a valuable study of theatre as a genre of history making.

The third chapter describes the aftermath of the Inquiry, noting that the victory of the Kulin was short-lived, as a new policy of removing ‘half-castes’ from Victorian Aboriginal reserves was soon enshrined in the Aborigines Act 1886 (Vic). As Nanni and James explain, this policy was an alternative means for the Protection Board to achieve it ultimate goal: ‘Having failed to break up Coranderrk, it now sought ways to break up “the Aborigines”’ (p. 182). The authors then give a brief account of the decline of Coranderrk and its closure by the government in the 1920s, while also pointing to station’s enduring legacy and its links with subsequent campaigns for Aboriginal rights.

Chapter 4 describes the making of the theatrical production. In particular it notes the influence of the genre of ‘tribunal theatre’, which is usually based on the official transcripts of judicial proceedings. The authors reflect briefly on their attempt to ‘balance the needs of history and theatre’ (p. 193) to create an 80-minute script from the more than 5,000 questions and answers in the Minutes of Evidence. Interestingly, many of their editorial decisions are justified in both historiographical and dramaturgical terms. Although they hint at the ‘creative tensions’ inherent in such a collaborative, cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary project, some more detailed discussion of these tensions would have been welcome.

Diane Barwick’s intricately detailed Rebellion at Coranderrk (1998) will remain a key source for historians, but Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country (both book and play) will undoubtedly take the remarkable story of Coranderrk to a wider audience. It has the potential to strengthen Aboriginal communities today, by countering the dominant settler-colonial narrative of passive Aboriginal decline, and painting an alternative picture of resilience and self-determination. For all these reasons, Nanni and James’s book is a fine monument to an innovative, sophisticated, and profoundly moving piece of history making.

Samuel Furphy

The Australian National University

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