Marcus Garvey and Australian aborigines

Marcus Garvey and Australian aborigines

Franklin W Knight

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

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Every two years the Australian Association of Caribbean Studies meets in some delightful Australian city. Each biennial occasion offers some extremely interesting academic papers that greatly excite the small but engaged audience. This year the association met in Newcastle, Australia's second oldest city located in the old penal colony of New South Wales. The familiar core of association members gathered along with some sponsored young scholars and a few curious occasional attendees.

Lying at the mouth of the Hunter River along the beautiful coastline about 160 kilometres north-northeast of Sydney, Newcastle is an old industrial city that has been trying valiantly in recent times to reinvent itself. The steel mills that once gave the city its economic importance as well as a deserved reputation for severe environmental pollution are long gone. The air now is remarkably clear. Indeed, the city is making a comeback as a cultural and tourist destination. A well-made long, sinuous promenade hugs the commercial harbour from Honeysuckle to Nobby's Headland. Like its English namesake - but quite unlike Newcastle, Jamaica - Newcastle is famous for its huge coal exports. It is the largest coal-exporting port in the world and on any day scores of freighters wait to load local coal for faraway markets.

The port of Newcastle lies within the Hunter River estuary and the old city occupies a short elevated promontory with literal accuracy, but a singular lack of imagination, called The Hill. On the ocean side of the promontory lie a string of attractive, sandy beaches and public baths: Nobby's Beach, Newcastle Beach, Susan Gilmour Beach, Dixon Park Beach, and Merewether Beach. Each beach has adequate parking areas, clean public toilets, along with picnic tables and gas-fired grills. All the beaches are within easy walking distance from any sector of the city.

The central theme of this year's conference was "Caribbean Narratives of Race, Place and Migration". Most authors kept close to the announced theme. The programme had 16 academic presentations, three keynote addresses and a poetry reading in the enchanting Cooks Hill Books bookshop located on upper Darby Street.

As usual, the papers covered a span of subjects. The first presentation was an engagingly illustrated, slightly nostalgic review of the West Indies cricket tour of Australia in 1960-61. This was followed by a description of the mounting of the first permanent Caribbean exhibition in Melbourne.

Papers in literature covered themes such as the notion of hybridity in Elizabeth Nunez's novel, Prospero's Daughter; the question of identity in French Caribbean novels; diasporic multiculturalism in David Chariandy's Soucouyant; sexual violence in Shani Motoo's Cereus Blooms; the Carib and Japanese dimensions of Jean Rhys's Vienne and Temps Perdi; and a reappraisal of the Trinidadian-Australian writer, Ralph de Boissiere.

Other papers treated a variety of themes. One dealt with the professional career of the late UWI Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Rex Nettleford. Another examined the teaching of English in contemporary Cuba. There was also an analysis of the local, regional and international challenges of Caribbean independence. The Methodist experiences of Elizabeth Hart and Sarah Moore in Antigua in the early 19th century were discussed; as well as piracy as history and metaphor. An Australian author discussed the multi-talented Levi Roots and his successful musical, culinary and entrepreneurial career in Great Britain. Adding to the nostalgia of some of those attending, the final presentation was a series of photographs taken over many years of the changing Caribbean landscape.

The author of the poetry reading has ancient family relations with Jamaica. Louise Smith and her sister, the well-known literary critic, Karina Smith, are Australian-born descendants of PA Benjamin, the pharmacist whose commercial products were a staple of Jamaican domestic curative medicine in the early part of the 20th century. Newcastle is their hometown and Louise read some haunting poems written last year during a summer visit to Jamaica. Her sister, Karina, insightfully discussed the theatrical transformation of the Sistren Theatre Collective and its violence prevention campaign in Hannah Town and Rockfort.

One keynote address reviewed narratives of migration emerging from interviews with 25 nurses from Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica who were trained and spent their careers partially or entirely in Great Britain. The second keynote was by a founding member of the association. She explored the paradox of freedom in two recent novels by two internationally recognised Jamaican novelists. One was A Permanent Freedom by Curdella Forbes. The other was The Rainmaker's Mistake by Erna Brodber.

Perhaps the most original keynote address was offered by the prolific John Maynard, director of the Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle. With persuasive documentary evidence, Maynard presented an extremely interesting account of the first organised political protest movement of Australian Aborigines in the mid to late 1920s. The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) was far larger, more extensive and better organised than is generally accepted. Indeed, after its founding in 1924 by Fred Maynard and Tom Lacy, the movement might have had as many as 8,000 members scattered across Australia. Even more intriguing was the regular correspondence between the Australian organisation and Marcus Garvey, who promised to visit Australia in 1924.

But 1924 was the beginning of adverse years for both the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association and Marcus Garvey. Australia followed a notorious anti-Aborigine policy until 1970 that was designed to destroy native communities, exterminate the local population and confiscate their land. The AAPA and its leaders were hounded relentlessly by the Australian authorities and within four years their movement hardly existed, although it had a rebirth in the late 1930s. Marcus Garvey was also enduring some perilous years. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 1923 on trumped-up charges of mail fraud. Having failed in a series of appeals, he entered Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in February 1925. After his sentence was commuted, Garvey was deported to Jamaica in November 1927. His movement dwindled as did his hope to visit Australia. Garvey was, however, the most universally known individual of his day.

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