On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal strike, Western Australia 1946–1949
Monash University Publishing, $39.95 pb, 510 pp
It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.
Colonisation in Western Australia resulted in legislation ‘to make provision for the better protection and care of the Native inhabitants’ (Native Administration Act, 1936). An interpretation of protection as control underpinned government policy in the Pilbara’s pastoral industry, which depended on ‘native’ labour. This industry contributed enormous wealth to the state, and so ‘protection’ meant safeguarding industrial relations favourable to the employers, and the state.